Listen here to the lecture and the Q&A time afterwards, to hear more about John Wesley’s strangely warm opposition to the preaching of Whitefield and his friends. There is much for us all to learn, whichever side of the doctrinal debate we are on, in our own contexts today.
To read the original text, there’s a booklet on sale:
“Strangely Warmed”: Whitefield, Toplady, Simeon and Wesley’s Arminian Campaigns
Westgate has been given the 2014 St Antholin lecture and this seminar here at Oak Hill and we’re gonna start by looking at 2 Timothy chapter 2 verse 22. Paul writes:
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith love and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. have nothing to do with foolish ignorant controversies, you know that they breed quarrels. and the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone able to teach, patiently enduring evil correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by him to do his will.”
Let’s just pray as we begin. Heavenly Father we thank you and praise you for your words in the Bible. Thank you for the Gospel, which saves us and is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Pray that you’ll help us as we look tonight at some controversies in church history to be discerning as Paul exhorts us to be in 2 Timothy 2 here, that you’d help us in our day not to be breeding quarrels or be involved in things that we ought not to be embroiled in, but to join with all those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. And pray too that you help us to pursue these things with prayer, asking that you would rescue our opponents in all these theological debates that we might be involved in, you might rescue them from the snare of the devil. We ask all these things in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.
Well, 2014 is the 300th birthday of George Whitfield, the great Anglican evangelical evangelist. Whitfield has been rightly celebrated as the primary cause, humanly speaking, of the evangelical revival of the 18th century. His most recent biographer lords him as America’s spiritual founding father. His name is being kept alive by evangelical Baptists, evangelical Presbyterians, especially in America. Yet he has been strangely neglected in large measure by evangelical Anglicans, despite being a thoroughgoing Church of England man. I hope your hearts are strangely warmed, as I say that. The relative neglect of Whitfield may not be surprising however, when we consider the early on in the 18th century at these evangelists were often barred from Anglican pulpits. One of those pulpits from which they were barred, or some of them, was St Helen’s Bishopsgate, which today has something of a reputation as a flagship evangelical church. More than once when I was on the staff there, I was told the story of how graceless and dead St Helen’s must have been in those heady days of the 18th-century revival. Why? I here you ask. Well, John Wesley came to preach at St Helen’s one Tuesday lunchtime in May 1738. Yes, they did have Tuesday lunchtime services then. Dick Lucas did not invent that idea. He preached there on May 1738, and afterwards he wrote in his diary, that somebody at St Helen’s said to him. “Sir you must preach here no more”. Obviously, the doctrines of grace and salvation were despised and misunderstood in 18th-century Bishopsgate. I was always intrigued by this. So I did a bit of research. I read George Whitfield’s journals. and I found that he had also preached at St Helen’s in 1736. And funny enough he’d been received far more favourably. Indeed he says in one of his journal entries that they stopped him getting out of the place because they were so keen to talk to him afterwards. “They soon grew serious and exceedingly attentive,” he says, “and after I came down” from the giant pulpit they have there, “they showed me great tokens of respect, blessed me as I passed along. I made great enquiry who I was. So what was going on? Why if Whitfield was received so well, was Westley not also embraced at this evangelical church? What was I missing about the evangelical revival? The problem, I later found, is that the controversy started by John Wesley, in his strangely heated opposition to reformed Anglican doctrine, has been systematically hushed up and played down by historians and hagiographies alike. So much so that opposition to Wesley is even now taken by some with little knowledge of Wesley’s actual teaching, to be straightforward opposition to the Gospel itself. I was less surprised however, at the strong reactions against Mr. Wesley when I tracked down the printed version of his sermon on Romans 8:32, which is the text that he preached on that Tuesday lunchtime at St Helen’s. It is a sermon he used on many occasions. From start to finish it is a sustained, emotive, cognitive, highly prejudiced and somewhat patronising rant against reformed doctrine, against Calvinism. He goes on and on and on in this sermon, about how believing in predestination is bad for your spiritual health, and it destroys all zeal for good works, especially the good work of evangelism. No one will evangelise if they believed in predestination, he asserted. Predestination Wesley pronounced, was a doctrine full of blasphemy. He complained bitterly against the horrible blasphemies contained in this horrible doctrine. To those who might disagree with his convictions, he said: “You, you represent God as worst than the devil, more false more cruel, more unjust, no Scripture can prove predestination. I abhor the doctrine of predestination. I abhor the doctrine of predestination. He then goes on to portray the opponents, and hmm, his opponents are those who believe in Reformed doctrine, as worse than the baby sacrificing worshippers of the false god Moloch. This is not just a brief off-the-cuff aside. This is the tenor of the whole sermon, and the reason that he had it published. Well, I have to say, that doing just a little bit of historical research, certainly changed my mind about where St Helen’s stood in the 18th century. My sympathies now are clearly with the discerning minister or churchwarden who sought to protect the church from hearing such divisive and melodramatic things again. If I’d been there I think I would have said, “Sir you must preach here no more.”
