Charles Wesley’s Christology

I’ve heard it said that the early Methodists learned their theology through hymns, and particularly those of Charles Wesley. There’s a lot of theology to be learnt from his hymns, and I noticed this in my module on Christology and Atonement this semester. Almost every point of orthodox Christology is expressed in one hymn or another – a mark both of Wesley’s theological learning and tremendous poetic skill.

One of the favourite Christmas hymns of my pastor at my “home” church is Let Earth and Heaven Combine, with the line “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man”. As well as major bonus points for getting a six-syllable word into a metrical hymn, I think this is a brilliant and lyrical way of describing the incarnation. The same hymn goes on to summarise the theology of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in a verse:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

The theologians of the early Church, particularly Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius, rejoiced in the parallelism of Christology – “God became man that men might become god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)” (Athanasius, On The Incarnation 54.3 – modern Western Christians might prefer to say “godly” or “Christlike” for the last word; in context this is what Athanasius means) and Wesley expresses this neatly and devotionally here. “We the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below” is (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) exactly the thought of Origen in Against Celsus 3.28.

But perhaps better-known, the great-granddaddy of all Christmas carols, is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

I’ve heard it claimed (and indeed askeda few people myself!) if “Veiled in flesh” is a bad choice of wording and possibly docetic. Giles Fraser calls it “heretical“, but the following lines “pleased as man with man to dwell” essentially rule out doceticism. What I think Wesley is trying to do with “veiled” is to emphasise the hiddenness of the divine nature in Jesus (that glory which is manifested for a second in the transfiguration [Matthew 17]).

Many of Wesley’s hymns have too many verses to fit comfortably into a carol service or worship “sesh” so we usually pick three or four. Hark! the herald has some extra verses, one of which picks up on Paul’s image of Christ as the Second Adam (1Corinthians 15:45-49):

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Love it.

Of course, nobody is perfect, not even Charles Wesley – and unfortunately one of his best hymns (and my favourite Wesley hymn) does have an unfortunate Christological line in it. I refer, of course, to And Can It Be?

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race

The offending line “Emptied himself of all but love” isn’t great – as one of my lecturers says, “I don’t believe that!” Kenotic Christology has its devotees, who take the self-emptying of Philippians 2:5-11 to mean precisely this – that Jesus gave up the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence …) in the incarnation. I don’t believe that – and I don’t think the Bible teaches that (topic for another post, I think!). I thought it would be unfair to have a post on Wesley’s Christology without dealing with this anyway. Any suggestions for emending the verse? Use the comment box!

All in all, however, I think Wesley’s hymns show a great Christology and are jam-packed with theological truths, expressed in a way I find compelling and memorable – and that is why it’s great to sing them and learn some (biblically faithful!) theology from our hymns.

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9 Responses to “Charles Wesley’s Christology”

  1. Wesley Gleeson Says:

    Great post. Anything with Charles Wesley and Irenaeus and you’ve got me, the two most under-appreciated theologicans the Christian Church has ever seen!

    On ‘And can it be’, I’d suggest taking advantage of the well used line “CW was too emotional”, and consider the line an emotion rather than theology. ‘Jesus gave everything he had, but he always had love left over’?

    He is a fascinating character, and one well worth exploring beyond the hymn-writer!

  2. Bible Neophyte Says:

    Good idea! If you don’t like Phil 2:7 feel free to emend that verse as you see fit so it will agree with your Christology; however, I think you may find yourself at odds with many orthodox Christians for your approach to the Canon.

  3. Wesley Defender Says:

    In defense of Charles Wesley, I believe his choice of the word “Emptied” was definitely in the spirit of Phil 2, but not in the sense that he ever ceased to be God the Son, but only that he relinquished the choices he could have made to abort the Father’s plan.

    In the garden, when facing his horrible fate, he prayed “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” In that sense, he “emptied” himself of his own will.

    When the band of soldiers came to arrest him, he had the authority to pray to his Father and receive more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him. Instead, he “emptied” himself of that authority and went with them, willingly.

    As he was beaten and brutally crucified, he had the power to end his suffering and even come down from the cross as he was called upon to do. Instead, he “emptied” himself of that power “And bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

    Love was the only thing of which he did not emty himself or relinquish. Love was the only thing that drove him to the cross. It just makes sense in the context of the rest of his hymn. I will still sing Wesley’s original words with this in mind and give Wesley a break for being human like myself.

  4. Steve Says:

    I think Wesley’s offending line, “Emptied himself of all but love” is fantastic. Some form of kenosis is absolutely necessary if we are going to affirm that Jesus is truly and fully human. God is omniscient, humans by the very definition are not. And Jesus explicitly says he does not know everything. God is omnipresent. Jesus was in a body in time and place. To affirm that Jesus is truly God, is not to say that he is all of God. I would rather say that he is the embodiment of the heart of God, and that heart is redemptive love. In fact only by becoming weak, by setting aside God’s attributes of rule and power, can we clearly see who God really is. God is not power, God is love. God subordinates his power and his knowledge to his redemptive love. Wesley was no heretic, he was a genius!

  5. Becca Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this; helped me to prepare for a seminar on a Christian who communicated their Christology well. This totally summed up all I needed to present. I promise I didn’t nick your work though, and I will cite your website to my seminar group!!

    “As for emptied himself of all but love” is this not a reference that draws us back to Philippians 2 as “Wesley Defender” has said? I kind of like the fact that ambiguous sentances like this can let us explore and unpack further and so give God a chance to speak to us through our reading and unpacking.

    Thank you again!

  6. Stephen Hager Says:

    Poor Charles Wesley! So maligned for that one line in what must be one of the greatest hymns of the church. (“emptied Himself of all but love…”) I don’t think for a minute that CW believed that Jesus divested Himself of deity. The very words that occur over and over again, “…that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me” indicates that he did not believe that. His belief system was, I think, thoroughly orthodox, as in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” when he writes, “Mild, He lays His glory by.” In short, “And Can It Be” is so full of great doctrine that I think CW pulls the rug out from us a bit when he lapses into poetic license, “emptied Himself of all but love.”

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  8. Rodney Ingrouille Says:

    \emptied himself – might be better to say ‘dispossessed himself’ but it will not scan well!!

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