The New York Times yesterday had this revealing article about the popularity of the “New Calvinism.” It’s notable that The Times gives attention to it, but it’s not a new movement. Successful Calvinist preachers and thinkers like John Piper, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller have been disproportionately influential within American Christianity for some years. There’s also the Young, Restless and Reformed component, which the article doesn’t mention.
Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist is mentioned (New York Times photo above), having led a previously small congregation into one of the most influential churches in the nation’s capital. Many of Washington’s great churches are Calvinist inclined. Many of the exceptional new church plants that attract lots of young people are Calvinist or Calvinist influenced. I can readily think of only one major church in the city successful with young people that is decidedly not Calvinist. (Even the thriving Anglican churches are Reformed influenced.) It is affiliated with, although not widely advertised as, the Assemblies of God. Presumably it has Wesleyan roots, whether emphasized or not. I suspect not.
Although historically having more adherents, it’s hard to think of prominent Wesleyan/Methodist congregations that are very influential in Americas’s cities and vigorously espousing Wesleyan distinctives. It’s my dream that one day an orthodox United Methodist congregation will sprout in Washington, DC and appeal to the city’s booming young population. There are strong suburban churches across America from the several Wesleyan denominations but often they downplay their Wesleyan theology in favor of generic evangelical proclamation. It’s harder still to think of great Wesleyan thinkers today who are widely influential beyond their own denominations.
It wasn’t always so. John Wesley was both a deep thinker and a constant doer who shaped his culture. Recently I discovered this article from the 1850s chronicling some of the likely 1500 books he’s known to have read. He was a prolific reader and writer even though virtually his whole adult life was spent on the preaching circuit. He often read while on horseback or, in late years, in his chaise.
Wesley read plenty of ancient philosophy, poetry by Virgil, Homer and Milton, both secular and church history, and political theory, plus medicine and science. He read Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton and Voltaire. His last recorded book was about exploration in America. He enjoyed the saucy memoir of a risqué English actress. Most of his recorded books are in fact not about divinity but about the wider world. “By much reading of controversy and practice, with the aid of his well-learned logic, he became an expert disputant,” the article notes. “His mark was so sure, and his arrow so sharp, that lie failed not in piercing and defeating the adversary.”
Disappointingly, this article of 1858 says there’s no evidence Wesley read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which published only a few years before his death. He would have disapproved Edward Gibbon, a religious skeptic, the article surmises. I wonder. Gibbon pays lengthy homage to St. Athanasius for his focused, tireless exertions in defense of the Trinity. And Athanasius was a hero to Wesley, who, in his final letter, which was to William Wilberforce, urges the abolitionist to stand as Athanasius did against the world.
It’s also noted that Wesley never wrote a systematic theology, as of course Calvin did with his Institutes. If Wesley had, maybe his followers would be more intellectually influential today. And The New York Times would publish a feature on the “New Wesleyans.”