Why I am an Evangelical and a Methodist

Today marks the beginning of an ongoing series on why I am an evangelical and a Methodist.  I think it is important to be well situated in a particular tradition, but I feel uncomfortable talking about a particular tradition apart from the larger context of what it means to be a Christian.  Indeed, I have always appreciated the wonderful way in which historic Christianity is able to simultaneously embrace universality and particularity. On the one hand, the great truths of the faith are embraced and proclaimed by all major Christian bodies. The kerygma can be heard and recognized in movements as varied as house-church movements in China, African Independent Churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. This is known as the great semper ubique ab omnibus – the faith which is confessed and proclaimed “always, everywhere by everyone.” On the other hand, the Christian church is marked by amazing particularity. There are beliefs, practices and emphases which are peculiar to Quakers or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and so forth. We tend to emphasize our differences more than our catholicity. There are quite a few unresolved tensions in the faith which tend to be reflected in various ways by Christian movements, but this should not obscure the great unanimity of Christian proclamation. The fact that all branches of the church have embraced the Nicene Creed, for example, reflects a deep and abiding sensus communis of the church which must be acknowledged before we discuss the particularities of being a Methodist, Lutheran or a Baptist. It is this deep unity which is reflected in my use of the word evangelical. Today, the word evangelical has been adorned with a wide array of associations, caricatures and political overtones. However, in my use of the word, it primarily refers to a deep commitment to historic orthodoxy. It is that desire to re-discover that great common resonance throughout the history of the church which has always affirmed the centrality of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the great saving power of the Christian gospel.

These blog entries will NOT be focused on what makes me a Christian, or even an historic, evangelical Christian, since that is the common ground upon which most of the readers of this blog will stand.  Rather, these blogs are intended to set forth the distinctive reasons why I am a Methodist Christian. On a personal note, although I am a direct descendent of William Tennent who is famous in Presbyterian circles for his founding of the Log College, I was born and raised in a United Methodist church in Atlanta, Georgia known for its biblical preaching and solid evangelical message.  I have studied at many of the great institutions which, broadly speaking, stand in the Reformed tradition, including Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I later taught missions at Gordon-Conwell for eleven years. Throughout my entire spiritual journey I grew to appreciate many of the great emphases in Reformed theology. However, I was always drawn to the deep roots of my Methodist upbringing. Today, I serve as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in the world within the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition. My sojourn for so many years with brothers and sisters from different traditions helped me simultaneously to appreciate the deep richness and texture of the Christian faith, but also what it is that is distinctive in the Methodist tradition. For me, Methodism did not lose any of the great themes of Reformed theology, but it seemed to bring to the table so much that has often been neglected in the church.

Stay tuned for more posts in this series coming soon…

When Efficiency Doesn’t Get the Job Done… Living into the Extravagance of God- by Timothy C. Tennent

The longer I walk with the Lord, the more I become aware of the unfathomable depth of his grace and mercy in our lives. God’s grace really is amazing. His love is scandalizingly extravagant. If you lend your support to a righteous person or to a prophet by bringing him or her even a “cup of cold water” you will receive the reward of the righteous and the prophet (Matt. 10:42). God is that extravagant with his generosity.

This astounding truth really came home to me this week in a fresh way. I mentioned in my last blog entry how my daughter was going to have the privilege of preaching the first sermon in the Chasi language in the history of the world. For those who didn’t catch that entry, our daughter is working among an unreached group in the middle of rural Tanzania. They have been working over the last year to learn the language of the Wasi people. A few months ago they began a service in Chasi and began to introduce a few Chasi hymns, but the sermon was still in English or Swahili. The time had finally arrived last Sunday (June 12) to preach the first sermon in Chasi. There are ten people on this team who have moved to this area and are learning the language; Four are Americans, two are from Britain and four are from Tanzania itself, but are also having to learn this particular language (spoken by about 40,000 people). Our daughter was asked to give the first sermon. Her text was Hebrews 10:1-4 which is the passage which says that the Law and sacrifices are only a shadow pointing to Christ. This group in Tanzania knows something of the law through Islam (they are nominally Islamic) and they know the need of sacrifice through their traditional religion. The point of Bethany’s sermon was that of the text; namely, that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” The provision of the blood of bulls and goats was in anticipation of a future payment; namely, Christ himself.

Sunday finally arrived and the entire team gathered along with a few Christians from a neighboring language group who are praying for them. However, only three Chasi came to the service and, of those three, two left once the singing was over. Thus, Bethany was in a room where everyone in the entire room could speak English except for one Chasi man. The sermon went forth in Chasi to the one man.

