Is a live-streamed pastor on the big screen an “icon”?

Those of you who have studied church history will remember that one of the most sustained conflicts in the church was over the use of icons or images in Christian worship.  The debate raged for centuries between the seventh and the end of the ninth century.  An icon refers to a two dimensional image of a Christian theme, usually of Christ, one of the Apostles or early church fathers.  In an age when the vast majority of Christians were illiterate, the icons were living “windows” into the mysteries of the faith, rich with symbolism, role models for faith and devotion, and historical records of the saints and martyrs of the church.

Those who favored the use of the icons were known as iconofiles, meaning “lover of icons.”  Those who rejected the use of icons were known as iconoclasts, meaning “destroyer of icons.”  The iconoclasts argued that the use of images was idolatry and a clear violation of the Ten Commandments, especially the second command:  “You shall make no graven image.”  The iconofiles reminded the church that there is no more powerful ‘image’ of Christ than the holy sacraments themselves which Christ himself instituted.  Likewise, the widespread use of crosses, images of Christ “at the door knocking” or Duhrer’s praying hands demonstrates that even “low church” Protestants find Christian images comforting and compelling.

My own view is that the church actually dug a theological hole (without realizing it) before the first icon was ever made.  When the church was fighting emperor worship in the first century they insisted that to worship an image of the emperor was the same as worshipping the emperor.   A Christian could not show honor to an image because “there is one emperor, not two.”  To put it another way, the honor that is given to the image “passes over to the prototype.”  Once this argument was accepted it became difficult to dismiss the iconofile notion that honoring an image of Christ brought glory and honor to Christ himself.  The orthodox view is that the “image” is merely a window to the true reality and is not a form of idolatry.  It is actually the opposite of idolatry because, in the case of icons, the true reality is pointed to, whereas in idolatry, a false reality is being pointed to.  The dissenting view is that the “image” distracts from the true and sole worship of God and that to honor an image brings no honor to the Risen Christ.

What is interesting for us today is that this whole issue is descending in fresh form on the church once again.   What is the role of art in the church?  What is the role of visual imagery in worship?  Is the “image” of the preacher extended from one “live” service to a second streamed service in a remote location the same as the presence of the preacher?  What are your thoughts on this?

The Role of Worship: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 8

This blog completes an eight part series on the distinctive of Wesleyan catechesis.  These blogs on catechesis are actually part of a larger project I am exploring through my blogs as to how we rebuild the meta-narrative in the church today.  One of the earliest writers to recognize the collapse of modernity as we in the post-Enlightenment world understood it was the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 article entitled, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.[1] In the article, he coined the word “post-modern” (the term had actually been used by several others even in the 19th century, but not in the way it is used today) and stated what has now been observed by dozens of writers in the subsequent years and that is that the fundamental reality of our time as Western civilization is a growing crisis of truth.  In the modern world there was a belief in an overarching truth – whether informed by a Christian world-view or even a secular belief in progress and the perfectibility of humanity.  Lyotard argued that modern societies produced order and stability by generating what he called “grand narratives” or “master narratives.”  In America, for example, one “grand narrative” is that democracy is the most enlightened and rational form of government and that implementing of democracy will lead to universal happiness.   In contrast, the Marxist “grand narrative” posited that capitalism was collapsing in on itself and that, in time – and spurred by revolution – a utopian socialist world order would evolve.

In the post-modern context, we are only on a virtual voyage where one explores self-created worlds.  Post-modernism marks the movement away from claims to objectivity and a greater emphasis on fragmented forms and discontinuous narratives.  In short, the very notion of truth as Truth has begun to collapse.

Christians know that the only true “grand canopy” of meaning is found in the great redemptive work of God in the world.  However, tragically, today’s church can all too easily become co-opted by the self-referential, consumer driven, emotive oriented forces which are present in the wider society.  Nowhere has this become more evident than in contemporary worship.  There are, of course, some wonderful, truly wonderful, new choruses and hymns being written today.  There is also quite a bit of chaff in the midst of the wheat.  We must recognize afresh that the “worship wars” is not a struggle between hymns versus choruses, any more than in Wesley’s day it was over Psalms versus hymns.  The struggle must be focused on the fact that we worship the living God and all worship is a response to His revelation.

