Theological Issues Facing the Church Today – The Birth of Global Christianity

For over 1,000 years the Western hemisphere has been the heartland of the Christian faith. For example, when William Carey, the humble cobbler who would later be called the father of the modern missionary movement, arrived in India in 1793 to preach the gospel, ninety-five percent of the world’s Christians lived in the Western world. Even one hundred years later, at the dawn of the 20th century, nearly ninety percent of all Christians still lived in the Western world. 1 Is it any surprise that 19th century Africans often referred to Christianity as the “white man’s religion”? After all, most Africans had never met a non-white Christian in their entire lives. For much of the world, Christianity seemed inextricably bound up with the rise and fall of Western civilization.

Asbury Theological Seminary and the Wesleyan Message

Dr. Tim Tennent’s response to Dr. Kinghorn’s article:
Reading Dr. Kinghorn’s article is a wonderful and refreshing experience. In this lucid and insightful article, Kinghorn reminds us all why the Wesleyan tradition is such a rich and beautiful tradition. There are two things which I deeply appreciated in the article: First, his emphasis on Wesley’s commitment to historic Christian faith. We live in a day when many in the church take delight in the novelty of their new doctrinal positions. It is all too common to sit in a church today and hear novel doctrines expounded from the pulpit. Kinghorn reminds us that Wesley advocated no “new” gospel, but the historic Christian faith which was “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Wesley was unshakeable in his commitment to the authority of Scripture, the supremacy of Christ and the sole sufficiency of the Christian gospel. This is a message for all time and every culture.

Second, I appreciated the emphasis on the catholicity of Wesley’s message. Precisely because Wesley had such a firm grasp on the great core truths of the faith which all Christians share, he was able to draw strength from a wide variety of Christian traditions. Wesley was as much at home with the Patristics and Reformers as he was with the Pietists and the Puritans. Wesley was not a sectarian and would have decried the kind of provincial denominationalism which so frequently plagues Christian ministries today. As we emerge into the bright light of global Christianity, Wesley’s dual commitment to orthodoxy and catholicity will serve us well as Asbury Theological Seminary prepares ministers to be faithful to Christ and the gospel in the 21st century.

Dr. Ken Kinghorn – Asbury Theological Seminary and the Wesleyan Message

John Wesley invented no new theological doctrines. “Whatever doctrine is new must be wrong” he wrote, “and no doctrine can be right, unless it is the very same ‘which was from the beginning.’” 1 Mr. Wesley said, “If Methodism…be a new discovery in religion…this [notion] is a grievous mistake; we pretend no such thing.” 2 Far from being narrowly sectarian, John Wesley was a catholic Christian. He stood firmly in the main stream of historic Christianity, and drew from many of the tributaries that fed into it.

(1) Early Church Writers. John Wesley often referred to “Primitive Christianity,” that is, the Church from the end of the apostolic age to the early fourth century. Christian writers in this era helped confirm the biblical canon, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the mystery of the Incarnation, through which the eternal Christ entered time and space as fully human and fully God. Mr. Wesley said of those early, “primitive” Christians, “I reverence their writings, because they describe true, genuine Christianity…. They never relinquish this: ‘What the Scripture promises, I enjoy. That the God of power and love may make you, and me, such Christians as those Fathers were, is [my] earnest prayer.” 3

(2) The Protestant Reformation. John Wesley was a Protestant, who believed the Medieval Church had allowed layers of nonbiblical tradition to cloud the gospel of grace. Accumulated ecclesiastical inventions compelled the sixteenth-century Reformation. The Wesleyan message harmonizes with the fundamental themes of the Protestant Reformers, who recovered the supremacy of Scripture above human conventions. The essence of Protestantism is that salvation comes through grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone. Wesley wrote, “We have all reason to expect . . . ‘that [Christ] should come unto us quickly, and remove our candlestick out of its place, except we repent and…unless we return to the principles of the Reformation, the truth and simplicity of the gospel.” 4

(3) Pietism. The Wesleyan tradition also borrows from the seventeenth-century German Pietists. Those earnest Christians championed the individual’s personal knowledge of Christ, serious discipleship, Christian witness, missions, and social ministries. Wesley referred to the Pietist August Francke as one “whose name is indeed as precious ointment. O may I follow him, as he did Christ!” 5 From the Moravian Pietists, the early Wesleyan movement appropriated such means of grace as class meetings, conferences, vigils, and Love-feasts.

