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AN APPRAISAL OF THE KESWICK AND WESLEYAN CONTEMPORARY POSITIONS  

 

by


W. RALPH THOMPSON, Th.D.  

 

Source: Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online

Wesley.nnu.edu

 

Introduction

 

The ideal of Christian perfection which Christ and the apostles expressed, and which was made available to the believer by the Spirit at Pentecost, has recurred in one form or another from age to age. I Clement echoed the New Testament standard of brotherly love as the highest expression of the Christian life.[1] Repetitions of this ideal are to be found in the writings of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 110); in Chiliasm; in Montanism; in the ideal of asceticism; in monasticism; and in other individuals and movements.[2]

From the fourth to the sixteenth centuries of the Church the quest for holiness was polluted in the main by the doctrine that evil is to be associated with the human body, a teaching emphasized by Gnosticism and Manichaeism. Consequently many of those who longed for holiness united with one or another of the sects of the Cathari, or joined themselves to monasteries or convents.[3]

Nevertheless there were those during the Middle Ages who lived lives of genuine piety and taught the same. Outstanding among them were Eckart (1260–1327), Tauler (?–1361), Suso (?–1366), and the Brethren of the Common Life. Pietism in England and Germany was a more modern attempt on the part of Christians to bring life and reality back into a religion that had grown formal, dead, and corrupt. Pietism had a profound influence on John Wesley.

Contemporary emphases on victorious Christian living are represented by those groups related to the Wesleyan and Keswick movements. It is with an appraisal of the contemporary positions of these two schools of thought that this paper deals.

 

I. The History of the Wesleyan and Keswick Movements

 

A. Wesleyanism

 

In order to achieve chronological orientation, the Wesleyan movement is surveyed first.

The origin of the Wesleyan movement centered around John Wesley, a clergyman of the Church of England, who lived during most of the eighteenth century. The movement began within the bounds of the established Church. When that institution closed its doors to Wesley and his followers, they moved to secular buildings, to the open fields, and to wherever they could get a hearing. Later, necessity forced them to form the Methodist Societies in order to conserve and perpetuate the work which had been begun. Wesley himself, however, never withdrew from the Church of England.

The Methodist revival spread into Ireland and Wales , and then leapt the channel onto the continent. The Methodist circuit riders soon became familiar figures in America , and Methodist missionaries circled the earth.

Such zeal brought tremendous growth. Before many generations had passed, Methodist membership in America , for example, surpassed that of any other religious group.[4] Methodism’s wealth also exceeded that of any other Protestant body. Methodism was big business.

With prosperity, however, came spiritual decline and a relaxation of those principles which made Methodism great. While her book of discipline continued to retain the same standard of doctrine and conduct which had been in effect under Wesley, and Coke, and Albury, a general relaxation in the application of those standards and in her emphasis on personal religion ensued.

Some of Methodism’s leaders and a goodly number of her members continued to hold to the original principles, and chose to remain within the Methodist Church . Others left the church or were forced from it. These endeavored to preserve and perpetuate the aims of primitive Methodism by establishing their own denominations after the spiritual likeness of early Methodism.

Noteworthy among Methodism’s more conservative children today are the following: The Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (1843), The Free Methodist Church of North America (1860), the Salvation Army (1865), The Pilgrim Holiness Church (1897), The Church of the Nazarene (1907), and The Evangelical Methodist Church (1939). A number of other groups which have not come so directly from Methodist backgrounds as the above, nevertheless endeavored to preserve the doctrinal position of early Methodism.

 

B. The Keswick Movement

 

The Keswick movement had its beginnings in England about 1870, but its roots reached into America . An interest in the higher life had been stimulated in Britain by the Plymouth Brethren, by the evangelistic campaigns of D. L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, and by the writings of such American teachers as Walter Marshall (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification), W. E. Boardman (The Higher Christian Life), Robert Pearsall Smith (Holiness Through Faith), and Hannah Whitehall Smith (The Record of a Happy Life).[5]

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pearsall Smith’s higher-life meetings and conferences in England did much to set the pattern for the Keswick movement. Their emphasis arose as the result of their own entry into deeper spiritual experiences. Stephen Barabas’ account of Mrs. Smith’s struggle for a victorious Christian life is so typical of the search made by the early leaders both of Wesleyanism and Keswick that his statement is quoted at length at this point:

 

Mrs. Pearsall Smith says that she knew herself to be a child of God, but was unable to act like one, and this made her wonder whether she had not missed something which would have given her victory. She determined to find out, if possible, what that something was. Older Christians whom she questioned about it all told her the same thing: she had not missed anything; a life of sinning and repenting was inevitable because of the weakness of the flesh, and was all she could ever hope for. She continually cried out with the apostle, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Yet the fact stared her in the face that Paul had not only asked that question but answered it and said triumphantly, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In her discouragement she began to be afraid that she would lose every bit of religion she possessed. She and her husband, she says, had “learned thoroughly the blessed truth of justification by faith, and rejoiced in it with great joy. But here we had stopped. The equally blessed twin truth of sanctification by faith had not yet been revealed to us.