This is, of course, the crowning piece in Wesleyan catechesis: The centrality of Worship.  Wesleyans sing their theology!  Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess, we must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship.  Worship is one of the main ways Wesley forged the great meta-narrative of God’s redemption into the lives of new disciples.  Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith.  If we are to engage in serious catechesis today we must not neglect the renewal of worship.  Our worship must be Trinitarian, theologically rich, memorable and, most of all, faithful to the entire meta-narrative.

[1] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge (MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

The role of Doctrine in Wesley and Wesley’s global perspective: Wesleyan Catechesis, Part 7

We are exploring the role of doctrine in Wesleyan catechesis.  For Wesley, theology arises out of a response to God’s prior initiative, lest it become a dead letter of endless intellectual speculation un-tethered from a vibrant, warm heart.  The third and final aspect of this we will call, The World is My Parish

This third and final feature of Wesley’s theology as it relates to doctrine was his early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as “global Christianity.”  However, few have given proper recognition that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions.  In the post-Aldersgate period, Wesley’s preaching became so controversial that he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the Church of England.   Since he continued to preach in the open fields, he was charged with “trespassing” on the parishes of other ministers.  He replied to this charge in a letter written in March of 1739 with what has become the most famous quote of Wesley, “the world is my parish.”  In the letter he says, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare, unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”[1]

It is difficult for modern day Christians to fully comprehend the radical nature of this statement.  However, the territorial conceptions, as noted earlier, were so strong that it was considered heresy to preach the gospel to those outside your parish.  These territorial conceptions were one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of the Protestant missionary movement.  In contrast, Wesley was ahead of his time in first conceptualizing the church in its full global dimensions and only secondarily in its particularity as, for example, Methodist Christians.  Wesley asked why he should not preach the gospel in “Europe, Asia, Africa or America” for, with the Apostle Paul, he declared, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel (I Cor. 9:16-19).  Wesley declared that he was prepared “to go to Abyssinia or China, or whitersoever it shall please God by this conviction to call me.”[2] Wesley seemed to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible, since Christ is the Lord of the Church and has promised to build his church.  However, the indestructibility of the church is not tied to any particular institutional manifestation of it.  With the dramatic rise of Christians from the Majority World, many of whom do not trace their history to the Reformation, there is a need to discover a deeper ecumenism which can unite all true Christians.  Wesley anticipated the future multi-cultural diversity of the church and the common experience of rebirth from above which unites all Christians of every age.

We have now completed the doctrinal aspects of Wesleyan catechesis.  In the final blog we will explore Wesley’s crowning feature of catechesis.  It is an element we are best known for. Stay tuned!

[1] Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1980), 616.  I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

[2] Ibid., 615.

Practical side of Wesley’s doctrine: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 6

In the last blog I was exploring a bit about Wesley’s understanding of doctrine.  We have seen that Wesley was deeply committed to historic Christian orthodoxy.  We have also seen that Wesley had a very generous spirit of cooperation and collaboration with Christians with whom we disagreed about matters of indifference.   We are exploring three aspects of Wesley’s doctrinal framework.  The first was “unity and diversity” – the relationship between the kergyma and the adiaphora.  The second feature is the relationship between the experiential and the practical.

Experiential and Practical

It has often been noted that, unlike the earlier 16th century Reformers, Wesley’s theology was not set forth in a sustained, systematic fashion.  Rather, Wesley’s theology is derived from his sermons, short treatises, exegetical notes, journals and many letters of correspondence.  This is because Wesley was rightfully suspicious of a theology which was set forth in isolation from the lived experience of Christians.  At the core of Wesley’s theological method was his fundamental commitment to the experience of Christian conversion and the need to apply theology to the practical challenges of the Christian life and the social needs of the larger society.  Wesley insisted that all his preachers learn his notes to the New Testament so that they would be fully Wesleyan in their theology.  Wesley insisted that his preachers expound his canonical sermons to their congregations as a form of sermonic catechesis!  Wesley was a genius in knowing how to teach doctrine.  It was not done through rote memorization of questions and answers, but lively proclamation of doctrine of living congregations of believers!  Now that is experiential and missional catechesis at its best and Wesley does it better than anyone!  Just because it is theopraxis, don’t begin to think he is indifferent to theology.

