Theology Deathmatch: Brian McLaren vs. John Wesley

Posted: October 19, 2008 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren

 By Matt Horan

John Wesley

John Wesley

      What a treat!  You’re ringside for a battle for the ages–Modern vs. Postmodern for the heavyweight championship of the church.  As far as the tale of the tape, McLaren has the clear advantage–he’s is a full head taller than Wesley, and is at least 150 years younger.  Sounds like no contest, but can 8 million United Methodists be wrong?  Let’s see them contend for the soul of the church of Jesus Christ.

Wesley:  Dr. McLaren, always a pleasure to make the acquantance of a good Irishman.

McLaren:  Good to meet you too, Rev. Wesley, though I’m from Maryland.

Fan in the crowd wearing an “Emerge This!” t-shirt: “Strangely warm” this guy, Wesley!

[A chorus of cheers and boos erupt from the swarming and raucous crowd.  Some Methodists in the crowd join together singing O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, countered by McLaren fans singing out Waiting for the World to Change.]

Wesley: So, Doctor, I like to begin my meetings with a series of questions.

McLaren:  Do you mean the class meeting ques–

Wesley:  What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?

[The Methodists in the crowd jump to their feet, cheering their founder.  Emergents clamor for the referee to step in.]

McLaren:  We’ve never met before.

Wesley: This could take some time then?  That’s all right, go ahead.

McLaren: Probably.  I hang with a rough crowd.

Wesley: Good for you man!  I do as well.

McLaren: I always admired that about you.

Wesley: You say that as if it weren’t commonplace.  Is it so rare for the church to welcome those who would be hard pressed to find themselves “socially acceptible”?  [Wesley casts a glance at a college student at ringside with jet-black hair and a black t-shirt that said, “Socially Unacceptible” on the front.]

McLaren: Probably more rare than it should be.

Wesley: Tragic.  Has the church become a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power?

McLaren:  In some places, I guess you could say.

Wesley:  Utter blasphemy.  Many folks would join our societies long before their justification.  You modern churches have it all wrong.

McLaren: My church is actually “post-modern.”

Wesley: Now how can that be?  Modern means now.

McLaren: True, but we also had a period of time, or a season of thought called “modernism.”  But a new way has emerged, called “post-modern.”

Wesley: So “modern” is now in the past?

McLaren: Yes.  Well, no, not really.  There are still many people who are modern.

Wesley: When will then be now?

A voice from the crowd: This deathmatch sucks!

Wesley: Surely it’s the theological cancer called the doctrine of predestination that is to blame.

[The Methodists come to life, offering a golf clap at best.  Wesley notices that none of them are sitting within the first 14 rows.]

McLaren: I’m not sure I follow.

Wesley: Well why bother to let people who “don’t belong” into the church?  If God’s already decided who’s to be saved and who’s not, then let’s just sit around with the saved and enjoy the company of the saved.  We can all revel in our sameness.  My good friend George Whitefield was swept away into this predestination nonsense.  Even though I considered it calmly and made my arguments with sound reason, he would have none of it.  You a Calvinist, my Irish friend?

[The Emergent crowd chuckles lightly]

McLaren: Not so much.  I’m practically an open theist.  I’m not sure God knows what God’s going to do, let alone what I’m going to do.

Wesley: Well, I see that your free will is in tact.  You may be jumping off the OTHER side of the cliff there, man.  Predestination would make God worse than the devil himself, but surely you cannot find in the Scriptures an uncertainty on God’s behalf about the future.

McLaren: I do.

Wesley: Such as?

McLaren: Exodus 4:24.

Wesley: Touche.  Perhaps God was merely coming to uphold his end of the covenant.  Once Moses’ end of the covenant was upheld, the consequence was no longer in effect.

McLaren:  Perhaps. 

Wesley:  Perhaps indeed.  Have you read Psalm 139:4?

McLaren: Good point.  To be honest, I’m content to live within the tension.

Wesley:  Live within the tension?  No man who keeps to a rigorous life should be burdened by excessive tension.

