I'm sitting in a guest house at Messiah College, a lovely Brethren college in Pennsylvania, helping with a program they're starting. The landscape of the campus reminds me of Southern Wesleyan, although it's bigger. The faculty are warm hearted like IWU's, although their academic orientation is more like Houghton's. Nice place.
So this is my warm down for the day. By the way, did you hear that IWU is proposing to loosen the reigns on its dancing policy? I had a hearty Schenck laugh when I read the paragraph about "spontaneous dancing." It can happen to Wesleyans, you know, that uncontrollable urge to flail your arms about in the most bizarre manner. ;-) This spirit once came over me in Germany and I knocked a stein off of some passing waiter's tray into an ice cream buffet. Ask my family.
If you are not careful, theology and philosophy can quickly blur off into discussions that seem far removed from everyday reality. It can be a by-product of trying to construct intellectual systems out of practical truths. For example, it is important to us as Christians to believe that God is in control. It gives us hope, not to mention that it is part of our allegiance to him as king. Yet it is also important for many of us, including the Wesleyan tradition, to affirm that everyone is important to God and that God wants us to try to see everyone be reconciled to him.
The problem comes when we then try to fill in the blanks. For example, John Calvin (1500s) started with the first truth--that God is in control--and then filled in the blanks as follows. If God is in control, then he must decide even who comes to him and who does not. Therefore, it must not be possible for just anyone to be reconciled to him. He must choose who will be saved and in fact make them believe, leaving those he does not choose to continue on in condemnation and alienation.
The Wesleyan-Arminian tradition disagrees. It finds this picture of God incompatible with the notion that God is love. Calvinism is a beautiful intellectual system, but its picture of God does not seem to square with the dominant picture of God in the New Testament. How does God love the world (John 3:16) or want everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 1:4) if he arbitrarily decides to save some and destroy others as a top down decision, with no input from those he is saving or damning whatsoever?
Indeed, this system inevitably leads to a very questionable view of God's values. God becomes a slave to the rules. He must have absolute justice. He cannot simply forgive. Someone must pay the last exquisite drop of blood in punishment.
God seems arbitrary. With no apparent basis for choosing, God seems to decide arbitrarily to save some in order to show his great "mercy." Then with equality no apparent reason he decides to fry everyone else. The Calvinist might argue that they deserved to fry anyway, but they never had a chance. God is loving to choose to save "you, you, and you," but "you, you, and you" did not matter anyway.
By contrast, the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition believes that the notion of God as love does not really make sense unless God would want to give everyone a chance. Wesleyans have more often than not even believed that someone who has never heard about Jesus has a chance because God "lights everyone who comes into the world" (John 1:9). We are "judged according to the light we have" rather than by our conscious thinking. Notice again the heart orientation of the Wesleyan tradition, less worried about what is going on in a person's head.
John Wesley also tried to fill in the blanks, but we believe with the right overall sense of God's "nature." If we start with God as love, then surely he finds a way to give everyone a chance. Wesleyans call it "prevenient grace." Calvin saw God's grace as all or nothing. Either you had it and would be saved or you did not and were sunk. Wesley thought God surely gives everyone at some point enough grace to signify a desire for more or to continue in darkness. A person is thus saved entirely by God's power, but part of that power was invested on empowering you to make a choice.