Calvinism, Conclusions and Confusion

I’ve said before that it is rare to meet a consistent Calvinist. Within Calvinist circles there is a divide between hyper-Calvinists and other moderate forms. Iain H. Murray, whose work and life mission I really appreciate, has a book called “Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism” in which Murray revitalizes Spurgeon’s moderate positions. Charles Spurgeon himself used the hyper-Calvinist label as a way of separating his own evangelistic views from the non-evangelistic Calvinism he saw in extremists around him. Spurgeon (I believe, rightly) identified his moderate variety as being more in line with the spirit of the Puritan movement.

Phillip R. Johnson, a Calvinist in the Spurgeon tradition, also wishes to distinguish moderate- from hyper-Calvinism along the lines of Spurgeon.  He identifies a hyper-Calvinist as someone who:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

Those whose theology includes any of the above positions are labeled by Charles Spurgeon and the moderates as hyper-Calvinists. Let me say that I really appreciate those operate in this sphere of distinguishing Calvinist theology within their own camp because they are bold enough to realize Scriptural commands take precedence over implications of a theological position. They are also defending the character of God and protecting the mission of the church. All of the Calvinists whose work I appreciate fall into this general category, and I think that is because they allow the gospel truths to override the theological system.

The Puritans, for example, were almost exclusively Calvinistic, but among them you will find a wide variety of rich literature which extends well beyond the “doctrines of grace” spirituality popular in evangelical circles today. Richard Alleine, Joseph Alleine, and Walter Marshall are  representative of this tradition and are among my favorite authors for spiritual depth and insight. Richard Baxter, considered the master pastor of the Puritan movement, is another example of this tradition, and very practical.  There are numerous others.

I would therefore suggest that the distinguishing spiritual mark between healthy Calvinists and hyper-Calvinists is the love of people versus the love of doctrine. Loving doctrine more than you love others will draw you into the hyper-Calvinist camp. I’m exceedingly glad that there are those within the Reformed movement who are willing to take a solid stand against these trends. Unfortunately, however, I am concerned that they are fighting a losing battle against what are actually the natural conclusions of Calvinist theology. Is hyper-Calvinism really just consistent Calvinism?

Calvinism is a worldview. I believe it was J.I. Packer who talks about each of the Calvinist points dovetailing with one another, so that speaking of the five-points is a bit misleading. Really it’s one point with many, many implications. That one point is that God chooses those who will be saved. [[Foreordains, as opposed to merely foreknows.]]  As I have slowly moved away from this presupposition, I’ve seen how other aspects of one’s Christian worldview are affected by it, and how a Wesleyan approach, by contrast, actually leads naturally to conclusions in accord with Scriptural mandates in a number of areas. It’s important to note here, that as I review each area, I’m using broad brush strokes for the logical tendencies of the worldviews, not the formal statements of either camp.  There are reasons why a Calvinist would agree with Wesleyan conclusions in each of these areas, and to the extent that they do, I rejoice.

  1. Evangelism. This is the most obvious. When I explained in very basic terms to a friend who had won numerous people to Christ what Calvinism was, he exclaimed “Why reach out to the lost, then?” Basically everyone realizes that the logical conclusion of Calvinist theology impedes the evangelistic impulse. That is why someone like J.I. Packer, has to come along and write a book (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God) to address the concern.  Logically speaking, if you believe that God irrevocably chooses in advance who will be saved, then you see your human effort is not going to actually prevent anyone from going to hell. There are ways you can mitigate this conclusion, as Johnson does, but consider by contrast the Wesleyan worldview which says that man (enabled by God’s grace) makes the choice freely. In this case, your personal effort could mean, and does mean, the difference between heaven and hell for the people around you.  Nothing could be more motivating to reach the lost than this. And I would argue that this conviction is the fundamental tenet of the worldwide missionary movement, as is easily seen by a demographic comparison of Calvinists to Wesleyans in the non-Western world.
  2. Prayer.  A less obvious, but related issue is prayer. The most natural prayer for a Calvinist is “if it be thy will,” because in all cases it is ultimately God’s which prevails. In the Calvinist worldview, God’s agency is really the only agency that matters in the universe. This makes the devil basically irrelevant, and it makes the impact of the will of man suspect. If you see things through the “It will happen if it’s God’s will” perspective, then you have just removed your role as a human agent in many things, including prayer. Praying for the sick is a classic example.  As a Wesleyan where human agency is key, you believe your prayer for a sick person could mean the difference between life and death. Therefore, not only will you pray hard, but you will pray believing that you actually can make a difference. Even more fundamentally, the Wesleyan perspective allows for the possibility that God’s will is not being done on earth all the time, de facto. It is incumbent upon man to enforce the will of God wherever he goes.  This does not deny God’s providence over history, as Openness theology does, it just emphasizes that the redeemed community is God’s primary vehicle in implementing it.
  3. Sanctification.  Perhaps the greatest single contribution of Wesleyan theology to the Church was the desire for more of God than what you already have. Wesley’s idea was being “perfected in love” which was followed by the idea of the “second blessing” of the Holiness Movement. This ultimately led to the Pentecostal experience of the 20th century. All these theologies emerged as a result of a basic Wesleyan belief that there were actions man needed to take in order to draw nearer to God.  The basic orientation was, “There is more of God than I have now, and if I seek him for it, I’ll get it.” The Calvinist orientation, again tends toward acceptance of what you have already as being everything.  This is directly correlated to the theology–if the only way for you to be converted is for God to expressly convert you, then by extension, any subsequent deeper experience would follow the same pattern of God taking initiative.

