THE “ETERNAL SONSHIP” CONTROVERSY

IN EARLY BRITISH METHODISM

 

by

Barry W. Hamilton

 

 

            While Adam Clarke’s Commentary stands as one of the great achievements of early British Methodism, his interpretation of the term “Son of God” triggered an intense Trinitarian debate. One of the greatest biblical scholars in Great Britain in his lifetime, Clarke shared his generation’s respect for reason, especially its capacity to interpret the Bible and its demand that revelation be consistent with human experience.[1] On the basis of his approach that reverenced Scripture and despised systematic theology, Clarke could not interpret “Son of God” as a term denoting Christ’s divine nature. Certainly, he did not deny the divinity of Christ; rather he restricted the use of the term to Christ’s human nature. Thus, he asserted that Christ became the “Son of God” only after the Incarnation.[2]

Regarding Clarke’s position an unfortunate aberration, Methodist leaders coerced preachers to endorse the “Eternal Sonship” or leave the Connection.[3] However, Wesleyan ministers made Clarke’s Commentary a staple of their libraries; no one could deny its inestimable value for studying the Scriptures.[4] Furthermore, Methodists honored Clarke as an exemplary saint who combined scholarship and Wesleyan spirituality.[5] In fact, the real issue surrounding Clarke consisted of an exegetical dispute over the term “Son of God.”[6] Those who branded Clarke a heretic misread his interpretation as a denial of orthodoxy. The larger controversy took place between Methodist leaders and self-taught preachers.

 

Theological Controversy within Early British Methodism

 

Methodism in the early nineteenth century experienced its share of a wider assault on orthodox Christian teachings, often termed “infidelity” by contemporaries. Challenges included various forms of Arianism and Socinianism, although some controversialists simply used these terms to cast aspersion on opponents.[7] Although the “Sonship” issue had been debated since the seventeenth century, the dispute that impacted the Methodists at this time came primarily from Unitarianism, Joseph Priestley’s form of “reasonable” Christianity.[8] Without its own systematic theology, the Wesleyan movement struggled to train its ministers to respond intelligently to the crisis. Lacking a seminary, the movement relied largely on self-taught men and women drawn from the working class—people who lacked formal education and were often vulnerable to common-sense arguments.[9]

By 1818, some preachers and laity formed the Methodist Unitarian Movement, evidence of the inroads being made by rational religion.[10] Thus, when Clarke published the Matthew-Luke volume of his Commentary and Critical Notes on the Holy Bible (1817), some Methodists feared that Clarke’s hermeneutical principles and theological opinions—in the hands of ignorance—might compromise Methodism’s orthodoxy.[11] Concerned that Wesleyan ministers might misread Clarke, critics honed in on passages that tested his views on the Trinity and pronounced the footnote on Luke 1:35 unsound.[12] In his comments on this verse, Clarke rejected the application of the term “Son of God” exclusively to the divine nature of Christ. Rather, he applied the term “to that holy person or thing. . .which was born of the virgin, by the energy of the Holy Spirit.” Clarke connected “Son of God” to Jesus’ birth so that the term referred to Christ only after the Incarnation.

Anticipating opposition, Clarke rejected the doctrine of Eternal Sonship, asking, “But is there any part of the Scriptures in which it is plainly said that the Divine nature of Jesus was the Son of God?” Clarke produced five reasons for this rejection: (1) “I have not been able to find any express declaration in the Scriptures concerning it”; (2) “If Christ be the Son of God as to his Divine nature, then he cannot be eternal; for son implies a father; and father implies, in reference to son, precedency in time, if not in nature too”; (3) “If Christ be the Son of God as to his Divine nature, then the Father is of necessity prior, consequently superior to him”; (4) “Again, if this Divine nature were begotten of the Father, then it must be in time; i.e., there was a period in which it did not exist and a period when it began to exist”; (5) “To say that he was begotten from all eternity is, in my opinion, absurd; and the phrase eternal Son is a positive self-contradiction.” Clarke alleged, “This doctrine of the Eternal Sonship destroys the deity of Christ; now if his deity be taken away, the whole Gospel scheme of redemption is ruined.” He noted the publications that addressed the issue in terms of “Socinianism” and “Deism,” and prayed that God might “save his Church” from such “heterodoxies” and “their abetters.”[13]

            Certainly, no one could justly bring charges against Adam Clarke, for he strenuously upheld the divinity of Jesus Christ. As noted above, he believed the Eternal Sonship doctrine to be a denial of Christ’s deity.[14] Clarke was indisputably Methodism’s greatest biblical scholar, a renowned preacher and philanthropist. After his death, contemporaries counted him among the “greatest men” of his age.[15] Opponents could scarcely attack Clarke’s character, for his service to Methodism had been monumental. Nevertheless, they charged him with believing that revelation could not contradict reason.

For Clarke, the Bible embodied divine reason, correlative with human reason aided by divine illumination. His critics thought he meant that when people encountered mysterious teachings in the Bible, reason could interpret those elements to satisfy the mind according to its prior experience. Clarke’s critics misrepresented him in this case, for as a Methodist he defended divine revelation as necessary for Christian faith. In fact, reason added nothing to what God has revealed.[16] On the basis of Scripture, Clarke stoutly defended the divinity of Christ.[17] Certainly, those who affirmed a significant role for reason in the interpretation of Scripture often regarded the Bible as the sole source for Christian teaching and scorned “human creeds” and “works of divinity,” and Clarke explicitly despised systematic theology.[18] Yet, while some scholars could sound “Biblicist”—for example, the Unitarians—Clarke kept his own views in check with his evangelical scholarship and his loyalty to Methodism. Unfortunately, his stubborn adherence to the letter of Scripture compromised his adherence to the historic creeds of Christendom with respect to Christology. Consequently, Clarke took an exegetical position that re-opened the debate over the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ and challenged Wesleyan ministers to consider whether a common-sense reading of Luke 1:35 should allow them to differ with the historic creeds of the church.

