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Calvin vs Wesley
Bringing Belief in Line with Practice
By DON THORSEN
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
God: More Love Than Sovereignty
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
When I was in seminary, a roommate of mine signed up for CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education. His particular supervised ministry was to serve as a chaplain in a state university hospital. On the first day, his supervisor sent the student chaplains out onto their hospital floors without much instruction. Upon return, the student chaplains lamented that they were unsure about how to minister to patients. Should they pray for the patients? If they prayed, then how should they pray? For physical healing? For spiritual healing? For encouragement to persevere? For quality care from their physicians? Or, should they not pray but minister to patients more with the gifts of presence, conversation, or advocacy on behalf of their particular needs?
The supervisor responded to the student chaplains by asking the question, What is your view of God? If you believe that all things happen according to the will of God, then you will pray that God's will be done. If you believe in a God who heals, then you will pray for healing. If you believe in a God who helps people help themselves, then you will pray for spiritual, physical, and emotional strength for the patients. If you do not believe in a God who answers prayers, then you will concentrate more on being present with patients, conversing with them, and advocating for them.
This story profoundly influenced me as a seminarian because it made me realize how important my view of God is. How do you view God? As Christians, how we view God affects all aspects of our lives. For example, it affects how much or how little we think that God is actively involved in our salvation. Just as important, it affects how much or how little we think that God is actively involved in our day-to-day lives. Is God very much or a little involved? How is God involved? What priorities does God have, and what ends is God trying to achieve? Is God's will primarily for our individual benefit, or for the benefit of the church? Or, are there grander plans involved, which may or may not directly affect us as individuals? Do God's plans include society, all countries, and the environment?
These questions and others like them profoundly affect our lives as well as our understanding of Christianity. They influence what we think about God, just as our basic beliefs about God influence us daily—who we are as well as what we think, say, and do. We ought not to minimize our views of God, even if we are not always knowingly aware of them. Beliefs about God, whether we are consciously or unconsciously aware of them, powerfully affect us. They influence who we are and how we relate with others in the world and with ourselves and not just how we relate with God. Thus, in comparing Wesley and Calvin, it is important to begin with how they each viewed God.
Calvin's View of God
Calvin believed in the absolute sovereignty of God. From his perspective, Christians ought to do all they can to acknowledge God's almighty power, to celebrate the glory of God, and to give praise and thanks for how God directs all that occurs. In the opening passage of the Institutes, Calvin says:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he "lives and moves" [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.
Calvin did all he could to honor God's majesty, and it influenced every dimension of his beliefs, values, and practices.
This sovereign view of God makes complete sense to Christians. How often have you heard people say that they "give all the glory to God?" They do not want to take credit for any good thing that happens; instead, they give praise and thanks to God for who God is and for all that God has done for them: creating them, providentially caring for them, and redeeming them. Why would people ever want to take anything away from the sovereignty, majesty, glory, and power of God?
From Calvin's perspective, these affirmations about God are firmly taught in the Bible, or as he usually referred to it, Scripture. Verse after verse can be found that talks about the supremacy of God: God's power; God's knowledge; God's presence. Calvin especially spoke of God's power, which he referred to as "God's omnipotence." Calvin said:
For he is deemed omnipotent, not because he can indeed act, yet sometimes ceases and sits in idleness, or continues by a general impulse that order of nature which he previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation. For when, in The Psalms, it is said that "he does whatever he wills" [Ps. 115:3; cf. Ps. 113: 3, Vg.], a certain and deliberate will is meant.
Calvin's doctrine of providence reflects his high regard for the sovereignty of God. Providence has to do with God's ongoing care for creation. So great is God's care for the world and for people God created that nothing takes place without divine oversight. Calvin said: "At the outset, then, let my readers grasp that providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events." He continued: "To sum up, since God's will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience." Thus, Calvin thought that the sovereignty of God is a blessing, a comfort, and encouragement to people, especially to Christians, because they are not alone. They are not without an omnipotent God who oversees and purposefully works in their lives. Indeed, God's sovereignty and providence represent Calvin's "determinative principle."
In talking about the providence of God, Calvin raised the issue of the reprobate—that is, one who will suffer eternal damnation. If God controls all that occurs, then why is it that some are reprobate? Clearly Calvin believes that the future of all, including the reprobate, occurs by the will or decrees of God, which occurred before the world was created. He said, "God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction." Calvin continued, "Therefore, those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children." He was aware of the logical implications of these affirmations, and actually admitted, "The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess." However, he considered the affirmation of God's sovereignty and the omnipotent purposes of God to transcend those of finite human minds and that people ought to approach all the works of God with humble submission, intellectually as well as volitionally.
Rather than being a liability to faith, Calvin considered the omnipotent providence of God to be an enormous benefit, an encouragement to those who believe, because ultimately God is in control of all that occurs. Because of human finitude and sin, it is a relief to know that God saves people, rather than people having to rely upon any human potentiality for securing salvation. Praise and thanks be to God, who redeems us when we do not have the wherewithal to redeem ourselves!
