John Wesley on the Character of God

As a follow up to last week, I was asked to expand upon the rationale behind Wesley’s choice of the “loving Parent” model of God, as opposed to the “ruling monarch” model.    I suggested, following Randy Maddox, that the fundamental difference between Calvin and Wesley on predestination is not found in their respective views of the human condition, as is often thought, but in their understandings of the character of God.

Maddox writes,

…the Wesleys sensed their most basic disagreement with their opponents to lie in their respective defining models of God.  For the Calvinists, the defining model was a sovereign monarch…By contrast, Wesley more commonly employed the model of a loving parent (Responsible Grace56).

Why is it that Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model over the “ruling monarch” model?

First of all, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model because wants to avoid abstracting God’s sovereignty from God’s loving and just character.  This is seen in his rejection of the voluntarist understanding of God’s goodness, which was favoured by the Reformers, and is part of a fundamental and longstanding theological debate concerning the character of God, and how we understand God’s goodness.   To put it in a nutshell, this debate can be summed up in a question: are God’s acts good simply because whatever God wills is good by definition, or are God’s acts good because they conform to “the good”?  In other words, is there a standard of “goodness” to which we can meaningfully expect God to conform, or must we insist on the radical freedom of God, such that he is not bound by any external criteria?

Wesley himself puts the question this way in Sermon 34, “The Original, Nature, Properties and Use of the Law.”

Is his will the original [that is, the origin] of right and wrong? Is a thing therefore right, because God wills it? Or does he will it because it is right? (§III.6)

The voluntarist position argues that things are good because God wills them, and that whatever God does is good by definition.  We are in no place to make judgments about whether or not God’s actions are good.  Roger Olson sums up the crassest version of this position in the phrase “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases.”

The non-voluntarist, or realist (recognizing that these terms can be used in different senses in the context of other debates), says that things are good because they are good, and that God’s actions are good because God’s eternal nature conforms to a real standard of goodness. For a non-voluntarist, God cannot do that which is evil.  God’s eternal nature is good, and even God cannot violate his own nature.

If you want to read more about this debate, check out these two posts by Roger Olson: “A much neglected basic choice in theology” and “More about the basic choice in theology

Wesley’s doesn’t wade into this debate in great depth in his writing, but when he does address it he is clear that he rejects the voluntarist position, because he believes it takes the question of God’s will in abstraction from the question of God’s character.  Continuing in Sermon 34, his comment is,

It seems, then, that the whole difficulty arises from considering God’s will as distinct from God: otherwise it vanishes away (§III.7).

In a later piece entitled “Thoughts upon God’s Sovereignty” he stresses that God’s sovereign work as Creator must not be played off against his work as a just Governor.  While, as a Creator, “he has acted, in all things, according to his own sovereign will,” in his role as Governor, he always acts in accordance with the rules of justice and mercy.  Remarking on the differences of circumstances that are found among people born into different nations around the world and at various points in history, Wesley states,

It is hard to say how far this difference extends; what an amazing difference there is, as to the means of improvement, between one born and brought up in a pious English family, and one born and bred among the Hottentots.  Only we are sure the difference cannot be so great, as to necessitate one to be good, or the other to e evil; to force one into everlasting glory, or the other into everlasting burnings.  This cannot be, because it would suppose to the character of God as a Creator, to interfere with God as a Governor; wherein he does not, cannot possibly, act according to his own mere sovereign will; but, as he has expressly told us, according to the invariable rules both of justice and mercy (in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd Edition, ed. Thomas Jackson, vol. 10, p. 362).

God’s character, in other words, is bound to real universal standards of justice and mercy.  Wesley rejects the Calvinist approach to predestination because he believes that their position violates God’s love and justice.

The “loving Parent” model of God offers a better way to understand God as one who “rules” but can, at the same time, always be trusted to act in a way that is just and loving towards his children.

Secondly, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model of God because it supports a more robust understanding of grace-enabled human freedom.  The “ruling monarch” model suggests a sovereignty that is defined by the will of the monarch, who is not to be defied by his citizens.  On the other hand, a loving Parent’s authority over their child is not threatened by some degree of freedom in the child.

The Calvinist tradition often stresses that their understanding of predestination furthers the “glory of God,” by affirming a salvation which is unconditionally caused by God’s eternal predestination the elect.   Wesley would argue that leaving room for uncoerced human response does not detract from God’s glory, if the response is grace-enabled.   God’s “glory” is not the pure power of his will, but the glorious way in which he wills that which is just  and loving.

In connection with this point, Maddox helpfully suggests that Wesley views God’s sovereignty “fundamentally in terms of empowerment, rather than control or overpowerment” (p. 55).   He continues,

“While a sovereign monarch might technically be free to dispose of subjects as he or she sees fit, a loving parent would not even consider withholding potential saving aid from any child (i.e., unconditional reprobation or limited atonement).  On the other hand, truly loving parents also respect the integrity of their children.  Ulitmately, they would not impose their assistance against the (mature) child’s will (Resonpsible Grace, 56)

In short, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model because he views God’s sovereignty primarily through the lens of love, rather than through the lens of the divine will.  The following passage  from Sermon 94, “On Family Religion,” highlighted by Maddox, offers a good conclusion to this discussion.  In this context, Wesley us offering parents an example regarding how they should teach their own children about God’s love, using the analogy of their own parental love and care:

But God (though you cannot see him) is above the sky, and is a deal brighter than the sun!  It is he that makes the grass green and the flowers grow; that makes the trees green, and the fruit to come upon them!  Think what he can do!  He can do whatever He pleases. He can strike me or you dead in a moment.  But he loves you; he loves to do you good.  He loves to make you happy. Should you not then love him!  you love me, because I love you and do you good.   But it is God that makes me love you.  Therefore you should love him (§III.6, emphasis mine).