Where Calvin Went Wrong
by Scot McKnight
additions by R.E. Slater
Oct 16, 2013
At the core of Calvinism is God’s sovereignty, but just what sovereignty means is the essence of Calvin’s core: [for Calvin] sovereignty means determinism in which 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. [In this discussion] 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 [Thorson's] study [comparing Calvin's and Wesley's] vews of salvation, he begins with [the Reformed theologican's personal] 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 [expressions] of his experience. What perhaps ought to be observed is that folks like Calvin and Wesley [simply] 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 [Christ's] 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 [the tension between] free grace or free will — God did the work but he grants to humans the opportunity to choose and they therefore become accountable to God.
Yes, accusations in both directions: Wesleyans think Calvinists end up denying [human] faith in "justification-by-faith" or "free grace’s gift to choose" - while Calvinists sometimes accuse Wesleyans of ultimately being universalists [(all are saved regardless of any expression of human faith in Christ)]. (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 Christian [obedience and Spirit-led conviction] to pursue sanctification, holiness, and love. Calvin emphasized two themes in salvation: union with Christ (the ground of it all), and justification (which is a juridical re-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 [as versus the assurance of one's act of faith - res].
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