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“Sketches Toward a Wesleyan Theodicy: An Examination of Wesley’s Thoughts” Part I

April 4, 2011


I.  Introduction

As a Wesleyan, a great many of my theological emphases are indebted to the writings of John Wesley.  Though not a systematic theologian by most standards, Wesley, nonetheless, does provide astute theological responses to a variety of issues, and he certainly did not avoid the problem of evil.  Never one to shy away from tackling difficult issues, Wesley poignantly puts forth the problem in his sermon “The General Deliverance”:

Nothing is more sure, than that as ‘the Lord is loving to every man,’ so ‘his mercy is over all his works;’ all that have sense, all that are capable of pleasure or pain, of happiness or misery [this certainly meets the standard of the premise “God is wholly good.”]…But how are these Scriptures reconcilable to the present state of things?  How are they consistent with what we daily see round about us, in every part of the creation?  If the Creator and Father of every living thing is rich in mercy towards all; if he does not overlook or despise any of the works of his own hands; if he wills even the meanest of them to be happy…how comes it to pass, that such a complication of evils oppresses, yea, overwhelms them?  How is it that misery of all kinds overspreads the face of the earth?  This is a question which has puzzled the wisest philosophers in all ages.[1]

The difficulty of the problem notwithstanding, Wesley goes to great lengths in a number of sermons to provide an answer that is both faithful to the Scriptures and faithful to the goodness of God.[2] Following Wesley (and others) I, too, propose that any response to the problem of evil meet the above conditions and so a further exploration of Wesley’s thoughts on this issue is the subject of this article.

In what follows, I will attempt to accomplish two related tasks: first, by surveying Wesley’s thought, I will show that Wesley largely follows the Augustinian tradition in responding to the problem of evil which emphasizes the free-will of man and the fall of man as the cause of the emergence of evil in this world.  This is in line with the vast majority of western theologians who have been highly influenced by the writings of Augustine.  In doing so, Wesley largely ignores the Irenaean tradition (it is unlikely that he was even conscious of it) which suggests that God created man morally immature so that man could grow into perfection (i.e., “soul-making”) and that evil in the world is the primary means by which man matures.[3] Secondly, because I find both the Augustinian theodicy in its traditional formulation and the Iranaean theodicy, as proposed by John Hick to be problematic, I wish to offer some possible modifications that would strengthen Wesley’s overall approach.[4] Yet, before either of these tasks are fulfilled, it would do well to briefly examine the two major Christian responses to the problem of evil in a bit more detail.

[1] John Wesley, “The General Deliverance,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Co., 2007), 241-242

[2] Kevin Kinghorn writes that Wesley was “particularly keen to defend God’s goodness in the face of the evils we find in our world,” in “John Wesley on the Role of the Fall in Addressing the Problem of Evil,” (unpublished paper).

[3] This theodicy has been made popular in a recent formulation by philosopher John Hick.  Though a full treatment of Hick’s theodicy is found in Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1966), a concise formulation is his “Soul-Making and Suffering,” in The Problem of Evil, ed.  Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 168-188.

[4] The nature of this essay will not allow for a comprehensive treatment of Wesley’s thought nor a complete analysis of the traditional conceptions of theodicy in general.  At best, this is a brief sketch of both.

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