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Bursting the bubble on reformed theology

Bursting the bubble on reformed theology

Bursting the bubble on reformed theology

18 May 2016

By Major Dean Smith

It may seem a very strange thing to admit, but, even though I grew up in The Salvation Army, it is only in the past 10 years that I have begun to discover my Wesleyan intellectual heritage. Strange indeed. But I do not think my situation is unique. In fact, I think that there are good reasons to suggest that, like myself, Australian Salvationists living through the 20th century have, by and large, been informed by reformed, and not Wesleyan, theological ideas. According to the Nazarene colleagues with whom I work, this is also true of their own “Wesleyan” tradition.

Now while I do not want to get caught up in theological rambling for the sake of it, I would like to identify what I understand to be some major differences between the two traditions and how they have impacted my, and dare I suggest, our movement’s, worldview. Let’s take the reformed view first.

According to reformed thinking, the “natural” state of humanity since the fall is the state of total depravity. All of us are “dead in our sin” unless God in his mercy intervenes in our lives to redeem us. In the meantime, our lives are lived cut off from God and in a spiritually darkened state with no hope and no light to guide us. The world is itself a place of darkness, and the church a place of light shining in the darkness.

As you can see this is a very pessimistic and dualistic view of the world. According to this view, truth is to be found in Scripture alone insofar as it witnesses to the truth of Christ. And further, one should be suspicious of anything “worldly”, including, and especially, human reason and experience. Sacred and secular are very real and absolute categories, with the redeemed person aware that they are living between two opposing worlds. Now far from being an abstract description of a particular worldview, what I have described here is the understanding I grew up with and, dare I suggest, many Salvationists have grown up with.

Prevenient grace

Now let me say something about the Wesleyan viewpoint. The important idea of prevenient grace is not only an important corrective to the rather pessimistic view above, but gives us a different way of looking at the world altogether. While, with our reformed brothers and sisters, Wesleyans do hold to a view of “total depravity”, such is true purely as an abstract principle, and is not part of our reality. Let me explain. Due to God’s generous and prevenient grace (the grace that precedes salvation), the Holy Spirit becomes active in our lives from birth, and from that point frees our wills so that we are no longer dead in our sin and cut off from God, but by the grace of God, have our spiritual faculties restored sufficiently that we are enabled to respond to the gentle lure of God throughout our lives.

Wesleyans have traditionally made a distinction between prevenient grace and saving grace. We must acknowledge then that prevenient grace is not saving grace so that we need a further work of God to effect a complete turnaround in our spiritual orientation. But we should not make too much of this distinction. The same grace that restores our spiritual faculties from birth so we can experience the lure of God, is the same grace that is able to transform us and reorient us towards fullness of life in Christ. 

Wesleyans do not live in a world divided between light and darkness, the sacred and secular, the spiritual and worldly. We can never accept the idea that anyone is completely cut off from God because God’s prevenient grace is universally active and effective. I am not saying that God’s grace is effective to the same degree in everyone or that everyone is responding in the same way.

But I am saying that a Wesleyan cannot but help see the mark of grace upon every person and upon creation as a whole.

That means that I can expect to be the recipient of grace and truth in every human encounter and endeavour. Now for the “so what?” question. What actual difference does the doctrine of prevenient grace make for Wesleyans? It actually makes a world of difference.

Optimistic vision

One example is our understanding of mission. I can be confident that the next person I meet will already be touched by God’s grace and that God is already actively involved in drawing that person towards saving faith and a deeper understanding and knowledge of him. I am never starting from scratch – so to speak. I am never dealing with a tabula rasa (blank slate). The image and mark of God is already there and his grace active. The questions I ask have to do with how I can best cooperate with God in the redemptive process. How can I best partner with God to prepare a response-enhancing environment for those with whom I build grace-filled relationships?

Another example is our understanding of culture. I can be assured that if Christ is at the centre of the entire created order (Colossians 1:15-17) and is active in the lives of every human person then I can be confident that I can find the wisdom of Christ in the films I watch and the literature I read and the culture that provides a context for my life. Of course I am not suggesting that discernment is not necessary. I simply want to reinforce the truth that for Wesleyans, culture is not something to be escaped but rather is something to be engaged.

Please allow me a personal story. When I was growing up in The Salvation Army our western culture was undergoing some momentous changes. There were the protests of the hippy movement, the crisis of the atomic era, the rise of the ecological movement. Yet with all this cultural change I barely remember a sermon or a discussion that addressed any of this. I was myself caught in a cultural bubble. Most of what I heard within my rather cloistered environment had to do with getting my own soul saved and ensuring that I was protected from the stain of “the world”. What a tremendous opportunity was missed by a movement supposedly open to the world.

I believe that Wesleyans of all stripes have a wonderful optimistic vision we need to share not just within The Salvation Army but with our broader culture. Not a vision founded on depravity and judgment but on grace and hope. A vision where the very mark of God can be discerned in the questions and longings of the human experience. I have every confidence that God can use us all to achieve his purposes of transforming the world – indeed the cosmos.

Major Dean Smith is part of the academic staff at the Nazarene Theological College in Brisbane and was recently appointed as the new director of the Australasian Centre For Wesleyan Research.

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