January 4, 2014

“New Calvinism,” New York Times & John Wesley the Reader

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.”

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18 Responses to “New Calvinism,” New York Times & John Wesley the Reader

  1. CD Womack says:

    Wesley was too busy ‘saving souls’ – being ‘an itinerant evangelist’ – ‘plain truth to plain people’ to write a ‘systematic theology’.

  2. Dr. Lee Cheek says:

    The _Standard Sermons_ present a systematic theology and view of the Christian life. Wesley followers should not continue Calvinist diatribes against Wesley. Contemporary scholars of Wesley, like Ken Collins and others, have refuted this tired critique.

  3. Ruth Baird Shaw says:

    Briefly, the Wesleyan movement began, not with systematic theology as with Calvinism, but in a revival among the common people the church had left behind. Our spirit-filled,tireless circuit riders rode West the the settlers of this county . there is at least one Methodist church in every county in the United States and we had the largest church in numbers in the 1960’s… Later we saw the beginnings of pride filled liberalism. We are the only mainline denomination that has not given in to the relentless and powerful “same sex” lobby…but some are now working to change our general Conf … But you know all this better than I. Thank you for your good and effective work…

  4. Darren says:

    I am a Calvinist, but I grew up in a very liberal Methodist church in Alexandria.I would love for orthodox United Methodist churches to spring up!

    • Carl Copsey says:

      Indeed! Interesting that there is no mention of Whitefield here. Wesley has mentioned on several occasions, “I myself have come within an inch or two of Calvinism.”

      It was Charles Spurgoen, a staunch defender of Calvinism – as George Whitefield was – Spurgoen said, “Calvinism is simply a nickname for biblical Christianity.”


  5. Adrian Croft says:

    Like many people, I “grew up Methodist” without ever really being taught just what Wesley stood for and how he fit within the Christian. In college I had a religion course, one of the other students in the class being a biology major who, to my great amusement, knew theology better than most religion majors did and was eager to pump my brain about “Wesleyan theology,” of which I knew nothing. Three decades after splitting from the United Methodists, I finally got around to reading a bio of Wesley, and what a fascinating man he was. I mean no disrespect to the faithful few who remain within the UM for their own reasons, but let me say that the lefties who dominate the UM neither know nor care about Wesley and his beliefs, which is no surprise given their contempt for the clear teachings of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and company.

    • Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says:

      I am a proud leftie a proud democratic socialist, a proud gay man,admire Wesley very much and I am so becuase of the Person and Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe and take comfort in the Great Cloud of Witnesses and know that God is no respecter of class, gender, ideology, orientation or any other barrier man has erected and God in Christ has made irrelevant. Unlike the right wing slaves of wealth and the heresy of nationalism and “prosperity theology” and Biblical literalism who place profit above person we lefties are much more concerned about being a sheep instead of a goat!

      • Vic Minish says:

        It is worth pointing out that Bishop Gentry commits a logical compound fallacy (hasty generalization, ad populum, genetic fallacy- for starters) in his comment. It may be that one of the reasons New Calvinism is growing in its influence is that it takes the power of grace seriously, which appears to be something it has in common with Gentry, but it also seems to allow the personal moral requirements of the Bible to do its work, and without a wooden literalism. Yes, the right would do well to recognize their idolatry of nationalism, but the left must recognize that at least one aspect of the nature of the gospel is to remove sin, the barriers Gentry wrote about, and bring a person into a greater sense of holiness. The New Calvinists, rightly I think, see the power of Christ to change a person and curb and amend their desires. Most of those I know within that movement cannot be categorized as right or left on social issues but are rather, simply Christian. That is to say, their motivation is centered on assisting the church and her people than some social or political agenda.

  6. Don says:

    You write, “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.”

