Excellent New Book about Calvin and Wesley

A few months ago Abingdon Press (the United Methodist publisher) sent me the manuscript of a forthcoming (now published) book by my friend Don Thorsen who teaches theology at Azusa Pacific University. (Actually, he’s also the Chair of the Department of Theology and Ethics at APU’s Haggard Graduate School of Theology.) Don and I have been friends ever since we worked together on the editorial board of the Christian Scholar’s Review in the 1990s. Don is a good Wesleyan theologian.

The book, which I gladly recommended (my blurb appears on the back cover), is titled Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice. On the back cover appears the following statement: “When we stand at the Pearly Gates, God will not ask us what we believed but how we lived.” Endorsements on the back cover (besides mine) are by Kenneth Collins (another good Wesleyan scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary), Amos Yong (Regent University) and Stephen Gunter (Duke Divinity School).

The book compares and contrasts Calvin’s theology (and Calvinism) with Wesley’s theology (and Wesleyanism). It’s a very fair and even-handed treatment of Calvin’s theology; Thorsen has clearly done a great deal of research into both theologians’ writings. But the thrust of the book is not systematic theology but Christian living. Thorsen’s whole project is to connect the two–doctrine and practice. If he is right, and I think he is, Wesley’s theology is much more biblical and practical than Calvin’s and many Calvinists live their Christian lives in a way more consistent with Wesley’s theology than with Calvin’s.

The book is not polemical; it’s main purpose is not to criticize or belittle or convince readers not to pay attention to Calvin. Thorsen praises Calvin and his theology for some distinctive ideas and practices. Overall, however, he believes Wesley’s theology is too little known–especially but not only outside of Wesleyan circles–and has much to offer for Christian living. I certainly agree.

Thorsen offers an alternative to TULIP–“ACURA.” You need to buy the book to find out what that is! I’m not giving it away here.

If you are looking for a good, popularly-written introduction to Calvinism versus Wesleyanism (or Arminianism as Wesleyan theology is basically Arminian) I strongly recommend this one.

One thing that excites me about Don’s work here and in other books (he’s authored several) is the evidence it provides that Wesleyan evangelicals are breaking out of their insularity and joining the larger evangelical conversation about theology and Christian life. When I was a beginning student of theology it wasn’t easy to find good Wesleyan theology for non-Wesleyans. Most Wesleyan theology was published by little known “Holiness” publishing houses operated by Holiness-Wesleyan denominations. Abingdon was publishing mostly liberal theology. Most evangelical theology was written by Reformed theologians. Exactly when and how that began to change is difficult to tell, but changing it is. I think that Thomas Oden has much to do with the renaissance of Arminian/Wesleyan theology and its emergence into mainstream evangelical theological life. Other Wesleyan scholars such as Ben Weatherington have done much to convince non-Wesleyan evangelicals that Wesleyans have much to offer evangelical scholarship.

I welcome Don Thorsen’s book and his voice into the wider evangelical conversation. May his tribe increase!

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  • labreuer

    This looks really neat! There seems to be a strong tension between “you shall know them by their fruits” and “righteousness that is by faith”, when it comes to the history of Christianity. To use a scientific metaphor, I view orthodoxy as focus on theory, and orthopraxy as focus on experiment. Scientists have learned that you cannot advance one too far ahead of the other—the law of diminishing returns is very strong.

    The best I’ve been able to characterize this is in terms of, “What do you want?” If you want the will of God and his Kingdom to more fully break into this world, I will believe Jesus when he speaks to me (“my sheep hear my voice”), and by ‘believe’, I mean that I will [somehow] hear him and then put that word into action. Faith that is not alive—faith that does not provoke us to do works—is dead.

    If I want something different from God (and refuse to let the Holy Spirit constantly redirect my course), I will be tempted to set up a righteousness of my own (Rom 10:3). Regardless of whether I can fully attain to that righteousness*, it is not a righteousness that helps me run the race that God wants me to run. It doesn’t matter how hard you run if you’re running in the wrong direction!

    * As Francis Schaeffer points out in True Spirituality, Paul felt condemned by “thou shalt not covet” in Rom 7, which is a commandment nobody can keep if they want something other than the will of God.

  • Even if Calvin might certainly have introduced good things I would be completely unable to praise due to his belief that God predetermines people to act badly and most of them to end up in hell.
    I know this isn’t politically (or evangelically) correct to put it that way but Jesus did not hesitate to use very strong words to condemn what he thought to be deeply immoral teachings.