McLaren: No, I mean some things we’ll never know until we see God face to face and ask.  On one hand, it seems like God changed God’s mind.  On the other, perhaps God was resolute the whole time.  It’s really impossible to know for sure.

Wesley:  Hmm.  This is well reasoned from your experience with the Scriptures.  It would tend, however, to not hold up to the church’s tradition.

McLaren: Ahh, your quadrilateral.

Wesley: My what?

Referee: Hey break it up, break it up.  It wasn’t called that until the 20th century. 

McLaren: Sorry… No, I mean, I love the ancient traditions of the church.  You should see our ancient-future worship services.

Wesley: Ancient-future?  Is that before or after “modern”?

McLaren: Post-modern, mostly.

Wesley: [Sighs.]  Oh good heavens. 

McLaren:  Most importantly, I appreciate the traditions of the church–back when it was committed to social justice, feeding the poor, and speaking out as a prophetic voice against greed and complacency.

Wesley: Ahh… now you’ve got it, son.  You remind me of my days preaching in the open air all over England.  Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can–that’s what I always used to say.

McLaren: I’ve quoted you hundreds of times on that.

Same voice from the crowd: This deathmatch STILL sucks!

[Some of the crowd begins to empty out of the arena.]

Wesley:  Very well, I’ll stump you on this one, Irish. 

McLaren: Do you know where Maryland is?

Wesley: Sounds like you modern–I mean, no longer modern anymore because modern is now in the past, but not entirely–folks go your own way.  You live in your tensions, believe what you like, never pressing each other.  But I assure you that there is no holiness but social holiness!

[A muffled cheer from the remaining Methodists.]

McLaren: Oh, I totally agree.

[A groan from the crowd.  A mass exodus begins.]

Wesley: How’s that?

McLaren: The will of God can only be known in community.  The more open we are to the voice of God that we might hear from others, the more we can be urged to grow and discern the call of God on our lives.  The same Holy Spirit stirs all of us, using each of us to speak to, encourage, and convict each other.  We believe that the Holy Spirit is here, now, convicting the world of sin and justice, warning that God’s judgment will come on all that is unjust.  I try to group people into groups called “cohorts,” so that they can have conversation together about how we might be more faithful to Jesus.

Wesley: If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you live expecting that, by God’s grace, the Spirit desires to stir us all on to entire sanctification.

McLaren: You could say that.  While at the same time, the unsanctified are always welcome.

Wesley: Who’s to say who is entirely sanctified?  1John clearly urges us to respond to the grace of God and His Holy Spirit, living expectantly that the work of God will yield entire sanctification in us.  But be wary of the one who claims that they are entirely sanctified.  They are likely not.

McLaren: Yeah.  I’ve never met one, but I’ve seen them on TV.

Wesley: On what?

McLaren: Oh, um…

[A door closes somewhere, echoing through the arena.]

Wesley: God surely works entire sanctification in people’s lives to maximize their effectiveness in bringing the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in Heaven.

McLaren: Surely she does.

Wesley: [Awkward pause.]  What was that?

[McLaren looks around, confident that the crowds would get into that one.  They look around at the arena, and there’s not a soul anywhere other than McLaren and Wesley.]

Wesley: I was always better outdoors anyway.  Shall we?

McLaren: Right behind you.

[End scene.]

  1. joel says:

    calvinist chiming in..

    Post modernism is still a bit confusing to me (though i recognize by your Wesley’s constant misunderstanding it, its confusing to the person explaining it). there are a few things that I disagreed with, assuming that your opinion is Wesley’s?

    if so, I disagree with the intent directed at Calvinists: “If God’s already decided who’s to be saved and who’s not, then let’s just sit around with the saved and enjoy the company of the saved.”

    i really don’t think this is the view of Calvinists (non-hyper-calvinists…if thats a word haha). I personally believe in predestination, after searching the Bible thoroughly, and have a heart for the lost. If your view point is the Armenian, please explain to me why it is other than the shier reasoning of “whats the point of sharing the Gospel if God has already chosen people of be saved?”. (for those that want to know my logic behind this question, i would be happy to explain)

    thanks for the challenging post, and i hope to hear from you soon. by the way, i really enjoyed the writing style.