            Clarke never published a response to his critics. He believed Scripture had spoken and let the matter rest. When critics launched fusillades of pamphlets on the “eternal Sonship” issue, Clarke likened their attacks to a man who went to the seashore to hold back the tide with a pitchfork. A busy scholar who detested controversy, he contented himself with continuing his work on the Commentary.[19] Those who rushed to defend Clarke wielded no greater skill than his detractors, often displaying confusion regarding the “persons” of the Trinity and their relations.[20] Both parties strove to make the opposing side appear ridiculous, and in Stephen Brunskill’s case, his own unskilled use of rhetoric did not help Clarke.[21] From the vantage point of nearly two centuries, the ‘Sonship’ issue illustrates the impossibility of resolving theological issues through Biblicist-rationalist approaches. The debate hinged around rhetoric, slander and convoluted theological argumentation, and thus failed to enrich the church’s faith.

 

Richard Watson Defends the Eternal Sonship

 

            The definitive response to the issue came from Clarke’s younger contemporary, Richard Watson (1781-1833). While Watson recognized Clarke’s exceptional standing and record of service, he nevertheless sensed a greater duty to defend the Eternal Sonship.[22] And although he refused to call Clarke an Arian or a Socinian, Watson did regard some of his opinions as meriting these labels. In some cases, he believed Clarke’s hermeneutical principles had a “direct tendency. . .to lead to errors, which Dr. Clarke himself would be the first to condemn.”

The year after Clarke’s volume on Matthew-Luke appeared, Watson published his Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ (1818). He never meant his Remarks as an attack on Clarke’s character—in fact, Watson hints at the latter’s innocence; rather, Watson considered the defense of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine to be an “imperative duty”—an indication that he aimed at a larger issue in Wesleyan Methodism.[23] In this pamphlet, he pointed out the danger of making reason the measure of revelation and demonstrated its weakness in theological matters. While both Clarke and Watson believed the interpretation of revelation should be consistent with reason aided by the Holy Spirit, Watson more clearly articulated the priority of revelation for Christian faith, even when consistency with reason proved impossible.[24] Watson may have feared that, if reason gained the upper hand, Methodism could not have maintained a consistently orthodox position on the Trinity among its ministers. Wesleyan doctrine would have been undermined by its own preachers, many of whom used reason to force Christian teaching to conform to their generation’s expectations about “reasonable” belief.[25]

Watson never blamed Clarke for doctrinal controversy within the Wesleyan Methodist Church, for he knew Clarke was one of Methodism’s greatest friends. Clarke had tirelessly served the Connection for decades—preaching, writing, starting schools and planting churches, sponsoring missions to the Shetland Islands, and writing his Commentary—which, in fact, was only the most prodigious of several major projects he published in his lifetime. Furthermore, Clarke’s philanthropy perhaps exceeded what any Methodist of his generation—minister or laity—extended toward human need. Every published account of Clarke’s life produced anecdotes of his provision of clothing and other necessities for the needy. He planted schools among the Irish, missions among the Shetland Islanders, provided hospitality for unemployed sailors at his estate near Liverpool, and served on boards for examining candidates for ordination. This list speaks of an exemplary Wesleyan minister who stood head and shoulders above his peers.

Furthermore, Clarke’s prominence had garnered important social connections with the English nobility. He had also been commissioned by the British government to publish a new edition of the Fedora, a collection of public records. Indeed, Clarke’s reputation—his impeccable character and extraordinary competence as a scholar and preacher—made him an unlikely target for criticism from colleagues of high standing. He had an abundance of friends—in Methodism, in the Church of England, in the dissenting churches, among the general public, among the gentry, and in the national government. To take a public stand against Clarke risked alienation, criticism, and embarrassment. Those who remonstrated against his views would surely be attacked by scores of Clarke’s prominent friends. Watson fully recognized the risk. Taking up the pen against his colleague almost inevitably meant being charged with ambition and jealously—and indeed, Clarke’s friends and family charged Watson with these faults even after both men were in their graves.

Watson sensed a strong obligation to publish his Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ, even though he knew he would thus make an abundance of enemies. There is no evidence that Watson intended this pamphlet as a personal attack on Clarke, and certainly Watson never appears to have been motivated by ambition. Both men were exemplary Christians whose character and integrity provided no grounds for reproach, although their prominence gave each man his share of criticism.  As a younger Wesleyan minister with exceptional talent, Watson had yet to earn the public esteem that Clarke held and thus hesitated to risk his reputation for a theological controversy. Since Watson had left the Wesleyan Methodist Church for the Methodist New Connexion in the early years of his ministry—even for only a brief period, he knew his detractors would quickly fasten on this event to discredit him, especially those who defended their esteemed friend Adam Clarke. When one considers the fact that Clarke and Watson respected each other and stayed on good terms, although there is no evidence that these men were particularly close associates, one has difficulty charging Watson with malice or ambition, even though critics accused him relentlessly. Yet no one could make a heretic of Adam Clarke, as stubbornly as the latter could cling to his exegesis. Watson knew Clarke never meant to lead his beloved Methodism into error.

