A Call for Wesleyan-Arminian Reformation

As the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches there is still a need for reform in many traditions of Protestantism. But perhaps there is no Protestant tradition that is in greater need of reform than the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. The modern Wesleyan-Arminian tradition has generally lost its way. It is mostly theologically anemic and lost sight of the great theological tradition that it has been entrusted to champion and propagate. Most within the broader Wesleyan-Arminian tradition would fall into one of two branches: the Liberal branch or the Holiness branch. The only thing these two very different branches have in common is that they have both departed from the theology of their supposed founders, Jacob Arminius and John Wesley. Not all who identify as Wesleyan-Arminian would fall into one of these two branches, but these two have become the most prevalent at the eve of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

The liberal branch is mostly found within what remains of the United Methodist Church, although by no means is the entire United Methodist Church theologically liberal. Theological liberalism within Methodism found its genesis in the thought of Borden Parker Browne and a theological movement called Boston Personalism at the turn of the 20th Century [1]. According to Mark Tooley all official Methodist seminaries were captured by liberalism by the 1920s. Tooley writes that “By the 1960s nearly all of the clergy would have been trained in theological modernism, denying or minimizing the supernatural and personal salvation in favor of Social Gospel and therapeutic themes. A 1967 survey found 60 percent of Methodist clergy disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50 percent disbelieving the Resurrection” [2]. The fruit of this liberal shift is having a profound impact on the United Methodist Church today. Theological liberalism has essentially led to the current crisis in the United Methodist Church and is threatening to tear it apart. According to Colin Hansen in a recent article featured on the Gospel Coalition “When our parents were growing up the United Methodist Church had 11 million members in the United States alone. That number is now 7.2 million, and the rate of decline is picking up. In the last five years alone membership has dropped 6 percent” [3]. If the United Methodist Church continues upon this trajectory it may cease to exist in the not so distant future.

The second branch is what remains of the Holiness branch. The followers of this stream are found within various Holiness denominations and organizations. The reality is that many groups within the Holiness branch left behind the theology of John Wesley a long time ago [4]. Although this is not true of all groups within this branch and I have no intention of painting them all with the same brush. That being said, the understanding of sanctification prevalent in parts of the Holiness branch is significantly different from the teachings of Wesley [5]. This shift began with the teaching of Phoebe Palmer as early as the 1840s. Many of the dearly held theological beliefs of the Holiness branch are in reality foreign to the theological thought of Wesley himself, although many of its champions are still hesitant to admit this. Much of the modern Holiness branch has been shaped significantly more by the theology of Phoebe Palmer and Charles Finney than by the theology of Jacob Arminius or John Wesley. According to Charles Edwin Jones, “While the holiness movement always regarded John Wesley as its great authority, the movement owed many of its distinctive ideas and practices to Phoebe Palmer” [5]. Many of the differences between the theology of Palmer and Finney and the theology of Wesley and Arminius are in their emphases. Both Palmer and Finney emphasized a very anthropocentric view of salvation that borders on Pelagianism, whereas Wesley and Arminius emphasized a significantly more theocentric understanding of salvation that was faithful to the theological teachings of the Reformation [6]. There was also a significant shift from the “free grace” of Wesley and early Methodist theology to “free will” in the thought of Palmer and Finney. The theological emphases of Palmer, Finney, and their theological heirs have resulted in legalism, Semi-Pelagianism, and a move away from the most critical Protestant teachings of the Reformation. It has also led its adherents a much further distance than the “hair’s breadth” from Calvinism where John Wesley stood. Critical reformation doctrines that were held, proclaimed, and defended by Wesley and Arminius such as substitutionary atonement, a high view of regeneration, imputation, and justification by faith alone have been challenged and doubted by this branch in a way that is entirely alien to the thought of both Wesley and Arminius.

As the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches there is a desperate need of reform within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. But this reform can only take place by returning to the theology of Wesley and Arminius themselves and expressing their theology in a way that is faithful to their writings and thought. As in the time of the Reformation, there needs to be a return to the sources (ad fontes). It is critical that those within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition study the works of John Wesley and Jacob Arminius. It is also necessary that the theology of Wesley and Arminius be studied in a systematic way. I would argue that now is the best time in history to do this. New scholarship on the theology of Wesley and Arminius is more widely available now than it has been for centuries. The theological writings of scholars such as Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall have produced works on the thought of Arminius such as Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace. Scholars like W. Stephen Gunter have translated critical works of Arminius in fresh translations such as Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments. And Wesleyan theologians Thomas C. Oden and Kenneth J. Collins have produced systematic expressions of the theology of John Wesley in a way that has never been done before. Thomas C. Oden’s work John Wesley’s Teachings is the single greatest systematic expression of the theology of John Wesley ever written. Kenneth J. Collins book The Theology of John Wesley is second to none in its systematic organization of Wesley’s thought. And books like Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide serve as a collection of scholarly theological articles by scholars within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.

Another point to consider is the success of the New Calvinist movement. Reformed theology has made an incredible comeback in the Evangelical Church in America and even as a Wesleyan-Arminian I am (in some ways) thankful for it. Under the influence of New Calvinism more young people have become interested in theology and doctrine more than any other time in recent history. What makes it even more incredible is that Reformed theology was not even “cool” as recently as ten years ago. The “young, restless, and reformed” have had enough of shallow theology and strange unbiblical doctrines that have been prevalent in the American Evangelical Church for so long. New Calvinism has led the way to reform in the American Church by going back (ad fontes) to the sources of the Reformed tradition. Young people are actually reading and getting excited about Calvin, Hodge, Owen, etc. It is incredible to see how many reformed podcasts, clothing companies, publishers, conferences, Para church ministries, church planting networks, and rap artists there are. But one voice that is largely silent in this creative burst of theological activity is the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. What makes this reality even more heartbreaking is that Wesleyan-Arminian theology has so much to offer the modern Evangelical Church. A few examples should suffice. Arminius’s understanding of election and predestination is more biblically faithful and theologically strong than what can be found in Calvinism. Wesley’s soteriology understood systematically is simply magisterial. And Wesley’s teachings on Perfect Love (Christian Perfection), properly understood, avoids the dual pitfalls of legalism and antinomianism that have tainted sanctification teaching through most of the history of theology.

As the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches there is a desperate need for “Luthers” to rise up within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. I fear that if there are none who are willing to do so than the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition may be lost forever. The very tradition that God used to help birth an incredible transatlantic revival will disappear. The names of Arminius, Wesley, Fletcher, Clarke, Asbury, Watson, and Pope will be erased from history. This is a call for all Wesleyan-Arminians to pick up their theses, their hammers, and their nails. I pray we no longer turn a deaf ear to the call.

-Vin @ Remonstrance

[1] See Chapter 5 of Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition by Thomas A. Langford for a comprehensive treatment of this

[2] “Fifty Years Since Methodism Grew in America” by Mark Tooley: https://juicyecumenism.com/2015/01/28/fifty-years-since-methodism-grew-in-america/

[3] “Why I’m No Longer A United Methodist” by Colin Hansen: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-im-no-longer-a-united-methodist

[4] For further reading see A Century of Holiness Theology by Mark R. Quanstrom pages 128-134.

[5] An entire article could be written on this topic. For now, refer to this article by Dr. Vic Reasoner: https://www.lcoggt.org/history/american_holiness_movement_paradigm_shift.htm

[6] For information on these shifts see Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals by Henry H. Knight III (Chapters 5-7) and Exploring Christian Holiness: Volume Two the Historical Development by William M. Greathouse (Chapter 8)

 

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