Essay / Theology

Oscillating, Not Vacillating: Simeon at Both Extremes

simeon tall pic Charles Simeon knew the secret of staying centered on the Gospel even when the centrifugal forces of controversy conspired to knock him off balance. His approach was classically described by HCG Moule in his Simeon biography (starting around page 96).

Simeon’s main goal in all his preaching was to emphasize what God wanted emphasized, and he did this by putting the stress on what Scripture stresses. Every time he went to Scripture, his goal was to see what the author of that book was particularly insisting on, and then to insist on that in his exposition of it. Simeon’s own words for this: “I love the simplicity of the scriptures … I wish to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way and to the extent that it is set forth in the inspired volume … My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.”

“Were this the habit of all divines,” he goes on, “there would soon be an end of most of the controversies that have agitated and divided the Church of Christ.” Simeon’s age was rocked with all sorts of controversies, and divisiveness was the trend of the times. But for the sake of the gospel, he intended to hold as many evangelical Christians together as possible. He kept a sharp eye on his own teaching to ensure that he didn’t develop pet topics or favorite doctrines. “My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head ; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.”

“I would run after nothing, and shun nothing.” In the preface to his Horae Homileticae, Simeon pointed out that you can always tell when your theology is getting in the way of your ability to read the Bible: If you had been sitting beside the apostolic authors at the moment when they were composing their books, are there phrases that you would ask them to omit, clarify, or re-phrase? That desire to fix up the Bible is the tell-tale sign that you have adopted the wrong attitude toward biblical truth, especially if all your answers are predictably partisan: “Oh, Paul, leave out that Calvinist stuff please,” or “Could you mention predestination a few more times here when you’re talking about faith?” Here is Simeon in the preface to the Horae Homileticae:

The author is disposed to think that the Scripture system is of a broader and more comprehensive character than some very dogmatical theologians are inclined to allow ; and that, as wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve one common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation. The author feels it impossible to avow too distinctly that it is an invariable rule with him to endeavour to give to every portion of the Word of God its full and proper force, without considering what scheme it favours, or whose system it is likely to advance. Of this he is sure, that there is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world who equally approves of the whole of Scripture . . . who, if he had been in the company of St Paul whilst he was writing his Epistles, would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions. … But the author would not wish one of them altered ; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as in another ; and employs the one, he believes, as freely as the other. Where the inspired Writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles, and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken.

When Calvinists and Arminians are fighting, it’s easy enough to assume an imaginary moral high ground and say “I’m a Cal-Minian.” You can make it sound a little more thoughtful by saying “Both positions are true in what they affirm and false in what they deny.” And in our times, it’s even easy to say “we just can’t know how these two truths are to be reconciled, so we should stop trying to be consistent and just affirm two incompatible truths simultaneously while repeating the word MYSTERY a lot for its hypnotic effect.” But Simeon wasn’t anti-system; he just believed that Scripture, precisely as it stands, has a system too complex for us to subject to our mastery. “The Scripture system is of a broader and more comprehensive character” than the theologies that we put together by following out the inferences. One way of adhering to “the Scripture system” is to make sure you never let your carefully-constructed tower of inferences and implications overshadow the clear statements of Scripture. If your predestinarian calculus keeps you from the basic math of God calling out to you to repent and choose to follow him, you have made a mistake somewhere. If your Arminian algebra keeps you from recognizing the clear biblical affirmation of God’s sovereignty in salvation, you are wrong.

In 1825, Simeon wrote to a friend that when he avoided the factiousness of theological controversy, he was not advocating a compromise between two extreme positions. No, he fully intended to occupy both positions at once. “I can say in words what these thirty years I have proclaimed in deeds, that the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.” He enters an imaginary dialogue with Paul:

“Here are two extremes ; observing days, eating meats, etc. —
‘Paul, how do you move ? In the mean way ? ‘
‘ No.’
To one extreme?’
‘How then?’
‘To both extremes in their turn, as occasion requires.’

Here are two other extremes, Calvinism and Arminianisrn (for you need not to be told how long Calvin and Arminius lived before St Paul).
‘ How do you move in reference to these, Paul ? In a golden mean ? ‘
‘ No.’
‘ To one extreme ? ‘
‘ No.’
‘ How then?’
‘To both extremes; today I am a strong Calvinist, to-morrow a strong Arminian.’
‘ Well, well, Paul, I see thou art beside thyself; go to Aristotle, and learn the golden mean.’ ”

But I am unfortunate ; I formerly read Aristotle, and liked him much; I have since read Paul, and caught somewhat of his strange notions, oscillating (not vacillating) from pole to pole. Sometimes I am a high Calvinist, at other times a low Arminian, so that if extremes will please you, I am your man ; only remember, it is not one extreme that we are to go to, but loth extremes…. Now, my beloved brother, if I find you in the zenith on the one side, I shall hope to find you in the nadir on the other ; and then we shall be ready (in the estimation of the world, and of moderate Christians, who love the golden mean) to go to Bedlam together.

Simeon’s sermons repay a close reading in our own time because he is so masterful at maintaining both extremes in conflict after conflict. It wasn’t just a mental habit with him, and he recognized error when he saw it: anti-trinitarians were just wrong, and Roman Catholicism was hobbled by grievous errors in doctrine and practice. Simeon’s judgment about holding both extremes could only be invoked in cases where both parties had robust biblical warrant. The conflicts of his age presented a different face: long before Pentecostalism, he fought for a greater awareness (even an “extreme” awareness) of the supernatural work of the Spirit in the life of an orderly church. On another front, when one party taught that Christianity consisted exhaustively in joining the right church and partaking of her sacraments (“the church party”), another neglected baptism and the Lord’s Supper in favor of proclamation of the message of salvation (“the evangelical party”). One side let its ecclesiology swallow up its soteriology, while the other had a soteriology so all-encompassing that church became an afterthought. Simeon, of course, emphasized both at once, as loud as he could, full force, all the time. That may sound hard to do, but the alternatives have the disadvantage of lacking faithfulness.

Share this essay [social_share/]