But Watson could not remain silent while the Wesleyan Methodist Church faced an onslaught against its theological roots. In the late English Enlightenment, rationalism had assaulted historic Christianity for nearly two centuries. British Unitarianism spread rapidly in the early decades of the nineteenth century, challenging traditional Christian teachings such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. A rationalistic sentiment permeated the theological literature of this era and asserted the rights of individuals to think for themselves.[26] Methodism could not maintain an airtight isolation against these sentiments. Wesleyan ministers, left largely to their own resources for pursuing a “course of study,” read not only the recommended works of Wesley and Fletcher, but works of other theologians as well. Since Methodism had not produced a systematic theology, the movement’s leaders advised its ministers to read Wesley, Fletcher, and other Methodist “fathers.” Yet these were not convenient for the needs of preachers on the circuits.

Finding answers to theological questions took more time than most itinerants could spare. Methodism needed a “compendium” or systematic theology to address the issues of the day.[27] The ministers’ choices of collateral theological reading material subjected them to the rationalism that had made rapid inroads on the religious literature of that era. Thus, Methodist pulpits became tinged with the ministers’ own confusion and ill-guided theological reflection. Arianism and Socinianism became real dangers for the Wesleyan Methodist Church and compromised its doctrinal integrity. Methodist leaders like Watson, who traveled among the people and mixed with their colleagues, were well aware of the impending crisis that threatened to undermine and destroy historic Wesleyan teaching. Adam Clarke, the biblical scholar, closeted in his study with his Commentary, was apparently more sympathetic to the Enlightenment agenda than Watson and thus less guarded in his statements about the role of reason in biblical hermeneutics.[28] Clarke did not sufficiently qualify his views on reason within a movement that claimed allegiance to historic Christian faith, even as that faith came under unprecedented assault from rationalism. Under these circumstances, Watson could not hold his tongue while his esteemed colleague unwittingly provided fuel for the enemies of orthodoxy. 

Through his Remarks, Watson brought Methodist thought back into line with the Nicene and other early creeds of Christendom. He never disparaged reason as a human endowment; rather he considered reason as God’s gift that made the human race a special creation. Nevertheless, such special endowment had come under the curse of sin.[29] As fallen humanity, people could no longer use reason to apprehend revealed truth without the assistance of divine illumination. Ironically, Watson later expounded this pre-modern Christian perspective through his systematic theology, the Theological Institutes, a “modern” form of doctrinal exposition related to the quintessential Enlightenment compendium of universal knowledge, the “encyclopedia.” Through Watson and Clarke, Methodist thought embraced Enlightenment reason even as it expressed an Anti-Enlightenment faith. As Methodism’s leading biblical scholar, Clarke took this turn toward rationalism without fully recognizing the implications for historic Christian teaching. Through his scholarly application of “modern” reason in his Commentary, Clarke gave the biblical text an unparalleled authenticity and depth of meaning for his generation. As Methodism’s future systematic theologian, Watson recognized the unquestionable value of Clarke’s biblical scholarship for the church. Even so, Watson saw the danger of an unbridled Biblicism that neglected the faith of the intervening centuries. The Remarks were his prelude to the Institutes, his magnum opus by which he grounded Methodist scholarship in scriptural—and historic—Christianity. Through the Remarks, Watson called on Methodists not to allow reason to undermine orthodoxy.

Watson’s Remarks addressed the first issue—whether the Sonship of Jesus Christ designates his divine nature or his human nature, particularly as the latter refers to Christ’s role as Messiah. Watson notes several occurrences in Scripture where the phrase “Son of God” refers exclusively to the divinity of Jesus Christ, a point that overturns Clarke’s contention that no “express declaration of Scripture” exists where Jesus Christ is declared to be the Son of God exclusively in terms of divinity. As Sellers states, “Watson was the one man in Wesleyan Methodism with sufficient learning to point out that the former title [Son of God] is far higher than and different from that of Messiah as understood by the Jews of the day.”[30] Contrary to Clarke, “Son of God” and “Messiah” could not be synonymous. Neither could Jesus be called ‘Son of God’ on the basis of his miraculous conception, as Clarke asserted.[31] Rather, Jesus was called ‘Son of God’ as a designation for his divinity. Watson accused Clarke of inconsistency in disavowing a doctrine that allegedly had no “express declaration” in Scripture, for Clarke consented to infant baptism and the union of two natures in Jesus Christ. Yet Watson demonstrated the Eternal Sonship as a doctrine “expressly” avowed in Scripture.[32] His first selection consisted of two verses—John 1:14 and John 1:18—that contain the Christologically-significant term, “only-begotten.” He began with the opposition in verse 18 that “no man, (oudeis, nullus, nemo) hath seen” or (Watson paraphrased) “that is, in Scripture language, hath known, the Father.” Rather, “‘the only begotten Son,’ he hath seen, and known him, and hath, therefore, declared him: but if this ‘only begotten Son,’ were the man Jesus, separately and distinctly considered as a man; then at least one man. . .hath seen God, and declared him, which the former part of the verse denies. Between the term ‘only begotten’ and the nature of man there is an obvious opposition.” Watson adds further that the “14th verse is still stronger” in its demonstration that Christ’s glory “could not be human glory” but rather the glory of divinity. “If this glory be referred to his miraculous works, as these works were wrought, not by his human, but his divine power, this view would fix the term “only begotten,” as a note of supreme and absolute Divinity, demonstrating itself by miraculous operations.” Watson points out an even “more striking view of the passage” with its comparison of Jesus’ “fleshly body” with the “tabernacle of Moses, the sacred tent of the divine Shekinah.” Thus, the glory of the “only begotten” is exclusively divine, without reference to human glory. By moving from point to point in a rising climax and positing human/divine elements as opposites (with an obvious preference for the divine), Watson struck at Clarke’s position as giving the lesser glory to Jesus.[33]

