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

April 7, 2011

III.  Wesley on Evil: A Wesleyan Restatement of Augustine

We are now in a position to look at what exactly Wesley taught about the nature of evil.  I have already critiqued both the Augustinian and the Irenaean theodicies, and so I will only point to those critiques as I survey Wesley’s ideas.  Because Wesley states his views far more eloquently than I could restate them, I will use his own words more frequently than might be considered normal.

On The Perfection of Creation

In his sermon, “God’s Approbation of His Work,” Wesley proposes that the world in its original state was “in a totally different state from that wherein we find it now.”[1] By this he means that the earth was “perfect in its kind…every part [of the earth] was fertile as well as beautiful; it was no way deformed by rough or ragged rocks; it did not shock the view with horrid precipices, huge chasms, or dreary caverns; with deep, impassable morasses, or deserts of barren sand.”[2] That is to say, even the aesthetic quality of the earth was so superior in its original state, that it would be unrecognizable to our own eyes.

Wesley, at this point, is just getting warmed up.  Mountains, far from the steepness which define many today, probably “rose and fell by almost insensible degrees.”[3] There were “no agitations within the bowels of the globe, no violent convulsions, no concussions of the earth, no earthquakes; but all was unmoved as the pillars of heaven!”[4] There was no animal violence; not even spiders ate other insects—it was as “harmless as a fly.”  In fact, “The paradisiacal earth afforded such a sufficiency of food for all its inhabitants; so that none of them had any need or temptation to prey upon the other.”[5] In a word, we could say that the world was sublime; perfect.[6]

Obviously, from the above description of the earth, Wesley would not embrace the progressive, incomplete process of Hick’s “soul-making” theodicy.  In fact, Wesley in the same sermon, strongly chastises “minute philosophers” for thinking that the earth has always been the way it is now:

Here is a firm foundation laid, on which we may stand…all the objections which ‘vain men,’ who ‘would be wise,’ make to the goodness or wisdom of God in the creation.  All these are grounded upon an entire mistake; namely, that the world is now in the same state it was at the beginning.  And upon this supposition they plausibly build abundance of objections.  But all these objections fall to the ground, when we observe, this supposition cannot be admitted.  The world, at the beginning, was in a totally different state from that wherein it is now.[7]

Thus, on the original perfection of creation, Wesley stands firmly with Augustine.  However, is such a view compatible with Scripture and/or science?  Obviously have we have mentioned, it does not fit well at all with modern scientific theory.  Yet what about Scripture?  Because this has been the dominant view in the history of Western Christian theology, it as often been assumed that this is the Biblical view.  However, Gregory Boyd makes a compelling case that even scripturally a case can be made for pre-fall violence in the creation.[8] Obviously this case is made by appealing to a “prehistoric fall of angels,” but aside from the prevalent anti-supernatural bias in philosophical circles, where the non-existence of such angels is already presupposed from the outset, Boyd does establish that a look at Old Testament creation accounts and their relation to Ancient Near Eastern mythology strongly suggests that God has been wrestling with a chaotic creation from early in its inception.    Thus, if there is any credence to Boyd’s conclusions, then even scripturally, Wesley’s views are unnecessary.

Adam, Freedom, and the Fall

Assuming that what Wesley writes concerning the perfect nature of creation is also true of Adam, we need not add much to what has already been said.  Still, to make it clear that Wesley affirmed Adam’s perfect nature we turn again to “The General Deliverance”:

Now, ‘man was made in the image of God.’  But ‘God is Spirit:’  So therefore was man…He was, after the likeness of his Creator, endued with understanding; a capacity of apprehending whatever objects were brought before it, and of judging concerning them.  He was endued with a will, exerting itself in various affections and passions:  And lastly, with liberty, or freedom or choice; without which all the rest would have been in vain…It is certain, he had such strength of understanding as no man ever since had.  His understanding was perfect in kind; capable of apprehending all things clearly, and judging concerning them according to the truth, without any mixture of error…embracing nothing but good, and every good in proportion to its degree of intrinsic goodness…This was the supreme perfection of man [emphasis mine].[9]

A better description of Adam’s original perfection could scarcely be written better.  Yet, man’s perfection is never the focus of Wesley’s description of “paradisiacal” man, but rather man’s intrinsic freedom to obey or disobey God.  Wesley considered this man’s crowning achievement:

To crown all the rest, he [Adam] was endued with liberty; a power of directing his own affections and actions; a capacity of determining himself, or of choosing good or evil.  Indeed, had not man been endued with this, all the rest would have been of no use:  Had he not been a free as well as an intelligent being, his understanding would have been as incapable of holiness, or any kind of virtue, as a tree or a block of marble.[10]

The freedom of man, combined with his inherent perfection, ensures us that in Wesley’s thought, the fall of man was a result of man’s free-will and is thus, firmly Augustinian.[11] However, there is one major point of difference.  Augustine, eventually retracted his strong views of man’s freedom in favor of God’s sovereignty.  However, Wesley firmly upheld man’s freedom, thus fortifying his defense of God’s utter goodness.  As we have noted, this view of freedom and Adam’s fall, is incompatible with the notion of Adam’s moral perfection.  This is certainly an area where Irenaeus’s belief that man was morally incomplete would bolster Wesley’s case.