  2. joel says:

    i would also like to add some interesting information i found last night after reading this post..

    check out

    it makes the argument that John Wesley was perhaps a thread of spiritual DNA away from being a Calvinist. Interesting that the UMC has taken his theology elsewhere, if this is true. this is the first I have heard of this, and the possibility of a reformed Methodist church is a new idea for me. what do the Methodists think about this?

    reformed methodist confession of faith:

    thanks again for making me learn


  3. matthoran says:

    Well said, Joel. Let’s all chew on this together.



  4. matthoran says:

    A Tiptoe Through T.U.L.I.P.
    By Matt Horan

    I have to disagree with the notion that Wesley’s preaching or writings could be construed as in support of predestination. Let’s consider the five points.

    1.) Total Depravity. Wesley and Calvin would not have been far apart here. However, Wesley taught that while fallen, people maintained the ability to respond to the grace of God. The Holy Spirit goes ahead and draws people to God, making them aware of their need for salvation—an offer that Wesleyans refer to as “Prevenient Grace.” Someone who is “totally” depraved could not even respond to this grace. Perhaps his position could be better described as “Almost Total Depravity.” That would mess up the cute TULIP acronym, though.

    2.) Unconditional Election. Wesley would agree that people are not saved at all based on their living lives that merit it.

    3.) Limited Atonement. I believe that Wesley would strongly disagree here. He preached Romans 1:20, which says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (NASB) Wesley did not believe that anyone will be able to say that they never had the opportunity to respond to the grace of God. He points also to 2Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (NASB)

    To think a little further, disagreement over Romans 1:20 may be a key to the whole conversation. The interpretive argument over Romans 1:20 is between whether it speaks to sin or repentance. One might argue that it speaks to sin, so that no one can say “I didn’t know any better, it’s not my fault that I sinned.” This seems to be Calvin’s view.
    The other side would say that it speaks of repentance, so that no one can say, “I didn’t know any better, so it’s not my fault that I didn’t repent.” This seems to be Wesley’s view.
    [Sadly, we probably interpret it more by the side we’ve already chosen, than a careful exegesis of the text.]

    4.) Irresistable Grace. This teaches that if someone is invited by God, they are unable to refuse. Wesley would again disagree. As people with free-will, he taught that anyone can choose to not accept the grace of God found in Jesus Christ. He might point to Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus invited him to follow, giving all of his possessions to the poor, but he turned down Jesus offer. (Matthew 19:21-22)
    [Again we’ll be tempted to explain this text based on our preconceived position. The argument could be made that Jesus knew what his answer would be, but made him an example of the power of greed. However, it is mentioned here as a reason that Wesley might find free-will instead of predestination in the Scriptures.]

    5.) Perseverance of the saints. This means that an elect person will be saved, and they will never fully fall away and lose their salvation. Wesley would again disagree. It’s challenging to glean a clear word about this doctrine from Wesley. He does speak to the matter in his sermons, such as in “A Call to Backsliders.” Wesley did point to many Scriptures that talk about the righteous falling from their righteousness and bringing eternal consequences. He wisely avoided legalism by avoiding making a list of requirements for keeping salvation once grace had been responded to. However, he did allude to consequences for the former-righteous. He also believed that a person who had received the justifying grace of God could willingly repudiate their faith, thus forfeiting the rewards of righteousness both in this life and in the life to come.


