An Interview with Fred Sanders

Greg Strand – September 19, 2012 2 Comments

John Starke, “You’re a Calvinist, Right?,” The Gospel Coalition Blog (June 25, 2012)

Fred Sanders teaches at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. He is a first-rate theologian, who has done excellent work on the doctrine of the Trinity, cf. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He is an excellent theologian who thinks, speaks and writes well. For those of us in the Free Church who live with the “significance of silence” on the soteriologial question of “does faith precede regeneration?” (Arminiamism/Wesleyan) or “does regeneration precede faith?” (Calvinism) (I only included Arminianism/Wesleyan first because it begins with an “A,” just so no one misunderstands!), it is important for us to have a position, to know the best argument for the other position, and then, by God’s grace, to covenant to live life together.

Sanders is an Arminian/Wesleyan. There is much you can learn in this interview about Fred and his theological position, regardless of  your own personal position/conviction, so I encourage you to read the whole interview. I am, however, going to include a number of questions and answers that were part of the end of this interview, when Fred was asked to “finish these sentences . . .” He delineates a good primer on Arminian/Wesleyanism, and offers some wise counsel in the discussion/debate.

Finish these sentences:

You haven’t really considered Wesleyanism unless you’ve read . . .

  1. John Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The first 14 are the most important to read as a set, though all 52 are classic. This is where you get to see Wesley putting first things first, emphasizing the most important elements of his message. God changed the world through this instrument.
  2. William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, or at least his Higher Catechism of Theology. Pope was a conservative British Methodist of the 19th century. I think he is one of the finest theological minds in Protestant history, sadly neglected.
  3. I should probably recommend a controversial book that addresses the five points, though that’s not my favorite genre. Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell’s Why I Am Not a Calvinist is a pretty good presentation of the position.

If you think Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, then . . .

You need a more flexible vocabulary of heresiology. John Wesley’s longest treatise was on original sin, and he affirmed it, right down to the bondage of the will. He put a sermon on the subject into his Standard Sermons. The Wesleyan emphasis on sinners being enabled to respond to the gospel has nothing to do with a high view of human abilities, and everything to do with an optimism of grace and a trust in the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work.

Perhaps anti-Wesleyans do this because they are hoping to make the error of Arminianism more obvious by exaggerating it into its supposedly logical conclusion. But if you think Arminianism is an error, you should just call it “the heresy of Arminianism.” If you have to exaggerate its flaws to make it seem terrible, you probably shouldn’t.

It may also be that some anti-Wesleyans are tempted to characterize Wesleyans by their worst exemplars. There have indeed been Pelagians and semi- demi- hemi- Pelagians in the Wesleyan tradition. I don’t know any other way to interpret Charles Finney. But it’s a basic rule of fair discourse that you should meet your opponent’s views at their strongest and most central, not their weakest and most peripheral. Calvinism has generated its fair share of antinomians, determinists, theocrats, anti-evangelicals, and formalists. Anti-Calvinists shouldn’t attack on that front, but at the places where the tradition is strongest.

The one thing I wish Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of is . . .

Being anthropocentric in their soteriology. Caring more about human free will than God’s glory.

I also wish Calvinists would resist the urge to think of Wesleyanism as the secret to Reformed self-definition. I don’t mind sharpening a position by contrast, but Calvinists need a better foil than Wesleyanism. Only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism. A more instructive opposite for Calvinism probably ought to be Roman Catholicism, if we’re going back to origins. About 200 years ago, I believe the Reformed in Europe still thought of Lutherans as their opposites. I would think today’s evangelical Calvinists would think of liberals as their opposites. But if you think “there are two kinds of people, Calvinists and Wesleyans,” you’re on a false trail; your devil is too small (to paraphrase J. B. Phillips). That will lead you to pick fights with other conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christians who really are on your side of the net in the game that counts.

Sure, Calvinists have J. I. Packer, but Wesleyans have . . .

Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism and more recently The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. This is a one-volume, popular-level introduction to Christian doctrine that is systematically oriented to evangelism in every doctrine. Sound good? It is.

I could also pile up a lot of influential non-theologians here (C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Bill Bright), but I’m assuming your question was probing for a theological communicator of Packer’s stature.

But it’s hard to beat J. I. Packer in any theological camp. He once called Wesley an inconsistent Calvinist. That’s a cute and feisty way of affirming the common ground we share. I like to think of Packer as an inconsistent Wesleyan. He won’t read this, will he?


Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to An Interview with Fred Sanders

  1. Lennart Johansson January 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Hi Greg,

    Interesting read. I came across this post via a link from Roger E. Olson’s blog here:

    If you and the EFCA had only treated Open Theism with the same respect that you seem to treat Arminians/Weslyans I might still have been been part of my EFCA congregation in Madison that I had to leave after 6 years of membership/participation. I understand you think you’re doing “God’s work” defending “the truth” but dialogue and conversation will go much further then misrepresentation and miss-characterizations of the views of those you don’t agree with.

    // Lennart

    • Lennart, thank you for your response/reply. I appreciated the email exchanges you and I had as we were going through our Statement of Faith revision process several years ago. At that time you did not indicate you were wrestling through the issue of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and what that entailed.

      I agree that dialogue and communication are important regarding the Bible’s teaching as understood and ordered in theology. But there also comes a time when it is also vital, important, and essential to state some doctrinal conclusions, for the sake of the gospel/biblical truth and God’s people.

      In Evangelical Convictions (46) we state the following: “among Evangelicals there are various ways of understanding how this electing purpose of God plays out in human history, and various ways, including both the Arminian/Wesleyan and Reformed versions, with their different conceptions of the mysterious interplay of the human and divine wills, are acceptable within the parameters of our EFCA Statement of Faith.”

      For those pursuing credentialing in the EFCA, it is more specific. Our EFCA national Board of Ministerial Standing policy states that it “will not approve credentials for those who deny God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, which includes the future free acts of human beings” (adopted April 2001, cf. EC, 46, n. 34).

      Because our understanding of the gospel and what being an Evangelical entails, we concluded both biblically and historically, through both Reformed and Arminian/Wesleyan theologians and theologies, that open theism was outside acceptable theological parameters. We made this statement along with many other Arminians/Wesleyans (it is inaccurate to equate this with open theism), not just those Reformed.

      Thank you, again, for responding and the opportunity to continue the dialogue we began in 2007.

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