(4) The Mystics. The influence of certain aspects of mysticism further reveals the catholicity of the Wesleyan message. John Wesley’s reading of Thomas à Kempis led him first to see that “true religion was seated in the heart, and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts as well as our words and actions.” Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650) and Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651) and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) convinced Wesley of “the exceeding height and depth and breadth of…God.” 6

The mystics also helped Wesley understand the Christian’s privilege of knowing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. He wrote, “The light flowed in so mightily upon my soul, that every thing appeared in a new view….I was persuaded that I should be accepted of Him, and that I was even then in a state of salvation.” 7

(5) The Puritans. The Wesleyan message also bears the influence of the Puritan divines, such as John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Richard Baxter. These prodigious writers highlighted the profound depths of grace, God’s call to purity, and living daily in the light of eternity. “Their judgment is generally deep and strong,” said John Wesley, “their sentiments just and clear, and their tracts on every head full and comprehensive, exhausting the subjects on which they write…. They are men mighty in the Scriptures, equal to any of those who went before them, and far superior to most that have followed them.” 8

The Power of the Wesleyan Witness. All valid Christian traditions preach that justification and adoption give repentant sinners a new standing, in which God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us and frees us from the guilt of sin. The Wesleyan message also emphasizes that regeneration and sanctification give us a new state, in which God imparts Christ’s righteousness to us and frees us from the power of sin. The treasures of the Wesleyan message, have never been more relevant than today.

1 Sermon #13, “On Sin in Believers,” Bicentennial ed., §3, ¶ 9, 1:324.
2 Works, Jackson ed., 3:37.
3 Letter to Dr. Middleton, 24 Jan. 1749, Works, Jackson ed., 10:79.
4 Works, Bicentennial ed., 1:15.
5 Works, Jackson ed., 1:112.
6 John Wesley’s Journals and Diaries, 24 May 1938, Bicentennial ed., 18:243.
7 Ibid.
8 John Wesley, Extracts from the Works of the Puritans, 7:2. Works, Jackson ed., 14:229

The Wondrous Marvels of Prayer

Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously said that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams.” How true this is! In fact, the longer I live the more I have come to recognize that nothing important happens apart from prayer. I grew up in a home where prayer was central. My mother, in particular, was (and continues to be) a great prayer warrior. She begins every day with a focused, extended time of prayer and intercession before God. Only in heaven will we realize how many glorious things have happened and how much evil has been restrained because of my mother’s prayers. Let me share just two examples of how her prayers have changed my life.

Committed to Holiness

For many Christians, the Bible feels like the federal tax code: complicated, contradictory, and awkwardly cobbled together over many years. Small wonder that our libraries are filled with commentaries promising to decode the puzzles we stumble over as we read.

But if we press on, we will discover that the trail sometimes rises up to a high point, to a lookout with a panoramic view of everything below. Standing above it all, we can now see that the maze of twisting trails actually makes sense. A meaningful, unified landscape emerges.

A well-educated man once asked Jesus to identify the most important of all God’s instructions. Quite a challenge, given that 613 specific commands had been tagged and categorized by the scholars of the day! How would Jesus answer? You could say that Jesus “took the man on a hike” to the highest overlook of them all, to a view that simplifies everything: “You shall love the Lord your God”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus not only declared that no commandments were greater than these, but that the whole of Scripture (the law and the prophets) depends on just these two commandments (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).

The apostle Paul presses exactly the same point: “…he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this one sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 12:8-10; Gal. 5:14; see Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18)

John Wesley, the fountainhead of the Methodist revival, had obviously hiked to this very overlook and gazed out across the same landscape. He never tired of reducing everything (the gospel, his ministry, Christianity) to this exquisite simplicity: Love. To wander from this not only leads us away from Wesley, but surrenders away the heart of Scriptural Christianity.

Love has suffered much at the hands of it admirers. For many, it has slipped into a sentimental “niceness” that is toothless, timid and bland. Such love offers a warm (and often naïve) pat on the back to anybody passing by. Others who fear such a fate for love would convert it entirely into actions of mercy, stripped of any emotions of empathy or attraction, driven only by our naked choice to do the right thing. “Don’t confuse love with feelings; show me practical results.”

