Three Things this Methodist Learned from Calvinists
C. S. Lewis once cautioned against the blindness inherent in every age. Like others in our day, he warned, we are "specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes." For Lewis, the solution was reading old books. New books share the presuppositions of our time; old books challenge our generational narrow-mindedness. The same warning could be issued with regard to theological tradition. If we read only those who share our basic framework and agree with us on most things, then we nurture devotional and theological nearsightedness. To counteract this tendency, we ought to be disciplined in reading other traditions and perspectives, not just to critique them but also to discover what we can take in from them. We may be surprised to find how much we have to learn.
I'm a United Methodist pastor, but I've learned a lot from reading Reformed authors and listening to Reformed preachers. While we certainly disagree on some important matters, we also stand together in the broad stream of Protestant orthodoxy. I've learned there is great wisdom and insight to be gained from Reformed voices both past and present. Here are three ways in particular that I've benefited from the Reformed tradition.
Seriousness of Sin
It's easy to under-emphasize the magnitude of sin and its consequences. We don't enjoy hearing what is wrong with us, and we tend to minimize our own sinfulness, even if this tendency itself manifests the problem we are so hesitant to face. By sitting at the feet of Reformed instructors, I have discovered the benefit of seeing clearly the great ugliness and horror of our sin, our complete inability to do anything about it, and the holiness of God in justly condemning human rebellion.
The Reformed understand that fudging on the seriousness of sin diminishes the beauty of the gospel. The better I understand my own depravity, the more accurately I perceive the extravagant mercy of Christ and the abounding grace of his self-giving love. I thank the Reformed tradition for that insight.
Creation's Covenantal Structure
This one is big, and it's something I learned from Presbyterians. God related to Adam and Abraham covenantally, and he relates to you and me in this way. When the covenant representative of the human race rebelled against God, we all suffered the excruciating reverberations. Our covenant head introduced sin and death into God's good creation, and we, along with all of creation, now experience the agony of it. We stand together under the curse stipulated in God's covenant with our first father. That is how covenants work.
But thanks be to God that covenants also work to bless, and thanks be to God that he has given a new covenant with a new representative. Through faith in Christ we are brought into covenantal union with him, and represented by Christ we have peace with God. We move from condemnation to justification, from death to life, and from darkness into his glorious light. All of creation is structured covenantally. When we live in accord with the covenant as God has given it, creation enjoys God's blessing; when we do not, the whole world feels the pain. I don't know that I would have ever seen this structure so clearly had I not learned it from Reformed teachers.
God's Love for His Own Glory
This insight sometimes leaves those of us outside the Reformed tradition a little nervous. Our nervousness usually grows out of an honest effort to accurately present God as characterized by self-giving love, and we are cautious about language that sounds inconsistent with that character. How can the God whose character is most perfectly revealed in the self-giving love of Christ on the cross also be consumed with love for his own glory?
But the theme of God's love for his own glory runs all the way through Scripture. So we have to take it seriously. I came to fully embrace the biblical insistence on God's passion for his glory by listening to the preaching of Calvinists. They helped me begin to see there is nothing more beautiful that God's glory, and we ought to love that which is most beautiful. To grant our highest and most passionate love to that which is not most beautiful would be idolatry and sin, and the same is true for God. He rightly loves that which is most beautiful, even and especially his own glory. Anything less would tarnish the purity of his holiness. Remarkably, God's love for his glory does not undermine or contradict his self-giving love; the self-giving love of Christ is the perfect glory of God.
You will understand my excitement when I discovered that this insight is not absent from the thought of John Wesley, the father of Methodism, even if he did not emphasize it to the same degree as his Reformed counterparts. In his sermon on "The General Deliverance," while reflecting on whether God might, in the new creation, endow animals with the capacity to know, love, and enjoy "the Author of their being," Wesley concluded that, whatever happens, "[God] will certainly do what will be most for his own glory." I nearly fell off my chair in surprise and excitement to find in Wesley this deeply biblical truth that I had learned from Calvinists. God will do what brings him the most glory. There's something Wesleyans and Calvinists can agree on.
These are a few of the most important ways that Reformed thinkers have helped me to begin to see beyond my own theological blinders. I'm grateful for their instruction, and I hope they will likewise learn from and be grateful for my tradition and others. We stand unified by the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day for our justification. When we listen to and learn from each other, the God who raised Jesus from the dead will be glorified by our love for one another.