It is here that I want to return to the theme of the extravagance of God. We are so efficiency oriented and so pragmatic that we would never expend such resources for such a meager event (from the world’s perspective). To have ten people leave their homeland, leave their family and friends, leave behind basic comforts such as running water and electricity, and relocate all the way to the heart of Africa and spend months and months learning a language in order to preach the gospel to one man is highly “inefficient.” But, such is the extravagance of God. In fact, this is precisely what God has done in all of our lives. The whole incarnation is about this kind of extravagance. The incarnation is so radical that it strikes us as “foolishness” and a “stumbling block.” That’s the whole point! We can’t imagine the generosity of God. God became man. It wasn’t some kind of temporary disguise or holographic projection. In Jesus Christ God became a man. His love is so extravagant that he steps into our lives and calls us and woos us to himself, despite the deafness of our ears and the leanness of our souls.

I want to live in this kind of extravagance. I want to better exude the radical extravagance of God’s love for a lost world. The cross of Jesus Christ teaches us that God’s greatest redemptive work unfolds under the cloak of failure. I think the same is true when one man hears the gospel among the Wasi. It occurs when we bring that one cup of cold water to the righteous or do anything else in the name of Christ. This past week Bethany sang a new tune into the ears of one Chasi man in the middle of Tanzania. That song, in time, just might become another Hallelujah chorus.

Redemptive History Unfolds…and CNN doesn’t note it! – by Timothy C. Tennent

I have always been intrigued by the disconnect between the redemptive and the ordinary perspective on time and events.  If you open the paper today you will find endless discussions about Weinergate (Anthony Weiner, that is), the 62 trillion dollar US deficit, the NFL lockout, musings about whether Sarah Palin will throw her hat in the ring, the excitement around Apple’s iCloud, and the list goes on.  However, most of this will be quickly forgotten and very little of it, if any, resonates with the great unfolding story of God’s redemption of the world – the missio dei.

Today, for example, an amazing event is taking place in the middle of Tanzania among the Wasi people.  The gospel is being preached in the Chasi language for the first time.  My daughter is a part of a team of ten people who are serving in the middle of rural Tanzania.  They have spent most of the last year doing language learning and, after many months, finally had their first Christian worship service.   However, the sermons were always in English or Swahili because no one had the facility in the language to preach a full sermon in the Chasi language.  That important line has now been crossed.  I am particularly proud because our daughter Bethany was chosen to bring that first sermon in the Chasi language.  So, today, in the middle of rural Tanzania, in a village with no running water or electricity and, certainly no CNN reporters, something happened which won’t make the news.  It seems so “unimportant” in light of the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal or the public humiliation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But, from the perspective of redemptive history, something really amazing happened today.   It will be remembered even into eternity.  Today, on June 12, 2011 the gospel was publically announced among the Wasi for the first time.

How much of our lives, deeds, reading and reflection are really oriented towards the great redemptive events which are unfolding in the world?  I am praying that I might be more discerning and, by God’s grace, begin to notice the great redemptive events which are unfolding all around us – and they won’t be picked up on by CNN.

Where Have all the Wretches Gone? by Timothy C. Tennent

This past Sunday our congregation sang the wonderful hymn by Stuart Townend, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.  Townend is one of my favorite contemporary British hymn writers.  If you haven’t discovered the hymns of Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Christopher Idle or Timothy Dudley-Smith, then you have missed some real treasures!  These contemporary hymn writers have put out a body of work which is, for the most part, theologically solid, musically strong, sensitive to the rhythms of the church year, Trinitarian, and worshipful.

There is a line in Townend’s How Deep the Father’s Love for Us hymn which says, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure; that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.”  Did you notice the modern use of the word “wretch?” by Townend?  If you have followed the adaptation of older hymns into current usage you will be aware of the quiet removal of the word “wretch.”  The most well known examples are in the well known hymns, Amazing Grace and Victory in Jesus.   The phrase, “that saved a wretch like me” in Amazing Grace or “to save a wretch like me” in Victory in Jesus has been rendered in some modern hymnbooks, “to save one just like me.”  It seems that we just don’t like the word “wretch.”  It is entirely too negative for modern sensibilities.  So, there I was singing How Deep the Father’s Love for us when I noticed that someone had changed the last phrase from, “to make a wretch his treasure” to “to make us all His treasure.”  It took over 200 years for people to start meddling with John Newton’s classic Amazing Grace.  Stuart Townend is being de-constructed and re-cast in about ten years.   The problem is, until we really come face to face with our own sinfulness – our naked wretchedness before God, then we can never begin to comprehend the holiness of God.  There is a direct relationship between the comprehension of our sinfulness and our vision of God’s holiness.

