8 Things Wesleyans Need to Learn from Neo-Calvinism
Although not a SEA member, Caleb Friedman makes some great observations for Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians in particular.
I’m a Wesleyan. Always have been, always will be. However, as I look across the landscape of American evangelicalism, it’s hard to escape the fact that something new and exciting is happening in the Calvinist movement. In March 2009, Time magazine included ‘The New Calvinism’ in its article “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The fact that any evangelical group would receive such attention from a periodical like Time speaks volumes about the fruit that this movement has been producing for the kingdom in recent years.
As a Wesleyan, I am proud of my theological heritage and am fully aware of the doctrinal differences that separate Wesleyans from the Reformed movement. I cannot and will not accept many of Calvinism’s main tenets. However, my theological persuasion does not prevent me from noticing when Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ are doing good things for the kingdom. Wesleyan or Calvinist, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, we all have blind spots; and in order to overcome them, we need to be willing to humble ourselves and learn from each other. To refuse to learn is to cease to grow; to cease to grow is to begin to die.
In this post, I want to outline eight things I believe Wesleyans need to learn from the modern Reformed movement in order to better be salt and light in today’s world. Many of them are things we once knew as a Wesleyan movement, but have forgotten. Interestingly, only one point is explicitly theological, and it is something that in theory we believe just as much as Calvinists.
A brief note: When I speak of Neo-Calvinism, I am referring broadly to the resurgence that has been occurring in the Reformed movement since the late 20th century. Some key figures in this movement include: John Piper, Tim Keller, Albert Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Louie Giglio, and The Gospel Coalition.
One thing I really admire about the Reformed movement is its devotion to Scripture. Virtually all of them are staunch inerrantists and they don’t apologize about it. They don’t mind your disagreeing with them—you can be wrong all you want to! The Bible permeates everything they do, from sermons to church structure. For instance, Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church will typically preach straight through books of Scripture, something that many of us would shy away from because of the difficulty of dealing with some passages in an engaging manner. Yet, Driscoll regularly delivers hour-plus sermons to crowds of 15,000 or more at Mars Hill. In contrast, one of my favorite Wesleyan preachers, although an excellent communicator, typically spends very little time expounding Scripture in his messages and instead preaches much more topically. People don’t primarily need our words or self-help advice—they need God’s Word, and our Reformed brethren realize this.
For centuries, the Reformed movement has placed a high value on education and emphasized the importance of graduate-level training for pastors and teachers. This has resulted in a deep pool of theologically well-educated individuals able to study and expound Scripture thoroughly and coherently. Many Wesleyan denominations, on the other hand, have fairly low educational requirements for ordination. Although this often comes out of a genuine desire to get pastors into ministry quickly, it sometimes leaves them ill-equipped to minister in their churches. Interestingly, our theological father John Wesley was an imminent scholar, proficient in Hebrew and Greek, and he emphasized the importance of education for his ministers.
3. Powerful Pastor-Scholar-Theologians
The most influential Protestants have traditionally been those who stood at the intersection of church, world, and scholarship (e.g., Luther, Calvin, and Wesley). This hybrid pastor-scholar-theologian is in an ideal position for radical ministry—connecting theology with the real world. Calvinism has done an excellent job of producing such individuals; the Wesleyan movement has not. Doubt me? Make a list in your head of three major evangelical leaders in America—are any of them Wesleyans? Didn’t think so. Several factors have contributed to this scenario. The first is the Reformed emphasis on education mentioned above. A second dynamic is the Reformed conception of the pastoral office. Whereas Wesleyan churches often expect their pastor to be a jack-of-all-trades, Reformed churches emphasize the pastor’s teaching role and give him the freedom to study, write, etc., without being distracted by countless odd jobs.
Walk into your nearest Christian bookstore and take a look at whose books are on the shelves. You’ll find loads of books by Baptist and Presbyterian authors…and, if you’re lucky, maybe a couple books by thoroughgoing Wesleyans. Neo-Calvinists produce books incessantly. We can whine about how it’s easier for them to get published, but the fact of the matter is that they’re just writing more than we are. For instance, Dennis Kinlaw, one of the most brilliant Wesleyan theological minds in the last century, has published six or so books—quite a few for a Wesleyan. John Piper, on the other hand, has written over fifty, almost ten times more. Books equal influence; as Wesleyans, we need to challenge ourselves to publish more, and not just about entire sanctification. Christians need to read Wesleyan perspectives on everything from family to hermeneutics to the Trinity, and if we don’t write these books, no one will.
5. Emphasis on Doctrinal Distinctives
Neo-Calvinists know and are proud of their doctrine. They realize that everyone does not agree with them, and they are okay with that. They also talk about their theological heritage—I’ve heard many more Calvinists talking about John Calvin than Wesleyans talking about John Wesley. All things being equal, a movement that is sure of what it believes and can explain why is much more appealing than a movement that waffles on its theology. So, next time a potential church member questions you about eternal security, instead of hemming and hawing about how your position isn’t that much different from what they already believe, dig in, proudly articulate your Wesleyan view, and explain why you hold it.
6. Family Teaching
One of the biggest problems in our culture today is the breakdown of the family. Moreover, churches across America are bereft of men because men feel that they can’t find a place in the Church. The Reformed movement does an excellent job of emphasizing the special role of leadership that God has given men in both the Church and the family. At the same time, Neo-Calvinists also place a high value on the role of wife and mother for women who are called to marriage. Whether or not one agrees with their complementarian position, there is no doubt that their affirmation of men as leaders in the church and family and women as wives and mothers has produced good fruit, and we can learn from them in this.
7. Cross-denominational Unity
Neo-Calvinism has done an excellent job of building relationships and working together across denominational boundaries. In this movement, it is not unusual to see Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and non-denominational Reformed pastors sharing a stage for a panel discussion, co-authoring books, mentoring each other, etc. What unifies them is not their denomination, but their theology. As Wesleyans, we need to take note of this and work with each other. I can easily think of half a dozen Wesleyan denominations that believe virtually the same things, but don’t communicate much.
8. The Greatness of God
Listen to a good Calvinist preacher for a few minutes and you’ll probably notice that he speaks of God with very superlative language and constantly lauds His might. For Calvinists, God’s greatness is the driving force behind what they do. They are able because God is able, and they really believe He is. Last time I checked, Wesleyans still believe in an absolutely omnipotent God—we just believe that in addition to having absolute power, He also has the power of restraint. However, if we’re not careful, our synergism can lead us to overemphasize our role in bringing God’s kingdom to earth and forget that ultimately it is God’s might that empowers us. Yes, we need to emphasize personal responsibility, but even more than that we need to emphasize the power of God.
The Wesleyan movement’s greatest days are ahead—I truly believe it. We believe in a gospel with no limits—entire sanctification. However, sometimes our methodology can hinder the power of this gospel. I am praying that as we open our eyes to new and different modes of life and ministry, God will use our faithfulness and hard work to accomplish greater things for His kingdom in this century than ever before.
Caleb Friedeman graduated from Asbury University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient Languages. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Wesley Biblical Seminary while serving as student ministries pastor at DaySpring Community Church and teaching language classes to homeschool students.
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