THE THEOLOGY OF JOHN FLETCHER:
AN EXPANDED REVIEW OF AN EXCEPTIONAL BOOK
J. Russell Frazier, True Christianity: The Doctrine of Dispensations in the Thought of John William Fletcher (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 297 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62032-663-3
Mr. Joseph McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2014. Volume 32.
Date Posted May 28, 2014
In the opening Preface Russell Frazier makes an appeal for the Church to listen to voices of the past. One of these voices is John Fletcher, whom he describes as "a seminal figure among the evangelical clergy of the Church of England and in the early Methodist movement of eighteenth century."
The purpose of this book is twofold. The first is to examine the doctrine of dispensations as defined by Fletcher in both his published and unpublished works. Frazier finds that Fletcher had initially developed his doctrine of historical dispensations as a corrective argument "against hyper-Calvinism, whose system of divine fiat and finished salvation did not take seriously enough either the activity of God in salvation history or an individual believer"s personal progress in salvation." Frazier understands Fletcher to express God's manifestation to humanity by way of three progressive stages. These are identified as "the dispensations of the Father, Son and Spirit." Occurring on a universal historical level as well as a personal level, as a believer develops in Christian faith.
Frazier shows how Fletcher's theology of dispensations reveals a God who accommodates Himself to the human conditions of every person and culture throughout history, including the weaknesses and limitations on historical and personal levels of enlightenment, making sufficient grace available to all.
The second purpose of the book is to address Wesleyan-Holiness proponents who misappropriate Fletcher's theology into "their paradigm of sanctification." He plainly asserts that "the categories of that tradition are too narrow to conceptualize accurately the scope of Fletcher's soteriology and pneumatology in particular." Whereas many of Fletcher's interpreters in the American holiness movement wish to see his treatment of the dispensation of the Son a description of an "evangelically regenerated believer and the description of the Spirit as the state of an entirely sanctified believer," Frazier finds Fletcher's description of the two dispensations on a personal level as being the difference between the "almost" and the "altogether" Christian, while on universal level being a description of the difference between imperfect Christianity and perfect Christianity.
The Doctrine of Dispensations is divided into six chapters. In chapter one "The Milieu of Fletcher's Theology," Frazier attempts to reveal the sources of Fletcher's theology of dispensations. He contends that most of Fletcher's biographers are in error in attributing early Methodism as the primary source of Fletcher's theological formation. Although Methodists had significant influence in the formation of Fletcher's theology, especially with regard to an emphasis on "experimental religion" and a "living faith," there were other sources of formative influence, including Fletcher's native Swiss environment that "fostered personal piety," and the seven years spent in training at the Acadèmie de Genève. Such a period of exposure to Calvinistic theology has, according to Frazier, caused some writers to erroneously assume that Fletcher was altogether a Calvinist upon his leaving Geneva.
Two reasons are found for Fletcher's ceasing his original intention to enter the ordained ministry. He had finally concluded that he "was unequal to such a great burden" and "disgusted by the necessity [he] should be under to subscribe to the doctrine of Predestination." In fact, he is found to have "maintained an aversion to the theology of Geneva all of his life."
Unexpected support for his theological concept of the three dispensations was found in The Apostles Creed and The Nicene Creed, both of which testify to "three degrees of faith," that of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit." Contributing influence in Fletcher's theology of dispensations was also found in his familiarity with the early Church Fathers, including Irenaeus and Augustine. Continental theologians along with Calvin proved to be a significant influence, included Amyraut and Jacob Vernet. Vernet's doctrine of accommodation was a most important influence.
After his arrival in England, Fletcher's theology was further shaped by Anglican and Methodist influences. In addition there were the Puritan influences and the writings of Richard Baxter, John Wesley, George Whitfield and John Green. The latter's view of three dispensations that included: "first, a spiritual heathen; second, a spiritual Jew; third, a spiritual Christian" proved to be a concept important to the formation of Fletcher's theology of dispensations.
In Chapter two Frazier roots Fletcher's dispensational theology in his understanding of grace and nature. Frazier argues Fletcher created a "synthesis or union of the concepts." This "union arose," says Frazier, "from Fletcher's conviction that the God of nature and the God of grace is one God whose grace is demonstrated in every aspect of divine works." He sees Fletcher as one profoundly conscious of "the One whose 'name and nature is love' does not permit creation to return to the chaos toward which the trajectory of the Fall tends, but God continues to recreate the world, restoring fallen creation and the ruined race." Fletcher is seen as one who recognizes "God's love for creation [causing] grace to take precedence in divine-human relations; prevenient grace is [found to be] the keystone of [his] theological system. God's acts are chronologically prior to any human activity and essential to all human action."
