Mark K. Olson, “Early Methodist Christology”

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Christmas is a season we celebrate the incarnation. The 18th century saw the rise of anti-Trinitarian theologies that undermined belief in Christ’s deity. Some scholars argue that John Wesley held a deficient view of the incarnation. This article from Mark K. Olson shows that Wesley & early Methodists presented a robust defense of the Trinity, including Christ’s full deity and authentic humanity:

This article is an extract of my chapter “Early Methodist Christology After the Wesleys” in Methodist Christology: From the Wesleys to the Twenty-First Century, eds. Jason E. Vickers and Jerome Van Kuiken. Foundary Books, 2020.

On a popular level the early Methodists did not champion any new teachings about Jesus.[1] Firmly committed to trinitarian Christology, they understood Christ to be the eternal Son of God who became incarnate as a human being to purchase our salvation through his death and resurrection. Methodist Christology was therefore largely shaped by their doctrine of salvation. As Lester Ruth observed, Methodists were “obsessed with salvation.” It was the “one concern around which all other convictions orbited.”[2] John Wesley taught his followers they had “nothing to do but to save souls.”[3] Thus, Methodists proclaimed a Savior who died for every person and stressed the personal dimension of salvation—Jesus died for me. Faith in Jesus was more than a creed; it was a life-changing encounter with the crucified and risen Lord, bringing assurance of salvation in this present life.

Rise of Heterodox Christologies

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries heterodox views on the Trinity arose in England that challenged traditional teachings on Christ’s person and work.[4] There were three that most concerned early Methodists: Deism, Arianism, and Unitarianism (also known as Socinianism). Deism was a popular movement among intellectual classes that promoted a rationalistic faith grounded on Enlightenment principles. Rejecting divine revelation, Deism affirmed a supreme being but considered Christianity a corruption of an original, pure, natural religion. One of the most influential deist works was Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation, published in 1730. Arianism was a fourth century heresy which taught that Christ was the first created being, second in rank to the Father, but inferior by nature. Prominent supporters of Arianism in the early modern period were the poet John Milton (d. 1674), mathematician and historian William Whiston (d. 1752) and scholar Samuel Clarke (d. 1729).[5] But in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Unitarianism was considered the most dangerous by Methodists. The father of English Unitarianism was John Biddle (d. 1662), who was influenced by the teachings of Faustus Socinus (d. 1604).[6] Socinianism was an anti-trinitarian movement that spread from Italy to Poland in the sixteenth century and then to England by the 1640s. It stressed God’s singularity and denied Christ’s deity and incarnation. In contrast to Arianism, Socinianism viewed Christ as only a human being. Like Deism, it rejected the doctrines of original sin and Christ’s death as an atonement for sin. Early Methodists used the terms Socinian and Unitarian interchangeably.

Whereas the appeal of Deism and Arianism was mostly to individuals, Unitarianism was a different matter. The first English Unitarian chapel opened in April 1774 and over the next several decades gained strength in England and America, leading to the birth of a Methodist Unitarian Movement in the nineteenth century.[7] In the 1770s a new preacher of Unitarian doctrine rose to prominence in England. Joseph Priestley (d. 1804) was famous as a scientist, philosopher, and scholar. His published works numbered around 150 and his achievements included the discovery of oxygen and other gases. He moved in high circles and wrote on philosophical, political, and theological issues of the day. Raised in English dissent, Priestley converted to Arianism before settling as a Unitarian. He represented a new kind of Unitarian, one who appealed to historical scholarship to make his case. According to Priestley, the Christian faith was at first Jewish and Unitarian, and that belief in Christ’s pre-existence was introduced by Christian apologists in the second century who relied on Greek philosophy to guide their theology. Drawing on Peter’s statement in Acts 2:22—Christ was a “man approved by God”—Priestley famously asserted that Jesus was a “mereman.” In late 1782 Priestley published his broadside against trinitarian Christology and other perceived corruptions of the faith in a massive two-volume work, An History of the Corruptions of Christianity.[8] In this tome Priestley presented all the standard Unitarian doctrines under the guise of historical scholarship. Four years later he followed this up with a more massive four-volume workAn History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ . . . Proving that the Christian Church was at first Unitarian.[9]

