Note from the Editor: Wesleyan Accent is pleased to share this recent interview with Dr. Jerry L. Walls.
Wesleyan Accent: Recently you traveled to South America to speak at an Arminian conference. Maybe my view of Brazil is largely formed by its tourism outreach, but is Jacobus Arminius popular in Rio?
Jerry Walls: Yes, I was invited by the publisher (Editora Reflexão) of the Portuguese translation of the book I co-authored with Joe Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, to do a speaking tour in Brazil this past August. I spoke nine times in eight days in five cities: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Cuiaba, Natal and Recife. The week ended with Conference on Arminian Theology, for which I was the speaker. It was the first of what the organizers hope will be an annual event.
And indeed, Arminius has a growing fan club in Brazil, as I discovered a few years ago. There is a Facebook discussion group in Brazil named “Arminianismo” that has over 7,300 members. The Arminian community there is quite well informed as well as vigorous and energetic.
WA: What was your sense of the dynamics that came together to make a conference on Arminius a “go” for Christians in Brazil? One’s perspective of Brazil may be that it’s largely Catholic.
JW: Well, certainly Brazil is traditionally a Roman Catholic country, but that is rapidly changing. Estimates vary, but Brazil is now roughly 25% or more Protestant, the large majority of which are Pentecostals of some variety, especially Assemblies of God. Some 65% are still Roman Catholic, but the large majority of those are nominal. So in reality, among Brazilians who take their faith seriously, there are probably more evangelical Protestants than Roman Catholics.
Pentecostalism, of course, grew out of the Wesleyan and Holiness movements, so Pentecostal theology is naturally Wesleyan/Arminian in terms of its instincts. However, Calvinists have been active in publishing books in Portuguese, so they appear to be making inroads into Brazilian Pentecostalism. One of the places I spoke was an Assemblies of God seminary, and the bookstore there had more serious books by Calvinists than Arminians.
The good news is that the Arminian community in just the past few years has been working hard to get more serious Arminian works translated into Portuguese. Editora Reflexao, particularly with the encouragement of Wellington Mariano, who was one of the translators of our book, has led the way in publishing serious Arminian books. While I was there, they released the Portuguese translation of the biography of Arminius by Carl Bangs. The Works of Arminius were also released while I was there by another publisher.
So in short, I got involved when they published Why I Am Not a Calvinist, and a number of persons in Brazil also discovered my various YouTube videos critiquing Calvinism. Once that happened I started getting a lot of “friend” requests on Facebook from Brazilians! So all those factors led to my being invited to speak in Brazil.
WA: How do you describe the theological climate in Brazil in terms of interest in the intersection of theology and philosophy of religion?
JW: That is hard to say, but one of the places I lectured was at one of the biggest Christian bookstores in Brazil, and a number of people at that event were talking to me about apologetic and philosophical issues. It is also worth noting that Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, recently did a speaking tour at a number of Brazilian universities. So there is certainly interest in philosophy and apologetics.
WA: For you as a Methodist, when you travel globally, what do you note about the crossover of the appeal of the notion of free will and the appeal of Wesleyan theology?
JW: I think the deepest appeal of Wesleyan theology is that is heartily affirms a God who is truly good and sincerely loves all persons. God does not determine, he empowers, he enables, encourages. And the message that God loves us and wants to empower us to love him back, as well as each other is a message of great hope. No one has been “passed over” or determined by God for eternal misery and damnation. To the contrary, there is hope for everyone, and the resources of grace are available to transform even those persons who may seem most hopeless in our eyes.
WA: Has the cross-cultural appeal of Why I Am Not a Calvinist authored by you and Dr. Joe Dongell surprised you? Why do you think it has garnered sustained interest?
JW: Well, the Calvinism issue is not going away anytime soon. As relatively young movements like those in Brazil grow, they will need to define their theological convictions more clearly and explicitly. And as I noted above, Calvinists are attempting to persuade Pentecostals that Calvinism is the theology they should adopt. I was surprised recently, by the way, to see a Barna study that indicated that 31% of Pentecostal pastors in the United States identified themselves as “Reformed” compared to only 27% who self-identified as Wesleyan/Arminian. I doubt that all those 31% are full-blooded Calvinists, but it is still telling that so many own the Reformed label.
WA: What most surprised you about your visit in Brazil?
JW: I would have to say seeing the large number of Calvinist books in the two large bookstores I visited.
WA: Why do you think the Wesleyan-Arminian distinctive is still so potent and flourishing worldwide?
JW: In addition to what I said above, Wesleyan/Arminian Christianity is flourishing in the form of Pentecostalism. Pentecostal theology represents the dynamism of the earlier Wesleyan and Holiness movements, particularly with its emphasis on the reality of a God who is actively present in our lives, empowering us, leading us, speaking to us, comforting us, healing us and so on.
Certainly life is difficult for many people in places around the world where Pentecostal Christianity is rapidly growing. It is the dynamic reality of a God who cares about us and is actively present with us that provides power for living hopefully regardless of difficult circumstances. Wesleyan Christianity needs to re-capture, or better, be re-captured by that sort of dynamism.