Performing Non-knowledge: Wesley, Witnessing and the Assurance Debate

As prepared for delivery at the Northeast Modern Language Association Annual Meeting, April 7-10, 2011, New Brunswick, NJ, for a panel entitled “Performing Knowledge.” 

I. Vain Words

The linked concepts of witnessing and moral knowledge first appear in John Wesley’s Journals quite early on, as Wesley has just arrived in Georgia in 1736. He relates a conversation with an older Minister, Mr. Spangenberg, one of the Moravians that he had met aboard ship on the crossing, and whose piety had impressed and inspired him. Wesley Writes:

Mr. Oglethorpe returned from Savannah with Mr. Spangenberg, one of the pastors of the Germans. I soon found what spirit he was of and asked his advice with regard to my own conduct.

He said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”

I paused and said, “I know He is the Saviour of the world.”

“True,” replied he; “but do you know He has saved you?”

I answered, “I hope He has died to save me.”

He only added, “Do you know yourself?”

I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words (

Journals, Saturday, 7 [Feb., 1736]).

This crucial passage in Wesley’s automythopoesis presages his conversion experience, which will arrive two years and a dozen or so pages later. The passage turns in its entirety on questions of knowledge, of judgments among different types of knowledge. The inert theological knowledge of Christ’s role (“I know He is the Saviour of the world”) and stock evocation of expectation of Christ’s return (“I hope He has died to save me”) that Wesley proposes are both plainly insufficient to the Moravian, who clearly has something more specific in mind, a kind of spiritual knowledge or intimacy with Christ that could stand as a prior ground to a homiletic practice. You can almost hear the young Wesley grow nervous as he grasps for a satisfactory answer for this older man he clearly admires. Wesley finally accedes that he does indeed know Christ; but even this timid proclamation of faith is unsettling, in the face of Spengenberg’s stern example: he fears that his proclamation was no more than ‘vain words.’

In his long career, Wesley would spend a great deal of time and ink considering the conditions under which such proclamations might be more than vain words, under which such a conviction could amount to the certainty of moral knowledge that one had faith in a sufficiently robust sense. I propose to spend the next twenty minutes parsing through some of his writings on this issue, which I hope you’ll find pertinent to our topic today, insofar as much of what Wesley has to say about this kind of conviction directs us not to how one knows in any epistemological sense, but rather how one knows as a question of style, attitude, bearing or even — yes — performance.

Towards this end, we will discuss a few passages from the Journals and from sermons which touch on the justification debate. Wesley had an unusual and novel approach to these questions, eventually coming to believe that Christians could have something like knowledge of their own achieved sanctification within their lifetimes. To say that this was a controversial claim is to understate the case. To Wesley’s contemporaries in the Anglican Church, this sounded like enthusiasm, the kind of dangerous theology espoused by the sorts of Dissenters who, by the 1740s, mostly lived in New England. In order to stave off these serious accusations and maintain his careful balance on the edge of the theological mainstream, Wesley had to submit his doctrine to interesting contortions. It is these contortions that I propose to talk about today.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that Wesley’s talents as a theologian were far exceeded by his gifts as an organizer, and theology was never the most important issue for the Methodists. As I am sure many of you are aware, John Wesley was an Arminian (one who believes that Christ died for the sins of all mankind, not just those of some limited elect) and his early collaborator George Whitefield was a Calvinist (precisely the opposite) and they would eventually have a famous falling out over these differences. The theological distance that they succesfully bridged from their meeting in 1732 to their break in 1741 was only slightly narrower than the divisions that had brought down the Monarchy only a century earlier. That it took these men eight years to realize that they disagreed about such a major issue evinces a certain doctrinal confusion.

These were not ecumenical times, the Latitudinarian orthodoxy notwithstanding. The hierarchy was tolerant, if not indulgent, and in retrospect, it is astonishing that Wesley was not expelled. Lay Anglicans apparently had no idea what to make of the Methodists, and responded with surprising vehemence, and even, in some isolated cases, spectacular acts of physical violence. If leading Methodists like Wesley and Whitefield had difficulty determining what doctrines they shared with each other, their opponents had an even harder time. In controversialist tracts with titles like Methodism Unmask’d, the Methodists were accused of everything from crypto-Catholicism to the encouragement of lay preaching, contradictory claims sometimes made in the same essay.

