Where Calvin Went Wrong

Where Calvin Went Wrong October 16, 2013

At the core of Calvinism is God’s sovereignty, but just what sovereignty means is the essence of of Calvin’s core: sovereignty means determinism in that God elects, God awakens, God shows grace, God predestines, God regenerates, God preserves and God glorifies. John Wesley, on the other hand, can be said to teach each of those, but where he thinks Calvin went wrong is that Calvin’s view of sovereignty so overwhelmed his theology that he ends up denying the capacity of humans to choose to believe. We are looking at Don Thorsen’s fair-minded comparison of John Calvin and John Wesley, in his book Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Life in Line with Practice.

Do you think meticulous sovereignty denies human’s capacity to choose (for and against) something? Does it deny, in that sense, “free will”? Do you think Christ died for all?

In his study that compares their views of salvation, Thorsen begins with conversion experiences — comparing Wesley’s famous Aldersgate experience and Calvin’s cryptic comments in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, which differs slightly from other tellings of his experience. What perhaps ought to be observed is that folks like Calvin and Wesley didn’t up and say “Here’s when I got saved.” (That, perhaps, is worth our pondering more than it is often pondered.)

Both believed in a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement: Christ died to take upon himself our punishment. The big issue between them is that Calvin’s theory of the atonement was “limited” while Wesley’s was “universal” (or “general”). Though he does not always say so in explicit terms, Calvin sees the effectual atonement only for the elect, so it is fair to say Christ died (only) for the elect while for Wesley Christ died for all. Once again, here comes free grace or will — God did the work but he grants humans the opportunity to choose and they therefore become accountable to God.

Yes, accusations in both directions: Wesleyans think Calvinists end up denying “faith” in justification by faith or free grace’s gift to choose while Calvinists sometimes accuse Wesleyans of ultimately being universalists. (Actually, only a Calvinist can be a universalist because to believe all will be saved means no one can choose not to be saved, which is a form of determinism.)

In the ordo salutis, the order of salvation, Calvin’s emphasis was the grace of God accomplishing each while Wesley’s was the necessity of the Christian to pursue sanctification and holiness and love. Calvin emphasized two themes in salvation: union with Christ, the ground of it all, and justification, which is a juridical framing of salvation.  Wesley’s themes are not dissimilar but Wesley differs over faith as a condition of salvation. For Calvin faith is the result of grace; for Wesley grace is the source but faith is the condition (67). For Calvin faith shows effectual grace; for Wesley it shows prevenient grace.

On assurance, Thorsen’s sketch wobbles a bit for me: at first I thought he saw Calvin affirming the certainty of assurance but Calvin’s theology of election and sovereignty (by the end of his sketch) seemed to minimize assurance a bit, which is not how Wesley taught it: for him one could be assured of one’s salvation. The witness of the Spirit is where Wesley focused.


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