In the Minority

By Brent E. Dirks

Calvinist or Wesleyan—you choose!

World-renowned evangelist Billy Graham spoke of his struggles with the rules at Bob Jones College. Like him, I have also experienced a Calvinist Bible school, and although it was not as strict as Bob Jones University, I had multiple frustrations. In contrast to Billy Graham, I was the oddball Nazarene attending a Bible school, and I seemed to be the only person who did not believe in eternal security. In the essay that follows, I will show some key differences between the two traditions, Calvinism and Wesleyanism. These differences boil down to a rule-based lifestyle in the Calvinist tradition as opposed to a relational lifestyle in the Wesleyan tradition, which encourages questioning and discussion.

In my pursuit of theological education, I have studied at four different academic institutions. The first school I attended, from the fall of 1996 through the spring of 2000, was one of the most difficult periods of my life. I graduated from high school and wanted to attend a Nazarene college or university, but my finances, or the lack of finances, prohibited this path. To the contrary, attending a Calvinist Bible school was not my dream but it was a start and I had the support of my parents, so why not?

From beginning to end, this Bible school was focused on control. For starters, I was required to agree with the school’s doctrinal statement in order to graduate. Part of that statement was the idea of “once saved, always saved”; people could never go from “being saved” to “being unsaved.” I did not agree with this doctrine. It made little sense—how could God’s promise of salvation still hold true if a person stopped believing in God? Was salvation only dependent on God being true to God’s promises? There is no partnership between God and creation in this view.

Since I did not agree with the concept of eternal security which formed the basis of the doctrinal statement of this school, I could not graduate. This was explained to me at the start of the course, but I remained there since it was the only affordable option if I were to receive a theological education of any kind.

One of the unique experiences I had at that Bible school was that some people tried to “convert” me to believe in eternal security. My not believing in eternal security put something at stake for them. It was as if my not believing in their notion of salvation threatened their own salvation. This is something I have not seen in my Nazarene academic experiences. I didn’t encounter the notion that certain ideas were “dangerous” in the Nazarene institutions I attended. The most memorable of my “proselytization” experiences in Bible school was being visited in my dorm room at 6:00 am (I was awake) frequently where the person tried to convince me of the error of “my” doctrine. This was most extreme in terms of the time of day, but it was not an isolated case. I had many similar experiences where people tried to change my mind. These experiences really hurt me. It was as if my value as a person was of secondary importance and that believing all the right things was the priority.

There was an interesting rule at this Bible school. Students could not propagate their own views. In theory, this meant that students weren’t allowed to disagree with the teachers when their own ideas differed from that of the school. But in practice, there were some lively discussions on certain topics, for example, predestination. Nonetheless, it was clear that I wasn’t supposed to argue my view that salvation is contingent on God’s work and humanity’s participation in God’s divine grace. The idea of a human being as a free agent, actively choosing to partner with God, was neither accepted nor understood.

This differed greatly from what I observed in the Wesleyan schools I attended. There didn’t seem to be any strict rule prohibiting those who were from Calvinistic traditions from voicing their views in class. And they accepted people from other theological traditions into the program since in the Wesleyan there was no requirement for students to affirm their agreement with the doctrinal statement of the institution in order to graduate. It is not surprising therefore that they only offered me a “certificate of completion” which displayed the academic ability I had to complete my studies, rather than being allowed to graduate with a diploma.

Reflecting over the years, I am aware of the many things I have gained from my experiences in the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions. There are certain ideas they have in common, for example, a belief that alcohol should not be consumed. But how the schools in these two traditions dealt with this matter was significantly different. I found the way my initial Bible school dealt with the issue to be much more black-and-white. If a student was caught drinking alcohol, they were immediately kicked out. If people were caught drinking alcohol in the Nazarene schools I attended, they were dealt with in a much more compassionate and relational way. Not all were kicked out!

In this essay I have attempted to show the stark contrast between theological education in the Calvinist tradition compared to the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. The Calvinist system seemed to be based on rules with a rather negative view of humanity. Rules surrounded behavior, including the choice of music listened to. Trying to keep these rules produced a fear of breaking them. In contrast, the Wesleyan-holiness view of humanity is more optimistic, with freedom to discuss and dialogue with those of opposing opinions. It seemed as if those from this latter tradition were not sticking to a rule book, but partnering with God as they worked out their salvation. That was true freedom.

Question: Why do you think that a relationship with God based on love is more fruitful than one based on rules?

Brent Dirks is an assistant professor at Myongji University Science Campus in Yongin-City, Kyeonggi Province, South Korea. He earned his M.Div. from Nazarene Theological Seminary. He’s been teaching English Conversation classes in South Korea since 2008. His hobbies are learning foreign languages and having intriguing conversations.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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