Four Great Wesleyan Distinctives (Part I)September 12th, 2014
This is the 1st of a 3 part series. Read Parts II and III titled “Four Great Wesleyan Distinctives.”
Asbury Theological Seminary
6th Convocation Address
Estes Chapel, September 02, 2014
Florida-Dunnam Campus, September 04, 2014
The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The Taj is located in Agra, the ancient capital of India and it was built in the 1600’s during the Mughal period. The great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal constructed as a mausoleum for his beloved wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. It took 22,000 laborers 22 years to build this massive marble structure. I have been there several times over the years but I was there again this summer with several of our Trustees who were in India to see one of our global partners and to better understand Asbury’s global initiatives.
The Taj Mahal is made of the highest quality marble in the world, with over ten million precious stones inlaid into it, inside and out. The marble is translucent to light, but is stronger than steel. Its weight is a matter of serious scientific and mathematical calculations among Indian engineers. The Taj Mahal is estimated to be 2.5 trillion tons. The downward force of that much weight is almost incalculable. The fact that such a structure could be built right on the banks of the great Jamuna River and yet has remained unmoved all of these centuries has amazed even contemporary engineers. The entire structure is built on a four layered foundation of interlocking Teak wood. Perhaps the greatest wonder of the Taj Mahal is simply that it is still standing there solid and unmoved.
We could, perhaps, conceptualize the Christian faith as something like the Taj Mahal. Not, of course, a physical building of stones and jewels, but an even more glorious testimony to God’s work in building His church in the world. We are all here this morning because we have been summoned to the feet of Jesus Christ and in service to the Christian gospel. We are mysteriously and redemptively linked to brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the faith throughout the world and back through time. We number far more than the 22,000 who built the Taj Mahal. In fact, when the Apostle John captures a vision of this great company in Rev. 7:9 he says “I looked at there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne. Do you see yourself in that glorious vision?
This morning I want us to capture a glimpse of one part of that vision. I want to look at those of us who have been shaped and formed by the Wesleyan tradition. What is the grand Wesleyan vision of Christianity?
Like the Taj Mahal, the Wesleyan Movement is unintelligible without understanding the deep foundations upon which it is built, without which we would crumble and lose our identity. Like the Taj Mahal, the Wesleyan movement has four major foundations, all interlocking which provides the strength and source of our movement. Therefore, I want to begin by briefly underscoring these four foundations, and then explore four of the grand distinctives of our heritage.
Foundation #1: We are built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul says in I Cor. 3:11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” This is why he says in 1 Cor. 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified” and in Colossians 1:28, “We proclaim Him.” This is why St. John says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life…” (John 3:36). This is the great and deep foundation which we share with any authentically Christian movement in the world. Jesus Christ is both foundation and cornerstone. John Wesley summed up his common cause with the great stream of Christian orthodoxy concerning Christ when he said, “We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians (denied Trinity) and Arians (denied eternal pre-existence of Christ).”
Foundation #2: We are built on the foundation of God’s Word.
This is the second deep foundation which we share with all Christian movements in history. The Apostle Peter in his first Epistle, chapter 1, verse 25 quotes for all of us that great passage in Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers, the flower falls, but the Word of God stands forever!” We affirm with St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” that we all may be equipped for every good work. We humbly remember the words of our Lord when he said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall never pass away.” Martin Luther was once asked why he read the Bible through twice every year. He replied, “because the Bible is like a mighty tree and every word a little branch. I have shaken every ones of those branches, he said, because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant!”
John Wesley spoke not just for himself but for Christians all through the ages when he famously said, “I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me that book of God. Let me be a man of one book! Wesley wanted to be known “homo unius libri” – a man of one book.
Foundation #3: We are built on the great ecumenical tradition of the church.
We are rooted and grounded in the communion of the saints back through tine. We understand, against much contemporary Christian practice, that the gospel did not begin last Tuesday. We have no remit to remake Christianity into our own liking; or to re-invent the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The contemporary United Methodist church is particularly vulnerable to this, so be vigilant. We don’t reinvent the gospel, we faithfully pass it down! We stand in a grand tradition which has stood through the ages, marked by Apostles and martyrs and faithful witnesses of which we have the privilege of joining.
It was St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century who coined the phrase which best captures this truth: “Semper, ubique et ab omnibus” that which has been believed always, everywhere by everyone. St. Vincent was asserting a great truth in the midst of a seething cauldron of challenges in his day: The Donatists (denied Catholicity), Arians (weak Christology), Photinus (denied incarnation), Pelagius (denied the Fall), etc. But, he reminds us that there really is a great tradition, a core kerygma, which the church through all the ages has affirmed, which is stable and rooted in the Apostolic witness. In the midst of the fragmented world of post-modernity where truth has put on the scaffold and all we have left are tiny personal narratives, it is good to be reminded of this great tradition of faith to which we have been summoned.
We see this grand meta-narrative captured in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. We see it in the seven ecumenical councils from the Council of Nicea in 325 all the way to the Second Council of Nicea in 787 where the church established the broad contours of orthodoxy.
We see it defended by Wesley in his letter to Dr. Conyers Middleton in 1749.
It is all too easy for those of us who live on this side of the Great Schism of 1054; who live on this side of the 16th century Reformation, and this side of the profound disunity which characterizes contemporary Christianity, to forget the deep wells of ecumenical Christianity upon which we are built.
Foundation #4: We are built on the foundation of the 16th century Reformation.
John Wesley was a child of both pietism and the Church of England. His father and mother had been born into dissenting families, but both had somewhat dramatic returns to the Church of England. The Church of England gave them their roots in the ecumenical tradition, but their pietistic upbringing gave them deep roots in the Reformation. Wesley was an avid reader of Luther. Both Charles and John had read Luther’s commentary on Galatians just prior to their respective conversions. Wesley had his famous heart-warming experience at Aldersgate on May 24th 1738 while listening to Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. We are rooted in the five great solas of the Reformation: Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!
The First Restrictive Rule at the birth of the Methodist Church established the Articles of Religion, Wesley’s canonical sermons and Wesley’s notes on the New Testament as the doctrinal standards of the Methodist movement. All of these materials clearly demonstrate the orientation of Methodism within the great stream of the Reformation.
It is, therefore, upon these four great foundations: Christ Himself, the Word of God, the ancient ecumenical tradition and the Reformation that the Wesleyan movement arises like a glorious Taj Mahal on the broad plains of Christianity by the great flowing river of Christian faith.
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