Frazier sees "order and harmony" to be highly valued by Fletcher. His theological writings are viewed as "a composition of the variegations of divine revelation into an organized, harmonious whole that reflects all of history and a reflection of those variegations of revelation."
In his overview of the doctrine of dispensations, found in Chapter three, Frazier finds parallels of Fletcher's thought with federal theology. Such observation, however, was meant "to provide a structure for the discussion of Fletcher's theology of history" which includes the two historical dimensions of ordo temporum (an objective view of history) and ordo salutis (a faith history).
It is observed that Fletcher's ordo temporum included the concept of "two covenants; the covenant of works... established with supralapsarian Adam alone" and the "covenant of grace, established with infralapsarian Adam on behalf of the whole human race as a redemptive accommodation to fallen humanity."
The covenant of grace unfolded in three successive ages of history: the dispensation of the Father; Son and Spirit. The dispensation of the Father began after the Fall with the promise of a Redeemer that was made to Adam and all the human race and renewed repeatedly throughout OT history. The dispensation of the Son was opened by John the Baptist, culminated with the earthly ministry of Jesus, and anticipated a more spiritual dispensation. The promise of the dispensation of the Son crystallized on the day of Pentecost when the disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit; the period that began on that day awaits the promise and culmination of the second coming of Jesus.
Frazier explains that while the above "model of the dispensations focused on the theological, Trinitarian pattern of God's salvific activity in history," there was a "second overarching pattern [emerging], which provides an anthropological structure that is occasionally threefold; heathen, Jews, and Christians; at other times, it is four-fold: Gentilism, Judaism, the gospel of John the Baptist, and the perfect gospel of Christ. These differing patterns," writes Frazier, "reveal the variegations of the activity of God in history."
Fletcher's "history of faith" or ordo salutis requires an understanding of the "most basic meaning of 'dispensation.' It involves," says Frazier, "the activity of God in dispensing or distributing proportionately grace to human recipients according to their capacity to receive. Secondly, the recipients are responsible to appropriate existentially the extrinsic revelation."
Fletcher's theology of salvation history is viewed as occurring at two levels: Frazier calls attention to "a macro or universal level, which entails the divine effort to redeem humanity, and a micro or personal level in which the doctrine of dispensation functions as an order of salvation. The micro scheme," say he, "reflects the macro scheme."
Frazier quotes John Knight who believed that "Fletcher was convinced that the spiritual pilgrimage of individual men in each of the dispensations is a recapitulation or microcosm of the way God is working in all history." Fletcher's doctrine of dispensations, as viewed overall by Frazier, "reflects both the progressive nature of God's revelation in the history of humanity and the progressive nature of God's restoration of individual human beings in the image of God with the goal of Christian perfection."
Fletcher's Six Letters on the Spiritual Manifestation of the Son of God was an important effort in his ongoing treatment of the doctrine of dispensations. It was therein that he strongly stressed the experimental aspect of true and living faith. Put another way, it was an asserted effort to combat the teaching which held that "faith was not subjective appropriation of trust in Christ but an objective, mental assent to the gospel."
It was interestingly pointed out that "prior to the advent of Christ ...God revealed the divine nature to OT characters [including the patriarchs] by condescending to their natural senses, not their spiritual senses." In this latter dispensation, spiritual senses are awakened by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit. Frazier asserts that "Fletcher emphasized heart knowledge in this treatise without mitigating the significance of head knowledge."
Two patterns of dispensational thought is brought to the reader's attention. Not only did Fletcher give recognition to the Trinitarian pattern which recognized a theological structure of history, but provided a second pattern providing an anthropological structure of history. As Frazier explains, "The former unfolds chronologically in the dispensations of the Father, Son, and Spirit; the anthropological structure portrays the dispensation of heathens, the dispensation of Jews, and the dispensation of Christians."
In chapter four, "The Dispensation of the Father," Frazier examines Fletcher's belief in a general redemption in contrast to the Calvinist teaching of a particular predestination. He was, in his polemic debates, obliged to answer the questions: "What is the fate of the heathen? Is salvation possible for those who have never heard of Christ?" Fletcher viewed the love of God as essential to His nature, whereas "Calvinists view divine love as an expression of God's will, which results in the doctrine of particular predestination." To Fletcher, "God's love is not discriminating, but universal in its scope. Because the love of God is all embracing, the grace of God extends to all."
