John Wesley

January 21, 2016

[Note:  I recognize that there are folks who will disagree with the conclusions of this post and perhaps even assume that I have some ax to grind in my writing of it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I read the book and have written my conclusions.  Those conclusions are not necessarily flattering.  But even the editor of the book, who you will see was quite fond of Wesley, at least intellectually and academically, made note in the book that modern-day Methodists ought not be judged on the basis of the man who is credited with the founding of this stream of Protestantism.  If you hold some particular fondness for John Wesley, read the book yourself and see if you find me to be too far off base.  But read it objectively.]

John Wesley Albert OutlerJohn Wesley, (copyright 1964) edited by Albert C. Outler (1908-1989), is one of the volumes from the Library of Protestant Thought from Oxford University Press.

To my surprise, I have enjoyed skipping around through this book and reading sections from it.  The structure of the book allows for this approach, as it is a compilation of Wesley’s sermons, correspondence, and essays rather than a biography of Wesley or a history of his ministry.  Albert Outler, was regarded as a serious Wesleyan scholar.  He assembled a variety of these types of documents mentioned above, and wrote excellent introductory comments and provided numerous helpful footnotes and references to Wesley’s writings.

My enjoyment in reading this book was partly related to my acquiring information about one of the world’s better recognized  theologians (although one who held doctrinal positions that I disagree with) and partly because of what I found to be,  shall I say, unusual things about Wesley’s mind, his style and apparently his approach to theology.  The word that I would use to describe Wesley would be eccentric.  That characterization is certainly not unique to Wesley, and I concede that many might describe me using the same word.  But some of his eccentricities are curiously over-the-top.

The section of the book that I started with was one that Outler titled “Theologies in Conflict.”  Chapter IV of this section is called “The Struggle With Calvinists.”  (It only made sense for me to start here.)  “The Struggle” contains two essays that Wesley wrote and published; the first in 1752, the other in 1775.  Both dealt with his rejection of the doctrine of unconditional election, or predestination as Wesley usually referred to it.  The first of these two essays, Wesley titled “Predesitination Calmly Considered.”  I could not help but find the irony in that title because in reading the essay I felt like Wesley’s writing displayed neither calmness nor factual consideration.

Here are a few of my observations.  I hope that anyone who reads this will believe that these are not intended to be disrespectful of Wesley.  Clearly he was a brilliant man and his dedication to his understanding of the scriptures is beyond question.  Instead, the comments below are simply the impressions that I was left with from reading the very words of the man himself.

  • Instead of drawing comparisons between historic Calvinism and Wesley’s preferred Arminianism, he latches on to what would more accurately be described as Hyper-Calvinism.  This is the strange starting point for his rebuttals, which at times were pretty cranky.
  • Whereas historic Reformed theology, as I understand it, has never uniformly embraced supralapsarianism, (aka double predestination) that is the exact assumption that Wesley makes with respect to the meaning of unconditional election.  He contends that all Calvinists must necessarily believe in unconditional reprobation, if they (we/I) believe in unconditional election.  In Wesley’s words, “unconditional election cannot appear without the cloven foot of reprobation.”  In making this argument, he seems to overlook the teaching of Genesis 3 and elsewhere in scripture pointing to the doctrine of the natural depravity of mankind, which, as I understand it, is universally held in orthodox Christianity.  It would appear that on one hand he rejects the imputed sin of Adam (compounded by man’s personal sin), while at the same time receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ, for ALL mankind, mind you.  Oops, there is another area of dispute with the Calvinists he did not address…Limited Atonement.
  • There is comparatively little in the way of calm discussion in these essays.  Snarky and sarcastic at times, Wesley seems to get wound up the further he goes with his writings.  An apologist for Wesley would probably dismiss his tone as being passionate.  But one would have to be completely oblivious to the tone that was present in his writing to conclude that his argumentation was “calm.”  His style would be more accurately described as polemic.
  • As you read his essay, you can see that he is constructing a dialogue between a Calvinist and himself  But, the Calvinist is imaginary, and Wesley is playing both roles in this drama.  In so doing, he sets up all sorts of overstated straw men arguments (that generally have little to no basis in historic Reformed theology) and then knocks them down.  If this were parody it would be funny.  But, these were really Wesley’s writings.  The image I have is of an old man sitting on a bench rocking back and forth talking to himself.  But in this case, not just talking, answering his own questions, out loud.

Thanks to Albert Outler and his comments preceding each essay, as well as his excellent footnotes, we are given a peek into what I will call the psyche of Wesley.

