Law and Gospel in the Wesleyan Tradition -- By: Donald W. Dayton

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 12:2 (Fall 1991)
Article: Law and Gospel in the Wesleyan Tradition
Author: Donald W. Dayton

Law and Gospel in the Wesleyan Tradition

Donald W. Dayton

One of the great puzzles about the literature interpreting modern “evangelicalism” is that the historical and theological experience of Methodism is hardly ever used to provide the categories of interpretation. Historically, this is very surprising because the Methodist movement, founded largely under the influence of John Wesley, has been the major continuing product of the “Evangelical Revival” of the 18th century that set the tone for what has become known as “evangelicalism.” This is particularly relevant to the North American experience where the period from roughly 1820 to World War I has been interchangeably described by historians as the “age of Methodism” and the “age of evangelicalism.” And if one turns attention to the modern progeny of Wesley—either to the children of Methodism (the holiness movement) or to the grandchildren of Methodism (the Pentecostal movement), this neglect becomes even more obvious demographically because the vast majority of the membership of such groups as the National Association of Evangelicals or of the Christian College Consortium stands in this theological lineage. I am gratified therefore that the planners of this meeting have included the Wesleyan tradition among those whose understanding of “law and gospel” has an important contribution to make to the theological articulation of an “evangelical” perspective on this key issue.

Before turning directly to Wesley and his understanding of “law and gospel,” I need to make a few preliminary comments about how to position Wesley in the larger Christian and evangelical panorama. One of the reasons for the neglect of the Wesleyan tradition in the larger interpretation of the “evangelical” experience is that there are strange quirks in the way that we use the label “evangelical”—and in the fact that behind the word is such basic confusion that we may speak of “evangelicalism” as such as “an essentially contested concept,” to use an expression more at home in the British philosophical context. In several places1 I have

developed a typology of conflicting meanings of the word “evangelical” that roots each in various periods of conflict within the life of the church. The first meaning of “evangelical” derives its basic thrust from the Protestant Reformation and may be described theologically in terms of the great solas of Martin Luther: by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, and by scripture alone—a formulation of the gospel that makes the theme of “justification of faith” the organizing principle. The most rec...

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