There are few more fascinating figures in the last three centuries of church history than the vivacious evangelist George Whitefield (1714–1770). His zeal, energy, and determination in gospel preaching have drawn the admiration of sympathizers and critics alike. Perhaps because his legacy is largely colored by his fiery personality, and perhaps because he was ultimately eclipsed by his influential Arminian counterpart John Wesley (1703–1791), Whitefield’s theology is often overlooked. However, the manner in which Whitefield not only publicly defended his position as a Calvinist but also communicated his adherence to the doctrines of grace to Wesley are exemplary on several levels.
In his missives to Wesley (many of which were published as “open letters”), Whitefield demonstrates how a defense of the gospel can be simultaneously bold, sound, and loving. Methodism—the scene upon which the drama of Whitefield and Wesley’s controversy played out—was a torpid movement characterized not by doctrinal solidarity but by emphatic tendencies, and Whitefield was thus obliged to defend his own position frequently and unabashedly. The immense crowds that gathered to hear him preach often were comprised of both those eager to hear his words and many who were opposed to the message and style of his sermonizing. He was several times attacked as he descended from his pulpit, and he once narrowly escaped being stabbed in the temple. Many were the occasions upon which he found it necessary to shout the gospel above the jeers, trumpets, and gross distractions of his theological opponents. Yet Whitefield writes bluntly to the ever popular Wesley: “I am persuaded that you greatly err” (Letters, Nov. 9, 1740). Separated from his friend by this profound disagreement, he grieves in tones of sorrow and pain. Yet, he refused to give way in preaching predestination. For him, it was a non-negotiable (see Letters, Feb. 1, 1741).
Whitefield’s polemic was sound. While Whitefield was never a “scholar” in the tradition of his Reformed predecessors, he was certainly a devoted exegete. Accused of simply parroting John Calvin in his articulation of the doctrine of election, he replied that “Alas, I never read anything that Calvin wrote; my doctrines I had from Christ and his apostles; I was taught them of God” (Letters, Aug. 25, 1740). Whitefield taught the doctrines of grace because he saw them written plainly in Scripture. While his dissociation of Calvin may be overstated, the dependance that this peripatetic evangelist had upon the Word of God is admirable and even instructive. Whitefield would not consider the idea of basing a doctrine upon anything but the Word of God. This does not mean though that he disregarded sound teachers. He frequently expressed gratitude for such men as Calvin, Luther, Beza, and Edwards as he expounded biblical soteriology.
Above all, Whitefield is a model for defending the truth in Christian love. His clarity and bluntness are not to be mistaken for impulsivity or anger. It is relatively easy to present a biblical argument; it is more challenging to do so in a biblical manner. Whitefield accomplished this aim, as his letters to Wesley attest. His brotherly affection for his antagonist John Wesley is evident in his public letters and private journals. “I long to sing a hymn of praise for what God has done for your soul,” he writes (Letters, Jun. 25, 1740). Rather than threatening, impugning, or shaming his brother in Christ, Whitefield exhorted, engaged, and prayed for him. Never a brilliant theologian, established churchman, or articulate exegete, he is often overlooked because of what he lacked. But in Whitefield there is much to be admired. Let us strive to mimic his example of truly biblical apologetics as we too proclaim the gospel in love.
By Tyler Freire, Reformation Bible College admissions recruiter and alumnus.