Does Wesley Propose a Soul-Making Solution?

Before I move forward to offering some modifications and additions to Wesley’s perspective on the problem of evil, I wish to comment on Wesley’s understanding of the fall of man as being ultimately “far best for mankind in general; that abundantly more good than evil would accrue to the posterity of Adam by his fall.”[12] It must be admitted that this sounds remarkably close to Hick’s “soul-making” theodicy.  In fact, Wesley in the same sermon, argues that God “permitted” the Fall for such a reason.  Though this is not an outright admission that God brought sin into the world, it is nonetheless, an assertion that the evil in this world made possible a greater good, even a greatest good for mankind—the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In fact, the entire subject matter of Wesley’s sermon, “On God’s Love to Fallen Man,” is a defense of this view.

Even more, Wesley argues that natural evil makes possible the moral maturing of man in a way that Hick would heartily endorse:  “Had there been neither natural nor moral evil in the world, what must have become of patience, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering?  It is manifest they could have had no being; seeing all these have evil for their object.”[13] Therefore, it is safe to conclude that “soul-making” certainly had a valid place in Wesley’s approach to the problem of evil.  In fact, given the hearty defense of such a view in “On God’s love to Fallen Man,” we might conclude that this is the pinnacle of his defense, doing so in such a way that keeps Christ’s atonement as the centerpiece of it—something Hick certainly does not do.  Despite all of this, though, the vast majority of Wesley’s writings follow the Augustinian strand in emphasizing God’s perfect creation, man’s freedom, and subsequent fall from the result of choosing evil.  We might say, then, that “On God’s Love to Fallen Man,” while climactic, is an anomaly in Wesley’s thought.

[1] Wesley, “God’s Approbation of His Work,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (14 vols), (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2007), 206.

[2] Ibid., 207.

[3] Ibid., 208.

[4] Ibid.,

[5] Ibid., 212.

[6] For more of Wesley’s thoughts on the ‘paradisiacal’ earth, see his sermon “The General Deliverance,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2007), 241-243.

[7] “God’s Approbation of His Works,” 213.

[8] See Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Cosmic Conflict, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), chapters 2-3.  Interestingly enough, Wesley also speaks about the role of fallen angels in the creation, calling them “governors of the world,” in “Of Evil Angels,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing), 374.  I find it interesting that Christian theists generally unwilling to appeal to angelic disruption in creation as a way of explaining natural evil.  Though it is certainly done, it is not given much weight in most discussions of the problem of evil.  Yet, when tempted by Satan, in being offered the “kingdoms of the world,” Jesus does not dispute Satan’s claim.  At the very least then, even in the eyes of Jesus, Satan (an angel!) holds great power within this physical world.  Why could we not suppose that early in the creation, Satan was causing a disruptive influence in resisting God’s creational aims?

[9] “The General Deliverance,” 242-243.

[10] “On the Fall of Man,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2007), 215.

[11] Here are a few quotes that establishes Wesley’s view of the fall:  From “On the Fall of Man,”  Wesley writes, “Why is there pain in the world? …Because there is sin.  Had there been no sin, there would be no pain,” 215.  Again in the same sermon, Wesley writes, “He [Adam] chose to do his own will, rather than the will of his Creator…He entitles all his posterity to error, guilt, sorrow, fear, pain, diseases, and death,” 222-223.  It can safely be said that Wesley believed all evil in this world (both moral and natural) were a result of Adam’s fall.

[12] “On God’s Love to Fallen Man,” vol. 6 in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 232.

[13] Ibid., 236.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 8, 2011 9:44

    Good stuff bro and well written. As you know, I agree Greg Boyd that angelic free will can explain natural evil. I also think that through the “butterfly effect” much of what we think of as natural evil is in fact a consequence of moral evil. I haven’t read God at War, but my reading of Satan and the Problem of Evil left me wondering why there isn’t MORE natural evil and why natural evil is the exception rather than the rule. At least for now I’m satisfied that the natural order of creation limits the amount of natural evil that Satan can do.
    I’ve never looked into Wesley’s theodicy, so I appreciate and enjoy your paper.

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