A Scientist and a Poet Discuss Roses (When Wesley Met Zinzendorf)

The Moravian Church had a great influence on John Wesley. Wesley first met some Moravians on a ship to the American colonies. He befriended more of them when he had returned to England. He visited their community in Herrnhut, Germany, and was impressed.

Then things began to change. As Wesley encountered more Moravians, he began to have concerns about their beliefs and behavior.

In 1741, Count Zinzendorf, the Moravian leader, met with Wesley to try to maintain fellowship between the Moravians and the Methodists.

He sure didn’t try very hard, if Joseph Hutton’s account of the meeting is accurate. Based on their exchange, it doesn’t look like either of the men were really that interested in fellowship. Zinzendorf especially could have stated his position differently.

(The Molther that is mentioned at the end of the quote below is a young man who had misrepresented Moravian teaching and had made a bad impression on Wesley.)

The two leaders met in Gray’s Inn Gardens and made an attempt to come to a common understanding. The attempt was useless. The more keenly they argued the question out the further they drifted from each other. For Zinzendorf Wesley had never much respect, and he certainly never managed to understand him.

If a poet and a botanist talk about roses they are hardly likely to understand each other; and that was just how the matter stood between Zinzendorf and Wesley. The Count was a poet, and used poetic, language. John Wesley was a level-headed Briton, with a mind as exact as a calculating machine.

“Why have you left the Church of England?” began the Count.

“I was not aware that I had left the Church of England,” replied Wesley.

And then the two men began to discuss theology.

“I acknowledge no inherent perfection in this life,” said the Count. “This is the error of errors. I pursue it through the world with fire and sword. I trample it under foot. I exterminate it. Christ is our only perfection. Whoever follows after inherent perfection denies Christ.”

“But I believe,” replied Wesley, “that the Spirit of Christ works perfection in true Christians.”

“Not at all,” replied Zinzendorf, “All our perfection is in Christ. The whole of Christian perfection is imputed, not inherent. We are perfect in Christ — in ourselves, never.”

“What,” asked Wesley, in blank amazement, after Zinzendorf had hammered out his point. “Does not a believer, while he increases in love, increase equally in holiness?”

“By no means,” said the Count; “the moment he is justified he is sanctified wholly. From that time, even unto death, he is neither more nor less holy. A babe in Christ is as pure in heart as a father in Christ. There is no difference.”

At the close of the discussion the Count spoke a sentence which seemed to Wesley as bad as the teaching of Molther. “We spurn all self-denial,” he said, “we trample it under foot. Being believers, we do whatever we will and nothing more. We ridicule all mortification. No purification precedes perfect love.”

And thus the Count, by extravagant language, drove Wesley further away from the Brethren than ever.

Hutton likened this encounter to a botanist and a poet talking about roses. In his analogy, Zinzendorf was the poet while Wesley had the more scientific approach.

I think this is an accurate description of the men in general. However, in this particular conversation, I would say that the roles were actually reversed.

It was Zinzendorf who was looking at things with the cold detachment of a scientist. He was applying categories he had learned from his Lutheran upbringing. Theology, he was taught, is about God the savior and man the sinner. This is the same at every stage in the Christian life.

To a scientist, a rose is what it always is, no matter how beautiful it may appear. It’s a perennial flowering plant of the Rosaceae family, of the Rosa genus. Likewise, the Christian was a sinner saved by grace no matter how good his behavior or how fervent his devotion to God.

Wesley had the poet’s view. As a rose grew more beautiful, so did the Christian grow into perfection. There were marks of this perfection, but it was by no means measurable. It took a poet to see it.

A poet would see a rose as constantly changing while the scientist would see it as fundamentally the same thing all along. A poet would focus on the growth and beauty of the flower while the scientist would point out that this is just the inevitable outworking of what was always in its DNA.