  • There are several places in the second essay of this chapter, self-titled by Wesley as “Thoughts upon Necessity” where he identifies some particular theologian who he disagrees with and then quotes them.  One in particular was Jonathan Edwards.  Wesley indents the sections of text that are the “quotations” and then subsequently disputes whatever has been said.  Outler, however, sets the record straight with his footnotes.  It turns out that these are not, in fact, direct quotes of Edwards and others, just a “digest” or even a “rough digest” as Outler calls them.  I suspect a student in a modern-day seminary would be censured or even expelled for taking such liberties in quoting sources, especially if they were represented as direct quotes and then used as a part of a systematic rejection thereof.  I have to admit that I was simultaneously amused and alarmed by what had been revealed about Wesley.
  • In yet another example, similar in nature, Wesley cites a section of the Westminster Confession, in order to refute it.  But Outler notes that it is “a garbled version” of the Confession.  This, and the example above, have left me wondering if this apparent, shall I say, defect, was typical of Wesley, or if these were some rare exceptions that happened to be concentrated in one chapter, in one book.
  • Outler also notes, in his preface, that Wesley was so well versed in scripture that it was often difficult when reading him to know if his references to the word of God and his citations of it were direct quotations of an authentic translation or something else.  “The line between an obvious echo of Scripture and a definite quotation is often blurred” is the way Outler states it.  Does this mean that Wesley was prone to being a little loose with his quoting of scripture, even in his writing, when you might assume he could check his scriptural references?
  • Furthermore, Outler noted that Wesley was so well versed in the original languages, that he wrote his own translation of scripture AND quoted from it.  While on one hand, Wesley can and should be admired for his ability to translate the word of God from Hebrew and Greek, I have to say, for me, any translation of God’s word that has the benefit of a single human editor is something to be questioned.  Pick up a reliable modern, essentially literal translation, and there will have been a team of Biblical scholars working together to critically assemble the translated word of God.  This approach eliminates the potential of a single editor bringing his own doctrinal bias into the work product.  To suggest that Bible translation was not done by “editorial boards” during the time of Wesley is refuted by the fact that the Geneva Bible was translated by just such a board, and its first edition was in 1599.
  • That said, I was somewhat astonished that Wesley used comparatively little in the way of scripture to support his disagreement with Calvinism.  While simultaneously challenging his imaginary Calvinist sparring partner in the essay to provide scriptural support for “their” Reformed point of view, Wesley most often provided none in support of his contentions, as if they were to simply be accepted out of hand.

Not a book I would recommend to the casual reader, it is certainly a good one at providing a peek under Wesley’s “hood.”  Kudos to the editor, Albert Outler, who I gather was quite an admirer of John Wesley.  He referred to his interest in Wesley as “a rather tedious menage a trois” between Wesley, himself, and his wife.  (Eeeww!  I think I would have steered clear of that analogy.)  In spite of his obvious affection for the man and his theological legacy, Outler did a wonderful job of allowing Wesley, himself, to reveal his peculiarities, idiosyncracies, and eccentricities.


Washed and Waiting

March 5, 2012

Washed and Waiting – Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill is an important book to be read by anyone who finds themselves in a leadership role in the church, and frankly is a helpful one for anyone who finds themselves involved in ministry.  Given the protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of believers,” that would be everyone who claims the identity of “Christian.”

Wesley Hill is a believer and follower of Jesus Christ.  He grew up in a decidedly evangelical family setting, was educated at Wheaton College, holds an M.A. in Theology from Durham University in the U.K., and is working on a PhD. in New Testament.  He also candidly admits to having same-sex attraction.  And these, are not transient feelings.  By his admission, he is a homosexual.

But unlike some “gay-Christians,” Hill is not advocating for a tolerance of homosexuality within the Christian church.  He concedes that to do so would necessitate a rejection of the perspicuous teaching of scripture on the subject of homosexuality.  Instead, he vigorously embraces and defends the teaching of scripture and in light of it, has chosen to live a celibate life.

And it is this decision and its implications that make up the essence of his book.  He shares openly about his experience and his struggles and in so doing provides not only a very important insight into the ways in which the church is failing to be real ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a specific segment of unbelievers, but is also failing to be the kind of shepherds it ought to be of those who are believers and who struggle with same-sex attraction and homoerotic urges.  Understanding this failure of the church is critical if we are to be the body of Christ that we are expected to be.

But the book also provides great encouragement to those who are completely unacquainted with the struggles of homosexuality.  You see, every believer is both “washed” and “waiting”.  While we have been redeemed and set free from the bondage of sin in the matter of the doctrine of our justification, we still struggle with sin in the course of our being progressively sanctified, and as we look expectantly to our goal of complete Christ-likeness in glorification. Our persistent struggles may not be same-sex attraction and homoerotic urges.  But many of those struggles that we can name in our own lives, stand in opposition to the clear teaching of scripture.  If we are to live faithful lives, we know that we must resist them, taking on a form of celibacy against those sinful inclinations. Hill’s book describing his journey as a Christian and homosexual stand as a great example for those who are Christian and whose sinful proclivities have nothing to do with sexuality at all.

