Welcome to Catalyst on-line. United Methodist (UM) seminarians have been
receiving Catalyst in their mail boxes since 1973.
What is Catalyst?
Four issues of Catalyst are mailed each academic year to some 5,000 UM theological
students in more than 100 seminaries in the U.S.A.
Catalyst is a project of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).
What is the John Wesley Fellowship Program?
Each year AFTE awards up to five John Wesley Fellowships to assist gifted
United Methodists in their doctoral studies at the finest universities.
Several back issues of Catalyst are now available on-line.
Subscription is free for UM seminarians, and is available to all others
for $5 per year.
The term “orthopraxis” was introduced into Christian theology by liberation
theologians in the 1960s. It was meant as a corrective to an orthodoxy that
affirmed all the right things about God and yet was complacent about (or worse,
complicit in) systemic injustice and oppression.
“Praxis” denotes a way of relating theory and practice. It seeks to avoid
both unreflective practice and theory that does not lead to transformative
action in the world. Instead, praxis involves an ongoing critical reflection
on practice that leads to the revision of theory, even as theory serves to
direct practice. What makes praxis “ortho” is its consistency with the understandings
and imperatives of Christian faith.
Liberation theology is informed by social theory that discloses the nature
of systemic injustice. “Orthopraxis” is then focused on socioeconomic change
on behalf of the oppressed. But the term can take on wider meaning. It can
refer to Christian discipleship more broadly, and raises the question of how
our actions as Christians are or are not consistent with the faith we profess.
It is in this wider sense that we can speak of “orthopraxis” in Wesley’s
From one angle, Wesley moves from theology to practice. He insists that
inward holiness leads to outward holiness; that is, a transformed heart leads
to a transformed life. Our discipleship is therefore dependent on and flows
out of our Christian character.
Yet this is theology understood not simply as doctrinal concepts. It is
a “practical divinity,” in which theology serves the purpose of pointing
us to God’s promises, opening us to receive God’s grace and enabling us to
grow in a relationship with God. The goal of theology is not assent but for
us to experience those realities which the doctrines describe.
The practices that emerge from this practical divinity are works of piety
(such as worship and devotion) whereby we enact our love for God, and works
of mercy which enact our love for our neighbor. This reflects Wesley’s belief
that love for God and neighbor is at the center of the Christian life. But
works of piety and mercy are not only expressions of our love, but means through
which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth in love. They are “means of grace,”
and it is as we participate in them that we grow in sanctification.
It is here that we see orthopraxis in Wesley’s theology. For reflection
on our practice of works of piety and mercy enables us to understand more
fully both God’s love and what it means for us to love. Early Methodists
gathered together in small groups every week to discuss how to live out their
faith, giving them regular opportunities for this reflection.
Wesley was aware of the difference engaging in works of piety and mercy,
and reflection on that activity could make: “One reason why the rich in general
have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them.
Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know what the other suffers.
Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out
of the way of knowing it—and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse
for their hardness of heart” (“On Visiting the Sick,” in A.C. Outler, ed.,
Sermons III [Abingdon, 1986] 387-88).
Thus persons might hold orthodox beliefs and even say they love their neighbor
yet actually not do so due to “voluntary ignorance.” Wesley knew that it is
through actually being with the poor that one learns how to love in a manner
that truly reflects the love that God is.
What is at stake in Wesley’s “orthopraxis” is more than living out our sanctified
intentions. Certainly if we intend love (holiness of heart), we want to do
so effectively (holiness of life). Yet as we encounter a variety of circumstances
and seriously reflect on our ministry, we come to know more deeply and clearly
what love is, and the Holy Spirit enables us to grow in that love. In this
way we come increasingly to mirror God’s love in the world.
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor
of Evangelism, Saint Paul School of Theology.