    • Roger Olson

      I do not allow flaming here. So I edited out your strongest words against Calvinism. I don’t allow Calvinists to say those things about non-Calvinists (here) so I have to be fair even if I might agree with you.

      • M85

        Dr Olson do you think it is wrong for a person to be believe that Calvin was evil? Having studied the man’s life and theology i simply do not consider him a good person, how can one express that without using “insulting” language?

        • Roger Olson

          One can say, as I have, that the only way Calvin will get into heaven is if there’s a purgatory (or something like it) where he will have opportunity to repent of (turn away from, repudiate) his condoning of the murder of Servetus. I blogged about that here about a year ago. No human being created in God’s image is actually “evil,” but their actions can be so evil as to require repentance to enjoy fellowship with God.

  • RicC

    You mean Ben Witherington, not Weatherington, right?

  • Jon Altman

    I’d say Albert Outler is more responsible for the recovery of Wesleyan theology than Oden.

    • Roger Olson

      I was talking about “among evangelicals.” Perhaps you missed that.

      • Jon Altman

        What makes Tom Oden an “evangelical” where, for instance, Albert Outler or Scott Jones are not? I wrote a paper on “Boston Personalism and its Critics” for a “Religion in America” class at Millsaps College in 1980. The compelling (to me) critique came from “Neo-Wesleyans.” They were easy enough to discover using “old fashioned” card catalogue type research in the material available in a college library more than 30 years ago.

        Abingdon Press has been involved in a multi-decade project in publishing “Wesley Works” and has certainly published MANY individual works on various aspects of Wesleyan theology and doctrine during that time.

        • Roger Olson

          There I was using “evangelical” in the movement sense. Outler was never an insider of the evangelical movement which is not to disparage his spirituality. The point is that, I think, Oden has done more than anyone else to rehabilitate Wesleyan theology for mainstream “movement evangelicalism” which has been dominated by Calvinists of some type for many years.

  • Rick

    Who is Ben Weatherington? Or did you mean Ben Witherington?

    • Roger Olson

      Of course.

      • Rick

        Ok thanks. Just wanted to be sure.
        I have ordered, and look forward to reading, the book.

  • kertime

    Thanks Dr Olson, have pre-ordered the book to my Kindle (it has been “predestined”?)

  • Fred Karlson

    Yes, Thomas Oden and you also, Roger, have done well to get a non-Calvinist position into print and into the readership of evangelicals. Thanks so much and may your breed continue to grow.

  • jonthekiwi

    Sounds brilliant. Does he comment at all on their themes of union with Christ / theosis? It’s an area I’m considering exploring in a thesis, and I’m interested in what’s coming from the Arminian stream of evangelicalism.

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t recall that he does. But look at my article on “Deification in Contemporary Theology” in Theology Today July, 2007

  • Josh

    Roger, what are your thoughts on Fred Sanders new work “Wesley on the Christian Life?” published by Crossway? Do you think there might be a turning of the tide in Arminian respectability? I was surprised that Calvinistic Crossway would publish a theological look at one the biggest Arminians ever. Are you aware of forthcoming works that deal with Arminius, Wesley, or Arminianism in general? Do you have any hints about future projects for us? Thanks! Alot of questions I know!

    • Roger Olson

      I know Fred and like and respect him a lot. And I’m glad to know Crossway publishes his book on Wesley. Some Calvinists consider Wesley and “inconsistent” or “confused” Calvinist. As for future books and projects–I expect many in the future but I am increasingly worried that as Arminianism is rediscovered and becomes more popular Arminians will begin to turn on each other over secondary matters. I hope not.

  • David Martinez

    I have been reading a new book by Fred Sanders entitled “Wesley: on the Christian Life” and I have been impressed by it. In it, Fred also argues that many Calvinists and evangelicals in general know very little about Wesley’s theology and his contribution to the thought of Christian living. Do you know anything about this book?

    • Roger Olson

      I do not. But I know Fred and trust his scholarship. I’m sure it’s a good book.

  • I just started reading this book, and so far I’m extremely grateful. As a recent “convert” to Arminian/Wesleyan theology after several years of associating with the so-called “Young, Restless, Reformed” (and boy was I restless), I’ve found that so many of my belief statements fall more neatly categorically as reactions to Calvinism’s clean TULIP scheme. While your own book Against Calvinism served as an eye-opener to me (and helped me to feel at ease with identifying as an Arminian), having something such as ACURA to hang my hat on is a relief as I was beginning to feel like my beliefs were merely a reaction to my previously held soteriology. Thanks for recommending this one! I look forward to completing it soon!