While it would be an overstatement of the case to say that doctrine was not what mattered to these men — they did, after all, eventually break from each other on doctrinal grounds, even if it took them eight years to do so — what is clear is that doctrinal motivations were a relatively low priority. What Wesley and Whitefield saw as innovative and exciting about their common ministry was something else, something more fundamental than doctrine. It is interesting less that these two men and their followers had a doctrinal division, and more that it was briefly possible for them to overlook these differences at all. This attitude towards doctrine has led many scholars of Methodism to set aside theology entirely in favor of sociological interpretations. This research agenda was set now some 100 years ago by the French historian Élie Halévy, in his History of the English People. Halévy’s thesis was, in thumbnail form, that Methodism (and related evangelical movements) played a decisive role in forestalling revolution in England in the tense period after 1789. By bringing many in the English laboring classes to see their worldly success and salvation in individual rather than collective terms, he suggested, Methodism offered an alternative pathway to laboring class Britons, one that ran through personal reinvention and individual respectability instead of the mass politics of the crowd; it should thus be seen as conservative, as a form of embourgeoisement. There were grounds, however for criticism: E.P. Thompson considered Halévy’s ideas at length in The Making of the English Working Class, offering a limited endorsement, but also reminding his readers that the political consequences of Methodism were in fact diverse, even ambivalent. Whatever we want to make of Wesley’s personal High Tory politics, which emphasized submission to legitimate Royal authority, Methodism taught generations of laboring class Britons how to organize. This was Thompson’s focus, but one could as easily focus on outcomes: others have pointed out drolly that nineteenth-century Methodists were so conservative as to have been important participants in the abolition of the slave trade and the development of trade unionism.

The seeming confusion of Wesleyan doctrine led to sociological analysis, but this turn has not been as succesful as was hoped. Halévy saw this spiritual individualism as incompatible with mass politics, but for Thompson and others, Methodism was itself a kind of mass-political movement, whatever its content, and one that raised a generation of evangelical activists experienced from participation in the political questions of their day. But where confusion and contradiction had driven other scholars to throw up their hands at Methodist doctrine in favor of social explanation, I see this contradiction as a symptom, a critical opening to understanding Methodism in its social context. These are not two separate problems: rather, we need to consider Wesley’s ministry as a kind of illocutionary theology.

II. Between Formalism and Enthusiasm

In the early 1760s, a group of “perfected” Methodists in London, under the apparently-insufficient guidance of one of Wesley’s helpers, took matters into their own hands. They claimed in a newsletter, among other things, to have received revelation that Christ would return on the 28th of February, 1762. Worse still, they publicized their prophecy. This kind of millenarian prediction was a bridge too far for Wesley. He was quick to disavow that this embarrassing episode had been occasioned by his teachings: he wrote that their predictions, which he derided as “enthusiastic… extravagances,” were “utter absurdity.” Wesley’s critics among the clergy were quick to connect enthusiastic rantings of the London circle to the doctrine of Christian perfection that Wesley had taught them — an accusation that was not altogether unfair.

Ultimately, Wesley expelled the group of perfected millenarians from the Methodist connection. Millenarian apocalypticism was common enough in the eighteenth century, and while such enthusiastic claims were by no means respectable, they were a commonplace of laboring-class religious expression. Wesley hated participating in controversy, preferring to focus on pastoral practice, but this was to be one of the episodes in his life when his approach to his ministry would draw controversy. Still, he continued, even after this episode, to see the doctrine of perfection as central to the spiritual life of his followers. “The more I converse with the believers in Cornwall,” he wrote in his Journals,

the more I am convinced that they have sustained great loss for want of hearing the doctrine of Christian perfection clearly and strongly enforced. I see that wherever this is not done, the believers grow dead and cold. Nor can this be prevented but by keeping up in them an hourly expectation of being perfected in love. I say an hourly expectation; for to expect it at death, or some time hence, is much the same as not expecting it at all (Journal, Wednesday, 15 [Sept., 1762]).

