Toplady and Arminians. Or "You should pray, and get out more."

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Augustus Toplady once said that "it is not necessary to be timid in order to be meek." And I guess that must be right, glancing at the inspired examples in Galatians 5:12 or Matthew 23:1-33. It needs to be seen in proper context though. Toplady thought it was the most fitting response to what had been done to him by John Wesley (and we don't often hear about that, for some reason, do we?). "To have refuted the forgeries and perversions of such an assailant tenderly, and with meekness falsely so called," he writes, "would have been like shooting at a highwayman with a pop-gun, or repelling the sword of an assassin with a straw."

Some people have reacted to my previous posts about John Wesley with astonishment, and some complain vaguely of "tone." I am just trying to do good history, which as Oliver Cromwell said about portrait painting, should be done "warts and all." In my book The True Profession of the Gospel, I actually look closely at a bunch of proper historical accounts of the 18th century debates, incredulous at the way they skate over (cover-up, even) the Arminian controversies which Wesley started.

I don't just have it in for Arminians, of course. In The True Profession of the Gospel, I do criticise Toplady for his occasionally barbed and acerbic responses to Wesley, as not always being in keeping with 2 Timothy 2:22-26. I do the same with Luther elsewhere, even though I think he was right theologically against Erasmus. While upholding grace, he sometimes forgot to be gracious. I certainly am not trying to fall foul of that same criticism.

But over the years, I have found several conservative evangelicals object to my discussion of Wesley's behaviour because, I quote, "he was so used by God!" Basically, "Don't criticise someone who is generally "on our side!" And even, "Does it matter how he behaved in his private life?" This pragmatic argument is perhaps understandable, if you're into broad church ecclesiastical utilitarianism, but I don't find that the same people have an equally tolerant attitude towards, say, Pentecostals/charismatics, Federal Visionists, neo-Calvinists, egalitarians, or folks like Mark Driscoll. Or, Anglicans. They are not saying we should be patient with their sometimes quite outrageous statements because "they are being greatly used by God."

Instead, we find them gloating over downfalls and misdemeanours, or trying heavy-handedly to put people off going to their conferences, or attacking them (and anybody they think might be tainted by some association with them) in various ways both publicly and privately.

One such friend said I should write a "10 things I love about Wesley" article, to compensate for my surgically removing his halo. I have drafted one (there are many good things to say!), but not posted or printed it anywhere yet. I said I would do so if he could write a similar thing about one of those groups above that I know he has problems with theologically and has even preached against vigorously. I wouldn't recommend holding your breath.

But my point is this: we should not excuse or ignore reprehensible behaviour in the heroes of the past, because to do so only encourages it in the heroes of the present (and their imitators).

We mustn't fall for the Politician's Fallacy. The New Testament says a few things about how behaviour and doctrine need to match up, doesn't it? So how can we just stick with critiquing someone's theology and cover-up their life?

That is my real target in all this. I am trying to learn from the events of the past some lessons on how we can respond to things going on in our own day. I am certainly not saying some of the things people seem to have taken away from these posts. I am not saying that all Arminians are like Wesley or that Arminianism is flawed because Wesley was (any more than the opposite would be true if I had picked an outrageous Calvinist instead).

What did Toplady think of Arminians?
Allow me to illustrate some of this with another story from the 18th century. John Wesley republished one of Toplady's own books, in Toplady's name, in his own publishing series. This was the start of the Zanchi Tract War. Wesley gutted Toplady's book of all biblical references, which rather castrates its persuasive force as a piece of Christian theology, I think we can all agree. But he also added an extra paragraph, all of his own devising. It was, we can only hope, his sincere attempt to summarise what he heard the book to be about:

"The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will: The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader, believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand, A___ T___."

Now, Toplady was a bit upset by this forgery, plagiarism, tomfoolery - call it what you will. I think I would be too. Wouldn't you be, if someone did that to one of your books or articles or blogposts? But it is interesting that this is what Wesley heard.

What was wrong here? For a start, says A.M.T., the numbers were wrong and utterly presumptuous. In Toplady's opinion, "The kingdom of glory will both be more largely and more variously peopled than bigots of all denominations are either able to think, or willing to allow." That's a great quote. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

Wesley's summary of what Toplady had written was also scurrilous, with entirely false implications, he says. The elect are not saved "do what they will" but "chosen as much to holiness as to heaven." Any standard Calvinist treatment of predestination says that (though it is possible, I suppose, as one of Wesley's biographers claims, that Wesley had not read any of those.)

Equally importantly, Toplady neither claimed nor thought that it was impossible for non-Calvinists to escape damnation. JC Ryle effortlessly sides with Wesley and also accuses him of this, which really is quite unfair, to put it mildly. Toplady never said Arminians are not Christians! That, of course, would have been a strange thing for him to assert, given that he was an Arminian himself for several years after his conversion. He does not subsequently re-date his conversion to the year he became a Calvinist.

Indeed, Toplady says on several occasions that he thought many Arminians were "pious, moderate, respectable men." He goes on to say, "Of these, I myself know more than a few: and have the happiness to enjoy as much of their esteem, as they deservedly possess of mine." Some of my best friends are Arminians. And I respect them -- even for their piety.

Here's a pic of me and my sidekick Penfold, in congenial pose, making the same point: View image.

Toplady is careful not to say that Arminians -- or even heretics such as Arius or Socinus -- are definitely excluded from heaven. God alone knows their destiny. Toplady doesn't exclude them from heaven on the ground that they are not good Calvinists like him. Though he is clear that if in heaven, they are no longer Arminians, Arians, or Socinians there, but now stand corrected.

I confess, I sometimes think the same of Baptists and Presbyterians. And I suppose they do of me. They tut and shake their heads, wondering how someone who otherwise appears to be a good Christian could possibly still be an Anglican. Perhaps the Lord will have a few things to say to all of us when the time comes.

Toplady doesn't say many positive things about Wesley. But the way that older brother treated him -- what can you expect? He is however very positive about some other prominent Arminians of his era, such as Hammond, Bull, Tillotson, Sharp, and Stillingfleet. He calls them eminent and worthy, "great ornaments to our church," and not to be mentioned without honour, even while he remains unconvinced by their Arminianism. There's even a good story about Toplady and a staunch Arminian having a bit of theological banter over a glass of wine, to mutual edification and amusement, which ends on a positive and friendly note.

So, as my good Arminian friend, and great ornament of the church, Fred Sanders, rightly says: "When publicly disagreeing with other believers, try to keep some sense of perspective. If a Wesleyan is the worst thing you can imagine, you have a weak imagination. Wesley's influence is not what's driving the godless spirit of the age. The same moral applies, of course, to Arminians, too: If you think the main problem with the world today is Calvinism, you should get out more."

Or as Toplady put it, "The envy, malice, and fury of Wesley's party are inconceivable. But, violently as they hate me, I dare not, I cannot, hate them in return. I have not so learned Christ. -- They have my prayers and my best wishes for their present and eternal salvation. But their errors have my opposition also."

And now a special treat for those who think we shouldn't consider the lives of the great and the good, but just dispassionately examine their doctrine. Not about Wesley (in case the editor is flooded with more curmudgeonly emails of complaint...) but a careful appraisal and appropriately sensitive rebuttal of that position I described above as the Politician's Fallacy.

Posted January 8, 2015 @ 6:30 AM by Lee Gatiss
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