Calvinist in Thinking, Wesleyan in Living

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.)

Thorsen then proposes a Wesleyan acrostic to counter the Calvinist acrostic (TULIP). Wesleyanism is ACURA: all are sinful, conditional election, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, and assurance of salvation.

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).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I agree with most things I have read about this author. I deeply love Calvinists as my fellow human beings.

    But they believe in a god who predetermined men to rape and will eternally punish them for that. They believed in a god who gets constantly angry about sins he predetermined.

    They believe in a love consistent with creating sentient beings which will suffer forever.

    I believe that full-fleshed, consistent Calvinism is an atrocious blasphemy which is toxic and harmful for the souls of the believers.
    I want them to discover a true Loving God.

    However it is my moral duty to always love and respect Calvinists as persons.
    I am currently trying to develop respectful conversations with them, tough I am far from being perfect and do mistakes.

    A question to all Arminians here: do you really think that Calvinism is a minor difference? That speaking in tongue matter much more?
    I’d like to learn the opinions of other people believing like myself in free-will.

    Shalom, Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son.

    Edit: I’ve spoken with many non-Calvinists who agree with me that TULIP coupled with divine determinism leads to egregious blasphemies, if one thinks LOGICALLY and consistently along these lines.
    But I never want to hurt someone in an useless and nasty way. But I feel the duty to do something for I have seen good Christians being progressively corrupted by Calvinist thinking and ending up thinking God only loves a small portion of mankind.

    And this gives God a very bad press. My father did not become a Christian because he was taught that Calvinism was THE Gospel.

    If we, as Arminians, hold fast on God’s perfect love and morality, we cannot let that happen, for God’s sake.
    Many people who read that will probably think I’m dumb, crazy or mentally ill. I don’t really care, I do that for Love’s sake.

    I would be very glad to learn the thoughts of many people on that.
    If you wish, this can be a fully private email conversation which will never be published:
    lotharlorraine@gmail.com

    But I don’t want to bother anyone and I would prefer this comment to be erased if it’s too off-topic or disturbing.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Derwin L. Gray

    I think I’ll be added this book to my library.

  • KateHanch

    Calvin and Wesley also wrote at different centuries for different audiences. Calvin wrote to a people who were persecuted in Europe. Wesley wrote in light of his itinerant ministry, mostly among the poor. How does this make a difference in interpreting their writings?

  • scotmcknight

    Kate, do you have any suggestions? It’s one thing to observe historical difference but another to show the substance is related to that.

  • http://deadheroesdontsave.com/ Mike Barlotta

    I just bought this book, it looks like it will be a good read. Having read (and blogged) a fair bit on both theologies I look forward to seeing how the author tackles this topic.

    @lotharlorraine:disqus
    A question to all Arminians here: do you really think that Calvinism is a
    minor difference? That speaking in tongue matter much more?
    I’d like to learn the opinions of other people believing like myself in free-will.

    I respect people who hold to Calvinism and believe that they are indeed fellow Christians saved by grace through faith. However, I don’t think that the systems are mostly the same with just a few minor differences either.

    For me the key issue really is determinism and the meticulous sovereignty that (most) Calvinists ascribe to God. If God is not determining all events than He is not sovereign. Therefore Calvinist’s reject the notion that a sovereign God can choose to give people free will (ability to choose otherwise) and still be sovereign. Yet then appeal to paradox (which in a sense is an appeal to remove God’s sovereignty) in order to disentangle God from being the cause and planner of evil.

  • Steelwheels

    Looks to be a good read. I agree that the crux of the issue is:

    1. God’s Sovereignty defines how God is Love.

    Or

    2. God’s Love defines how God is Sovereign.

  • Rick

    “A question to all Arminians here: do you really think that Calvinism is a minor difference?”
    It depends on if you are talking about the theology of Calvin, or some more modern versions of it.

    According to Indiana Wesleyan Professor Keith Drury: “The fact is there is so much common ground between John Wesley and John Calvin that Wesley himself claimed his position was within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism (at least on Justification, though not perhaps on sanctification)[Letter to John Newton, 14 May, 1765].”

    http://www.drurywriting.com/keith/wesley.the.calvinist.htm

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I dare disagree.

    Wesley believed that God genuinely desires all men to be saved while Calvin denied that.

    This is a fundamental difference.

  • Steelwheels

    Wouldn’t interpreting their writings based on their environment be similar to the same error that is being made in the church today. The error of allowing culture and circumstances to dictate what is scripturally understood as true (ie, marriage). Of course, Arminius wrote in his Declarations of Sentiments, near the same time period as Calvin, that this “type” of Predestination is ‘repugnant’, ‘inconsistent’, ‘diametrically opposed’, ‘Injurious’, ‘dishonorable’ ‘hurtful’ and at ‘open hostility’ to the Gospel. Maybe the greatest difference is that Wesley and Arminius were pastors while Calvin was a politician/lawyer.

  • zKatherine

    What have I learned from this discussion? That to be a prominent theologian, one must also be blessed with a prominent proboscis. ;-)

    My husband and I pulled our family out of our RCA church almost 2 years ago and spent each new Sunday searching prayerfully for a new Reformed church to join. God had other plans and in His way, continued to pull us back to a United Methodist Church in which we eventually fell in love with (all 6 of us) and now call home. I used to say I was a Calvinist in an Armenian church, but now I’m not so sure of who I am other than being a child of God, saved by His grace and mercy.

  • Rick

    It is a notable difference, but I don’t know if I would classify it as a “fundamental difference”. The 2 sides hold to the same essentials of the faith (who Jesus/God is, what He did, etc…), although they may disagree on this secondary issue of the scope of the Atonement. Likewise, both sides agree that the spreading of the gospel is still commanded.
    That being said, the impact of an emphasis on a certain doctrine (limited atonement, sovereignty of God over the love of God, etc…) on its adherents can amplify differences.

