John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement of the eighteenth century, viewed nature and science in relation to theology. His ideas have long been discounted by those seeking the truth by means of empirical evidence and formulaic equations. A recent trend, however, is the re-examination (by social scientists and those of a metaphysical mindset) of Wesley’s view of “prevenient grace,” which Thomas Jay Oord deftly describes as “God’s loving, empowering, inspiring, and freedom-giving presence provided to creatures” (xi). Oord argues for Wesley’s notion that all creatures have a causal relationship with God; hence, our very existence “provides grounds for affirming scientific pursuit of [the] truth” (xi).
The impetus for Oord’s edited volume was the forty-third Wesleyan Theological Conference entitled “Sighs, Signs and Significance: Pentecostal and Wesleyan Explorations of Science and Creation.” (xiii) Ten essays, which were presented during the conference by leading Wesleyan scholars, encompass Wesley’s main contributions to the field of science and theology. Essay topics include “John Wesley’s Vision of Science in the Service of Christ,” “Degrees of Certainty in John Wesley’s Natural Philosophy,” and “Mystery and Humility in John Wesley’s Narrative Ecology.”
Two of the most interesting essays are Robert D. Branson’s “How the Discoveries of Science and Archaeology Shift Interpretations of Genesis,” and Rebecca J. Flietstra’s “Rooting Evolution in Grace.” Branson’s essay discusses biblical interpretation through the lens of modern science. Although the book of Genesis has been viewed by many to be of scientific fact, Branson argues that “we should give up a strictly historical approach to understanding the first chapters of Genesis for one that is literary and theological.” (155) This stance is not at odds with the Wesleyan mindset because, as Branson sees it, “Wesleyan scholars have typically taken into account the cultural background and human limitations of the writers of Scripture.” (155)
Flietstra’s essay is an argument in favor of evolutionary theories which do not necessarily have to be in contradiction with the nature of God’s grace in creation. She recognizes that natural selection “as a driving force, as the foundation for evolution, repulses people. The theory appears ugly and evil, describing a process centered on death and struggle, rather than on goodness and love” (162). Flietstra effectively reasons that if the competition for the “survival of the fittest” were accurate, then “such a process would not only make humans and the rest of creation essentially evil, but it would also reveal either an unloving God or no God at all” (162). However, John Wesley would have countered that there is room for evolutionary growth in God’s grace, but only because, as Flietstra also sees it, “natural selection has more to it than competition” (164), including the inherited variety of species, fixed resources and traits necessary for survival.
Divine Grace and Emerging Creation is a most valuable resource to the Methodist community, students of Wesleyan theology, and anyone seeking to address the place of theology in a modern, scientific world. Readers familiar with the life and views of John Wesley will profit most from this book. The contributions are generally well-researched and documented, and include citations from Wesley’s journals and leading Wesleyan scholars.