Wesley as a Happy Puritan? A Response to Dr. Fred Sanders

Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University today published an article on the Asbury Seedbed (www.seedbed.com) titled “Wesley as a Happy Puritan” in which he argues that Wesley was really just a Puritan in thought and practice and offers up a possible bridge between parties in the modern Calvinism-Arminianism debate on these grounds. Below is my response to Dr. Sanders:

***UPDATE***
You can now view the entire conversation between myself and Dr Sanders on Seedbed at the following address: http://seedbed.com/feed/wesley-as-a-happy-puritan/
***UPDATE***
Thank you for your article, Dr. Sanders. There is no doubt that Wesley was influenced to some degree by the Puritan authors, but this can also be said of many other groups and theological traditions. He was arguably more heavily influenced by the German Moravians into at least the 1740s and owed a great debt to the thought of the Caroline Divines.

Rupp’s appraisal that Wesley was merely doing what the Puritans were trying to do but without interference from the church and state is narrow and ill-informed. To begin with, Wesley met opposition on every front from the Ecclesiastical hierarchy. That he was not fully excluded from the Church of England is a testimony to the high regard given to ordained clergy, not a suggestion that a blind eye was being turned on his activities.The statement that Wesley was “just a committed and contented Church of England man” given as explanation for Wesley’s refusal to renounce the CoE is misleading and vague. Wesley was indeed a committed clergyman of the CoE. He commented on occasion that he saw the 18th Century church as one of the few in history that remained faithful to Primitive Christianity. However, he was anything but content. It was precisely his discontentedness with the message of the church, which did not include salvation by faith alone, which sent him ultimately to the fields at the behest of George Whitefield, and it is this discontent that pressed him to endure unfathomable hardships in his pursuit to bring this Gospel to Britain.You also stated that “while he [Wesley] loved the Anglican liturgy, he insisted that true religion resides in the heart rather than in these (excellent) outward forms and ceremonies.” This is again true, but only partially so. While Wesley emphasized religion of the heart, insofar as that means the transformation and sanctification of the individual, he also saw outward forms such as fasting, works of mercy, and the Eucharist as a means of grace, absolutely critical to the ongoing nurture and sustenance of the soul. He even went so far as to call the Eucharist a converting ordinance, meaning that God’s grace which is given through the ordinance is sufficient to lead the unbeliever into belief. This is a far cry from the Puritan mind.

The similarities between Wesley and the Puritans are no doubt present and interesting for further study, as are the similarities between Wesley and a great many other groups and traditions. Primarily, though, Wesley was a Church of England clergyman and adhered to the great traditions in which he was brought up. His language may be occasionally Puritan, but only where that language is also Anglican. When an over-emphasis is laid upon any one undercurrent of Wesley’s thought there is a danger of falling into a skewed view of his theology and practice, as has been done before with regard to Wesley and the Eastern Fathers. We who would follow in his footsteps (to whatever degree that may be), must be careful to avoid such narrow readings of Wesley, lest we miss the man altogether and find in his place just another Johnathan Edwards, or George Whitfield, or . . .

*** For more, go to: http://seedbed.com/feed/wesley-as-a-happy-puritan/ ***

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8 thoughts on “Wesley as a Happy Puritan? A Response to Dr. Fred Sanders

    • Thanks Russell,

      It is nice to hear something about this from a Wesley scholar. My intent is certainly not to besmirch Dr. Sanders, but to suggest that a skewed or narrow view of Wesley ultimately undermines any argument or ecumenical plea founded on his theology. There is a more faithful starting point for Wesleyan theology to speak to the Calvinism-Arminianism debate than to reinvent Wesley as a Puritan.

      Blessings,

      Isaac

  1. Great response, Isaac. Historical revisionism on things like this has made us a lot softer over time. I think we can find ways to be ecumenical without caving on our theology and history. I’m also glad to see you pushing back about “outward forms.”

    I’d love to hear you keep going with your “Eastern Fathers” comment. What’s the overemphasis you’ve seen there?

    • Thanks Teddy,

      I grow very concerned when contemporary scholars try to downplay the role of the Sacraments in the life of the church. Wesley was a strong proponent of the Sacraments as a means of grace, and we would do well to rediscover that in many of our current churches. I read your posts on the Eucharist today and was thrilled to see that your church is already doing this.

      Blessings,

      Isaac

  2. Teddy and Josh, thanks for your comments guys. The “Eastern Fathers” comment was indeed directed at Maddox and those who share in the school of thought that says Wesley was essential Eastern Orthodox in his understanding of sanctification. They site the therapeutic emphases of his thought and suggest that this comes directly from certain authors.

    The truth is that this is not really supported by evidence. A therapeutic understanding of sanctification is not exclusive to the EO, it is also found in Augustine, and Wesley was very much Augustinian in the tradition of the Church of England. This is not to say that he didn’t read or wasn’t influenced by some of the Greek Fathers; he did and was. However, some have taken this perceived likeness between Wesley and the EO and run with it in such a way that they are convinced the only answer for this likeness I that Wesley borrowed heavily and directly from the EO. There is simply not enough evidence to support these claims.

    The same thing happens with other issues from time to time in the academy (such as Wesley’s conversion), where good scholars get a bit blinded by what they expect to find in Wesley to the point that they are guaranteed to find it. They are, quite literally, reading their presuppositions into Wesley.

    My problem with the article from Seedbed today is that it appears to be a similarly narrow approach. Our theological tradition is too rich to be reduced to such simplistic statements.

    • That was my major concern as well. Wesley very well may be the most co-opted churchman in history. One beauty of Wesley is his diversity and as a Wesleyan, i am very concerned that his diversity stays diverse. As an Anglican, i am also concerned he stays that as well….. none of this Puritan nonsense 😉

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