When in the 1970s Wesleyan and Pentecostal theologians introduced the term “orthopathy,” they had more in mind than simply insisting experience should be considered along with belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis) in the doing of theology. They were suggesting that there is a “right” experience of God, just as there is “right” doctrine, and “right” practice.
While Wesley scholars do not have a common definition of “orthopathy,” they use it to point to either of two features of Wesley’s theology. The first has to do with how we know God, and the second with the transformation of the heart that comes from knowing God.
We know God by faith. Wesley defines faith as “the supernatural evidence of things” not perceivable by our ordinary senses. Faith is a “spiritual sense”—“It is with regard to the spiritual world what sense is with regard to the natural” (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” §6, in The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion, ed. G.R. Cragg [Oxford University Press, 1975] 68-69). It enables us to know (experience) God and the things of God.
Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In C. Wesley’s hymn “Spirit of Faith, Come Down,” which is a prayer to receive this gift, it is the Spirit who reveals “the things of God” and makes “the God-head known.” He uses two images to describe the effects of receiving faith. It “gives us eyes to see” what God has done for us in Christ, and it takes “the veil away” so we can “feel our interest in his blood.”
This is not, then, a kind of undifferentiated experience of divinity, nor is it a purely subjective experience. Faith enables an encounter with a God who is other than us, but who has been revealed to us in a distinctive history (Israel) and a distinctive person (Jesus). We meet a God who has done particular things in history, has made promises, and who has proved unfailingly faithful to those promises. Above all, we meet a God who has loved us even unto death that we might receive new life. Any experience unrelated to the God revealed in Jesus Christ (orthodoxy) would not be orthopathy.
Knowing God by faith enables our transformation in love. Through faith we have a relationship with God over time, in which we grow in the knowledge and love of God. Indeed, as we grow in sanctification our hearts and lives are continually marked by love for God and neighbor, as well as all other fruit of the Spirit.
Wesley uses the terms “affections” and “tempers” to designate these fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit evokes affections, which take root in the heart. Those that abide become dispositions, or “holy tempers.”
While emphasizing our experiencing God, Wesley does not equate “affections” and “tempers” with transient feelings. Certainly “feelings” could be part of our experience. But feelings come and go; tempers abide. Put differently, the point of Christian experience is not to generate feelings of love but for us to become loving persons.
Orthopathy, then, does not mean everyone must experience certain feelings. It means Christians have a character which consists of holy tempers such as love for God and neighbor, faith, hope, peace, humility, and other fruit of the Spirit—what Wesley calls in one sermon the “marks of the new birth.”
It is as we participate in means of grace such as works of piety (prayer, searching the Scripture, the Lord’s Supper) and works of mercy (active love for neighbor) that the Holy Spirit transforms our lives. Such practices not only enable us to express our love for God and our neighbor, they are means that God uses to enable us to grow in love. Through these means of grace we actually experience the distinctive identity and promises of God (orthodoxy) and live out our discipleship (orthopraxis).
Wesley does not envision experiencing God as an alternative to having beliefs or practicing ones faith. He rejects any attempt to define Christianity simply as having an experience, or believing a creed, or doing certain practices. Rather, he sees these elements as integrated, used by God to enable us to grow in love, and to increasingly reflect the divine image in which we were created.