Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Wesleyan Commonality with Calvinism vs. The Anti-Calvinist Rejection of Wesley’s Reconciliation

When the Remonstrant of the Low Countries formulated their essential disagreements with the practical application of Reformed faith doctrines they fueled a response that continues to resonate far from their place of dispute. The result has been a polarization of theological camps that has dominated the reactions and willingness of each to consider the other’s viewpoint and even in many cases to refuse an acknowledgement of the other’s position in Christ. It is beyond question a schism. While the quest could focus on anti-Arminianism and produce much the same result, viewing this from a Wesleyan perspective is more comfortable for the myself.

Much as been said of Arminius from both sides but one clear fact remains established in the historical record. He was viewed as being with orthodoxy on all matters pertaining to salvation. The matters of dispute between Arminius and Franciscus Gomarus, the senior theological professor at Leyden continued until his death however it is also established that Gomarus interviewed and examined Arminius prior to his acceptance at Leyden and found his theology acceptable and sound. The primary differences between the two men centered on predestination and reprobation, both of which were secondary to the theological basis of salvation. This is affirmed through the determination of the Dutch States General who as accounts describe, "The Calvinists wanted the matter settled by a general synod, but the States General would not have it. Oldenbarne veldt, the Dutch liberal statesman, in 1608 gave both opponents opportunity to defend their views before the supreme court, and a verdict was pronounced that since the controversy had no bearing upon the main points pertaining to salvation, each should bear with the other."(1) Obviously neither bore well with the other and the dispute continued beyond Arminius’ death in 1609.

As with Arminius, his followers have often suffered through an identifying process that was neither factual nor reasonable given the open declaration of their sentiments. The submittal of what is now widely viewed as the synopsis of Arminian theology consists of five articles, each addressing a matter of difference with respect to the particular teachings of the Reformed Church following the death of John Calvin. These Articles of Remonstrance are essentially acceptable to the Wesleyan position and were generally held by John Wesley who considered himself to be an Arminian. The Synod of Dordt produced a response to the Arminians that resulted in what is universally regarded among the Reformed Church as a canon declaration of belief with regard to the opposition. From consideration of the Remonstrant articles and the Dordt response an acronym of TULIP emerged to define the applicable definitions of the Dordt position in relationship to the stated Arminan position. It is this acronym that continues to fuel the schism today that also afflicted the church in Wesley’s day.

Wesley was noted in his opposition to this acronym TULIP that arose to identify the differences between Arminians and Calvinists however he was also wise enough to understand and articulate the agreement found between the two camps with regard to the biblical truths that pushed each party to formulate their opposing applications. Wesley was not in opposition to the ancient creeds and considered himself to be in full agreement with all matters of belief regarding salvation. His differences centered on the application of the depravity of man and the doctrines of justification by faith which were presented in the Calvinist viewpoint by the first two letters of the acronym. Wesley is on record as being opposed to the remaining three letters declaring them to be unbiblical on all points. In Wesley’s words,

"…The errors charged upon these (usually termed Arminians) by their opponents, are five: (a.) That they deny original sin; (b.) That they deny justification by faith; (c.) That they deny absolute predestination; (d.) That they deny the grace of God to be irresistible; and, (e.) That they affirm, a believer may fall from grace. With regard to the two first of these charges, they plead, Not Guilty. They are entirely false. No man that ever lived, not John Calvin himself, ever asserted either original sin, or justification by faith, in more strong, more clear and express terms, than Arminius has done. …But there is an undeniable difference between the Calvinists and Arminians, with regard to the three other questions. Here they divide; the former believe absolute, the latter only conditional, predestination. … The Calvinists hold, Secondly, that the saving grace of God is absolutely irresistible; …The Arminians hold, that although there may be some moments wherein the grace of God acts irresistibly, yet, in general, any man may resist, … The Calvinists hold, Thirdly, that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. The Arminians hold, that a true believer may "make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience …" (2).

To understand why Wesley agreed with the underlying biblical truth of the first two, the Arminian articles need to be examined.The first article translated from Latin is the following:

That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ His Son, before the foundations of the world were laid, determined to save, out of the human race which had fallen into sin, in Christ, for Christ's sake and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe on the same His Son and shall through the same grace persevere in this same faith and obedience of faith even to the end; and on the other hand to leave under sin and wrath the contumacious and unbelieving and to condemn them as aliens from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36, and other passages of Scripture.

