10
Mar
15

A response to a Calvinist brother on predestination

NOTE: this post is in response to a lengthy comment from Jeff Kreisel on my previous post, “John Wesley on Predestination.”  See Jeff’s comment here.

*****

Jeff,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post. I apologize for my slow reply.  I have been swamped the past few weeks with work, and didn’t want to reply too hastily to your comment.

I would also encourage others to read Whitefield’s response, and if they are serious about the debate, to study it in context.  Wesley’s Sermon, “Free Grace” is not one of his better theological writings.  It is very polemical and not as organized as it might have been.  A calmer and clearer statement of his views is found in the Sermon 58, “On Predestination.” A longer treatment of the subject is found in Predestination Calmly Considered. I don’t expect these writings will change your mind, but it is always good to engage with an opposing argument on its best terms.

I can’t respond to all that you’ve said, but let me offer a few thoughts and clarifications.

First, Wesley’s position was certainly not based on mere emotion; perhaps some Wesleyans base their theology on emotion, but I suspect that the same is true of people in every theological camp. Wesley’s view was based on scripture first and foremost, interpreting scripture by scripture in light of the whole “analogy of faith” (the overall biblical message).  It’s not that Wesley simply “felt” Calvinism presented God as unfair; rather, he believed the central message of Scripture is that God is love, as revealed in the gospel of Christ. You may disagree with his interpretations of scripture, but you can’t accuse him of not taking scripture seriously.

5952670-MRe: Calvinism and total depravity – there are some differences, to be sure. Some Wesleyans don’t use the term “total depravity,” though I think it can be applied to Wesley’s view.  My main point is that Wesley agrees with the Reformed tradition that unregenerate humanity is completely helpless and unable to save themselves. Without the grace of God we can only “add sin to sin.”  In our own power, we are not capable of not sinning. Wesley is quite clear on these matters.

One area of difference, however, relates to Wesley’s view of original sin and imputed guilt.  Wesley wholeheartedly affirms that all people are born totally corrupted at birth, and inclined to sin, such that they are not able to turn to God in their own power, as just noted above. He does not support, however, the idea that infants are counted guilty for Adam’s sin.  We are counted guilty for our own sins, which we will inevitably commit because of our inherited corruption. Therefore all are guilty, with the exception of infants and small children who have not reached an age at which they can be held accountable for their actions (though they are still totally corrupted).

Now, in relation to your charge that Wesley is inconsistent, and the question of those who do not have access to the gospel (these two issues are related): Wesley acknowledges that some people (such as himself) have significant advantages in that they have been raised in a Christian environment and have many opportunities to respond to the gospel. That is why he leaves such cases (those who have never heard the gospel) up to the judgment and mercy of God, and believes God will judge them according to the light they have received. And he would make such a case precisely on the basis of God’s justice and love for all. Those who have never heard the gospel would not be damned for rejecting the gospel, since they have never had opportunity to do so; therefore we are not sure how they might be judged, but we leave it in God’s hands. This is not grossly unbiblical, as you charge.  First, he is not saying that they will be saved apart from Christ or Christ’s work on the cross; Wesley was well aware of John 14:6. Rather he is saying that they will be saved by Christ, though they have not known Christ by name in this life (but have responded to the grace that was available to them). Second, in the sermon I noted, he explicitly appeals to Acts 10:34-35 as a scriptural example. We might also note the “holy pagans” or “pagan saints” of the OT as examples of God being mysteriously at work outside the visible bounds of the church (Rahab, Jethro, etc.).

Calvinists such as yourself say that it would be a “failure” of God’s grace if he was to draw someone to himself and yet leave them with the ability to resist God’s grace. We simply have a different understanding of divine and human action; it does not “take away” from God’s agency if human persons are able to resist grace. We cannot compete with God’s agency; this isn’t a tug-of-war.  We can only respond to God because he is at work within us; that means our response is not “work” on our part; and yet because God is at work within us we can respond.  Grace is enabling and transformative by its very nature. In much of this we agree; however, Wesleyans believe that God’s grace enables a genuine human response, which would not be possible if such grace were irresistible. This is the heart of the matter I referred to in my previous point: a sovereignty understood in a monarchist sense, or a sovereignty understood in terms of a loving Parent. It’s not a “failure” because this is God’s purpose – to save those who yield to his gracious work in their lives. God has freely chosen to work in this way with his human creatures, because it accords with his loving and just nature.

Finally, you say that Wesley asserts that every human is a child of God. Perhaps I was sloppy in my own language explaining Wesley’s position. Normally, he only uses the term “child of God” for believers. Indeed, it is a hallmark of his teaching that all Christians should have the assurance of salvation through the Spirit’s witness to their adoption as sons.  He is quite clear that this is the privilege of believers – to know that they are in fact God’s children.  I do not recall, off-hand, if he refers to all people as children of God; there is a sense in which this is the case, since God is the Father of all that lives. And if Wesley ever says something along those lines, I’m sure that is what he meant (simply that God is creator of all and therefore “Father” to all in that sense).  Do you have a reference to Wesley calling all humans children of God?