Given Priestley’s reputation, many Christians felt that a response was necessary. By the summer of 1783 critical reviews from Anglican leaders began to appear in the press. A heated debate ensued between Priestley and Anglican Bishop Samuel Horsley (d. 1806) that lasted for several years. Even at their deaths twenty years later their families and supporters argued over which side had won the debate. It was not only Anglican leaders who felt compelled to respond. John Fletcher, vicar of Madeley, was a leading early Methodist scholar. His Checks to Antinomianism and other writings were seminal in early Methodist theology. By March 1784 Fletcher had written several letters to Priestley defending Christ’s divinity, but later decided that a more thorough response was required. John Wesley told Fletcher that Priestley was “one of the most dangerous enemies of Christianity” and encouraged Fletcher to write a full refutation of the unitarian’s teachings.[10]

To answer Priestley’s two main assertions—the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational, and that biblical authors teach only a human messiah—Fletcher planned a two-part response. Over the next several months he wrote the introduction, expostulatory letter, and first four chapters of the first part, A Rational Vindication of the Catholic Faith, before unexpectedly passing away in August 1785. With Wesley’s recommendation, Mrs. Fletcher gave the manuscript to Joseph Benson to prepare for publication. Benson (d. 1821), who had been a close colleague of Fletcher for many years, added ten chapters to Fletcher’s four to complete the argument against Priestley’s unitarian Christology.

Some comment on the development of Benson’s Christology is relevant at this point. In the 1770s he embraced the idea of the pre-existence of Christ’s human soul, which he derived from Isaac Watts’ book, The Glory of Christ as God-Man.[11] The purpose of Watts’ work was to counter Socinian/Unitarian views by showing that the theophanies in the Old Testament were Christophanies. Yet, Watts went so far as to claim that the angel of the Lord was Christ’s pre-existent human soul. When Benson was assigned the task of preparing the Rational Vindication for publication, Wesley cautioned him against including speculative theories. He mentioned Watts’ views and how it led him to adopt Arian beliefs. Wesley counseled Benson to stay close to scripture and to not try to solve all the difficulties related to the subject.[12] From Benson’s memoirs we learn that Wesley’s counsel was persuasive, for he re-examined the subject while preparing the manuscript and concluded there was no scriptural support for the pre-existence of Christ’s human soul.[13]

The Rational Vindication was published in 1788 and again in 1790.[14] The next year Benson published Fletcher’s eight letters addressed to Priestley, along with eleven of his own. Titled Socinianism Unscriptural, it was the second part of Fletcher’s planned response to Priestley.[15] The aim of this work was to show that the biblical authors taught a divine messiah by providing a running commentary on each book of the bible. However, nothing new regarding their Christology was offered in the second work. Therefore, in this study we will focus on the Rational Vindication to expound their Christology and reference the second work when needed. The importance of these two works was that they represented the first full exposition of Methodist Christology according to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Rational Vindication of the Catholic Faith

The primary concern of Fletcher and Benson was that Priestley’s low Christology undermined the gospel. By robbing Christ of his divinity, Priestley shredded the gospel of its saving power. For a “mere man” could never atone for human sin nor be the source of eternal life to fallen humanity. Since Priestley did not deny Christ’s humanity, their rebuttal centered on a rational explanation of his deity. Nevertheless, as we will see, they did affirm Christ’s full humanity, including a rational soul and physical body. Also, by titling the work a defense of the “Catholic Faith” the authors intended their readers to understand their firm adherence to the ancient ecumenical councils at Nicaea (CE 325) and Chalcedon (CE 451), which were embodied in the Anglican Articles of Religion. Therefore, their use of the word “Catholic” signified the historic faith of the universal church reaching back to the apostles.