Yet Watson recognized that Clarke did not deny Christ’s divinity; rather, he feared that Clarke’s hermeneutical principles—in the hands of ill-guided Wesleyan ministers—could lead to a diminished role for the divine nature in the Incarnation. At one point Watson acknowledged—for the sake of argument—Clarke’s insistence that “Son” referred to both human and divine natures. Discussing John 3:16 as crucial for interpreting the term “Son,” Watson contended with Clarke that, although both natures might be assumed in this passage, “yet the force of this important text, as an expression of God’s love to the world, depends upon the use of that term, as the designation of the divine nature of Christ.” Without this signification—that ‘Son’ refers to the divine nature and not to the human—the love of the Father for the Son “lose[s] much of its unutterable tenderness, and affecting expression.” After all, it is the Father’s giving of His only begotten Son as a divine Savior that has, “to use Dr. Clarke’s own words, put an eternity of meaning into the particle outo, so, and left a subject for everlasting contemplation, wonder, and praise, to angels and men.” To attribute “only begotten Son” to the human Jesus, rather than to his divinity, would lessen the strength of the particle “so” and thus the degree of the love of the Father for humanity.[34]

Watson further supported the Eternal Sonship through the importance of the revealed name, “Father,” even when “divinity is spoken of without any reference to the peculiar and mysterious mode of his existence in three persons.” Thus, “‘The Father’ is the high and expressive distinction of the first [person].” When God revealed the nature of the Trinity in the New Testament, where terms “not only of the most expressive import but of the utmost precision were to be expected”—since these terms would be taught to converts from paganism—“the three persons are thus distinctly and emphatically designated.… Baptizing them in the name of the FATHER, and of the SON, and of the HOLY GHOST.… The inquiry then is, why the first person in the Godhead is thus called the Father with relation to a Son, in a case where there is a distinct consideration of the three?” Watson insisted that the “Father” correlates to the “Son” in terms of the divine rather than the human nature of Christ. In other words, these titles—Father, Son, and Spirit—designate essential relations within the Trinity rather than functional titles. The denial of these essential relations would nullify the substance of Trinitarian teaching pronounced on each new convert.

Watson continued his rebuttal of Clarke’s position, citing several biblical passages in support of the Eternal Sonship. Of particular importance are Christ’s titles, used in specific contexts. For example, in the story of the calling of Nathaniel, Philip invites the latter to meet “him of whom Moses in the law and the Prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the SON OF JOSEPH.” Watson observed that nothing of the “miraculous conception” could be derived from this title, if this event had been employed by Jesus to support his call for discipleship. Nor did Peter intend to call Jesus “Messiah” when he called him the Son of God in Matthew 16:16. Rather, Peter used the title Son of God as an explicit confession of Christ’s divinity; the ambiguous title of Messiah usually did not include reference to divine nature. In fact, Watson’s argument largely stands on his knowledge that the Jews did not “generally, in the time of Christ, expect their Messiah to be a divine person.” Watson relied once again on his “oppositional exegesis,”

After he demonstrated Son of God to be a title for Christ’s divinity, Watson turned to the basis for Clarke’s rejection of the Eternal Sonship—his “rationalism”—and questions reason as a criterion for revelation: “How do I know that my reason in this particular case is right reason? That the communication of one single idea, which I may acquire in this life, when my knowledge is more improved. . .may not correct my present views, alter the whole scope of my present reasoning on these high subjects, and furnish me with some medium of proof, which shall demonstrate what now is to me, not only incomprehensible, but even contradictory?” While reason may be trusted with respect to sensory knowledge, how can it grasp the nature of God? Contrary to the Enlightenment correlation of human reason with eternal reason, Watson severs the connection and disqualifies reason as equal to revelation. Reason is fallible on the grounds of its limits and incorrect judgments: “We can argue only from what we know; and if we err in knowledge, we must err in reason.”[35] Given this fallibility, Watson moved on to the primary issue—how far reason can be used to judge revelation—and cited Clarke:

 

The doctrine which cannot stand the test of rational investigation, cannot be true. We have gone too far when we have said, such and such doctrines should not be subjected to rational investigation, being doctrines of pure revelation. I know of no such doctrine in the Bible. The doctrines of this book are doctrines of eternal reason, and they are revealed because they are such. Human reason could not have found them out; but when revealed, reason can both apprehend and comprehend them.” “No man either can or should believe a doctrine that contradicts reason; but he may safely credit (in any thing that concerns the nature of God) what is above his reason.