Read this book.  It offers some helpful and important insights into the subject of homosexuality in the church, and Hill’s testimony of his own life offers a great example for everyone who professes to be a Christian, washed and waiting.

Living for God’s Glory

February 29, 2012

Living for God’s Glory – An Introduction to Calvinism by Joel R. Beeke (along with 8 other contributors) is, well,…where to start?

I guess I might say at the outset that I enjoyed the book and am quite glad that I read it.  At 390+ pages, and 28 chapters in length, it’s not a “finish it in one or two sittings” sized book.  It took me a fair amount of time to get through it, although I had a number of major distractions in and around my life during the time I was reading it, so my perception may be a bit skewed.  And I generally only took on a chapter at time.  But that said, the content was helpfully categorized, and was presented in coherent and very manageable bites.  Questions at the end of each chapter (which I did not really use) were a nice touch to help with reviewing the content and I suppose could be useful for guiding or at least starting the discussion of the book in a study group.  

The book was incredibly informative and I thought well written, with a very accessible style, with sufficient substance to stretch me intellectually, but equally, very understandable.  I would say this book would be suitable for anyone who has a basic understanding of Christian theology.  But further to that point, the subtitle “introduction” while not inaccurate, but could be misunderstood with respect to who will find this book really helpful.  I would hesitate to suggest it to someone completely unfamiliar with Christianity or who is at the very beginning of their walk of faith, as parts of the content gets a bit deep in the weeds with respect to jargon. Or at least it seemed that way to me.  Perhaps it is a bit better suited to the “maturing” Christian who is really trying to sort out their theology, especially as it relates to their understanding of the Biblical doctrine of soteriology.  

I admit that the book dealt with a subject for which I have a favorable bias.  I am not sure how well it would be received by someone not favorably disposed to reformed theology.  However, even that person could learn a great deal from the book’s very objective handling of reformed theology from a historic perspective.  What the reader will find is that the earliest Christian theology in the “new world” was reformed, brought to what is now North America by the Puritans.  So, in many ways, this book is a portrayal of the “type” of Christianity that was found in the earliest history of what eventually became the United States of America. 

This book is a serious work.  For anyone who would like to go considerably deeper than a simple white paper description of the so-called 5-Points of Calvinism, this book will be very helpful to understanding the history of Reformed Theology, how it influenced western hemisphere civilization and it implications for regaining the ground that has been lost over the course of the last 300 years.

Ten Questions

September 14, 2011

Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health, by Donald S. Whitney is a book that I frankly cannot remember exactly how I came to possess.  I can say that it is the first book that I read on my recently acquired Kindle which was a gift.  (Imagine having the blessing of serving as your son’s Best Man in his wedding and getting a present on top of that!) Thanks, Ross, I am loving the Kindle.    Irrespective of how I got this book, I am glad that I did.  But that needs to be clarified a bit.  Because about a third or so of the way through the book, I was not so certain.

This book is not new.  Its copyright is dated 2001.  The author, Don Whitney, is a pastor and seminary professor in the Southern Baptist tradition although it was clear to me that his is a Reformed Baptist background.  He attended Law School for a time at the University of Arkansas before following a call to the ministry.

As the title suggests, Whitney poses 10 questions that any believer ought to be asking him/herself to diagnose their spiritual health.  Those 10 questions, which also serve as the chapter headings, are:

  1. Do you thirst for God?
  2. Are you governed increasingly by God’s Word
  3. Are you more loving?
  4. Are you more sensitive to God’s presence?
  5. Do you have a growing concern for the spiritual and temporal needs of others?
  6. Do you delight in the Bride of Christ?
  7. Are the spiritual disciplines increasingly important to you?
  8. Do you still grieve over sin?
  9. Are you a quicker forgiver?
  10. Do you yearn for heaven and to be with Jesus?

At the outset of this review, I mentioned that for the first third or so of the book, I was finding that there was nothing particularly challenging in what I was reading.  That ought to have been a cue to me that my pride and arrogance was getting in the way of very useful instruction.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gave me a good nudge because while the book is not a difficult read, nor is it particularly long (141 pages in the paperback version) it really is gently packed with some extraordinarily penetrating challenges,  provided you are willing to accept the examination of your spiritual health.  Many of the answers I had to these questions were not ones I like, so the real benefit to this book will be not the questions, but rather the response I have to the answers.