In several other areas, Wesleyan and Calvinist differences may not be more or less Scriptural, but attitudinal. I believe the Wesleyan paradigm helps resolve confusion which emerges from the Calvinist paradigm in the following:

  1. Theodicy.  The problem of evil is considered to be one of the greatest conundrums in theology and philosophy. Because the Wesleyan view presupposes God’s will is not always done, many questions about evil can be dealt with by the simple reference to both the agency of fallen man, and to the demonic realm. Evil is essentially when God’s will is not being done. It is not some extension of God’s general will. Because Calvinism does not lend naturally to such a distinction, the problem of evil becomes much harder. Now we have to figure out why a God who is in direct control of everything is allowing or even willing such horrors. And how to distinguish between the two? Additionally it is worth noting that the Wesleyan perspective  puts the impetus upon the people of God to confront and defeat evil, including the devil. So at a certain level we could say, “Why is there evil?  Because we let it happen, not because God lets it happen.” [[This is what drives the hunger to get more of God, more power.]]  Of course at the broadest level, evil occurs because people are innately evil and God allows it while He is reaching out to us with the cross of reconciliation.
  2. Grace and Faith terminology.  There is a great deal of confusion among evangelical laity about the meaning of grace and faith, what they mean, which we are saved by, etc. Really this is the Calvinist vs. Wesleyan debate under different terms. Calvinists will speak of salvation as being “all of grace,” and of their system as the “doctrines of grace.” Grace is emphasized as the agent in salvation. If someone raises the fact that a book like Romans gives primacy to having “faith,” then the response is that we have been saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2) to continue the emphasis on God’s agency. But for the Wesleyan, God’s grace is enabling while faith is the method of salvation. For me personally, and for those I have taught, this distinction clarifies a lot about what is the role of God’s and man’s agency not just in the salvation process, but in the broader reading of Scripture and application to sanctification.
  3. Knowing God’s Will. This is a case where theological confusion between Calvinist and Wesleyan worldviews creates practical confusion. For the consistent Calvinist, knowing God’s will is often not a major issue, since it’s always being done (in the ultimate sense). However, for those in the Charismatic movement who have been influenced by Calvinism, knowing God’s will can become much more dicey.  You want to know God’s will for your life. You want to do the specific things God has called you to do, etc. You may operate in a state of always wondering, or you may operate in a state of always being passive and baptizing this as God’s will. A consistent Wesleyan emphasizes action in accordance with God’s Word.  As you act in accordance with God’s word, you will fulfill His plan for your life. This doesn’t mean that He never gives specific direction, because He does, but obedience to his general direction takes precedence and prevents you from feeling like you “need a word” from God before you do anything.
  4. Devotional Hermeneutics.  Let me say at the outset that some, if not most, of the greatest interpreters of Scripture are Calvinists. In fact, in my mind one of the greatest strengths of Calvinism is the primacy that Calvin and his progenitors have given to building a comprehensive understanding of the world from the Bible. The interest and insight this has given to the understanding of Scripture is immeasurable. However, since the demise of the Puritan movement, there has been a dearth in Calvinist circles of what I would call devotional hermeneutics — that is, readings of the Bible which emphasize personal application over information. Now I’m not about to suggest that all Calvinists are dry, or that all Wesleyan are relevant, because often the opposite can be true. What I would like to suggest, however, is that at a macro-level, the interest of hermeneutics which have arisen from the Wesleyan family have naturally been devotional and practical, because is the orientation that the entire theology gives. As a Wesleyan, you are interested in two things:  1.  How to reach the lost.  2. How to get more of God. You keep coming back to the Bible again and again for these purposes, and seeking the hermeneutics which help to answer these questions. For many, anyway, it has been the devotion oriented and practical hermeneutics which I’ve longed for in an age of doctrine. Don’t keep proving the same theological points over and over, put me in touch with God!

In summary, I hope that my Calvinist brothers will not see this as a broad and unfair characterization of their beliefs, because it is not intended that way.  It is intended rather as a way of talking about my experience in the two worldviews and what I have come to believe is consistent or logical which is part of why I became a committed Wesleyan.

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