John Wesley and George Whitefield were good friends in the 18th century. Both were instrumental in the first Great Awakening, a revival of the Gospel that swept the American landscape bringing renewed commitment to the Christian faith. Both were traveling speakers on the circuit ride.
One interesting fact about these two friends was that they had strong theological disagreements which would often cause trouble in their friendship. Wesley was a committed Arminian who believed that a person could lose their salvation if they fell into apostasy. He also believed that God’s election was based upon God’s foreknowledge of the person’s freewill choice of Him. Whitefield on the other hand was a strong Calvinist. He believe that one’s salvation was always secure. For Whitefield, this security found it basis in the very fact that God unconditionally elects people to salvation. This type of unconditional election was necessarily precisely because man did not have the ability in his freedom to choose God on his own. These sharp theological differences seemingly tore the two apart.
It is told, however, that Whitefield was once asked whether he thought he would see Wesley in heaven. Whitefield replied “No, I don’t think so. I think that John will be so near to the throne of God that I will not be able to see him.”
I have never checked the sources on this story. Maybe I am afraid that it might to be true (although some would say that I am just scared that Wesley is really the hero–stop it!). Either way, I see this story as the perfect illustration of the humility that you and I should take in our pursuit of theology. Some would say that systematic theology is dead since it is totally divisive and uncertain in it conclusions. I disagree very strongly. With the right attitude, systematic theology will survive. Indeed, it must survive. We can and should (when able) have strong convictions about our beliefs, let just put them in the right place. We need to be able to discern, as Whitefield did, that, as Roger Olson so ably put it, “Beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally.” We will come in contact with many people who disagree with us on some of our strongest convictions. Humility will help us understand that we don’t have it all right. Grace will make us realize that if we are right, good. But there is nothing in and of ourselves that makes us better than the next person. Don’t make yourself out to be the Noah of theology.
Let us put both grace in humility together and see what happens.