Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion & Democracy has responded to my take on the rise of Protestant perfectionism in the past several decades with a plea for help from Reformed Christians. I appreciate the response in part because I think it illustrates the challenge for Wesleyans to clarify their contribution to the broader Christian witness given the misconceptions about the movement. I find Tooley’s analysis at once too broad and too narrow, which the plea for help from Reformed Christians merely underscores.

The analysis is too broad in its attempt to describe Methodism as though the entire movement identified by that term can be reduced to the wing of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) that allied with Social-Gospel advocates. Where are the Free Methodists? The Wesleyan Methodists? The Wesleyan Church? The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church? The African Methodist Episcopal Church and other forms of Black Methodism? I realize that, as the home of the old MEC, the United Methodist Church is the largest form of Methodism, but it is not the only form any more than the PCUSA is the only form of Presbyterianism in the U.S.

Within the MEC, differences should be drawn between Henry Clay Morrison who led Asbury College for most of the early twentieth century and Borden Parker Bowne’s personalism at Boston University. William James once wrote that “the ancient spirit of Methodism evaporates” under Bowne’s philosophy. One can trace this version of perfectionism as a gradual process of realizing kingdom values from Bowne to Schubert Ogden and the emergence of Process theism within Methodist circles. Bowne symbolizes the move in the MEC away from Wesley’s fusion of encounter and process.

In Henry Clay Morrison one finds the Wesleyan optimism of grace tempered by a premillennialism that asserted the Kingdom of God could never be realized apart from a dramatic final intervention by Christ. Christ alone will bring about the Eighth Day, which is an extension of the Reformation principle solus Christus to eschatology. Too often claims that premillennialism encouraged a disengagement from the world and a kind of withdrawal into sectarianism derive almost exclusively from the Higher Life wing of the holiness movement. In other words, people looked to Fundamentalists like the Reformed Congregationalist C. I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer, another Reformed Congregationalist who helped to found Dallas Theological Seminary, the home of Dispensational Premillennialism, rather than to the Wesleyan side of the holiness movement. Tooley needs to ask what role eschatology plays in all of this.

And here one finds how Tooley’s analysis is too narrow. By focusing on Methodism, Tooley has left out the versions of perfectionism found within Pentecostalism and the holiness movement. For all of its rich variety, Methodism is not co-extensive with the holiness movement or global Pentecostalism. By not taking these other varieties into consideration, Tooley risks moving into the kind of ahistorical slippery slope that one finds in Wayne Grudem’s effort to link liberalism with feminism and the ordination of women. Grudem left out women like Phoebe Palmer, Julia Foote, Francis Willard, Amanda Berry Smith, and Maria Woodworth-Etter who were around during the first wave of feminism. In failing to mention other forms of perfectionism, Tooley comes close to doing the same.

Finally, the appeal to Reformed Christians reveals another dimension of this narrowness. No doubt, we should look for historical and theological connections between Reformed and Wesleyan wings of the evangelical world. If Tooley wishes to recover a strong Augustinian doctrine of sin, however, I think he could easily do so by following Wesley and returning to the patristic tradition. This is, after all, what the doctrine of total depravity at its best seeks to do (and it’s what Tom Oden and Albert Outler did). I have no qualms with affirming a strong doctrine of human sinfulness, but I do not think you can fully grasp the theological rationale behind Christian perfection as re-ordered love apart from the patristic notion of sin as disordered desire. Nor can you understand fully what perfectionism involves without grounding the concept in Greek patristic writers (as Wesley did) and tracing its roots in the Latin mystical stream. This is the stronger ground upon which we can all stand, but we Wesleyans get there by drinking from our own wells.

On the issue of engagement with the broader culture both traditions have had their failures for which they must account. A big difference, however, is that Wesleyanism in all of its forms (Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal) has never occupied the kind of hegemonic relationship to society that Reformed Christianity has held. One need only think of the Church of Scotland, the old Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, the Congregationalism of New England, or even the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk) in South Africa. If one is going to assess the overall cultural impact of Reformed Christianity, one cannot ignore all of these examples. It is unfair to pick out a stream of Wesleyanism that embodies a problematic version of perfectionism and compare it to a version of Reformed Christianity that embodies a less problematic version of that tradition.

As many Reformed Christians—indeed all Protestants—will no doubt admit, there is no safe version of Christianity in terms of the potential encroachment of a broader culture since one can find distortions or modifications of all versions in light of the ongoing cultural challenges. And this is the question, is it not? Whether a particular manifestation of Wesleyanism is a faithful modification or a perversion that moves beyond the boundaries even of Christian tradition as a whole?

Wesleyanism is a movement of ecclesial bodies within the church catholic stemming initially from the effort to renew Anglicanism. By swimming back up stream through Anglicanism, Wesleyans find their location within the great river of Christian tradition. Let us drink from that well for through it we find the links to medieval and patristic worlds, links made concrete in libraries like the one William Laud built at St. John’s College in Oxford, which provided the fuel for the great medievalist Sir Richard Southern’s recovery of medieval humanism or the spark that set ablaze a C.S. Lewis. 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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