Perhaps your point is simply that if only believers are properly called children of God, then God’s loving character as Father does not apply to non-believers?  My point in stressing the “Parental” character of God is not to say that therefore all are in God’s Parental favour; it is, rather, simply a point about God’s own character and the way he exercises his sovereignty. The distinction between the “sovereignty of a king” and “sovereignty of a parent” should not be stressed too far, however. I’m not talking about absolute distinctions but differing emphases; Calvinists certainly draw upon parental analogies for God, and Wesleyans certainly draw on monarchist analogies.  But each tends to favour one or the other.

I’m sure I haven’t changed your mind, Jeff; you certainly haven’t changed mine. But I hope these comments clarify some of Wesley’s ideas.

Yours in Christ,

James

17
Dec
14

Wesley Studies News from Tyndale

Firefox_Screenshot_2014-12-17T20-17-25.932ZIn September I started a newsletter as a way to share information about events and resources of interest to the Canadian Wesleyan community.  Over the past seven years, the Tyndale Wesley Symposium has fostered a network of people interested in Wesleyan history and theology, and I hope this will be one more way of helping to connect that community. The second edition has now been sent out, and includes information on our 2015 Wesley Symposium, featuring Kevin Mannoia.  I’ll have more to say about the Symposium in a future post.

Go here to read the newsletter, and click the “subscribe” link in the top left corner if you want to sign up for future newsletters. The September edition can be accessed here.

24
Jun
14

Two Recommendations: Witnesses of Perfect Love and Transatlantic Methodists

These two new books will be of interest to those who study Methodist theology and history.

witnessesofperfectloveFirst, Amy Caswell Bratton’s Witnesses of Perfect Love: Narratives of Christian Perfection in Early Methodism (Clements Academic, 2014), tackles the doctrine of Christian perfection from a different angle: the personal narratives of Methodists who claimed the experience of perfection.  While Methodist conversion narratives are well-known, this book looks at how early Methodist narrated their continuing struggle towards Christian perfection.  By examining four particular cases in detail, Bratton is able to delve deeply into the way that early Methodists interpreted and understood their own Christian life in light of distinctive Wesleyan teaching on sanctification.

What must also be remembered is that such narratives were often published and circulated in Methodist circles.  Therefore, these narratives represent not only personal interpretations of the doctrine, but also one of the ways that Christian perfection was interpreted to the Methodist community.  In other words, theological studies of Christian perfection, which traditionally focus mostly on more traditional theological literature, should also consider these narratives as part of the corpus of Wesleyan holiness teaching.

You can find out more about the author and the book on her site.  Bratton’s book is the most recent volume in Tyndale’s Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology series.  Previous volumes were contributed by Howard Snyder and Victor Shepherd.

20140624_134307My second recommendation is Todd Webb’s Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013).  Webb, who teaches at Laurentian University, offers an account of 19th century Canadian Methodism that stresses its connections to British Methodism.

Against prevailing accounts, which downplayed the contributions of British missionaries to Methodism’s growth in favour of arguing for a distinctive Canadian Methodist identity, Webb argues that Canadian Methodism between 1814 and 1874 must be understood in terms of its relationship with British Methodism.  Canadian Methodists came to see themselves as transplanted Britons, and formed a British identity in a time when there we competing understandings of what it meant to be truly British.  It is not simply that the British Methodists exerted influence on Canadians, but developments in Canadian Methodism also affected the history of the home church during this time.

Webb’s excellent account not only narrates the history of the developments, which can be quite confusing, given the multiple mergers and schisms which took place on both sides of the Atlantic, but he but also notes how particular issues, such as finances (chapter4) and revivalism (chapter 5) can help to illuminate the complex relationship that existed between the various Methodist bodies.

As I’ve already said, both books are highly recommended.

 

16
Apr
14

Toronto, a.k.a. “The Methodist Rome”

Most Torontonians today have no idea of the immense impact that Methodism has had on our city’s history.   Methodism, in fact, played such a significant part in Toronto’s religious, cultural, and political life that in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries the city was known as “The Methodist Rome.”  Toronto had one of the largest Methodist populations in the world at that time, and became known for its rigorous moral culture (hence the other nickname, “Toronto the Good”). This may seem completely ridiculous to contemporary observers (especially in light of the antics of our current mayor), but in the past there were good reasons for identifying Toronto as a centre of Methodist influence.

