Trinity Sunday: Wesley on the Trinity

Today I taught a brief Sunday school lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity. It got me to thinking about this sermon by Wesley: On The Trinity. Here are some selections and my annotations:

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.[1]

Wesley acknowledges that one may make many errors with regard to religious ideas and still be a Christian. But in this very paragraph, he does go on to say that one must still believe some version of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian. The bold passage of Scripture above is a problematic textual problem, Wesley deals with this later on in the sermon, but for out purposes, it will suffice to say that the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity Wesley will later explicate are contained in Scripture.

I do not mean that it is of importance to believe this or that explication of these words. I know not that any well-judging man would attempt to explain them at all. One of the best tracts which that great man, Dean Swift, ever wrote, was his Sermon upon the Trinity. Herein he shows, that all who endeavoured to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons, hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.”[2]

I agree with the essence of this. That the Bible teaches the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is a case easily made depending on what one means. But the cases for some theoretical framework of the doctrine are problematic and confusing at best.

I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, “Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.” These are the words which merciful John Calvin cites as wrote by Servetus in a letter to himself. I would insist only on the direct words, unexplained, just as they lie in the text: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”[3]

Wesley pulls no punches here in his criticism of Calvin burning Servetus. I agree with Wesley’s willingness to use the words Trinity and Person in expressing his understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m unwilling to insist that others grasp those concepts of assent to that terminology to call themselves or to be called Christians.

“[A]s strange as it may seem, in requiring you to believe, “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one;” you are not required to believe any mystery. Nay, that great and good man, Dr. Peter Browne, some time Bishop of Cork, has proved at large that the Bible does not require you to believe any mystery at all. The Bible barely requires you to believe such facts; not the manner of them. Now the mystery does not lie in the fact, but altogether in the manner.
For instance: “God said, Let there be light: And there was light.” I believe it: I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
Again: “The Word was made flesh.” I believe this fact also. There is no mystery in it; but as to the manner how he was made flesh, wherein the mystery lies, I know nothing about it; I believe nothing about it: It is no more the object of my faith, than it is of my understanding.[4]

Again, the Bible never says to believe anything about the manner in which Trinity exists, but only that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine, distinct, and one. In other words, the point is not, in any manner of speaking, to get us to figure out the manner of God’s existence in this respect, but to reveal enough of God as to inspire us to live for Christ and worship rightly.

Not that every Christian believer adverts to this; perhaps, at first, not one in twenty: But if you ask any of them a few questions, you will easily find it is implied in what he believes.[5]

Not every Christian, especially new Christians, explicitly will hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, but you can ask them questions long enough to discover that they implicitly accept the doctrine. Earlier and then later in the sermon (not quoted above) Wesley observes that some through invincible ignorance or involuntary rejection (through misunderstanding of Scripture, the doctrine, or personal confusion) who reject the basic tenets of the Trinity will still be saved. This seems reasonable. In my mind, it’s an open question as to whether or not the basic tenets of the gospel imply the Trinity so clearly that any Christian implicitly believes the doctrine. I will say that anybody who believes in God implicitly believes in the Triune God as the only God (if the doctrine of the Trinity is true). But do all who believe the gospel even know that the Holy Spirit is anything other than their own emotions due to poor instruction or that God is uncreated? I mean, the “who made God” question of the atheists confused so many genuine Christians who just had no knowledge, might many true Christians have such little knowledge of Scripture as to have no set of beliefs which imply the Trinity? I would say, “Yes.” That seems to be obvious. But that doesn’t make the doctrine less true, less essential (in terms of definitive of historic Christian orthodoxy), or less helpful for those who understand it.


[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200, “Here are the arguments Wesley marshals in favor of this often excluded passage from 1 John:  “(1.) That though it is wanting in many copies, yet it is found in more; and those copies of the greatest authority:—(2.) That it is cited by a whole gain of ancient writers, from the time of St. John to that of Constantine. This argument is conclusive: For they could not have cited it, had it not then been in the sacred canon:—(3.) That we can easily account for its being, after that time, wanting in many copies, when we remember that Constantine’s successor was a zealous Arian, who used every means to promote his bad cause, to spread Arianism throughout the empire; in particular the erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands.””

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200.

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200–201.

[4] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 204.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 205.

John Wesley’s Summary Of the Aims of Pastoral Ministry

In his “Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” Wesley recounts this exchange:

But I hear,” added he, “you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Pray, what would you do with them? Whither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” I replied, “I do preach to as many as desire to hear, every night and morning. You ask, what I would do with them: I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves, and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven; to God the Judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and crying out at their death, in calm assurance, ‘O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory, through my Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”

John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 8 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 8.

