Thursday 30 January 2014

Transformation and Controversy: George Clark Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 about George Clark I shared about how He had discovered in himself a disconcerting sinfulness. Yet, as he sought after God he found release in an divine encounter on Pentecost Sunday, 1762. 

As I was reading through Clark's journal for the first time, I was startled by what I found in the entries following his testimony of that Pentecost Sunday. His descriptions of daily life and spiritual life before 1762 were incredibly angst filled and articulate about the struggles he was going through. But, after that Pentecost Sunday the expression of his emotions shifted: his descriptions were filled with peace and hope instead of struggle. Even when I compared the same struggles, anger for example, he seemed different. He seemed transformed.

I started reading the journals and letters of people in the eighteenth century with the question: what did they think about the doctrine of Christian Perfection? But what I discovered was that these people had more to say about their encounter with God, than about the way we talk about God. I found I was more impacted by observing their transformation than by any of the theology.

George Clark experienced this tension between experience and description in the few years following his Christian Perfection narrative. He was caught up in a controversy in the Methodist community of London. 

18th century London
Clark was not the only person to claim an experience of Christian Perfection at this time in London, it was actually quite common in the Methodist societies. But controversy exploded when some two hundred people who had the experience of Perfection withdrew from fellowship. One particular reason they gave for the withdraw was they claimed that only those who shared their experience could teach them. 

In hindsight we can see that history shows that these folks were on the wrong track, their teaching became more and more radical until Wesley was publicly disowning them and eventually some were jailed for disturbing the peace. But, at that moment, what did people have to say about the rift in community? We have some entries in Clark's journal regarding this time period.
Dec 9, 1762... They talk of many visions and revelations, and despise not only their brethren, but their Teachers. But I give myself to prayer, and trust the Lord will keep me, as my soul trusteth in him.
And later: 
Jan 14, 1763...I am pained for those who are wise above that is written, despising the instruction of Him, whom God hath made the great instrument of their salvation, saying, 'He is blind, and legal, and knows nothing of the work of Sanctification.' I often fear, lest this should provoke the Lord to take his Spirit from us. (Arminian Magazine (June 1783) 6:299, 300)
Clark was critical of the group that withdrew, but not because of their theology, he was critical of their attitude. He lived life with them, and he saw pride, not transformation. With this observation he questioned their theological claims. He questioned the legitimacy of what they had to say because he questioned whether their experience was effectual for transformation, as his had been.

With a longer time to view the situation, Clark reflected back on the controversy in an essay published 30 years later in the Arminian Magazine. In it he expresses his sadness for the damage that the controversy had on the Methodist community. But with decades of healing he notes that "in mercy, [God] is reviving [good work] a little in London. But he take a method, according to his own infinite wisdom. A method, whereby he will secure his own glory." (Arminian Magazine (Jan 1790)13:43) 

Then Clark describes the experience of God at work in his heart. Here are a few favourite phrases (but the who essay is worth a read!): 
"Such Divine power and sweetness, that the soul is constrained to give itself up to [God], being fully persuaded his will is to make it completely happy....The soul is so truly sensible of this, that it is ever willing to lay itself open before him, hiding none of its infirmities or weaknesses: rather, it is pleased with the free intercourse it is permitted to have with him in these. This begets an inexpressible confidence in the soul to her Beloved."(Ibid. 44) 

The tension between experience of theology remains today, and that tension brings balance to the church. When things head off in one direction or the other, we need to hear more testimony or more thoughtful theology as we seek, like Clark, to trust that the Lord will keep our hearts and minds safe.