 

This new revelation came to Mrs. Pearsall Smith about 1867, through a young Baptist theological student who was living in her home as a tutor, and a Methodist dressmaker who lived in the little New Jersey village of Millville to which they had removed. From the tutor she learned that the way of victory was by faith and from the dressmaker, that there was an experience called the “second blessing,” which brought one into a place of victory.[6]

 

Early conferences were held at Broadlands (1874), Oxford (1874), Brighton (1875), and finally at Keswick (1875). Keswick soon became the recognized center of the movement, which today has conventions around the world.

Speakers always have come from various lands. At the Oxford Convention, for example, there appear the names of Otto Stockmayer’, of Switzerland ; Theodore Monod, of Paris ; W. E. Boardman and Asa Mahan, from America ; and Evan Hopkins, of England .

It should be noted, too, that convention speaker’s represent several denominations. F. B. Myer was a Baptist. A. T. Pierson, J. Elder Cumming, and George H. C. MacGregor’ were Presbyterians. Andrew Murray belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. H. C. G. Moule, H. W. Webb-Peploe, W. H. Griffith Thomas, and J. Stuart Holden were Anglicans. Such were representative of those who have followed.

This brief survey of Wesleyan and Keswick history must suffice for the purpose of this study. We shall now turn to an appraisal of the teachings and contemporary status of these movements.

 

II. Similarities Between Wesleyanism and the Keswick Movement

 

Certain basic similarities between the two schools of thought, especially with respect to their doctrinal positions, should be noted. If at times quotations or points of view are cited from men who are no longer contemporary, it is because neither movement has departed theologically from the position held by their founders; and both quote their earlier leaders when presenting their own contemporary positions.

A basic doctrinal agreement between them is to be noted with regard to their appraisal of the condition of unregenerate man. Both find him to be a sinner by nature, and consequently unable to cease from sinning, or to save himself from the wrath of a just God.[7] Both schools of thought base their hope for man’s salvation squarely on the redemptive work of God through Jesus Christ.

Both believe that justification is by faith in Christ, that it is attended by regeneration, and that the sinner is thereby made a child of God.

Both recognize that although transgressions are forgiven in justification, at which time also sanctification is begun, yet the principle of sin with which man is born remains in the justified believer. They agree that a life of complete victory in Christ comes usually through a definite crisis experience, or second work of grace. Wesleyans generally consider that the “second-blessing experience” is the normal procedure in the economy of God, as He works toward the ultimate salvation of the believer.[8] Keswick teachers emphasize that the second-crisis experience is usually a practical necessity not because it is in the purpose of God that it should come later than justification, but because of sinful man’s ignorance of his need to be filled with the Holy Spirit and of God’s provision for that need.[9]

Both Keswick and Wesleyanism believe that the sanctified believer continues to grow in grace so long as he lives. Both believe, too, that sanctification can be lost.

These are some of the basic similarities in doctrine which Wesleyan and Keswick teachers have. But it should also be noted that they possess important doctrinal differences.

 

III. Differences Between the Wesleyan and Keswick Positions

 

An important difference in the teachings of Wesleyanism and Keswick is seen in their analysis of what happens in the believer’s heart at the moment of sanctification. Wesleyanism teaches that the soul itself is delivered from all sin. Keswick, on the other hand, teaches that the sanctified themselves are not made holy, but only that they are made completely victorious over the sin nature, which still remains in their hearts. They distinguish between a state of holiness and a condition of holiness. They say that if the sanctified were in a state of holiness he would have no need for God to keep him thus, therefore they reject the doctrine as untenable. H. W. Webb-Peploe voiced Keswick’s objection in the following words:

 

The man who believes in a sanctification which eradicates sin from his person, as a principle, must be satisfied with his own condition, and be able to take his place more or less independent of the Savior, even while he may say that he is dependent upon that Savior or his vital joys and power from moment to moment.[10]

 

