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Lutheran and Wesleyan Pilgrims on the Catholic Way

by William P. McDonald — September 01, 2008

Experience isn’t everything, but it matters to Methodists, at least after Scripture, tradition, and reason, so I begin autobiographically. I am perhaps the first United Methodist minister to be formally installed as pastor of an ELCA parish, St. Paul’s, in Vonore, Tennessee. I am Methodist, quite simply, because I was baptized, confirmed, and brought up in the ways of Wesleyan righteousness: warm heart, enlightened mind, and social conscience. For the commitments those terms name, I am grateful. It happened that a family down the street, whose large yard was a neighborhood playground, were Lutheran. They unwittingly managed to pique my interest in their church, and it wasn’t long before I was splitting my time between Trinity United Methodist and Faith Lutheran in my hometown of DeLand, Florida...

Experience isn’t everything, but it matters to Methodists, at least after Scripture, tradition, and reason, so I begin autobiographically. I am perhaps the first United Methodist minister to be formally installed as pastor of an ELCA parish, St. Paul’s, in Vonore, Tennessee. I am Methodist, quite simply, because I was baptized, confirmed, and brought up in the ways of Wesleyan righteousness: warm heart, enlightened mind, and social conscience. For the commitments those terms name, I am grateful.

It happened that a family down the street, whose large yard was a neighborhood playground, were Lutheran. They unwittingly managed to pique my interest in their church, and it wasn’t long before I was splitting my time between Trinity United Methodist and Faith Lutheran in my hometown of DeLand, Florida. It was under Faith’s dark wooden A-frame beams that I first heard the resonances of the mass as rendered by LBW Setting I. Ever since then I have known the treasure that is the union of Lutheranism’s wondrously truthful theological account with a spirited tradition in good liturgy. At home on the nightstand in my bedroom sat copies of Luther’s Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession. Given to me by the pastor of Faith Church, I read them constantly, along with an increasing diet of Luther’s zesty theology. I was well on my way to my current post of pastor, even as an adolescent.

I appreciated Lutheranism so much I chose to attend Lenoir-Rhyne College, one of the ELCA’s finest. Despite all of this, and as counterintuitive as it may be, I never abandoned Wesley. Instead I went to seminary at Duke and became an ordained elder in the company of his faithful. I have found along the way that Luther and Wesley are excellent interlocutors, even if the first lived 157 years prior to the second, and the second, while taking cues from the first, did not always appreciate him as fully as he might have.

A Ph.D. in historical theology from Vanderbilt opened the way for a teaching vocation. I studied patristics so I could, in part, better understand the roots shared across the trenches dug in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Today I am also college chaplain and religion professor at Tennessee Wesleyan College, where I work among students raised mostly in the Bible Belt. Through a special arrangement with the bishops of the appropriate conference and synod, I minister in my small Lutheran parish nestled among Tennessee foothills. For this unique combination, I am most grateful.

Luther and Wesley, not to mention Scripture, the church fathers, the confessions, and the historic liturgy, have furnished my heart and mind. In this article I want to suggest how these two theological streams might constructively relate to one another, especially now that the ELCA counts the UMC among its growing number of ecumenical partners. Having not only thought about but lived the particular contours of our ecumenical partnership, I think that the mutual challenge this odd couple offer one another is a valuable prod to catholic faithfulness and what Wesley called “Catholic Spirit” for both.

Justification and Sanctification

Wesley stood proudly in Luther’s shadow, but did not always appreciate him. His most famous encounter with the reformer happened on May 24, 1738, the night he “felt his heart strangely warmed” while hearing Luther’s Preface to Romans being read in a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, London. He later accused Luther of advocating a “crazy solafideism” in which there was no earnest seeking after “holiness of heart and life.” He understood Luther to say that forgiven sinners are free to go on sinning in the name of the fiction called “imputed righteousness.” God’s relationship to them is completely external: children constantly the object of God’s ire in the law and God’s prodigal forgiveness in the gospel. Is there anything more? Complained Wesley:

Men who have spoken and written admirably well concerning justification, had no clear conception, nay, were totally ignorant, of the doctrine of sanctification. Who has wrote [sic] more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone? And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conceptions of it?