Fletcher opened with a general explanation of the Catholic faith regarding the nature of God. There is one “Supreme Being,” one “infinite and eternal Mind,” who is the “living God.” In this sense, Fletcher acknowledged, “true Christians are all Unitarians.”[16] He then added with carefully chosen words, this “one eternal and perfect essence subsists, without division or separation, under three adorable distinctions, which are called sometimes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and sometimes the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.”[17] Moreover, Fletcher explained that Trinitarians do not confound the persons or the divine essence by claiming the “three persons are one person, or three gods are one God.” Instead, quoting 1 John 5:7 Fletcher explained, “‘These three (Divine subsistences) are one’ substance. These three Divine persons are one Jehovah.”[18]

By clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity, Fletcher could define the nature of Christ’s divine sonship. Central to his argument was to demonstrate that Jesus was a “proper Son” of the Father. In the bible, wrote Fletcher, the term “son” is used in several senses. First, there are “created sons”, as the angels and Adam. Second, are listed “reputed sons,” which refers to everyone who has a “filial reverence” of God. Then, there are “titular sons” who by their office exercise authority given them by God. This includes human leaders and judges (Ps. 82). Unitarians, like Priestley, defined Christ’s sonship in this sense. Last, there are sons by adoption, which includes believers in Jesus and those who participate in the future resurrection.[19] By contrast, Jesus was unique as a “proper Son of God.”[20] He was the “only begotten Son,” who as the Logos (Word) was “in the beginning with God, and was God” (Jn. 1:1, 18 KJV).[21] He was a “Son by nature,” not by creation or adoption, and in passages like John 17:5, Jesus spoke of God the Father as “his proper and natural Father.”[22] For his generation was eternal since “all of the Son’s Deity came from his Divine Father” and there was a “real communication of divinity” from the Father to the Son.[23] Furthermore, Jesus possessed the “incommunicable attributes of the Supreme Being” and thus was “perfectly equal to the Father.”[24] Existing in the “most perfect unity with his Father who precedes him,” as the Apostle John wrote, the Son does the “very works of his Father jointly with him” and executes judgment on behalf of the Father, so that all may “honour him as they honour the Father.”[25]

Besides defining Christ’s eternal sonship, Fletcher recognized that Jesus was a “created Son of God, as well as Adam, with respect to his humanity.”[26] He was “miraculously and supernaturally formed from the substance of his virgin mother” so that he was a “real man.”[27] This theme was developed further in Socinianism Unscriptural. As the Son of Man, Fletcher held that Christ fulfilled the offices of prophet, priest, and king.[28] He mediated between God and sinful humanity by laying down his “human life” in his sufferings and death.[29] Regarding his human character, Jesus was a “man approved of God” and in “his form of a servant, a loving, humble man.”[30] Though Fletcher did not go into detail about the incarnation or the particulars of Christ’s human life, his writings demonstrate belief in the doctrine of the hypostatic union of the two natures in the one person, Jesus Christ.[31]

With Christ’s divine and human sonship defined, Benson provided a series of rational arguments based on scripture and scholarship to support that definition. A wide range of authorities were included. Most quoted were Anglican scholars George Bull (d. 1710), Gilbert Burnet (d. 1715) and John Pearson (d. 1686); yet he also appealed to Nonconformist commentator Philip Doddridge (d. 1751) and French Protestant minister Jakob Abbadie (d. 1727). Several church fathers were quoted, like Athenagorus (d. 190), Irenaeus (d. 202), Origen (d. 254), and the Epistle to Diognetus (c. 200), which Benson incorrectly attributed to Justin Martyr. Finally, Benson included several Jewish sources, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. 50), the Jewish Targums, and the Book of Wisdom (also known as the Wisdom of Solomon). The wide range of sources, both contemporary and ancient, reveals the level of scholarship that Benson included in his section of the Rational Vindication.

