Wesley and the slave trade (5) conclusions

In summary, we may conclude that our investigation supports our preliminary thesis.  First, that Wesley’s hermeneutic does not fit the template of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and thus secondly, that his argument does not support a Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic.  Before we develop our conclusions further, we need to spell out some limitations which constrain what we can and cannot infer from our study.

5.1. Limitations

I would suggest three limitations which constrain our study.  The first concerns the nature of Wesley’s method.  We need to remember that Wesley does not set out his argument as a theological treatise or sermon.  There is the additional complication that neither here, not in general, does Wesley make his hermeneutical assumptions explicit in a systematic fashion.[1] This means that any attempt by Wesleyan scholars to identify his hermeneutic will always be based on gleaning comments from different parts of his works. Therefore, we should always beware the risk of anachronistically imposing our own hermeneutic upon him. 

Secondly, we are constrained by the scope of this study.  A broader study would benefit from greater analysis of other abolitionists, especially Clarkson and Wilberforce.  I am, however, satisfied that whilst there may have been differences in detail, Wesley’s approach is broadly representative of the movement.  For example, Clarkson’s major essay follows a similar approach in describing the situation arguing on his opponents’ terms and making careful implications and distinctions.  We have, throughout the course of this study, sought to highlight the consistency between the position of Wesley and other Abolitionists at key points in the argument.

Thirdly, we are limited by the nature of the study as an historical investigation.  This permits us to make inferences about historical support for the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. However, this in itself does not provide conclusive evidence as to its usefulness.  Other tests are more pertinent to the reliability of a hermeneutical model.  All the same, because historical support is claimed for the model, it is reasonable to ask whether such support exists.

5.2. What implications may we conclude?

Having said that, I believe that there are some important implications we can draw from our study. 

First, we would want to highlight the way in which Wesley’s genuine concern to let Scripture speak as the final authority is seen at work in his argument. 

Secondly, Wesley is fundamentally theologically conservative in his use of Tradition.   Rather than using it to show the development of the mind of the church, he uses it to demonstrate the consistent, historical mind of the church as agreed on this subject.

Thirdly, this is not to deny the way that other factors influence Wesley.  It is true that his views change over time, no doubt shaped by his reading and his experience.  But Wesley would always see this factors as controlled by, not controlling, Scripture.  If it could be shown to him that his argument conflicted with the plain truth of Scripture in terms of its whole tenor, he would change his position.

Fourthly, we note the dividing line that Webb wishes to draw between hermeneutical models that allow movement and those which demonstrate a static view of Scripture, where each text is treated in isolation and applied absolutely.[2]  We can be clear that Wesley doesn’t do that.  He understands that there is movement in Scripture. 1 Timothy 1 is trans-cultural in a way that Leviticus 21 is not.  However, there is a crucial difference.

Webb’s hermeneutic sees a trajectory beyond Scripture. His model requires that our understanding of Scripture be subjected to our cultural insights.[3]  For Wesley, any movement is within Scripture only.  Such movement should be detectable from any culture at any time.  For Wesley, a right understanding of Scripture controls the cultural insights.

For these reasons, we may conclude that Wesley’s hermeneutic does not fit within the Redemptive Movement scheme.  The debates about contemporary hermeneutics and ethics will no doubt continue. Furthermore, we may expect those who are arguing from a redemptive movement model to continue to do so. However, if they intend to do so whilst claiming historical support from the Abolitionists, they should think again.  If they want to prove their argument they will need to turn elsewhere for their evidence.


[1] Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 12-13.

[2] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 30-35.

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 36.