The church today needs to recover a simple priority. In theology, it is called the priority of the Father–Son relation over the Creator–creature relation [1]. Simply put, it is the proposition that before God was creator he was Father. It’s one of those starting points of theological reflection. The basic claim is that while God was always Father, God was not always Creator for there was a time when God was, but creation was not. Equally, While God was always Son, the Son was not always incarnate. The eternal logos is the Son in relation to the Father from eternity. The Father is for the Son as the Son is for the Father, within their perichoretic relation. The perichoresis [2] of the Father and the Son is a relation realized through God, the Spirit. In this way the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one being by virtue of their perichoretic relations. God is one in essence but also has a oneness in God’s perichoretic relation [3]. Thus the unity of the Godhead is bound up in God. God’s oneness is from God, through God, to God.

The world and God are in no sense co-eternal. The Trinity was first. Such an order allows us to maintain a distinction without separation of the immanent and economic Trinity, [4] so that any attempt to historicize the being of the Son with the idea that history somehow constitutes him as the second person of the Trinity, (as Arian did) is a destructive idea. This kind of thinking we now see in process theology. Such thinking allows history and not God to determine who God is. God as Father is not an anthropomorphism but a divine revelation of the relation in the imminent Trinity. A referent of God (name) to be true of God is an example of God acting in divine condescension accommodating human experience in an analogical way. The analogical thinking moves in only one direction. This means that true knowledge of God can only occur through God.

Important Implications
The idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before God was Creator is not some piece of abstract doctrine. The priority of the Father–Son relation before the Creator–creature relation has two powerful implications. God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit is a central component of Christian theology, spirituality and even Christian ethics.

1.) Father, Son and Spirit: God reveals the names we are to name him.

God in relation to himself from eternity is fundamental to who God is. In the uniques of his interrelation of his being, God is Father, Son, and Spirit. It is worth noting from God’s Triune reality, one can argue that God's Fatherhood is utterly unique and not at all defined by our experience of human fatherhood; it is not defined at all by our prior experience or knowledge. For that reason no gender can be read into God with the suggestion that we might think of God as mother in order to think more inclusively about God. Since gender is a part of being human and care part of human experience, we simply can-not read that back into God with the imperative that we ‘must’ think of God as mother and not just as Father. It is not a matter of what we think about God but about what God has revealed of himself in his Son, through his Spirit. In the same way, no one is excluded from the love of God revealed in Christ, through his Spirit. So it would be extremely misguided to think that for women to have equality in the church, we need to reconceptualize God as mother or use the pronoun ‘she' when we pray.

The question is who defines who God is. Who defines God? And the answer is only God, the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit, define God. God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit is a foundational truth of the doctrine of God.

When we confess that from eternity, God has revealed the names by which He wants to be named. We are stating, these are not optional terms that we use from our experiences to refer symbolically to God. Rather, it is our terms and our categories that must be transformed by an encounter with God, and in Christ enable us to think of him with thoughts worthy of him. Through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to name him as he wants be named.

2.) We may not think of God as having gender but we still must name him by his names.

In one sense, God is incomprehensible in his being. The imminent Trinity dwells in unapproachable light (I Tim 6:16). The eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is knowable only as far as he makes himself known. Thus only God reveals God, this is the meaning of the incarnation. The knowledge of God can only be revealed from God, the Father, through God, the Son, by God, the Spirit.

That does not mean human language about God as meaningless quite the contrary. Human language about God is put in proper theological perspective. We don’t abandon our creaturely images and concepts, words and phrases. Yet we should seek to relate to them rightly. Such created images are means given by God to help us think of God through them in a “see through” fashion. We see in part and the same is true of such created images. As we see though them we do so without the intrusion of creaturely forms or sensual images interjected into God. Thus, we may not think of God as having gender. In the same way, we don’t think of the Father as begetting the Son or of the Son as begotten as if they are giving birth. An all-to-human concept we are familiar with as creaturely beings. We never take the metaphor to far nor draw the line of analogy beyond the lines of scripture to do so is to flirt with error.