When Lutherans and Methodists found themselves in proximity to one another, neither always liked what they saw. Surely Methodists were in mind when Augustana Synod leaders warned of “fly-by-night preachers” riding through the land, operating along the lines of what John W. Nevin called the “system of the bench,” or revivalism, rather than the system of the catechism. A. G. Voigt of Southern Seminary thought Lutherans had less to fear from automobiles and Sunday papers than from Methodists. Lutherans generally saw Methodists as semi-Pelagian at best. They were an anglicized version of the pietism already known in European lands. For that reason, some pietistic Lutherans found “methodistical” sermons appealing. Methodists generally respected Lutherans, but found them too stiffly formal and lacking in a fuller account of redemption, of which forensic justification was only the start.

Thanks to late twentieth century national and international dialogs, these caricatures have been replaced by mutual understanding and significant rapprochement on theological issues in general, and justification by grace through faith in particular. Now, both say together:

[J]ustification is the work of God in Christ and comes through faith alone. Within the context of justification, faith comprises both assent and trust. Persons as sinners are justified by God’s gracious love in Christ, and not on the basis of human efforts or worthiness. Christ’s righteousness is imputed and imparted to them by an act of God as they are enabled by the Holy Spirit to trust in God. Justification is dependent upon Christ’s atoning death. In Christ, God reconciled the world and conquered the evil forces that dominate human life and the created order.

What is challenging is that, even with this solid consensus on justification, Lutherans and Methodists have understood sanctification in profoundly different ways. The old caricatures did veil some important differences. Accounts of sanctification have differed, in part, to avoid trends the one has seen in the other. To Mr. Wesley and later Methodists, some Lutherans seemed sanguine about never speaking of anything other than imputed righteousness. Wesley saw this as but a half-truth, a truncated gospel. Grace, for Wesley, creates new life and ultimately renews the cosmos. If it is proclaimed otherwise, emptied of its potency to transform, then for him it was a false gospel.

For both communions, grace is forgiveness. But it ameliorates and heals, too, according to Wesley. He taught that prevenient grace is God’s unmerited love unleashed in the gospel for sinners, stirring their hearts and enabling repentance. It is followed by justifying grace, or forgiveness, and completed in sanctifying grace. Just as the Lutheran simul justus et peccator suggests the tension of being both saint and sinner, Wesley’s ordo salutis is not so much a linear template for the spiritual journey, but a description of the three modes in which grace perpetually works on behalf of and among sinners. The church is always being called, forgiven, and made holy.

For Methodists, sanctification names a process of transformation in the context of the church (Word and sacrament) whereby those justified by grace alone through faith alone are schooled in discipleship: works of mercy and works of piety. The former include service to the poor, disciplined use of time and gifts, and work against the dehumanization of others (which meant opposition to slavery for Wesley). The latter were prayer, searching of the Scriptures, regular attendance at eucharist, fasting, and life together. This is what the lives of the baptized should look like. It’s the “method” in “Methodism.” At least, that’s the ideal. Grace at work in the soul makes holy lives possible and moves one along to the possibility of perfect love. Think of this “perfection” as “working to full capacity” in love to God and neighbor. This perfection in love is not some hidden calculus of salvation or personal achievement. It is the work of grace alone. It brings with it no fringe benefits. And, most of all, anyone so fully alive to God and neighbor would be the last to tout it.

To this day, Methodist bishops ask ordinands: “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The liturgical response is “Yes,” but it usually comes with a little nervous laughter and an impromptu explanation by the bishop. Truth is, most United Methodists know little of the doctrine of perfection as Wesley taught it, and fewer still would ever imagine they’d achieved it. Moving toward it rather than having it seems more important.

“Daily baptism,” constant service to the neighbor, heeding the third use of the law, bearing the cross in the world—all as a justified sinner, continually penitent—is the stuff of a Lutheran approach to sanctification. This Lutheran understanding, modest and brutally realistic about the depth of sin even in the justified, is a gift to the whole church. Existentially, this account probably rings true in the hearts and minds of Methodists, Lutherans, and perhaps most Christian folk who struggle with sin and imperfection, rely on grace alone from day to day, and who come, “just as I am,” Sunday after Sunday, to the communion rail for the only gift that truly makes them holy and whole.