The main reason that Toronto’s Methodist influence is hidden is because the largest Methodist denomination in Canada joined with Congregationalists and many Presbyterians to form the United Church of Canada in 1925.  Therefore, many Toronto institutions which have Methodist origins no longer bear the Methodist name.

One key reminder of Methodism’s importance in this city’s history is found in some of the landmark buildings that Methodists constructed.   299 Queen St. West (at John St.), is currently owned by CTV and operated as a media broadcasting centre.  However, it’s original name was the Wesley Building, and it was built to house the Methodist Book and Publishing Company in 1913.  After the Methodist Church of Canada joined new United Church of Canada, the building served as United Church headquarters.  It was sold in the early 1970s.

Wesley Building via wikimedia commons

Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, also has Methodist heritage, having been founded by the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1841, and originally located in Cobourg Ontario.  The Cobourg campus still stands (and explains why Cobourg has a University Avenue), though it is no longer a university (more on that below).  It now serves as a retirement residence. VICTORIA COLLEGE Cobourg

When the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church merged in the 1880s, they decided there was no need for two separate colleges.  Victoria College was was the WMC school, and it was merged with the MEC’s Albert University, located in Belleville (originally Belleville Seminary).  Albert University was then converted to a private school, which still operates today as Albert College, though the current property and building do not date from the days when the institution trained clergy.  Incidentally, the former location of Albert University (where the current College Hill United Church stands) explains why Belleville has a College Street.

It was soon decided that it would be best to move the merged Victoria College to Toronto.  “Old Vic” is one of the many beautiful buildings on the U of T campus, built in the 1890s, and is the oldest building on the present Victoria College campus.  The inscription in stone over the main entrance way is a reminder of the building’s Methodist origins: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

Old Vic via wikimedia commonsA tour around Victoria College will take you to a number of buildings named after notable Methodists, such as Burwash Hall, named after leading Canadian Methodist theologian and churchman, Nathanael Burwash, and Annesley Hall, named after the mother of the Wesley brothers, Susanna Wesley (née Annesley).

Ryerson statue on campus via wikimedia commonsIf we were looking for buildings which speak to Methodism’s legacy in a more indirect way, we could mention Ryerson University, named after Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, scholar, and politician, who had a huge impact on social and political life on Ontario.  One of Ryerson’s achivements was founding the Toronto Normal School, a public teacher’s college.  The Normal School buidling was eventually turned over to the educational institution which would evolve into Ryerson University.  A portion of the facade of the Normal School has been preserved and incorporated into the current Ryerson campus.

Of course, Methodism’s greatest architectural legacy in Toronto is found in the many historic United Church buildings which trace their origins to the former Methodist Church.  Some notable examples would be Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Avenue West, St. Luke’s United (originally Sherbourne St. Methodist Church) at Carlton and Sherbourne Streets, and Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on Bloor Street West (originally Trinity Methodist Church).

But if Toronto was thought of as a “Methodist Rome,” then it’s cathedral would have been Metropolitan Methodist Church (now Metropolitan United), an impressive and imposing building constructed at Queen and Church Streets.  It is no coincidence that the nineteenth-century Methodists chose to construct their flagship church building here, between St. Michael’s Cathedral (Catholic, to the north) and St. James’ Cathedral (Anglican, to the south).  The picture below, taken in 1896, shows Metropolitan Methodist in the foreground, with St. Michael’s behind.  Recalling that these spires would have dominated the city skyline at that time, Metropolitan Methodist is an enduring architectural witness to Methodism’s role in shaping Toronto’s history.

Metropolitan Methodist Church via wikimedia commons

25
Feb
14

Comparing William Booth and Isaac Hecker: my paper at WTS

I’m looking forward to the annual Wesleyan Theological Society meeting late next week at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.  I’ve never been to Idaho, so I’ll be glad to see it first-hand, although I must confess I’d rather visit that state during a warmer time of the year!

This year’s theme is “Atonement in the Wesleyan Tradition,” and features keynote addresses by Ben Witherington III, Randy Maddox, and Jason Vickers.  A recent press release discussing the speakers and award recipients is available here.   You can find the full schedule of papers here.

I’ll be presenting a paper that builds on my dissertation research.  It will be presented in the Ecumenical Studies section, and the title is “Universal Atonement or Ongoing Incarnation? Comparing the Missional Theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker.”  Here is the abstract:

This paper will compare the missional theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker, two founders of 19th century missionary agencies. Booth, who started The Salvation Army in East London in 1865, was a Wesleyan revivalist who had previously been ordained in the Methodist New Connexion. Hecker was also raised in the Methodist church, but after a roundabout spiritual journey, became a Roman Catholic, first serving as a Redemptorist Priest, and then founding the Paulist Fathers in New York City, in 1858.