The first principle then is that our images and concepts, words and phrases, must be transformed through union with Christ to point beyond themselves to God as he exists in an utterly unique way as Father, Son and Spirit. As said above, this analogical thinking moves in only one direction, from God to humanity. Then we in Christ can “see through” those human shadows and return to the referent from which it refers. Thus, God’s revelation of himself in his written word has preeminent importance as where God names his name.

Christain analogical thinking moves in only one direction, and exit from God in revelation and a return to him in praise. Thus our thinking is in keeping with the end for which God created the world, the glory of God.

[1] This principle goes by many names. (1.) God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit. (2.) The priority of immanent Trinity. (3.) God naming himself from eternity. (4.) The Father–Son relation over the Creator–creature relation. Different theologians use different terms and for your amusement and like frustration I use them all {Reader be warned}.

[2] the doctrine of Perichoresis can be defined as co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration. The concepts, “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a 'community of being,' in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them.” Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Blackwell, 2001), p. 325.

[3] in this formulation, Both ontology and teleology become the foundational categories for describing God’s unity. God is one in essence (ontology) and ultimate goal (teleology). Thus, God’s ontological reality is distinct and different for everything else for God is holy. God’s teleological reality is a movement for God’s glory a glory that makes much of God in a joyous display of self giving love. Thus God’s life overflows in a movement of self-giving love to such degree that each member literally indwell one-another. This means the perichoresis of God’s divine life is expressed in self-giving joy and love. From the overflow of divine life in the Trinity, God loves the world into existence. Since God is holy, absolutely unique in every way, God remains different and distinct from creation but not distant. For even in creation in its fallen condition, the Father, Son and Spirit work all thing for the good and sustaining, redeeming and guiding the world towards the end for which it was created, the glory of God.

[4] Immanent Trinity is understood as God in himself from eternity (as an endless duration of time) outside of history and Economic Trinity is God in relation to his creation, through his redemptive action within history.



 During the month of August 1739 in Bristol England, John Wesley had three separate interviews with Bishop Joseph Butler. Butler a towering intellect and presiding bishop. Wesley an upstart preacher of a burgeoning movement. The first interview lasted about 15 minutes, the second about 30 minutes, and the final one approximately one hour. [1] Wesley who was making waves through his proclamation of justification and grace in open fields, was hopeful Butler would be open to his work.

In this meeting, the younger Wesley was perhaps a little too aggressive with the Good Bishop. Despite Wesley’s admiration of Butler’s masterful denunciation of Deism, it was perhaps too bold for him to expect that the Bishop would receive a minister the enthusiastism and manifestations that were accompanying their open-field preaching. [2]

First they talked about the nature of faith in its justifying sense, but the conversation quickly turned to what was probably irritating Butler the most about the preacher. It appeared that Wesley and the flourishing Methodist movement assumed that God was doing something special in their faith and ministry that was isolated from other believers who did not embrace their cause.

To Wesley, Butler sternly snots: “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” [3] Wesley’s response to Butler was the eighteenth century version of "epic" clap back. He candidly responded, “I pretend to no extraordinary revelations or gifts of the Holy Ghost—none but what every Christian may receive, and ought to expect and pray for.” [4]

The conversation that ensued between the two Anglicans must have been a civil but heated one because a few moments later Bishop Butler forbade Wesley from preaching in his diocese, and Wesley, for his part, refused to abide by Bulter’s prohibition. Wesley’s justification was his own ordination credentials in the Church of England to preach to the church universal. [5]

What he meant by his “epic" clap back was not a denial of the miraculous but an affirmation of the universality of the Sprit’s work through all believers. Within the exchange, there is an important feature of Wesley’s understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit and his conception of the experience of the supernatural among believers.

Scholars, particularly Robert Webster, have argued persuasively that John Wesley both believed in demonstrative manifestations of the supernatural and that he collected various accounts of such experiences among the Methodists in a rhetorical defense of the supernatural. [6]

John Wesley was not only committed to the idea of the Holy Spirit’s movement and manifestations but he also elevated that idea to prominence in his rhetoric of the supernatural. Because of his acceptance of supernatural occurrences, John Wesley often found himself combating charges of enthusiasm (the eighteenth century term similar to hyper-charismatics) . Regardless of various oppositions, Wesley consistently contended that the movements and gifts of the Holy Spirit that were active in the first century were also active in the eighteenth.