Benson began his argument with a series of observations about Christ as the Logos of God in John 1:1-14 (ch. 5). Benson noted that the Logos was a person, eternally distinct from the Father, “not a titular god, or a god by office” as the Unitarians claimed, but “God by nature, partaking of a real and proper Deity, in unison with the Father, whose Word he was.”[32] The Logos was therefore the Creator of all things, the source of life and spiritual illumination.[33] He was the one who appeared in the theophanies of the Old Testament. Since the Father in his “Divine essence” cannot be seen, it was the role of the only begotten Son to reveal God to humans (Jn 1:18).[34] Thus, contrary to the Arian position, the Son was by nature superior to the angelic realm and the proper heir of God’s kingdom.[35] Christ, as a proper Son, was shown to be Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament in the next three chapters. Benson argued that Old Testament passages which refer to Jehovah (ch. 6), divine titles and incommunicable attributes that pertain to Jehovah (ch. 7), and the divine works of creation and providence are all applied to Christ in the New Testament (ch. 8). Benson wrapped up his argument for Christ’s divinity by showing that the Son will execute final judgment (ch. 10) and received divine worship while on earth and after the resurrection (ch. 11).

Though the central aim of the Rational Vindication was to establish Christ’s divinity, in chapter twelve Benson addressed the incarnation, “The true catholic Church has allowed, and believed, in all ages; that he who is God is also man.”[36]Jesus was fully human, “subsisting” of a “reasonable soul, and human flesh.”[37] He experienced the normal stages of development, from conception to adulthood, and was subject to all natural human weaknesses and affections, such as hunger, thirst, weariness, joy, and sorrow.[38] As a human being, he physically died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.[39] In keeping with the Chalcedonian Definition, Benson maintained that the two natures were “preserved distinct” and not mixed or changed to form one nature as Eutyches taught.[40] Nor did the two natures suggest there were two persons as Nestorius taught.[41] Regarding the hypostatic union, Benson affirmed the communication of properties, which he defined as when “one nature speaks things, or has things spoken of it, which are only proper to the other nature.”[42] He then quoted Burnet’s Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles that the union of both natures could be understood by the analogy of the soul-body union, which we saw came from Saint Augustine.[43] Finally, when answering Unitarian objections in chapter thirteen Benson affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, “As the branch is from the root, and river from the fountain, so the Son is from the Father.”[44] And, “the Father, therefore, is the fountain of Deity . . . the source and principle, both of the Word and Spirit.”[45]

What we see in the Rational Vindication is a Methodist Christology in full harmony with the universal faith expressed at Nicaea and Chalcedon and articulated in the Anglican standards. However, subtle shifts in Methodist Christology would begin in the 1780s that would open the door for divergent Christologies to emerge in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Coke and Methodist Christology

At the same time Fletcher was preparing to write the Rational Vindication,across the Atlantic another Methodist leader preached a powerful sermon on Christ’s deity at the first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, on December 26, 1784. Thomas Coke (d. 1817) was a committed deist as an undergraduate at Oxford until he was convinced otherwise by his reading of Thomas Sherlock’s Trial of the Witnesses of Jesus.[46] From there he went on to earn a doctorate degree and was ordained priest in the Church of England. Coke was introduced to the Methodists through Fletcher’s writings and met John Wesley in August 1776. He joined the Methodists and soon rose in the ranks to become one of the first General Superintendents of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Coke served as Wesley’s assistant and is considered today the father of Methodist missions.

Probably in reaction to his prior life as a deist, Coke was a zealous proponent of Christ’s deity as full equality with the Father. This led him in 1779 to accuse several Methodist ministers of Arian sentiments, notably Joseph Benson. We saw above that Benson had embraced Watts’ views on the pre-existence of Christ’s human soul and had freely shared these ideas with others. Coke accused Benson of subordinationism and for not believing that Jesus Christ was the “One, Supreme, eternal, independent, Self-existent God” and in the “most extensive and unlimited sense of the Word Eternal with the Father.”[47] In response, Benson accused Coke of Sabellianism by questioning whether he denied the Father of “any proper Godhead” and meant to “confound the Persons of the Father and the Son.”[48] At the heart of this exchange were differences of opinion over the immanent Trinity and the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation from the Father. The matter came before the 1780 Conference with Benson cleared of any charge of advocating Arianism. Coke apologized, and the two men were reconciled. This ended the heresy-hunting phase of Coke’s ministry, but not his zeal to defend Christ’s supreme Godhead.

