4 Things United Methodists can learn from the Episcopal Church

Asbury Theological Seminary had the recent honor of hosting Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  He preached in historic Estes Chapel from the book of Esther and reminded us all that Haaman’s gallows are being built for all those who stand for righteousness, but we have been called to persevere and to be faithful for “such a time as this.”

For decades we all have witnessed the slow and demoralizing decline of the Episcopal church as it has followed that well trodden path from vibrant faithfulness which joyfully embraced historic Christianity to a place of increasing hostility towards historic doctrines such as the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scriptures, the atoning power of the death of Christ and the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those committed to orthodox faith watched in dismay as they increasingly heard statements from bishops and pastors and read decisions which were made by denominational bodies which revealed that many of their own leaders were no longer adhering to historic faith.   The tipping point came in 2003 when Gene Robinson from Fayette County, Kentucky became the first openly declared homosexual to be ordained bishop.  (He became the bishop of New Hampshire).  This became the presenting issue for decades of frustration with a church which had lost its way.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians rose up and exercised what is known as Anglican realignment.  This is a process where a church recognizes that its bishop is no longer faithful to the gospel so the episcopal “seat” is recognized as being effectively empty.  The church then has to come under the authority of a new bishop.   What occurred was truly remarkable.  Thousands of Episcopalians gathered up the courage to leave their churches.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  However, the African church saved the Episcopalian church in the USA.  Bishops from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, began to extend episcopal oversight to new “mission” churches in the United States.  By 2009 this movement had grown enough so the Anglicans in North America could stand on their own.  In June of 2009 most of these mission churches were brought together under a single umbrella known as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

When Robert Duncan was ordained as the archbishop of the newly formed ACNA he electrified the assembly by boldly challenging the church to plant 1,000 new churches in five years.  The ACNA is doing just that, and will easily surpass the goal which, at the time, seemed impossible.  All across America Episcopalians (who for generations had given millions of dollars to build some of the most beautiful worship spaces in America) have been forced to walk out and leave it all behind.  Entire congregations had to start all over again in schools, storefronts, homes, or renting space from other churches.  Within a single generation the ACNA will easily surpass the Episcopalian church in numbers.

Archbishop Duncan has effectively led this new movement by challenging his flock to be faithful to the gospel and to remember that the church is not about buildings, but about people and about reaching those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  “Courage begets courage” is one of the most important words of advice from the Archbishop to his flock.  What he means by this is that if the people of God take a courageous stand, then it spreads and others are encouraged to take a stand.  The result is a new Reformation.  Because of their courage, Anglicanism in North America has been saved and is being transferred from one wineskin (Episcopalianism) to another wineskin (ACNA).  More importantly, they have also sparked a new reformation within the church as a whole and provided a pathway for others to follow.  What can United Methodists learn from the last ten years of turmoil within the Episcopalian church?

– First, those of us who are committed to historic Christianity must have the courage to speak out and unflinchingly take our stand with Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We simply cannot be silent when pastors, District Superintendents, Bishops or other denominational leaders make statements which are in variance with our own historic witness as a church.  We must do it in love, but we must do it.

– Second, we should not hold out hope that at some point those holding these so-called “enlightened” liberal views will pick up their stakes and leave the church and go start their own church and build their own seminaries, and so forth.   That is not going to happen.  History teaches us that Christians committed to historic faith build churches and Christian institutions.  Those who forsake the core teachings of the faith, generally speaking, do not build churches or Christian institutions.  Instead, they attach themselves to vibrant movements and then take over the structures which were built by the faithfulness and sacrifice of others.

– Third, we must earnestly pray that our denomination will re-discover its own past and be awakened to a new period of faithfulness, evangelism, church planting and societal witness.  The United Methodist church has millions of members who have kept the faith, so we should pray for our church and work earnestly for its renewal.

– Fourth, those of us committed to historic Christianity must deepen our ties to the global church.  While we hope and pray it does not happen, the day may come when we, too, might be forced to leave our beloved denomination and find episcopal oversight in Africa.  Many of our faithful brothers and sisters in New England and the Pacific Northwest may need to act sooner rather than later.

A university President recently commented to Archbishop Duncan that because of the determined faithfulness of the ACNA, his grandchildren will someday hear and believe the gospel.  This testimony is true.  We must recognize that we are fighting for the faith of our grandchildren.  May we have the kind of courage which befits the people of God.