Luther questioned perfection because it was connected to the monasticism he came to find so odious. He thought of it in terms of perfectio: an absolute state, rather than in the dynamic, relative, and more Greek mode Wesley got from reading Macarius of Egypt and other church fathers. The Augsburg Confession’s statements about it converge with Wesley’s doctrine (see AC XVI.4, XXVII.49, etc.). We could say this: Lutherans and Methodists both believe in perfection, just of a different sort. Lutherans cling to Christ alone by faith alone. There is nothing else one can possibly do, by grace alone. This is what faith perfectly does. Methodists fully understand this. But, when Wesley professes that justifying faith blossoms into love, a transformed person, by grace alone, he means something akin to Luther’s notion of faith as a “living, busy, active thing.” It cannot help but match confidence in God with love of neighbor.

Methodists are suspicious of theological accounts that empty Christian life of any content other than doctrine. But then again, so are thoughtful Lutherans. Wesley’s balance between doctrine and life, justification and sanctification, “yes” and “but…” has often been tipped one way or the other by his followers. If Methodists have sometimes proffered a too-easy account of grace’s “obvious” effects in believers’ lives, or of believers’ ability to cooperate with grace, Lutherans have battled antinomianism as the false consequence of justification. Methodists might mean to say that God is the agent of sanctification, but it has sometimes come off as optimism misplaced on anthropology rather than on grace. Conversely, Lutheran antinomianism may be the effect of a pessimism misplaced on grace rather than anthropology. The former is sometimes overly optimistic about human potential, and the latter sometimes overly pessimistic in the face of God’s boundless grace.

We have much to learn from one another. Both traditions have resources from within themselves to deal with these and other aberrations. As mutual challenge to one another, each should champion the fullest account of the other’s tradition. This is a different strategy than lazy blurring or simple complementarity.

Sacramental Life

 Baptism was the first topic of Lutheran-United Methodist dialogue, resulting in a 1979 joint statement. The baptismal liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal begins: “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’ s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

But, get up close, and the waters are muddied. Methodist theologians debate whether Wesley actually taught baptismal regeneration. If he did teach it (and I think he plainly did), he believed such grace was inevitably “sinned away,” necessitating a subsequent return to faith—one could say a “return to baptism.” At the grassroots, many Methodists in the pew, and not a few pastors, regard baptism in symbolic terms. Their reception of the 1996 official baptismal statement By Water and the Spirit was not unlike the cool reception CCM got in some quarters of the ELCA. Thanks to theological and liturgical exchange over past decades, some Methodists have come to appreciate a stronger baptismal theology. While there is consensus on the basic meanings of baptism, the traditions diverge in stressing either the sacramental objectivity of grace (Lutheran) or the personal appropriation of such grace (Methodist).

There are differences around the Lord’s Supper, too. To illustrate: the altar in London’s lovely City Road Chapel—Wesley’s Chapel—sits in the apse at the room’s east end. The casual observer wouldn’t know until shown that the altar actually encloses a communion table that can be lifted out of it! Remove the cross and candles from off the mensa and lift it by its edges, and voila! a plain communion table with four legs emerges!

One cannot help but think, at first glance, that this is the perfect illustration of Methodist eucharistic theology, especially from a Lutheran perspective. Is it essentially Anglican (the altar) or comfortably Zwinglian (the table)? Is it a hybrid or a tertium quid? Is it compatible with a confessional Lutheran perspective? Current sacramental practice in United Methodism belies the fact that John’s brother Charles wrote 166 eucharistic hymns and both communed constantly. There’s a long way to go in closing the gap between the brothers Wesley and the habits of their current children.

A verse of Charles Wesley’s poetry may suffice to introduce his eucharistic theology: “O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace! Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys! How the bread his flesh imparts, how the wine transmits his blood; fills his faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God!” This is a doctrine of eucharistic mysterion. Christ is really present, but no more is said. Luther and the AC go further with the explication of real corporeal presence on, with, in, and under. In fact, Luther’s understanding is more appropriate to the Wesleyan theological world than Zwinglianism. Wesley is adamant that grace really is transmitted to the communicant. Something happens, by way of the Word and Spirit present in the elements. Is this nearer to Calvin’s virtualism? Perhaps. After all, the Wesleys were eighteenth century Anglican priests. And they were high churchmen at that. If Lutherans are sharing the meal with Anglicans and Reformed, little case can be made against celebrating it with Methodists.