The sermon delivered at the General Conference in 1784 was titled On the Godhead of Christ and was published the next year at the request of the Conference.[49] The text was taken from the third line in John 1:1 (“The Word was God”) and encapsulated Coke’s high Christology at the time. Alarmed at the rising popularity of Arianism and Unitarianism in America, Coke sought to “prove that the Lord Jesus” was “God in the fullest and highest sense.”[50] He agreed with Fletcher and Benson that Christ was “God by nature and not only by office” and applied the same arguments to establish Christ’s deity according to scripture.[51] The incarnation was assumed throughout the sermon with numerous references to Christ’s human life and ministry.[52] But whereas Coke’s sermon contained similar arguments and content as found in the Rational Vindication, it differed in tone and emphasis. The Son’s equality with the Father was magnified to the point that his divinity was no longer “derived” from the Father, but both “co-eternally” existed in glory and worked equally in the regeneration and salvation of believers.[53] To argue otherwise, in Coke’s view, was to support a “subtle” form of Arianism.[54] As the “Most High God,” the creator and sustainer of all things, Christ was independent, self-sufficient, and hence not subordinate to anyone.[55] Even during his earthly ministry, Jesus was not dependent on anyone, for “all his miracles were wrought in his own name, or by his own immediate power.”[56] Coke further minimized the Spirit’s role in Christ’s ministry by reminding his audience that he was called the “Spirit of Christ.”[57] Allowing for limitations of a single homily to express one’s full Christology and that Coke was refuting heterodox Christologies that demeaned Christ’s deity, the sermon magnified the Godhead of the Son at the expense of the other two members of the Trinity. It therefore lacked the balance established in the early ecumenical creeds and in the Anglican Articles of Religion.

For the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church in America, John Wesley produced an abridgment of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (p. 1784) was presented to the same General Conference that Coke preached his famous sermon on the Godhead of Christ. Except for two minor changes,[58] the Article on Christology in the Sunday Service followed the Anglican Article word for word, preserving the balance between the Son’s derived essence and inseparable union with the Father—“begotten from eternity of the Father…of one substance with the Father.”[59] Jason Vickers discovered that the clause concerning the Son’s eternal generation was removed in succeeding editions beginning in 1786.[60] Henry Wheeler noted that the clause was also removed from the Sunday Service for the English Wesleyans.[61]

The circumstances surrounding its removal remain a mystery. Scholars have suggested Wesley or a printer’s error, but Vickers noted these remain unconvincing since Wesley taught the doctrine of eternal generation and it was highly unlikely that a typological error would not have been corrected.[62] Both Vickers and James White explained that Coke served as editor for the original and succeeding editions of the Sunday Service.[63] Wesley later stated that Coke made “two or three little alterations” in the first edition without his knowledge, but said nothing about the removal of the eternal generation clause.[64] Vickers proposed that while the evidence pointing to Coke was not conclusive, it was plausible.[65] Given that Coke championed Christ’s divinity as underived equality with the Father, he served as editor of the Sunday Service, and that the other options appear untenable, the argument makes sense. Even though the circumstances surrounding the clause’s removal remain uncertain, and Coke’s role inconclusive, the change in the Article did portend developments in the nineteenth century as some leading Methodist scholars openly rejected the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation.[66]

However, the sermon and possible involvement in the clause’s removal was not Coke’s last word on the subject. In 1803 he released a two-volume Commentary on the New Testament.[67] Throughout the two volumes Coke emphasized the Son’s equality with the Father:

Quote: “It is observable, that St. John’s discourse here rises by degrees: he tells us, first that the Word in the beginning of the world existed; thus asserting his eternity: next, that he existed with God, thus asserting his co-eternity: and then, that he was God, and made all things: thus asserting his co-equality” (Jn. 1:1-3).