Julia Wedgwood’s 19th-century biography of Wesley, makes the rather insightful comment that Wesley’s sermon against predestination, has in it some of the provoking glibness with which young or half cultivated people settle in a few sentences questions that have exercised the deepest minds ever since the dawn of speculation. Indeed it is evidence on reading this sermon that of all the deep works, which had been written on the subject of predestination, Wesley had not read one. And yet, he pronounced so forcefully on all of these issues. That’s sermon was printed, and reprinted many times in the following years, despite howls of protest from Whitfield and others who pleaded with Wesley not to publish it. Now it was suggested to me that Wesley just didn’t understand grace when he preached that sermon in 1738, his heart had yet to be strangely warmed by his Gospel experience, his Aldersgate experience at St Botolph’s Aldersgate near St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city of London.
And it’s true that the St Helen’s sermon was on May the 9th and the warning of Wesley’s heart did not happen until May the 24th. However, Wesley disliked predestination just like his mother and his father from very early on. Ian Murray rightly notes that Wesley’s opposition to Calvinism stiffens rather than weakens; his heart was always strangely warmed against Calvinism. Wesley was always and always would be an Armenian. Armenians were fiercely opposed to things like unconditional predestination, which they regarded as Calvinistic nonsense. So Wesley preached this sermon and printed it, and several other polemical works time and time again.
Not just in 1738, not just in 1739, but in 1740 when the revival was in full swing. In fact, in 1741 he published a dozen explicitly anti-Calvinist, anti-predestination works in just a few months after Whitfield returned from America. It was a deliberate ploy to caricature and oppose reformed theology, and especially the hellish doctrine, as he put it, of predestination. What is it he would have seen “Oh horrible decree worthy of whence it came forgive their hellish blasphemy who charged on the land. Wesley’s line, however was that God me to preach and to print this stuff, God told me he had cast lots and received very clear guidance from God to preach and print against predestination. Truth is though it was all part of a rather sordid power-play against Whitfield, who’d left the rather imperious Wesley to look after the nascent evangelical movement while he went on mission to America. While he was gone Wesley used his position to gather followers, pressurise booksellers and to form his own movements instead. His distinctive rallying calls were his stance against predestination and his teaching on perfectionism. Arnold Dallimore’s biography of Whitfield tells the full story in its crude and shocking detail, how Wesley tried to stamp his mark of authority onto the revival at this early stage. and put himself at its head.
Whitfield was extremely reluctant to enter the lists against Wesley on this subject, yet eventually Wesley had turned up the heat too far and so he felt constrained to offer a reply in a public letter to Wesley. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this letter but I find it to be a clear, courteous and very effective reply. What’s more it is restrained and mildly put in comparison with Wesley’s bitter invective, especially when you read that in the context of what Wesley is doing with Whitfield’s evangelical movements, trying to hijack it. One of the things he criticises Wesley for is actually ignoring the actual text he was meant to be preaching on. Romans 8:32 is a brilliant text for demonstrating the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and limited atonement. Whitfield refers in his reply to Wesley to several books which he thinks are helpful and unanswerable on the points in question. Clearly Whitfield had read some important books on the subject and encourages Wesley to go and do likewise, in fact he even posted some copies of those books to his friend in order to help him and see if he could answer some of his objections. Whitfield stands on the shoulders of giants in the puritan and reformed tradition. Whitfield particularly cites article 17 of the Thirty-nine Articles to show that our godly reformers did not think election destroys holiness. He questions Wesley’s loyalty to the reformed Church of England, saying “I cannot but blame you for censoring the church that clergy of our church for not keeping to their articles, when you yourself by your principles, positively deny the 9th, 10th and 17th. You can’t go around saying to other people, you’re not obeying the Thirty-nine Articles articles and preaching the true doctrine, when you yourself are denying some of the key ones.
Whitfield’s response to Wesley Places him very firmly in the reformed tradition of the Church of England. The hymn writer Augustus Montague Toplady says that Whitfield was not only a great evangelist but also a most excellent systematic divine. His reply to Wesley is full of careful Continental Calvinist divinity, which he preached with passion and fervour. In the rest of his reply Whitfield chose several times why he thinks such doctrines as predestination are a very good thing, in terms of encouraging a godly life and spurring us on to evangelism, rather than being a bad thing as Wesley had alleged. Predestination rather than something to be appalled was Whitfield’s daily comforts and joy and supports he said. This is warm piety allied to solid theology, served up in a firm but friendly tone. In one of his sermons George Whitfield talks about those who dislike this kind of reformed theology, he says, “They that are not led to see this I wish them better heads, though I believe numbers that are against it have got better hearts. The Lord help us to bear with one another where there is an honest heart.” But Wesley hated all this. His father was a Church of England clergyman and Wesley called himself a high churchman born of high church parents, he was brought up to despise his reformed faith and the reformed faith of the Church of England and the puritan heritage, if dig back further into Wesley’s family you find several puritans in his family tree. Now let’s be clear in all this. Wesley may well have believed in all the objective facts of our salvation, like substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ, but he wasn’t just mistaken about small things like predestination, he was also confused on Christian perfectionism, which he thought was attainable in this life, and even wobbled on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. So if you go forward to the, where Wesley Methodist conference of 1770 we find that Wesley has been losing patience with the evangelical Calvinists. He chooses this moment when Whitfield has died to return to the Armenian distinctives, but particularly to justification and its relationship to holiness, as well as rebuking the Methodists for leaning too much towards Calvinism, a poisonous play worse than all the devices of Satan. He also told them this: “Every believer till he comes glory works for, as well as from life. We have received it as a maxim that a man is to do nothing in order to justification. Nothing can be more false. Is this not salvation by works? Not by the merits of works but by works as a condition, we are every hour and every moment pleasing or displeasing to God according to our works”, said Wesley. Just read that again, look at it. We do good works for eternal life, not just spurred on by our new birth. It is false to say we contribute nothing to our justification. It is not by faith alone. Good works are a condition of our salvation.
