Reflections of a Kuyperian Wesleyan

I was recently invited to write a Foreword to a new book of Portuguese essays on a Christian worldview. The book is aimed at Brazilian Christians interested in how the Christian faith can impact all of culture to God’s glory.

This is a unique book. First of all, it is a work of contextualization, written by and for Brazilian Christians. Beyond that, the authors address various topics relevant to a Christian worldview specifically from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. This is unusual, since those who emphasize the importance of a Christian worldview are typically located in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition.

I was invited to write the Foreword since I am someone who bridges this divide in my own work, doing biblical interpretation as a Wesleyan theologian informed by a Christian worldview. And it didn’t hurt that the book I wrote with Brian Walsh on a Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview [IVP, 1984]) has been translated into Portuguese (A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã [Cultura Cristã, 2010]).

So I took the opportunity to explore in this Foreword (more fully than I’ve done elsewhere) the extent to which the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions overlap and are compatible (especially as they relate to a Christian worldview), drawing on my experience of these two traditions.

The book is entitled: Cosmovisão Cristã: Reflexões éticas contemporâneas a partir da Teologia Arminio-Wesleyana, which translates into English as: Christian Worldview: Contemporary Ethical Reflections from Arminian-Wesleyan Theology. It contains twenty essays, edited by Vinicius Couto, and will be published by Reflexão Editora in Sao Paulo.

The essays cover topics such as:

  • the nature of worldviews
  • the biblical vision of creation, fall, redemption
  • the mission of the church
  • the nature of Brazilian society
  • ecology
  • wealth and poverty
  • human sexuality
  • feminism
  • the arts
  • citizenship in a democracy
  • abortion
  • tolerance in a pluralistic society
  • education in schools, universities, and churches
  • Marxism
  • the nature of work
  • communication in the twenty-first century.

Each essay is written by an author who works either as an academic or a practitioner in the area addressed.

My thanks to Vinicius Couto for translating my Foreword below into Portuguese.


I am delighted by the invitation to write a Foreword to this book on Christian worldview from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective in the Brazilian context. Like the editor and the authors of the various chapters, I am a Wesleyan Christian, who works in the area of worldviews.

A Cultural and Ecclesial Journey

I started my journey of Christian discipleship in a holiness church in the Wesleyan tradition in Jamaica (the Missionary Church) and earned my BTh at Jamaica Theological Seminary (a theological school founded by this denomination).

After Seminary I immigrated to Canada, where I completed Masters and Doctoral degrees, and then later immigrated to the United States to take up a teaching position. Along the way, I attended churches in various Reformed, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations, but I found my way back, some twenty years ago, to the Wesleyan tradition (the Free Methodist Church). A few years after that (in 2002) I began teaching at Roberts Wesleyan College and since 2011 I have taught at Northeastern Seminary (both founded by the Free Methodists).

Although I am a Wesleyan, the Reformed theological tradition has been important to me—specifically, that branch of the Reformed tradition associated with the Dutch statesman and thinker Abraham Kuyper. While in Canada I studied at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, a graduate school shaped by Kuyper’s vision, which claims that all human life and culture—indeed all creation—belongs to God.

It was Kuyper who first introduced the importance of a Christian worldview (he called it a “world-and-life view”) to North American Christians in his Stone Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton University in 1898–99.1 Ever since then, the idea of a Christian worldview has usually been thought of as a Calvinist or Reformed theological emphasis.

On Being a Kuyperian Wesleyan

However, I have been teaching biblical theology (with a specialization in Old Testament) for many years in a manner that integrates a Kuyperian understanding of worldviews with a Wesleyan theological perspective.2 Just as my experience of living in three different nations has led me to describe my hybrid cultural identity as “Jamericadian,” so I have come to identify myself theologically as a Kuyperian Wesleyan.

What does that mean? What relationship is there between the Kuyperian branch of the Reformed tradition and Wesleyan theology?

John Wesley said that his theology differed by only a hair’s breadth from that of Calvin.3 That may have been an overstatement, especially given their differences on the question of sanctification.4 However, when it comes to the Kuyperian version of Calvinism and the Wesleyan tradition, there is significant overlap that bears on the topic of this volume.