 

 Watson believed these principles placed reason above Scripture:

 

To most of these positions I object, generally, because they implicate the pernicious principle, that the meaning of Scripture is to be determined by our own views of what is reasonable; that human reason is to be made not only the instrument of investigating the meaning of the revelation, but the judge of the doctrine: a principle, which makes it a canon of interpretation, that where the letter of Scripture indicates a doctrine that appears unreasonable to us, it must be taken in a sense which does appear reasonable. [This would] make the sense of revelation to be what every man may take it to be; thereby destroying the unity of truth, and leaving us without any standard of opinion, except the ever varying one of human reason. [The most destructive application would be] to those parts of the sacred revelation which relate to the manner of the divine existence. This must, from its nature, be a subject of pure revelation, “for no man hath seen God at any time.”[36]

 

For Watson, revelation by nature could not be superseded by human reason; without revelation “the love of sin veils the heart” and thus darkens the mind.[37] Revelation of the divine existence—including the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship—must be received as God’s own word as the light of Christ shines on the heart. Clarke’s “error” is the equation of “eternal reason” with “human reason.” To equate human reason with eternal reason regards the former as infallible, which no one admits. Instead, revelation must be received as infallible and accepted on the basis of its own evidence. Watson argued that Christian teachings “of every age” would not stand the test of rational investigation if reason meant “a process by which we inquire the truth and falsehood of any thing by comparing it with what we already know, and what we have already determined to be true.”[38] To subject Scripture to rational investigation would test God by human knowledge, to subject the Infinite to finitude.      

Thus, Watson denied reason as the yardstick of revelation. The “rational investigation” advocated by Clarke could not go beyond revelation; indeed, such an investigation questioned God’s veracity. And if a “rational investigation” remained within the limits of revelation, it would not be “a rational, but a scriptural investigation; and Dr. Clarke has in vain attempted to correct the notions of those who exclude reason as the judge of the doctrines of an acknowledged revelation.”[39] Watson cited Ellis’s Knowledge of Divine Things on the impasse between reason and revelation: “The great difference between the objects of human knowledge and divine is that in the former there is a spacious field for new acquisitions and improvements; but in divine invisible objects it is far otherwise. The boundary is fixed; our inquiries limited to what is revealed; and all further search vain and unlawful.”[40] Only faith, without the corroboration of reason, could be deemed a proper response when reason cannot support the truth of revelation. Watson drew on John Locke’s observations on the relationship of reason and revelation. He sought to shore up faith in an era when naturalism was undermining confidence in historic Christian teachings, and rallied the Wesleyan Methodist Church to purge its ranks of every ministerial candidate who could not articulate an orthodox Trinitarian position.[41]

            Watson brought his argument to a climax, scorning reason’s ability to extend revelation: “If this then be the fact as to doctrines whose reasons are partly revealed, how can reason be the judge of those which are stated on naked authority—all here is darkness, which, if the sun has not dispersed, the light of the glow-worm may be applied to it in vain.” Watson faulted pride as the basis for the rationalistic enterprise: “I know that there is nothing here so dazzling as in the principles on which I have animadverted; it is more flattering to the human mind to be accounted a judge, than to be reduced to the rank of a scholar; to be placed in a condition to summon divine wisdom to its bar, and oblige it to give an account of its decisions, than to receive them upon authority.” He then linked biblical interpretation to the classical doctrine of divine illumination and advocated the reception of revelation on its own authority.[42] His Remarks thus limited reason’s role in interpreting revelation and prepared the way for his Institutes, an authoritative statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy that would overshadow Methodist theology for decades.[43]

By subordinating reason to revelation, Watson defended the classical Christian heritage of Methodism and determined the limits of just how “reasonable” its faith should be. The Sonship controversy thus highlighted a storm center in the Wesleyan Methodist Church and likely provided the initial motivation for Watson to write his Institutes as a timely contribution to Methodist theological education.[44]

 

The Silent Dignity of Adam Clarke

 

            Adam Clarke never responded in public to Watson’s Remarks, but kept silence since he loved Methodism and loathed controversy. Clarke’s family and friends attributed his silence to his piety, and accused Watson of jealousy and ambition.[45] The Wesleyan Methodist Church—mostly at the behest of Jabez Bunting and Richard Watson—treated ministers who sympathized with Clarke’s views as heretics and enforced conformity in the face of threatened expulsion.[46] Shortly after Clarke’s death, his supporters published a hagiographical biography with an extended critique of the Sonship controversy appended as a separate section.[47] Most Methodists regarded Clarke as an outstanding Bible scholar and exemplary saint.[48] Even thirty years after Clarke’s death, his colleague James Dixon brushed off his views on the “Eternal Sonship” as a mistaken opinion that nevertheless could not tarnish his greatness.[49] In the minds of both colleagues and posterity, Clarke stood far above any disagreement with Methodists of his generation.[50]

Methodism overlooked Clarke’s “faults” because his contention over the term Son of God was an exegetical opinion rather than a doctrinal heresy. The theological controversy took place between orthodox Methodist leaders—led by Bunting and Watson—and Methodist preachers, self-educated young men who were not firmly rooted in Wesleyan doctrine. Certainly Watson did not write his Remarks on the basis of unfounded concern. Enemies of the Eternal Sonship who misread Clarke’s exegetical opinion as a theological statement attacked Trinitarian orthodoxy as well as the leaders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (who also misread Clarke).[51] Those whom the Methodists expelled over this issue often published pamphlets tinged with an embittered spirit.[52] Clarke himself endured private anguish and dismay at the expulsions, even as he maintained his views on the Sonship to his death. According to Rev. William Pollard, Clarke firmly adhered to his views as based on his exegesis. He especially sympathized with the “poor young men” who had to face the “inquisitors” in Manchester.[53] Clarke’s friends regarded him as a man whom Methodist leaders had wronged.[54] Yet Clarke and Watson stayed on good terms with each other, a measure of their largeness of spirit that eluded their contemporaries.