Now this sort of thing was rightly shocking to those who were taught to value their Reformation heritage, so writes Ian Murray, “If Wesley’s theology was confused — that’s being polite — why, some might ask, should we value his memory today? The answer”, says Murray, “is that it is not in his theology that his real legacy lies. Christian leaders are raised up for different purposes. The 18th-century evangelicals were primarily men of action, and in that role John Wesley did and said much, that was the the lasting benefit of many thousands.” What do you think? That may be true, in a way, but we may also want to go on and ask whether celebrity men of action can really be so easily excused a little dodgy theology on basic issues of salvation.
Now it would be bad enough, wouldn’t it? if Wesley and Whitfield fell out, the two great names in our evangelical revival, and at the height of all the activity. But what if Wesley continued to press his case for Arminianism even further? What would happen? In order to put his spat with Whitfield into some context, let’s look further at Wesley’s controversial Armenian campaigns. Now I know they’re sometimes called the Calvinist controversies, but who do you think made that name up? Who made that name up? Who looks like the bad guy if you call it the Calvinist controversy? Well that was Wesley’s idea. It makes it look like Calvinism is the troublemaker, but that’s not how others at the time sow it. Whitfield said it was Wesley who threw in the bone of contention.
So the first Armenian controversy was that cold war between Wesley and Whitfield in the 1740s. In the 1750s James Harvey on the side of the reformed is attacked by the Rev J Fletcher, John Fletcher and others for the Armenians. That was round two. Round three however, would see Wesley go up against the most able of all those on the Calvinist side of the debate, Augustus Montague Toplady. He’s most famous, of course, as a hymn writer. You may know hymn A Debtor to Mercy Alone and that startling and oft-quoted line “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling.” But he was also a preacher a historian and a controversialist of some talent. Toplady links Arminian theology to Pelagius the arch heretic who opposed Augustine in the fourth century. Some people might find that offensive, perhaps but Wesley was in fact happy to identify with Pelagius, “One of the righteous remnant in church history; A true Christian; A holy man, who’s been unfairly stigmatised by that nasty abusive Augustine” – and he wasn’t really worth listening to, Augustine. “All Pelagius was trying to say” [over] Wesley, “was that a Christian can go on to perfection, and fulfil the law of Christ.”
Toplady also linked Arminianism to Rome. Indeed he said, “Arminianism is the forerunner, which prepares the way for Rome, and if not discarded in time will one day open the door to it, to Roman Catholicism.” Now J.C. Ryle seems to consider Toplady’s identification of Arminians with Pelagians and papists, to be an outrageous scandal. In fact Ryle has done more than anyone to destroy Toplady’s reputation because of this, in his popular book on the Christian leaders of the 18th-century. Yet these were, of course, not unusual connections to make in the 16th, the 17th or the 18th centuries. Whitfield, who Ryle loves, and many others, also drew attention to the theological links, and it had been standard practice in the Puritan debates against Laudianism and the Remonstrance. It was also not unusual when Toplady links the rise of immorality in the country with the rise of Arminianism in the church, especially under the Merry Monarch Charles II, from 1660 onwards. Was that outrageous as well? Well if it was we should also point out that several leading Arminian Methodists, including Wesley, accuse Calvinists of all manner of evils, alleging that they are unchristian, heretical, islamic, fatalistic, cold and emotionless sloths, whose principles prove that they must be uninterested in evangelism, blah, blah, blah. So accusing them of a tendency to Pelagianism, an identification which Wesley seemed happily to accept, hardly seems comparable on the insult scale.
Now Toplady and Wesley, particularly came to blows in print between 1769 and 1772, in what I like to call the Zanchi tract war. There they are, 18th-century ships firing broadsides at each other in the Zanchi tract war. In November 1769 Toplady published a translation over work on predestination by Jerome Zanchius, a 16th century reformer, which Toplady entitled the doctrine of absolute predestination stated and asserted. This had been an influential book in his own spiritual development while he was a student. He’d originally translated it from the Latin in 1760, when he was a 19-year-old student. After some prompting from the Baptist, his Baptist friend John Gill and others he overcame his diffidence and decided the time was now right to publish this translation. What is Zanchius’ book like? Well it leans heavily on Luther’s reply to Erasmus on the Bondage of the Will, as well as on Augustine; it covers election, reprobation, particular redemption, and various objections to these doctrines. It concludes with a section promoting promiscuous Gospel preaching to all, and public preaching on predestination for the Saints. The ultimate reason for focusing on this doctrine, said Zanchius, was that scarce any other distinguishing doctrine of the Gospel can be preached in its purity and consistency without this of predestination. A few months after this book came out John Wesley wrote to his Methodist colleague Walter Sellon. He’d only ask Sellon to write something against John Owens work on Limited Atonement, which Wesley particularly disliked. He also asked Sellon to write something against Toplady as well, in order to stop the mouth of that vain boaster. Evidently Wesley felt threatened by the arrival on the scene of the much younger Toplady.