Wesleyans see no such difficulty in connection with the doctrine. They believe that the sanctified is made holy initially, and kept holy moment by moment, through the atoning grace of Christ. In speaking of the sanctified relationship to God, Charles V. Fairbairn says: “Just as natural life is maintained by daily sustenance, so with the spiritual; it must be renewed ‘day by day.”[11] D. Shelby Corlett asks this question: “In the work of entire sanctification is the sinful nature brought into more perfect control, or is it entirely removed from the heart of the Christian?” His answer is:

 

It is entirely removed from the heart of the Christian, because this sinful nature is enmity against God, is not subject to the law of God neither indeed can be (Romans 8:7), it cannot be incorporated into the Christian life, it cannot be harmonized with the nature of God, nor can it be brought under perfect control. The only remedy is removal or deliverance. Hence, “the blood of Jesus Christ . . . cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 ).[12]

 

Wesley says: “The body of sin, the carnal mind, must be destroyed; the old man must be slain, or we can not put on the new man, which is created after God . . ., in righteousness and true holiness.”[13]

Webb-Peploe stated at a Keswick convention that he could not understand how “dear John Wesley” could be so self-deceived as to suggest that a Christian could be free from sin in this life. Reader Harris, in answer to Webb-Peploe, offered one hundred pounds for the production of a single text of scripture which taught that sin is a necessity in the life of a Spirit-filled Christian. The one hundred pounds was never claimed.[14]

Evan Hopkins, one of the most quoted spokesmen among Keswicks, uses illustrations to prove that sin remains in the soul of the sanctified. One of his most effective analogies is that of an ascending balloon. Since it is so characteristic of several illustrations which Keswick speakers use, it is quoted here at length:

 

When a balloon with a car attached to it is ascending from the earth its tendency is upward—it has no tendency at all downwards, it has lost its tendency to fall. So when the Lord cleanses my heart from all evil—gives me a ‘clean heart’—I have no tendency to sin. I am liable to sin, but I have no tendency to sin.

 

Is this the reasoning of any of our readers? The illustration is a good one, but the inference is fallacious, and most misleading in its spiritual application. First, as to the balloon, we would say it has not lost its tendency downwards, though it continues to rise. We must remember that its movement upwards is but the resultant of opposing forces. Suppose we say the weight of the materials of which it is composed, or, in other words, its tendency downwards, is equal to four, and the lifting power of the gas by which it is filled is equal to six. As these two forces are diametrically opposed, the power by which it actually ascends is only equal to two.

 

Now to say that the balloon has lost all tendency downwards, because it has ceased to move in that direction, but on the contrary is steadily moving upwards, would be to talk after the popular mind, but it would not be an accurate statement of fact. Its tendency to sink, equal to four, remains the same, though it is counteracted by the superior power of six in the opposite direction.

 

The very fact that ‘the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus’ must be ever in force as a continual necessity, is a proof that the tendency to sin is not extinct, but is simply counteracted.

 

On the other hand, this does not imply that I need be conscious of that tendency. If we walk in the Spirit, the strain is borne by the Spirit. The privilege of the believer is this, that he may so live in the Spirit, and be filled with the Spirit, that, speaking from his consciousness, he may be tempted to say the flesh no longer exists; that he has now only one nature. But let us not be ignorant of Satan’s devices. It is then that we are in danger of being shunted off the rails of soberness and truth on to the line of spiritual delusion, which sooner or later terminates in disaster.[15]

 

Experientially, then, both schools of thought stood together. It is at the point of the doctrine of what happens to the heart of the sanctified believer that they differ.

The basis for the radical doctrinal cleavage at this point appears to be due to a fundamental difference in the two schools’ definitions of sin. Adherents to the Keswick position are recruited, for the most part, from those churches which accept the Calvinistic definition of sin[16], while Wesleyans are Arminian in doctrine. Since Calvinism looks upon those human weaknesses which produce a lack of conformity to the perfect will of God (mistakes, lapses of memory, ignorance, etc.) as sin, it is not conceivable that followers of Keswick could think of a perfect cleansing of the individual in this world. Wesleyans on the other hand, have no such theological impediment, for “sanctification” denotes for them the cleansing of the affections and motives, but not the undoing of the normal effects of the Fall.

 

IV. Criticisms of Certain Keswick and Wesleyan Positions and Practices

 

The writer now proposes to indicate what he believes to be inconsistencies and/or weaknesses of the Keswick and Wesleyan positions and/or practices.

 

A. Keswick position and practices

 

While the writer is happy with the intense Keswick desire for complete victory in Christ; while he rejoices at their zeal in proclaiming that victory, and at the soundness of much of their doctrine, and at the holy lives of many of their number; he finds their emphasis upon sanctification as a sustained condition to be unsound.

