The Theology of Sanctification and Resignation in Charles Wesley's Hymns

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Julie A. Lunn
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , November
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780815348306.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Charles Wesley is a theologian to be reckoned with, and the handful of scholars who give him their serious attention find themselves rewarded in many ways. Nearly everything that seems at first to be a scholarly disadvantage of studying Wesley shows itself, with a little patient inquiry, to be an advantage. Charles Wesley stands in the shadow of his brother John, yes; but that means John is an illuminating source of spiritual context for reading Charles. Charles wrote hymns rather than treatises, yes; but that means his theology comes to us already mingled with spirituality and adapted to church life. Charles Wesley’s sentences are characteristically so riddled with scriptural allusions and stock expressions that it is sometimes hard to single out a particular claim, yes; but that means that to read him is to be brought into contact not just with him but with the streams of scripture, tradition, and spiritual life in which he is astonishingly fluent.

All of these Wesleyan advantages are on display in Julie A. Lunn’s The Theology of Sanctification and Resignation in Charles Wesley's Hymns, a well-crafted, tightly focused volume. The book’s title names both sanctification and resignation, but Lunn handles these two themes in an ordered way. She gives primary attention to the theme of resignation, a “positive, deliberate act of intention and desire towards God,” (1), but places it in the more comprehensive theological context of sanctification. The tight focus on resignation makes the inquiry distinctive, precise, and manageable; expounding it in the context of sanctification highlights its broader theological significance, and also brings Lunn’s work into dialogue with the substantial secondary literature in Wesleyan and Methodist studies. If that description sounds like the book has the structure of a good dissertation, there is a reason. Its origin as a recent doctoral dissertation is evident at several points. But the resulting book avoids the pitfalls of the genre: the review of literature does not sprawl; the argument’s novelty is not exaggerated; the topic is not viewed through tunnel vision. Lunn writes well and draws from years of pastoral experience. The volume is dissertation-ish in the best sense: methodologically self-aware, well documented, and thorough.

Lunn’s thoroughness is on display in part 1, which explores theological, historical, and spiritual contexts for Wesley’s use of the theme and language of resignation. This section is necessarily somewhat conjectural, because Charles Wesley read widely and could have picked up the theme of resignation from many places. Lunn gives special attention to Thomas a Kempis, Henry Scougal, and Jeremy Taylor—not so much as definite sources, but as writers congenial to Wesley’s particular way of using the word resignation. Whatever overtones it had in his background reading, resignation, “when used by used by Charles Wesley, is an anagogic word. It has a spiritual intention; it is for Charles the predominant means by which a believer progresses towards sanctification” (36). Wesleyan resignation also combines obedience (which is active) and patience (which is inactive) in a way that resonates with the reception of divine grace throughout the Christian life. That tension is what gives the word resignation its special resonance in Charles Wesley’s hymns.

Part 2 of the book is similarly thorough. It contains Lunn’s exhaustive investigation of resignation texts from the Wesley hymn corpus. We learn that there are 319 occurrences of the word. Of these, 40 refer to Christ’s resignation in carrying out his mission of salvation, while nearly all of the rest refer to the believer’s resignation to God. Characteristically for Charles Wesley, the objective, doctrinal foundation is powerfully present (resignation as a motif in the person and work of Christ), but his emphasis falls on the subjective, experiential appropriation of the truth (the resignation of the believer). As Lunn points out, “resignation is a devotional word” (59), and in Wesley’s hymns it is often connected to a kind of spiritual investigation of the ups and downs of spiritual experience as the believer struggles to subject all the faculties of the self to God. Resignation’s connection to entire sanctification becomes apparent here. Charles could use the terms “absolute resignation” and “Christian perfection” synonymously, as he did in his reflections on the heroic death of one Mrs. Hooper (57).

There is a brief excursus between parts 1 and 2 in which Lunn prints an eleven-stanza Wesley hymn on resignation and then offers a close reading of it. These few pages are a marvel of exposition. Lunn has seen right to the bottom of what Charles Wesley had to teach about resignation with all his biblical mastery, spiritual insight, and poetic art, and she is able to point it out to the reader. Wesley turns the theme over and over, both with chiastic inversions (“to gain my worthless heart: my worthless heart to gain”) and with rotating synonyms (give, yield, sink, forsake). Lunn misses none of it, and the patient scholarship of the rest of the book spreads out on either side of this excursus at the heart of the book.

In part 3 of the book Lunn moves increasingly from a more historical-theological mode of studying the 18th century to a more constructive-theological mode of inquiring into the theological coherence and pastoral usefulness of Wesleyan resignation. Lunn acknowledges the factors that may make resignation seem to be “a lost concept” (212), merely quaint, outmoded, or irresponsible. But she commends its “enduring theological substance and spiritual currency” and in particular the way it “holds the paradoxical tension of agency and passivity, of responsibility and dependency on God, which is as acute now as it was in Charles’ day” (214). This book automatically commends itself to admirers of Charles Wesley, but Lunn’s spirited retrieval of the resignation theme and her success in setting it in its wider context should also bring the subject to the attention of a wider readership in the areas of theology, pastoral work, and spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Fred Sanders is a Professor in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.  

Date of Review: 
November 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julie Ann Lunn is Lecturer in Practical and Social Theology at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester. She teaches in the areas of Practical Theology, Pastoral Theology, and Christian Spirituality, with a particular interest in Wesley Studies.

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