Jerry Walls on “What’s Wrong With Calvinism”

Jerry Walls, well known Wesleyan philosopher, formerly of Asbury Seminary, and now at Houston Baptist University, has put out a useful two-part video on “What’s Wrong with Calvinism.”

This isn’t a full-fledged positive account of the Wesleyan-Arminian position, but rather a philosophical critique of Calvinism.

The take-away point is Walls’s claim that the heart of the difference between Calvinists and Wesleyan-Arminians has to do with the character of God, not the issues of sovereignty and biblical authority as people sometimes assume.   I’ve made a similar point in a previous post here.

Thanks to Kevin Jackson for spreading the word about these videos.

These are well worth a listen.  Both parts together total about 35 minutes.

Updated – he’s added a third part (below) – 23 more minutes on why this debate matters

Here is part 1:

And part 2:

Part 3:

Why Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian

Critics sometimes charge that Arminian theology (including its Wesleyan articulation) is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian.   The charge usually comes from those who are strict monergists, meaning that the believe salvation is effectually accomplished by God without the cooperation of the human person.   For the most strident monergists, any doctrine of salvation which is not monergistic ought to be labelled “Pelagian,” or “Semi-Pelagian,” or perhaps identified as the start of a slippery slope that leads to Pelagianism.  If you are looking for examples of writers to make this charge against Arminian theology, a good place to start is Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

However, this charge can be easily dismissed by offering clear accounts of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Several times in Augustine’s Confessions we find Augustine praying: “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.” In this prayer, Augustine is admitting that he needs God’s grace in a radical way—not only to know what God commands, but also to do what God commands. He is saying that he cannot obey God in his own power; he needs divine assistance.

Pelagius disagreed with Augustine’s assertion that human beings were incapable of obeying God in their own strength. He thought this idea might lead people to avoid personal moral responsibility. So Pelagius taught that human beings have complete freedom of the will, meaning that we inherently possess the freedom to obey God in every situation. Therefore, he said, we do not need divine grace to overcome sin. For Pelagius, we are all inherently capable of pleasing God, and therefore we are all obligated to offer God perfect obedience.

In a nutshell, Pelagianism denies original sin, and claims that human nature has not been corrupted and humans are capable of choosing good and avoiding sin without any special divine aid.  In other words, human beings are capable of meriting salvation on their own without God’s grace.

Pelagius felt that Christians do receive grace from God, but the only kind of grace he felt that humans needed was the grace of illumination – knowing what God would have us to do. The only barrier to obedience would be our ignorance of God’s will. So the ten commandments, then, would be divine grace, offering us everything we need to live a life that is pleasing to God.

Augustine agreed that we need grace to illuminate our understanding, but disagreed that we have the inherent ability to obey. Sin has so infected and bound us that we are dependent upon grace for any good that we might do.

Salvation, then, in the Pelagian perspective comes through obedience; we are justified on the basis of our merits, which we gain through our obedience to God. Augustine taught that salvation comes through divine grace. Our only claim on salvation is the promise of grace through Christ. Even our good works are dependent upon grace, and therefore are not meritorious.  This is the basis for the classic doctrine of total depravity.

It is quite clear that Arminians are not Pelagian, because Arminans affirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.   Human salvation is completely dependent upon God’s grace, without which we would be helpless.  While Arminians do hold that God’s prevenient grace provides fallen humanity with a measure of freedom so that we can respond to God, this freedom is not an inherent human quality.  Rather, it is a gift of grace, without which we would be helpless.

Semi-Pelagianism is a mediating position between Augustine and Pelagius which was  proposed later.  In Semi-Pelagianism, the initial step towards salvation is made by the unaided human free will.  In other words, the human person is capable of deciding to turn to Christ in faith, without any divine assistance.   After that initial step is made, the Semi-Pelagian position proposes, divine grace is then poured out for the “increase of faith.” Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529.

Again, any responsible account of Arminian soteriology will make it clear that Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian.  Arminians do not believe that human beings decide to exercise faith in Christ by an unaided act of the will.  On the contrary, they affirm that, without divine grace, the fallen human person is incapable of turning to God.  Prevenient grace frees the person so that such a response is possible.

