The Big One in Calvin vs. Wesley
by Scot McKnight
Oct 4, 2013
Though Don Thorsen does not say so, his study of “Humanity: More Freedom than Predestination” contains some ideas that may be the big difference between Calvin and Wesley (Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice). Maybe we can reduce it to this: Calvin thinks Wesley trivializes the sovereignty of God while Arminians think Calvin trivializes freedom. Let’s explore this topic through Don Thorsen’s chapter.
What do you think is the biggest difference between Calvin and Wesley?
Both Calvin and Wesley believe all humans are made in God’s image, and are fallen in Adam. There is then depravity on both sides — and it seems to me both see the fall as extensive more than intensive, that is, affecting the whole of each human more than total corruption. Notably, Calvin posits divine providence and intention behind the fall without diminishing human responsibility. God determined it; humans are responsible; Christians are to accept this. As early as 1551 in Geneva some thought Calvin implicated God as the author of evil, but Calvin banned his opponents from the city.
Wesley, notably again, believed God voluntarily chose to limit his sovereignty by granting humans (what he called) “free grace” or what we might call human freedom or free will. “Wesley thought that Calvin could not avoid making God ultimately responsible for evil” (33). I agree that Calvin’s logic of holding two together and contending that we are not to ask or know how they relate is not compelling. If God determined it — meticulous providence or meticulous sovereignty — and humans could not resist it, then it is not free or compatible. Calvin puts it this way: “God wills that humans want to act the way they are foreordained to act” (34).
Wesley did not think humans could do anything to earn redemption; everything good done is by the grace of God. In essence, Wesley follows a large bloc of the Christian tradition in arguing for a measured human freedom by grace in the power of the Spirit.
Hence, Calvin’s (at least later in his career) double predestination is detested by Wesley. Calvin diminishes the freedom of God’s sovereignty and God’s love and goodness… etc. So for him [Wesley] election is connected to divine foreknowledge, but what humans choose to do in that foreknowledge is prompted by God’s prevenient gift of grace. That grace, then, is the grace of human freedom to choose. God’s predestination is more connected to God’s general will*. He asked, “How can the Judge of all the earth consign them [the damned] to everlasting fire, for what was in effect his own act and deed?” (38). That is the difference.
Wesley preferred the expression of “free grace” over “free will.” It was God’s grace to give humans freedom.
Thorsen finishes with a discussion of monergism vs. synergism: [respectively,} "one divine will determining all" vs. "a divine human cooperative," though these are not terms from either Calvin or Wesley [but from later systematic theologians - res].
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Perhaps this might help... Wesleyanism (or Arminianism) does invokes God's foreknowledge as an ontological reality, otherwise the process of redemption would not have been planned even as creation was being planned. This would make of God a blundering builder and architect having to implement Plan B of Redemption after discovering sin to have ruined His Plan A of original creation. So, in terms of ontological reality, God did both plan for, purposed, and foreknew, His involvement in creational redemption.
But what was not decreed by God is His exacted foreknowledge upon His indeterminate creation and free-willed mankind. Even as sin reduces man's freedom, so by divine fiat of redemption would God purposely enhance man's freedom leaving to both creation and humanity an open future. A future as much open to sin and destruction as it is to holiness and redemption. Though God foreknows His plans for redemption He leaves it open to ourselves to submit to His plans. But not without the provision of His Spirit who woos all towards God's will - and not just some (elect) as Calvinism would teach. To the Arminian, the "elect of God" are those men and women who obey God's call of redemption - not by God's foreknowledge, but by their own Spirit-driven calling founded upon God's (prevenient) grace.
- R.E. Slater
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