But it wasn’t Sellon, but Wesley himself who made the most public response to the translation of Zanchi. He put out an abridgement of Toplady’s book, under Toplady’s name, but for his own, Wesley’s profit. Three observations ought to be made on Wesley’s abridgement of Toplady’s book. First it does capture something of the general flow of Zanchius’ argument, and retains some of the choices quotations. As revision notes for an exam on Zanchius’ philosophy this material might have some use. Secondly however, Wesley removes entirely the biblical aspects of Zanchi’s presentation, for example, and I know you’re gonna think I’m a geek, bear with me. In Toplady’s book, in Toplady’s translation of Zanchius, there are over 350 biblical quotations and allusions – yes, I did count them. In Wesley’s abridgement, how many do you think there are? None. Not a single verse is quoted with a reference. There is a vague allusion to “Esau I have hated” and that’s it, which does rather leave a different taste in the mouth, I think you’d find. And sort of castrates the persuasive potential of the book for a Christian audience. But finally, and most alarmingly, Wesley added a whole paragraph to the book, claiming that it was by Toplady. It was calculated to paint predestination and Augustus Toplady in as bad a light as possible. Here it is: “The sum of all is this: 1 in 20, suppose, of mankind are elected, 19 in 20 are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will. The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this or be damned. Witness my hand Augustus Toplady.”
Now naturally, Toplady felt somewhat aggrieved by this gross misrepresentation. He replied to Wesley pointing out that, “in almost any other case a similar forgery would transmit the criminal to Virginia or Maryland, if not to Tyburn. In other words, normally for this kind of forgery you’d be, you’d have pretty bad punishments, like being sent to America, Virginia or Maryland or to Tyburn. I, you’d would be executed for this. There were very harsh laws against forgery at the time, akin to the laws against plagiarism of Oak Hill Theological College (laughs), and in fact one of Wesley’s acquaintances had been hung at Tyburn in 1777 for forgery, but Toplady thought that it was better to refuse Wesley’s falsehoods then to take him to court for his plagiarist liable. So he says, “As far as this infamous final paragraph is concerned, the numbers are wrong and presumptuous and certainly not Toplady’s.” In Toplady’s opinion he says this, “The kingdom of glory will be more largely and more variously peopled than bigots of all denominations are either able to think or willing to allow.” Wesley’s summary of what he’d written, was also scurrilous with entirely false indications. The elector not saved do what they will but chosen as much to holiness as to heaven. Equally importantly Toplady neither claims nor thought that Armenians were all going to hell. He never once said that you had to be a Calvinist in order to be saved. That of course would had been a very strange thing for him to have said given that he himself had been an Armenian in the first few years after he was converted, and he doesn’t subsequently redate his conversion to when he becomes a Calvinist. He thought that many Armenians were pious, moderate, respectable men, adding of these I myself know more than a few — some of my best friends are Arminians – and I have a happiness to enjoy as much of their esteem as they deservedly possess of mine. He could even be very positive about some other prominent Arminians, calling them eminent and worthy, great ornaments to our church, and not to be mentioned without honour, even while he fervently disagrees with some of their theology. Well, Wesley replied to Toplady’s reply, and Toplady replied, and so on and so forth. It was attract war. What one commentator says, “Toplady treated Wesley with the manners and decorum of gentlemen and the analytical objectivity of a scientist. Well, he may have been slightly warmer than that. But what was he up against? What kind of thing was Wesley saying against him? At one point Wesley compares the Calvinist God to a man who has his enemy’s nine-year-old daughter raped, so that he can then strangle her to death because she’s being deflowered. Toplady rightly thought this was impious, to say the least, and some Evangelicals refuse to let Wesley in their pulpits – no surprises there. Toplady complained against a man who is so liberally lamentable in his outcries against the doctrine of predestination, and carries to such horrid lengths his invectives against the purposes and providences of God.
Toplady’s attempts at persuasion won him no friends amongst the Arminians, but he continued to pray for them, and hope for them. He wrote to a friend in 1773, “The envy malice, and fury of Wesley’s party are inconceivable, but violently as they hate me, I dare not, I cannot, hate them in return – I have not so learned Christ.They have my prayers and my best wishes for their preset and eternal salvation. But their errors have my opposition also.” Toplady’s reputation has been unfairly maligned in my opinion, because of the extravagant eccentricities of the great and famous John Wesley, which had been hushed up, too easily excused by Wesley, by his followers, by Ryle and others. It certainly does seem out of place from a man ordained nearly 50 years to behave the way Wesley did towards a fellow evangelical less than half his own age. As Jim Packer rightly says, “Wesley’s misrepresentations of Calvinism argue a degree of prejudice and close mindedness, which is almost pathological, his heart was hot against Calvinism.”
As a young man in his 20s Toplady had held back from publishing his translation of Zanchi for nine long years, because he was fearful of offending Wesley, and those on his side. If anything, Toplady seems to have been guilty of an unwarranted deference the older man celebrity, and intimidating influence. If in later years this may have threatened to become an unhealthy fixation on demonstrating Wesley’s perfidious errors, we can also see with crystal clarity, that what motivated Toplady, was defending the Gospel of God’s mercy and grace. It was even his duty, he thought, to pray for Wesley, writing, “O, that he in whose hands the hearts of all men are, may make even this opposer of grace on monuments of almighty power to save. God is witness how earnestly I wish it may consist with the divine will to touch the hearts and open the eyes of that unhappy man, Mr. Wesley.”