Following Augustine’s comments on John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”), Coke pointed out the errors of both Arianism and Sabellianism, “‘One’ delivers you from Arius, who denies the eternal divinity of Christ: ‘Are’ delivers you from Sabellius, who denies a distinction of persons in the godhead” (Jn. 10:30). Though none of his remarks in the Gospels mentioned Christ’s eternal generation,[68] Coke’s later comment on the Son as “the brightness of his glory” (Heb. 1:3) clearly affirmed the doctrine:

Quote: “But to raise their thoughts of the matter, the apostle sets forth this Light, by which he describes the Father, under the title of Glory; the design of which is, to express the purity, perfection, and lustre of all his attributes. Suitably to this account of God the Father, he represents the Son, as a splendor or ray eternally and essentially derived or proceeding from the Father: and as the beams or rays cannot be separated from the sun, that great fund of light, so neither can the nature and the glory of the divine Son be separated from that of the Father: he is ‘Light of Light, very God of very God.’”

In contrast to his sermon twenty years prior, Coke now stated the Son does derive his divine essence from the Father and quoted the Nicene Creed for support. In opposition to Arian and Socinian opinions, Coke argued in the General Preface for the Son’s eternal generation by appealing to Psalm 2:7 (Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee) and Proverbs 8:24 (when there were no depths, I was brought forth).[69] He also referenced the doctrine in his “Reflections” on Colossians chapter two.[70] Assuming Coke wrote his commentary by following the general order of the New Testament (Gospels/Acts – Pauline Epistles – General Epistles – Revelation), the fact his statements on the Son’s eternal generation do not appear until the later books suggests that his Christology possibly continued to mature as he studied and wrote the commentary.

Besides expressing his settled views on Christ’s deity, the Commentary allowed Coke to articulate his mature position on the incarnation. Sounding almost Apollinarian, Coke wrote that the Logos had his divine nature, the shekinah glory, to dwell or “tabernacle” in a “human body” (Jn. 1:14). Yet, in keeping with trinitarian Christology, Coke expressed his firm belief in the hypostatic union and the communication of properties between the two natures. He spoke of the “adorable mystery of the union of the divine and human natures, in the person of the glorious Emmanuel” (Col. 2:9), and defined the communication of properties as “what is proper to the divine nature is spoken concerning the human, and what is proper to the human, is spoken of the divine” (Jn. 3:13).[71] Coke explained that in the incarnation Christ did not “empty himself” of his divine nature, “but of the glories and majesties belonging to him” (Phil. 2:8). Taking the “form of a servant,” Jesus was a “complete and perfect man…having the same common nature, distinguished by the same specific differences, but united to his own eternally divine nature” (Phil. 2:7). As a human being, Christ was inferior to the angels (Heb. 2:9) and united himself to “our inferior miserable nature, with all its innocent infirmities” (Jn. 1:14). He “underwent all kinds of trials, sufferings, and temptations,” without “falling away from the truth, or doing anything amiss” (Heb. 4:15).

In the end, Coke professed Jesus Christ to be Son of God and Son of Man, both divine and human—the “God-man.”[72] Though his earlier sermon On the Godhead of Christ suggested otherwise, by the time he wrote his Commentary on the New Testament Coke had fully embraced Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology, including the doctrines of the Son’s eternal generation, hypostatic union, and the communication of properties.


In an age that valued natural reason as a primary criterion for truth, the doctrine of Christ’s deity came under scrutiny from several quarters. Deists, Arians, and Unitarians attacked the doctrine as illogical and offered alternative Christologies that early Methodists believed to undermine the evangelical message of salvation in Christ. Most concerning to Methodists in the last quarter of the eighteenth century was the sudden rise of a Unitarian gospel that proclaimed a human Jesus as the true faith of the apostles. In response, Methodists carved out Christologies that aimed at defending on rational and scriptural grounds the doctrine of the eternal Son of God who became incarnate in the man Jesus for our salvation from sin and death. In keeping with the ancient ecumenical creeds, early Methodists taught the Son’s deity as equal in nature to the Father and the hypostatic union of the two natures in the one person Jesus Christ.

