John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4

This is something I picked up from NetGalley as it looked interesting. The book, John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4 by Thomas Oden focuses on Wesley’s teaching on ethics and society. There is a lot of interesting material here. I haven’t read the first 3 volumes, so I presumably lack a bit of context (Oden occasionally refers back to earlier discussions). But most of this is freestanding. For those with a historical bent, it is interesting to see how Wesley works through various issues. Here is where one of the distinctive features of the book is worth noting. Oden finds key works (sermons or writings) and essentially summarizes them to lay out Wesley’s teaching on a topic. There is certainly some value in this. The individual facets of arguments are put in context. And we can begin to get inside Wesley’s thinking, his logic.

The topics covered are substantial and important. We get insight into how Wesley viewed the social nature of Methodism and the small group identity, along with how that shaped spirituality and character formation. Oden explores Wesley’s practical economics; it’s less a theory of economics than practical steps to take in using our money. Political ethics and issues of war and peace (including the war for independence) and slavery are also discussed, along with a number of other issues. So, if you want an accessible survey of Wesley’s thoughts on these type of issues, this book will generally work.

Having said that, there are some structural limitations to this approach. I’ll highlight several that struck me. First, we may miss aspects of Wesley’s thoughts that are mentioned incidentally or that are interwoven with other discussions. It may be that Oden doesn’t miss anything significant in approaching Wesley with this methodology – I’m not enough of a Wesley expert to know. But I know from my own historical research that key texts (especially contextual ones like sermons) are never comprehensive. And to be sure, the alternative is to get a pre-packaged summary where we can’t really engage all the relevant primary texts. It’s a choice Oden has made, and a reasonable one. Just not with its limitations. We just need to read with a bit of awareness of that issue.

A second, and more difficult one is that Oden allows Wesley to speak but doesn’t provide any real critical analysis or help with figuring out how to move from Wesley’s time to today. Again, I am probably commenting on something outside Oden’s intended scope (he is elucidating arguments, he notes in the introduction). But the work would have been enhanced by some opportunity to think about how to bridge these issues to the modern world. In some cases the issues were uniquely historically situated (e.g., the American revolution and slavery); in those cases some assistance in thinking about how to apply similar arguments in different contexts would have been helpful. In other cases, to be frank, Wesley’s views and arguments are rather dated and anachronistic if applied today. What do we do with those things? For example, how does Wesley’s approach to sports function in the modern world? How does his practical economics function in the world of the welfare state? Maybe they say something about failures in the modern church, or perhaps they are not issues any longer. But after a few of those issues I’m left wishing for some help in thinking through these topics.

So, a useful book and I learned some things about Wesley and his thinking, but was left wanting for more. I suspect I would want a sequel or another book to pair with this if I really wanted to understand Wesley’s ethics more deeply.

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