I’ve been reading Fred Sanders’s blog for a long time, and when his book, The Deep Things of God, came out, I was eager to read it. He’s a good writer, he loves and quotes the Puritans, he’s a reasonable thinker, and he knows how to do careful exegesis.
He’s also a Wesleyan.
I don’t mean to declare that so menacingly. But the first time I learned Sanders—associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University—was a Wesleyan, I was a bit surprised. It’s not that Wesleyans and Arminians can’t be careful interpreters and reasonable thinkers—I just don’t often resonate with their writings and conclusions quite the way I do with Sanders’.
And so, I had to know: For a guy who loves, quotes, and depends upon Calvin and Calvinists, why isn’t Fred Sanders a Calvinist? We corresponded, and he explained the one thing he wished Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of doing and why Wesleyanism is only the opposite of Calvinism in a very small thought-world.
A good many Calvinists grew up in the Reformed tradition, but many of us became Calvinists later in life, when we had to make our faith our own and make sense of what the Bible says for ourselves. How did you become a Wesleyan? What about the tradition attracts you?
I grew up as a free-range evangelical, in pentecostal and baptistic churches of various kinds. But I actually got saved as a teenager when a revival broke out in the youth group at the local United Methodist church. I got an MDiv at Asbury Theological Seminary, a great interdenominational school with definite Methodist roots. So my conversion and my early theological training were in Wesley territory.
Nevertheless, for three reasons, it took me a while to warm up to Wesleyan theology. First, it’s just not all that obvious that there is any such thing as Wesleyan theology. I say that as somebody who loves systematic theology, who really enjoys reading treatises on doctrine. The Wesleyan tradition just isn’t famous for its systematic theologians. There are some exceptions worth naming (such as W. B. Pope and Thomas Watson), but the fact is that if you make a list of top five or ten theologians, Wesleyans don’t make the list. They barely make the top twenty-five list. My list, at least, is dominated (after the patristic and medieval periods) by Reformed and Roman Catholic thinkers of various kinds, who not only do great work, but have also successfully “branded” their style of theology so you can recognize it.
And second, there’s the problem of liberalism: the Wesleyan theological traditions have not done a good job of resisting the liberal impulse. Pretty early on in their history, Arminians made common cause with Socinians, lost their grip on all the hard doctrines, and became unusable for a conservative evangelical like me. My supreme theological commitments are to the Trinity and the gospel, so the old Arminian dalliance with anti-trinitarians and atonement revisionists (and later, I would add, to denials of verbal inspiration) is very distasteful to me.
And third, the United Methodist Church is one of those American mainline denominations that isn’t very hospitable to conservative evangelicals. There are some good congregations, of course, but the national scene is ugly. I saw right away that it would be hard for me to join that denomination. The Free Methodists do better, and there are plenty of smaller Wesleyan denominations to choose from. But overall, the “where do I go to church” question is a real problem for conservative evangelicals who are Wesleyan.
For these reasons, it took me some time to come around to see the Wesleyan-Arminian theological perspective as something worth claiming. But I eventually did so. The sermons of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley were major factors for me. These are simply excellent, and gradually they drew me to the conviction that these Wesley brothers must have had a grasp of something important if they could keep producing things like that. The Wesleys teach a form of evangelical Protestantism that goes straight to the heart and changes lives. That’s what drew me in to the Wesleyan way of thinking.
Would you include Thomas Oden in that list of exceptions worth naming?
Yes, God bless Thomas Oden for his joyful rediscovery of orthodoxy and his massive retrieval project. His theology is by design not very distinctive, not easily recognized as “his.”
Recently you had a fun post, “Calvinists Who Love Wesley.” From what I know of you, I’m tempted to call you a “Wesleyan who loves Calvin.” Is that fair? What about the Calvinist and Reformed tradition do you find compelling? Where is it strongest?
