A Wesleyan Reads Calvin: a Preface

Once upon a time there were two were Christians, Anabelle and Bart. Anabelle and Bart both loved Jesus very much, and had ever since they were children. However, both were from very different traditions of Christianity.

Anabelle had been taught in a paradigm some call “Calvinism.” She had been told that God had elected all Christians before the world began, and that Christ had died for the elect. The salvation of the elect was assured and could not be lost, but only God knew who the elect were. There were some who claimed to be Christians, but continued living lives of sin. Those “Christians” were not part of the elect — they were either lying, or had deceived themselves.

Anabelle served God as best as she could, but of course, she often sinned… leaving her with almost unbearable guilt. She knew, after all, that nothing she did could earn God’s favor. If she wasn’t part of the elect, she wasn’t part of the elect — and that meant Christ hadn’t forgiven her. What’s worse, only God knew if she was really a Christian or not. It was possible that, no matter what she thought she did to serve God, she had deceived herself. Perhaps God had decided to send her to hell, already. The thought terrified her. Every day of Anabelle’s Christianity was lived in fear that she would not make it to heaven.

And then, Anabelle visited a new church, one with a Arminian view of salvation. At the new church, Anabelle learned that no matter what she did, God would forgive her. She learned that her duty was to believe, and serve God, and to pray for forgiveness when she messed up. If — and when — she sinned, she could come back and God would receive her. In his grace, God had given her free will to repent. The news could not have been more welcome. Arminianism saved Anabelle. She felt a renewed faith, now at peace with God and her standing before him. Finally secure in her salvation, she lived happily from then on.

Meanwhile…

Bart had been taught in a paradigm some call “Arminianism.” He had been told that God had given all people the option to accept or reject Christianity. The decision to repent was theirs, as well as the decision to walk away. Since salvation was a free choice, someone who had at first accepted forgiveness for their sins, could then reject the gift of salvation by sinning again. Salvation was assured, if one repented, but if one did not repent sincerely then their sins were not forgiven. There were some who claimed to be Christians, but continued living lives of sin. Those Christians had not repented — they were lying, or had deceived themselves.

Bart served God as best as he could, but of course, he often sinned… leaving him with almost unbearable guilt. He knew, after all, that it was possible to lose one’s salvation. No matter how many times he prayed for forgiveness, he’d find himself sinning again, and he worried that his repentance had been insincere — and that Christ hadn’t forgiven him. What’s worse, there was no way of knowing if it was too late. He might have some unforgiven sin in his past for which he hadn’t repented properly. It was possible that, no matter what he thought he did to serve God, he had deceived himself. Perhaps when he died, he would have forgotten or neglected some sin left unrepented, damning him to hell. The thought terrified him. Every day of Bart’s Christianity was lived in fear that he would not make it to heaven.

And then, Bart visited a new church, one with a Calvinist view of salvation. At the new church, Bart learned that no matter what he did, God had already elected him. He learned that his duty was to believe, and serve God, and to trust in his forgiveness when he messed up. If — and when — he sinned, he could not lose God’s favor and election, and God would receive him. In his grace, God had chosen him, even though he did not deserve it. Because God was the author of Bart’s salvation, there was nothing Bart could do to change what God had done. The news could not have been more welcome. Calvinism saved Bart. He felt a renewed faith, now at peace with God and his standing before him. Finally secure in his salvation, he lived happily from then on.

All that to say:

The Calvinist-Arminian debate has always been, in my opinion, an almost complete waste of time. Theology isn’t quite my field, and neither is philosophy, and so I am about to make a foolish statement: the Calvinist-Arminian distinction feels more like a philosophical question than a theological one, to me. So much of it comes down to perspective, as I tried to illustrate above. Annabelle and Bart are both happier for their soteriologies, and though they might be fictional, they represent many people who actually exist — some of whom are people I know. Some people, it seems, need Calvinism, while others were made to be Arminian.

Too often, though, narrow-minded young Christians are too eager to debate this issue. Often, it comes down to simple misunderstanding — people simply don’t know or don’t understand what one or the other position actually believes. Other times, though, the debate is fueled by something more like malice. Whether they understand the opposite view or not, they simply despise it, and live to say bad things about it. This is not fruitful conversation. Yet to hear some people talk, the Calvinist-Arminian discussion is the most important theological issue in Christianity!

That is simply false, of course — the debate is actually one very specific to a particular strain of Protestantism. Many Christian traditions simply have different soteriologies altogether, and the Calvinist-Arminian debate never even factors into their theology — which, naturally, makes the debate even more pointless. It is, in fact, a kind of tunnel vision, to focus on two sides of a shared tradition so much that one loses all the other points of view out there.