But the best portrait of love is painted by the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Despite being so familiar and simple, this verse (along with other biblical portraits of the Father’s character) actually lays out key characteristics of real, full-blooded love: Though sin is clearly seen, 1) the lover deeply values “the other”; 2) the lover energetically pursues the “the other”; 3) the lover gladly pours out him/herself for “the other”; 4) the lover’s self-giving enables “the other” to break into fullness of life; and 5) the lover defies all boundaries to love: everyone becomes “the cherished other.” Simply put, the lover is genuinely and joyfully other-centered.

Not surprisingly, sin stands in the opposite camp. If love is other-centered, sin is self-centered. The “works of the flesh” described in Galatians 5 have often been dubbed the “hyphenated” sins because, at bottom, they entangle us in self-promotion, self-worship and self-defensiveness. Now we can see a double simplicity stretching across the whole landscape. Here’s the sum of the matter: God wants to shift us out of self-centered living and into other-centered living. In other words, God wants us to make us resemble himself!

We must not mislabel this project. It is not “Goal 5, Subpoint 2a.” We must not mistake it for a merely inward, personal, or private experience reserved for folks with a pietistic bent. Love towers above all other projects, trumps all other goals and infuses everything that would bear real fruit (I Cor. 13). It refuses to be added like a few grains of salt to the programs we devise, because love itself is the main program, the primary agenda. It is God’s own passionate reaching outward through us, seeking to value all others and embrace all others right out of death and into the full life of God. At their best, our programs merely guide and protect this outward flow of real life.

Of course the Christian life involves daily, incremental growth across a wide range of issues. How many different virtues are there to strengthen? How many different sins must we learn to avoid? How many different calls are we urged to answer? But what if, beneath all this complexity, we were to address the great simplicity head-on? What if we were to ask, along with John Wesley, whether God could…and would somehow work systemically in us, to move us from being self-centered persons to being other-centered persons? Can that kind of transformation take place? Is such grace available? Can we, in this lifetime, by an infusion of God’s own love, actually become persons of active, self-giving, other-centered love? (Col. 3:7-10; Eph. 3:14-21; Rom. 5:5)

A thousand objections will be raised against these daring questions. Sadly, our own track record (whether personally or collectively) would seem to answer them with a resounding “No!” Those of us who have grown up within the movement have often witnessed the painful wreckage caused by enthusiasm running beyond the bounds of Scriptural wisdom. But then again, is it really safer to taxi around on the tarmac to avoid the dangers of take-off? It would seem that spiritual deadness and defeat have taken a far greater toll over the years than excessive hunger for godliness.

The founders of our seminary, along with thousands back reaching to John Wesley, would answer these same questions with a resounding “Yes!” Add to these the countless witnesses from other Christian traditions who (though they would explain it with different metaphors and images) have been so bathed in God’s love for them that they have become outward-flowing fountains of God’s own love to the world.

In many ways our seminary is emerging into a new day. Could another gift of God for us at this point of renewal be that we be re-captured by a vision of the possibilities of grace…in the form of love? Is this not, truly, the Gospel?

Tennent Response:
A well-known reviewer of Christian books once declared that any truly Christian book must contain three elements: color, fire and music. He reasoned that any book which lacked those qualities, however erudite, somehow failed to convey the real essence of Christianity. This is precisely the point which this article so ably sets forth for us. Without love, there is no genuine Christian life and experience. Without love, there is no authentic Christian witness. Without love, we cannot even claim to be doctrinally sound. Love is the color, fire and music of the Christian life. Without it, we are “only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol” (I Cor. 13:1).

The kind of love which this article calls for is, of course, impossible to produce in our own power. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ alone is the embodiment of this kind of love. It can only be manifest in the Christian life as we are “in Christ.” The love which marks the Christian experience is actually the sign and seal of the in-breaking of the New Creation which is embodied in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and which awaits us in all of its fullness at the climax of the ages. In Jesus Christ, this love becomes manifest in our present life and experience as Christians. Now that we are “in Christ” we are able to live out this love in the present age through the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling in us.

By God’s grace, I heartily resound with the prayer of the article; namely, that Asbury Seminary is on its way up the trail to that dazzling vantage point where we, as a community, can see that the many complex challenges of living Christianly in the 21st century can only be met in and through love – that love which has been embodied in Jesus Christ and which we have been called to embody in the world.

Challenges to Theological Education: Moving from “Jerusalem” to “Athens”

Every year thousands of Christians make their way on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. There is something awe-inspiring about walking where Jesus walked and seeing places from the Bible come alive in fresh ways. To re-trace the steps of Jesus from the Praetorium where he was falsely condemned and scourged, to the traditional site of the crucifixion outside the city gate is an unforgettable experience.

