The first part of this series discussed the origins of the doctrine of total depravity and the Calvinist perspective on the teaching and concluded that some of Wesley’s own thoughts gave little reason to suppose that Wesley was at variance in any great respect from Calvin in regards to the doctrine.  Nevertheless, Wesley did depart from the Calvinist stance, over a not insignificant point.

He denied the idea that fallen men and women had no free will to exercise when it comes to obeying God and accepting salvation of their own volition. His theology in this area bears evidence of the influence of his reading of the Patristics, as he displays more of the Eastern Church’s thought on original sin, focusing on the introduction of corruption and death caused by Adam’s sin; opposed to this is the Western Church’s more Augustinian focus on the transmission of that sin to future generations.

Wesley believed that God had created humanity with the freedom to choose, and that Adam’s sin represented the choice not to follow God.

But why is there sin in the world? Because man was created in the image of God: Because he is not mere matter, a clod of earth, a lump of clay, without sense or understanding; but a spirit like his Creator, a being endued not only with sense and understanding, but also with a will exerting itself in various affections. To crown all the rest, he was endued with liberty; a power of directing his own affections and actions; a capacity of determining himself, or of choosing good or evil. Indeed, had not man been endued with this, all the rest would have been of no use: Had he not been a free as well as an intelligent being, his understanding would have been as incapable of holiness, or any kind of virtue, as a tree or a block of marble. And having this power, a power of choosing good or evil, he chose the latter: He chose evil. Thus “sin entered into the world,” and pain of every kind, preparatory to death. – Sermon 57: On the Fall of Man

Being the advocate of rational thinking that he was, reason would have dictated to Wesley that if free will had allowed for corruption to come in, then free will was also a channel by which God could achieve repairs to His fallen creation. As a result, Wesley taught prevenient or preventing grace, an act of grace by God that exists without reference to anything good which men or women might have done under their own power. Prevenient grace, Wesley argued, allowed humans to use free will to either accept the salvation God offers through Christ, or to reject it.

Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. – Sermon 85, On Working Out our Own Salvation

No theology develops in a complete vacuum, so the question is where did Wesley’s theology on total depravity originate? Wesley was influenced by the theology of Jacob Arminius, a 16th-century Dutch professor of theology at the University of Leiden. Posthumously, Arminius’ views became known for being the opposition to what would come to be the five classic points of Calvinism, although Arminius himself only truly disagreed with three of the points, and doubted a fourth. On the subject of total depravity, Arminius held common ground with Calvin, albeit in a modified form; this modified doctrine is what Wesley came to believe.

Methodist scholar Stephen Gunter has observed that until recently, scholars of Wesley had made the assumption that he had no personal knowledge of Arminius’ writings.[1] If this is so, how then would Wesley have had Arminian theology transmitted to him? A possible answer to this is that John Wesley certainly had more than passing knowledge of some of Arminius’ followers and theological heirs. Within the Anglican tradition, he would have been acquainted with Henry Hammond, a 17th-century Anglican cleric. Hammond authored a number of controversial sermons and tracts, and is perhaps best remembered today as the first English intellectual to attempt a scholarly comparison of New Testament manuscripts. Within Wesley’s famous Christian Library is a work by John Fell, The Life of The most Learned, Reverend and Pious Dr H. Hammond, [2] and this represents a link in a chain leading back to Arminius.

Hammond not only represented an Anglican tradition of Arminianism, but was a champion extraordinaire of the writings of Hugo Grotius,[3] one of the followers of Arminius known as the Remonstrants. The Remonstrants declined to name themselves after Arminius, but are so named due to their presentation in January 1610 of Five Articles of Remonstrance, which disputed the doctrines of Calvinism. The response to these was eventually issued in 1618-1619 during the Synod of Dort, which established the five points of Calvinism, known today by the acrostic TULIP.  The third of these articles, which Wesley would have been familiar with, addressed the issue of total depravity:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”[4]

Did Wesley have more direct personal knowledge of Arminius’ writings? Wynkoop avows that he did, reporting that he “encountered Arminius’ writings and was deeply impressed by them.”[5] Gunter not only supports this, but goes into specifics regarding what Wesley would have read:

A copy of Thomas Bennet’s, Directions for Studying, was in Wesley’s personal library, which Wesley makes a note of reading in January, 1731. Herein may be found important excerpts from Arminius’ Declaration of Sentiments (delivered in The Hague to the States of Holland in 1608), as well as main points from Arminius’ earlier public disputation “On Predestination,” given at Leiden in February, 1604. The excerpt from Arminius’ Sentiments reproduced by Bennet is not lengthy, but it does reflect the heart of Arminius’ differences with the strict Calvinists.[6]