Wesley held an understanding of the gifts of the Holy Spirit were for all people not just a select few. At the foundation of Wesley’s argument was the idea that the charismata operative in the first century had not died out with apostolic Christianity and emerged in every generation since then. Though Wesley agreed that the primary assurance was an inward one where love, peace, and joy are realized with an incremental advancement towards spiritual maturity, it was also the case that, just as in the first century so in Wesley’s own day, believers could judge the true sense of faith working by love, which often appeared in miraculous ways. 

Two Simple Examples

Scattered throughout Wesley’s journals were a variety of stories that Wesley had collected and edited for edification; stories of healing, dreams and visions, exorcisms, and an assortment of preternatural occurrences. Here are just two of those stories.

On April 6, 1756, Wesley approvingly wrote the story of a lady who had fallen and sprained her ankle several years prior. On her way home from a preaching service, she stumbled and fell on the ankle again. Her injury was recorded by Wesley in the journal: “I thought, O Lord, I shall not be able to hear thy word again for many weeks. Immediately a voice went through my heart, Name the name of Christ and thou shalt stand. I leaped up and stretched out my foot and said, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, I name thy name; let me stand.’ And my pain ceased. And I stood up. And my foot was as strong as ever.”[7]

Another is the case of an exorcism, Wesley recounts for an entry on October 25, 1739, how he was sent to see a young girl in Bristol. After some reluctance, Wesley entered into conversation with the demons that possessed the young girl. In the midst of the exorcism, Charles Wesley walked into the room and the demon-possessed girl screamed out: “Preacher! Field preacher! I don’t love field preaching.”[8] After two more hours of intense prayer, Wesley recorded the results: “And now it was that God showed he heareth the prayer. All her pangs ceased in a moment. She was filled with peace, and knew that the son of wickedness was departed from her.”[9]

These stories and many more like them, can be found in Wesley’s journals.



1. Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Joseph Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal 16th to 24th August 1739,” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 42 (1980): 93–100. The essence of the interview between Bishop Butler and John Wesley is found in Wesley’s journal as well. See Nehemiah Curnock (ed.), The Journal of John Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1938), 2:256–57 and W. R. Ward (ed.), “Appendix B: Wesley’s Interview with Bishop Butler, August 16 and 18, 1739,” in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), 19:471–74.

2. See Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Introduction by Ernest C. Mossner (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961). For Wesley’s complimentary remarks on Butler’s Analogy of Religion see John Wesley’s journal entries for January 1, 1746 and May 20, 1768 in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, 20:112 and 22:134 respectively.

3. “Wesley’s Interview with Bishop Butler,” The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 19:471.

4. Ibid., 471.

5. Ibid., 472.

6. Robert Webster, Methodism and the Miraculous: John Wesley’s Idea of the Supernatural and the Identification of Methodists in the Eighteenth Century (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013).

7.  John Wesley, April 6, 1756, The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 21:49. 

8.  John Wesley, October 25–27, 1739, The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 19:110–11. 

9. Ibid., 19:111.


Throughout his life, John Wesley held to an orthodox view of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Godhead. It was his trinitarian understanding of the God that informed his view of the Spirit's role in the Christian life. So adamant was Wesley’s conviction of this doctrine that he noted at the conclusion of his homily on the Trinity:

But I know not how anyone can be a Christian believer till “he hath” (as John speaks) “the witness in himself”; till “the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit that he is a child of God”—that is, in effect, till God the Holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son—and having this witness he honours the Son and the blessed Spirit “even as he honours the Father. . . . Therefore I do not see how it is possible for any to have vital religion who denies that these three are one.[1]

In Wesley's view, one can not have an authentic "inner witness" of the Spirit without an equally orthodox view of the Trinity. Non-trinitarians beware. Wesley's words remind us that no experience of the Spirit whether it be in vision, spiritual gift or personal encounter is deemed authentic if one denounces a trinitarian understanding of God. The gracious would say such manifestations are heterodox. The honest call it hersey. Wesley would surely support the proposition that without an orthodox view of the Trinity one cannot claim an authentic experience of the Spirit.

1. John Wesley, “On the Trinity,” The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), 2:385–86.


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