It is, first of all, a perspective with a history. John Wesley (1703-91) was an Anglican minister in England who started a revival that eventually lead to the Methodist churches of America. He had no intention of starting a new church, which is reflected in the fact that his thinking drew from the best of the Anglicans, the Calvinists, and the Lutherans of his day. He was thus eclectic in his thinking.
After the New Testament was written two thousand years ago, everyone was Catholic for the next 1400 hundred years until about the year 1500. Sure, there was a split between the Eastern part of Christianity (the Orthodox side) and the Western part (Roman Catholicism) in the year 1054. But both sides still considered themselves Catholic or part of the “universal” Church until the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s.
In the 1500s, a man named Martin Luther set in motion a protest that would fragment Christianity. The Lutheran Church came from his protests. The Church of England or Anglican Church would also withdraw from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s. John Calvin led the Reformed movement in Switzerland in the same period, which would spread especially to Holland and England.
The Arminian part of the term comes from the fact that some of the Calvinist influence on Wesley came through a Dutch man named Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). We probably should not take much time delving into the history of these people, but we can use history to give somewhat of an “archaeology” of Wesleyan-Arminian thinking and where it came from.
First, as an Anglican, Wesley was not Roman Catholic, but he was also not quite as “Protestant” as the Lutherans and Reformed. The Anglican tradition tried to steer a middle way between the previous excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and those of other Protestants. For Wesley it was important to have a “catholic spirit,” which meant that you did not exclude people from other groups if they shared the same heart with you.
This idea of a catholic spirit reveals the influence of a group called the Pietists on Wesley. The Pietists taught that you could know in your heart for sure that God had forgiven your sins and accepted you. They believed in having personal experiences of God. They believed that your attitude toward God in your heart was far more important than what you believed about him with your head.
But Wesley was also influenced by Luther. In fact, it was just after coming from a Bible study in which they had read some of Luther’s thoughts on Romans that Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed. Wesley drew his ideas on how we get right with God mostly from Luther.
Wesley would describe himself as being a “hair’s breadth from Calvin.” But he filtered Calvin through Arminius. Whereas Calvin believed that God chose who would be in his kingdom, Arminius believed that God gave us the power to choose. Calvin believed that if we were chosen, we would certainly make it. But Wesley took seriously the strong statements in the Bible about the need for us to be faithful to the end if we expect to be in the kingdom of God, like Arminius had.
Wesley also was more optimistic than Calvin about God’s desire to empower us to live righteous lives in this world. This was one area where Calvin was more optimistic than Luther, but Wesley believed God wanted to make us complete in love toward one another. He was thus even more optimistic than Calvin about how righteous God truly wanted to make us in this life.
A final feature of Wesley’s thought that is especially appropriate today is the fact that he did not see salvation as a purely individual matter. He was also concerned for the oppressed life of the coal miner, the child worker, and the slave. He applied the principle of loving one’s neighbor to the very structures of society. It is no surprise that some of his heirs in America would join those in the 1800s who opposed slavery and advocated the value of women in society. Some of them were the first to play out the principle of Acts 2:17 that God calls women to prophesy as well as men.
The Wesleyan movement has continued since Wesley’s day. In America, it especially went through the revivals of the 1800s. The groups that descend from Wesley today are not slaves to his thinking, as if he were somehow inerrant. In general, when we think of the distinctives of Wesleyan-Arminian theology, we should think of items like the following:
- God’s primary disposition in relation to the world is love, his primary desire for the creation its redemption and thriving.
- God created the world to have a will of its own, desiring it to choose him rather than be his slave.
- The standard of good is thus a standard of intention and choice far more than one of specific action or professed belief.
- God wants to redeem the creation to the fullest, to empower humanity to do good, to empower us to love one another to the fullest, even to change the structures of the world toward justice. He has made this possible through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, they demonstrate the continuity of this tradition with other traditions, the key points where it might differ, as well as the room for variation within the Wesleyan tradition itself. In the end, as Wesley himself said, “If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mind.”