Review: Calvin vs Wesley

October 14th, 2013
This article is featured in the Who Are They? Serving the People Within Your Reach (Nov/Dec/Jan 2013-14) issue of Circuit Rider

As a campus minister at Duke, I watched with dismay as some of our brightest young Christians were attracted to the Reformed World of John Calvin. Part of the attraction was that contemporary advocates of Calvinism (many of them pale imitations of Calvin) seemed so intellectually confident of their theology. But why this resurgence of Calvinism on a campus created by Wesleyanism?

I would have been a better advocate for the Wesleyan vision of Christianity if I had Don Thorsen’s book, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Abingdon Press 2013). In spite of his adversarial title, Thorsen has no intention of putting down John Calvin or even Calvinism; he is charitable and fair in his assessments. (Wesley famously said that in regard to justification, “I do not differ with him (Calvin) a hair’s breadth.”) Yet Thorsen is confident in his conviction that the beliefs, values, and practices of John Wesley are thoroughly biblical, continue to be a source of vitality for the church, and well, are decidedly more faithful to the God who meets us in Scripture than those of Calvin.

Though Thorsen is a well-informed, concise interpreter of both Calvin and Wesley, he has written a book that is a thoroughly practical, useful book for our church today. Every chapter concludes with questions that would make Calvin vs. Wesley a perfect selection for an adult study group in your church. He has a wonderful concluding chapter, “Bringing Belief in Line with Practice” that will warm the hearts of all practical Christianity advocates. Indeed, the persistent assertion of the book is that Wesley’s “practical divinity” in its assertion that Christianity is meant to be lived here, now, by ordinary believers makes the Wesleyan vision of the Christian life superior to that of Calvinism past or present. In his practicality alone, Wesley was right and Calvin was wrong.

Thorsen’s main beef with Calvin’s systematic theology (as opposed to Wesley’s more pastoral, ad hoc, and homiletical theology) is that “Christians do not live the way that Calvin conceptualized Christianity in his life and writings.” Why does Calvinism in its current neo, crypto, and orthodox forms continue to attract advocates? Thorsen gives a decidedly Wesleyan response: “Some Christians value the intellectual or conceptual uniformity of a theological system more than how they actually live out such a system in practice.” Reexamine scripture and yourself, he advises contemporary devotees of Calvin, and you will see that Wesley is more faithful.

While I agree with Thorsen in just about everything he says in his spirited advocacy of Wesley (surprise!), I do wonder if his critique of Calvin—arguing that Calvin’s theory of the faith is bested by Wesleyans’ practice of the faith—is critical enough. What if Calvin’s pompous, overwrought systematic theology was not only too narrow, too systematized, and too static to do justice to biblical faith, but also wrong about God?

Thorsen’s wonderfully astute but non-technical presentations of Calvinism, Arminianism, his incisive critique of “five point Calvinism” (“TULIP”) as developed post-Calvin, as well as chapters in which he contrasts between Wesleyanism and Calvinism (Love vs. Sovereignty, Bible as Primary vs. Sole Authority, Grace as Prevenient vs. Irresistible, Salvation as Unlimited vs. Limited, Ministry as Empowering vs. Triumphal) are well done. Packing a great deal of theology into a small space, he always keeps his eye on the contemporary church. He also suggests to me that Calvin’s limitation for contemporary believers is not just that Calvin tried to squeeze a living, loving, ceaselessly redemptive God into too confined a system but that Calvin was fundamentally wrong on the nature and work of the Trinity. While Thorsen is too irenic a theologian to say that, I’ve come close to saying that after reading his fine, practical, helpful (and true!) book.

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