Fred Sanders is a theologian who teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. Fred’s twitter handle is @fredfredsanders. His personal web site is www.fredfredfred.com, and he blogs at www.scriptoriumdaily.com. He is the author of Wesley on the Christian Life.
The following interview is conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: Years ago, I heard John Piper say that the Arminians of today are nothing like the Arminians of Wesley’s day. His comment centered on an appreciation for the bigness of God. What do you think about Piper’s observation?
Sanders: Reading John Wesley can certainly make you look around at contemporary preaching and wonder where all the serious business went. The judgment he pronounced on university students in his day –“you are a generation of triflers, triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls”–strikes a nerve for us.
But as for Piper’s genial, if somewhat backhanded, compliment to eighteenth-century Arminians in particular, I do think he’s right, especially if he was thinking of “the bigness of God.” Wesley and his ilk were moved by a vision of God’s holiness. That’s what gave them their profound understanding of the depth of sin, their high estimate of the holiness of heart and life that Christians should strive for, and their urgency about proclaiming to gospel. If you take away that vision of God’s holiness, what you’re left with is the dry bones of Arminian doctrine: an overestimation of human capability, a politicized social agenda, a redundant message, theology with the lights dimmed. In brief introductions, I still prefer to call myself Wesleyan rather than Arminian, because there’s a chance the word “Wesleyan” might conjure the image of the older, stronger, nobler kind of Christian.
Then again, I’d be honored to be counted alongside the kind of contemporary Arminians whose work and character are consistently animated by that vision of God’s holiness: Robert Coleman and Tom Oden, for example, or Tim Tennent.
Moore: Your book has endorsements from well-respected Calvinists like Michael Horton and Carl Trueman. How can Calvinists benefit from reading your biography of Wesley?
Sanders: I was glad to get generous endorsements from a couple of Reformed thinkers who nobody is going to suspect of secretly sliding off in the direction of Arminian theology. I hope those blurbs help Calvinist readers know they can take up this book without catching a disease from its pages.
In the first chapter, I also gathered endorsements of John Wesley from well-respected Calvinists: John Newton’s testimony that “I know of no one to whom I owe more as an instrument of divine grace,” Charles Spurgeon’s striking claim that “if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley,” and J.C. Ryle’s admission that “whether we like it or not, John Wesley was a mighty instrument in God’s hand for good; and, next to George Whitefield, was the first and foremost evangelist of England a hundred years ago.”
I think Calvinist evangelicals need to hear the voice of Wesley because Wesley is unique; God used Wesley’s ministry in a singular way. That means you can’t just find a “Calvinist version” of him and make do with that. You might be able to mash together parts of Whitefield and Edwards to get a lot of what’s great in Wesley, but you’d have to already know what you were looking for. He combined thorough preparation, fluency in Scripture, keen spiritual insight, and a powerful communication style. One modern commentator put it this way: “Parental influence, a classical education, a methodical nature, and a personal crisis on a Pauline scale all combined to make him a man with something to say.”
That’s why, among my other goals for this book, I tried to make it a very Calvinist-friendly introduction to Wesley.
Moore: Why did Wesley marry Molly without consulting Charles, especially when they made an agreement to get the other’s approval beforehand? John Wesley promoted a rather intense form of accountability in his small group structure, but it seems he violated his own commitment to it.
Sanders: Alas! Wesley married badly, there’s no doubt about that. I remember that when this subject came up in classes at Asbury Theological Seminary during my MDiv, the professors would sadly admit that this great man of God had feet of clay. Acting against the strong advice of his brother Charles and in contradiction to the wishes of his supposedly rigorous accountability group, John Wesley chose to marry, and chose a wife who could not possibly be pleased with his ministry lifestyle. Wesley could have been, and should have been, one of the greatest examples of consecrated singleness in Protestant history. Instead, this aspect of his life is at best a cautionary tale. Actually, the Wesley chapter in your wife’s book Good Christians, Good Husbands? helped me see some of the right lessons to draw from this part of Wesley’s life.
Moore: For those who are mystified by different aspects of Wesley’s theology, none is probably greater than his teaching on Christian perfection. If this did not mean sinless perfection, what did it mean?
Sanders: What Wesley taught under the heading of Christian perfection was the idea that the process of transformation that begins in regeneration can move forward and reach its goal: entire sanctification. He had an “optimism of grace” about the possibility of experienced growth in Christlikeness, and considered holiness of heart and life to be one of the benefits of union with Christ.
But a lot of things we associate with the term “perfect” Wesley goes on to repudiate: Christian perfection, unlike absolute perfection, is a state that can be improved on the one hand and lost on the other. Why call if “perfection” if you’re going to backpedal in that way? As far as I can tell, Wesley’s answer is that he was using clear and direct biblical terminology. He habitually read the New Testament in Greek, where the teleios word group is abundant. English translations, in Wesley’s day and even more so in ours, handle that word group very flexibly: it gets translated sometimes as perfect, sometimes as mature, sometimes as complete, and so on. Wesley was pretty dogmatic about making the word “perfect” cover that full range of meanings. As a result, his controversial writing on the subject can sometimes be tedious: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection is one of his masterpieces, but it’s also a document he assembled by cutting and pasting all the arguments he’d had about this word over the course of his ministry, and gathering up all the things he does not mean by the word “perfect.” To make Wesley’s vision of radical personal transformation really work in our era, you’d have to paraphrase it conceptually and re-contextualize it. I think Tom Noble’s recent book Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting does a good job at that task.