Discipleship, Catechesis in Community: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The fifth reason I am a Methodist is because of the strong emphasis on discipleship in our tradition. Eighteenth-century Oxford where Wesley studied was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism. In short, it was a world quite a bit like North America and Europe today. John and his brother Charles decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.” The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.” The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament. It became known as the Holy Club. They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname Methodist. So the very origin of the word Methodist lies rooted in a small-group-formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is, of course, a very important feature of the Reformed tradition. In my own experience, the Reformed emphasis on catechesis has been very effective in teaching the great doctrines of the faith. What is distinctive about the Methodist emphasis is how it seeks to go beyond simply giving correct answers to doctrinal questions. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life (the word catechesis comes from a root word meaning “to echo”). This is a natural extension of the Methodist theme to focus not only on becoming a Christian, but what it means to be a Christian. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model of discipleship. Normally, new believers were put through an initial instruction period prior to their baptism. This was an introduction to the Christian faith and culminated on Easter Sunday when the new believers were baptized. However, after baptism, the new Christian was put through a second phase, known as mystagogy, which brought the believer into the mystery of what it meant to be a member of the church. This was a period of instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost. Wesley took this idea and united it with the community model of the early Celtic Christians. This developed an entire system of putting new believers in small groups or classes and various discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. These small groups would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. The new Christians would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith. They would worship together by singing a song. The meeting would be over in about an hour and everyone would participate. To this day this is still an excellent model.

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.

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.

“It’s about Community”: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 3

In the introduction to this series (March 28th post entitled “Catechesis is the first step in ‘making culture’”) I noted that we encounter a wide array of models for how the church passed the faith on to the next generation.  I briefly highlighted the catechumen-mystagogy model of the Patristics, the monastic/service  model of the Celtics, the Longer and Shorter catechisms which emerged at the Reformation, and so forth.  My overall argument (which is taking quite a few entries to unfold!) is that the Wesleyan model draws strengths from each of these earlier models.  I am hoping that some of my thoughts might stimulate a renewed appreciation of the Wesleyan model.

I think that the best current book in print on catechesis is Teaching the Faith – Forming the Faithful by Dr. Gary Parrett and Steve Kang.  The good news is that it is a GREAT BOOK.  I had the privilege of teaching alongside of both Parrett and Kang for many years and can testify that they are insightful, generative, theologically sound and have a deep heart for catechesis in the church.  My one criticism of the book, however, is that this landmark book makes no reference to Wesley and the genius of Wesleyan catechesis at all.  Thus, I think it is fair to say that there are huge swaths of Christian humanity out there who have no idea that Wesley is actually one of the great genius’ of catechesis.  If there was ever a leader who knew how to teach people to “echo” the faith, it was John Wesley.  This is why I thought it was worth a few blog entries.

So far, we have explored the role of prevenient grace (part 1) and waiting “in the means of grace” (part 2) which were both important building blocks to a fully Wesleyan understanding of catechesis.  The third genius of Wesley was his profound appreciation for the importance of small groups in spiritual formation.  In other words, catechesis happens in community.  The default idea in the mind of many people suggests that the best spiritual formation occurs when we are “in retreat” or in some solitary place.  As we will see today and in another blog entry in the future, Wesley challenges this notion on several fronts.

18th century Oxford was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism.  In short, it was quite a bit like North America and Europe today.  John and Charles Wesley decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.”  The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.”  The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament.  It became known as the Holy Club.  They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname, “Methodist.”  So the very origin of the word “Methodist” is rooted in a small group formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation.   For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life.   To put it bluntly, it wasn’t just about becoming a Christian, it was about being a Christian.   Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was the instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.  Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands.  The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care (Yes, there were all female groups with female leaders, there were all male groups and there were mixed groups as well).  They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins.  Members in sin would be disciplined.  They would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith.  They would worship together by singing a song.  Everyone would participate.  The meeting would be over in about an hour.  It is still an excellent model.  Wesley was an expert organizer.  But, there are other features of Wesleyan catechesis which are even more remarkable which I will explore in the days ahead.

Waiting “in the means of grace”: Wesleyan catechesis, part 2

The last blog explored how we cannot begin the road to catechesis until we first recognize God’s prior action in our lives.  For Wesleyans this is normally captured in the doctrine of prevenient grace.   This is that grace which “goes before” or “leads the way” whereby God acts to free our human will from the bondage of depravity (non posse non peccare) so that we can then freely choose according to God’s will.