            In the eyes of “official Methodism,” Richard Watson emerged as the leading defender of the Eternal Sonship. Already prominent as the President of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, Watson secured his reputation as Methodism’s leading theologian through the publication of his Remarks. A few years later he published the Theological Institutes as a compendium of Methodist orthodoxy to arm Wesleyan ministers against the onslaughts of infidelity and heresy. However, neither Watson nor any other critic could deprive Clarke of his eminent standing. Clarke’s contributions to both church and society could not be sullied by controversy over a footnote. Even as they expelled other ministers over this issue, Methodist leaders never brought charges against Clarke because they knew him to be innocent. At Clarke’s expense, the Connection used the Sonship issue to denounce rationalism and cull its ministerial ranks of budding heretics. Shortly after their untimely deaths, the Wesleyan Methodist Church memorialized Clarke and Watson as saints and scholars, models of holy living and church leadership. Within a few years the Eternal Sonship controversy itself became scarcely more than a footnote to Methodist history.

 



[1] Adam Clarke presented his hermeneutical principles in the “General Preface” to his Commentary. See Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, 6 vols. (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, n.d.), 14-15. For an example of Clarke’s “rationalism” see Samuel Dunn, The Life of Adam Clarke, LL.D, Author of a Commentary on the Old and New Testament, Etc. (London:  William Tegg, 1863), 188-190. 

[2] Clarke’s generation widely misunderstood his position as theological speculation. For example, see William Jones, Memoirs of the Life, Ministry, and Writings, of the Rev. Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.S.A. (London:  M’Gowan and Co., 1838), 542-545. 

[3] See Minutes of Several Conversations Between the Methodist Preachers in the Connexion Established by the Late Rev. John Wesley, M.A., at Their Eighty-Third Annual Conference, Begun in Liverpool, on Wednesday, July 26, 182 (London: J. Kershaw, 1826), 83-84; and Minutes of Several Conversations Between the Methodist Preachers in the Connexion Established by the Late Rev. John Wesley, M.A., at Their Eighty-Fourth Annual Conference, Begun in Manchester, on Wednesday, July 25, 1827 (London: J. Mason, 1827), 77. Courtesy Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).  With special thanks to Rev. Page Thomas.

[4] “Adam Clarke’s magnum opus—the scholarly work for which he was most remembered and revered—was his eight-volume Commentary on the Scripture published between 1810-1826. It was a standard work, not alone for Methodists, for several generations.” Elden Dale Dunlap, “Methodist Theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century:  With Special Reference to the Theology of Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, and William Burt Pope”  (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1956), 95.

[5] See Dunlap, “Methodist Theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century,” 92.

[6] “It was rather a question in philology than in theology.” Dunn, Life of Adam Clarke, 230-231.

[7] James Everett points out that in the late eighteenth century, when Adam Clarke ministered in that city, “Deism and Socinianism were rife in Liverpool.” James Everett, Adam Clarke Portrayed. 3 vols. (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1843-1849), 1:335.

[8] For the Trinitarian debates of the seventeenth century see Philip Dixon, “Nice and Hot Disputes”:  The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (London and New York:  T & T Clark, 2003).

[9] See “Section IV—Improvement of Young Preachers” in Samuel Tucker, A Candid and Impartial Inquiry into the Present State of the Methodist Societies in Ireland; Wherein Several Important Points Relative to Their Doctrines and Discipline are Discussed (Belfast: G. Berwick, 1814), 385-410.

[10] “In 1806 Joseph Cooke practically denied the witness of the Spirit and set the stage for the first of the only two schisms over doctrine. He rejected the doctrine of the Atonement as currently understood, abandoned original sin, denied the Trinity, and taught that justifying faith was in itself meritorious. Through these teachings and his emphasis on the Holy Scripture as interpreted by good sense and right reason, he led the way to Methodist Unitarianism in 1818.” Dunlap, “Methodist Theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century,” 87. David J. Carter observes that Watson’s Theological Institutes “aimed to help ministers refute Calvinist, Socinian, and rationalist ideas when they threatened to disturb the Methodist people.” A Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland, ed. John A. Vickers (Peterborough, UK: Epworth, 2000), s.n. “Watson, Richard.”  See also John A. Vickers’ entry, “Methodist Unitarian Movement,” in the latter resource. 

[11] For a summary of Methodism’s quandary with Clarke, see Thomas Jackson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Richard Watson, Late Secretary to the Wesleyan Missionary Society (New York: B. Waugh and T. Mason, 1834), 174.  See also John W. Etheridge, The Life of the Rev. Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.A.S., M.R.I.A., Etc., Etc.  (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1858), 368-369. Jackson and Etheridge illustrate the misunderstanding of those who took Clarke’s exegetical judgments for doctrinal opinion.

[12] After his death, Clarke’s friends attributed evil motives to his critics. For example, see Nathan Bangs, A Discourse on the Death of the Rev. Dr. Adam Clarke, Delivered in Green-Street Church, in the City of New-York, on the Evening of October 30, 1832 (New-York: B. Waugh and T. Mason, 1832), 14.