Many Christians also re-trace the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. In the Spring of 1999, Julie and I had the privilege of traveling through Turkey and Greece, re-tracing the footsteps of Paul’s great missionary journeys. After our visit to Ephesus, we traveled north and crossed over from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) into Greece just as Paul had done in the first century. We visited such familiar sites as Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth. However, one of the highlights of the trip was the visit to Athens, Greece, the traditional seat of learning and philosophical speculation of the ancient world. This is the birthplace of Plato and the home of Plato’s Academy, regarded by many as the first institution of higher education in the western world.

The Apostle Paul’s time in Athens is recorded in Acts 17. Paul stood on Mars Hill and saw idols and various objects of worship, including an altar with the inscription: “To an Unknown God.” From this impressive rock out-cropping you can look out and see the imposing Acropolis of Athens upon which stand the ruins of the Greek Parthenon. Built in the 5th century B.C., it was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. The Apostle Paul stood on that spot with its impressive view of the Parthenon and, according to Acts 17, declared, “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you!” In 1999, I stood on top of Mars Hill and wondered what it must have been like to hear this amazing proclamation from the Apostle Paul and hear how he used the “Unknown God” as his starting point to proclaim the gospel to the Athenian skeptics gathered at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34).

Tertullian (160-220) once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[1] For Tertullian, “Jerusalem” represented a culture with the revelation of God’s word at the center. “Athens” represented a culture of human speculations, skepticism and instability. Tertullian understood profoundly that Divine self-disclosure powerfully trumps all other knowledge and discourse. Unlike some of the other early apologists, Tertullian wasn’t particularly interested in the insights of the secular philosophers. For him, “Jerusalem” represented a society framed by revelation and, therefore, theological and cultural stability. “Jerusalem” represented a congregation of the faithful gathered to hear God’s Word, and the centrality of the pulpit. In contrast, “Athens” represented dialogue and speculation. “Athens” was the place of religious pluralism, philosophical speculation and dismissive skepticism.

Jerusalem and Athens are symbolic of one of the key shifts in theological education today. Like Tertullian, many of us would prefer to proclaim the gospel – symbolically speaking – from the security and stability of the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. Many of us yearn for a time to return when God’s word was more widely acknowledged and respected. We remember a day when our culture enjoyed far greater stability. However, most all of us realize that we can no longer prepare ministers with this as our primary paradigm. Instead, we are called to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of the raucous, pluralistic, experimental, skeptical environment of “Mars Hill of Athens.” The Apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel not from the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, but from Mars Hill of Athens. Traditionally, Seminary education prepared men and women to occupy places of cultural and religious stability. Graduates were sent to communities where a large percentage of the people either attended church or gave assent to the broad contours of the Christian world-view. Many of the ethical parameters of the Judeo-Christian world-view were widely embraced. Today, this kind of Christendom arrangement has collapsed. We are no longer in Jerusalem. We are in Athens. We are no longer on the Temple Mount, but on Mars Hill. This means that we must prepare men and women for a different kind of engagement in the western world. Our society represents a more profoundly missional context than anything we have previously imagined. Seminaries which have specialized in preparing pastors and teachers, need to also prepare evangelists and church planters. We need a more robust theological and missional training for our students than ever before.

What would happen if you were to travel across our country for an entire year and listen to dozens of sermons from a wide array of denominations? You would experience many sermons which require an enormous amount of good-will from the congregation. In other words, the sermons are prepared in a way which assumes faith and many of the most troublesome questions go unanswered or unaddressed. There would be an extraordinary amount of bland moralizing, cute stories and a few funny jokes. You would meet a lot of nice people. What would be exceptional would be a clear, well thought-out exposition of Scripture and a robust explanation of the Christian gospel which was faithfully applied to genuine cultural challenges or issues of the day. The reason for this is largely because seminaries have trained pastors to inhabit “Jerusalem,” not “Athens.” To borrow a familiar phrase, we are accustomed to “preaching to the choir,” i.e. preaching to the already convinced. However, “Athens” will not put up with bland moralizing, cute stories and a few funny jokes. Athens requires men and women who are well trained in the Christian gospel, as well as fully acquainted with the idolatrous dynamics of contemporary culture, which are, by the way, active both inside and outside the church. We need to be fully aware of where people are culturally, but also where they should be culturally. It requires a solid and nuanced biblical, historical and theological education to equip students to navigate ministry in the midst of such widespread cultural disorder. This is, of course, just one of a number of challenges to theological education today. I am confident that Asbury Theological Seminary is poised to meet this challenge –and to meet it well. John Wesley remains one of the most able examples of someone with deep biblical and theological moorings, a sensitive pastor’s heart, and a ministry which was culturally engaged. May Asbury build on this heritage in our own time as we prepare ministers of the gospel for the 21st century!

