Posts Tagged ‘Charles Wesley’

Charles Wesley’s Christology

June 16, 2009

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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