A while back, Bill Barnwell posted a blog entitled “Why Do Wesleyan-Arminians Allow Themselves to be Bullied by Calvinists?” Barnwell’s post was inspired by a blog article by Roger Olson in which Olson made some timely comments on Calvinists who infiltrate Arminian denominations, often with little resistance.
Barnwell made several observations on why Calvinists are better at getting their message across: “Calvinism by its nature is triumphalistic; Calvinists are very, very confident; Calvinists pretty much own academia; Calvinists do a better job infiltrating popular culture; Wesleyans are more tolerant than Calvinists; and Wesleyans don’t make as big a deal with their Wesleyanism as Calvinists do their Calvinism.”
I generally agree with all these observations except one, namely, that Calvinists pretty much own the academy. Indeed, Calvinists are a tiny minority in the Church at large, and they hardly own the academy. Among serious scholars, Calvinists are a minority. But they are nevertheless good at conveying the impression that they are the serious scholars, and that they own the academy. This impression is more due to another factor Barnwell notes, that they have been far more successful in infiltrating popular culture. Certainly Calvinists have a lot of popular authors that are widely influential in evangelicalism, but that is hardly the same as owning the academy. In my own field, philosophy, Calvinists are a distinct minority, and indeed it is worth noting that the greatest mind produced by contemporary Calvinism, namely, Alvin Plantinga, is an Arminian.
But back to where Barnwell is right. Calvinists are indeed far more confident, and less tolerant, and make a bigger deal of their theology than Wesleyans do. And I believe these factors are very closely related. Calvinists are intolerant because they are confident that their theology is true, that it is nothing more or less than the gospel, and they are passionate about preaching it and contending for it.
In your average United Methodist Church, by contrast, pastors and leaders take painstaking care not even to use traditional pronouns and language for God, for fear of offending someone, or not being “inclusive” enough. Whereas Calvinists do not shy away from affirming what they take Scripture to teach, even if it offends contemporary sensibilities, Wesleyans walk on eggshells, fearful of offense. To make matters worse, in my experience, there is a tendency in many Wesleyan circles to equate spirituality with milquetoast, passive aggressive personalities.
So here is what I wish were the case. I wish more Arminians were confident, not in themselves, but in the truth of their theology, and had the courage and conviction to teach and preach it more passionately, even aggressively, in the best sense of that word. (I have had more than one Calvinist tell me that I am the first Arminian they had ever met who acted like he really thought his theology was true). I wish Wesleyans were better at distinguishing spirituality and character from personality. I wish more Arminians had a clear grasp of where Calvinism is confused and why it continues to thrive on misleading rhetoric. I wish more Arminian biblical scholars saw what is at stake in the larger culture and church, and would take Calvinism on in a direct, forthright manner
I am not suggesting that Arminians should be arrogant, rude, or narrowly exclusive. We should warmly embrace all who believe orthodox Christian faith and cooperate where we can on mutual concerns. But this does not mean Arminians should passively hand over their churches to Calvinists or give Calvinists free rein to promote Calvinism.
In short, we need more Arminians with an edge. These are Arminians who understand that the claims of Calvinism and Arminianism are mutually exclusive, and they cannot both be right. They understand that there are important issues at stake and that there are large practical implications. Not the least of these is the very character and love of God. Does God truly love all persons, and do we have a gospel of good news for all persons?
We need more, indeed lots more, Wesleyans and Arminians who have thought these issues through carefully enough to understand what is at stake and are prepared to expose Reformed rhetoric for what it is. We need more Arminians who preach about God’s sovereignty, predestination and election, rather than ignoring those doctrines, thereby giving the impression that those are “Calvinist issues.”
I love the recent version of the movie True Grit. I love the fact that hearty, hardy Protestant Christianity runs through the film, the sort of Christianity that was vibrant when America was most vitally Christian. One of the killers, as I recall, had a brother who was a Methodist circuit rider. Circuit riders had an edge. They loved God, they loved people, they were gracious. But they had an edge.
I wish more Arminians had True Grit.
I agree. It is hard to balance excessive aggressiveness and conviction, but we do need more conviction in the truthfulness of the Wesleyan view.
A view from the pew
The first part of the problem is a misunderstanding of Wesley’s sermon on the catholic spirit. People mostly invoke the first half and ignore or are unaware of the second half which describes a person with a truly catholic spirit. I was so ingrained with an understanding of the first half of the sermon, when I finally read it for myself, it took two readings for the second half to register–and then I was blown away. It is NOT about willy nilly forgoing your personal beliefs, it is very much about standing firm in your beliefs while letting others stand firm in theirs, all the while being open to I might be wrong. You don’t have to delve too far into Wesley to learn that there were some things he was not willing to budge on! He was willing to take other views under consideration, but he was not afraid to reject them.
The second part of the problem is The United Methodist Church does not consistently teach anything. I finally got lost and confused enough I stepped away from church, eventually discovered the Heidelberg catechism and three books about it and at the tender age of 59 learned about a triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun, an unfathomable God of mystery who loves me more than I can ever love myself; all he requires of me is to allow him to turn me into the person he created me to be. I can not even began to describe my dismay when I was unable to find anything out of the UMC camp to give me such an understanding. A PRESBYTERIAN pastor blew me away with his easy conversational explanation of who I was and who God is and ultimately folded me into God’s story of salvation. I was left wondering why, after a lifetime of being a “good Methodist”, nobody had ever had this conversation with me! By the time I was done, I had acquired “my favorite young Calvinist” because of his passion for Christianity and his ability to use the Heidelberg and talk about Christianity in a modern way without diminishing any of the awesomeness of it!
To be fair, in my understanding of God, the part about God loving me more than I can love myself is from Wesley; and he certainly reinforced the understanding that Christianity is about becoming the person I was created to be. But I never learned any of it until I went out on my own.
The solution: If you are going to invoke Wesley’s sermon on the catholic spirit, embrace a full understanding of Wesley’s understanding of catholic spirit and the characteristics of a person with a truly catholic spirit. Next, Start giving people head knowledge of who God is–all three persons, who we are in relation, what God has done–all three persons, what God is currently doing–all three persons, and what it means to be a Christian! As I can testify, redemption most definitely begins with knowledge. One of the many most amazing things I learned from the Heidelberg is that God is a verb and we benefit from what he does. When I was done, what had felt like rocket science because of its ambiguity was simply unfathomable!