4

It is well-known that John Wesley was an adherent and defender of Arminian soteriology. I have noticed that it is often assumed, and occasionally explicitly asserted, that his brother Charles agreed with him on this point; and yet, I have never seen any actual document or writing or quotation justifying this assertion.

Indeed, some verses from some Wesley hymns would appear to indicate a more "monergistic" view of the work of God in saving sinners than the Arminian view; a famous example is the penultimate verse of And can it be:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

The key point here is that the last three lines are the consequence not of a merely "will-freeing ray" by which it became possible for Wesley now to choose to follow Christ. Rather, the light, freedom and rising in this second half of the verse (remedying the previous lying, bondage and night mentioned in the reverse order in the first half of the verse) are all the consequence of the external intervention of Christ's quickening (i.e. making alive) ray; undoubtedly, this life refers to the spiritual life of being in Christ, not merely a new ability to choose God that wasn't there before.

But perhaps more striking still is the second verse of the less well-known hymn Spirit of Faith, Come Down:

No one can truly say

that Jesus is the Lord,

unless Thou [the Spirit] take the veil away

and breathe the living Word.

Then, only then, we feel

our interest in his blood,

and cry with joy unspeakable,

"Thou art my Lord, my God!"

The key is the phrase Then [and] only then, ... Charles Wesley clearly portrays only two possible scenarios:

  • In the first scenario, the individual's experience has not yet involved having the Spirit removing the veil and breathing the living Word, and this inherently means that the individual is left unable to say with genuine meaning that Jesus is the Lord, feeling no real interest in His blood.
  • In the second scenario, the Spirit's work of removing the veil and breathing the living Word is applied to the individual, and the consequence of this will be the opposite extreme, namely that the individual responds to the reality of the blood of Christ by crying out with unspeakable joy that Christ is his/her Lord and God.

So in view of these, my question is:

What actual evidence is there that Charles Wesley was Arminian?

Please note: I am not just asking for evidence that Wesley wasn't a full-fledged 5-point Calvinist; indeed, the previous verse of the same hymn says that it belongs to the Spirit to give a person eyes to see that He Who died for every sinner died for that person.

4

Yes, there are claims that both John and Charles Wesley were Arminians, but more often than not it is the theology of John that is under discussion. “And can it be” is a wonderful example of how Charles Wesley used hymns to present his theological views. The article in the first link below gives an interesting insight into the background and biblical basis behind the words.

Another article that sheds light on the theology of Charles Wesley is in the second link below: “Ye Need Not One Be Left Behind/For God Hath Bidden All Mankind”: Charles Wesley’s Response to the Doctrine of Limited Atonement by Charles Edward White, Spring Arbor University. Part of that article says:

“When John Wesley collected his brother’s hymns for the use of the people called Methodists, he opened the book with his brother’s birthday anthem, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. This song serves as an overture for the hymnal, introducing many of the characteristic themes of Methodist belief. Beginning with overwhelming gratitude and praise for Father and Son, it quickly moves to the proper human response of spreading God’s honor throughout the world. The intense personal experience of forgiveness, liberty, and cleansing comes next and then the declaration that all is of grace by faith fills out the first six verses. With verse six, however, Charles subtly moves from proclamation to argumentation. It is not by accident that against his Roman Catholic opponents he sings, “Look and be saved by grace alone/Be justified by faith.”

“With the introduction of the word “every” Charles arguably fires the first shot in a battle against Calvinism that will rage for the rest of his life. Along with the second hymn in the Collection and at least forty-three additional hymns in this volume, Charles wrote a thirty-six stanza poem, and published two volumes entitled “Hymns on God’s Everlasting Love” with forty-six more songs to combat what he calls “the poison of Calvin.”

“As we have seen, one of the topics which most exercised him was the concept that the atonement of Christ might benefit only a small portion of humanity. This idea he battled through arguments made from scripture, reason, and experience. Because his arguments are made in song, none of them can be fully developed or defended from all caviling. At least one, it must be admitted, depends upon a misunderstanding of the scriptural text. But when carefully examined, as we have done for two of the most-widely-known hymns on the topic, it becomes clear that the force of Wesley’s argument for the universal scope of the atonement is like the force of a landslide. While travelers may be able to dodge any individual rock, the sheer volume and weight of the whole phenomenon will overwhelm them.”

Part of an article (third link below) says this about Charles Wesley’s hymn “The Horrible Decree”:

“Charles Wesley was a prolific hymnist, with approximately 9000 hymns and sacred poems to his name. Among my favorites are “And Can It Be?” and “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing!” Welsey–along with his brother John–were also a theological polemicist, however, who wrote his polemics into his songs. One of his most blunt anti-Calvinist hymns is “The Horrible Decree,” which refers to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement.”

John Starke, pastor of preaching at Apostles Church in New York City and co-editor of ‘One God in Three Persons’ (Crossway, 2015), had this comment to make (fourth link below):

“For these reasons, it took me some time to come around to see the Wesleyan-Arminian theological perspective as something worth claiming. But I eventually did so. The sermons of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley were major factors for me. These are simply excellent, and gradually they drew me to the conviction that these Wesley brothers must have had a grasp of something important if they could keep producing things like that. The Wesleys teach a form of evangelical Protestantism that goes straight to the heart and changes lives. That's what drew me in to the Wesleyan way of thinking.”

A final thought from Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) who is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition (fifth link below):

“The fact so many Calvinists love to sing the gospel-rich hymns of Charles Wesley, which John loved and printed and commended and sang, shows what Wesley meant when he said he was within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism.”

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/charles-wesleys-and-can-it-be-background-and-scriptural-allusions/

[2] http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/White.-Charles-Wesleys-Response-to-the-Doctrine-of-Limited-Atonement.pdf

[3] https://georgepwood.com/2009/07/10/the-horrible-decree-by-charles-wesley/

[4] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/youre-a-calvinist-right/

[5] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/meet-a-reformed-arminian/

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