Yesterday, I posted about John Piper’s view of women, and as is predictable whenever a prominent figure is criticized (not just John Piper; it happens when scholars such as N.T. Wright get critiqued too), I got a few responses that were less than happy with me. If I could summarize what was said, it was that I was being unfair towards Calvinism. While I don’t feel I was unfair; there is something important to remember when it comes to engaging with various theological traditions: theology should not be judged solely based upon their problems and failures. As a Wesleyan, I have been trained to think negatively of Reformed theology in general and Calvinist theology in particular, but the more one understands and appreciates the origins of John Wesley’s theology, the greater appreciation one should have for Reformed theology. John Wesley famously said that he was a hairs’ breadth away from Calvinism. While later Methodists (and Calvinists, might I add) have seen the gap between Wesleyan-Arminian and Calvinist-Reformed perspectives widen by identifying against each other, our stories are more intertwined than modern discussions would have us to believe. The questions of predestinaton and free will are only a portion of the theological heritage for Wesleyan and Reformed theology. While not seeking to retrace the relationship between Wesley’s teaching and the Reformed tradition, I feel it is a good to always express what you value in another theological tradition, particuarly one that is intertwined with yours.
Firstly, I think the Reformed emphasis on the will of God as the center of the story of salvation is of the utmost importance. While I feel the Calvinist doctrine of predestination shifts the Biblical language of predestination from about the story of God’s origination of redemption through Israel to an individualistic view of who God saves,1 understanding the narrative of the New Testament requires a great appreciation for sovereignty and power of God as taking center stage. The tendency for Wesleyan and Arminian thinkers to emphasize free will2 comes up massively short in trying to work through New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles. While Paul speaks would allow for the freedom of the mind to think differently from what the flesh compels upon a person, 3 Paul’s anthropology of redemption in Romans 6:1-8:17 is focused on the natural enslavement of humanity; humanity is only freed through the crucified and resurrected Jesus through the work of the Spirit. Whatever sense of freedom there is to human lives, Reformed theology is more apt to get the right emphasis in Paul rather than in more Methodist circles,4 even if there is a tendency to take it too far.
Secondly, as has been pointed out by many scholars such as N.T. Wright, John Calvin’s view of justification occurring in Christ5 provides one of the central insights for Pauline studies. While one can debate whether the Apostle Paul means “in Christ” as a mystical experience, participatory relationship, or a patterning of conformity, at the end of the day, Reformed theology understands that the person of Christ stands as the very center of redemption. While I can critique how Calvinism tends to define what this “centrality” looks like, its launching point in understanding redemption starts from the prevailing Pauline theme of the person of Christ. My Methodist heritage tends to put the emphasis on “grace” at the center of redemption in the forms of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifyingng grace. While I appreciate these ideas and feel this taxonomy of grace is the closest we get of the Protestant traditions to describing Paul’s understanding of grace6, the language of grace is secondary to “In Christ” for Paul. This is much to the loss of Methodism, which has a tendency to speak of a generalized idea of God’s kindness and/or empowerment that lacks real substance and specificity beyond a vague evocation of emotion and hop; my fellow Methodists do not sufficiently ground the shape and contours of this grace to Jesus Christ. While I feel the Reform tradition doesn’t always get the meaning of it right, the way they place Jesus as the center of redemption is much more in alignment with Paul.
Thirdly, the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints reflects a vital, important notion: God both initiates and finishes the salvation of his people. While as a Wesleyan, I recognize that people may “fall from grace” as any real honest look through the letter to the Hebrews should lead people to consider, emphasis upon one’s free choice leading one to “lose salvation” has a tendency to overlook the confidence Paul expresses about God’s continuing work in HIs People. Passages like Romans 8:31-39 and Philippians 1:6 in Paul evoke a confidence is God’s power on behalf of his people. While the letters to the churches at the beginning of Revelation recognizes that people may somehow fail the test and end up on the wrong side in a coming judgment, Revelation in part seeks to encourage Christians that God is acting on their behalf. While one can potentially apostatize, the New Testament is littered with references to God’s continuing power on behalf of his people. Perseverance of the saints, while it wrongly treats these passages as the basis for forming a rule about salvation for all individuals, implicitly believes that God will always be acting to take care of and ensure the faithfulness of the Church throughout history. Meanwhile, in various Christian contexts that are influenced by the concept of free will, there is often an anxiety that if we don’t do something, Christianity will fade away, as if the Church is principally founded upon the power of human preaching than the one who sends the Word and the Spirit. Rarely, do I hear anxiety from Reformed Christians about the future of the church; this is much more prevalent within my Methodist circles.
In short, I think the Reformed traditions has the right emphasis when it comes to interpreting the New Testament, although it doesn’t always quite get the signifiance of those emphases correct in my opinion. This is to be forgiven, as the Bible is a product of 1st century Judaism with a bit of Hellenism blended in, whereas Reformed theology stems from the 16th century onward in Europe: the historical and cultural difference would lead to Calvin and the Reformed tradition being astute observers of Scripture while not quite getting the significance of its observations in the original historical context. In some ways, I feel like John Wesley’s theology attempts to get some of the significant ideas of REformed theology7 more on track and successfully accomplishes that task to a degree. However, in the need to define its theology against the ideas and language of predestination that was pulled from the Biblical texts, it employed language and concepts that did not immediately pull from the Bible, even if it corrected for some of the errors of Calvinism.
It is for this reason that I find a deep appreciation for theologians like Karl Barth. While I think it has its weaknesses in getting the particulars straight and has a tendency to exaggerate certain concerns, the creativity of the Reformed tradition manifested in people like Calvin, Barth, Moltmann, etc. starts from the right emphasis. Semper Reformanda!
- The emphasis on individualistic soteriology is more a general heritage of the Protestant Reformation than it is peculiar to Calvinism.
- I plan on a later post critiquing the weakness of my own tradition; this will be one of them
- Romans 7)
- That is, unless there is a real appreciation for Total Depravity
- As opposed to the Lutheran emphasis of justification by faith
- with much amending needing to be done still
- i.e. Total Depravity, the nature of grace, etc.