Tuesday, September 19, 2017

When is a Calvinist not a Calvinist?

...when they are bellowing forth Arminian doctrine in a hymn. One of the Arminian hymns some Calvinists are most partial to is Charles Wesley's "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling". Even Wikipedia will tell you that the theme of this hymn is "Christian perfection". In other words it is about sinless perfectionism, the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, sometimes called the second blessing. The hymn is also based on a secular theatrical song by John Dryden "Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling". The closing line comes from a poem by Joseph Addison. Wesley published it in four stanzas in Hymns for those that seek, and those that have Redemption in the Blood of Christ (1747).

Here is the full hymn in its original form where the theme of sinless perfection is very much on the surface. None of the blessings that it envisages is beyond death. Even in almost every amended version in hymn books it is only the last three lines that speak of the heavenly state.

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of Heav’n to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesu, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our power of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Nevermore Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and sinless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restor'd in Thee;
Chang'd from glory into glory,
Till in Heav’n we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
What does Wesley mean by "perfect love"? This was his name for sinless perfection. The believer experienced what he called an "instantaneous change". "Since that change they enjoy perfect love. They feel this, and this alone; they rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in every thing give thanks. Now this is all that I mean by Christian perfection". Notice that this is what he means by "pray and praise thee without ceasing" in the hymn. Elsewhere he says that the "properties or inseparable fruits" of perfect love are "rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing and in everything giving thanks". See Witnesses of Perfect Love: Narratives of Christian Perfection in Early Methodism By Amy Caswell Bratton.

Article XI of the Methodist Articles puts it starkly:

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.
He compares the "instant in which life ceases" in death to the death of sin in us, "if ever sin ceases, there must be a last moment of its existence, and a first moment of our deliverance from it". This is what he means in saying "Come Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive". It does not matter if you talk about sin being suspended in them rather than destroyed, they "are all love". Receiving the divine life is equivalent to what he says about the new creation being finished and salvation being perfectly restored in the new status of perfect love. Receiving the divine life is "becoming partakers of the divine nature which for John Wesley was "being renewed in the image of God, and having communion with them, so as to dwell in God and God in you". They receive the holiness of Christ himself. Wesley comments "as he - Christ. Is - All love. So are we". Of course many hymn books swap "life" for "grace" which only tones down the perfectionism.

Strangely many hymn books still have "Finish then thy new creation", which is breathtaking. The new creation being finished in this life?! Some older books changed it to "Carry on then.." "The Great Salvation" was another common term to refer to sinless perfection in early Methodism.

Many versions of this hymn still have salvation being perfectly restored, again here and now. Most have "pure and spotless" which is only just slightly less obvious than "sinless" but spotlessness now amounts to the same thing.

Charles Wesley says that "one perfected in love may grow in grace far swifter than he did before" and this is what is meant by "all thy faithful mercies crown" and "changed from glory into glory".

Serving God "as thy hosts above" is unambiguous perfectionism. John Wesley spoke of it in these terms:
In a word, he doeth the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.
Some Methodists did claim angelic perfection. Is it any wonder?

What does "second rest" mean? Fletcher, of Madeley, remarked:-- "Mr. Wesley says second rest, because an imperfect believer enjoys a first, inferior rest; if he did no, he would be no believer."

It is of course possible to gut Wesley's hymn absolutely of his theme but this seems like making a hymn about the Trinity, Unitarian. Most versions of the hymn retain the traces of sinless perfectionism.

It is clear that those who sing hymns rarely stop to carefully consider the theology they confess but are often carried away with a sentimental view and may mistake the true meaning in their taking away what they think to be the general gist. People sing about the power of cancelled sin being broken, but is that actually what they believe?

For those who defend hymn singing by saying "if you can preach it you can sing it". (Ignoring plain Scripture commands by setting  up a principle of their own) How much of what they sing would they in fact preach?

Those who sing the psalms only never sing error, nor are ever in any danger of it. Moreover, the Word of Christ dwells in them richly.