The Asbury Journal 70/2 (2015)
Although John Wesley has been recognized for decades as a constructive theologian in the Anglo-American sphere, Methodist scholarship in Germany continues to have a more historical focus. Hence, it is significant that this comprehensive and well-informed discussion of Wesley’s pneumatology, written by the United Methodist pastor Christoph Klaiber (a son of the respected biblical scholar Bishop Walter Klaiber) has been published. The author aims beyond merely presenting Wesley’s teaching on the renewal of humans into the image of God by the work of the Holy Spirit in its various aspects. He also develops the consequences of Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit for »proclamation, ministry and nurture of the spiritual life« in the German United Methodist Church (7). This dual focus is recognizably carried out through the whole book.
Chapter one offers a historical analysis of the influential movements, including the Protestant Reformation, Puritanism, the Enlightenment, and Pietism in their significance for Wesley’s development, as well as highlighting the spiritual milieu in which John was growing up. Citing his journals, letters, and early sermons, Klaiber discusses the development of Wesley’s views to the point of the transformative events of 1738. He argues that, before 1738, Wesley had not yet caught up existentially with his »theological conviction that sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit« (39) rather than a function of human effort.
Chapter two continues to follow the historical approach by interpreting Wesley’s »Aldersgate« experience of 1738. For Klaiber, Wesley’s crisis was the »experience of assurance,« in the specific mode the doctrine of justification by faith alone had been mediated to him by the Moravian Peter Böhler. Klaiber extensively quotes Luther’s Preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, pointing particularly to the phrase according to which faith »brings with it the Holy Spirit.« Klaiber finds here a first instance for the inner witness of the Spirit in Wesley’s life, a teaching that extended a profound effect on the ensuing Methodist movement. It should be noted, however, that Wesley describes his heart-changing experience more in Christological than pneumatological terms. Klaiber moves on to detailing the development of Wesley’s understanding of the »witness of the Spirit.« In its mature form, Klaiber claims, Wesley finds justifying faith grounded in the witness of the spirit, understood as the witness of the verbum externum of the Bible, but at the same time distinguished from the fruits of faith (peace, joy, etc.) that are to follow from it. Unfortunately the author limits his discussion of the various interpretations of the development of Wesley’s ideas with respect to assurance to an extended footnote. More important, it does not become entirely clear to which extent, in Klaiber’s view, Wesley himself is accountable for the tendency to »psychologize faith,« mentioned in the text (63). It seems to me, Wesley’s own doctrinal development curbs rather than promotes such tendencies.
Chapter three depicts Wesley’s view on the work of the Holy Spirit with reference to the via salutis. Although Wesley’s concept of »prevenient grace« is basic to his understanding of the human capacity to respond to the offer of salvation, the whole complex of ideas related to this theme is not addressed in depth here. This may be a function of his structure of thought, in which the issue of the relationship of faith and works is being discussed later on in two other sections. As Klaiber convincingly demonstrates, Wesley throughout his life affirms the »sola gratia« of Reformation theology while at the same time overcomes the often-acclaimed opposition between the work of God and the work of man. Klaiber finds the framework for this synthesis in the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. Says Klaiber, »Humans are the agents of their own lives also in spiritual respect, but never are they deserted by God and his good Spirit« (101). The work of the Spirit as the work of grace cannot be detached from the context of the means of grace, i.e. those channels appointed by God to convey his grace to human beings. Klaiber pays special attention here to the Lord’s Supper (perhaps, because German Methodism until recently has not found a high regard for the sacrament). He nicely works out Wesley’s understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper within the context of the contested claims of the Protestant reformers, concluding with suggestions for a renewal of Eucharistic spirituality within Methodism. With regard to Christian baptism, Klaiber reminds the reader that, due to its one-time reception, this initiating sacrament drops out of the list of the means of grace to be regularly used. He contents the Wesley’s explanation of baptismal regeneration is obtuse and his denigration of the perseverance of baptism within the baptized, who invariably render it impotent by their depraved lives, is a dangerous generalization. For Klaiber, such a view is an impediment to constructive educational work within the Church. He concludes this discussion by exploring a number of points that are important for the contemporary discussion on what baptism is supposed to mean.