Fletcher's views of original sin are not found to be greatly different than those of the Calvinists. Their "understanding of the extent of the atonement" were, however, widely different. While Fletcher's opponents claimed a "doctrine of limited atonement," he embraced "a general redemption of universal extent of the atonement." Since Fletcher was convinced that "'Christ tasted death for every man," there is undoubtedly a gospel for every man, even for those who perish by rejecting it." Frazier notices that Fletcher "emphasized the continuity and the differences between the dispensations. While light in any dispensation is always the light of Christ, it does not shine with the same intensity in all periods of history." By illustration, "The dispensation of the heathen is compared to the dawning light; the dispensation of Judaism is compared to the morning light, and the dispensation of Christianity is compared to the meridian light." Accordingly to his line of thought, this "light dawns progressively in history."
Interestingly, "not only does Fletcher compare and contrast the objective periods of history, but also the subjective experiences of the individuals under those dispensations." By close study of the Scriptures Fletcher was able to show that "the very heathens are not without some light and grace to work suitably to their dispensation."
Frazier continues to share Fletcher's views concerning the nature of the faith and added conditions necessary for the salvation of heathen believers. He then observes that "The dispensation of the Father was frequently divided into two dispensations: the dispensation of the heathen and the dispensation of the Jews." Earlier in this work, Frazier brings to our attention the use Fletcher makes of the parable of the talents. He or she who has been nourished in a Christian environment are given "five talents [of grace], the Jew two, and the heathen one." An expanded explanation of Fletcher's doctrine of grace is shared by Frazier as follows:
Grace, by its very nature, considers its recipients (or objects) and is, thus, dispensed according to the capacity of humanity to receive. There is a certain order to dispensing; creative grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. While God is partial in love to the degree that God dispenses grace in different measures, God is impartial in judgment. "God does not reap where he has not sown," is the scriptural dictum that Fletcher quoted frequently to support his point. The law of the harvest is applicable. God does not anticipate the same results in every dispensation because God has not dispensed grace in the same measure in every dispensation. However, God has dispensed enough grace in every dispensation to anticipate from all human beings a measure of faith and works appropriate to their respective dispensations. Thus, God, in Fletcher's mind, judges all people impartially, using the same standard of judgment. God is impartial in judgment because God holds all humans to the same standard of judgment, and God is partial in love because God dispenses benefits differently in the various dispensations of salvation history. Thus, Fletcher vindicated the early Methodist concept of the essential nature of God as holy-love.
Frazier's discussion of Fletcher's dispensation of the Father shifts in the fifth chapter to that of the Son. This advanced dispensation "comprised the era that began with the miraculous conception of Christ and ended with his ascension." The principal source for the content of this revelation is found in the four Gospels. "Fletcher," says Frazier, "argued that the gospel could not be confined to an explicit knowledge of the atoning work of Christ because the disciples prior to Pentecost did not have that knowledge. An explicit knowledge of the atoning work of Christ 'is the prerogative of the Christian Gospel advancing toward perfection.'"
In the discussion of John the Baptist's relation to Christ, Fletcher is quoted as saying that "The least true Christian believer has a more perfect knowledge of Jesus Christ, of His redemption and kingdom, than John the Baptist had, who died before the full manifestation of the gospel." Another way of stating this truth is to say that "The righteousness of regenerated Christian believers was greater than the righteousness attained under the legal dispensation because 'the law maketh nothing perfect.'"
Turning to the subject of Fletcher's thoughts on baptism, Frazier reminds us that "The seal of the covenant of peculiarity of the dispensation of the Son is water baptism." He then explains that "Fletcher made a distinction between John's baptism and Christ's baptism.... The baptism of John the Baptist was an earlier dispensation and should not be confused with either Christian baptism or the baptism of Christ." Frazier further explains that in the thinking of Fletcher, "John did not baptize in the triniarian formula, but made disciples 'for himself calling people to repentance & the forgiveness of sins.' Like John's ministry, the baptism of John must decrease in order that the baptism of Christ might increase."
Fletcher's views of baptism is summarized by Frazier as being "one baptism with 'two branches.'" Baptism of water, and the baptism of the Spirit are essentially one. "Water baptism is," according to Fletcher, "an outward sign that points to the inward grace of a death unto sin."
Frazier concludes Fletcher's views of the dispensation of the Son and those believers who are thus classified by describing their faith as "principally eternal. The rite of water baptism is [said to be] the seal of the covenant of peculiarity, but does not automatically result in the evangelical regeneration of believers. At this stage, believers under the dispensation of the Son are justified, but not spiritually regenerated and have an intermittent assurance of their faith and a measure of the Spirit."