Calvin saw no contradiction between saying that God determines all that happens and saying that sinners—that means everyone—are accountable for sin. It is finally they who succumb to temptation, and not God; people commit the sinful acts. No doubt mystery surrounds this affirmation, but the clear teachings of the Bible deny that God is the cause of sin. Certainly, Christian faith demands that people affirm the teachings of the Bible, rather than try in their human, finite, sin-tainted ways to resolve questions of ultimate responsibility for sin. Rather than God, it is Satan and demons who are the immediate instigators of sin and evil, so they as well as people are without excuse. All the same, people are still culpable for sin, since they are the ones who transgress against God. With regard to how this culpability occurs, Calvin advised that "it is better not to say anything, or at least to touch upon it lightly":
But although these things are briefly and not very clearly stated, they are more than enough to clear God's majesty of all slander. And what concern is it to us to know anything more about devils or to know it for another purpose? Some persons grumble that Scripture does not in numerous passages set forth systematically and clearly that fall of the devils, its cause, manner, time, and character. But because this has nothing to do with us, it was better not to say anything, or at least to touch upon it lightly, because it did not befit the Holy Spirit to feed our curiosity with empty histories to no effect. And we see that the Lord's purpose was to teach nothing in his sacred oracles except what we should learn to our edification. Therefore, lest we ourselves linger over superfluous matters, let us be content with this brief summary of the nature of devils: they were when first created angels of God, but by degeneration they ruined themselves, and became the instruments of ruin for others.
God is not thought to be directly involved with causing sin, either among demons or people, and thus Calvin thought it wrong to believe that God is in any way imaginable responsible for sin and evil. Such knowledge is not for "our edification"; if it was otherwise, then we must be content to know that God would have informed us.
From the outset of the Institutes, Calvin warns readers that God has not fully revealed all matters to humanity. Some truths are too great for people to understand because God and the ways of God are ineffable—that is, beyond human comprehension. He said: "Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance." The ways of God are hidden, and people ought not to be curious about questions asked that are not explicitly answered in the Bible. But sufficient knowledge of what people need to know is available, and most clearly available in the Bible. It is best to trust in what the Bible says, believing it reveals all that we need to know about God, and be content with the blessings it conveys. Calvin warned people against being too theologically curious. He said:
First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by his Word the secrets of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us.
More will be said about Calvin's doctrine of predestination later, but Calvin made it clear that people should restrain their curiosity. Suffice it to say that God is in control and we should free ourselves of every care since "the secrets of his will" transcend our human understanding. If people insist on questioning the goodness or works of God, then they will become lost as if in a labyrinth or maze from which there is "no exit." One ought to accept what Calvin believed were the clear teachings of the Bible about God's sovereign power to affect all the blessings promised and disregard questions and concerns about the logistics of such beliefs.
From Calvin's perspective, people should rest in their understanding of God's sovereignty, power, and majesty. Life is difficult to understand, much less live. Yet God has revealed to us in the Bible that God is in absolute control. We do not need to worry about that over which, ultimately speaking, we have no control. There is one who is in control, and we may rest in peace, knowing that God will care for us since we are unable to care for ourselves. Again, praise and thanks be to God who compensates for the apparent neediness people endure spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, relationally, and socially!
It was obvious to Calvin that people's knowledge is finite, and their utter sinfulness seemed equally obvious to him. By themselves, people possess neither the cognitive nor spiritual power to answer the questions and concerns they have, much less questions and concerns about eternal life. If anyone has sufficient power to meet all of people's questions and concerns, then it is God. In contemplating the overwhelming greatness (and direness) of people's life situation, what alternative do people have other than to submit humbly and obediently to God, the only one who conceivably has sufficient power to help finite, sinful people?
Because of the teachings of the Bible, Calvin deduced that mere human deliberation could not penetrate God's sovereignty. People ought to submit to the authority of the Bible and its clear, propositional statements about the sovereignty, majesty, and glory of God. What the Bible does not clearly state propositionally ought not to be questioned—that is, at least not at length. God has not seen fit to answer all questions and concerns that people have; yet, knowing that God, ultimately speaking, controls all there is may encourage them. We need not be concerned about trying to fathom all mysteries that exist. Instead we should trust that God, like a loving parent, knows that knowledge of all things is not good for us; and again, like a loving parent, God cares for those needs for which we cannot care for ourselves.
Christians in particular ought to affirm what the Bible says about God's sovereignty, majesty, and glory, and be overjoyed that God has elected them to salvation. Their faith is a gift, which they have not earned, since faith that people have comes from God and not from themselves. Christians would not have faith if they were not among the elect—those whom God has to receive eternal life. Thus they should give praise and thanks to God for the immeasurable blessing of eternal life, wrought through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Wesley's View of God
Like Calvin, Wesley believed in the sovereignty of God. In "Thoughts upon God's Sovereignty," he said: "As a Creator, he has acted, in all things, according to his own sovereign will.... Here, therefore, he may, in the most absolute sense, do what he will with his own. Accordingly, he created the heavens and the earth, and all things that are therein, in every conceivable respect, 'according to his own good pleasure.'" Wesley also believed in the omnipotent power of God. He said:
And he is omnipotent, as well as omnipresent; there can be no more bounds to his power, than to his presence. He "hath a mighty arm; strong is his hand, and high is his right hand." He doeth whatsoever pleaseth him, in the heavens, the earth, the sea, and in all deep places. With men we know many things are impossible, but not with God: With him "all things are possible." Whensoever he willeth, to do is present with him.
So Wesley aligned with both the Bible and historic Christianity in affirming the sovereign, almighty power of God. From Wesley's perspective, there was no question about God's ability to accomplish all that God intends to do in creation and among people.
Excerpted from Calvin vs Wesley by DON THORSEN. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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