Even with this common ground there remained important differences in their Christologies. John Fletcher carefully preserved the delicate balance between the Son’s derived essence and his shared equality with the Father, while affirming the created essence of Jesus’ humanity as the Son of Man. In this way he articulated a trinitarian Christology that was faithful to the Anglican Articles of Religion and to the ancient ecumenical creeds. At first, Joseph Benson adopted a novel idea of Christ’s pre-existent human soul before becoming convinced of its error according to the scriptures and Christian tradition. He then espoused the same view as Fletcher in their two-volume response to the unitarian Joseph Priestley. Thomas Coke, on the other hand, was a zealous advocate for Christ’s divinity as full equality with the Father. In contrast to Fletcher and Benson, Coke rejected the notion of the Son’s derived essence from the Father. As editor of the Sunday Service and one of the two General Superintendents of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Coke was possibly involved in the removal of the eternal generation clause in the Articles of Religion. Although he later moderated his views by embracing the Son’s eternal generation, it can be argued that his sermon on Christ’s supreme Godhead and possible involvement in the removal of the eternal generation clause had a more lasting influence on Methodist Christolo

[1] See Ruth, Early Methodist Life, 31-66; Paul Wesley Chilcote, Early Methodist Spirituality: Selected Women’s Writings (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2007).

[2] Ruth, Early Methodist Life, 31.

[3] Thomas Jackson, The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Conference, 1872), 8:310.

[4] Philip Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (New York: T & T Clark Ltd, 2003).

[5] Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes, 101, 181-83.

[6] Socinus was the Latin form of his last name. The Italian spelling was Sozzini.

[7] Robert E. Schofield, The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1773 to 1804 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2004). 26, 267; H. McLachlan, The Methodist Unitarian Movement (London: Manchester University Press, 1919).

[8] Birmingham: Piercy and Jones, for J. Johnson, 1782.

[9] Birmingham: for the author, 1786.

[10] W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. The Works of John Wesley: Journal and Diaries, 7 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988-2003), 6:299. John Telford, ed. The Letters of John Wesley, A.M. 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 7:265.

[11] London: Oswald, 1746.

[12] Telford, Letters of John Wesley, 8:89.

[13] Richard Treffry, Memoirs of the Rev. Joseph Benson (New York: Lane and Sandford, 1842), 78.

[14] Hull, 1788. London, 1790. To locate Rational Vindication, John Fletcher, The Works of the Reverend John Fletcher, 4 vols. (New York: Waugh and Mason, 1844), 3:377-497, (Hereafter: Works).

[15] Birmingham, 1791. To locate Socinianism Unscriptural, Fletcher, Works, 3:499-619.

[16] Fletcher, Works, 3:398.

[17] Fletcher, Works, 3:398-99.

[18] Fletcher, Works, 3:399-400. Fletcher quotes from 1 Jn. 5:7, “For there are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (KJV).  This portion is now recognized as an interpolation and not original.

[19] Fletcher, Works, 3:409.

[20] Fletcher, Works, 3:408.

[21] Fletcher, Works, 3:407. Since early Methodists used the King James Version of the Bible, this is the version used in this chapter.

[22] Fletcher, Works, 3:408.

[23] Fletcher, Works, 3:411, 537, 545, 550.

[24] Fletcher, Works, 3:410-11.

[25] Fletcher, Works, 3:412.

[26] Fletcher, Works, 3:409.

[27] Fletcher, Works, 3:409, 545.

[28] Fletcher, Works, 3:517-18, 533, 539.

[29] Fletcher, Works, 3:550, 553.

[30] Fletcher, Works, 3:550, 553.

[31] Fletcher, Works, 3:408-09, 545-46.

[32] Fletcher, Works, 3:416-71.

[33] Fletcher, Works, 3:417.

