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Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Wesley and Calvinism

I am not a Methodist but I do have a deep appreciation for its founder, John Wesley. There is nothing that pleases me more than his sharp critiques of the Calvinistic notions of predestination and other consequences of Calvinistic assumptions. Let me give a brief overview of Calvinism for those not familiar with the theological distinctions:

Classical Calvinism is marked by a strict adherence to five primary theological points, acronymically presented as TULIP. To skip only to one of these points would do injustice to that point, given that all five points are logically tethered to one another. The first point is known as (T) Total Depravity. This depravity marks man's total inability to do good apart from God. We are dead in our sin. This inability logically inhibits our ability to respond to God's gracious sacrifice. Therefore, (U) God's Unconditional Election is necessary for salvation. God must choose, before the foundation of the world, the inheritors of salvation – implicitly dooming all others to hell by virtue of their non-election. Of course, the non-elect need not be efficaciously involved in the sacrifice of Jesus, leading to a (L) Limited Atonement, an atonement made only for those who were chosen. Given humankind's total inability to respond, those who were chosen and efficaciously involved in the atonement must also be unavoidably drawn to God by way of God's (I) Irresistible Grace. The four aforesaid points inevitably culminate in the (P) Perseverance of the Saints. That is to say, those who are chosen and drawn will never lose their salvation since such salvation is wholly a property of God's work and not humankind's.

When refuting Calvinist doctrines of particularism, he avoided analytical or philosophically sophisticated approaches in favor of analogical ones – making his work accessible to less sophisticated crowds. For instance, in a renowned summary of his views, Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley said the following:

Our blessed Lord does indisputably command and invite 'all men everywhere to repent' [Acts 17:30]... But now, in what manner do you represent him while he is employed in this work? You suppose him to be standing at the prison doors, having the keys thereof in his hands, and to be continually inviting the prisoners to come forth, commanding them to accept of that invitation, urging every motive which can possibly induce them to comply with that command; adding the most precious promises, if they obey; the most dreadful threatenings, if they obey not. And all this time you suppose him to be unalterably determined in himself never to open the doors for them, even while he is crying, 'Come ye, come ye, from that evil place. For why will ye die, O house of Israel' [cf. Ezek. 18:31]... Alas, my brethren, what kind of sincerity is this which you ascribe to God our Saviour?
The aforesaid is a prime example of the heart of Wesley's criticism of Calvinism. Wesley was certainly willing to embrace tensions and mystery in regard to the character of God (I am thinking the Trinity and hypostasis). He was not willing, on the other hand, to accept the deplorable human contrivance of the insincerity of God. Like the above analogy, how in the world can we imagine that God both sincerely begs for us to escape from sin's prison all while he is unilaterally holding the door (from which we would escape) shut.
Wesley found himself in the midst of a dynamic but strong Calvinistic theology in England. Calvinism became a battle point within Wesley’s own ranks and even his close friendships (e.g. George Whitefield).Wesley's understanding of salvation is particularly well attested because of his criticism of Calvinistic soteriology (understanding of salvation). Moreover, Wesley does not mask his vituperative disgust for what he considers blasphemous doctrines. Indeed, in Wesley's famous sermon, Free Grace, he retorts that Calvinism,
...destroys all [God's] attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, "He willeth all men to be saved:" More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit "seeketh rest and findeth none;" so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others.[1]
Wesley was intuitively aware of the a priori presuppositions that propelled Calvinism, namely particularism and an unconditional notion of salvation. It is these assumptions that dictate how a Calvinist reads the Bible, consequently leading to interpretations that seem unaligned with plain readings of the text. Wesley illumined these presuppositions when he said:
Indeed, the two latter points, irresistible grace and infallible perseverance, are the natural consequence of the former, of the unconditional decree. For if God has eternally and absolutely decreed to save such and such persons, it follows, both that they cannot resist his saving grace, (else they might miss of salvation,) and that they cannot finally fall from that grace which they cannot resist. So that, in effect, the three questions come into one, "Is predestination absolute or conditional?" The Arminians believe, it is conditional; the Calvinists, that it is absolute.[2]
Wesley challenged the presuppositions of an absolute and unconditional predestination based on the very language of biblical revelation. Wesley insists that biblical language, with its warnings and conditional imperatives, simply does not permit the Calvinist hermeneutic. He further challenges this doctrine on the bases of what it does to the image of God. It turns Jesus into, “ ...[a] hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity.[3]” If God superimposes His will upon your own – if ever you had a will of your own – it seems more like a form of cosmic rape than it does an act of goodness. For Wesley, then, it was a holistic understanding of scripture and God's relational interaction with humankind that informed his assumptions. While, quite oppositely, it seems certain a priori assumptions are what inform Calvinist readings of the text. It was critical assessments like this that did not endear him to his Calvinist contemporaries. In fact, it was sermons like the aforementioned and the feelings held therein that proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of ecumenical attempts. Nevertheless, Wesley's strong condemnation notwithstanding, he viewed Calvinists as brothers in Christ who merely held to malformed doctrines. And I agree.

1. Wesley's, Free Grace
2. “What is an Arminian?” Works (Jackson)