Definitely sign me up for the “Wesleyans who love Calvin” club. I teach excerpts from The Institutes every year, and I’ve worked through the whole book cover to cover five times (three with students in seminar). There is no better way to learn the craft of theology than to work through The Institutes. Calvin shows his work: he always lets you know what he’s after, what he’s afraid of, and why he’s doing things. He brings you along with him, and requires an active and responsive reader who is willing to make costly decisions all along the way. He never just lists a series of truths in the “Ten True Facts About Angels” style; he is always asking, at every point, “What can we be saying the gospel itself while teaching on every subject in theology?” He called The Institutes little, and really believed it: his commentaries of course dwarf it; his Job commentary alone equals its page count. He wrote a systematic theology that succeeds in pushing the readers out to Scripture itself, where they have to deal with the living God, not Calvin. The first time I read The Institutes I was in seminary, and he talked me into infant baptism with his testament-spanning arguments. The third time I read The Institutes I was a new professor, and he talked me out of infant baptism in spite of himself, because of the weakness of his argument. I don’t think I ever leave a Calvin experience unchanged.
Turning from Calvin to the Calvinists, I’d also be willing to host the meetings for a “Wesleyans who love Calvinists” club. I’m going to ignore the left wing of the Reformed tradition here (it’s not just the Wesleyan tradition that has generated its share of liberals), and focus on the side of the tradition that is either evangelical or within hailing distance of conservative evangelicalism.
The Reformed tradition has produced a whole series of great theologians. On my very short list would be Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Ursinus and Olevianus (that is, the Heidelberg Catechism in particular, but also Ursinus’s exposition of it), and Karl Barth (I said “within hailing distance”). But many more are waiting in the wings; Calvinism has a deep bench.
There are probably a lot of reasons why so many good theologians come from this tradition. But the most important is surely that the Reformed have excelled at getting the central message of Scripture right. They emphasize the glory of God, and trace all of God’s ways back to that ultimate horizon in one way or another. I think that has been a beacon that has drawn a lot of the most faithful and creative theological minds to that tradition. On a related note, I think Ephesians is the key text for the Reformed tradition at large. Not that Ephesians trumps any other book in the canon, but Calvinists have long known that in that letter, Paul stands tip-toe on the highest point of the revelation and insight given to the apostles, and gives a panoramic overview of all God’s ways. I don’t just mean the occurrence of words like election and predestination in chapter 1, I mean the vast sweep of God’s purposes in the recapitulatory economy (1:10), and how it makes known his eternal character as Father, Son, and Spirit. Calvinists from Thomas Goodwin to John Webster get this. If I were to start a theological Ephesians fan club, more Calvinists would show up than anyone else.
Finally, the Reformed tradition keeps producing good leaders who have a seriousness and responsibility about them. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s as if they’re the grown ups, at least in American Protestantism. They may be tempted to abuse power (and that’s very bad), but at least they are comfortable with the responsible exercise of power, which is not something it’s easy to say about the Wesleyan tradition. Wesleyans are great at shaking things up, at being the powerful protest voice, at activating and empowering the marginalized. But Arminians don’t run things well. I sometimes think the healthiest state of affairs for an interdenominational coalition like evangelicalism would be if the Calvinists ran things and the Wesleyans were a very strong loyal opposition.
What kept you from making the leap to Calvinism?
Well, I do consider it a kind of leap, and the place to leap off of would be Romans 9. I have felt the attraction of that reading. You would have to run all the way to the end of Paul’s line of argument there about the election of Israel and their role in salvation history, which in context are all historical arguments, and then decide that it applies to individual people, to all individual people, from before creation. That is, the exegetical key to the Calvinist view is that the overall drift of Paul’s argument demands that the theological points involved should be transposed into a higher order. I don’t mean that’s how all Calvinists get to their conclusions, I mean that’s where I would make the case if I were persuaded of the Calvinist view of election. Without Romans 9 as a key jumping-off point, it seems to me that the rest of Scripture furnishes the vocabulary used in Calvinistic predestination (Exodus! Ephesians!), but not the necessary argument and demonstration. I’m perfectly comfortable with using a key text or two as guidance in interpreting the rest of Scripture: that’s the kind of hermeneutical procedure that makes me a Trinitarian (with the highest possible level of certainty and commitment) and a premillenialist (with a considerably lower level of certainty and commitment). But I’m just not persuaded that Romans 9 is the place to make one of those transcendental leaps; or that it means what Calvinists take it to mean.
