John Wesley's Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness

By Spellman, W. M. | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2007 | Go to article overview

John Wesley's Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness


Spellman, W. M., Anglican and Episcopal History


D. STEPHEN LONG. John Wesley's Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness. Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 2005. Pp. xx + 257, indices. $34.00 (paper).

It has always been difficult to locate trans-Atlantic religious reform movements within the more familiar setting of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment Project. From Pietism in Germany to the Great Awakening in North America to Methodism in England, the call for a return to the personal God of Christianity clashed radier awkwardly with Enlightenment efforts to demolish the heavenly city of St. Augustine. Rather than concede the clash of cultures, later scholars portrayed theologians like John Wesley (1703-1791) as non-doctrinal protopragmatists who shifted positions in response to contemporary needs and evolving situations. D. Stephen Long takes issue with this modern reading of Wesley's commitments, arguing that Wesley remained firmly committed to an older metaphysical position where goodness without God was impossible. Agreeing with the Victorian scholar Leslie Stephen, whose 1876 History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century is rarely consulted today, Wesley emerges as a deeply committed Christian dogmatist for whom the medieval vision of God cannot be achieved independent of faith.

Long concedes that in the midst of broader philosophical changes taking place during the eighteenth century ethics was redefined as a discipline separate from theology. John Locke best encapsulated the shift when he wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1688) that morality, like mathematics, is capable of demonstration as long are words are clearly defined. The philosophes variously looked to reason, conscience, sentiment, and the "moral sense" as a new, less controversial, foundation for ethics. God might be necessary to insure rewards and punishments in the next life, but the good could be established and confirmed without divine prescription. …

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