When I originally gave this lecture the somewhat more sensational title, “Celebrity Preachers in Calvinist Cover-ups”, the extent of Wesley’s Arminianism and bad behaviour has for far too long been covered up. We’ve explored some of the reasons that already, but much of the blame for downplaying things here, might fairly be laid at the door of another evangelical Anglican hero, Charles Simeon.
In November 1787 nearly a decade after Toplady died, a young Charles Simeon destined to be the leader of the evangelicals into the next century, met with the ageing John Wesley. The conversation, though it is not recounted in Wesley’s journal, has often been cited as evidence that Calvinists and Armenians are in essence agreed on fundamentals. If you read it in advance as I suggested, you’ll know how it goes.
Simeon: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian, and I have sometimes been called a Calvinist. Therefore, I suppose, we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not from impertinent curiosity, but for real instruction. Pray, Sir, (I should do this in a posh accent, really. Shouldn’t I, but I can’t really muster those up) do you, Sir, feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Wesley replies: Yes, I do indeed.
Simeon: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything that you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ.
But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
Wesley: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.
It’s interesting to read that in the context of the previous 50 years or so of debate, between Wesley and Whitfield, Wesley and Toplady, Wesley and everybody else. Isn’t it? We ought to notice that Simeon begins — if this account is accurate, and does actually relates to Simeon himself — is recounted in the third person in a footnote of one of his books, and as if it might not be him — but it probably is. And he claims there, not to be a Calvinist, but to say that he’s sometimes been called a Calvinist. Normally Simeon did not want to be identified either with Calvinists or Arminians; claiming that he was no friend to systematisers in theology — sorry Mike. He had no doubt that there is a system in the Holy Scriptures — for truth cannot be inconsistent with itself — but he was persuaded that neither Calvinists nor Armenians are in exclusive possession of that system.
Wesley on the other hand, although he doesn’t recounts the conversation, identifies Simeon on the two occasions when they both met, as very much like his own designated successor as leader of the Armenians, the Rev J. Fletcher of Madeley. This is not to say that Simeon was an Armenian. I don’t think he was. But his Calvinism was either unseen, or sufficiently confused as not to attract the attention of the man who had been Calvinism’s self-proclaimed nemesis for 50 years, and had made such harsh pronouncements against it. Perhaps, Simeon was naive in his youthful enthusiasm to sidestep to decades and decades of serious discussion, and be considered like a consummate ecclesiastical politician, sympathetic to both sides. Yet the debate was not as many may wish it to be; one merely of timing and where to place the emphasis. You know, as if Calvinists like George Whitfield held to divine sovereignty, but did not appeal to human decisions; or that they simply ignored parts of Scripture that did not at first blush seem to fit their preconceived system; or that they were abstract theologisers, who needed Arminians to teach them how to speak to real people.
That caricature certainly does not fit George Whitfield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century. He was not a Calvinist in this study and an Armenian in the pulpit. To say that the Arminian doctrines of Free Will could be used alongside Calvinist teaching concerning divine providence and grace, as if they were not necessarily contradictory, perhaps sounded irenic to Simeon. But what are we to make of Simeon’s comments here? “It is supposedly said by many, that the doctrines of grace are incompatible with the doctrine of man’s Free Will, and that therefore the one or the other must be false, but why so?” Or his assertion that, “it is possible that the truth may lie not exclusively in either, nor yet in a confused mixture of both, but in the proper and seasonable application of them both.” It seems likely that Simeon’s misunderstanding that the two systems could be pastorally blended to obtain a supposedly better and more biblical balance, played straight into the synergistic hands of the Armenians. And I suspect that the more experienced Wesley was well aware of that.
Secondly, it ought to be pointed out that Simeon in this conversation, narrating events two decades before he’s written it down, and two decades after Wesley has died, does most of the talking, doesn’t he, in this exchange? Putting lots of words into the older man’s mouth. Hence we learn more in this discussion about Simeon, then we do about Wesley himself. Very skilfully he skirts around some of the actual areas of contention, to present himself in a rather positive light. For example, lets get back to it. What does he ask? He asks Sir. Wesley whether he feels himself depraved, not notice whether he is or was totally depraved and unable to respond to God before his conversion, which because of his doctrine of prevenient grace or universal enablement, Wesley would not have been able to answer in the affirmative, like a Calvinist. As said Charles Wesley’s hymn appended to the Free Grace sermon, puts it. “The power to choose. A will to obey. Freely his grace restores. We all may find the living way and call the saviour ours.” So as resheathes his dagger Simeon declares: “This is all my Calvinism. This is all my election. Of course, we should note that at no point has it actually addressed the doctrine of election, in that discussion. Presumably that was because he knows full well that Wesley believed in predestination on the basis of foreseen faith and perseverance, and not on the basis of God’s gratuitous unmerited choice alone. Again, Charles Wesley would have us sing lines like this:
Whom his eternal mind foreknew,
That they the power would use,
Ascribe (the glory that) to God the glory due,
And not his grace refuse;
Them, only them, his will decreed,
Them did he choose alone,
Ordained in Jesus’ steps to tread,
And to be like his Son.