  5. joel says:

    good arguments, as well as counter arguments for/against wesley’s theology. what are your opinions?

    a quick rebuttal to wesley’s take on 2Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for {any} to perish but for {all} to come to repentance.” (NASB)

    to quote a close calvinist friend of mine:
    “the ‘any’ must refer to those whom the Lord has chosen and will call to complete the redeemed, i.e/. the ‘you.’ Since the whole passage is about God’s destroying the wicked, His patience is not so that He can save them all, but so that He can receive all His own. He can’t be waiting for everyone to be saved, since the emphasis is that He will destroy the world and the ungodly. Those who do perish and go to hell, go because they are depraved and worthy only of hell and have rejected the only remedy, Jesus Christ, not because they were created fro hell and predetermined to go there. The path of damnation is the path of a non-repentant heart; it is the path of one who rejects the person and provision of Jesus Christ and holds on to sin. “all” must refer to all who are God’s people who will come to Christ to make up the full number of the people of God. The reason for the delay in Christ’s coming and the attendant judgments is not because He is slow to keep His promise, or because He wants to judge more of the wicked, or because He is impotent in the face of wickedness. He delays His coming because He is patient and desires the time for His people to repent.”- John MacArthur


  6. matthoran says:

    I tossed me in at the beginning of the last post. I don’t think that Wesley subscribes to predestination. Might have gotten lost in the rest of the “tiptoe.” 🙂

    Here’s perhaps a more important question. People come to this issue with their minds already made up. We come to the Scriptures usually looking to find our viewpoint in it, as we do with most of our study of the Scriptures. What is God’s call on our lives from there? How can we–fallen people–faithfully share the message of hope found in Jesus Christ? How can the Word of God speak through us? How can it offer a prophetic word? The gift of prophecy is to be deployed by offering a word of challenge with hope. Can we put our desire for me and my friends to be right so that we can be such messengers? May we all fall on our faces in prayer to that very end, for only God could work such a miracle in and through us.

    Lastly, if “it’s all going to burn,” so to speak, and Jesus is just here to snatch up his elect before “He will destroy the world and the ungodly;” why does Christ waste so much time building a movement by which the Kingdom of God will “come on earth as it is in heaven?” Has God so given up on the world He created, or is He still creating, still renewing, still redeeming–intending to “make all things new”? There is far more hope in that… so much more congruence with the heart of Christ to see justice, peace, and reconciliation worked in this world when we look forward to God’s renewal of this world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, than in plucking out the elect before he destroys everything.

    If Jesus is a lifeboat for our escape from this sinking ship, was the purpose of his teaching merely to convict people of sin? Or did he intend to really change this world? Consider the beatitudes–these are not a word about right belief so that people could be saved. Salvation was to come in transformed lives and transformed culture. Salvation was not to come after people died. In Jesus, salvation is not “someday.” Salvation is here. It’s not future. People “are being saved.” (1Cor 1:18 NASB) Right now people are being reconciled, renewed, redeemed. The grace of God is poured out on everyone, and anyone can receive it. That’s a message that people are desperate to hear from their God, because they were all created by God, for God. There is suffering in this world, but salvation is here. To say that salvation is only for the afterlife is to waste the amazing, prophetic words of Christ that built a movement and have changed the world, saving people from sin and the suffering that it brings. We’ll need Jesus in the future, but we sure do also need Him now! Thanks be to God that salvation is not merely someday down the road, not merely for us when we die. Thanks be to God that Jesus died for all. Thanks be to God that salvation is here, today.


  7. joel says:

    though i disagree with your election theology, and you are right in that “our minds are already made up before approaching theological issues,” I must say that I am encouraged by your drive and your knowledge. I guess if you’re suppose to jump on the calvin train, God has already decided up that and will sovereignly do that. haha.

    to close, I think that whether God’s elect come to know him and are changed by the blood of Christ (my opinion), or if anyone comes to know Christ, it is a beautiful thing to see. I long to see my friends and family come to know the Lord, and I hope that they will have salvation not just in heaven but on earth.

    ill look for future theological debates and hopefully bring a little more battle than between you and me. haha. cya later


  8. Jeannie says:

    While I can’t offer much in the way of your interesting debate I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading it. It was way beyond my tiny tiny brain though.


  9. matthoran says:

    Maybe we can encourage people or serve people or support people together, rather than “do battle”! The church battles too much. 🙂



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