Wesley’s emphasis on theopraxis and his reluctance to set forth a Methodist “creed” for those in the movement was not because Wesley was indifferent towards theology or the need for doctrinal clarity.  Wesley understood that faith in Christ is first and foremost a response to God’s saving initiative, as opposed to merely granting mental assent to a certain defined set of dogmatic formulations, however true.  Wesley was a trained theologian and preacher of the gospel long before his famous heartwarming experience at Aldersgate which took place on May 24, 1738.  Wesley’s conversion experience at Aldersgate transformed his preaching and his understanding of the Christian gospel.  Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley saw the gospel as beginning in the mind of the Christian as he or she learned to affirm the truths of the Christian faith.  After Aldersgate, Wesley understood that Christianity begins as a religion of the heart.  Wesley’s post-Aldersgate theology looks for the initiative of God in the life of the believer – namely conversion.  Only then, could one respond to God’s grace through doctrinal or theological positions.  As Wesley scholar Albert Outler has observed, “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive truth is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love.”[1]

This emphasis on conversion created the basis for a new frontier in how theology could be simultaneously defining and fixed as well as ecumenical and generous.  In Wesley, the emphasis is no longer on whether your brother and sister shares your precise view of baptism, or church government, or views regarding predestination.  The starting point was to first recognize our common experience as those who have been converted by the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is why Wesley added “experience” to the traditional Anglican triad of scripture, tradition and reason, forming the famous Wesleyan quadrilateral.  Wesley’s theology became rooted in the shared evangelical experience.  Wesley encouraged Christians to embrace the theological distinctives of their tradition, but also to embrace people of genuine Christian experience who differed on matters that did not strike at the heart of historic Christian faith.  Wesley said, “The person of a “catholic spirit”… is steadily fixed in his religious principles, in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; … his heart is enlarged toward all mankind…. This is catholic or universal love…. For love alone gives the title to this character-catholic love is a catholic spirit.”[2] The person of “a catholic spirit,” while not being indifferent to “opinions,” does not base Christian love and concern upon agreement in “opinion”.[3] The role of doctrine in Wesleyan catechesis will continue in my next blog entry.


[1] Albert Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley”  Wesley Center Online, Wesley Center for Applied Theology,, accessed September, 2008.

[2] Catholic Spirit, p. 503.

[3] Catholic Spirit, p. 493, 495.

The Role of Doctrine in Wesley’s “catholic spirit”: Wesleyan Catechesis Part 5

I have been exploring the multi-faceted strands of the genius of Wesleyan catechesis.  So far, we have explored the role of God’s prior action in prevenient grace (part 1), Wesley’s notion of “waiting in the means of grace” (part 2), the role of the community in spiritual formation (part 3) and the missional ethos of Wesleyan catechesis (part 4).  Today, in part five we explore the role of doctrine in Wesley.

John Wesley’s reluctance to produce any precise doctrinal formulation for the “people called Methodist,” along with his “catholic spirit” have led many to wrongly conclude that Wesley was indifferent about the core doctrines of historic Christianity.  It is not unusual to hear Wesley’s famous dictum taken from 2 Kings 10:15: “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand” as a kind of theological “blank check” to endorse the most bizarre departures from historic Christianity as long as it is done with a “warm heart”.  However, Wesley was fully orthodox and fully ecumenical in a way which should inspire us today.  On the one hand, Wesley was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his on various points.  On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops and Calvinist thinkers. He held strong theological convictions and firmly upheld all of the historic Christian confessions.  Wesley would have been dismayed at the erosion of orthodoxy in mainline churches due to the increasing embrace of secular ideologies and a post-modern epistemology.  Wesley was both ecumenical and orthodox; he held firm convictions and had an irenic spirit and warm heart towards those with whom he disagreed.  How was Wesley able to embrace both of these so ably?  The key is to understand how Wesley understood theological enquiry.