And in this tunnel vision, the man himself is lost. Lots of Christians hate, or think they hate, Calvinism, or something they think is called Calvinism. Few know what Jean Calvin himself actually wrote.

I am certainly no Calvinist myself. I have several disagreements with him. In fact, I consider myself a disciple of John Wesley. So I’m firmly on the Arminian perspective. But both Calvin and Wesley are heroes of the Anglican church, and both have days of remembrance on our liturgical calendar. Both points of view have always had healthy branches in my denomination, where they co-exist. So the debate doesn’t have to be hostile.

I’ve read Calvin before, but it’s been a while. And so, I had an idea. I believe I’m firm enough in my own opinions that Calvin is no threat. I also think that, given that there is much Calvin says that I do agree with, I can approach him fairly objectively. He is, as I said, a hero of the faith. And so, I had an idea.

So join me, as I read the Institutes of the Christian Religion, chapter by chapter, and share my impressions on it. I’ll be honest in all my reactions, as — while of course there are things in it I disagree with, sometimes strongly — it’s a masterpiece of theology all the same. At the very least, it’s an incredibly important text and should be read for that reason alone. Hopefully I can offer a somewhat fresh, and more fair view of Calvin than many people have. And maybe, at least one reader will find out something about Calvin they didn’t know, and we’ll smash some false impressions.

For those who want to follow along at home, I’ll be reading the Henry Beveridge translation, and making a post every two weeks or so. Hope to see you there.

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    • Benjamin
    • March 3rd, 2011

    I don’t know if I entirely agree with your representation of Arminianism, actually. Perhaps my understanding of Arminianism is skewed, but I never understood an Arminian’s view of salvation to be based upon “repenting properly”. I agree that there are the people who could be insincere in accepting Jesus’ gift of salvation and that there are people who could walk away from Christianity. However, I find it hard to swallow that (and perhaps I’m just misunderstanding your representation) a person could not be saved simply because they forgot to ask for forgiveness for a lie they told when they were 12. I once had the head of Talbot’s Christian Education department describe the difference to me as follows:

    A group of people are walking along a beach. They see a pier that leads out into the ocean. There is a sign that says, “This pier is rotting! Do not go beyond this point!” The group of people ignore the sign and go out on the pier. Once they get to the end, the pier collapses under their weight and the people fall into the ocean. Jesus the Lifeguard sees this happen and hops in a boat to go rescue those who fell into the ocean.
    What happens next according to a Calvinist: Jesus the Lifeguard reaches the people in the water to find that they have all lost consciousness and are floating in the water. They’re alive for now, but if he does nothing, they will surely drown. For reasons unknown, Jesus the Lifeguard fishes out some of the people, but not all of them. Some people are left to drown and Jesus the Lifeguard takes those he has chosen back to shore.
    What happens according to an Arminian: When Jesus the Lifeguard reaches the people, he finds them all treading water. They’re doing okay for now, but they won’t last forever and if Jesus the Lifeguard does nothing, they will surely drown. Jesus the Lifeguard offers his hand to every single person in the water, but only some of them let Jesus the Lifeguard help them into the boat. Those who refuse are left to drown while Jesus the Lifeguard takes the rest back to shore.

    In the long run, I very much agree with you that the debate is pointless. Both arguments have solid Biblical evidence to back up their arguments and most people will simply side with the one they feel most comfortable with. And if we’re wrong, we’re wrong and it won’t really matter because salvation isn’t based upon what we believe about election.

    I think this will be an interesting trip into Calvin. I look forward to hearing more.

    • That’s a good analogy.

      And I agree it’s not a fair summation of Arminianism at all, but I was actually trying to describe common misconceptions and misrepresentations of it, rather than the actual thing itself. A lot of Calvinists I know look at Arminianism as “saving yourself” — I’ve even outright been called a Pelagian — but that’s what I’m talking about when I say that too often the two views don’t actually understand each other. So no, that’s not what Arminianism thinks, but it’s what some people who should be Calvinists think they think. The fear of “maybe I lost my salvation for not repenting correctly” is a real fear that people have expressed to me. Calvin can tend to comfort them, if they find him and read him correctly. Not all of them, though — one friend who had that fear eventually converted to Catholicism, and it was a better fit for her.

      • Oh, and that is something I forgot to mention: the complete uselessness of just showing a Calvinist or an Arminian some scriptures and expecting those scriptures to change their minds. Both points of view are very aware of all the scriptures involved, and have interpretations for all of them and answers to every issue. They’ve thought about this, they really have.

        • Benjamin
        • March 4th, 2011

        I only realized after I posted my comment that you may have done that intentionally. So, sorry about that.

        If I can get my hands on a copy of Calvin, I may join you in reading him. I have not actually ever read his work! Just learned about the concepts.

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