Wesley seems to have a solid grasp of what the New Testament authors saw as the good life and be appears to have seen it to be his job as a pastor/preacher to help others to attain to such a life. Would that pastors with similar aspirations increase.

Note: One might object, “But Paul preached Christ crucified,” shouldn’t a pastor focus only on that and justification by faith? My response would be to note that Paul also describes his mission and that of all of the apostles in Romans 1:5 as “bring[ing] about the obedience of faith among the nations.” I suspect that “Christ and him crucified” is a summary of the whole gospel focusing upon the cross to remind the Corinthian church of the importance of humility.

John Wesley on the Christian Life

Toward the beginning of John Wesley’s journal, he goes through a series of questions that he asks people who are critical of what he and the early Methodists are doing. They are pretty intense, but most Christians, even now, would approve of them. I wonder why we don’t do this kind of thing.

  1.  Whether it does not concern all men of all conditions to imitate Him, as much as they can, ‘who went about doing good’?

    Whether all Christians are not concerned in that command, ‘While we have time, let us do good to all men’?

    Whether we shall not be more happy hereafter, the more good we do now?

    Whether we can be happy at all hereafter, unless we have, according to our power, ‘fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those that are sick, and in prison’; and made all these actions subservient to a higher purpose, even the saving of souls from death?

    Whether it be not our bounden duty always to remember that He did more for us than we can do for Him, who assures us, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me’?

  2. Whether, upon these considerations, we may not try to do good to our acquaintance? Particularly, whether we may not try to convince them of the necessity of being Christians?

    Whether of the consequent necessity of being scholars?

    Whether of the necessity of method and industry, in order to either learning or virtue?

    Whether we may not try to persuade them to confirm and increase their industry, by communicating as often as they can?

    Whether we may not mention to them the authors whom we conceive to have wrote the best on those subjects?

    Whether we may not assist them, as we are able, from time to time, to form resolutions upon what they read in those authors, and to execute them with steadiness and perseverance?

  3. Whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are hungry, naked, or sick? In particular, whether, if we know any necessitous family, we may not give them a little food, clothes, or physic, as they want?
    Whether we may not give them, if they can read, a Bible, Common-Prayer Book, or Whole Duty of Man?

    Whether we may not, now and then, inquire how they have used them; explain what they do not understand, and enforce what they do?

    Whether we may not enforce upon them, more especially, the necessity of private prayer, and of frequenting the church and Sacrament?

    Whether we may not contribute what little we are able toward having their children clothed and taught to read?

    Whether we may not take care that they be taught their catechism andshort prayers for morning and evening?

  4. Lastly: Whether, upon the considerations above-mentioned, we may not try to do good to those that are in prison? In particular, Whether we may not release such well-disposed persons as remain in prison for small sums?

    Whether we may not lend smaller sums to those that are of any trade, that they may procure themselves tools and materials to work with?

    Whether we may not give to them who appear to want it most a little money, or clothes, or physic?

    Whether we may not supply as many as are serious enough to read, with a Bible and Whole Duty of Man?

    Whether we may not, as we have opportunity, explain and enforce these upon them, especially with respect to public and private prayer and the blessed Sacrament?

It would appear that Wesley’s understanding of Christianity is both active and contemplative. Note what is bold above. Wesley made an effort to convince people to be Christians, to become scholarly persons as a Christian duty, and to work to increase both industry and virtue. I would suspect that though deep down, most Christians would say, “studying the Bible is good,” very few would say that being as scholarly as ones vocation and constitution allows is a consequent duty of being a Christian. I might say the same with Wesley’s attempt to persuade people to be industrious and virtuous. The New Testament is filled, obviously with commands and encouragements to virtue. But it also contains commands to be industrious and productive:

” ὁ κλέπτων μηκέτι κλεπτέτω, μᾶλλον δὲ κοπιάτω ἐργαζόμενος ταῖς [ἰδίαις] χερσὶν τὸ ἀγαθόν, ἵνα ἔχῃ μεταδιδόναι τῷ χρείαν ἔχοντι. Ephesians 4:27″

Let those who steal no longer steal, but all the more let them labor well with their own hands so that they might have with which to give to those who have need. Ephesians 4:27

The efforts Wesley made to help people, as their Christian duty, care for their families, do good work in their trades, know their Bibles, and be busy about the commands of Jesus are certainly worthy of emulation today.