An hourly expectation: the key for Wesley is the imminence of the possibility of the moral transformation promised by a Christian life. A belief in sanctification at some far-off time becomes a theoretical belief, a “dead and cold” statement of faith. Deferral of sanctification to the moment of death sets it always at arm’s length. Wesley would prefer that this faith become a central idea animating a mode of living: a performed belief that finds its vindication in the zeal with which it is held. But performed how?

In a sermon first delivered in Newry, near Belfast, April 4, 1767, Wesley expounded his view of this important doctrine in more detail than he had before, in an apparent effort to tamp down the criticism of his doctrine of perfection. New groups of evangelicals, such as the followers of Lady Huntingdon’s Preachers, had appeared in the mid-1760’s to contest the Methodists’ niche as an evangelical faction within the Established Church, and perhaps Wesley felt compelled to answer some of their accusations in a sort of rearguard action. Whatever his immediate motives, in a sermon on Romans 8:16, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God,” one of the most important texts for his ministry, and one that he had discussed frequently back in the 1740s, Wesley argues that something very much like his doctrine of Perfection is the plain meaning of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and moreover, that his understanding of this text is not so far from the orthodoxy of the Established Church as his critics had alleged.

(The quotations that follow are drawn from Wesley, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” London: 1767: pp. 1-16)

In Wesley’s reading, if Saint Paul says that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit, this can only mean that our spirit receives the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit, “an inward Impression of the Soul, whereby the whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my Spirit, that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me.” This truth is revealed in Scripture, “not once only, not obscurely, not incidentally; but frequently, and […] in express terms.” For all that, the pages of close argumentation that follow seemingly acknowledge that the right interpretation of this passage of Scripture is not so free from difficulty as he wants to suggest. Wesley even sees risks in St. Paul’s doctrine, “a danger on the right hand and on the left.”

If we deny it, there is a danger lest our Religion degenerate into mere Formality: Left having a form of godliness, we neglect, if not deny the power of it. If we allow it, but do not understand what we allow, we are liable to run into all the wildness of Enthusiasm. It is therefore needfull in the highest degree, to guard those who fear God from both these dangers, by a scriptural and rational illustration and confirmation of this momentous truth.

“Mere formality” is the traditional Methodist allergen, the ‘vain words’ we discussed above; we should hear in this formula a clear jab at the Anglican Establishment. On the other side of the question, Wesley’s acknowledgment of the risks of the “wildness of Enthusiasm” in this sermon is a moment of relative candor. The need to stave off these twin dangers, or to find a via media between them, makes the rest of the sermon an elaborate catalogue of the limits of the guarantee offered by the witness of the Spirit.

The principal difficulty in interpreting the Spirit’s testimony is figuring out from whom it is given, to whom, and how it registers. The text quickly becomes more complicated than Wesley’s initial claim of a plain literal sense. First off, there is the matter of translation. Wesley renders the Pauline Greek μαρτυρέω (‘martureo’) as ‘witness,’ ‘testimony,’ or ‘record.’ As the cognate registers, witness shares an etymological common ancestor with the English word martyr, the one possibility which Wesley chooses to elide. Because he wants to recognize proofs of sincerity in this life, he needs to downplay any classicly-inspired ideas that sanctification might find its meaning in death; it is not hard to see how the connotations of the English martyr might interfere with that project. Philosophy in the Greek pagan tradition may be about learning how to die, but that is not the attitude towards spiritual knowledge that Wesley has in mind.