Moore: Reading about the massive influence of the Puritans on Wesley was fascinating. Would you unpack that some for us?
Sanders: This was a fun part of the research for me: I became convinced that Wesley’s church renewal program is best understood against the backdrop of the Puritan movement, especially the so-called “Church Puritans” who stayed within the Church of England. Previously I had thought of him as a British version of continental Pietism. The Pietist linkage is real, but the Puritan connection is more organic: Wesley’s grandparents on both sides were Puritans who had been in various ways censured for being too red-hot in their evangelicalism for the Church of England: one grandfather was imprisoned for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer, and the other was ejected by the Act of Uniformity and suffered the confiscation of his property for hosting an unauthorized small group (conventicle)!
But in the following generation, both of Wesley’s parents rejoined the Church of England, and were Anglicans by conviction. In some ways John’s Methodism was a synthesis of the two generations, helping bring Puritan practices and sensibilities into the Church of England mainstream. As Gordon Rupp says, “The Puritans had used itinerant preachers, lay preachers, field preaching; in their smaller conventicles they exercised a stricter Christian discipline than that of formal Christianity. They had been exponents, in a vast and impressive literature of spiritual and moral and dogmatic theology, of doctrines of ‘inward religion,’ of a personal walk with God, of conversion, assurance, perfection.”
In other words, one way to look at Wesley’s success as a reformer is that he and his people “got away with” Puritanism inside the Church of England.
Moore: Related to the former question, what did Wesley mean by “heart religion” and was it similar to the teaching of Jonathan Edwards on the affections?
Sanders: Yes, Wesley’s teaching on “heart religion” was very similar to what Edwards taught about the religious affections. The main danger in his time was an emphasis on external religion, a kind of formalism that reduced Christianity to a set of doctrines plus a set of duties plus liturgy. Against this, Wesley insisted that true religion was a supernatural intervention of God’s grace in the innermost core of a person’s being: the heart. And that invisible, inward work of God necessarily brought with it a transformation that could be registered on an emotional level. As Wesley and Edwards insisted, you can’t have the fruit of the Spirit without your emotional life being transformed: love, joy, peace and the rest may not be merely feelings, but they can’t possibly be less than feelings.
Moore: Wesley hated slavery. Whitefield used slaves for his orphanages. Do we have any record of the two discussing the topic of slavery?
Sanders: Great question, since these two greatest figures in the Great Awakening had such opposite views on the issue of African slavery in the colonies. I grew immensely in my appreciation of George Whitefield during the writing of this book: I used to think of him as a second rate, down-market knock-off of John Wesley, frankly. But Whitefield was actually several steps ahead of Wesley on a number of crucial points, taking the early lead in outdoor preaching and understanding the strategic importance of the international scope of the revival. But there’s no covering up Whitefield’s role in supporting colonial slavery. We even have letters from him advocating the re-legalization of African slave labor in Georgia after the period in which it had been outlawed.
From Wesley, on the other hand, we have his published denunciations of the system, plus the last letter he ever wrote: a letter to Wilberforce encouraging him to carry on with his “glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature… Go on in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
I’m not aware of any letters or discussions between Wesley and Whitefield on the subject of slavery. Wesley’s outspoken position really takes away the possibility of saying that Whitefield was just a man of his time and shared the same moral blind spots of his contemporaries. Wesley was a man of the same times, and came very definitely to opposite conclusions.
Moore: In researching and writing this book, was there anything that surprised you, or even caused you to change your mind on Wesley?
Sanders: I started the research by re-reading a lot of Wesley’s own writings, just getting immersed in the primary texts again, most of which I hadn’t read since seminary. I had a hunch that while Wesley was a great organizer and activist, he wasn’t really gifted at systematic thought or strict consistency. I’d still say that he doesn’t exactly lead with systematic-theological rigor –after all, he bequeathed to the movement not a systematic theology, but a set of sermons, a Bible commentary, and a hymnal. Nevertheless, I found a kind of key to his thought that really helped me pull together everything he wrote and did. Here’s the key: He was devoted to the letter of First John, and considered it the capstone of progressive revelation, the New Testament’s final word on the Christian life. It functioned for him not so much as a canon with the canon, but as the synthesis of all that had gone before. He modeled his preaching on its combination of profundity and simplicity; he habitually located doctrines within the dynamics of its argument; and he eagerly integrated Paul’s theology into a larger Johannine framework. I call John Wesley the theologian of First John, and I have come to see that as the key to his whole program.
I think it’s hyperbolic, and in poor theological taste, to pick a figure from church history and say that God was saying something to his church through that figure. But insofar as one of the saints shapes his or her ministry around the distinctive message of a portion of scripture, I think we can say something like this: he heard what God said in that book of the Bible with more acuity and sensitivity than anyone before him, and by doing so he put the theology of First John into action in the world.