Tag Archives: Langford

St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians


Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading
“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

Langford on Tradition, Preservation, and Idolatry




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.