May 062011

This is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ Rally to Restore Unity. Read about it at the link.

Augustus Toplady was, frankly, a bit of a jerk. He was an evangelical Anglican clergyman with a strong Calvinist bent. If he lived today he’d certainly be one of those Calvinists, the kind who write annoyingly combative blogs ranting and railing against the insidious evils of the false and pernicious doctrines of (horrors!) Arminianism.

The main differences, of course, were first that he lived from 1740-1778 when there weren’t any blogs, and second that the vitriol of his anti-Arminian rhetoric would probably startle even the most extreme Reformed Ranters today:

Can any thing be more shockingly execrable, than such a degrading and blasphemous idea of the ever blessed God? And consequently, is not the doctrine of human self-determinability the most daring, the most inconsistent, the most false, the most contemptible, and the most atheistical tenet, that was ever spawned by pride and ignorance in conjunction?

Ouch! Even without the illogical overstatements (isn’t, say, atheism a more atheistical tenent than free will?), the diatribe is completely over the top. You can almost picture the flecks of foam flying as he bangs away on the keyboard (oh wait, scratches away with the quill pen). Sadly, those familiar with his writing say that this is the typical tone of his polemic works. His favorite target was the popular Methodist preacher John Wesley, another evangelical Anglican clergyman but one who promoted Arminianism:

[Wesley’s theology is] an equal portion of gross heathenism, Pelagianism, Mahometism, popery, Manicheaenism, ranterism, and antinomianism, culled, dried, and pulverized, secundum artem; and above all, mingled with as much palatable atheism as could be possibly scraped together.

Well that’s a way to work for unity in the church.

Wesley responded in kind, though with more restraint (not that that would be hard):

Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well; but I do not fight with chimney sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with; I should only foul my fingers. I read his title page, and troubled myself no farther.

So far, this seems to be a rather depressing way to celebrate a “Rally to Restore Unity.” Why bring up an extreme example of divisiveness between believers to encourage us to all work together? Well, it turns out that this is a bit more than just a cautionary tale. What if I told you there was a book where you can find the writings of Toplady and Wesley side by side standing together in full agreement and unity, loved by generations of Christians on both sides of the controversy for precisely the same reasons?

There is. It’s called a hymnal.

(To forestall another predictable old controversy, it’s perfectly fine with me if you prefer the words on PowerPoint. The point is that you can find them together.)

When he wasn’t writing anti-Arminian screed, Augustus Toplady wrote hymns. Really good hymns, too, the kind that stand the test of time. Here’s a stanza from one you might have heard:

Not the Labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy Law’s demands:
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for Sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and thou alone!

Yes, in a twist worthy of Paul Harvey, the raging polemicist Augustus Toplady wrote the beloved hymn “Rock of Ages.” On Wesley’s side, of course, John’s brother Charles was one of the all-time great hymnwriters, providing hundreds of favorites from “O For a Thousand Tongues” to “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” And here’s the kicker– everybody likes these hymns, Calvinists and Arminians alike.

Sharp eyes can pick up on Toplady’s Calvinist leanings even in this hymn, and Wesley’s doctrine is equally transparent. But somehow, when it comes to worship, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. “Rock of Ages” sits right alongside the Wesleys’ songs in any Methodist hymnbook. Calvinists love Wesley’s hymns even more; I’ve seen current Reformed authors pointing to Charles’s texts as an example of the kind of hymns we need with their “solid doctrinal content.”

What does this mean? Theologian Fred Sanders (from whom I shamelessly cribbed the quotes above, and whose article on the controversy is very well worth reading in full) has this to say:

So what’s going on here? If you belong to an evangelical church that gladly and wholeheartedly sings the songs of Wesley and Toplady side by side, are you a dupe who can’t tell when two things disagree? Not at all. The churches that sing Toplady’s anti-Wesleyan Rock of Ages right alongside Wesley’s anti-Calvinist Love Divine, All Loves Excelling are acting on a sound instinct. They can see clearly what Toplady and Wesley in the heat of battle did not always discern: that we have the most important things, the things we want to sing about, in common.

As a songwriter myself, I got a little electric feeling when I saw that last sentence: The most important things [are] the things we want to sing about. 

If that’s not true, I don’t know what is and I never will.

This is why, if you look in any good collection of worship songs, you can find songs written by Catholics and Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, Calvinists and Arminians, Anglicans and Dissenters, Baptists and Charismatics and Pentecostals. Or contrariwise, why people from denominations or movements that find themselves completely at odds can all still agree that “Amazing Grace” is an awesome song.

Sure, there are some major differences in their doctrine that aren’t going away any time soon. But those aren’t the things we want to sing about.

In talking, you say completely different things at the same time and call it argument. In music, you play completely different notes at the same time and call it harmony, as long as you’re playing the same song together.

When we talk theology, we talk about complementarianism and creationism and calvinism and dispensationalism and universalism and all the other -isms that have caused so much division and contention. When we worship, we sing about God’s grace, about Jesus, about Christmas and the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. We sing about our love for God, about God’s love for us, about the joy of being forgiven and redeemed. We sing about comfort and encouragement in Christ.

We sing about the most important things. And we agree on those.

Maybe we don’t need to restore unity. Maybe we’ve had it all along.

Maybe we just couldn’t see it because we were looking at the things we want to argue about instead of the things we want to sing about.




If my website interests you, welcome, and check out my CD New Creation. If the “Rally to Restore Unity” interests you, consider donating a few dollars to Charity:Water.