About 15 months ago, I noticed an article in the United Methodist Reporter that was trying to diagnose the reason why young people are leaving the United Methodist Church, in favor of (according to the article) churches that adhere to a Reformed theology. The solution, according to the author of that article was for the UMC to “include more Wesleyanism” in their youth education curriculum. The irony, which should be obvious, is that young people are rejecting Wesleyanism in favor of the Doctrines of Grace, so the solution hardly seems to be teaching more of that which has already been rejected? (As if young people respond well to that kind of tactic.) Still, I conceded at that time that you can hardly expect the UMC to have any other option available other than to “teach more Wesleyanism.” Still, I suggested that there are some non-soteriological doctrinal and discipline matters that the UMC could undertake to at least try to stem the tide of youth abandonment of their church. You can read my thoughts as well as that original UMR article by clicking HERE.
That aside, the writers at the United Methodist Reporter are at it again. This time one of their columnists is suggesting that Arminianism is essential for Methodist recovery. Once again, I “get” that they really cannot advocate another theology without gutting their entire church history. So I am neither surprised nor unsettled by that appeal. And on a certain level, I do sympathize with what the author is trying to get at. For example, he makes that appeal, in the context of the degree to which theology in general has taken a back seat to other concerns of the UMC, such as “social justice” which in itself is a loaded term. In that sense, I agree that the essentials of theology have been left behind while in pursuit of what some think are highly noble causes, but which in most cases have very little to do with justification and sanctification. And equally these tend to label the UMC as a liberal mainline denomination. A charge that is not without other substantial evidence to support it.
Where the author gets way out of line is when he seems to make the argument that a clear contrast needs to be made between the UMC and the theology of John Calvin from the late 1500’s. While most modern-day Reformed churches do in fact practice a theology that is based on many of the teachings of John Calvin, to use his writings and project them in a near absolute sense to the 21 century Reformed church is silly on its face. In other places in the article, he quite simply mistates the doctrines of Reformed theology, to his own advantage. This approach lacks the necessary intellectual honesty to be taken seriously. My hope is that the author knows better, but I fear he may not.
My fear is in part supported by the fact that he attempts to make three “simple” contrasts between what Methodists should believe (according to him) and what he asserts “Calvinists” (aka the contemporary Reformed church) do believe. Two of these three are inaccurate, with the opposing view so misrepresented as to be laughable. The very least that one can do in trying to argue against another person’s point of view is to make a fair and honest representation of those opposing beliefs. Perhaps in the interest of brevity, he was not able to do so. That is about the kindest option I can think of as ignorance, or maliciousness are alternatives that come to mind, but which would be ungracious on my part to allege.
Out of the three contrasts the author makes, he did get one right. And it serves, in part, to define the differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology. And that difference boils down to a person’s view of the sovereignty of God and His absolute decretal power over all that is, and the degree to which creation and more specifically mankind has been corrupted by sin. To the Arminian, God is something less than completely sovereign in the classic understanding of that expression, given that sinful man is capable of resisting God’s redemptive advances. In other words, God is “all-powerful” with the exception of his power over man with respect to his (man’s) salvation. The all-powerful God, who otherwise is totally self-sufficient, transcendent, lacking in nothing, is dependent on man to choose to pursue and follow God. That is quite a thing to consider. A “needy” God would be one who comes up a bit short of complete perfection, would it not?
Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches that man is in no way able to resist the regenerating power of an omnipotently sovereign, loving, God. And furthermore man is not able to make a choice contrary to his thoroughly sinful nature to pursue a path of holiness, without God’s gracious assistance in regeneration.
I tremble at the thought of someone standing before the creator of the universe and insisting that he, the person, was more powerful than God in the sense that for a time, or perhaps forever, was able to resist God’s overtures to him. Or that he, the person, made some sort of ultimately determinative decision about salvation, contrary to his sinful nature, and independent of God’s regenerating and enabling power. That sin of pride alone would be sufficient to condemn them to Hell.
In the article, the matter of “election” comes up several times. With respect to this doctrine which is undeniably present in the pages of scripture, I think the dividing line between Arminians and those who are persuaded by Reformed theology is that Arminians are perhaps imposing their own view of “fairness” on God, wondering why He would save some and not others, whereas, the “Calvinist” wonders why God would save any. And, there seems to be a glaring oversight on the part of the Arminian with respect to the evidence that God has provided of His character in “electing” certain people in favor of others, even to the point of utter destruction of those not chosen, starting with the book of Genesis, and flowing though to the book of Revelation. My question to the Arminian would be, was God not being fair when he chose Noah, his wife and his three sons and their wives but destroyed everything else in the flood. Was God not being fair when he imposed the plagues and finally struck down the first-born of Egypt in the process of liberating His CHOSEN people, Israel? Well, was he? The pages of scripture are filled with examples of God’s seeming unfairness if the measuring rod is man’s sensibility. And the ultimate unfairness was for Jesus to die for my sins when he committed none of them, and by all rights, what is “fair” would be for me to be punished. Once again, I tremble at the thought of someone standing before God and shaking a fist, or wagging a finger and saying “it isn’t fair that you saved some and not others!” when this has been God’s testimony of Himself since time began.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph 2: 8,9