The Church and Participation in the Divine Nature: Orthodox Deification in Charles Wesley’s Sanctification
Charles Wesley often emphasizes personal deification. We read such lines in his poetry as
- Being of beings, make In me thy nature known.
- Thee, Saviour, I my refuge make; And when thy nature I partake.
- And make me all divine.
- Change my nature into thine, In me thy whole image shine.
- Heav’nly Adam, life divine, Change my nature into thine.
- Till of thy nature I partake, And bright in all thine image wake.
- Let all my soul become divine.
- Till I thy name, thy nature know.
- Transform my nature into thine.. . .Let all my soul become divine.
Deification is unquestionably personal, as the above lines affirm, though it would be a gross error to read such lines in isolation. There follows an example in which within four lines of poetry Wesley uses both plural and singular pronouns to describe stamping the divine image, nature, and name on the human heart. In this instance image, nature, and name are used as synonyms.
Our holiness, thyself impart,
Absorb whate’er is I in thine,
And stamp the image on our heart,
The nature, and the name divine.
What an eloquent line is “Absorb whate’er is I in thine”! What a superb description of personal participation in the divine nature! The “I,” all that one is—all that embodies the individual—is absorbed into the divine nature.
As often as he uses the first person or personal emphasis Wesley also employs the plural. Hence, one reads such phrases or sentences as
- Thee let all our nature own.
- We participate of thine, Human nature of divine.
- Hear us, who thy nature share, Who thy mystic body are.
- Partakers of thy sacrifice, may we all thy nature share.
- And make us all divine.
- That we might partake The nature divine.
- And fill us with the life divine.
- Into all our souls impart, Thy divine unsinning nature.
- His nature, and his mind,He hath on us bestowed.”
- Our nature too becomes divine, And God himself is man.
- And receive us as gods to a share of thy throne.
- Thy nature with our nature joined.
- Let every soul thy nature know.
- Thy nature doth itself impart To every humble, longing heart.
- Made like our Creator we gloriously shine, And bear the new nature the image divine.
- Thy nature we partake.
- Who makes in us his nature known.
Clearly, both the personal and corporate emphases have been taken out of their poetical contexts by placing the above lines simply in lists. It is not the purpose, however, to interpret them in isolation, but rather to illustrate both the personal and corporate dimensions of participation as expressed in Wesley’s poetry.
The Ecclesial Context and the Eucharist
Wesley does not conceive of participation of an individual in the divine nature apart from the church, the body of Christ. He makes this very clear in a response to John 6:55–56, “My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” He writes,
Saviour, thy flesh is meat indeed!
Thy nature to thy church made known
Doth every saint with manna feed,
Till every saint with thee is one,
Till blended with its heavenly food
The soul thy gracious fullness feels,
And all transformed we dwell in God,
And God in us forever dwells.
This is unquestionably a eucharistic reference, though it does not come from the Wesleys’ HLS 1745. In the opening sentence of the poem Charles reiterates the first line of the John passage: “Saviour, thy flesh is meat indeed!”
This is the means whereby God makes the divine nature known to and experienced by the church. The eucharistic meal sustains “every saint” and leads to full unity with God’s nature: “Till every saint with thee is one.” Wesley stresses that one experiences, one “feels” God’s gracious fullness and is so transformed that there transpires a mutual “indwelling”: “we dwell in God, / And God in us forever dwells.” Hence, the “indwelling” is not merely intellectual assent, but rather a mutual divine/human experience.
As I have written elsewhere,
The church is also born of the Spirit, united in Christ, and in the Eucharist one experiences the “perfect harmony” of the church.
Who thy mysterious supper share,
Here at thy table fed,
Many, and yet but one we are,
One undivided Bread.
Wesley emphasizes the centrality of [participation] in the mystical body at the table. We are “one with the Living Bread Divine.” Our hearts, minds, and spirits all meet and are joined in Jesus. As intimate as the bond in Christ may be on earth, however, it is but a foreshadowing of the close tie that shall bind the church eternal.
Wesley’s thoughts are in concert with St. John Chrysostom in reference to the unity of our natures with Christ, that is, with the entire constituency of the church.
It is necessary to learn of the miracle of the Mysteries; what they are, why they were given, and what their benefits are. We become one body and members, the Scriptures say, of His body and of His bones. This takes place through the food which He has granted to us, desiring thus to show how much He cares for us. That is why He joined Himself with us and commingled His body with ours, so that we might be one, just as the body is joined to the head.
In the eighteenth century the eucharistic nature of the church by no means dominated the ecclesial consciousness of the Church of England and its clergy. Charles Wesley laments,
Why is the faithful seed decreased,
The life of God extinct and dead?
The daily sacrifice is ceased,
And charity to heaven is fled.
“The daily sacrifice” is a reference to Holy Communion. The practice of the early church Wesley describes in stanza 4:
From house to house they broke the bread
Impregnated with life divine,
And drank the Spirit of their Head
Transmitted in the sacred wine.