What is that? That is conditional election based on foreseen faith and the use of resistible grace by the unbound will. That is no small point, but goes to the very heart of the predestination debate, and yet in his noble and historic heroic crusade for some kind of unity, Simeon evidently feels that it is merely searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention. There was real Gospel minded concern at the hearts of people’s worries about Wesley, which is not apparent from the way that Simeon deals with him here.
Third, I think it’s hardly right to acquit Wesley and Arminianism generally of synergistic views of salvation, simply on the basis of his own protestations and denials. Which Christian theologian ever admitted openly to teaching straightforward salvation by works? That is not to say, however, that every Christian theologian avoids that track, or the tendency, as a clear implication of their system, or in the minds of their less educated followers. Nevertheless, Simeon’s view of Wesley and of Arminianism and of systematisers in theology has become the dominant note in much of today’s evangelicalism. Differences between Calvinists and Arminians are too often evaded and fudged for the sake of unity and peace, so that somebody who dredges them up is considered factious, and unnecessarily competitive, a cynic a bear, a Toplady, as Wesley once said in his usual sour way. But you know, questioning somebody’s teaching on predestination and justification and sanctification is hardly the equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So what should we conclude this evening?
Wesley raised the temperature of debates amongst evangelicals in the 18th century. Some may say, needlessly, for one supposedly devoted to evangelical unity and peace his heart and his pen was strangely warmed against Calvinism and Calvinists. His behaviour and his tone have too often been excused, or covered up, and many have been blinded by his celebrity and reputation, and wanted to keep him and his followers on side. That’s sometimes lead to something of a whitewash. Wesley once said: “Those that are for peace, will leave these things alone.” Many feel the same about the Armenian controversies, which he stirred up. “It’s better not to get embroiled in such things. Those that are for peace, will leave these things alone.” But you know, when he said those words, Wesley was not trying to calm a doctrinal debate, which he continued to fuel. He was trying to deflect attention away from scurrilous slandering of Toplady — after reading in the book exactly what he did to Toplady after Toplady was dead.
Party loyalty may sometimes be laudable, and there is a time and a place. But the idea that for the sake of evangelical unity, we must never question the behaviour of the big chiefs, however lamentable, is surely anathema to truth loving Christians. Those that are for truth, must sometimes touch the sore spot. In my view it’s imperative that both Whitfield and Toplady are heard again in proper historical context by both Evangelicals and Anglicans. It’s vital as Paul Helm notes, “to see clearly that the evangelical participants in the 18th century controversy, certainly did not think that what united them was greater than what divided them. The occurrence of the Calvinist Arminian division was very serious, fairly permanent and sad.” Many would not have considered themselves evangelical first and reformed second, if that meant unity with the imperious Wesley was the touchstone issue. George Whitfield may have acknowledged some common ground with Wesley, but he resisted the idea that the issues at stake between them on predestination and justification, were only of secondary importance, to be placed on one side for the sake of a common witness. No he told Wesley in 1741, that they were preaching two different Gospels.
Fred Sanders a well-known and much respected Arminian, Wesleyan, recently attacked Toplady in a blog post, and then put it out again on his birthday no less. Poor old Toplady. “Toplady wrote the hymn Rock of Ages, says Fred, out of spite, and was a bitter narrow-minded young man, who couldn’t keep his personal hatred from overflowing into his prayers and songs.” Well, okay, Toplady did indulge in some florid rhetoric at times, for which he cannot be entirely praised, but I think my good friend Prof. Sanders is perhaps guilty of selective historical judgements. Again, Toplady is being excoriated and not always fairly, while the great and famous John Wesley is almost automatically exonerated from his perfidious crimes. However that being said, Dr. Sanders does have these very helpful words of application for us tonight. He says, “When publicly disagreeing with other believers, try to keep some sense of perspective; if a Wesleyan is the worst thing that you can imagine, you have a weak imagination. Wesley’s influence is not what is driving the godless spirit of the age, the same moral applies of course to Armenians too. If you think the main problem with the world today is Calvinism, you should get out more.”
Well, all that being said, Whitfield and his friends, they thought that the confessionally Anglican and evangelical testimony to God’s saving grace in the gospel must remain unadulterated, unconditional election and justification Sola fide are too important the push to one side. A time may come, when even friends or allies must be taken to task the softening gospel’s truths or adding spurious practices to them. We forget that at our peril, even as we celebrate the famously Catholic spirit of George Whitfield in this his 300th anniversary year.
Thank you very much, Lee for taking us back and challenging us to rethink, some of this wonderful lecture. We have about 10/15 minutes for discussion, faculty members, students, may be you’d like to ask to continue the conversation on.
Q: [This I may not, I’m greatly admire these or nor just a part from J. C. Ryle.] Do you think he was sort of deliberately covering up for the possession of all the materials, you’ve sort of loaned them. He made too much of Wesley’s sermon at Whitfield’s funeral particularly, What were you make of that?
A: Yes, so he’s talking about Wesley in this chapter on Wesley…and, Oh, Yes, of course, he disagreed with Whitfield and they had some disagreements. Let’s now quote for the rest of this chapter on that subject from Wesley’s funeral sermon on Whitfield, in which of course all those big arguments are naturally covered over. So you don’t get any sense of Wesley’s – you know. none of that stuff I told you about Wesley appears in that book by Ryle, you don’t get the sense that Wesley was at all at fault anywhere.