  • John Mark Hicks

    I don’t think it is fair to say that Calvin is a politician/lawyer in contrast to a pastor. Calvin’s pastoral ministry dealt with concerns in Geneva as well as refugees from persecuted churches, including dealing with Reformed pastors in France. I don’t think we should place too strong a disjunction between Wesley as pastor and Calvin as pastor. They were both pastoral. Calvin’s predestinarianism is pastoral in intent; it is about assurance. They lived in different eras with different problems, but they were both pastors.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    “…Wesley and Arminius were pastors while Calvin was a politician/lawyer.”

    A very ahistorical statement, that!

  • scotmcknight

    I agree John Mark… I see Calvin as a Reformed pastor who wanted all of Geneva under God’s will.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    The problem is that it is not a minor difference at all, like speaking in tongue.

    There is a WORLD of difference between a God unconditionally loving everyone and a god just loving a few elect ones and predetermining all the other ones to suffer eternally.

    The two are clearly not the same deity, at least if the law of non-contradiction is valid.

    2013/9/27 Disqus

  • Chuck

    I continue to find Charles Simeon, technically a Calvinist, very helpful in these discussions.

    “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 both extremes.”

    “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 reconciliable with each other and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation . . . 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.”

  • david manafo

    looking forward to the series… thanks for doing these kinds of summaries – can’t get to every book :)

  • Gene

    I wouldn’t have thought of it before Steelwheels wrote it above, but I do think that Calvin may have been more of a politican than a pastor. One might try to say that Mike Huckabee is a pastor (and that is true, as far as it goes), but I see his interactions with the public to be more political than pastoral. Newt Gingrich has a pastoral approach to many things, and similar to Calvin he wants all of the US under God’s will, yet he goes about accomplishing this first and foremost as a politican. Calvin strikes me as one who related to people more like these modern politicians do, than to relate to people like a pastor.

  • Patrick O

    This post made me laugh, not because it’s funny but because it’s exactly what I said to my now-wife when we were dating. She grew in a very reformed environment and was always warned against Arminians. Yet, we were always on the same page on almost every issue even though I’m a strong Wesleyan. She lived as a Wesleyan, believed as a Calvinist. Now we go to a Nazarene church, and she loves the pastor.

    I think the issue of different historical settings is a worthwhile point. What we emphasize and how often comes out of our situation. Calvin was also much closer to dealing with the Catholic church of his time, which Reformers thought veered too much into works-righteousness.

    Wesley was much more concerned about an intellectualized and compartmentalized Anglicanism. We also might point to different influences. Calvin reflects the Augustinian/Western wing, while Wesley points more towards the monastic priorities, especially as developed in the Christian East.

    But I also see the differences often being about talking past each other, as the traditions tend to focus their theological priorities in different directions. How are we saved is one question, what do we do once we are saved is another.

  • labreuer

    Edit: I’ve spoken with many non-Calvinists who agree with me that TULIP coupled with divine determinism leads to egregious blasphemies, if one thinks LOGICALLY and consistently along these lines.

    I think this is the crux of the issue. Calvinists don’t truly think logically to the extent that they think they do, and/or they do so in a frigid intellectual realm. How many of them, were their non-drinking, non-smoking daughter to be viciously raped, would really say that God had to make that happen in order to maximize his glory?

    So much theology is developed in a vacuum, away from actually living life. God gave us more than just logic and the Bible; I believe he meant us to use all of the information and tools at our disposal in order to get to know him better. It’s almost as if theory and practice and the Bible form a system of checks and balances; giving too much power to any of them will result in badness, because God did not intend us to be able to focus exclusively on one or two of them.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Yep, Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice thing about the danger of developing a theology utterly detached from our moral intuitions

    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/scandal-evangelical-heart

  • Patrick O

    Add to this the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley. It was sometimes turbulent, but it was a commitment both felt was important. Indeed, with Whitefield and Lady Huntington’s support there was a Reformed Methodism movement for a while. After Wesley’s death, the sides went their increasingly separate ways, but it does show that for Wesley at least there was not as big of a gap as some suggest.

  • labreuer

    I think Roger Olson linked to that at some point. Now, how do we do what you say, but also let the Bible shape our moral intuitions? For example, to many Southern slaveholders, having slaves was not clearly wrong to them; they thought it was just fine.

    I think Calvinists worry that our most fundamental moral intuition will come from an unregenerate part of us, and that we’ll let it rule over everything else. I’ve run across a candidate: being ‘nice’, or ‘gentle’. The NT commands gentleness as a first response, but I’ve seen people call someone “not a Christian” because they say that person not be ‘gentle’—I think they’re letting ‘gentleness’ be that fundamental moral intuition which cannot be questioned.

  • Ken Stewart

    The approach taken by Thorsen is historically naive. It in essence maintains that what can be called evangelical spirituality originated with Wesley and that his approach to this stands in contrast to whatever preceded it. But this approach overlooks both Pietism and Puritanism to which Wesley had debts both by his contacts with Moravians in England and Saxony and with Puritanism (represented in his mother’s side of the family). His multi-volume _Christian Library_ borrowed very freely from Puritan devotional literature of the preceding century. So, sorry Don Thorsen, evangelical spirituality is older than Wesley and, in his century, was not bounded by Wesley and his movement. Pietists and Puritans before Wesley were of both Reformed and Arminian sentiments. This is not to say that there was no originality in Wesley. But Thorsen’s approach is too monochrome to be helpful.


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