In the first place, a number of Scriptures clearly indicates that God would sanctify His people themselves, as well as give them victory over sin. The emphasis upon personal cleansing in the following passages is noteworthy: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that the Church might be presented before him in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25–27, RSV). “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, RSV). “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘ You shall be holy, for I am holy’ “(1 Peter 1:15–16, RSV). “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, RSV). Keswick teachers have found no Scripture which, rightly interpreted, teaches otherwise. Where Evan Hopkins, in his illustration of the balloon above, quotes Scripture, he stops too soon. He says: “The very fact that the ‘law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus’ must be ever in force as a continual necessity, is a proof that the tendency to sin is not extinct, but is simply counteracted.”[17] But if he had quoted the full scriptural statement, instead of a mere phrase, it would have contradicted the very point which he was making. It reads, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2 RSV).

Even in his use of analogies, Mr. Hopkins proves too much. If, for example, the downward pull of the ascending balloon illustrates that the sinful nature remains in the heart of the sanctified—he raises some serious theological problems.

Take the case of Adam. Consistency demands that Mr. Hopkins assume either that Adam was not subject to temptation, or that he did not have the upward “pull” of the Spirit of God; or, if neither of these conclusions is tenable, that he simply did not sin. This fallacy cannot be dismissed on the ground that our Keswick brethren mean that while the downward “pull” remains in the heart of the sanctified believer it was not in the heart of Adam. The writer would call attention to a statement by Stephen Barabas, Keswick’s approved historian and the codifier of their theological position. He says, “There would . . . be no need to abide in Christ and rely upon Him for victory over temptation if sin were no longer in us.”[18] By this statement he seems clearly to mean that the sinful nature is the basis for temptation.

The same consistency in the application of the doctrine which Mr. Hopkins derived from his illustration of the balloon would lead to more serious conclusions yet with regard to Jesus: either His temptations were not real, if we follow Mr. Hopkins reasoning, or Jesus too had a sinful nature, for He was tempted “in all points” (Hebrews 4:15).

The teaching that the sanctification of the believer is a counteraction of sin, but does not make the man himself holy, actually is no sanctification at all, any more than the sealing of a cesspool might be called a cleansing.

In their attempt to find scriptural support for the doctrine that sanctification is a sustained condition of victory, but is not also a state of purity, the Keswick teachers quite clearly quote certain passages of Scripture out of context. 1 John 1:8 is an example. John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Keswick teachers interpret this verse as applicable to the victorious Christian just the same as it applies to any other person. But to interpret it then forces the apostle to contradict himself. John has just stated that if we walk in the light as God is in the light we are cleansed from all sin. He cannot mean, then, in the next verse, that no people are without sin; obviously one cannot be cleansed from all sin and have a sinful nature at the same time. The apostle makes his meaning clear in verse 10: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar.” In verse eight John is saying, then, that all men are sinners in need of cleansing; but he clearly assumes that some have been, or at least may be, cleansed “from all sin.” To isolate verse 8 is to do violence to the sense of the passage.

 

B. Wesleyan position and practices

 

Some Wesleyans fall into the same verbal error as that of Keswick mentioned above. Thomas Cook, for example, says, “We teach not a state of purity, but a maintained condition of purity.”[19] By reading his statement in its context, however, one concludes that what he really means to say is that the sanctified believer needs the Spirit’s power continually in order to remain sanctified, to which both Wesleyanism and Keswick agree.

The use of the term “eradication,” on the part of certain Wesleyans, to describe what happens at sanctification, seems to the writer to be a weakness. If by “eradication” it is meant that an essential part of the person is removed, then the writer would ask for scriptural substantiation of that doctrine. It must be remembered that inbred sin is not an essential part of the nature of man. If it is, then Jesus was not a true man. Nor was Adam before the Fall. When God made man in His “own image,” He made him without a carnal nature. Sanctification, therefore, is not the removal of an essential part of the human personality; it is the cleansing of that personality. The word “eradication” is greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted by some non-Wesleyans. “Cleansing” is a scriptural term and carries better connotations. It would seem, therefore, that it should replace “eradication” in Wesleyan vocabulary.

While entire sanctification still is taught by the leaders of those branches of Wesleyanism which are known as “holiness” churches, and while a number of their pastors are faithful in the proclamation of the doctrine, the writer sees a slackening of its emphasis among their general leaders, and a disturbing lack of preaching and teaching of the doctrine at the grass roots. Wesley urged that “all our preachers make it a point to preach perfection to believers constantly, strongly and explicitly.”[20] And Adam Clarke said, “If the Methodists give up preaching entire sanctification, they will soon lose their glory.”[21] Any slackening of emphasis on the subject among Wesleyans, then, becomes disturbing.