[13] Clarke, Commentary, 1:490-491. See also Etheridge, Life of the Rev. Adam Clarke, 73.

[14] See An Account of the Religious and Literary Life of Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.A.S., &c. &c., &c. By a Member of His Family. With an Appendix by J. B. B. Clarke, M.A. 3 vols. (London: T. S. Clarke, 1833), 1:91-110; see also 1:298-301.  

[15] See Maldwyn L. Edwards, Adam Clarke. Wesley Historical Society Lectures 8 (London: Epworth, 1942), 44-45; L. Giustiniani, Divine Love:  A Funeral Oration on the Death of the Late Dr. Adam Clarke, Delivered in French at Great Queen-Street Chapel, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Sept. 18, 1832; and Dunlap, “Methodist Theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century,” 92. Dunlap cites John Fletcher Hurst, The History of Methodism. 7 vols. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1902), 1255.

[16] See Sermon XXXI, “Divine Revelation: A Discourse on Romans xv.4” in Adam Clarke, Discourses on Various Subjects, Relative to the Being and Attributes of God, and His Works in Creation, Providence, and Grace (New-York: M’Elrath & Bangs, 1831); Sermon X, “The Wisdom That Is From Above,” in Clarke, Discourses on Various Subjects, 1:173-181, especially pages 175-177.

[17] Adam Clarke, Christian Theology: Selected from His Published and Unpublished Writings, and Systematically Arranged: With a Life of the Author: By Samuel Dunn (New-York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1837), 111.

[18] Ian Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist: Wesleyanism and the Historic Faith in the Age of Bunting (Ian Sellers, 1976), 2; and An Account of the Religious and Literary Life of Adam Clarke, III:37.

[19] An Account of the Religious and Literary Life of Adam Clarke, III:168-169. See also Dunn, Life of Adam Clarke, 232; and Clarke, Christian Theology, 43-44.

[20] For example, see Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist, 10.

[21] Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist, 10-11. See Stephen Brunskill, Thoughts on the Divinity and Sonship of Jesus Christ (Liverpool: Caxton Press, 1819). Courtesy British Library (London, UK).

[22] For an overview of the “Eternal Sonship” controversy, see Dunlap, “Methodist Theology in Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century,” 104-108. On pages 107-108 Dunlap sums up the orthodoxy of both men in spite of the controversy: “From this difference between Clarke and Watson (and the other Methodists) it cannot be rightly assumed, however, that there was any issue concerning the incarnate deity in Jesus Christ or the consequent crucial doctrine of the Atonement.”

[23] Richard Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ and the Use of Reason in Matters of Revelation:  Suggested by Several Passages in Dr. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the New Testament. In a Letter to a Friend. 2nd ed. (London: T. Cordeaux, 1818). See also Jackson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Richard Watson, 176.

[24] However, Clarke never judged reason capable of knowing God beyond revelation.  For example, see Clarke, Christian Theology, 116.

[25] For example, see Samuel Tucker, The Triumph of Scriptural and Rational Truth:  Displayed in a Complete Refutation of the Absurd and Unauthorized Doctrines of the Eternal Generation of the Divine Logos, and the Hypostatical Union of the Two Spiritual Natures in Jesus Christ: in a Series of Letters addressed to the President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference (London: Marshall and Mills: Fisher, Son and Jackson, 1828).  Courtesy United Library, Northwestern University (Evanston, IL).

[26] For example, see George Bevan, God in Christ; Set Forth in Two Letters to a Friend, with Some Observations on Mr. McLean’s Tract on the Sonship of Jesus Christ; and an Appendix, Containing Some Remarks on Dr. Gill’s Arguments in His Body of Divinity for the Eternal Generation of the Son of God (London: J. F. Dove, 1818), especially pages 2-8. Courtesy Bodleian Library, Oxford University (Oxford, UK). Bevan provides examples of the rationalistic presuppositions that circulated widely at this time.   

[27] See Samuel Tucker, A Candid and Impartial Inquiry into the Present State of the Methodist Societies in Ireland; Wherein Several Important Points Relative to Their Doctrines and Discipline are Discussed (Belfast: G. Berwick), 332-369. 

[28] Evaluating Clarke as an Old Testament scholar, Stephen Dawes mentions the Eternal Sonship controversy as “relevant only to the extent to which it illustrates Clarke’s stress on the use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture and in doing theology generally.” Stephen B. Dawes, Adam Clarke:  Methodism’s First Old Testament Scholar.  Occasional Publication no. 26 (Carharrack, Redruth, Cornwall: Cornish Methodist Historical Association, 1994), 26.

[29] See “Man Magnified by the Divine Regard,” Sermon IV in Richard Watson, Sermons and Sketches of Sermons (New-York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1848), I:54. This sermon was also printed in The Methodist Magazine for the Year of Our Lord 1824, VII:3-13, 41-47.

[30] Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist, 9. 

[31] Clarke’s own writings do not support Sellers’ statement that he held a form of “adoptionist Christology” that proposed a “gradual communication of deity.” See Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist, 3.

[32] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 6. 

[33] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 8-9.

[34] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 10-11.

[35] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 48-49.

[36] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 50-51. Watson also employed this high view of Scriptural authority while defending John Wesley against Robert Southey, whose unflattering biography of Methodism’s founder dismissed supernatural events as “enthusiasm.” See Richard Watson, Observations on Southey’s “Life of Wesley:” Being a Defence of the Character, Labours, and Opinions of Mr. Wesley Against the Misrepresentations of That Publication (New York: N. Bangs and T. Mason, 1821), 208-210.