These excerpts, however incomplete, represent a vital direct transmission to Wesley of Arminius’ theology regarding total depravity. Arminius was quite particular on the subject of the imago Dei, the image of God within man, and how it defined man:

The image and likeness of God, after which man was created, belongs partly to the very nature of man, so that without it man cannot be man; but it partly consists in those things which concern supernatural, heavenly and spiritual things. The former class comprises the understanding, the affections, and the will, which is free; but the latter, the knowledge of God and of things divine, righteousness, true holiness, &c.[7]

Arminius stood against the idea that humankind was helpless to make any choice regarding salvation, or helpless to choose only evil. Adam’s free will before the Fall was a result of him being created in the image of God, and so Arminius insisted was “inclined to good.”[8] For this will to truly be free, it had to be free to choose a lesser good than God had intended, even though choosing it meant conviction of rebellion against God – i.e. sin. Thus, Arminius argues that the free will God granted men and women gives freedom and ability to pursue either good or evil.[9] Arminius did acknowledge that due to original sin’s effects, humanity experienced the loss of  “that primitive righteousness and holiness, which, because they are the effects of the Holy Spirit dwelling in man, ought not to have remained in him after he had fallen from the favor of God . . . .”[10]

The restoration of such holiness and righteousness — and the repair of broken relationship with God — Arminius believed could come only through the action of God’s grace allowing men and woman to become aware of their own corruption and sin.

[There is] a gracious act of God in Christ by which, through [God’s] word and Spirit, He calls forth sinful men, who are liable to condemnation and placed under the dominion of sin, from the condition of the animal life, and from the pollutions and corruptions of this world . . . unto ‘the fellowship of Jesus Christ,’ and of his kingdom and its benefits; that, being united unto Him as their Head, they may derive from him life, sensation, motion, and plentitude of every spiritual blessing, to the glory of God and their own salvation.[11]

This is what Wesley would later call prevenient grace, and Gunter states that Arminius argues that this act of grace on God’s part can be resisted by those who will to do so: “those who resist the operation of the Spirit do so at their own peril and as a result of “malice and hardness of heart,” which is itself formally speaking the “cause” of their rejection of the divine call to salvation.”[12] Here Wesley differs slightly from Arminius, although the end results are the same. Gunter claims that “Wesley would agree that those who persevere in resisting are finally given over to Satan, but he does not make the formal move of declaring that this is because God withdraws the gracious assisting Holy Spirit, but rather because the sinner persists in rejecting the Spirit’s overtures.”[13]

Coming next: Part 3 will conclude this series, beginning by examining whether Wesley’s theology accurately represented Arminan thought, and tracing how an Arminian viewpoint contributed to the construction of a doctrine of Christian perfection.


[1] Gunter, W. Stephen. “John Wesley, A Faithful Representative of Jacob Arminius.” Paper presented at Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, held at Christ Church, Oxford August 13-22, 2002.  p. 2. http://www.oxford-institute.org/docs/2002papers/2002-2Gunter.pdf [accessed March 30, 2010]

[2] Fell, John. The Life of The most Learned, Reverend and Pious Dr H. Hammond. 2nd edition, 1662.  http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/hammond/fell.html [accessed April 10, 2010]

[3] Grotius, Hugo. The Truth of Christian Religion in Six Books: Corrected, with Illustrations by Mr. Le Clerc. Translated by John Clarke, D.D. Liverpool, England: J. & J. Jackson, Louth. 1829. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/grotius/truth.i.html [accessed April 10, 2010]

[4] Schaff, Phillip. “Five Articles of Remonstrance,” in The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI: 1996. Pages 545ff.

[5] Wynkoop. p. 68.

[6] Gunter. p. 2.

[7] Arminius, “Certain Articles,” VI.v, in The Writings of James Arminius, Volumes I-III. Translated by James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956. II:486. [Hereafter referred to as Writings.]

[8] Arminius. “Private Disputations,” XXVI.v, in Writings, II:63.

[9] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” XI.vi, in Writings, I:525-26.

[10] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” VII.xv, in Writings, I:485.

[11] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” XVI.ii, in Writings, I:570.

[12] Gunter. p. 7.

[13] Gunter. p. 8.

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