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Just How Wesleyan are We? A Historical Perspective

Dr. Tim Crutcher
Affiliate Professor of Theology/Church History  |  Nazarene Theological Seminary
Professor of Church History and Theology  |  Southern Nazarene University
NTS Alumni Council, SNU Region Member-at-Large

One of the important facets of the contemporary debate about identity in the Church of the Nazarene today is the question of just how Wesleyan we are. On the one hand, there are those who want to assert the Wesleyan component of Nazarene identity very strongly and argue that being more Wesleyan will make us better Nazarenes. On the other hand, there are others who suggest that the Church of the Nazarene—and the American Holiness Movement in general—has moved beyond Wesley and that it would be best to just leave him in the past. In this post, I would like to suggest a reading of history that illustrates the complexity of this identity dynamic and suggests a way that we might approach the issues that it raises.

John Wesley’s Methodist movement gets planted in America without his knowledge, and it grows and prospers largely without his personal influence. American Methodists were in principle committed to Wesley’s doctrine as it was contained in his “official” sources, but they resisted his personal influence. Additionally, the American religious scene was very different from the one found in Britain, where the established Church of England formed the theological background against which Wesley’s innovations and interpretations were understood. In America, there was no such established church, and the religious background was formed by a mix of widely disparate theological sources. In that environment, Methodists in America picked up from Wesley those things they found helpful and useful but also ignored those things which did not make sense in their own context.

If one thinks of a theological system as a language, a way of talking about God that helps people live out their lives with God and others, then American Methodists—in their different cultural environment with a different religious background—were not speaking the same theological language that Wesley spoke. Instead, what develops among American Methodists can be thought of as a “pidgin” Wesleyanism. In linguistics, a “pidgin” is a simplified form of a language that develops so that people who do not speak a common language can communicate with one another—usually so they can trade. The most well-known example is the pidgin English (“Tok Pisin”) of Papua New Guinea. A pidgin contains many of the features of the original language but is not really a complete language. The vocabulary is usually limited and the grammatical structures, very simple. Something of the flavor of the original language is retained (so, for example, in Tok Pisin, the word for “always” is “oltaim” [“all-time”]), but it is not the same.

The American Methodists picked up on a good deal of Wesley’s theological vocabulary and distinctive ideas. However, in their context they often used those words and ideas differently than Wesley did. What they said sounded a lot like what Wesley said, but it wasn’t the same. It was a pidgin of his language, a simplified version that was adapted to the more rough-and-ready environment of the American context but one that was sufficient to anchor the movement and help it to grow.

Pidgin languages, however, are not full languages; they are not adequate for everyday life. Because they have a limited vocabulary, they don’t have words for everything that people need to talk about in the day-to-day business of living. Therefore, when pidgin languages are pressed into service beyond their initial use as trade languages, they begin to absorb other words and grammatical structures from the other languages around them. Eventually, a new language emerges, which is sometimes called a “creole” (such as the language spoken in Haiti, which is a mixture of French and African languages).  A creole is a fully functioning language that sounds a lot like the original language that gave it birth, but—like a child compared to its parents—it has its own individual identity.

The theological language that developed among the American Methodists and the one that eventually among the American Holiness Movement, should be understood as a theological creole. It is a fully functioning theological language in its own right. However, it is not the strict descendent of any single theological tradition but rather an amalgam of several different theological languages that were combined in a unique socio-political and cultural context.

If we thought about the theological language spoken by the founders of the Church of the Nazarene—coming, as they did, from Methodist, Pentecostal and Primitivist traditions—as a theological creole rather than as a “corrupted” or “advanced” (depending on your perspective) form of Wesley’s theological language would, it would,  I believe, help us to ask more adequate questions about our theological identity. To begin with, it would help us to escape the trap of understanding our theological identity too narrowly, as if we only needed to worry about whether or not we were faithful to Wesley’s theological trajectory—either to say that we have deviated from it or to say that we have moved it forward. There are many other influences, other sources for our theological vocabulary and grammar, which must be included in our discussion if we are going to make any headway.

Reckoning with those other forces—theological, cultural, even political—might also give us a way out of the current polarities that have developed in our church between those who want to “go back to Wesley” and those who want to “leave him behind.” The Wesleyan roots of our identity are a necessary part—they are there, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But they are not sufficient—there are other pieces in play as well, and we cannot ignore them and expect to move forward.

If we Nazarenes can own up to the theological language we do speak, our own unique Wesleyan creole, then we can begin to figure out what it would mean to speak that language as best we can and to use it to proclaim a “translation” of the Gospel that is Christian, Holiness and Missional. And I personally think it is a message that the world needs to hear.

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I appreciate the picture-image you worked on to get your point across regarding languages. I have for many years thought of it with a different metaphor: that there are two main streams in the Church of the Nazarene; the Wesleyan stream and the Holiness Movement stream. People seem to fairly simply pick which of the streams they swim in theologically. While your contention that American Methodism didn't really "speak Wesley" fluently, (which was a new thought to me but one I am fully willing to concede if it's the case), it seems to me that, in the years that have unfolded since then, we have indeed learned to go back and read and speak Wesley fluently. Thus some of us are happy to assert that the Nazarenes are a member of the World Methodist Council and considered by them as an American branch of Methodism. On the other hand, other friends I can think of years ago would be aghast at that idea, and asserted we were Holiness people and not Methodist at all. As to admitting to both lineages, I think we can historically, (as i can admit my family contains both heroes and outlaws) but I think we can still choose which part of the family heritage we want to carry on, as at this point in history I want to affirm the Wesleyan/Methodist heritage of the Church of the Nazarene and distance myself from the less theologically sound heritage of the Holiness movement. So, although i do indeed have outlaw ancestors and cousins whom I love, I can also affirm "I am not them and i don't see things their way." I can't think of anything the Church of the Nazarene ever gained from the Holiness Movement which was an improvement on Wesley, but rather often poor use of Scripture and a tendency toward legalism and anti-intellectualism.

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