In the final chapter, "The Dispensation of the Spirit," Fletcher is said to classify "the pre-Pentecost disciples under the dispensation of the Son because of their limited knowledge of the atoning work of Christ. Another category of believers under the dispensation of the Son was the nominal Christian." Evangelical (or spiritual regeneration) always required a baptism of the Holy Spirit for its attainment.
One of Fletcher's descriptions of one enjoying the privilege afforded by the dispensation of the Son was that of "a true believer, who loves God above all persons and things, and rejoices in the expiation and pardon of his sins, which he has now received in Christ by a living faith." Regeneration, however, could only be brought about and "completed" by "the baptism of the Holy Spirit." The pre-Pentecost disciples were considered by both Wesley and Fletcher as being "'clean' before God (i.e. justified), but were not yet born again." Frazier concludes that "both Fletcher and Wesley held that one becomes a true Christian" by a baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Fletcher is shown to see a profound "difference between human attempts at self-reform and the spiritual transformation that is accomplished by baptism of the Holy Ghost." This he illustrated by showing "the difference that exists between the reformation of a Pharisee and the Regeneration of a Child of God: some degree of prevenient grace, or reason, and of reflection is sufficient for the first," writes Fletcher, "but nothing less than the baptism of the Holy Spirit and a real participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus will affect the second." As a means of encouraging true penitents, he was want to exclaim: "Yes, you will also be baptized of the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins, & justified freely by faith, you will have peace with God by our Lord Jesus Christ & you will rejoice in God your Savior with a joy unspeakable and full of glory." Frazier concludes that as far as Fletcher was concerned, "Baptism of the Spirit alone could suffice for the remission of sins and the justification of the believer."
As a part of his discussion of the Spirit's dispensation, Frazier addresses some of the misunderstanding and misappropriation of Fletcher's teaching. More specifically, "In The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism, [Lawrence] Wood argues that Fletcher held to an inextricable connection or unequivocal link between the doctrine of the baptism of the Spirit and entire sanctification and that he persuaded John Wesley to adopt such a view." In response Frazier claims that "Wood's argument for a functional equivalency in Fletcher's thought confuses an accurate understanding of the dynamic and breadth of the doctrine of the baptism with the Spirit." By further explanation, Frazier points out that "The early Fletcher held that baptisms (plural) of the Spirit make one a Christian and continue the process of sanctification whose goal is the perfection of the believer in love. Thus, baptism of the Spirit is the means to the end, perfect love, and the means should not be conflated with the end." According to Frazier's understanding of Fletcher's view, "the phrase, 'baptism of the Spirit,' was not inextricably linked to Christian perfection." In fact Frazier most conclusively asserts that "Fletcher's theology does not accord with the Holiness scholars who assert the pre-Pentecost apostles were 'real Christians' who were entirely sanctified on the day of Pentecost. Consistent with Wesley's theology, Fletcher's doctrine of dispensations viewed the pre-Pentecost disciples as almost (or imperfect) Christians whose faith was preparatory to the full Christian dispensation."
Fletcher had much to say of Christian perfection. According to Frazier he "conceived of different degrees of perfection that correspond with the various dispensations of divine grace. In the Last Check, the degrees of perfection are stated as follows: gentile's perfection, the Jew's perfection, the perfection of infant Christianity, the perfection of adult [or], perfect Christianity, the perfection of disembodied spirits, and the complete perfection of glorified saints."
In conclusion, J. Russell Frazier has shared in this volume a most comprehensive and copious study of John Fletcher's theology of dispensations. His research is proven to be far reaching. Beyond a thorough recapping of truth found in Fletcher's published works, great time and effort has obviously been invested in an international search of unpublished material. A much fuller knowledge and understanding of the theology of the Vicar of Madeley, which for too long has been buried, is now brought to light. Where full attention is hereby given to Frazier's study, little basis will be found for the opposing of Fletcher's theology to that of Wesley's. Little differences are to be observed. We find, in fact, that Frazier has disarmed those within the American holiness movement who wish to force Fletcher into a support of their peculiar views that are variously dissimilar to the teachings of Wesley.
This book is highly recommended as a help to all who desire, not only a full and thorough understanding of Fletcher's theology in terms of his doctrine of dispensations and accommodation, but a better understanding also of early Methodist teachings concerning the way of salvation.
You may order this book directly from the author Russ is part of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society and has made this special offer of $26 plus $4 for shipping and handling to stateside addresses for Arminian readers through the end of July 2014.