JAC Online

Richard Watson On MY Truth
by Steve Bussey

Richard Watson is one of the most powerful influencers of Wesleyan theology that many do not know much about. In 1823, he published the first "systematic theology" from a Wesleyan perspective. His work, "Theological Institutes" is monumental in that it looks at evidences, doctrines, morals, and institutions of Christianity.


Catherine and William Booth were both profoundly influenced by Watson's writings - and his work was included along with the sermons of John Wesley as critical standards needing to be mastered by Methodists - hence the Booths would be deeply shaped by his work based on their years growing up in the Wesleyan Methodist church, serving in the Methodist New Connexion, and being part of the network of Holiness Churches out of which the Christian Mission and The Salvation Army were birthed.


The entire first part - which is a monumental 263 pages - is devoted to firmly anchoring Wesleyan theology in Scripture as the "Divine rule of faith and practice." He philosophically and theologically provides a robust argument for this distinctive anchoring in what John Wesley calls "Scriptural Christianity."


Watson wisely can see in the early 19th-century that they were in the midst of a massive shift from the "divine rule" (Scripture) being the SOURCE OF AUTHORITY to human experience or "practice" taking this role. So Watson aimed to reinforce to all true Wesleyans the classically Christian belief that the "divine rule" is the metaphorical horse and that "human practice" is the cart. He was warning us that the cart should never precede the horse - a practice that is not only illogical, but impractical (and utterly non-sensical).


Here is what he says:

"It is equally a matter of undoubted fact, that in all questions of morals which restrain the vices, passions, and immediate interests of men, conviction is generally resisted, and the RULE is brought down to the PRACTICE, rather than the PRACTICE raised to the RULE; so that the most FLIMSY SOPHISMS are admitted as ARGUMENTS, and PRINCIPLES the most LAX displace those of RIGID RECTITUDE and VIRTUE" (Watson, Theological Institutes, Chapter 3, 1823, p.16)


Why is this relevant for us today? Watson was speaking to a major shift that began in the 17th century, grew in prominence in the 18th, and now was coming to full maturity in the 19th century. The growing sense of questioning the authority of Scripture gained traction in the rationalism of the Enlightenment (in movements like deism and naturalism) and accelerated in German idealism and romanticism that was now seeping into the broader world where Methodism was rapidly spreading. He could see the need for a robust apologetic for Scriptural Christianity that was the foundation of Wesley's theology.


This trend of what would become known as "higher criticism," would lead to the dominance of modernist thinking that displaced the "rule" with the "practice" of human experience, which became the anchoring point of this radical shift from Scripture being the rule to my personal experience. In the world of the 21st century, we would academically call this "standpoint epistemology" and in popular culture we see this manifest itself in the phrase "MY truth."


What does "MY truth" mean? It means that my local, subjective perspective - bound in time and space - is the lens through which I perceive the world. If I sense it, it is real. Therefore, my beliefs, my values, and my behaviors all stem from ME. Therefore, when I read the Bible, I read it through my lens and how I choose to interpret it is true.


In such a world, whatever I believe is TRUE because I believe it. Whatever I value is RIGHT because it is what I value. And whatever I do is PERMISSIBLE because it is what I do.


And in such a world, what is the role of Scripture? It is reduced to a moral prompt for me to discover the "best me" I choose to be - based on my own therapeutic feelings, my own biases, whatever I want to believe and however I want to behave, I read it with that lens in mind which filters Scripture into my own tailor-made "divine thumbs up." That subjective lens becomes THE compass that serves to validate what I wish for God's will for my life to be - and thus, what I also deem to be "virtuous" or "holy."


This might sound like it makes sense, but it is a deeply flawed perspective because:

(a) What might seem virtuous and just to me might actually be vicious and unjust to another.

(b) In essence, this thinking becomes idolatrous - because we have placed ourselves as the compass of truth and justice. Not only is that egocentric, it is a recipe for anarchy because every person becomes a rule unto themselves.

(c) Not only does this place self on the governing throne of our lives, but - by this decision - we displace God from His rightful place as Governor of our lives. This is the original and fatal flaw made by Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden.


That's called groupthink. It's confirmation bias. It's rationalizing and justifying what I want. It's taking my own moral choices and giving them a "god approves" rubber stamp.


The only problem is that we have actually made ourselves god in the process... and the real God doesn't take that lightly.


This seduction might seem to be us just being an independently thinking individual - but often there is very little individuality in the process. Most often we are being swept away by the conforming patterns of our present time and circumstances - the "zeitgeist" of our time. Scarily though, this is not even just going along with the social trends for the sake of fitting in... At the heart of it, the same serpent from the garden who sowed disbelief that led to disobedience whispers in our ears today and nudges us, "you do you," "embrace your truth"... and before you know it, we find ourselves in the bondage of our own self-delusion that has left us captive to the prince of this world.


We saw this mindset brewing in the 18th century with someone like Thomas Jefferson. He was a Deist who celebrated human rationality and rejected the immanent work of God by rejecting anything "super-natural" (i.e., beyond the natural world of science and reason). Jefferson proceeded to create his own Bible where he removed all evidence of anything that his naturalistic, rationalistic, and deistic worldview deemed "non-essential" in Scripture. Seriously - look up the Jefferson Bible for yourself.


In essence, what Jefferson did in the 18th century, we find ourselves doing in the 21st. Each of us, like Jefferson, is tempted to (and affirmed by the trends of a present culture both outside and inside the church) to take our own personal experience and, with metaphorical scissors, has proceeded to "cut out" or ignore parts of this "divine rule" (i.e., guidance that supersedes our own beliefs, morals, and practices). As a result, we read the Bible through the lens of "my truth" because Jesus affirms a "you do you" lifestyle.


Richard Watson's words thus ring deeply as a warning. We must return the horse of the "divine rule" to being what drives the cart of our "faith and practice." This was true of Wesley and Watson. This was true of Catherine and William Booth and the slew of Salvationists who have faithfully embraced their covenant as soldiers in the Army of the Lord.


I pray this principle will once again become a core value for all believers, the pan-Wesleyan community, and specifically my beloved Salvation Army. We continue to state that it is such. I pray that we will fully embrace this timeless truth in the practice of our everyday lives.












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