Just as we ought to respond in serious ways to the make the changes in our physical lives when we our doctors diagnose that we are gaining a bit too much weight and need a combination of changes in our diets and exercise regimine, there ought to be a serious response to the results of our spiritual diagnosis that flows from Whitney’s 10 questions.  Therein will be the benefit as we realize the benefits of our Progressive Sanctification.

While I read this book individually, I suspect that it could be useful for paired, or small group study, particularly in the context of  the formation of accountability.

Definitely a book worth reading.

By Grace Alone

November 16, 2010

By Grace Alone – How the Grace of God Amazes Me, by Sinclair Ferguson is one of those books that really did not get “good” (for me, at least) until the last chapter.  I am not entirely sure why that is.  Even though a small book, it seemed to drag on a bit in certain places.  And in fairness to Ferguson, that may have just been ME!  Perhaps I need to read the entire book again, which will be no great burden as it is only 118 pages in length. 

As I looked back through the book, I find lots of content that I had underlined, indicating that the thoughts on the page were either new, or if already known and understood, written in a particularly meaningful way.  And there was plenty of that.  

I mentioned that last chapter is where it “got good.”  I think what made the last chapter remarkable for me is that while Ferguson seemed to simply be adding a seventh chapter, it really struck me that it served not so much as a conclusion to the book, but rather as somewhat of a summary of the doctrines of grace.  Others may see it quite differently but that is the way it struck me.

No regrets in reading this book, and I would happily recommend it to anyone.  I have included the video below which was produced by the publisher, which allows the author to describe “why the book” and how it came about.  It will also serve to illustrate why, when I read the book, the words on the page had a Scottish brogue.  

A definition of antinomianism

The Apostle

October 7, 2010

The Apostle – A Life of Paul by John Pollock was a surprisingly good book and a very enjoyable read.  I am not certain how to precisely classify the book, as it really is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction that has been wrapped together in what reads like a biography of Saul of Tarsus, more commonly known simply as Paul. 

I used the term “fiction” because apart from the non-fictional information about the life of Paul that is available from scripture, virtually anything and everything else in the book was pure speculation, albeit well calculated and not in the least bit unreasonable.  So, what makes this book seem biographical in nature is the manner in which Pollock has woven his well calculated and reasonable speculation into the fabric of what we do know about Paul from the Bible.  Rather than simply reading about a few specific incidents in Acts, and understanding the theological mind of Paul from his letters, we are given a deeper look into what may have driven and motivated this man during his public ministry, as well as some helpful descriptions of what some of his sufferings might have been like.  What was really great about the book is that Pollock has a great knack for both story telling and for actually expositing scripture, and, if you are looking carefully, you can actually tell which is which.  And there were at least a couple of places where the author inserts a comment into his text that what he was about to write was simply unknown, but that he was going to take a certain route in explaining Paul’s life that seemed most reasonable given other evidence.  A hat tip to Pollock for his honesty.

Pollack, who has been deputized by the man himself to be the “official” biographer of Billy Graham, is a very good writer, based on this one sampling.  The book is not new by any means, with the original British edition copyrighted in 1972 and the U.S. edition in 1985, but it still available, now in paperback from Amazon.  Strictly an extra-Biblical resource, it nevertheless is a good one to add some texture to what was likely going on in and around Paul, as he evangelized the Gentile world of the first century A.D.  Read it.

Rescuing Ambition

September 5, 2010

Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey, is a winner.  It is the second book I have read by Harvey, and while I would say it was not as compelling as his first, When Sinners Say ‘I Do’, it nonetheless was well worth the time I invested in it.

The essential premise of the book is that human beings, were created to be ambitious.  In the original created order, our ambition was intended to pursue those things that would bring glory to the creator.  However, in the fall, ambition turned its sights inward, resulting in our seeking self-glory.  Today, most of us probably think of ‘ambition’, as the attribute, or character quality of those who are driven to succeed in,…you name it…, scholastic endeavors, business, or sports.  This is an ambition to be admired.  But sometimes, when it is taken to extremes, we regard ‘ambition’ as that attribute or character quality that motivates people to claw, grab, back-stab, neglect, and abandon, all in the interest of advancing an agenda, with little to no regard for the collateral damage left in one’s wake. 

Ambition is innate.  And ambition’s ultimate end is to produce glory.   And as Harvey points out, we were designed to love glory and to seek after it.  However, we must seek after a certain type of glory.  And the type of glory we should be seeking is that which comes from God as opposed to man-made glory. 

In the 11 chapters in the book Harvey does a great job of spelling out ambition’s origins, it’s corruption and the steps we need to think about to rescue it.  With the same wit and humor that was evident in his first book, Harvey has produced an easy-to-read guide to turning us from selfish ambition to the ambition originally conceived by God.