It was this particular article that compelled Reformed churchmen to establish the Total Depravity of Man as represented in the Acronym TULIP using the determinations of the Synod of Dordt with regard to this question. While Wesley certainly disagreed with the application of total depravity, he agreed man was depraved and brought that understanding into a proper light by affirming "original sin" for which Arminians were being falsely accused of denying. In this sense with regard to the underlying biblical assertions of original sin by which man is depraved, Wesley concurred with the Calvinist belief.

The second article provided below was the essential driver that brought the Reformed churchmen to respond with the second point of TULIP, Unconditional Election, also fueled by the determinations of Dordt.

That, accordingly, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that He has obtained for all, by His death on the cross, reconciliation and remission of sins; yet so that no one is partaker of this remission except the believers .

Wesley recognized that the charge of denying justification by faith through the TULIP response to this second article was completely false and he affirmed his agreement with the Reformed Church with regard to said justification by faith. With regard to the three remaining points of TULIP, Wesley would not concur with a biblical basis for any. This brings us to the place where zealotry on both sides of the issues that divide the church result in an inability to reconcile the teachings of Wesley, Calvin, the Reformers and the Wesleyan church of today. The issues have been polarized into an either/or debate over strict adherence to TULIP, an outlook that was never the litmus test of fellowship from the perspective of John Wesley nor with his friend George Whitefield. It is clearly established through the writings of Wesley that he opposed TULIP as applied doctrine on it’s whole and opposed the latter three points of TULIP on grounds of it being unbiblical. But the question must be asked "Is TULIP the summation of all things Calvinistic?". In the mindset of zealotry, there is nothing beyond TULIP with regard to Calvinism. When the anti-Calvinist is shown that Wesley found agreement with the Reformed on certain aspects of the acronym, the response has been one of absolutes. In the zealot mindset it must be shown that he opposed "Total Depravity" and "Unconditional Election" before any acceptance of Wesley’s teaching will be admitted. This results in the infamous "catch-22" position for agreeing to the notion that Wesley rejected the Calvinist application of Depravity and Unconditional Election which is indeed true and this truth is then used to reject the clear teaching that he agreed to the theological truths that underlie both of those misapplications. The anti-Arminians do precisely the same thing with the same articles. They accuse Arminians of rejecting original sin and denying justification by faith. This is the price of zealotry in any theological discussion, fair understanding of the agreements and disagreements is shrouded in a bias that disallows any intellectual grasp of similarity. It becomes a battle of absolutes. In a return to the question concerning the summation of Calvinism or for that matter Wesleyanism, there are other discussions that need to come into play however from the perspective of the zealot other questions and matters have no place in the discussion. He will see them as distractions from his disagreement thereby ignoring or misrepresenting them.

An examination of Creeds lends confirmation to the inappropriateness of the anti-Calvinist’s paradigm. If Wesleyans and Calvinists are placed alongside one another and measured by adherence to the Nicene creed both are found to be in perfect agreement. If both are placed alongside one another and measured against the apostolic teachings with regard to salvation, the virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ perfect agreement is found! All this agreement is set aside in a zealous battle of absolutes defined by a religious application or rejection of a set of letters, TULIP. The same zealot will refuse fellowship rather than allow agreement to force him to relinquish any ground in this battle.

Perhaps the words of Wesley himself are appropriate to close.

"…And Arminians have as much right to be angry at Calvinists, as Calvinists have to be angry at Arminians. John Calvin was a pious, learned, sensible man; and so was James Harmens. Many Calvinists are pious, learned, sensible men; and so are many Arminians. Only the former hold absolute predestination; the latter, conditional. One word more: Is it not the duty of every Arminian Preacher, First, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach; seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names? -- a practice no more consistent with good sense or good manners, than it is with Christianity. Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly of it? And is it not equally the duty of every Calvinist Preacher, First, never in public or in private, in preaching or in conversation, to use the word Arminian as a term of reproach? Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly thereof; and that the more earnestly and diligently, if they have been accustomed so to do? perhaps encouraged therein by his own example! " (3)

(1) ARMINIUS, JACOBUS, New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I: Aachen - Basilians
(2) "The Question, "What Is an Arminian?" Answered by a Lover of Free Grace" , John Wesley taken from the Thomas Jackson edition of The Works of John Wesley, 1872
(3) Ibid