In one respect, Methodism already feels quite comfortable to me. On paper, at least, United Methodists – like Restorationists – are believers in our free response to God’s grace.
How the two traditions arrived at this particular belief is – itself – fascinating history.
After the days of Martin Luther, the early reformers of Catholicism articulated a doctrine that is most commonly associated with John Calvin, though he can hardly be said to be its sole inventor. The doctrine of “Calvinism,” which soon became associated with the theology of the Reformation, held that human beings are inherently depraved, and that it is only those who God selects to “save” that are saved. We have – so to speak – no choice in the matter.
Some 300-odd years later, after the King of England decided to join the ranks of the reformed in the wake of the Pope’s refusal to give him a divorce, John Wesley – a minister in the King’s “new” church – showed up on the scene – rigorously opposed to Calvinistic thought. Characterizing Calvinism as blasphemous, he was once quoted as saying that it represented “God as worse than the Devil.” Needless to say, this was a less than popular position among many of his friends and colleagues in the Church of England.
Roughly a century later, Alexander Campbell – in a carefully crafted letter, filled with formal, rationalistic argument that was typical of the early Restoration – made the same argument in favor of free will.
Campbell’s letter was written during the Second Great Awakening – a period in U.S. history characterized by unprecedented interest in religious matters, accompanied by the growth of numerous protestant churches. Many of those churches were staunchly Calvinist in their thinking. However, the fledgling Restoration movement, as well as the Methodist churches – which were by then growing by leaps and bounds – stood against the trend.
Today, United Methodists and Restorationists are two of the chief examples of “free will” denominations. There are – of course – Calvinists in both traditions; a growing number within the Churches of Christ, insofar as I can tell. But, typically, the teachings within both traditions fall firmly outside of the “Reformed” tradition of predestination.
There are some major differences between Methodism and the Restoration tradition, of course. But on this point, at least, I feel right at home.
More to come.