In an interview that appears in the March/April issue of Good News: The Magazine for United Methodist Renewal, North Alabama Conference Bishop William Willimon, the following exchange appears:
Interviewer George Mitrovich: “What is your view of Jacob Arminius?”
Bishop Willimon: “Don’t know much about him, except that I do know that Wesley has sure come across in my reading as much indebted to Luther or Calvin as to Arminius. I’m not much of a believer in the “free choice” business that many now ascribe to Arminius. It’s all God and God’s work in us in my book.”
I’m trying to decide whether Bishop Willimon was being cute or is deadly serious in dismissing Arminius. That would be puzzling, since the disagreement between George Whitefield and the Calvinist Methodists and John Wesley and the Arminian Methodists clearly centered around Wesley’s opposition to virtually all aspects of Calvinism, save their overlapping views on “total depravity.”
Although the Calvinist and Arminian theologies continued to develop after the deaths of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, the theologies can generally be summarized as:
Calvinism - TULIP, or total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistable grace, perseverance of the saints.
Arminianism (as practiced by Wesley) - Wesley taught that we are totally depraved except for the spark of grace that remains. He also taught, in opposition to unconditional election, that God elects believers, and in opposition to limited atonement, that salvation through Christ is available to all (not that all would be saved, but that anyone can be saved). Further, Wesley believed that man is capable of resisting God’s grace. Finally, in opposition to “perseverance of the saints” Wesley believed that one may fall from grace, though he did advocate the idea of “assurance” by which it is possible to be assured of one’s standing in relationship to God.
If there is one area where Wesley deviated from Arminian thought, it was in the area of Christian perfection. Many Calvinists feared that Wesley ventured too far into “works righteousness.” It is true that Wesley yoked faith and works, but so did James. Besides, for all the semantics about “works righteousness” Calvinists could just as easily be accused of being “work righteous.” Wesley’s writings on sanctification and perfection seem to give God’s grace the proper amount of credit for the “heavy lifting” involved in the sanctification and perfection processes.
What Wesley and Calvin clearly had in common was a strong understanding of the nature and ill results of evil and the need to be born again. They also both believed that salvation is entirely the work of God’s grace. However, I simply cannot see Wesley dismissing “free choice” the way Willimon seems to.
Indeed, starting on January 1, 1778, Wesley published the Arminian, which included a number of anti-Calvinist essays. In his book, John Wesley’s Life and Ethics, Ronald H. Stone writes that Wesley began the first few issues with a “long, continued biography of Jacob Arminius, whom Wesley credited with articulating universal salvation, free grace, and free will.”
So, who was Jacob Arminius? Arminius, a Dutch theologian, lived from 1560-1609. He particularly opposed Calvin’s view of predestination for elect. Arminius taught that Calvin’s view of predestination and unconditional election resulted in God being the author of evil. In Wesley’s sermon Free Grace, Wesley invoked Arminian thought in writing that if by God’s decree in advance, some are “infallibly saved and the rest infallibly damned” then all preaching is in vain because the elect don’t need it and the damned won’t be led to Christ by it.
Perhaps Willimon simply means that no one is beyond or is untouched by God’s grace — that is, that no one is beyond God’s grace and that whatever good we do or obedience we enact is not by our control but of God’s sovereignty. I can agree with that. However, the existence of people such as Stalin and Hitler, as well as evils that include slavery and the Holocaust lead me to believe that there is a measure of free will. It seems to me that while grace obviously touched Hitler’s life in some manner, no matter how little, the man nevertheless used his God-given ability to resist grace, and resist mightily and tragically he did. Does Willimon mean something different than “free will” when he uses the term “free choice”? If so, what? How does Willimon explain the Hitlers of the world, if not “free choice”? When I rebel and sin, isn’t that a choice I’ve made? On the other hand, I will acknowledge that repentance is not merely “free choice” but is sparked by God’s grace. Yet, I must still choose to accept that grace and become obedient. Thus, personal responsibility and God’s grace work hand-in-hand.