Oral mastication, ubiquity vs. the extracalvinisticum, or debates about the validity of eucharistic prayers (Methodists have always had one), are not part of this theological tradition. To ask these familiar Lutheran questions parallels the attempt to find words or concepts in another language that correspond with a native tongue. They simply aren’t there. These controversies were not part of Methodist theological history. Methodists and Lutherans will have to accept a differentiated consensus concerning two forms of real presence discourse. To be sure, Methodists can benefit from listening more closely to these Lutheran debates, not to mention being inspired by the remarkable progress Lutherans have made toward restoring the weekly holy communion.

Both churches are committed to a form of ecumenism in which the eucharist is the source and the summit of unity. That is, interim eucharistic sharing shapes unity as much as it marks a milestone in rapprochement. Inviting folk of different stripes to the table is not only an act of faith in the promises “poured out for all people,” but an act of eschatological hope that the unity for which we long may be created there, under the terms of the host’s promises, and not from our own institutional tinkering.

As an aside: difference of practice is most apparent. For starters, there’s the grape juice issue. It’s not that some Lutherans don’t also use grape juice for the sake of those who cannot drink wine, but it’s that Methodists use it exclusively. Official ecumenical guidelines recommend using both elements at joint Eucharists. One thing is certain: Wesley himself was no teetotaler. Opposed to the liquor trade because of what it did to the poor and vulnerable he found on London streets, he was still an Englishman. A pint of ale at mealtime was salutary. Few Lutherans would argue with that!


The paradox of the solas is that none of the “alones” are really alone. Grace produces faith, works accompany faith, and Scripture norms tradition as its vehicle. Christ alone is mediated through gospel, church, and ministry. These solas norm all Lutheran theological speech. Methodists speak of a quadrilateral of four sources, where Christian faith is “revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in experience, and confirmed by reason.” Scripture here is prima, not sola. Superficially, the solas look very Protestant and the quadrilateral seems nicely catholic and comprehensive. But the solas and the quadrilateral have more in common than it would first appear. Both see Christ and church, gospel and community in closer relationship than the typical protestantizing force which separates them. We only need remember Luther’s fire and heat metaphor regarding faith and works. And Wesley, speaking on another subject: “There is no holiness but social holiness.” A valuable counter to individualism, this means there is no gospel that does not produce a church, a community of grace, and good works placed at that gospel’s service.

Like the Reformed and the Anglicans, Methodists value church order. Though they have never claimed the apostolic succession of bishops, most Methodists worldwide retain the catholic ordering of the ministry of bishops, elders, and deacons. Modern Methodists would hardly share young Wesley’s rebuff of the Salzburger Lutherans in Georgia because they lacked “apostolic succession” any more than they would probably rally to a concerted effort to oppose it in the present. United Methodists have recently reclaimed the order of permanent deacon, overcoming the use of the awkward term “diaconal minister.” The job descriptions of ELCA and UMC deacons/diaconal ministers are similar enough that perhaps Lutheran and Methodist deacons and deaconesses will find themselves at work in common endeavors. Incidentally, there are small monastic foundations in both communions: St. Augustine’s House (Lutheran Benedictines) and St. Brigid’s House (Methodist Benedictines).

Catholics at Heart

 Ways in which these two traditions are different actually hold promise as grounds for ongoing mutual enrichment and challenge. Recent works such as Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism present a Lutheranism very amenable to Wesleyans. The “Finnish School” reading of Luther, too, makes for constructive comparison with Wesley. Bonhoeffer and Prenter also come to mind. This not your Kantian Grandpa’s Luther. Rather, this is a catholic Luther, whose teaching creates criteria for the evaluation of doctrine and practice rather than a “constitutive” alternative body of dogma. Wesley, too, has been called an evangelical catholic inasmuch as his evangelical movement was a renewal in the deep currents of catholic Christianity. For instance, he drank freely from the streams of eastern theosis and western Augustinianism. It shows in the way he holds their themes in tension throughout his writings. Wesley took “freedom” to mean not only freedom from sin’s curse, but freedom for new life and new obedience in Christ. Freedom from is always good news. But Lutherans seem to be recovering the rest of Luther’s message about freedom for discipleship. The Luther who advised daily meditation on Psalm 119 is a Luther with whom Wesley could break bread.