What is distinctive about the Arminian position (as opposed to monergistic Reformed accounts) is that God’s grace is resistible, meaning that we can refuse his gracious offer of salvation.  However, that hardly means that our acceptance of that offer is some kind of Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian meritorious “work.”

John Wesley on Predestination

All his life, John Wesley stood within the tradition of English Arminianism, but from the early days of the Methodist revival, his position on predestination became a particularly important and divisive issue.  Of course, his relationship with George Whitefield was the background of the controversy, since Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist.  While they began their conversations about predestination in private, it wasn’t long before “pamphlet warfare” flared up as each side began to publish sermons and open letters advocating for their positions.  Wesley and Whitefield were able to reconcile to a certain extent, but the passionate and fiery debates made their mark on their relationship, and the Methodist movement as a whole.

The history of the controversy, which flared up three times during Wesley’s lifetime, is interesting in and of itself, but in this post I’m not going to go into those details.  Rather, I’m going to talk about two key areas of concern that motivated Wesley in his strident defense of the Arminian position, and then offer a basic summary of Wesley’s position.

The first key concern had to do with the character of God.   It is a mistake to think that Wesley’s rejection of unconditional election was rooted in an optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a more robust Calvinist understanding of depravity.  Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.  As Randy Maddox writes,

“the fundamental difference between Wesley and his Calvinist opponents really lies more in their respective understandings of the nature of God than in their evaluation of the human situation.” (Responsible Grace, p. 55-56).

Wesley felt that the idea of absolute unconditional predestination by divine decree was inconsistent with God’s justice, as well as his love and goodness.

This fundamental difference can also be seen in the respective ways in which the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions have approached the question of divine sovereignty.

Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has seen sovereignty through the model of a ruling monarch, whereas Wesley conceived of sovereignty primarily through the model of a loving parent.

The monarch’s power over his subjects is conceived primarily as an exercise of “will,” and hence the fact that some are saved while others are not is explained by recourse to a decision of the divine will for Calvinists.  On the other hand, the parent’s power over their children is conceived primarily as an exercise of love, and from this Wesleyan perspective it is inconceivable that a loving parent would eternally decree some of his children to life and others to death.

Wesley’s second key concern related to the character of the Christian life. Wesley worried about the pastoral effect of preaching a Calvinist approach to predestination, feeling that it would lead to antinomianism.  If salvation is unconditionally established by an eternal decree, why would any of us concern ourselves with obedience and discipleship?

Wesley felt the Calvinist approach undercut the pursuit of holiness, because the connection between God’s gift and our response is marginalized.  In his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace,” which ignited the first round of public controversy with Whitefield, Wesley wrote,

“So directly does this doctrine tend to shut the very gate of holiness in general, to hinder unholy men from ever approaching thereto, or striving to enter thereat.” Sermon 110 [number 128 in the older Jackson numbering], “Free Grace,” §11.

It was on the basis of these two areas of concern that Wesley advocated for his evangelical Arminian position on predestination, which can be outlined in the following six points:

  • Total depravity is affirmed by Wesley, meaning that the fallen human being is completely helpless and in bondage to sin.  This means, contrary to popular misconception, Wesley does not believe that fallen human beings have an inherent freedom of the will.
  • The atonement is universal in scope.  Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, not only an elect few, as proposed by five-point Calvinism.
  • Prevenient grace is universally available to all, restoring a measure of freedom so that the human being can respond to God’s grace.  This is how Wesley could affirm that all human persons were free to respond to God’s grace – but note that the freedom which humans possess is a measure of freedom (not libertarian freedom) and is by grace, not an inherent endowment that is retained in fallen humanity.
  • Grace is resistible and can be rejected, to our own destruction.  God is actively drawing all people to himself, but his grace is not coercive.
  • Predestination is therefore based on God’s foreknowledge, not his will.  That is, God corporately predestines all those who respond in faith to salvation, and by foreknowledge he knows who will respond.  His foreknowledge does not cause their response.
  • Assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit, who witnesses directly to our adoption as children of God through Christ, and is also confirmed indirectly by the fruit of the Spirit.