John Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” has been rightly seen as a landmark statement in support of Christian unity. What has sometimes been missed is how in this sermon Wesley transcends either/or thinking.
His central argument is that a difference in “opinions” or “modes of worship” should not prevent Christians from being united in love for one another. By “opinions” he means commitment to specific teachings on which Christians are divided, such as predestination, Christian perfection, or the nature of the sacraments. By “modes of worship” he means practices such as infant or believers’ baptism, written or extemporaneous prayer, or celebrating the seasons of the church year. Disagreement over matters such as these should not keep persons from recognizing others as fellow Christians.
Instead, Wesley cites the words of 2 Kgs 10:15 “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart,” then, “give me thine hand.” If “we cannot think alike, “Wesley asks, “May we not love alike?” (“Catholic Spirit,”¶ 4, in Works, [vol.2; ed. A.C. Outler; Abingdon, 1985] 82)
This emphasis on “heart” over “opinions” has sometimes led to the mistaken conclusion that Wesley is emphasizing experience over doctrine. It is true he rejects a dead orthodoxy which defines being a Christian as merely assent to a creed or the regular exercise of certain religious practices. But he also rejects any form of “enthusiasm” that privileges experience or seeks to derive doctrine from experience. Doctrine is properly grounded in scripture which is the authoritative record and interpretation of God’s revelation in creation, Israel and preeminently in Jesus Christ. Christian experience is our coming to know (encounter) the God revealed in Scripture in the present.
This is abundantly clear in “Catholic Spirit.” For two hearts to be similarly “right” involves doctrinal beliefs interwoven with experience. This includes knowing by faith God as both creator and governor; Jesus Christ as crucified and risen, indwelling one’s heart; love for God and seeking to do God’s will; and loving one’s neighbor and showing that love by works (¶ I. 12-18, p. 87). The doctrinal beliefs noted here are not the “opinions” that divide Christians but essentials that unite them. Wesley does not choose between doctrine or experience, for both are inextricably interrelated in the Christian life.
But there is another common dichotomy Wesley rejects as well. This is to assume that if a doctrine or practice really matters, then it warrants the kind of passionate defense that divides those who advocate that truth from those who reject it. We have seen that for Wesley, while there is unity in essentials, division over opinions should not go so far as to prevent Christian unity in love. But this should not lead to the equally false assumption that opinions or modes of worship do not really matter.
Wesley emphatically denies that a catholic spirit implies either a “speculative” or “practical latitudinarianism,” that is, “an indifference to all opinions” or modes of worship. He calls such an “unsettledness of thought” “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (¶ III. 1-3, pp. 92-94). A Christian should believe and practice those opinions and modes of worship he or she believes to be most faithful to Christ, and belong to a congregation that affirms those beliefs and practices.
What we believe about predestination, Christian perfection, infant baptism, and the like is of great importance, for it involves our being faithful to Christ in proclaiming, teaching, and living the faith. But it should not prevent us from honoring that same faithfulness in Christians who hold contrary opinions, yet who nonetheless remain our sisters and brothers in Christ.
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology