It’s that time of year again, when Protestants begin to reflect on what the Reformation has meant and continues to mean. It is a contested legacy, the interpretation and appropriation of which depends upon historical trajectories and contemporary concerns. Within the evangelical world, the legacy of the Reformation unfolds in different ways depending on whether one identifies primarily with the confessional or the pietistic wing.
As a Wesleyan, of course, I find my own identity in a peculiar outworking of reform that has occurred as a historical segment of English Christianity. Sometimes this is lost on those within the confessional stream of continental Protestantism for whom identity remains wedded to a hard-won set of theological commitments. Yet it remains a legitimate expression of the Reformation, retaining, as it does, an emphasis on Word and Spirit as a dynamic encounter that unites the person to the Incarnate Savior and facilitates the synergistic unfolding of justifying and sanctifying grace.
The historical line of succession is clear enough. It moves back through the late–nineteenth century holiness movement into the Methodist reforms of Anglicanism, which themselves spring from the unique combination of German Pietism, Puritanism, and the Caroline Divines. Indeed, Baptists and Wesleyans must locate themselves at the headwaters of Jacobean seventeenth-century Christianity even if they may, at times, come down on different sides of it.
The Reformation source of this historical trajectory resides in the reforms Thomas Cranmer sought to enact. Its understanding of sola scriptura fits with what one finds in Cranmer’s preface to The Great Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, in which Cranmer framed sola scriptura in terms of a spirituality springing from a common devotional life and grounded in the Greek Patristic tradition. It has never been lost on me that Cranmer quotes Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom in his preface, thereby paving the way for the unique brand of synergism that theologians and churchman such as Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, and Jeremy Taylor would bequeath to John Wesley.
From this perspective, the best Reformed theologians stem not from Calvin and Geneva, but from Strasbourg and Zurich by way of Oxford and Cambridge. I am speaking, of course, of Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Heinrich Bullinger, in particular; the first two Cranmer brought to Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. Calvin is the lesser light amidst these greater witnesses. On the Lutheran side, something similar holds insofar as Luther is read in light of Rhineland mystics, whom he adopted. This Lutheran pietistic legacy moves from Johann Arndt to Philipp Spener’s Pia Desideria and flows into Wesleyanism.
While one may agree with Heiko Oberman that initia Reformationis is initia Lutheri, this does not mean that Luther is the whole Reformation. His act of protest, remembered on Reformation Day, points toward a deeper and broader movement that Luther himself could not contain and did not desire. Indeed, Luther’s legacy is as complicated as the Reformation itself, involving complicity in the death of so many of his own people during the German Peasants’ revolt in the 1520s and a barrage of anti-Jewish polemics. No, Luther may be the beginning, but he is not and cannot be the whole.
The Wesleyan connection to the Reformation would certainly borrow from Luther, but by no means would it be restricted to Luther, or to any other single figure. The themes of the reform within English Christianity have become the themes Wesleyans tend to hold dear: the idea that grace comes in many forms, being adapted to the human condition; that the spiritual life is the center, and theology must serve it; and that the church as a community must guard sound doctrine. To take but one of these: The Wesleyan emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness, coupled with a “method” for spiritual formation grounded in the spiritual traditions of Christianity, stems from Cranmer’s approach. Wesley’s Christian Library, with volumes from writers as diverse as the Apostolic Fathers and Jonathan Edwards, grounds Wesleyanism in the tradition. Wesleyans, to a certain extent, follow John Jewel’s argument in trying to “out-catholic the Catholics” by claiming historic Christianity from the Patristic period through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation.
Those in the confessional stream may make their claims to being heirs of the Reformation, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that belonging to a form of Presbyterianism or Lutheranism that began in the nineteenth or early-twentieth century in reaction to uniquely American debates somehow gives one the high ground here. And, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that confessional streams somehow secure a more orthodox understanding of scripture. History won’t allow us the luxury of such a misty-eyed vision. American Protestantism is itself an immigrant offspring, and we should be thankful that it is. Given the way Methodism itself was formed in the fires of revolution, Wesleyans understand all too well what it means to be an immigrant offspring separated from the source by the impenetrable wall of history—and yet, this makes our genealogy no less legitimate than others involved in that same separation. We are all immigrants; we are all heirs.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.