Q: What was that do you think, is if he had that material, he’d choose…
A: He had that material, he had that material.
Q: Didn’t Wesley reach a funeral at Whitfield’s request. Does that say anything to us about how did they end personally to it?
It’s, I mean, it’s not his funeral at first, it’s a memorial service back in England — Whitfield died unfortunately in America, although he wants to come back, Yeah. They were preaching two different Gospels, and Wesley always tried to be friendly towards him, even, you know, they could appear together on a platform later on in Whitfield’s ministry, but only if Whitfield gave up all claim to be a leader in the movement and to just to appear as one of Wesley’s assistants, which kind of speaks volumes for the relative ambitions of the two men. I don’t think they made up the doctrinal issue at all. They just came to a sort of truce, not not to attack each other over it any more, which in 1770, as soon as he’s called in the grave, bang! in goes Wesley with the those conference Minutes on justification and other things.
Q: When we see this Calvinist Arminian division today, all I said was if we drop the ball we fudge the issue?
Lee: I don’t know whether we see it, do we see it at all? Haven’t the Armenians all just died out?
A: No, not yet.
A: Whitfield thought we all came out of the womb Armenians, that that was natural sinful theology. Whitfield thought that, not Toplady, saying something rude, but it was Whitfield who said that. So, it is gonna be a bad. It’s the standard theology of anyone who hasn’t thought about it for very long I think, in some ways. That’s not to say that you can’t also have a more developed, thoughtful Arminianism, but I think it is a default mode for many people in evangelical circles, yeah.
Q: I just come back from the EETS, still very much annoyed .. Southern Baptist convention South Western Seminary still, oh, well, who call yourself 1 or 2 point Calvinist. So you kind of go, you’re Arminian bias – let’s say you’re a Calvinist, but 1, 2, 3 or 4 points. So it’s interesting, on some of the discussions between the old and the new Calvinism, some of the new Calvinists movement before people be more Arminian in terms of having denied 2 or 3 points, 40 people Arminian who’ve got claims to be Calvinists.
A: Yes, it’s a very big deal in America, but is it over here? Your question is more about, is it in our circles? Is it, where is it here?
Q: I suppose about asking these days, there are churches as a default position I wonder if you … they are going out into for the real world and just being aware of … people …. name names, but who are articulating what they think of their might .. a world thought through Arminianism .. I’m rabbled fudging the issue and some are continuing in Simeon’s footsteps. We need to man-up and…
A: Yeah, it has all kinds of applications. So, I gave this material to a great and famous worthy in our constituency and he’s… he read it and came back to me, and having thought about it and prayed about it, he said, “Well, you’ve removed Wesley’s halo, which is probably a good thing, but you can’t say all these things about him, you know, you can’t say that he’s Arminian and he’s hopeless, and” bla bla bla…, “you can’t just can’t do that. You know, he’s done so much great good, good things, and you know, I’ve learned lots from reading his sermons, and that kind of thing”,… And I said, okay, great, well, if you will say the same thing about HTB, then I will say nice things about Wesley. You know, if you will acknowledge that also HTB have done some good things, and their big men of action, and got lots done… Even though. And this guy, you know, really dislikes that kind of HTB theology. And he’d stopped couldn’t say anything at that point, and didn’t know what to say. See, we think Wesley great hero, great hero, but we don’t see it in our own day. We don’t see the same people around us. We’re slightly blinded to it, that’s why history is very helpful, ‘cause you can just take a step back, let a few hundred years go by, and then analyse it more carefully. Yeah, like I said, I think I said at the end, there are gonna be cases where we will have to man-up and sometimes even people with, friends with or allies with in good causes, there may be things where we have to say ,hang on a sec, you’re denying justification by faith alone, or, you know, one of the things that Whitfield writes against is the Moravians, who are using incense and images of Christ and all kinds of full-blown Anglo-Catholic things, I guess, or mystical things. And he has to take, he has to say, you know, this is bonkers — that’s the technical theological term. And he has to draw a line there. Even though they are on the same page on a number of other issues.
Q: rephrase the question about where are … by
A: Yes, they are very, it’s very much related. I mean, he’s basically saying that it is a long-standing Pelagian programme as far as I can see. So those things are linked all the way back to Pelagius at least, but in the Middle Ages as well you see it, don’t you? in various places you get this Armenian or semi-Pelagian trajectory in certain people, which is linked to moralising legalistic “we can do it guys, c’mon just put more effort” in asceticism often. So either that comes out in some of the monastic stuff in the Middle Ages and as a Calvinist carolingian Calvinism sort of reaction to it, all the way through the Middle Ages as well. And we get it, we get it in the Reformation too. So, I do think that it’s part of a programme. Wesley doesn’t, isn’t the first person to put those two things together. Pelagius does as well and others too.
Q: But he is unusual in
A: Outside the East, Yes, in the East Augustine is, you know, persona non grata as he is for Wesley. So he is unusual as a Western theologian in that sense to say, “Yes, I don’t mind Pelagius, he was just unfairly stigmatised by that nasty man Augustine.”
Q: What did he say of Augustine?
