Wednesday with Wesley: Disciplines, the Spirit, and Scripture


This post is slightly modified from original published on February 24, 2010. This post is being re-posted based on a discussion on what is mysticism on Rachel Held Evan’s blog.

John_WesleyI am currently taking a class on Spiritual Formation. Some of the texts used in the class are Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines (SD) and Foster’s Celebration of the Disciplines (CD).

In CD Foster says that the “great writers of the devotional life” range from “St. Augustine to St. Francis, from John Calvin to John Wesley, from Teresa of Avila to Juliana of Norwich”. Other writers that heavily influence him include Thomas Merton and John of the Cross. This blog entry on Foster does a good job of outlining some of the background of Foster and his reliance on Merton and the contemplative disciplines.

The contemplative disciplines that Foster describes in CD are meditation, solitude, and silence. They are all closely aligned as noted in the footnote on page 32:

Two topics that closely impinge upon meditation will be discussed under the Discipline of solitude: the creative use of silence and the concept developeed by St. John of the Cross that he graphically calls “the dark night of the soul.”

Foster asserts that spiritual formation requires the practice of silence and contemplative prayer (CD page 15):

If we hope to move beyond the superficialities of our culture, including our religious culture, we must be willing to go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation. In their writings, all of the masters of meditation beckon us to be pioneers in this frontier of the Spirit. Though it may sound strange to modern ears, we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of the contemplative prayer.

In an interview of Foster recorded in an article in Christianity Today he cites solitude as a foundational discipline:

Evangelicals, among others, have been reading your book for 30 years. What is the discipline that you think we need to be exploring more at this point?

Solitude. It is the most foundational of the disciplines of abstinence, the via negativa. The evangelical passion for engagement with the world is good. But as Thomas à Kempis says, the only person who’s safe to travel is the person who’s free to stay at home. And Pascal said that we would solve the world’s problems if we just learned to sit in our room alone. Solitude is essential for right engagement. …

Willard in SD seems to agree with the importance of solitude (page 101):

Solitude is the most radical of the disciplines for life in the spirit. … It is solitude and solitude alone that opens the possibility of a radical relationship to God that can withstand all external events up to and beyond death.

Where do these disciplines (meditation, solitude, and silence) that comprise contemplative prayer come from – they are rooted in the disciplines of the Quakers (CD page 22):

Historically, no group has stressed the need to enter into the listening silences more than the Quakers…

What is the recreating, listening silence? It is also called the “inner light”. The blog entry here explores the history of this Quaker belief and its ties to Foster. It states that the:

[Inner Light can be] defined in a variety of ways, since Quakerism is very individualistic and non-creedal, but it refers to a divine presence and guidance in every man. There is an emphasis on being still and silent and passive in order to receive guidance from the inner light.

Is this what Foster is teaching? In a separate book,Prayer, Finding the Hearts True Home (page 158,159),

[Contemplative Prayer] is more an experience of the heart than of the head. But this stress upon the feelings disturbs us. We have been trained through out our lives to distrust our feelings, and the very idea that we could gain some knowledge of truth and reality by way of the feelings seems ludicrous.

We must not, however, be too quick to judge. In the first place the witnesses who encourage us are vast and reputable. Second they are dealing with something far deeper than mere emotions. In using the language of feeling, contemplatives are referring to a deep experienced sense of God – a kind of inner hearing, if you will.

What is the goal of Contemplative Prayer? To this question the old writers answer with one voice: union with God.

One of the “devotional masters” cited is John Wesley. John Wesley was certainly noted for his practice of the spiritual disciplines. Here was his list from Sermon 16

In the following discourse, I propose to examine at large, whether there are any means of grace.

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian church for many ages; — in particular by our own Church, which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace, and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”

The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.

Wesley advocates prayer and meditation on Scripture, however, he must not be confused as supporting or practicing the disciplines of listening silence. Particularly the idea of a passive attempt at connecting to an inner voice or light. Wesley was very critical of this practice.

In “A Letter to a Person Lately Joined with the People Called Quaker”, Wesley outlines the differences between Christianity and Quakerism. Early in the letter he focuses on the importance of Scripture over guidance from the Spirit. He starts by quoting a Quaker source (italics added to differentiate) and then responding.

” 2. It is by the Spirit alone that the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be, revealed. And these revelations, which are absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith, neither do, nor can, ever contradict right reason or the testimony of the Scriptures.”

[Wesley:] Thus far there is no difference between Quakerism and Christianity.

“Yet these revelations are not to be subjected to the examination of the Scriptures as to a touchstone.”

[Wesley:] Here there is a difference. The Scriptures are the touchstone whereby Christians examine all, real or supposed, revelations. In all cases they appeal “to the law and to the testimony,” and try every spirit thereby.

“3. From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the Scriptures of truth.”

[Wesley:] In this there is no difference between Quakerism and Christianity.

” Yet the Scriptures are not the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners. Nevertheless, they are a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit. By him the saints are led into all truth. Therefore, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.”

[Wesley:] If by these words, ” The Scriptures are not the principal ground of truth and knowledge, nor the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners,” be only meant, that ” the Spirit is our first and principal leader;” here is no difference between Quakerism and Christianity.

But there is great impropriety of expression. For, though the Spirit is our principal leader, yet he is not our rule at all; the Scriptures are the rule whereby he leads us into all truth. Therefore, only talk good English; call the Spirit our guide, which signifies an intelligent being, and the Scriptures our rule, which signifies something used by an intelligent being, and all is plain and clear.

Later Wesley directly addresses the discipline of silence:

” Silence is a principal part of God’s worship; that is, men’s sitting silent together, ceasing from all outwards, from their own words and actings, in the natural will and comprehension, and feeling after the inward seed of life.”

[Wesley:] In this there is a manifest difference between Quakerism and Christianity. This is will-worship, if there be any such thing under heaven. For there is neither command nor example for it in Scripture.

What was the importance of the disciplines Wesley listed? Are they required for God’s grace to be given? In Sermon 16, Wesley goes on to say:

We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord’s Supper; but that it is God alone who is the Giver of every good gift, the Author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby, through any of these, there is any blessing conveyed to our soul. We know, likewise, that he is able to give the same grace, though there were no means on the face of the earth. In this sense, we may affirm, that, with regard to God, there is no such thing as means; seeing he is equally able to work whatsoever pleaseth him, by any, or by none at all.

Contrast that with Foster & Willard’s belief in solitude as foundational. Wesley goes on to point out what really matters:

We allow farther, that the use of all means whatever will never atone for one sin; that it is the blood of Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there being no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain for sin and uncleanness. Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him; that there is no merit in any of his own works; not in uttering the prayer, or searching the Scripture, or hearing the word of God, or eating of that bread and drinking of that cup.

Settle this in your heart, that the opus operatum, the mere work done, profiteth nothing; that there is no power to save, but in the Spirit of God, no merit, but in the blood of Christ; that, consequently, even what God ordains, conveys no grace to the soul, if you trust not in Him alone. On the other hand, he that does truly trust in Him, cannot fall short of the grace of God, even though he were cut off from every outward ordinance, though he were shut up in the centre of the earth.

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