Category Archives: Wesleyan/Methodist

Langford on Tradition, Preservation, and Idolatry

 

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At what point does the preservation of tradition – particularly organizational patterns and structures – become little more than idolatrous self-preservation?  Do we in the Church cling to old models more out of anxious fear and idolatrous calcification than a concern for the message, will, and work of Christ in the world?

“Tradition,” said Jaroslav Pelikan, “is the living faith of the dead.”  On the other hand, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Is the Methodist movement, particularly as instantiated in the United Methodist Church, representative of a valuable, vibrant, living tradition, or have we devolved into a virus-like self-replicating traditionalism?

On these and similar questions, I culled a helpful tidbit from one of our greatest theologians in the last half century.  In his classic Practical Divinity, Tom Langford makes the following insight:

Further, it may be argued, there is no value in continuing a tradition only to perpetuate its life.  Indeed, there is a pernicious idolatry in sustaining an organizational form only in the interest of self-preservation.  As the vitality of purpose within a movement declines, there is often an aggressive effort to reinforce the organizational structure that earlier served its dynamic life.  A developed church order may be confused with the initiating and ultimate cause it was intended to serve; and by subtle shift, structure may be perpetuated in the name of the cause.  If the Wesleyan tradition no longer possesses a distinctive contribution and no longer enriches total Christian witness and life, then this tradition and its ecclesiastical structure have no reason to continue. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1983, 270)

There are dynamics here that play out in every organization, of course.  But given the current state of the church in North America, they are particularly applicable for discussion by contemporary Christians.  These are questions that come up at every level of ecclesiastical life, from the local church struggling to “get back to what it used to be” to denominational officials clinging to structures whose original purpose and meaning have been lost.  I see both flexibility and fearful preservation in my own denomination.

We see evidence of flexibility – for better or worse is a matter of judgment above my pay grade – in a recent Call to Action report suggesting some pretty major changes to polity and ministry.  Most interesting is the end of the so-called “guaranteed appointment” and the suggestion to do away with the language of “commissioning” in the ordination process (an obvious move given that no one, outside or inside the UMC, has ever understood exactly what is meant by a practice that amounts to de facto psuedo-ordination).

One aspect of preservation that is clear to see is the traditional(-istic?) insistence on itinerant ministry.  As one hoping to be ordained as an itinerating Elder, I wholeheartedly assent to this practice as is currently implemented by the church.  The issue as that what we now call itinerancy bears primarily a nostalgic resemblance to the itinerancy of of the Wesleys in England and Asbury in the US.  The ideal itinerant was a single male travelling  a “circuit,” not staying in one place very long.  He generally lodged with laypeople on the road, was expected not to marry (to do so would require “location” usually), and his primary ministry was preaching, organizing small discipleship groups, and administering the Sacraments.  We have retained the language of itinerancy while absorbing the larger practices of Mainline Protestant ministry: the professionalization of clergy with its corollary educational requirements, credentialing process, and cultural respectability.  Clergy went from traveling a circuit for a number of years to being in a parish for a number of years.  Even now, when all the stats point to longer pastoral appointments being healthier for all involved, we insist on calling our form of “sent” ministry itinerancy.  We are dangerously close to Papa Wesley’s warning about seeking the power without the form.  Why cling to something just to retain the name?  I think Langford’s warning about “structure being perpetuated in the name of the cause” may ring true here.

At what point does tradition become traditionalism?  When is preservation not idolatry?  If our efforts at excellence/effectiveness/fruitfulness/(insert-cliche’-quasi-business-terminology-for-growth-here) are driven only by a desire to preserve existing structures, to what extent are we serving ourselves rather than Christ?

Langford’s words are interesting fuel for thought for those in any organization facing the specter of decline.  Why keep it going?  If we in the Church don’t know what (read: Who) we are about – and at the local church level this question is often pathetically lacking – then we have a bigger issue than trying to find new and clever ways to grow: we don’t deserve to.

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John Wesley Lays the Smackdown on Predestination

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Granted, it is doubtful that Wesley would be a WWE fan, but it seems like an adequate description of the argument I am about to share.

 
Came across this gem as I began to reread Randy Maddox’s modern classic Responsible Grace in hopes that it will spark ideas as I begin to write my ordination papers.  For Methodists, there is probably no better broad interpretation of Wesley’s whole project than this monograph.  For non-Methodists, it is important for its contributions to practical theology and for its suggestions (via Wesleyan soteriology) toward healing the Orthodox-Catholic rift.

This particular passage comes during a discussion of Wesley’s view of Scripture.  For Papa John, it was important that any text be interpreted within the structure and thrust of the whole Bible.  To defend a devilish doctrine – like predestination – on Scriptural grounds was, for Wesley, an affront to the whole testimony of the Bible.  Predestination, he says,

destroys all His attributes at once.  It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth.  Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil…. But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’.  Hold!  What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be.  Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this….There are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you or I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory.  But this I know, better it were such say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this….No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all this works. (“Free Grace,” quoted in Maddox, 39.)