All the World Belongs to God

Central to the Kuyperian tradition is Christ’s cosmic lordship over all things, which results in an emphasis on the cultural mandate—the call to develop culture to God’s glory (Gen 1:26–26; Gen 2:15). These themes are summarized in a famous quote from Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”5

It is well known that John Wesley said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”Although the context of that quote was his willingness to be a pastor or evangelist to all people, Wesley himself had a vision of the entire world—including culture, the sciences, and human reason—as belonging to God. He demonstrated his interest in the natural sciences by collecting the best writing of his day on the topic, which was published in a multi-volume work entitled A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.7

The range of topics related to a Christian worldview addressed by the Wesleyan-Arminian authors in this volume is entirely in harmony both with Kuyper’s vision and with the breadth of Wesley’s interests.

A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the last decade of his life Wesley came to disavow the unbiblical idea of an immaterial heaven as the final destiny of the believer. By contrast, he affirmed the biblical teaching (Rom 8:19–21; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20) of God’s desire to redeem all things in heaven and earth (including human culture and the natural world) through Christ.8 This emphasis on cosmic redemption (“a new heaven and a new earth”; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) is also central to the Kuyperian tradition. In both traditions God’s saving work through Christ is understood to be as wide as creation.9

Since this redemption of “all things” is rooted in God’s love for his good but fallen creation—a love that does not diminish even after the fall—the authors in this volume are motivated by their desire to love what God loves. So they are willing to explore what leads to human flourishing in various realms of cultural life.

The Need for Human Effort

Some branches of the Reformed theological tradition have tended to emphasize the sovereignty and glory of God to the exclusion (or even denigration) of human “works” (as if it were opposed to faith). Yet the apostle Paul, who was the chief proponent of justification by faith, saw no contradiction between faith and good works. Paul affirmed that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and he enjoined the church in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

Within the Reformed tradition, Kuyperians stand out in positively valuing human participation with God in developing culture in ways that contribute to earthly flourishing. This valuation of human subjectivity (the contributions humans can make to God’s world), along with a radical critique of subjectivism (the absolutization of the human subject), was central to my studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, including my doctoral work on the image of God (imago Dei).10 This Kuyperian approach is eminently congruent with the Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis on the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.11

The Role of the Church

But there are some differences of emphasis between the Kuyperian and Wesleyan traditions. The Kuyperian tradition has been very helpful in distinguishing between 1) the church as an institution (denomination or local church) and 2) the church as the body of Christ or God’s people, who may organize themselves in denominations and gather for worship, teaching, and fellowship; but who are still God’s people when they simply live their lives in the world, as parents, spouses, citizens, politicians, engineers, students, teachers, farmers, workers; and also when they organize themselves into non-ecclesial institutions, such as schools, labor unions, etc. So the church in the first (narrower) sense is only one manifestation of the church in the second (wider) sense.

Kuyper thus calls on Christians wherever they are and whatever they do (whether individually or collectively) to represent the Lord Christ (and his kingdom) in their lives. It is the mission of the church (in the broader sense as God’s people / the body of Christ) to conform their lives to the standards and values of the King of all creation.

But the distinctive contribution of the Wesleyan tradition is its emphasis on the crucial role of the gathered (institutional) church for the life of faith and the importance of ecclesial witness. The worship of the gathered church (along with discipleship groups) should be spiritually formative, grounding the life of the people of God for faithful living in the wider world (which is still God’s world). I found this ecclesial emphasis to be underdeveloped in my exposure to the Kuyperian tradition.

But I don’t want to give up on the Kuyperian distinction between the two senses of church. In fact, if we read the Pauline epistles with the broader sense of “church” in mind, they have much more far-reaching implications, addressing what Wesleyans have called “social holiness.”12

The World as God’s Cosmic Temple

There is also a sacramentalism in Wesley, which he learned from the Greek Fathers (who influenced him greatly). While this is sometimes limited to the idea of sanctification as participation in Christ (equivalent to the Greek term theosis), Wesley’s sacramentalism has far-reaching implications for a Christian worldview. I have had to go beyond the Kuyperian understanding of the world as God’s kingdom to view the cosmos as God’s temple. Human beings are the designated image in the cosmic sanctuary of creation, called to channel God’s presence from heaven (pictured in the Bible as God’s throne room, the cosmic Holy of Holies) to earth. The cultural mandate is, therefore, both a royal and a sacred calling.