There are three key features which together form the broad outlines of Wesley’s understanding of doctrine in the catechesis of new pastors and believers.

Unity and Diversity

First, Wesley makes a firm distinction between the theological unity which is necessary to our identity as Christians while, at the same time, allowing for broad diversity in the non-essentials of the faith.  Historically, this has been expressed through the terms kerygma and adiaphora.  The word kerygma comes from the Greek word meaning “proclamation.”  It refers to the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  Wesley was firmly committed to the historic core of Christian proclamation.  The word adiaphora comes from the Greek word adiaforus, which as used by the Stoics, meant “things indifferent.”  Thus, the adiaphora refers to those differences held by Christians which “are not sufficiently central to warrant continuing division or dispute.”[1] In Wesley’s day there was a belief that Christian belief and practice should conform to the larger national identity.  In other words, if someone lived in England, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of England (Anglican).  If someone was born in Scotland, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).  This meant that Christians in a particular geographic region were compelled to reach agreement not only on the broad essentials of the Christian faith, i.e. the kerygma, but also they had to agree with all the diverse particulars (adiaphora) of whatever national church was in place.  However, Wesley forcibly rejected this territorial understanding of Christian identity.  In Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, he says,

I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong…I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal.  I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over:  Not the least of which is, that if this rule had took place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgment, on which the whole Reformation stands.[2]

Wesley goes on to argue that Christians should be able to dwell together in harmony even if they disagree about basic convictions such as the forms of church government, the modes of baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and so forth. However, Wesley makes an important distinction between “catholic spirit” and “latitudinarianism.”  The latter refers to those who wish to engage in endless speculation about the essentials of the gospel or wish to remain indifferent to holding a particular conviction.  In contrast, Wesley argues that “a man of truly catholic spirit” does not have the right to set up his or her own form of religion.  Rather, a Christian should be “as fixed as the sun in his [or her] judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”[3] He calls on his hearers to “go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”[4] Wesley’s ecumenism was built on the foundation of a shared theological orthodoxy concerning the historic essentials of the Christian faith.

Well, this blog is going on too long, so let me complete my other two points on Wesley’s understanding of doctrine in the days ahead.

[1] John Westerdale Bowker, The Sacred Neuron (New York:  I. B. Tauris, 2005), 120.

[2] Catholic Spirit, 496.

[3] Catholic Spirit, 502.

[4] Ibid.

The missional catechesis of Mr. Wesley: Wesleyan catechesis, part 4

We are examining the multi-faceted strands of the genius of Wesleyan catechesis.  So far, we have explored the role of God’s prior action in prevenient grace (part 1), Wesley’s notion of “waiting in the means of grace” (part 2), and the role of the community in spiritual formation (part 3).  Today’s blog will explore the missional side of Wesleyan catechesis.

Most readers of this blog will be aware that the Christian monastic tradition is a very diverse, multi-faceted tradition.  The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism.  They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream.  Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux,  the Rhineland mystics (e.g. St. Hildegarde or Meister Ecihart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton.  This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina (divine reading of Scripture).  This is a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world.  This is the great active tradition.   The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life.  However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor.  St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order.  Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor.   Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter.  Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world.  Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor.  While Wesley was deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, he really couldn’t imagine catechesis which was not also missional.  This is why holiness for Wesley is never merely personal holiness; it is active, missional holiness.  This is crucial for Wesley’s view of catechesis.  Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons.  For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him.  Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e. we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

It is, of course, a grave error to interpret Wesley’s social activism as either a form of “works-righteousness” (we are justified through our works) or the kind of humanistic social agenda which so often masquerades as Christianity today.  No, this is why these reflections have been placed in the larger context of God’s prevenient grace (God in moving and acting before we get to the soup kitchen or to the mission field or to brick yards or to the pulpit), but also the importance of waiting “in the means of grace.”   All action in the world takes place as a response to his revelation (in the Word and in Christ).

In future blog posts we will explore two more features of Wesleyan catechesis.