Without some kind of platform like that, I can’t launch the Calvinist rocket. Election and predestination are awesome, revealed realities of salvation, but the Calvinist construals and constructions of them generate a web of doctrinal inferences that clash with other biblical truths. I can’t do limited atonement or irresistible grace, to pluck at two of the most vulnerable petals of the tulip. I can’t affirm the perseverance of the saints as part of the predestinarian package, though I could re-state the core concern as something like the irreversibility of salvation, and (perhaps being a bad Wesleyan) affirm that.
That isn’t a full critique of Calvinism, but I’m responding to the question autobiographically rather than systematically. This is why I didn’t make the leap.
Finish these sentences:
You haven’t really considered Wesleyanism unless you’ve read . . .
1. John Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The first 14 are the most important to read as a set, though all 52 are classic. This is where you get to see Wesley putting first things first, emphasizing the most important elements of his message. God changed the world through this instrument.
2. William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, or at least his Higher Catechism of Theology. Pope was a conservative British Methodist of the 19th century. I think he is one of the finest theological minds in Protestant history, sadly neglected.
3. I should probably recommend a controversial book that addresses the five points, though that’s not my favorite genre. Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell’s Why I Am Not a Calvinist is a pretty good presentation of the position.
If you think Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, then . . .
You need a more flexible vocabulary of heresiology. John Wesley’s longest treatise was on original sin, and he affirmed it, right down to the bondage of the will. He put a sermon on the subject into his Standard Sermons. The Wesleyan emphasis on sinners being enabled to respond to the gospel has nothing to do with a high view of human abilities, and everything to do with an optimism of grace and a trust in the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work.
Perhaps anti-Wesleyans do this because they are hoping to make the error of Arminianism more obvious by exaggerating it into its supposedly logical conclusion. But if you think Arminianism is an error, you should just call it “the heresy of Arminianism.” If you have to exaggerate its flaws to make it seem terrible, you probably shouldn’t.
It may also be that some anti-Wesleyans are tempted to characterize Wesleyans by their worst exemplars. There have indeed been Pelagians and semi- demi- hemi- Pelagians in the Wesleyan tradition. I don’t know any other way to interpret Charles Finney. But it’s a basic rule of fair discourse that you should meet your opponent’s views at their strongest and most central, not their weakest and most peripheral. Calvinism has generated its fair share of antinomians, determinists, theocrats, anti-evangelicals, and formalists. Anti-Calvinists shouldn’t attack on that front, but at the places where the tradition is strongest.
The one thing I wish Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of is . . .
Being anthropocentric in their soteriology. Caring more about human free will than God’s glory.
I also wish Calvinists would resist the urge to think of Wesleyanism as the secret to Reformed self-definition. I don’t mind sharpening a position by contrast, but Calvinists need a better foil than Wesleyanism. Only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism. A more instructive opposite for Calvinism probably ought to be Roman Catholicism, if we’re going back to origins. About 200 years ago, I believe the Reformed in Europe still thought of Lutherans as their opposites. I would think today’s evangelical Calvinists would think of liberals as their opposites. But if you think “there are two kinds of people, Calvinists and Wesleyans,” you’re on a false trail; your devil is too small (to paraphrase J. B. Phillips). That will lead you to pick fights with other conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christians who really are on your side of the net in the game that counts.
Sure, Calvinists have J. I. Packer, but Wesleyans have . . .
Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism and more recently The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. This is a one-volume, popular-level introduction to Christian doctrine that is systematically oriented to evangelism in every doctrine. Sound good? It is.
I could also pile up a lot of influential non-theologians here (C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Bill Bright), but I’m assuming your question was probing for a theological communicator of Packer’s stature.
But it’s hard to beat J. I. Packer in any theological camp. He once called Wesley an inconsistent Calvinist. That’s a cute and feisty way of affirming the common ground we share. I like to think of Packer as an inconsistent Wesleyan. He won’t read this, will he?