Last week, I posted a review of David Thomas Stark’s 2011 Manchester thesis on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Read the full review here.
David was my classmate at Manchester, and we always enjoyed good discussions. So, it’s no surprise that he gave a thoughtful e-mail response to my review, which I’ve posted below with his permission.
We live at a time when what God’s grace can accomplish in our lives is too often downplayed. Yet Stark helps us understand that the remedy to one extreme is not going to the other. The “credibility gap” that Mildred Wynkoop first mentioned is often laid at the feet of the American Holiness Movement. But, in-light of Stark’s thesis, it may be asked: Did Wesley sow the seeds of the “oversell” of our doctrine, claiming too much for it?
Let the reader decide.
Thank you for this review and reminder that I should at some point pursue getting my work published. You were as engaging and complimentary as you were critical, and I appreciate that. You seem to understand the importance of amissibility in Wesley’s logic and in early Methodist spirituality. Allow me a few further points of explanation, which I don’t necessarily expect you to readdress in your review:
1) You’re correct that much discussion has been made about Methodist identity within or without the Church of England, but I believe I am the first to hammer home that it was specifically because of the doctrine of Christian perfection as prioritized in the context of holiness revivalism in the early 1760s (albeit an arguably failed first experiment) that early Methodism made some of its most momentous and official, legally-binding steps towards securing what would ultimately become its independent, denominational status (i.e. increased licenses under the Act of Toleration, The Model Deed and The Deed of Declaration during this period or its aftermath). I don’t gather that you’re of the camp much bothered much by the fact of Methodist dissent, but there is a growing batch of scholars (Jeremy Gregory, David Rainey, and Joseph Wood – all who I knew from my studies in Manchester) who I think are trying to re-peg Wesley back into an Anglican identity which he necessarily left in actual practice, even if he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. Wesley and the early Methodists could be regarded as “faithful dissenters”, in that they imagined themselves in line with earlier strains of Anglican renewalist thought (Richard Hooker, for example), but they were dissenters nonetheless, as is proved by every legal document they signed describing themselves to be as much. That agenda, I think, is based on a current “identity crisis” of sorts (as Christianity Today most famously put it about a decade ago) by those in the COTN or other offshoot groups from Methodism to normalize and formalize their organizations’ existences within a more consistent tradition of faith rather than the lonely and compromised strands of splinting denominationalism and sectarian association which have more historically been its reality. If “second blessing” holiness revivalism as actually taught by John Wesley was the catalyst for a distinct Methodist identity as I argue, then it makes sense that movements which were defined for over 200 years by this “distinguishing doctrine” or “peculiar doctrine of Christian perfection” as Wesley called it but no longer maintain it with Wesley’s unique and original radical semblance, would have no problem recasting themselves in a congruent chain with Establishment. Whether or not the Established Church is as interested in such remains suspect.
2) Per you criticisms in final paragraph starting with “A final preoccupation”, I would point at that I did state “Previous paradigm suggestions for the chronological development of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection that have argued its shape only reached maturity in the mid or late 1760s or later [so after the context of holiness revival] reflect more of an agenda to disassociate the MEthodist leader from the excesses of perfectionism mangiest during the early 1760s than a historically accurate review of his presentations” (bottom of page 200). There I was referencing, but yes, would have been better to specifically point back to, my section from pages 38-42 titled “Survey of Date-Based Paradigms of Development in Wesley’s Doctrine of Perfection”, which includes the likes of Outler, Maddox, Watson, Moore, Fraser, Gunter, Peters, and NTC’s own Olson. The point I attempted to make is that the holiness revival is not something that the “Mature” John Wesley emerged out of, but rather something which the shape of the mature Wesley’s doctrine and pastoral practice actually inspired and should be accountable and accredited for. In fact, I think the strongest language that Wesley every used to describe the secondness of entire sanctification as deliverance from the “evil root and inbred sin” (all aspects emphasized most prominently in the American Holiness experience) occurred in 1767- well after he should have “corrected” himself from the doctrine’s excesses. In the sermon “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Wesley argued for the spiritual importance, if not even salvific importance, of a second event of grace with such assertation as to make it impossible to regard secondness as replaceable in an authentically Wesley’s understanding:
Then only the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed, and inbred sin subsists no more. But if there be no such second change, if there be no instantaneous deliverance after justification, if there be none but a gradual work of God (that there is a gradual work none denies) then we must be content, as well as we can, to remain full of sin till death. And if so, we must remain guilty till death, continually deserving punishment. (JW, “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Works [BE], 1:346.
Referring to Wesley as an “occasional theologian” proves helpful for dismissing problematic arguments like the above from his corpus, even if they occurred so late in his ministry. But there are definite hamartiological weakness, overemphases and downright inconsistencies in Wesley. And not to nitpick, but as quickly as he said he never used the term sinless perfection, he followed up in the next line that he does not object against it either. His constantly playing this game of semantics is why I called it “qualified sinless perfection”.
3) And to the larger point of new “approaches”, I would refer you back to my concluding remarks on pages 210- 212, including footnote 24, 30, and 31, in which I list at least five writers by name At the end of thesis I was bookending my introductory statements in the section on Methodist Ideal and Identity in Contemporary Dilemma from the middle of pages 13-16. The mistake I made in not continually reciting these scholars by name- the likes of Outler, Maddox, Noble and other well known and much loved scholars in the Methodist and Nazarene tradition I will not re-mention here by name was intentionally done out of a sense of reverence for my heroes at the time than a mistake or omission. It is a very understandable that modern day committed Methodists, Wesleyans and Nazarenes would want to disassociate his teachings from more problematic areas of its more recent activities, but my point is that there is much more in common with radical Wesley and the American Holiness Movement, just as there was with Wesley and the radicals Maxfield and Bell, than there was difference. Further study could use my thesis as a reference of dialogue with more specific examples of authentically Wesleyan language and practice in the 19th century Holiness Movement and, say, the 20th century Holiness movement abroad. I’m find with what you said — that Wesley can and should be always improved upon. No doubt, he will need to be improved upon by his followers to maintain his relevance in each new and increasingly distanced generation. I just prefer that when this is happening that those points of improvement on Wesley are clear and not casted as the founder’s original thoughts or intentions. After years of learning about John Wesley in college and grad school, I personally was shocked to encounter the real, decisively indecisive, consistently inconsistent and ever elusive John Wesley during my PhD studies when I set out to find him in his own words and in the words of early Methodist spiritual autobiographies and testimonies, which I researched extensively at the Special Collections of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (transcribing for my own purposes more than 90 of the 153 letters in the Early Methodist Volumes at the time). Ultimately, It bodes better for the Wesleyan tradition, and all religious traditions for that matter, to acknowledge the gaps that exists within what its founders wrote and meant and what its modern adherents may wish they had or hadn’t. A more general question that I pondered as I wrote my thesis was whether it is better that a religious movement and tradition lives and dies on the thoughts, principles, and practices it was originally founded upon and clearly proclaimed, or if it should be improved upon through the ages to the point of missing much of its original point in the first place. Is it not more faithful to eulogize than it is to re-imagine, especially when it is clearly more intellectual honest to do so?