Earth is not strictly speaking “secular” or “profane,” but is equivalent to the holy place in the cosmic temple, such that ordinary earthly life is constituted as priestly service to the Creator. Of course, the earth, as God’s intended holy place, may be desecrated; but earthly life is never simply “secular.”

I am grateful to have been profoundly shaped by these differing traditions rooted in God’s creation, which have been unfolded and refolded over time by communities of faithful Christ-followers, in ways that engender blessing and shalom in God’s world.

It is my hope that this volume of essays on the Christian worldview, undergirded by the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition and offered to the Brazilian church, may challenge us both intellectually and practically to be more faithful disciples of our Lord in a complex and hurting world.

J. Richard Middleton
Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College
Rochester, NY, USA


NOTES AND REFERENCES

The lectures were published by Eerdmans, originally in 1931 under the title Calvinism, later in different editions as Lectures on Calvinism. On Kuyper’s legacy, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

This integration of Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives goes back even before my formal teaching career to two books I co-authored with Brian Walsh in Canada: The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), Portuguese edition: A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã, translated by Valdeci Santos (São Paulo: Cultura Cristã, 2010); and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1995). The former was written when I was a campus minister with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the latter when I was a doctoral student at the Institute for Christian Studies.

In Minutes of Some Late Conversations (1745), Wesley was asked how close the gospel came to Calvinism; he replied “within a hair’s breadth” (Friday, August 2, questions 22–23). In a 1765 letter to John Newton, when discussing Calvin’s understanding of justification, Wesley stated: “I do not differ from him an hair’s breadth” (my emphasis).

The differences between Wesley (both John and Charles) and Calvin are most evident (though not limited to) the role of human freedom in relation to divine action (especially predestination) in relation to the Christian’s experience of sanctification.

Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488 (from a speech on October 20, 1880 in Amsterdam).

John Wesley, Journal, June 11, 1739.

John Wesley, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, 3 vols., ed. Robert Mudie (London, UK: Thomas Tegg and Sons, 1836).

See Wesley’s sermons, “The General Deliverance,” sermon 60 (on Rom 8:19–22) and “The New Creation,” sermon 64 (on Rev 21:5), in The Sermons of John Wesley (1872 ed.), ed Thomas Jackson. Also Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1754) on Rom 8:21.

The Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives on cosmic redemption come together in Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

10 This valuation of the human contribution led me to explore the way Scripture was written to address actual historical situations, specifically how the doctrine of the imago Dei constituted a critique of Mesopotamian ideology; see Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

11 The emphasis on the importance of human effort shows up in my exploration of the role of human actors in Scripture, such as my discussion of how the prophet Samuel contributed to the fall of King Saul in 1 Samuel. When I taught this material during a 2009 sabbatical in Jamaica, my students immediately recognized this as an Arminian approach to the text. Some of that material is published as Middleton, “Samuel Agonistes: A Conflicted Prophet’s Resistance to God and Contribution to the Failure of Israel’s First King.,” chap. 4 in Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography, ed. by Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 69–91.

12 Wesley himself noted (in contrast to the approach of the desert mystics): “The gospel of Christ knows no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” John Wesley, “Preface,” to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), viii (paragraph 5), in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 14 (3rd ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 321.

Advertisements

J. Todd Billings’s Critique of Tom Wright’s “New View of Heaven”

J. Todd Billings’s has a short article that recently appeared in Christianity Today called “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” In it Billings critiques what he calls “the new view of heaven,” citing both Tom Wright’s and my own writings on eschatology.

Billings is, first of all, appreciative of the new emphasis among evangelicals on the renewal of earthly creation as the eschatological hope (a view Tom Wright and I both espouse). But he thinks that Wright’s emphasis on our righteous “works” or “deeds” (in the sense of our cultural activity) enduring into the new creation is wrong-headed.

Instead, Billings thinks that Wright (and, by implication, Middleton) should focus instead on our worship and glorification of God as the true telos of the new creation.

Four Views on Heaven

Interestingly, I have just agreed to write a chapter in a new Zondervan book tentatively called Four Views on Heaven, in which one of the chapters would be precisely on the view that Billings advocates.

Whereas my chapter would focus on the new earth, arguing that we will engage in ordinary human activities (without sin), one chapter would develop the view of a new earth in which life will be focused on the worship of God. A third chapter would be on the classic Protestant view of a heavenly destiny discontinuous with earth, and a fourth would be on the traditional Catholic/Thomistic view of the beatific vision.