With respect to the work of the Holy Spirit, in Klaiber’s perspective, it is necessary to also take a look at the manifestations of the Spirit, specifically the extraordinary signs having accompanied the proclamation of the word in Wesley’s time (chapter five). For Klaiber, these manifestations are not to be placed on the same level as the witness of the Spirit. He argues, that Wesley, in a more or less balanced way, displays, due to his belief in God’s special providence, an outspoken interest in supernatural phenomena without exaggerating the significance of such occurrences. In any case, it is clear for Wesley that extraordinary phenomena cannot displace the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as crucial to the Christian life.
An entire chapter (chapter six) is devoted to the doctrine of Christian Perfection, a principal tenet of early Methodism, which has long been controversial and is now widely neglected by the heirs of Wesley. It is known by the phrase »perfect love« and became understood in early Methodism as a second work of grace distinguished from the work of justification. As Klaiber sees it, around 1740/42 there are three complementary interpretations of this doctrine in the writings of John Wesley. These are a) freedom from sin, b) a perfected fellowship with God, and c) love of God and one’s neighbors (191). At the same time, Klaiber does not overlook the development of Wesley’s teaching on Christian Perfection. He critically interacts with Wesley’s view of the freedom from the being of sin (»inbred sin«). Notwithstanding this critique, Klaiber leaves no doubt that he regards the positive aspects of Wesley’s teaching on Perfection as sufficient to uphold it as of fundamental importance for Methodist theology and the Christian life. He sums up Wesley’s idea of Perfection as a deeply rooted trust in God, undivided devotion, and an anticipation of things to come. Therefore, the focus is more theological than moralistic or legalistic. Klaiber’s exposition of perfect love challenges those who would dismiss the doctrine as a lapse into enthusiasm, and he manages to demonstrate that perfect love is the humble way to offer one’s life to God without reserve. The conversation on this point needs to be continued not for purely doctrinal sake, but for the sake of maintaining a powerful spiritual vision of the Christian life.
Having worked out the pivotal aspects of Wesley’s soteriology, in chapter seven Klaiber places the renewing work of the Holy Spirit within the context of Trinitarian, ecclesiological, and eschatological reflections. There is an in-depth discussion of the personal nature of the Spirit, the problem of the filioque, the tensions in the nature of Methodism between being a movement and a church, Wesley’s »catholic« spirit and, finally, Methodism’s potential to contribute to the transformation of the world. In this chapter Klaiber more strongly than before explicitly draws on contemporary authors (especially Michael Welker and Jürgen Moltmann), while at the same time pushing towards the summary statement that, »Wesley’s pneumatology in the stricter sense points beyond itself and as the center of his theological thinking encompasses all other areas« of reflection (224).
This volume marks a significant addition to the paucity of Methodist studies written by Germans. Klaiber seeks to overcome the ignoring of the Holy Spirit in the western church with the resources of a theology deeply imbued with an optimism of grace. To this purpose Klaiber thoroughly, though not in every single point convincingly, assesses the large corpus of Wesley’s writings in light of this theme, while the interaction with the relevant secondary literature is mostly confined to the footnotes. As the chapters unfold the reader is taken by a stimulating and often challenging interpretation of Wesley whose reflections throughout the book are shown to have a bearing on the theological issues the United Methodist Church is currently addressing. Unlike many reviewers who likely may take issue with Klaiber’s plea for a renewal of the doctrine of Christian Perfection (which I do not), I would prefer to critically raise another point that, in my understanding, needs some further clarification. At several points in chapter six Klaiber interprets salvation as the »indwelling of the [Holy] Spirit” and defines this inhabitatio as the “nature of grace and the heart of salvation« (226). This is done, despite that fact that, at the outset of his discussion, we read that it is the witness of the Spirit that takes this central place in Wesley’s understanding of salvation. It would be helpful for him to clarify his understanding of the relationship between the witness of and indwelling of the Spirit in Wesley. While the use of both concepts certainly is not contradictory, their identity, however, cannot be simply assumed either, particularly in light of the complexity of the discussion of the former theme in the course of Wesley’s life and ministry.
Despite these issues of interpretation, readers will be grateful to Klaiber for providing an informed discussion of this central doctrine in Wesley’s theology. It is a discussion framed by pastoral reflection and aimed at a renewal of the church for the sake of a world awaiting their final redemption. The contemporary church is in need of discerning and heeding the work of God’s Spirit as testified to in the scriptures. It is to be hoped that this study from the perspective of a Methodist pastor and scholar in Germany will be favorably received.