The Big One in Calvin vs. Wesley

Though Don Thorsen does not say so, his study of “Humanity: More Freedom than Predestination” contains some ideas that may be the big difference between Calvin and Wesley (Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice). Maybe we can reduce it to this: Calvin thinks Wesley trivializes the sovereignty of God while Arminians think Calvin trivializes freedom. Let’s explore this topic through Don Thorsen’s chapter.

What do you think is the biggest difference between Calvin and Wesley? 

Both Calvin and Wesley believe all humans are made in God’s image, and are fallen in Adam. There is then depravity on both sides — and it seems to me both see the fall as extensive more than intensive, that is, affecting the whole of each human more than total corruption. Notably, Calvin posits divine providence and intention behind the fall without diminishing human responsibility. God determined it; humans are responsible; Christians are to accept this. As early as 1551 in Geneva some thought Calvin implicated God as the author of evil, but Calvin banned his opponents from the city.

Wesley, notably again, believed God voluntarily chose to limit his sovereignty by granting humans (what he called) “free grace” or what we might call human freedom or free will. “Wesley though that Calvin could not avoid making God ultimately responsible for evil” (33). I agree that Calvin’s logic of holding two together and contending that we are not to ask or know how they relate is not compelling. If God determined it — meticulous providence or meticulous sovereignty — and humans could not resist it then it is not free or compatible. Calvin puts it this way: “God wills that humans want to act the way they are foreordained to act” (34).

Wesley did not think humans could do anything to earn redemption; everything good done is by the grace of God. In essence, Wesley follows a large bloc of the Christian tradition in arguing for a measured human freedom, by grace in the power of the Spirit.

Hence, Calvin’s (at least later in his career) double predestination is detested by Wesley. Calvin diminishes the freedom of God’s sovereignty and God’s love and goodness… etc. So for him election is connected to divine foreknowledge, but what humans choose to do in that foreknowledge is prompted by God’s prevenient gift of grace. That grace, then, is the grace of human freedom to choose. God’s predestination is more connected to God’s general will. He asked, “How can the Judge of all the earth consign them [the damned] to everlasting fire, for what was in effect his own act and deed?” (38). That is the difference.

Wesley preferred the expression of “free grace” over “free will.” It was God’s grace to give humans freedom.  Thorsen finishes with a discussion of monergism vs. synergism, one divine will determining all vs. a divine human cooperative, though these are not terms from either Calvin or Wesley.

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.

  • labreuer

    Calvinists often say that if the option to choose God is allowed, it becomes a ‘work’, as in ‘works of the law’. I find this very confusing, because it doesn’t seem to match up with what the Bible says about the works of the law/traditions of man. Indeed, choosing to follow Christ seems like the crux of the matter—it is exactly this which is not doing a work of the law. See Romans 9:30-10:13, which contrasts works of the law and following Christ.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    I believe that both Calvin and Wesley were wrong in significant respects.

    First of all, I reject the concepts of “salvation by grace” and “salvation by works” and believe in “salvation by love”:
    God wants everyone to be saved and will always offer to everyone, on BOTH sides of the grave, to spend eternity with Him if the person sincerely desires Him.

    Even if there is a free will, it is utterly absurd to think that God would curse billions of individuals with a SINFUL NATURE due to two persons having eaten the false fruit.

    But Calvinism is far worse. According to Calvinism God CAUSED the fall of mankind, He is the ultimate author of evil.
    He predetermined Hitler and the Nazis to kill billions of Jews, and the largest number of the victims were eternally predetermined to burn in hell forever after having been tortured in the German concentration camps.
    He predetermined a man to rape women and will hold him entirely accountable for that.

    And why did God cause such monstrosities?

    The answer I get from (consistent) Calvinists is almost always the same:
    to show off his glory.

  • Adam

    It seems like we could also say that Calvin trivializes God’s freedom to act or not act. As if somehow, God MUST act in particular ways.

  • Mike Barlotta

    What do you think is the biggest difference between Calvin and Wesley?
    How one defines sovereignty is the key difference btwn Calvinism and Arminianism/Non-Reformed systems. It is the foundational idea that drives the rest of either TULIP or ACURA.

    If God can’t be sovereign unless He is the author/determiner of all things, including who will be regenerated and have faith then people have no ability “to choose otherwise”. This as noted in the OP creates a series of paradoxes, not the least of which is how to God can love all people, and how to avoid making God the logical cause of evil or being the reason people don’t (can’t) come to Him in faith.

    I find it more consistent, to allow God to sovereignly choose to extend His love to His all people by giving them the free grace/will to act. This does not deny God can act or influence people as He chooses and explains responsibility and evil without making God the cause.

    Something to keep in mind. Wesley held to Total Depravity/All Sin in a way consistent with Calvinism. Man’s nature was such that he could not exercise saving faith unless God provided grace first in order to aid a person so that they could choose Him in faith. Here the difference is whether that initial grace is regenerative/irresistible or not.

  • Steelwheels

    Does your definition of God’s Sovereignty define God’s Love?
    Does your definition of God’s Love define God’s Sovereignty?

    I seem to think scripture is much clearer on a proper definition of how God is Love, and therefore from that I define how He is sovereign.

    When God’s Sovereignty defines how God loves it’s then you get that form of predestination that was so repugnant to Arminius. As David Bentley Hart recently stated, “Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

  • Clint

    @Steelwheels- But, I think we should get to the bottom of our definition of divine love before we use it as the plumb line for any other attribute. Is his love defined by Scripture? Can that definition incorporate retributive acts of killing in the OT and NT? If not, then we are starting with a poor definition of love–and inadequate.

  • Steelwheels

    Q1: “Is His love defined by Scripture?” Yes, as revealed in Jesus.
    Q2: “Can that defination incorporate retributive acts in the OT and NT?”
    Yes it can.

  • Clint

    A1: Please explain.
    A2: Please explain.

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    Wesley, notably again, believed God voluntarily chose to limit his sovereignty by granting humans (what he called) “free grace” or what we might call human freedom or free will. “Wesley though [sic - THOUGHT] that Calvin could not avoid making God ultimately …
    for later editing

  • Levi

    It seems to me that more progress can be made by focusing on the human rather than divine aspect of this question.

    Arguments over God’s sovereignty vs. God’s love haven’t moved much in a few hundred years, and for good reason.

    Calvin obviously had a very strong view of God’s sovereignty, but when you push Wesley far enough, he does too. While Wesley would say that God set aside a bit of his sovereignty to allow for human freedom, he would affirm the fact that God did so knowing full well exactly what those free choices would be.

    In other words, both Calvin and Wesley would agree that out of all possible universes, God decided to actualize this universe in which persons A, B, and C have faith and persons D and E do not. When put this way, there is little real difference between God at creation foreknowing human responses first and then predestining/electing on that basis, and predestining/electing first and then foreknowing on that basis.

    However, if instead we ask what a free will looks like we can make some progress. If we define free will as the ability to do otherwise, then Calvin is wrong for obvious reasons, but Wesley is wrong as well — God could not foreknow the results of a choice that might well have gone the other way. This is Open Theism, not Arminianism or Wesleyanism. But if Jonathan Edwards is correct that the will is free to the extent that the individual can choose in accord with one’s desires, then we can have a legitimate conversation about the source of our desires — and without either side thinking some important aspect of God’s nature at stake.