The writer believes the reasons for the lessened emphasis on the subject of entire sanctification in churches of the Wesleyan tradition to be several in number.

First, a number of her pastors have never entered into the experience themselves. While some would not admit it publicly, they are confused on the subject, hence do not preach it.

Second, many laymen of the Wesleyan tradition have never been sanctified wholly and do not “groan after” the experience, though they may have promised to do so when they joined the church. Because of this fact, some laymen too cease to speak clearly on the subject.

Third, many Wesleyans who have come to a crisis experience of entire sanctification have supposed that it is self-perpetuating. Through carelessness with respect to prayer and the devotional reading of the Bible; through a lack of careful obedience to God; through a loss of zeal to win others; and through ceasing to hunger and thirst continually after righteousness, the Spirit has been grieved away. The experience of full salvation for them has ceased to be alive and meaningful. While they may continue to hold to a profession of this grace, and though they may contend for the teaching itself, their lives, far from attracting the sinner, bring reproach upon the very doctrine which they profess.

Fourth, a desire to grow numerically causes some among us to modify, or to keep silent about the doctrine of holiness, lest some who have begun to attend the services should be offended. In so doing, we forget that this doctrine is our reason for being, and our glory.

Fifth, the decline in emphasis on the doctrine of entire sanctification has come, to no small degree, as a result of the decline of the class meeting.

Sixth, churches of the Wesleyan tradition have failed to “sell” the doctrine of holiness because too often it has been presented primarily as something negative, while its positive aspects have been neglected. Wesleyans could learn from Keswick teachers at this point.

 

V. Summary and Conclusions

 

The rise of Wesleyanism and the Keswick movement have been given briefly in this paper. In an analysis of their similarities, it has been noted that both believe in the crisis experiences of justification and sanctification by faith in the Christ of Calvary. Both believe in complete victory over sin in personal living. Both can count among their numbers outstanding saints. And both have done much to promote God’s kingdom in the world.

Differences between the Wesleyans and Keswick stem from basic dissimilarities in their definitions of sin. This results in a distinct cleavage of thought with regard to what happens in the heart of the sanctified. Wesleyans maintain that the heart itself is cleansed, while Keswicks affirm that the sin nature is only counteracted in the sanctified heart.

Keswickism is weak in its scriptural foundation, but strong in its proclamation. Wesleyanism is doctrinally sound, but lacks in zeal and in positive presentation. Each has something to learn from the other. While learning it, let neither oppose the other, nor yield to the other’s weaknesses.

 



[1] George Allen Turner, The More Excellent Way (Winona Lake, Ind.: Light and Life Press, 1952), p.122.

[2] Ibid., p.128.

[3] Ibid., p.129.

[4] Wilson T. Hogue, History of the Free Methodist Church (Chicago: The Free Methodist Publishing House, 1918), I, 17.

[5] Stephen Barabas, So Great Salvation (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1952), pp.15–16.

[6] Ibid., pp.17–18.

[7] It is not to be supposed, however, that these schools of thought see eye to eye on this and other doctrines listed in this paper, when such doctrines are analyzed fully.

[8] Cf. D. Shelby Corlett, The A.B.C.’s of Holiness ( Kansas City , Mo. : Beacon Hill Press), p. 26. Also, Harry F. Jessop, Foundations of Doctrine ( Chicago : The Chicago Evangelistic Institute), p.48.

[9] Barabas, op. cit., pp 134–135.

[10] Herbert H. Stevenson, ed., Keswick’s Authentic Voice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p.31.

[11] Charles V. Fairbairn, Tarry Ye (Winona Lake, Ind.: Light & Life Press, 1943), p.61.

[12] Op. cit., p.37.

[13] Quoted by W. B. Godbey, Sanctification (Louisville, Ky.: The Kentucky Methodist Publishing Company, 1896), p.55.

[14] Jack E. Ford, What the Holiness People Believe (Palm Grove, Birkenhead, Chesire: Emmanuel Bible College and Missions, n.d.), p.51.

[15] Barabas, op. cit., pp.49–50.

[16] Even Anglicanism, from which Keswick draws a part of her constituency, and some of her ablest leaders, is mildly Calvinistic (see “Church of England,” The New Shaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IV).

[17] Barabas, op. cit., p.49.

[18] Ibid., p.73.

[19] Thomas Cook, New Testament Holiness (London: The Epworth Press, 1902), p.43.

[20] Godbey, op. cit., p.14.

[21] Loc. cit.