Next, our spiritual knowledge of our salvation is a testimony, “given by the Spirit of God to and with our spirit.” This is not an impersonal truth; it is a message borne to us by the Holy Spirit. Wesley is quite emphatic about this: “He is the person testifying.” And yet, that’s not quite what Paul has written. The text, remember, said that “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” In the text, this testimony seems to be a collaborative effort, a co-testimony of the believer’s spirit with the Holy Spirit. Wesley’s initial formula has the Holy Spirit speaking to the believer’s spirit. This is clearly enthusiasm, or something so near to it as to be indistinguishable. But he’s not done yet:

Meantime let it be observed, I do not mean hereby, That the Spirit of God testifies this by any Outward voice: No, nor always by an inward voice, altho’ he may do this sometimes. Neither do I suppose, that he always applies to the heart, (tho’ he often may) one or more texts of Scripture. But he so works upon the Soul by his immediate influence, and by a strong, tho’ inexplicable operation, that the stormy wind and troubled waves subside, and there is a sweet calm: The heart resting as in the arms of Jesus, and the sinner being clearly satisfied, that God is reconciled, that all his iniquities are forgiven, and his sins covered.

He asserts in the following paragraph that none of this is in dispute, but that is certainly not true. The key words in this passage, indeed the only phrases in the passage that Wesley does not retreat from upon uttering them, are immediate and satisfied. That this testimony is immediate is a marked departure from the Anglican orthodoxy, which would instead emphasize the intercession of the individual conscience in producing this satisfaction. Wesley even tries to elide this difference, adopting for a moment the vocabulary of rational religion: “This is nearly, if not exactly the same with the testimony of a good conscience toward God; and is the result of reason, or reflection on what we feel in our own souls.” I suspect that his interlocutors would not have found the two positions “nearly… the same,” insofar as the individual conscience was conceived by many in the Orthodoxy, for example by Archbishop Tillotson, whose sermon on the workings of conscience Wesley quotes without citation in the passage, as a site of individual moral calculation, and not — as Wesley would have it — as an ear into which the Holy Spirit could whisper.

The second issue is the subject’s satisfaction in this testimony. Here his doctrinal opposition is legion. The fruit of the Spirit is also of Pauline origin — “The fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Long-Suffering, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22) — and the Anglican hermeneutic tradition in the eighteenth century had long made of this list of affects the good works and psychological signs in which a believer was to recognize his or her sincerity. This is important because, as the orthodoxy would have it, “the surest confidence [in salvation] is consciousness of one’s own sincerity,” which formula Wesley finds wholly inadequate. Works, while not themselves a pathway to salvation for Protestants, can still be safely employed as signs of the sincerity of the believer’s faith in Christ, and the outward effects of His influence on the individual believer. The fruit of the Spirit is the standard vocabulary with which to discern these changes and the consciousness they have brought about. Wesley paraphrases a “late Bishop of London” to coopt this vocabulary into his own preferred idiom: “Consciousness of our own sincerity” becomes “the testimony of our own spirit,” and again, Wesley distorts this tradition for his own ends. This sleight of hand allows him to argue against the conventional Anglican reading of the fruit of the Spirit, which would, in the “late Bishop of London’s” reading of Romans, encircle both the “Witness of the Spirit” and “our spirit.” Wesley contends that “Consequently here is only one witness still,” and that “the other witness” is the direct testimony we receive from the Holy Spirit.

This would be an easier argument for a Calvinist. By permitting themselves access to the category of the Elect, the fruit of the Spirit can be readily considered an intimation of the promise of Election, an assurance of salvation in a stronger sense than is available to an Arminian like Wesley, for whom anyone can in principle be saved. Wesley tackles these difficulties with a passing reference to Romans 4:5, “God justifies the Ungodly,” and a phenomenological account of the process of salvation that is very interesting for our purposes.

And the experience even of the children of the world, here confirms that of the children of God. Many of these have a desire to please God: some of them take much pains to please him. But do they not, one and all, count it the highest absurdity, for any to talk of “knowing his sins are forgiven?” Which of them even pretends to any such thing? And yet many of them are conscious of their own sincerity. Many of them undoubtedly have, in a degree, the testimony of their own spirit, a consciousness of their own uprightness. But this brings them no consciousness, that they are forgiven, no knowledge that they are the children of God. Yea, the more sincere they are, the more uneasy they generally are, for want of knowing it…

This passage shows the limit of the kind of spiritual knowledge possible for one who rejects Wesley’s view of Christian Perfection. Where the orthodoxy had proposed knowledge of sincerity as a ground for “surest confidence,” in his continuation, Wesley seeks to invert that relationship: “Yea, the more sincere they are, the more uneasy they generally are, for want of knowing it: Plainly shewing that this cannot be known, in a satisfactory manner, by the bare testimony of our own Spirit, without God’s directly testifying, that we are his children.”