    For a United Methodist congregation to be “orthodox” in terms of remaining true to Wesley himself, it would have to invite and embrace the Spirit-filled revivals that first changed Wesley’s heart, and which he then participated in for many years in the mid-1700s. In these revivals, it was commonplace for people to weep, laugh, cry out and groan for extended periods, as the Spirit convicted them of sin, assured them of salvation after heart-repentance, and provided hope for sanctification.

    Do you desire a true Wesleyan revival experience, with all its “messiness” that accompanied lives changed by the Spirit of Christ during worship and preaching of the full gospel of Christ? Though Wesley was a learned man with a brilliant intellect, his heart was on fire with the love of Christ and would never have settled for the intellectual formalism and low demonstrations of biblical holiness that characterizes most Methodist and evangelical congregations today.

  7. Michael Snow says:

    In his day, John Wesley had more impact than his friend and student, George Whitfield, who late in life bemoaned the fading of his revivals while Wesley’s disciplined societies had lasting impact.

    Another interesting contrast is that Wesley and Edwards were both born in 1703. And as you noted, Wesley’s last letter was to encourage Wilberforce while Edwards died a slave holder.

  8. Seth Neckers says:

    Craig Groeschel is a prominent pastor who is Wesleyan in beliefs. He would be UM had they not refused to ordain him for his “radical” approach to ministry. His church, LifeChurch.TV is the second largest in the U.S. right now, if I am not mistaken. There is room for wesleyan revival but it may come from outside the US instead of from within.

  9. Jared Williams says:

    Mr. Tooley, did you read the article you are writing about? In your opening paragraph you say the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement isn’t mentioned, but Paragraph twelve of the article quotes Colin Hansen and his book “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists.”

  10. McKenzie says:

    I’m confused by this article. The theological camps – not to mention Christ and the world at large – are served better by doing the work of an evangelist rather than lamenting the influence of others. For shame!

  11. Aaron Rowe says:

    Say what you will about Reformed/Calvinist people. Many of their churches are full of Bible-Believing people, exegetical preaching, and God-Centered worship and living. I recently left my United Methodist church because the preaching was so weak and the worship was reflective of the teaching at the church.

    This seems to be the sad state of too many Methodist churches. While Methodism has sought to improve the state of humanity through political and socio-economic efforts, it has failed to embrace the power and eminence of the Gospel itself and the critical importance of Bible-based Theology.

  12. Ezekiel Inkhorn says:

    It is unfortunate that we desire to rally around a Theology [and its inventor] such as Calvin. Remember, ology means study of – and man’s imperfect wisdom creeps in causing error. Is there no concern in the Body of Christ of having thousands of denominations/groups maintaining their individual camps – preventing [true] real unity in the Church? Whether intended or not the so called “church fathers” and many of the “reformers” take the stage [over the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles] and their Theologies/doctrines take precedence over the Holy Spirit’s Counsel and the inerrant Bible.
    An interesting observation Christians agree on the contents of a math book [1+1=2] but cannot agree on the interpretation [contents] of the God breathed Bible!

  13. Ezekiel Inkhorn says:

    John 7:16 – Jesus answered them and said, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me. There is only One Holy Spirit dispensing One Doctrine [God’s]. Is it pride that keeps Believers in their perspective Theological camps? Since the Holy Spirit only dispenses one Doctrine, all other doctrines [Theologies] are man-made and lead to division [disunity] or worse.

    • Bill Tucker says:

      So Ezekiel, which “Theological camp” is of the “one Doctrine” dispensed by the Holy Spirit? Which camp is man-made and leads to division?

      You see, we must, using scripture, seek and search. That searching by a multitude of people will have varying outcomes. This is not an evil; this is the result of honest, earnest people seeking the mind of God. We are not perfect robots. Instead we are real people in search of divine truth. Please be merciful to us humble mortals.

      • Ezekiel Inkhorn says:

        Point. The focus should not be on the “Theologies” but the One who provided the One True Doctrine. Share the Gospel and defend the Lord Jesus Christ not the [man-made] Theology!

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