Calvinism has been resurgent lately (and not the friendly, graceful Barthian version).  I’m not sure why, except perhaps that in an age of sloganeering and polarization, there are folks attracted to strong convictions of whatever sort, regardless of theological merit.  Of course, hardcore Calvinists will say that we Arminians lean towards works righteousness or universalism.  But, with Wesley, I would affirm that double predestination turns the God of the Bible into an unrecognizable tyrant.

 

 

The full text of the above sermon is available here.

Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…

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I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

Geoffrey Wainwright and World Communion Sunday

This Sunday marks the annual celebration of World Communion Sunday, in which many Christians from around the world go to the Lord’s table as a sign of the unity to which we are called.  In preparation for this celebration, I read from Geoffrey Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialogue.  This collection of essays and addresses is culled from the British Methodist’s decades of participation in the ecumenical movement, and broaches both general principles for ecumenical dialogue and the results of recent bilateral work (Methodists with Catholics/Lutherands/Episcopalians/etc.).  This is a brilliant book from a teacher I truly enjoy and admire.

World Communion Sunday brings together themes – church unity and the Lord’s Supper – that Wainwright has himself written on extensively.  I could think of no better way to recognize this Sunday than to quote from Wainwright, whose example shows us that one can be deeply embedded in a tradition and yet firmly committed to relationships and reconciliation with other communions:

…Christians involved in the ecumenical movement have already found it possible to discern sanctity also beyond one’s own ecclesial institution.  If, then, according to the Russian Orthodox dictum, “the walls of separation do not reach up to heaven,” the recognition of graced lives in other Christian communities should encourage the divided Churches to make unity in Christ more manifest on earth. (Methodists in Dialogue [Nashville: Abingdon 1995], 33.)

Abraham Heschel and Jesus the Prophet

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In one of my classes on Methodism, it was stressed that Wesley encouraged his preachers to proclaim Christ “in all his offices” –  prophet, priest, and king. In other words, the substitutionary act of Christ as the mediator of sin – a priestly act – should not override his prophetic and kingly ministries.  Christ ought to be viewed more fully in the multiple roles that he inhabited, regardless of theological proclivities.

I’m currently working my way through a sermon series on Jeremiah (going – mostly – with the lectionary).  As part of my preparation, I’m rereading Abraham J. Heschel’s classic tome The Prophets, or at least the parts that deal with the personalty of the Hebrew prophets and with Jeremiah particularly.  In doing so, I was struck by the ways in which Jeremiah’s rejection as a prophet is echoed later in Jesus’ ministry.

Jeremiah, of course, was branded a traitor by his own people for suggesting that Judah should submit to Babylonian rule.  You may remember that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4:24)

In his chapter on the prophet from Anathoth, Heschel argues,

He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy…What protection was there against such backbiting?  No one could look into his heart, but everybody was hurt by his words.  Only the Lord knew the truth. (The Prophets [San Francisco: Perennial Classics 2001], 157)

He goes on to quote from Jeremiah 17, including

I have not pressed Thee to send evil, nor have I desired the day of disaster, Thou knowest; that which came out of my lips was before thy face.

Heschel’s work is an absolute must-read on these fascinating individuals, whose office was both great and terrible.  Among many other gifts, the Jewish Theological Seminary professor has reminded me of just how strong Jesus’ ties to the Hebrew prophets were – and remain.

Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

Would John Wesley Watch Jon Stewart?

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Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task.  He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society.  He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17’s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies.  He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.

This was not a one-dimensional man.  Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.

Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang.  But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense.  This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church.  Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC.  But I digress.

Was Wesley a radical?  Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960’s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes.  We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise.  In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily.  But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?

Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause.  Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:

32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)

Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful.  As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery.  The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’.  Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.)  Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart?  Doubtful.  But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers.  Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities.  Is that our vocation?

Barthian Snow

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As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2.  From my slight exposure, I love Barth.  I dig his project.  I dig the postliberals that follow his lead.  I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously).  But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.

I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology.  But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians.  I identify with both camps.  In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right).  And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true).  I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper.  I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.

But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head.  Election is now, in his words, an election of grace.  In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical.  But my oh my, is he convincing.  Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be.  But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God.  Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox).  But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself.  In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation.  Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us!  We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).

I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong.  I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides.  But it’s a work in progress.

Now, a little of why I love Barth:

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.  In Him God reveals Himself to man.  In Him man sees and knows God.  In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will.  In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.  In Him God has joined Himself to man.  And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)

I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality.  In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.

At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me.  Or you.  Thanks be to God!

In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?