[34] Fletcher, Works, 3:418, 428-30. In Socinianism Unscriptural Fletcher made the same argument about the Father’s unseen essence and the Son’s role as revealer (Fletcher, Works, 3:508).

[35] Fletcher, Works, 3:420-22.

[36] Fletcher, Works, 3:475, emphasis his.

[37] Fletcher, Works, 3:475, 477, 481.

[38] Fletcher, Works, 3:475.

[39] Fletcher, Works, 3:483.

[40] Fletcher, Works, 3:477-78.

[41] Fletcher, Works, 3:483.

[42] Fletcher, Works, 3:482.

[43] Fletcher, Works, 3:482.

[44] Fletcher, Works, 3:486.

[45] Fletcher, Works, 3:487.

[46] John Vickers, Thomas Coke: Apostle of Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 14-15.

[47] John A. Vickers, The Letters of Dr. Thomas Coke (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2013), 14, 19, emphasis his. It is notable that Samuel Bradburn used the exact same language in a letter to Coke defending his belief in Christ’s divinity (J. A. Vickers, Letters of Thomas Coke, 18).

[48] J. A. Vickers, Letters of Thomas Coke, 19. Sabellianism or Modalism was an ancient heresy that denied the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in the one Godhead.

[49] Thomas Coke, The Substance of a Sermon on the Godhead of Christ (London: J. Paramore, 1785). An 1810 edition titled it A Sermon on the Supreme Godhead of Christ (J. A. Vickers, Thomas Coke, 377).

[50] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 8. Coke likened the rise of Arian and Socinian views to a plague (p. 6).

[51] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 19-20. Coke made similar arguments based on divine titles, attributes, and works of creation, preservation, and redemption (pp. 11-12, 14-15).

[52] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 8-10, 22.

[53] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 16, 19.

[54] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 19.

[55] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 10, 14-15.

[56] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 15.

[57] Coke, Godhead of Christ, 16.

[58] In Article II the word “which” was altered to “who” and the line “of her substance” was struck out following the “Virgin Mary.” The first change added clarity and the second removed unnecessary verbiage.

[59] James F. White, ed. John Wesley’s Prayer Book: The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (Akron: OSL Publications, 1991), 306.

[60] Jason E. Vickers, “‘Begotten from Everlasting of the Father’: Inadvertent Omission or Sabellian Trajectory in Early Methodism?” Methodist History 44:4 (July 2006), 251-61.

[61] Henry Wheeler, History and Exposition of the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1908), 68 note 1.

[62] J. E. Vickers, “Begotten from Everlasting,” 253-55.

[63] J. E. Vickers, “Begotten from Everlasting,” 255. White, John Wesley’s Prayer Book, 3-4. Also, editions in the 1790s included commentary by Coke and Francis Asbury. Given that Coke published more material than Asbury, it is safe to assume he was largely responsible for the commentary (e.g. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in America: With Explanatory Notes, 10th edition. Philadelphia: Henry Tuckniss, 1798).

[64] Telford, Letters of John Wesley, 8:144-45.

[65] J. E. Vickers, “Begotten from Everlasting,” 257.

[66] Notably, Adam Clarke and Bishop David Wasgatt Clark (J. E. Vickers, “Begotten from Everlasting,” 257-58).

[67] Thomas Coke, A Commentary on the New Testament, 2 vols. (London: For the author, 1803).John Vickers stated the published date was marked 1803 but the commentary was not completed until 1807 (Thomas Coke, 376).

[68] For example, on Jn. 1:14 Coke referred “only begotten” to the incarnation, when the “Word was made flesh.” On this point, see J. E. Vickers, “Begotten from Everlasting,” 256.

[69] General Preface, p. xxiii.

[70] Commentary, 2:502. Coke ends each chapter with Inferences and then Reflections.

[71] On hypostatic union, see General Preface p. xxvi, Jn. 1:17, Phil. 2:7-8, and Col. 2:19, and Col. 2 Inferences. On communication of properties, Coke also listed Acts 20:28 and 1 Cor. 2:8.

[72] Coke, “General Preface,” Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 1, xxvii.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]