[37] One of Watson’s best expositions on divine revelation is found in his sermon on II Corinthians 4:6. See Richard Watson, “The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ,” Sermon XCIII in Sermons and Sketches of Sermons, 2:244-251. Clarke would have agreed with Watson on virtually every point.  See Adam Clarke, The Christian Prophet and His Work: A Discourse on I Corinthians XIV.3 (New-York: E. Sargeant, and Grimmin and Rudd; and J. F. Watson,1812), 132-133; bound with Adam Clarke, A Discourse on the Nature, Design, and Institution, of the Holy Eucharist, Commonly Called the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. To Which are Added, A Collection of His Smaller Tracts; Including Two Sermons (New-York:  E. Sargeant, and Griffin and Rudd; and J. F. Watson, 1812).

[38] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 52-55.

[39] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 56-57.

[40] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 60-61. Watson is citing John Ellis, The Knowledge of Divine Things from Revelation, Not from Reason or Nature (London: J. Watts, 1743). An enlarged third edition of this work appeared in 1811. Ellis was a major figure in the Irish Counter-Enlightenment.

[41] “Mr. Watson’s pamphlet on the Sonship of Christ was accompanied by similar publications from the pens of the Rev. Messrs. Moore, Hare, and Robert Martin; and by these means, and the interference of the conference, the orthodoxy of the body was preserved. Mr. Watson went to the source of the evil, and asserted the paramount authority of the word of God; and Dr. Clarke’s theory is now generally discarded in the Wesleyan body.” Jackson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Rev. Richard Watson, 184.

[42] Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship, 80-81. Watson defended his views on divine illumination to the end of his life. See John Beecham, [Conversations with Richard Watson, 15 January 1833] (London: James Nichols, [1833]), 2. Courtesy of the United Methodist Archives and History Center (Madison, NJ).

[43] “The publication of this pamphlet stamped the character of Mr. Watson as an able divine and a profound thinker. Nothing that he had ever published made so deep an impression.” Jackson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Richard Watson, 180.  See also Jabez Bunting, Memorials of the Late Rev. Richard Watson (London: John Mason, 1833), 28.

[44] For a critique of Watson’s role in the development of Methodist theology, see John W. Wright, “Wesley’s Theology as Methodist Practice: Toward the Post-Modern Retrieval of the Wesleyan Tradition.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 35:2 (Fall 2000), 7-31. See also Randy Maddox, “Respected Founder/Neglected Guide: The Role of Wesley in American Methodist Theology.” Methodist History, vol. XXXVII, no. 2 (January 1999), 77-78 for his observations on Watson’s Institutes. In their critiques of Watson, neither Wright nor Maddox [see his note 51] take into account the context of theological controversy that overwhelmed British Methodism in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. See Tucker, A Candid and Impartial Inquiry, especially pages 287-310, 332-369, esp. 345-348. 

[45] See Life and Labours of the Rev. Adam Clarke, 376-383; Dunn, The Life of Adam Clarke, 161, 179, 240; Edwards, Adam Clarke, 22.

[46] For example, see Dunn, The Life of Adam Clarke, 231-232.

[47] Life and Labours of Adam Clarke, 441-482.

[48] For example, see Nathan Bangs, A Discourse on the Death of the Rev. Dr. Adam Clarke, Delivered in Green-Street Church, in the City of New-York, on the Evening of October 30, 1832 (New-York:  B. Waugh and T. Mason, 1832), 14.

[49] James Dixon, Recollections of Dr. Adam Clarke: A Lecture by the Rev. James Dixon, D.D., Bradford. Delivered in the Stock Exchange, Leeds, on Tuesday Evening, March 11, 1862.  In Connection with the Young Men’s Christian Institute (London: John Mason, 1862), 19-20.

[50] By the mid-nineteenth century, the Eternal Sonship debate had already lapsed into obscurity. For example, see The Triumphs of Industry: Illustrated by the Life of Adam Clarke, LL.D. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1854. See also, Everett, Adam Clarke Portrayed, 3:500.

[51] For example, see Samuel Dill, The Origin, Nature, and Dignity of the Sonship of Jesus Christ, in Which the Self-Existence and True Deity of the Son of God are Established on Scripture Testimony. Being a Reply to the Principal Arguments of the Most Popular Writers in Defence of Eternal Generation. Belfast:  H. Clarke, 1833.

[52] For example, see Joseph Forsyth, The Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ Discussed. Three Letters to the President of the Wesleyan-Methodist Conference, Showing That the Doctrine of the Sonship of Jesus, Which That Venerable body Rejects as Heresy, was taught by Christ Himself, and constituted the alleged blasphemy for which he was condemned to death; also, a review of several pamphlets, published by Wesleyan-Methodist preachers, in defence of eternal Sonship, together with its effects upon preachers and people (London: John Stephens, 1835), esp. 24-32. Courtesy of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY). 

[53] Unpublished diary of Rev. William Pollard [Wesleyan minister, moved from Chelmsford Circuit to Windsor in 1827. At his own house East Cott near Annes.], 98-108.  Courtesy Methodist Archives, Wesley Centre Oxford (UK). 

[54] For example, see Dunn, The Life of Adam Clarke, 240.