[1] Tertullian, , De Praescriptione Haereticorum 7.9.

Committed to the Book

In 1755, John Wesley wrote, “I want to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God. I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book.”

The spirit of Asbury Seminary’s commitment to the Bible is captured in these words of John Wesley. We too are a people of the Book, and we make no apologies for holding to a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Our commitment predates Wesley, however, and goes deeper than the Bible itself. It rests squarely on the conviction that we have a God who speaks and shows–a God of revelation. Like Wesley, we affirm the apex of that revelation to be in the coming of Christ. He is the living Word of God. But we also recognize that the life and ministry of Christ (including what preceded and followed his coming) has been written down in a Book–the book of God–the written Word of God. And with Wesley and a host of others we exclaim, “O, give us that book!”

We believe that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation, and that a serious and sustained study of it will produce both knowledge and vital piety. In the seminary proper, we are committed to a curriculum where the Bible is central for the total formation of persons for ministry. Tradition, reason and experience each come along in their own ways, but always as interpretive lights that help us understand and apply Scripture more faithfully. Furthermore, we want to educate students to not only know the Bible, but to be effective communicators of its message. All of this culminates in our desire that our understanding and use of the Bible will enable us to fulfill the two great commandments: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength–and our neighbors as ourselves.

With these foundational commitments in place for more than eighty years, we declare in our Statement of Faith: “We believe in the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both the Old and New Testaments, the only written Word of God, without error in all it affirms. The Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Holy Spirit preserves God’s Word in the church today and by it speaks God’s truth to peoples of every age.”

Returning to Wesley’s statement above, the thing that’s clear is that above everything else he was a lover of Scripture, and through Scripture, a lover of God in Christ. We desire nothing more than that.

Tennent Response:
There are over 250 seminaries and university based divinity schools which belong to the Association of Theological Schools. This is the major accrediting commission which oversees graduate theological education in North America. If you were to take the time to study the history of each of these schools and the historical details which surrounded the founding of these schools, you would go away humbled by the amazing sacrifice which led to the founding of these institutions. They were founded by godly persons who were committed to seeing men and women trained to serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists and missionaries. You would read inspiring stories of their commitment to the Bible as the Word of God and their deep love for the church of Jesus Christ. However, if you were to visit each of these schools today, you would find that many of these schools no longer believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Most of their graduates would not cry out in the words of Wesley, “Let me be a man of one book!” Many of these same schools no longer view their central mission as serving the church of Jesus Christ. How does this happen? It happens when a school ceases to affirm the absolute authority of God’s Word. Left unchecked, there is inevitable entropy which is present in any institution. Earlier commitments are forgotten. Memories of previous sacrifices diminish. Founding principles are no longer invoked. Having spent several decades in theological education, I can testify that it takes considerable energy and intentionality by the Trustees, Administration, Faculty, Staff and Students of a seminary to prevent an institution from straying from its founding principles.

I have long believed that the church will never rise to a level above its own leadership. If we train men and women who are not firmly and fully committed to the authority of Scripture and the supremacy of Christ, then we cannot expect that the church will affirm either. A church which forgets these truths will not reproduce the faith to the next generation. This is precisely why theological education is so important. This is also why Asbury Theological Seminary is so strategic in the training of ministers for the Church. Asbury has stayed true to its founding commitments. Asbury still produces graduates who love God’s Word and still sense God’s call to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the world!”

The world has changed dramatically since 1923 when Asbury Theological Seminary was founded. We, too, have inspiring stories of men and women who loved the church and who were committed to the Word of God. Our founder and first President, Henry Clay Morrison, was unequivocally committed to the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Now, eighty-six years later, I have been asked to serve as the eighth President of Asbury Theological Seminary. I affirm with the same vigor and earnestness of our founders that the Bible is the inspired Word of God! This is what makes Asbury Theological Seminary such a remarkable place. By the grace of God, we have not forgotten our founding principles. By the grace of God, may we never forget.