Calvin vs. Wesley
Introduction: Christians Live More Like Wesley than Calvin
Although John Calvin profoundly influenced the development of Christianity, John Wesley did a better job than Calvin of conceptualizing and promoting Christian beliefs, values, and practices as described in the Bible and as lived by many Protestant Christians. This claim may surprise some people because Calvin is more often thought to speak theologically on behalf of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity. Ironically, despite professed appeal that Christians make to Calvin’s theology, they often live in practice more like the teaching, preaching, and ministries of Wesley.
In this book, I want to emphasize how well Wesley understood and embodied biblical Christianity; I do not intend to putdown Calvin. On the contrary, Wesley agreed with Calvin on many matters of Christianity. For example, Wesley famously said the following about his agreement with Calvin on the matter of justification by grace through faith:
I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth.2
Thus, if you—the reader—hope to find a methodical attack upon Calvin in this book, then you will be disappointed. Moreover, if you consider yourself a convinced Calvinist, then you may dislike this book. After all, preferring one person’s theology over that of another is enough to upset some people personally as well as theologically. And this book decidedly falls on the side
Be that as it may, If you want to learn about differences between Wesley and Calvin, then you will learn much about the beliefs, values, and practices of the two church leaders, as well as why I consider Wesley more adept in understanding and applying biblical Christianity than Calvin. Moreover, if you want to understand why Wesley notably led one of the largest revivals in church history and why Wesleyan, Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal, and other Christians continue to be profoundly influenced by him today, then you will certainly want to continue reading this book.
As Protestant Christians, Wesley and Calvin agreed with one another more than they disagreed. Both claimed to follow the heritage of biblical Christianity. Both claimed to follow the ancient creeds and teachings of key patristic writers; for example, they believed in divine creation, the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and so on. They had noteworthy disagreements with Roman Catholic interpretations of the creeds and patristic writers, but they tended to agree about why they disagreed with Catholics.3 Finally, both claimed to be part of the resurgence of Christianity found in the Reformation and the Protestant traditions that followed them. Certainly both Wesley and Calvin were and continue to be foundational representatives of Protestantism. Thus, if for no other reason than to better understand the whole of Christianity, both Wesley and Calvin should be studied.
There exist differences, to be sure, between Wesley and Calvin. Otherwise, why would there be such divergent theological and church traditions descending from them? And, for the sake of distinguishing between the two men, it is important to note key points of contrast. Their differences represent crucial areas of disagreement that continued among Christians who followed them. Just as Wesley would consider some of the beliefs, values, and practices of Calvin to be wrong, so Calvin would think that Wesley was wrong. Wesley did not think that such differences precluded Calvin from being considered biblical and orthodox, but he did consider them crucial to spiritually fruitful Christian living. Perhaps if Calvin had had the opportunity to evaluate Wesley’s beliefs, values, and practices, then he might have said the same about Wesley. We do not know, however, since Calvin lived two centuries prior to Wesley, and it is anachronistic—that is, historically out‐of‐place—to speculate.
During his lifetime, Wesley openly disagreed with followers of Calvin, though such disagreements did not preclude Wesley from ministering alongside them. Most notably, he disagreed with the Calvinist theology of George Whitfield. Whitfield had been a longtime friend of Wesley. Just as Wesley introduced Whitfield to the value of small group meetings and holy living, Whitfield introduced Wesley to the value of outdoor preaching and evangelism. Whitfield traveled to the American Colonies where he helped to spearhead the First Great Awakening. In Britain, Wesley led the Methodist revival, which similarly contributed to the spiritual renewal of the English speaking world of the eighteenth century. Despite their public debate, both men affirmed and honored the ministries of one another to the amazement of those who observed them—Christians and non‐Christians alike.
So talking about what Wesley got right and Calvin got wrong does not imply a knockdown, drag out fight among Christians. But it does suggest an opportunity to see how the two leaders disagreed with one another, and why people follow the spiritual leadership of Wesley rather than that of Calvin. Indeed, one of the theses of this book is that a surprising number of those who claim to be Calvinist really live more like Wesley. Have Calvinists thought sufficiently through the implications of Calvin’s theology relative to the way they actually live as Christians? As the subtitle of this book suggests, studying Wesley will help Christians in “bringing belief in line with practice.”
2 John Wesley, Works 21, Journal 14th May 1765, Letter to John Newton. (Note: A period is
added after the word “Mr,” which does not appear in the original letter.) Although Wesley agreed with
much of what Calvin believed, Wesley also disagreed with much of it.
3 Be aware that more Catholic traditions exist than only the Roman Catholic Church. But in most cases I use the word Catholic to refer to the beliefs, values, and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
Read the entire first chapter on the attached pdf download below
Excerpt from: Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line With Practice by Don Thorsen ©2012 Abingdon Press. Used by permission.