How to respond to Billings? First of all, it is important to say that I greatly respect Todd Billings for his theological contribution to the contemporary church. And I specifically affirm his point that the glorification of God is of supreme importance in a Christian vision (applicable to both life today and to the eschaton).

What Does It Mean to Glorify God?

The problem comes with what it means to glorify God. I take it that it is faithfulness to God (in all of life) that truly brings God glory. However, in popular parlance glorifying God often refers to verbal or hymnic exaltation of God. That is, it is basically identified with what we today call “worship.”

I have been involved in worship renewal, in this sense, for many years, and think this is an important part of the Christian life. Such worship and glorification of God (which can, however, involve supplication, confession, and lament; it does not have to all be “praise”) is crucial to the Christian life. Whether practiced in private devotion or in communal contexts, such worship focuses our allegiance to the true Lord of heaven and earth, which then spills over (or ought to spill over) into our daily walk of discipleship.

So “worship” is important; but not when it is separated from the rest of life. Indeed, Paul describes the transformation of the mind and our doing the will of God as true worship (Rom 12:1–2).

Ethics is Lived Eschatology

Billings actually makes good points in his critique of what I would consider some offhand comments Wright makes about the results of our work lasting into the new creation. Billings asks why some work would last into eternity (a Bach concerto, which Wright mentions) and not others (the work of a mechanic, for example). I agree that it certainly should not be based on whether the work consists of high art of merely a trade.

However, this does not lead me to dismiss the idea that we will be engaged in ordinary activities in the new creation. Indeed, I think we should take seriously Paul’s idea that while some of our works will be burned up in the judgment, some would be purified and withstand judgment into the age to come (1 Cor 3:12–15).

At the same time, I find that trying to know too many details about the afterlife presses eschatological language too far, since such language is largely metaphorical or symbolic and evokes that which currently lies beyond human experience. The primary point of such language is not to satisfy our curiosity about the world to come, but to motivate us in the present to be faithful to God in all that we do. As I have been saying of late, ethics is lived eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth, p. 24).

This implies that whatever is our true telos or goal in the eschaton should also be the focus of our lives today. However, I can find no biblical warrant for the idea that worship (in the specific sense of private devotion or communal praise) should be the exclusive (or primary) focus of our lives today.

The Biblical Emphasis on Human Works or Deeds

Both the Old and New Testaments make the claim that allegiance to God must be expressed in obedience or deeds that stem from this allegiance; thus Jesus quotes the Shema (love the Lord your God) and pairs it with the injunction to love our neighbor as the two great commandments (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

In the Old Testament, allegiance to God is not equivalent to worship and is not evidenced primarily by worship. Indeed, the Old Testament contains a powerful prophetic critique of what we would today call “worship” (sacrifices, sabbaths, fasting, prayer, sacred festivals) if this is not accompanied by justice and righteousness, which is what is really important (Isa 1:10–20; 58:1–14; Jer 7:1–15; Amos 5:1–25; Micah 6:1–8).

Jesus himself critiques actions typically regarded as expressing devotion or worship (such as tithing) as of less importance than justice, mercy, and faithfulness, which he calls “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23–24).

The Old Testament emphasis on faithfulness to the covenant as proof of allegiance to YHWH is matched by the New Testament claim that although we are saved by faith, we are judged by our works. This may be paradoxical, but it is a pervasive theme, showing up in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31–46), in various statements by the apostle Paul (Rom 2:6–8; 2 Cor 5:10), and in the emphasis of James that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26).

Both the Old and New Testaments (along with Second Temple Judaism) stress the importance of “works” or “deeds” (mitzvot) as the proof of faith or commitment to God.

A Theological Lens for Reading Scripture

Another way to get at what is going on in Billings’s article is to suggest his vision of the eschaton is filtered through a later theological lens.

Of course, we all read the Bible through a particular lens. The question is, which lens?

Billings’s lens seems to be that of Reformed and Patristic theology, of a sort that tends to downplay human action in order to elevate God’s glory as the telos of human life.

I fully affirm the biblical emphasis on living our lives to the glory of God, but as a Kuyperian-Wesleyan I see no contradiction in principle between God’s glory and human action.

