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.

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God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation—Theology & Science Conference with Bill Brown in Rochester, NY

Some months ago I gave a heads up about a special conference on Scripture, theology, and the sciences that will take place October 25–26, 2019 at Northeastern Seminary, in Rochester, NY.

The conference is co-sponsored by Northeastern Seminary and the Canadian-American Theological Association (CATA).

Northeastern Seminary previously hosted CATA Fall conferences in 2013 and 2017. The Seminary is honored to again host this year’s conference.

Keynote Speaker—William Brown

The keynote speaker is William P. Brown, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Brown will give a public lecture on Friday evening, October 25, on the topic of human evolution and the garden of Eden, entitled: “From Ardi to Adam: The Garden and Human Origins.”

He will present a lecture specifically for conference attendees on Saturday, October 26, on YHWH’s speeches from the whirlwind, entitled “Job, Astrobiology, and the Science of Awe.”

Call for Papers Now Open

Papers proposals are now being solicited for presentation in one of the concurrent paper tracks to be held throughout the day on Saturday, October 26.

We welcome papers from the theological/biblical or the scientific side, especially those that explore intersections of a biblical vision with issues in science.

You may access (and download) the Call for Papers here.

For those who need to plan ahead, the conference opens at 7:00 pm Friday and runs from 8:00 am till 5:00 pm on Saturday.

This promises to be a rich time of interdisciplinary learning and fellowship between Christians (and others) interested in the science-faith dialogue.

Conference registration will be available on the Northeastern Seminary website as the summer progresses.

Other Co-sponsors for This Year’s Conference

Since this year’s conference will address the intersection of Scripture, theology, and the sciences, it is appropriate that the conference will be co-sponsored by three Christian organizations involved in the science-faith dialogue—the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation,  the American Scientific Affiliation, and BioLogos.

Insightful Jewish Interpretation of the Pentateuch: SBL Panel Discussion of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Held’s latest publication is The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). This is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

I (along with approximately 7,000 others) subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I have also organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego this coming November. The panel will consist of both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, who will share their responses to the book and its project. 

The panel discussion is scheduled to take place 9:00 AM to 11:45 AM on November 24, 2019. This the lineup of presenters.

Presiding:

  • J. Richard Middleton, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Participants:

  • Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School
  • David Frankel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Dennis Olson, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Marvin Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology

Response:

  • Shai Held, The Hadar Institute

This panel discussion is jointly sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures program unit and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics