by Andrew Stobart.
In his sermon ‘On Zeal’, John Wesley notes that very few people know anything at all about ‘comparative divinity’.[i] What Wesley means by that rather obscure expression becomes clear in the subsequent paragraphs, where he sets out ‘a sketch’ of how the ‘parts’ of our discipleship ‘rise one above the other’. Comparative divinity, for Wesley, is best described as nuanced differentiation in practising the Christian life; it sets out for comparison various aspects of ‘religion’ (not a negative word, for Wesley, as it is so often for us) and encourages us to pursue the best rather than just the good; comparative divinity is a topographical map of grace, on which there is a clearly marked centre of divine activity, and a set of contours that rise towards it; in short, comparative divinity is a systematic expression of Wesley’s practical spiritual advice: ‘focus your attention here’, ‘do this’, ‘don’t spend all your energy here’, ‘keep going on to perfection’.
Unconvinced that we in our churches know anything more about ‘comparative divinity’ all these many years later – either theoretically or practically – I suggest that reading Wesley again on this matter is a dose of wisdom. Our egalitarian sensibilities tend to flatten the landscape of ‘religion’, so that all things are seen with equal value. But in practice, such spiritual egalitarianism produces bland Christianity, bored and boring disciples, and heart-less faith. While aware of the lurking dangers of fanatical excess, Wesley wanted to use ‘comparative divinity’ to engender true zeal and fervent love in himself and the early Methodists. Here is an invitation to press on from the lower to the higher slopes; to earnestly focus on what is really pleasing and excellent in God’s sight (Phil 4:8). Here is a way to avoid spiritual stagnation and social apathy and, as Wesley puts it, ‘make…considerable progress in religion’ and ‘do…considerably service to our neighbour’.
And so to Wesley’s ‘sketch’ of concentric circles of increasing value:
- The outermost circle is the church. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle is ever growing, enlarging its border to embrace more and more of God’s world.
- But while the church is good, the ‘ordinances of Christ’, in the next circle, are better. These are what Wesley refers to elsewhere as ‘works of piety’, instituted means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting and searching the Scriptures.
- Works of piety are good, but ‘works of mercy’ are better. These are, says Wesley, ‘real means of grace’. Works of mercy are not just kind charitable acts that express our faith, but are rather means through which we – and others – encounter God.
- The next concentric circle (moving inwards and upwards) is what Wesley calls ‘holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance’. Whatever is part of the ‘mind that was in Christ Jesus’, that we should love and earnestly desire to imitate, praying constantly for ‘these proofs and fruits of living faith’.
- And finally, at the heart of all, is love: ‘love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.’
A couple of observations about Wesley’s comparative divinity. First, these concentric circles do not, for Wesley, describe a retreat from the physical world to a mountain-top spiritual experience. The love which is at the centre of Wesley’s map is not a disembodied, mystical experience: it is love of God and humanity, God and neighbour. We cannot, therefore, draw the conclusion that Wesley wanted his followers to become more and more ‘spiritual’, if by spiritual we mean less ‘earthy’; rather, he wanted them to become more and more loving, full of love and ruled by love.
That helps to explain, secondly, the fascinating placement of ‘works of mercy’ nearer the centre of the circle than ‘works of piety’. Of course, there is Scriptural warrant for this: for instance Hosea 6:6, where God desires mercy not sacrifice. Even the methodical practising of prayer, Scripture reading and church attendance, so important to Wesley’s movement, ‘are to be omitted, or to be postponed…when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.’
Furthermore, thirdly, the placement of church at the outer edge of Wesley’s comparative divinity is instructive. On the one hand, in Wesley’s scheme the church is furthest away from the centre of love. In challenging times for the institution of the church, we can be tempted to think that if only we could ‘get church right’ or ‘make it better’ then all would be well. But the gathering of the church is only, for Wesley, the outer edge of love. We would do better to bemoan the loss of love (for God and neighbour) in our world, than the weakness of the church. Having said that, the church is the outer edge of comparative divinity, the circumference of which should be continually expanding, in order to bring more and more to journey inwards through piety and mercy and holy tempers to perfect love. The church is neither to be obsessed over nor to be dismissed; rather, it is simply a porous boundary of grace, which is never more itself than when it is embracing the unembraced and calling to be God’s people those who thought they were not.
‘Proportion your zeal to the value of its object’, instructs Wesley. Please God, give us this differentiated discipleship, this practical wisdom, this comparative divinity – that we might love what is good, and love better what is best, and in so loving, be renewed at our centre and broadened at our circumference, and so find ourselves full of love for God and all. Amen.
[i] Quotations are from Sermon 92: ‘On Zeal’, pp308-321 in The Works of John Wesley Volume 3, edited by Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1986)