Calvin vs. Wesley on the Church
by Scot McKnight
Oct 30, 2013
“The root of ignorance,” Don Thorsen says, “is ‘ignoring,’ and too many Christians intentionally ignore the beliefs, values, and practices of others, including those of other Christians and churches” (Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice, 89). On this Thorsen is not only right but a model of its opposite: he patiently explains both what Calvin teaches AND what Wesley teaches. I admire Don’s effort in this book. Would that we would all be this fair-minded.
The problem, he observes, is that “Christians love to set up circular firing squads” (89). Both Calvin and Wesley were firmly and robustly committed to the church; their theologies served the church. This contrasts, I might add, with many today whose “theology” serves only the academy (or themselves).
One (invisible), holy (by Christ), catholic (as faithful elect) and apostolic (here absent of the ecclesial traditions). The church is present where there is Word and Sacrament, though often he included church discipline (which he practiced, extending his authority to areas many would today see as beyond the pale). The church though was a “covenant community” and not the same as the invisible, true church. Calvin famously was overtly and aggressively polemical, especially with Catholics and Anabaptists. Unity for him extended only toward other Reforming and Lutheran churches/leaders. His extraordinary leadership is as unquestionable as his authoritarianism. Thorsen sees a “theocratic” dimension to Calvin.
Most problematic is what Thorsen discusses under “magisterial,” a term referring only in part to Calvin’s magisterial leadership in the Reformation but most especially to how he saw the relation between the church and the state (and magistrates). Here’s Thorsen: “Calvin continued to approve of the right and responsibility of civil magistrates… to banish, punish, and even execute people on behalf of the church censures and excommunications” (93). Yes, some explain this as his social context, but I would come back that Jesus transcended the social times on this very issue. Whatever we think of Calvin in this regard, history is what it is.
In our terms today, Calvin succumbed to the powers of Constantinianism. He defended hundreds of banishments and executions. He discusses Michael Servetus. Luther said of Calvin: “With a death sentence they solve all argumentation” (96). To be sure, some would argue Calvin’s style made the Reformation possible — others would disagree. Calvin’s style was followed — all the way through the Puritans in New England.
He agrees with much of Calvin, especially on the essence of the church in Word and Sacraments (39 Articles), and an emphasis on “living faith” or “faithful men/women” or believers. He wanted more than solid faith but a living faith of obedience from the heart. Orthodoxy, orthodkardia, orthodpraxis. He was less dogmatic because Wesley didn’t think conformity or uniformity were possible. He was also polemical. So he wasn’t as quick to condemn Catholicism even when he disagreed. Here we find generous orthodoxy. He thus welcomed Catholics. He also was loyal to the Anglican Church, though there is some dispute over how loyal he was.
Thorsen considers Wesley irenic. I would want to add a much larger, and less polemical, Protestant social context for some of this, but there is an unmistakable and admirable ecumenical spirit about Wesley. In essence, the church needs to defined more by its love.
He was not, however, indifferent toward theology [though] some of his heirs today claim his irenicism failed his theological commitments. His famous sermon on this topic is called “Catholic Spirit.” He was no pluralist but believed in church discipline.
Church and government. He was socially conservative but disagreed vehemently with Calvin’s implication of state in church affairs.
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