William Booth via wikimedia commonsBooth and Hecker were both possessed by visions of universal revival and reform in their later years, and both believed that God’s vision for universal reform extended beyond spiritual life, to social and political structures. However, the theological assumptions behind their universal visions for mission were markedly different, and are illustrative of divergences in 19th century Wesleyan and Catholic theology. The scope of Booth’s vision was founded upon the universality of the atonement, which provided a missionary mandate to evangelize the whole world, with a particular focus on those people not being reached by “the churches.” Hecker’s vision, on the other hand, was built on the universality of the Catholic Church as the historical extension of Christ’s presence in the world. These differing Christological starting-points funded two very different understandings of work of the Spirit, the place of the Church in God’s universal mission, and the relationship of their respective missionary bodies to established church structures. Whereas the Church has a rather ambiguous place in Booth’s understanding of world-wide redemption, Hecker’s view is thoroughly ecclesiocentric.

I will close by reflecting on the potential pitfalls of each view, and suggest some ways in which contemporary Wesleyans and Catholics might think together about universal mission in a way that avoids the theological extremes of our 19th century foreparents.

Hecker via wikimedia commonsFor Booth, the scope of Christian mission is very much related to his convictions about the universality of Christ’s atoning work, and the full implications of the atonement for human life.  As he got older, he came to believe that Christ had come not only to offer “spiritual” redemption, but to “destroy the works of the devil in the present time” by relieving humanity of temporal as well as spiritual evil (see his article “Salvation for Both Worlds” for example).  On other hand, for Hecker, the Catholic Church’s unviersality meant that the church was called to take up and incorporate the best of all the cultures of the world.  Hecker had a keen sense that the Spirit was guiding universal history, and had given “characteristic gifts” to the different cultures and races of the world, all of which needed to be directed to their proper ends and brought together in the one universal Church so that they might enrich the church’s life and bring glory to God.

As I’ve previously note here, I think Booth and Hecker are a very interesting comparison.  They are both compelling figures in their own right, but also provide an fascinating window into broader trends in the nineteenth-century church.   Hopefully the paper will help to bring out the contrast between the ecclesiological ambiguities of Wesleyan-holiness revivalism and the ecclesiocentrism of Catholic thinking from the same period.

23
Jan
14

Sermon: How Can I Keep from Singing? Psalm 126 [audio]

I was glad to have a chance to preach at Tyndale’s community chapel a couple of months ago, on Psalm 126.  The sermon is part of a series of “Journey” chapels – a series designed to help our community navigate through a year of transition to our new Bayview campus.  We’ve been looking at one of the Psalms of ascent for each of these chapel services.

I used this wonderful Robert Lowry hymn (written 1860) as a window into the message of the Psalm:

Robert Lowry via wikimediaMy life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

Here is the audio, or you can download it from this site.

19
Dec
13

Sixth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale Seminary

Registration is now open for Tyndale’s annual Wesley Studies Symposium, taking place on March 25 at Tyndale’s new Bayview Campus.

haykin_lg_sqThis year, in honour of the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield’s birth, we’ll be welcoming Dr. Michael Haykin as our keynote speaker.  I am very pleased that this distinguished Baptist historian has agreed to come and make a presentation to our symposium. His talk is titled, ““The Revived Puritan”: The Life and Piety of George Whitefield.”

Here is a bit more from our event page:

2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth George Whitefield, friend, partner-in-ministry, and sometimes theological enemy of John Wesley. Because the lives of these two men are so intricately intertwined with one another, we are going to feature a paper on Whitefield as our keynote address at the Wesley Symposium.

Dr. Michael Haykin is a leading Baptist historian, who has published on a wide variety of topics, from the Church Fathers to Jonathan Edwards. He studied at the University of Toronto, where he earned a BA at Victoria College, and an MRel and ThD in church history from Wycliffe College. In addition to his position at Southern Seminary he is Director of the Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies, and an Adjunct Professor at the Toronto Baptist Seminary, where he previously served as President. His many books include Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (Evangelical Press, 2005); The God who draws near: An introduction to biblical spirituality (Evangelical Press, 2007); and Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011).

bayview-campus-frontOther speakers for this year’s event include Dr. Claire MacMillan (National Director, Church of the Nazarene, Canada) Rev. Leonard Chester (Archivist of the Brethren in Christ Church, Canada), Rev. Dan Sheffield (Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries, Free Methodist Church in Canada), Rev. Michael Tapper (PhD Candidate, St. Paul University), Rebecca Nicol (PhD Candidate, McMaster Divinity College), and Rev. Dale Harris (Pastor, The Freeway Free Methodist Church, Oshawa).  You can find more information about the paper topics here.  We will also have a book panel on Lift Up a Standard: The Life and Legacy of Ralph Horner, including presentations from myself and Dr. James Robertson, and responses from authors Rev. Laurence Croswell and Mark Croswell.

Visit this page to find more information and to register.




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