What separates this direct witness, in the final analysis, from the “delusions” of “madmen and enthusiasts of every kind” is only that Wesley has stopped playing the orthodox Anglican game of demonstrating the ‘consciousness of sincerity.’ Against the objection “that the design of that witness is to prove our profession genuine, which design it does not answer,” Wesley argues that “the design of that witness is, to assure us we are children of God. And this design it does answer.” From the perspective of an orthodox Anglican, this is all either circular reasoning (i.e. ‘I know I have the direct witness of the Holy Spirit because I have the direct witness of the Holy Sprit’) or enthusiasm, but I don’t think that’s the best way to understand what Wesley is trying to do. Instead, we need to focus on the collective aspects that this way of thinking about testimony makes possible. When we do so, we can recognize both what was so exciting about this ministry to its participants and so worrisome about it to mainstream Anglicanism.

There may be fortastes of joy of peace, of love and those not delusive, but really of God, long before we have witness in ourselves, before the Spirit of God witnesses with our Spirits, that we have redemption in the blood of Jesus, even the forgiveness of sins. Yea there may be a degree of long suffering, of gentleness, of fidelity, meekness, temperance, (not a shadow thereof, but a real degree, by the preventing grace of God) before we are accepted in the beloved, and consequently before we have a testimony of our acceptance. But it is by no means advisable to rest here; it is at the peril of our souls if we do.

A passage like this one exposes the collective side of Methodist spirituality. This species of knowledge must be performed; it is part of a process, a personal journey, a kind of restless striving for something that — in theory, anyway — no amount of personal effort can attain.

III. Bearing Witnessing to Community

Jacques Derrida argued, in his Sovereignties in Question, that the logic of witnessing is opposed to that of demonstration. The truth to which we witness is not the same as the fact that we demonstrate. To testify is to stake something, to risk something. As soon as the testimony is “guaranteed” by theory or epistemology, it begins to do a different kind of work, and loses in this transformation its status and its import as testimony. Testimony offers a different guarantee. “For it to be guaranteed as testimony, it cannot, it must not, be absolutely certain, absolutely sure.” It is perhaps traditional to consider testimony to be somehow contingent, subjective in the sense of that word that means not-quite-as-good-as-objective. But in this case, we should think of testimony as offering something more than demonstration, not less. The remainder which remains unexhausted by the order of demonstration is something like what Jurgen Habermas called communicative action, the part of a speech act that serves to foster interpersonal relationships, irrespective of whatever meaning might be communicated. To bear witness is not only to say that something is true, it is to enact — publicly — your commitment to that truth, and your commitment to the people with whom you share your testimony.

To bear witness to something is not to know it, precisely. To the extent that testimony becomes knowledge, it risks losing that Habermasian excess of communicative action, the moment of faith and vulnerability that fostered community and neighborliness. Paradoxically, then, these performances of self-elaboration that the early Methodists elaborated daily in their bands and at their love-feasts, were both opportunities for self-fashioning as an individual Christian, but also about doing so for an audience of like-minded neighbours, and listening to their professions in turn. An inert accounting of a moral state of affairs — am I perfected yet? — is incommensurable with the standard of spiritual knowledge that Wesley was trying to set; to consider it in that light is to miss his point. While Halévy was correct in some respects to say that Methodism was peculiarly individualistic, it was not simply so. It is perhaps true that Methodism intensified the individual’s personal self-expression in faith, but I see no metric by which to judge that it did so more than, say, the various forms of Dissent. What matters instead is that the elaboration of this self-knowledge takes place in new forms of community, the bands and select-bands of the Methodist connection, and pointedly not in the traditional forms of the Parish and the Realm.