As a Kuyperian (in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper), I have been influenced by that branch of the Reformed tradition that emphasizes Christian involvement in cultural life to the glory of God. As a Wesleyan (in the tradition of John Wesley), I have been impressed by the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.

Here it might be helpful to note that Wesley was an Anglican—as is Tom Wright.

Even Paul, the chief proponent of justification by faith saw no contradiction between faith and good works, affirming that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and enjoining us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)—a motif that fits well with the Kuyperian emphasis on cultural action and the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification.

So I fully affirm that the goal of life is (and will be, in the new creation) the glory of God. But rather than reducing this to what we today call worship, we should understand that God is glorified when creation—human and non-human—functions as it was intended to, in harmony with God’s will for flourishing.

And if this is our vision of the new creation, it should affect how we live now.

As Paul affirms in 2 Cor 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has passed away, the new has come.”

The Times They Are a Changing (Institutions on the Move)

In a strange coincidence, I received notification today that two of the graduate schools I have studied at (and taught at) are selling their buildings. Both have been trying to sell their buildings for a while, and both have now found buyers.

I received both notifications by email today, with links that pointed to online postings from the day before.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

First, I heard the news about Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (Rochester, NY).

I attended Colgate Rochester in the eighties as an M.A. student, while serving as Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester, and then I moved back to Rochester in the nineties for a tenure track faculty position in Old Testament.

It was as a student at Colgate Rochester that I was first introduced to the writings of Walter Brueggemann, whose vision of the relevance the the Old Testament has shaped my understanding of Scripture. And Brueggemann sent me a nice note of congratulation when I started teaching there.

I lived in the dorms for my first semester as a student at Colgate and then again for a semester when I began teaching (before my family had moved to Rochester).

But for a long time the beautiful buildings on the “Hill” have been underused, ever since the other theological partner schools that shared the campus (Bexley Hall and St. Bernard’s) moved to other locations, and the largely residential student population shifted to primarily commuting students.

So with all those empty buildings, including dorms and the large cafeteria, it makes sense that the Divinity School plans to move to a smaller facility in the city, sometime over the next two years. It would be a significant cost savings, while allowing them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

Institute for Christian Studies

Later in the day I heard the news about the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).

I attended the ICS in the late seventies for my first graduate courses, before I transferred to the University of Guelph for my M.A. in philosophy. While studying at the ICS and during my time in Guelph I worked for the ICS teaching non-credit worldview courses on university campuses in southern Ontario.

It was at the ICS that I received an in-depth exposure to thinking about a Christian worldview, through the institution’s intellectual heritage that could be traced back to the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper.

During my studies at ICS my wife and I lived in a small apartment on the top floor (with roof access), which came with the position of being in charge of janitorial work for the entire building.

I later returned to the ICS in the nineties for my PhD, and taught many adjunct courses in Biblical Studies and Worldview Studies in the Master’s programs. At this point we didn’t live in Toronto, but I commuted to the ICS from St. Catharines a couple days per week.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, who spoke at the ICS on a number of occasions. Wright’s serious historical and theological interpretation of the New Testament has impacted my vision of the text, including its rootnedness in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Between the two times I attended the ICS, the school moved from the fourth floor of the building (where I first had classes) to the second floor, and then to the first floor, having sold the greater share of the five-story building they owned in downtown Toronto to investors.

But now, with the investors going out of business, and the option to buy back the entire building being too much at this time (given the price of real estate in Toronto), it makes sense to sell the entire building (including their own share), while continuing to rent one floor. Just as with Colgate Rochester, this would allow them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

A Future Orientation

What do these two similar stories tell us about the state of Christian higher education today? What do they tell us about what is really important?

Yes, institutions need buildings with adequate space and facilities to pursue their mission. But these two stories point to the very real need to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient for the sake of the mission.

I have all sorts of fond memories of these two buildings (the beautiful stone towers of CRCDS and the old fourth floor of ICS). But it simply won’t do to focus nostalgically on the past. To be effective and faithful, institutions need to be aware of what serves the mission. So while being deeply grounded in tradition (never forgetting the past), faithful institutions need to be oriented to the present and to anticipate the future.

I am a grateful recipient of the formative intellectual traditions I inherited from both these graduate schools. And I am fully supportive of these ways in which each is preparing to meet future challenges.