Consider Wesley

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: John Fletcher

Henry H. Knight III

John Fletcher, from the 1760s to his death in 1785, was recognized along with John and Charles Wesley as a major leader in Methodism. Born in Switzerland, he came to England in 1750, became a Methodist in 1753, and was ordained in the Church of England in 1756. His parish in Madeley became a center for Methodism. In 1781 he married another prominent Methodist leader, Mary Bosanquet, and sadly died of tuberculosis in 1785.

Fletcher was a gifted theological defender of Wesley’s theology and is best known for his series of Checks to Antinomianism, widely read by Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic well into the nineteenth century. But our attention here will be on his theology of Trinitarian dispensations, most fully developed in his The Portrait of Saint Paul, completed in 1779.

The relation of this aspect of Fletcher’s theology to that of John Wesley has been the subject of academic dispute, with gifted scholars on both sides of the debate. For our purposes we can simply note that Fletcher saw himself as faithfully developing Wesley’s theology, and that his ideas joined with those of the Wesley brothers in shaping subsequent Methodism.

We are fortunate to now have a thorough and insightful examination of Fletcher’s Trinitarianism in J. Russell Frazier, True Christianity: The Doctrine of Dispensations in the Thought of John William Fletcher (Pickwick, 2014). What I will do here is provide a brief outline drawn from this excellent study.

After an initial chapter discussing the milieu of Fletcher’s theology, Frazier argues that its foundations are in God’s love for all creation. This love “causes grace to take precedence in divine-human relations; prevenient grace is the keystone of Fletcher’s theological system” (57). In contrast to the Calvinist “disparity between grace and nature,” Fletcher “argued for their correspondence” (54). Prevenient grace enables persons to know God, which is the precondition for persons to be aware of their need for repentance. Thus, human knowledge of God is progressive and has its source in prevenient grace (57).

At the heart of Fletcher’s thought is a dynamic theology of history with Christ as the goal, with the particular goal for humanity restoration to the image of God (59). Like Wesley, Fletcher believed that there was a covenant of works prior to the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. But Fletcher further develops the covenant of grace by arguing it unfolds historically in three dispensations or ages—that of the Father is marked by “the promise of a Redeemer,” that of the Son begins with John the Baptist and anticipates the coming of the Spirit, and that of the Spirit begins at Pentecost and awaits the second coming of Christ (61).

Central to Fletcher’s vision is that God acts in each of these dispensations to redeem humanity, and humans are enabled by grace to respond. This holds together the sovereignty of God (in which grace enables humans to respond and directs history toward its goal) with human freedom (enabled by grace, we then respond to God).

Against some critics of Fletcher, Frazier insists this Trinitarian dispensationalism is not a “chronological modalism” but a “trinitarian pattern of the disclosure of God in history as God accommodates divinity to the human condition, which results in various degrees of the knowledge of God” (90). “God desires to reveal as fully as possible but only as fully as human beings are capable of receiving” (78).

This is more than a theology of history. “Salvation history occurs at two levels: a macro or universal level, which entails the divine effort to redeem humanity, and a micro or personal level in which the doctrine of dispensation functions as an order of salvation. The micro scheme reflects the macro scheme” (62). Thus Fletcher’s Trinitarian dispensationalism “reflects both the progressive nature of God’s revelation in the history of humanity and the progressive nature of God’s restoration of individual human beings in the image of God with the goal of Christian perfection” (63).

This means the truth of God is revealed both in history and to each human life progressively, and persons are enabled by the Spirit to respond to the degree of truth they have. Yet these are degrees of one truth: “the gospel is one, and Christ is the foundation for each of the dispensations,” because Christ is the truth (85). Thus, the faith of righteous heathen, faithful Jews, awakened sinners, those justified, and those entirely sanctified varies in degree but not in kind, as all are responding to degrees of the same truth.

Frazier devotes an extensive chapter to each of the three dispensations, covering both their universal and personal levels. In this short article I can only recommend Frazier’s analysis and insight in theses chapters and urge persons to read them for themselves.

It might seem that Fletcher’s dispensational theology is a bit abstract, but that is not the way Fletcher saw it. For him it was practical divinity in the Wesleyan spirit. Frazier identifies this as its central purpose: “God has, through history, accommodated divine revelation to the limitations of finite human capacity and calls Christian ministers to accommodate themselves to their hearers (congregants) in order for them to appropriate the Christian message” (211).

In any congregation there are persons in different stages along the way of salvation: “sinners, awakened sinners, believers” (213). Frazier shows that Fletcher’s sermons are filled with addresses to each of these categories under a variety of synonymous terms. Fletcher believed that in “order to minister effectively, ministers need to have understanding of the three stages of faith” (220), not only for “preaching, but also” for “every aspect of ministerial practice” (221). Likewise, mature members of the parish have a responsibility to accommodate to those who are less mature.

God’s gracious accommodation to humanity is rooted in love. Likewise, ministers should practice accommodation with those to whom they minister, because the “reigning characteristic” of ministry is love (222).

Posted Mar 10, 2021