The warm heart, enlightened mind, and social conscience play out in Methodism as stress on prayer, spiritual experience, care for the poor, stewardship of money, mutual accountability, and other such “pietistic” concerns. Yet, these are not merely pietistic concerns. These are catholic concerns. They have been in the church’s collective experience and the subject of theological reflection from the beginning. The problem is, pietism, a phenomenon shared by both traditions, has typically been pitted against the objective means of grace in Word and sacrament. Happily, there are signs that both are recovering from this bifurcation by reintegrating these practices within their rightful churchly framework. The matter is not whether to speak of or practice them. It’s how to speak and practice, and how to view them in rightful relationship to the gospel. Here is where the Lutheran confessions offer an excellent starting point for such conversations about practice among both Lutherans and Methodists. Norming practice by doctrine is a Lutheran trait of which Methodists should take note.

As well, both traditions have suffered from theological reductionism, perhaps the neuralgia of both having started as reform/renewal movements. We have both suffered from pedestrian accounts that reduce our positions to a few half-understood slogans. Methodists, especially, have been cast as generic, plain vanilla Protestants. That happens when being a superstar in the American Protestant mainline overshadows the unique dynamism inherited from Wesley. Conversely, it’s not enough to distinguish properly between law and gospel and think all theological labor is done. To do so is only to begin.

Fortunately, both communions have resources with which to encourage one another toward thicker accounts of themselves and a fuller-orbed catechesis. One common trait that works to great advantage for both is their mutual sense of the necessity of paradox. Methodists join Lutherans in holding in tension law and gospel, individual and community, justification and sanctification, the objective and the subjective, catholic and evangelical.

Worthwhile ecumenism is more than just a comparison/contrast exercise for determining possible levels of church fellowship. Theological differences are a matter of course among traditions. Ecumenism is openness to the freedom God promises in the future, in a church of which our present communions are but a faint glimmer. Uniting at the table is an eschatological event in which the promise of this freedom is heard, given, and received. We have pledged, in our institutional agreements, to receive that promise together.

Wesley once preached a sermon called “The Catholic Spirit.” In it he firmly rejected latitudinarianism while quoting II Kings 10:15: “If thy heart is as my heart, then take my hand.” Hearing and receiving the same promises given to John and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas, Gregory and Calvin, the children of Luther and Wesley can surely take one anothers’ hands, offering mutual challenge as fellow pilgrims on the catholic way.


Posted by JOHN HANNAH at September 06, 2008 22:08
Your article is very well argued and is full of important data that most polemical material skips. I'm from Iowa and the truth is that Methodist circuit riders in the 19th century "stole" German-Americans who should have remained Lutheran. But the Lutherans would not provide clergy quickly enough, given our attraction to strong academia. Better to know everything than to know only enough to "get by." In any event, it's time to get beyond the 19th century.


Methodists and Lutherans

Posted by Bob Abrams at September 10, 2008 15:06
I really enjoyed this article, for both ecumenical and personal reasons. Academically, this really compares the two traditions in a fair and useful way. Personally, I was baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist Church, and switched to the ELCA in my mid-20s. Much of this was my feeling that the Wesleyan heritage regarding sanctification was not borne out by experience in the life of the Church; I also felt that the Methodist tradition had moved too far away from our catholic roots. That being said, I was given a very solid foundation in my Methodist youth, taught to love Jesus, to search the Scriptures, and to love my neighbor. I feel that Lutherans and Methodists have much to share with each other, to learn from each other, and can be an extremely effective common witness. So, thank you for this article.

Methodists and Lutherans

Posted by Richard Johnson at September 11, 2008 21:41
Nicely done, William. As we both know, Methodists make some of the best Lutherans. <g>

Methodists and Lutherans

Posted by Edgar Krentz at February 05, 2009 17:43
Like the author this article I am a Lutheran "vom Haus aus." But like many also I have a son and his family in North Carolina who are Methodists, even though he teaches at Davidson College, a historically Presbyterian institution.

I am delighted that the ELCA is in growing ecumenical relationship with the Methodist church. I baptized twin grandsons in the Methodist church, preached in a Methodist parish in Midland, TX, and find much in Methodist theology to appreciate--to say nothing of the marvelous hymnody we Lutheran borrow from Methodism.

Is there any chance of getting a MS Word of PDF version of this article? I would really like to have it.

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