The Wesley brothers and others (e.g., Nonjurors) who had a strong desire to return to the ecclesiology of the ancient church and its practices were an exception among eighteenth-century Anglican clergy. Unquestionably the joint publication, HLS 1745, of John and Charles Wesley emphasized the eucharistic shape of ecclesiology, even if the introduction to the volume did not spell this out. Knowingly or unknowingly, they pioneered a return to the eucharistic ecclesiology of the ancient church.
Charles Wesley’s ecclesiology, though he does not use that word, is eucharistic and pneumatological. Just as the eucharistic meal identifies the uniqueness of the church and its mission, so do the presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is not a coincidence that early in HLS 1745 one encounters a powerful hymn to the Holy Spirit.
- Come, thou everlasting Spirit,
Bring to every thankful mind
All the Saviour’s dying merit
All his suffering for mankind:
True recorder of his passion,
Now the living faith impart,
Now reveal his great salvation,
Preach his gospel to our heart.
- Come, thou witness of his dying,
Come, remembrancer divine,
Let us feel thy power applying
Christ to every soul and mine;
Let us groan thine inward groaning,
Look on him we pierced, and grieve,
All receive the grace atoning,
All the sprinkled blood receive.
Charles Wesley is clear about the soteriological functions of the Holy Spirit: it awakens the mind to the merits of the Savior’s suffering and death; it imparts living faith, reveals salvation, and proclaims the gospel to human hearts. The Holy Spirit is the means whereby we feel the power of Christ applied to our souls and we receive atoning grace.
In exploring Charles Wesley’s understanding of deification and the church it is vital to understand that he has a eucharistic and Trinitarian approach to all dimensions of theology. The focus on eucharistic theology emphasizes that local communities are of foremost importance and the context in which Christians live out their faith. Trinitarian theology focuses on God’s internal life of communion and God’s salvation history, and it seeks to embrace all creation in this divine communion. Deification poses the lifelong question for all Christians and the church: How do we share in the communion that is present in the Trinity? This is a question Wesley is ever asking.
Wesley takes great care to emphasize the corporate unity of the fellowship of believers, namely, the church, in the following text from HLS 1745:
- With him the Corner Stone
The living stones conjoin,
Christ and his Church are One,
One body and one vine,
For us he uses all his powers,
And all he has, or is, is ours.
“The living stones” are the people of God in the church, and in Christ the church is one with God and one another; and all that is Christ’s, “all He has, or is, is Ours,” that is, the members of the body, the church.
Wesley’s emphasis on the unity of the body of Christ reminds one of St. John Chrysostom’s metaphor of the wheat in speaking of the unity of the church:
Just as the bread is constituted by many grains united together so that the grains cannot be distinguished from one another even though they are there, since their difference is made unapparent in their cohesion, in the same manner we are joined together both to each other and to Christ. For you are not part of one body, and your neighbor part of another, but all are part of the same body. For this reason, he [St. Paul] emphasizes “all of us partake of one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
Praise for Partakers of the Life Divine
“This volume is the fruit of decades of work by S T Kimbrough Jr. to bring serious consideration of Charles Wesley’s theology into the conversation between Eastern and Western theologians over the themes of deification and participation in the divine nature. It provides a comprehensive survey of Wesley on these topics, and advances the discussion at several points. Highly recommended!”
—Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, The Divinity School, Duke University
“S T Kimbrough Jr. demonstrates exhaustively that mystical, sacramental union with God and participation in the divine nature is at the heart of Charles Wesley’s thought and experience, parallel to the Fathers of the Eastern Church. This contrasts starkly with prevailing Protestant interpretations of Wesleyan thought. For Orthodox readers, the fact that Wesley’s understanding was shaped entirely outside the boundaries of the Eastern Church may be akin to the apostle Peter’s discovery that Gentiles could have the same experience of the Holy Spirit as the Jerusalem community did on Pentecost. Charles Wesley could thus be a bridge of shared spiritual life, looking toward the never-ending day of God’s eternal kingdom, when ‘Love, like death, hath all destroyed / Rendered all distinctions void: / Names, and sects, and parties fall; / Thou, O Christ, art ALL in ALL!”
—John A. Jillions, Chancellor Orthodox Church in America
“S T Kimbrough has made a jewel of a book out of his lifelong interest in the life of the churches and the historical traditions core to the greater ecclesiastical tradition. In this lively study he makes a bridge for readers between the spiritual traditions of the reformed world through Wesley and other luminaries, and the early Christian doctrines about redemption under the analogy of deification by grace.”
—John A. McGuckin, Professor of Byzantine History, Columbia University
—Robert P. Swierenga, Professor of History Emeritus, Kent State University, and author of Holland, Michigan
About the Author
S. T. Kimbrough is a Research Fellow of the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition of Duke Divinity School. He is the founder of The Charles Wesley Society and editor of its journal, Proceedings of The Charles Wesley Society. As author/editor he has published numerous books on Charles Wesley, including Charles Wesley: Poet and Theologian and The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley (3 vols.).