Don Thorsen, observing over his years many of his Reformed friends, has concluded this: “Although they claimed to be Calvinist, they lived more like Wesley.” Which leads Don to say this: “Although John Calvin profoundly influenced the development of Christianity, John Wesley did a better job than Calvin of conceptualizing and promoting Christian beliefs, values, and practices as described in the Bible and as lived by Protestant Christians.” This is just the opening to Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing the Belief in Line with Practice, and no one less than Roger Olson has said this book may have a “versus” in the title but it is clearly an irenic book. I agree. So join me in this discussion, and I hope this series will inspire Calvinists to read some Wesley and Wesleyans to read some Calvin.
Thorsen’s intent is not to criticize so much as to compare and evaluate. Wesley agreed with Calvin on most topics, most notably on justification. So, as Don says it, don’t expect a fight or to fight. His big idea is that Wesley provides a better understanding of Christianity and the Christian life in practice than Calvin does in theory. Wesley’s theology is a lived theology while Calvin’s, so he’s arguing, was not so much so. Put differently, the Christian life is not so easily susceptible to a system, which was Calvin’s soup du jour or at least his daily bread. (SMcK: I give an example. I’ve been hearing for a few years on the part of those advocating gospel-drenched and grace-shaped living that we should not preach the Sermon on the Mount or the commands of the Bible or the imperatives of the letters. That’s a theology not susceptible to being shaped by the way Jesus and the apostles understood how to teach the Christian life.)
On God: Thorsen’s main idea is that Wesley talked more about God’s love and not as much about sovereignty, while Calvin was more sovereignty and less on the love of God.
Calvin’s emphases are majesty, sovereignty, power, providence … Calvin himself: “To sum up, since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works… ” (3). Reason cannot comprehend God’s ways and so humility is central.
Wesley, too, believed in God’s sovereignty. But his approach was not so much through power but through holiness and God’s relationship with humans, a relationship noted by love. And that shaped his view of sovereignty so that human will is not excluded. So God voluntarily restricted his divine power. (Thorsen discusses semi-Pelagianism and semi-Augustinianism, found in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican thinking.) That is, God’s sovereignty is not diminished by empowering humans with freedom.
But the big one was that Wesley focused more on God’s love and he grew impatient with his Calvinist critics for not emphasizing God’s love enough. The message of the Bible is more about God’s love than God’s power. Yes, Calvin talks about it but not as much as Wesley. The emphasis is Thorsen’s point.
It is a distinctive difference between Calvin and Wesley, even today between Wesleyans and Calvinists. Wesley even called Calvin’s double predestination idea, because of the view of God implicit in it, a “doctrine of blasphemy” (13). It makes God “more cruel, more false, and unjust than the devil” (13).
He quotes Schaff, a Reformed theologian, saying Calvin’s system is Augustinian and is a “theology of Divine sovereignty rather than Divine love” (15).