Iain H. Murray. Wesley and Men Who Followed. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003. 272 pages.
The 300th anniversary of Wesley's birth in 2003 occasioned several new biographies concerning Wesley, including works by Stephen Tomkins (Eerdmans), Roy Hattersley (Doubleday), and John Kent (Cambridge). Hattersley's biography contains a number of factual errors. Kent's revisionist history claims there was no large-scale eighteenth century revival. This work by Iain Murray, and published by a major Calvinistic publisher, of which Murray is Editor for the Banner of Truth and is a trustee as well, also comes as a surprise.
The first section is a sketch of Wesley's life, which covers a hundred pages. Murray reduced the servant stage to merely the lack of assurance, which he does not see as essential to salvation. Therefore he reinterprets Wesley's experience at Aldersgate in light of the Puritan paradigm. According to Murray, Wesley was converted prior to Aldersgate but received assurance of his salvation at that time. Murray concluded, however, that while Wesley's theology was confused, he was a great evangelist. Yet Murray conceded that the Calvinism of Wesley's day had become fatalistic and prone to antinomianism.
Murray included this exchange between Wesley and a Calvinist. "Do you believe in the perseverance of the saints?" Wesley replied, "Certainly." When his questioner registered his surprise, "I thought you did not," Wesley explained, "O, Sir, you have been misinformed; it is the perseverance of sinners we doubt."
While the first section contains little new information about Wesley, the second section, covering another hundred pages, focuses on three representatives of the next generation of Methodism. None of these men appear in Wesley's Veterans. It is a joy to read about such men as William Bramwell, Gideon Ouseley, and Thomas Collins, who carried the torch of Methodist evangelism into the nineteenth century. Murray concluded, "We have gone too far from the Methodist pattern"
Murray noted that early Methodism taught saving faith as both the gift of God and the act of man. During the nineteenth century evangelism shifted to a more simplistic view of faith which emphasized only the necessity for man to exercise faith unto salvation. Thomas Collins expressed concern that salvation was wholesaled by prodding sinners to believe prematurely, without conviction of sin, repentance — without the fallow ground broken. This resulted in faith without trust, assurance by logic, religion without holiness, and eternity without hope. Methodism believed that faith not only has to be exercised, it has also to be received. "The Holy Ghost gives not the act of faith, but the light, power, and disposition to believe."
Yet Murray reported that half of the Methodist preachers in one English circuit seceded in 1832 to form the Arminian Methodists. These "Arminian" Methodists adopted a revivalistic emphasis, believing that more success in evangelism would be realized if this superficial concept of faith was adopted. While Murray's research is helpful in identifying this debilitating trend, he distorts the picture by reporting that early Methodism was not "Arminian." Certainly all branches of Methodism have always been Arminian, whether or not that was part of their name. The problem is that Murray does not properly understand historic Arminianism. Arminius explained the gift of faith in his Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles, Article 27.
In the third section of the book, comprising thirty pages, Murray evaluates Wesley's doctrine of justification and Christian perfection. His chapter on justification raises more dust than is settled. Apparently Wesley's teaching on justification is suspect because he does not hold that the act of justification results in a permanent state. Here Murray finds Wesley suspect because he does not embrace the baggage which Calvinism has attached to the doctrine of justification. Therefore, Murray judged Wesley's orthodoxy concerning justification on the basis of his acceptance of corollary doctrines. Yet according to Wesley's own evaluation, he did not differ from Calvin on justification "an hair's breadth" [Letter to John Newton, 14 May, 1765]. One can only wonder why Methodists can be held up as exemplary evangelists if they do not have a proper grasp of the Gospel.
Murray then claimed that Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification was based upon experience, not Scripture. In The Path to Perfection W. E. Sangster compiled a list of thirty Scriptural passages from which he taught Christian perfection. In Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley established the doctrine on four broad Scriptural foundations: the promises that God will save us from all sin, the prayers for entire sanctification, the commands to be perfect, and the biblical examples of those who had attained this experience.However, Murray never evaluates the biblical basis for the doctrine in his brief, fifteen-page chapter. Instead, he concluded that Wesley at best was able to popularize truth, but at his worst he created doctrine. Murray dismissed this emphasis of Wesley saying only that he was not "a precise exegete." Yet Murray conceded, "Every believer needs to be taught to press on to perfection."
Murray misunderstood Wesley's teaching by declaring that "there is no biblical or logical connection between a maturity of life in the believer and the eradication of sin." But Wesley never used the word "eradicate" with reference to entire sanctification or Christian perfection. He did say that "entire sanctification . . . is neither more nor less than pure love — love expelling sin and governing both the heart and life." [Letter to Walter Churchey, 21 February, 1771]. He preached:
It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. . . . For as long as love takes up the whole heart, what room is there for sin therein? ["The Scripture Way of Salvation, Sermon #43, 1.9; 3.14]
Here is the "expulsive power of a new affection." Perfect love drives out (present tense) or displaces fear (1 John 4:18). But this is the moment-by-moment victory of perfecting grace, not a static state of perfection. Wesley does not contend for any specific term: "Call this the destruction or suspension of sin, it is a glorious work." [Journal, 15 November, 1763]. Therefore, Murray has only attacked a straw man and contributes little to the discussion.
The final section of the book runs fifteen pages. Here Murray wrestles with the dilemma he has created. If Methodism was so wrong doctrinally, why was it so used of God? He concluded that God blessed their faith. God also blessed their labor and spiritual discipline. Murray concluded that as twentieth century Methodism denied the divine inspiration of Scripture, they became bankrupt and lost their evangelistic fervor. While this is undoubtedly true, yet according to Murray, their understanding of the Scriptures was always confused. Murray's analysis of Wesleyan doctrine is too condescending, yet he is very impressed with their evangelistic success. If faith comes from the Word of God (Rom 10:17), how can Murray be consistent and commend their faith while condemning their doctrine? Orthopraxy is the result of orthodoxy. Murray has never resolved his personal appreciation for Methodism with his intellectual adherence to a more rigid Calvinism. The result is an uneven treatment which appears to have gone to press prematurely.
Respectfully submitted Dr. Vic Reasoner