Optimist of Grace
Series: Cascade Companions
- ISBN: 9781625648389
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: February 2018
Being a Roman Catholic myself, and into theology by profession, it is both a pleasure and a challenge for me to write a review on Henry Knight’s book John Wesley: Optimist of Grace (Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock, 2018). The author is professor at the Saint Paul School of Theology, located in Kansas City. He is also an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church and states that “my scholarship, like my teaching, is an aspect of my calling to ministry” (Knight’s Homepage at the SPST). His bias is, consequently, not towards a purely historical or biographical approach. The book is, as the title suggests, a synopsis of the main theological thoughts of John Wesley (1703-1791), known as the founder of the Methodist movement.
For me, this book was a challenge given that my main subject is fundamental theology—one of the systematic core disciplines in Catholicism. It is my job to analyze the connections between reason and faith, and to argue step-by-step what, why, and how the Catholic church believes what it does.
Yet, my personal approach to this problem is one that could be described as a pastoral one. As an ordained deacon in my home parish for twenty years now, I have experienced that people usually ask “What helps me to live?” rather than “What does the dogma say?” So the approach of Wesley—basically, to renew the church from within by focusing on the role of one’s personal faith here and now (4f.) and to trust in God’s love for the repentant—also has my sympathy, and thus it was a pleasure for me to read the book.
The book itself is a solid product with paper that deserves the name and a binding that endures some dozen reading sessions. The typesetting is well done and the font size is sufficient. It contains a bibliography that is helpful; yet this bibliography also shows that Knight’s sources might be—at least in a vast majority—part of an inside perspective. That is perfectly legitimate for an informal biography and/or an introduction to Wesley’s theological point of view.
As for the content, Wesley has, to the best of my knowledge, left some 300 publications, most of them being sermons. Knight states that Wesley never wrote a “tightly logical system” as Lutheran and Reformed theologians did (and, I may add, Catholics did, too) (xii). It is quite a challenge to select from this wealth of documents the information one needs to understand the main points of Wesley’s approach. Knight manages to do that on an impressive level. The author’s approach is to show the development of Wesley’s theology interwoven with his vita. It becomes obvious to the reader that Wesley was—although being an empathic character devoted to the ideas of holiness and happiness (62f.)—not one to avoid conflicts. Knight points out that he stood his ground quite sternly when appropriate (23f., 31f., 105f.). These conflicts seem to have helped Wesley in clearing his thoughts so that in 1783 his sermon about the character of awakenings contains, in a nutshell (given that we are talking about a large nut), his approach to redemption: the religious awakening of a person initially emphasizes his or her justification, but “the ultimate goal is sanctification [of the individual, C. W.]; and while the focus is on personal salvation, the result is the spreading of holiness throughout the earth” (127). Knights concludes with the note that “Wesley’s vision of a new creation filled with the love of God is a fitting outcome of his theology” (141). After having read this book, it seems to be a perfect summary indeed.
I am far from understanding Wesley and his theological approach completely, and I do not dare to say I am familiar with more than an outline of the churchly societies that rely on his teachings. But I do know that I learned much about Wesley’s thinking, and that by having read this book I can reflect deeper on the teachings of my own church. There are aspects I see more differentiated now. I also appreciate that Knight’s book presents an approach to the (literary) re-formation of a Christian community in a time of utmost stress, a situation well-known to the contemporary Roman Catholic church in the Western hemisphere.
Naturally, there are aspects I cannot agree with. The exclusive importance of scripture, for example, neglects the fact that the celebrating community is two generations older than the gospel, and that God’s inspiration of the biblical writings primarily involves the experience of the consequences of Christ’s resurrection more than anything else. This is the basis for the Catholic notion of tradition, and there are good reasons to keep that up. But that is more about Wesley than about Knight. Yet, Catholic theology sometimes neglects the dictum of Irenaeus, “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei” (Adv. Haer. IV, 20, 7) and focuses on the literal meaning of rules that are centuries old. Having an alert eye on Wesley’s thought may be inspiring—and Knight’s book definitely helps with that.
Christian Wessely is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Graz in Austria.Christian WesselyDate Of Review:October 12, 2018