So, I encourage you to think about the theological implications which quietly lay behind changing the words to hymns. Here’s another example to ponder and weigh in on this blog what you think.  The hymn The Church’s One Foundation was written in 1866 by Samuel Stone.  One of the lines goes,

“From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.”

In 1983 Laurence Stookey updated it (see current UMC hymnal).  The result is the following:

“From heaven he came and sought us that we may ever be

His loving servant people, by his own death set free”

Think about this change theologically.  What can we learn from this?  I would love to hear from you.  I am praying that God would raise up a whole new generation of hymn writers at Asbury Theological Seminary.   The best hymns are always written by those who have come face to face with their own wretchedness and then captured a glimpse of the depth of God’s grace.

When does a church cease to be Christian? Timothy C. Tennent

I have always appreciated the wonderful way in which historic Christianity is able to simultaneously embrace universality and particularity.  One the one hand, the great truths of the faith are embraced and proclaimed by all major Christian bodies.  The kerygma can be heard and recognized in movements as varied as house-church movements in China, African Independent Churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  This is known as the great semper ubique ab omnibus – the faith which is confessed and proclaimed “always, everywhere by everyone.”  On the other hand, the Christian church is marked by amazing particularity.  There are beliefs, practices and emphases which are peculiar to Quakers or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and so forth.   Often, we tend to emphasize our differences more than our catholicity.  There are quite a few unresolved tensions in the faith which tend to be reflected in various ways by Christian movements, but this should not obscure the great unanimity of Christian proclamation.  The fact that all branches of the church have embraced the Nicene Creed, for example, reflects a deep and abiding sensus communis of the church which must be acknowledged before we discuss the particularities of being a Methodist, Lutheran or a Baptist.  It is this deep unity which is so important to recognize.  We simply do not have the authority to adopt any theological position and continue to call ourselves an expression of the Christian faith.  This is why we have the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It represents the boundaries which define and mark out Christian identity.   If you study church history you will begin to hear that great shared resonance throughout the history of the church which has always affirmed the centrality of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the great saving power of the Christian gospel.  When the church strays from that – as it has done many times – the church begins to lose its power and it begins to wither and die.  Over time, God faithfully raises up better hearers of the gospel and the church is renewed once again.  This process has happened time and time again in the history of the church.

It is true, of course, that the church has not always been in unanimity as to the best way to defend the boundaries of the Church.  Some churches have tended to defend the common experience of being a Christian and living the Christian life in the midst of the world.  Other times, the church has tended to defend the institutional character of the church.  In other places it is the sacraments which must be protected, and serve as the historic link back to Christ and the original apostles.  Still other times, the church has focused on isolated doctrinal expressions.  However, we must not confuse the outposts which defend the borders (whether experiential or doctrinal or institutional or sacramental) with the core itself.  Despite the differences in how the church stays connected to the head, there is unanimity on the common worship of Jesus Christ and His Headship as defined by the Council of Nicea.  Thus, any expression of the church which ceases to worship Jesus Christ and identify Christ as its head as reflected in Nicean Christology has crossed the boundaries and ceases to be the true church.

One of the most important responsibilities of Christian leaders, whether pastors or superintendents or bishops is to make certain that the churches under their care are, in fact, expressions of Christian identity.  This is why it is so distressing to visit the website of St. Paul UMC in Denver.  Their website identifies the “church” as a “United Methodist, Reconciling, and Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community.”  Their “statement of faith” proclaims such affirmations as “We believe that love and compassion are the essence of Spirit,” and “We nurture the Sacred within us all.”

It is clear from many of the statements on the website that the members of this group have abandoned Nicea and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  From my perspective, they are perfectly free to meet together and believe or not believe whatever they want.  However, they must have the courage to remove the phrases “United Methodist” and “Christian” from their name, website and public identity.  Of course, St. Paul UMC is not an isolated situation.  This is merely an example of dozens of such groups across the country who have abandoned Nicea but persistently want to hang on to their identity as “Christian.”

I can only echo the words of Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist, who remarked, “If they are so taken by Buddhism, why do they hang on to Christianity?”