A: He’s a sort of nasty abusive man, who’s a bit sort of hat up and not to be listened to.
Q: Would it not be true to say that Wesley personally attacked Calvin and Whitfield.
A: A couple things to say about that, yeah, it’s a very good point. First there’s always variety, isn’t there? and Wesley acknowledged that he sees it ‘cause he excoriates his own movement for going too close to Calvinism in 1770s, like, “You are all practically Calvinists, stop it!…No!” He tries to pull them back from that, he can’t control them forever. he is a very controlling man. And he does eject people from places, from movements, from societies, if they’re Calvinist. That’s very clear, he’s just quite happy just to get them pushed out… So there is, there is some variety, but his writings are, you know, they are [inaudible] statements of orthodoxy for many in the Wesleyan church. He is a world changer, he’s a, you know, he’s one of those people, who change the world, like Aristotle and Marx, and these people, who had such an impact that people followed them. So Wesleyans read Wesley, they put, you know, in Cambridge when they had an anniversary at the Wesley Church, what did they put on the side of the church in big letters? – a quote from Wesley. They didn’t put a quote from Whitfield. So, you know, Wesley’s works are honoured read, and rebound, and republished, as they were just recently again, in America. So, you know, these things are perpetuated. I doubt you’d find many Calvinists in the Methodist Church today. But, yes, there a Calvinistic Methodist group in Wales, but that was basically led by Whitfield, so and how [inaudible] people like that.
A: … os I mean, of of the things he is against is that . Now I don’t know how you feel about that
No, I suggested that that book should not be published for that that and other reasons to another publisher. That’s nonsense, isn’t it? I mean, that idea that you can reconcile Arminianism with the Thirty-nine Articles we just take that specifically, and originates in the 17th century, and big time. I mean, there were people in Cambridge in the late 16th century saying that kind of thing, having a go with it, but they were clearly the minority, and that is where the bigwigs came up the Lambeth Articles, just clarify a few things to make it clear the Thirty-nine Articles really are very Calvinist. By the end of the 17th-century the Civil Wars or anything, we get a very important commentary by Bishop Gilbert Burnet on the Thirty-nine Articles in 1699, in which he says, “Here is the Reformed interpretation of article 17 and 9 and 10, and here is the Armenian one, and just leaves it at that. And you think, Oh my goodness, you know this is a bombshell for many people, that you can do that and get away wit it. anything my trip to Smithers is a bombshell for many people, that you can do that get away with it, ‘cause he didn’t get away with it. Two years later, convocation meets and censures him for publishing that, without saying, actually we are Reformed, not Armenian. So even in 1701, that late, the Archbishop can publish a dodgy book, but the official stance is still; No, that’s not the case, you cannot say you’re an Armenian and agree with article 17. That’s why during the 18th century Wesley, Toplady and Whitfield the world round, there’s a huge crisis over subscription to the Articles. Not just ‘cause of this, but because of Unitarianism, Socinianism, as well. Some people saying, “Well, I believe that Jesus is God, but I agree with the Articles. The same hermeneutic, isn’t it? If you can work your way round article 17, you can probably, work your way round article 1.
I’ve heard several people work their way round Article 1, but it’s of the Trinity, normally, as some things like impassibility that they don’t like, and thus outright deny them.
Q: Quick question. Did Wesley ever acknowledge publicly
A: No, his responses to Toplady’s kind of, Oi! What ya doing mate?! are very defensive, you know, Huh! You know, Top buddy is just getting in a bad mood, getting his knickers in a twist over nothing. I’ve done anything anything wrong. I’ve completely summarised it fine. Not really, no.
Q: So he doesn’t actually view the fact that
A: No, no he dies thinking that, You know, basically, he had that,.. he was in the right, all the way through that.
Q: A very practical question. Thinking celebrity pastors
A; Oh, that was a million miles away from what I was talking about.
Q: But, I just, I mean, you mentioned …about how you .. learn from all of this.
A: In case anyone here is going to be, to grow up to be a celebrity preacher.
Q: I expect most of you will.
A: We are looking at you (laughs)… Well, what is interesting is Whitfield, Whitfield, who in his early days, you know, he’d stamp his feet, he’d put a black cap on to pronounce death sentences on sinners, and he would shout and he could he heard two miles away, and he would write against people and attack them in print, and say they’re all dead lifeless, and because they were, you know, orthodox but lifeless, and he’d really a go at people. Later on, after the, you know, after his 20s, all of this is in his 20s, You know, much of what he does is a 24-year-old guy who goes out, you know, attacking all the letter learned preachers of the world. When he’s had a little bit more life experience, and meets a few more people, he does backtrack on much of that, and publicly says, “Alas, Alas! How wrong I’ve been to speak in a style too apostolical, and to give in characters and judgements on people and on places, that’d been too quick too rash. I ought not to have said many of those things, and some of them I ought to say till after I was dead. You know, just to have written them down to be published later. You know, I should not have done that”. And so, he apologises publicly, that can’t have been easy. Jonathan Edwards takes him to task for following inward impressions too much. And he, that’s another thing he kind of repents of. “i’ve made inwards impressions too much that rule for my acting, So he backtracked on that. Now I think that’s a good thing for anyone in the public limelight to to bear in mind. Thank you very much, we sure appreciate [Applause]