It is here that Wesley inserts the means of grace.  Wesley defines the “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace).  Wesley goes on to identify three primary “means of grace” which God has given to us:  prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper.  Now, quite a wide array of Christian groups accepts the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace.”  They are widely understood as the general means by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ.  In other words, they are God’s instruments to sanctify us.  However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace.  What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient), and justifying grace.  In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith.   Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” have no power in themselves to save anyone.  Rather, they have the power to convey all forms of grace precisely because Christ himself is present in prayer, in the reading of Scripture and in the Lord’s Supper.  So, for Wesley, there is no such thing as an autonomous person reading Scripture, or praying or taking the Lord’s Supper.  These are all done in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Remember, Christ is the only true “means of grace.”  The customary “means of grace” are given to the church as channels to Christ himself.  So, we should exercise our freed wills and avail ourselves of the full range of the “means of grace.”  Wesley encouraged people to wait in the means of grace, not outside them.  He wrote, “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.”

We learn through this that catechesis for Wesley is fundamentally relational.  It is about drawing us near to Christ himself.  In Wesley’s journal we read about a time in his life where he felt a complete lack of faith.  He writes about it on March 4, 1738 (remember, Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate does not occur until May 24, 1738).  Wesley decided to quit preaching because, he reasoned, “how can you preach to others when you have no faith yourself.”  Wesley asked his good friend Peter Böhler if he should give up preaching.  Böhler famously replied, “preach faith till you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”  This captures well the next step in Wesleyan catechesis; namely, waiting for God in the means of Grace, not outside the means of grace.  So, brothers and sisters, however you “feel” keep reading, keep listening, keep praying, and keep coming to the Lord’s Table.

Prevenient Grace as the Foundation for Wesleyan Catechesis: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 1 by Timothy C. Tennent

During these days I am reflecting on how Christians are to “make culture” by reconstructing the grand narrative of the gospel.  The grand story stretches from creation to fall to covenant to incarnation to resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to church to return of Christ to New Creation.  This big narrative of God’s mighty redemptive acts loses its coherence when we only tell bits and pieces of it.  In earlier blogs I have explored how the surrounding post-Christian culture has nearly forgotten the grand story completely.  However, the greatest tragedy is that the church itself has so fragmented and domesticated the grand story that we are called to rebuild the broken walls almost from scratch.

Yesterday’s blog pointed out that the first step is catechesis (church and home – sometimes called altar and hearth catechesis).  I explored some of the major models of catechesis in the history of the church and we are now exploring in more detail the distinctives of Wesleyan catechesis.

Often when Christians begin to think about catechesis they often begin by brainstorming about either what Christians should “do” or “know.”  The “do” list would include such spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading.  The “know” list would likely include such key doctrines as the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity or the specifics of the Ten Commandments.  It may surprise you but this is NOT where Wesleyan catechesis begins.  For Wesley, catechesis begins with Christ himself.  For Wesley, spiritual formation and catechesis does not begin with human initiatives to “do” or “know” anything.  Rather, catechesis begins with the prior act of God in prevenient grace.  For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s action on behalf of the sinner.  Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will.  Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace.  Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).  This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification.  It is God’s act of unmerited favor.  It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ.  Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will” (Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life, 189).

Wesleyans are often wrongly accused of denying human depravity because of our emphasis on free will.  However, Wesleyans believe in total depravity every bit as much as any five point Calvinist.  The difference is that Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then serious theological difficulties arise. (Perhaps a future blog post might explore the many theological conundrums which emerge with the loss of the doctrine of free will).  Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace.  Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God (Love Wins, yes, but Justice also wins).  Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adams nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement).  What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e. a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace.  It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways, but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind and will to respond to God’s grace.

What does all of this have to do with catechesis?  For Wesley, it has everything to do with it, because he believed in waiting upon God “inside the means of Grace” not “outside the means of Grace.”   In the next blog I will explore why this is so important to a proper understanding of Wesleyan catechesis.

The first step in “making culture” is Catechesis!

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today, was at Asbury last week.  What a great blessing he was to our community.  I first encountered Andy Crouch back a few years ago when he published his book, Culture Making.  One of the insights in that book is that it is not enough to simply critique culture, we have to make culture.  Crouch argues that it is important to be able to articulate and identity what features of a particular culture need transformation.  However, he argues we will never turn things around by simply criticizing.  We have to actually create new culture.  We must insert “New Creation” into the present creation.   Amen, Andy!

I am convinced that one of the best ways to create culture is through catechesis.   The word ‘catechesis’ refers to a form of religious instruction, often oral, which allows the essentials of Christianity to be passed down to a new generation.  The word catechesis comes from the word ‘echo’ reminding us that it is our duty to echo the Apostolic message.  One of the great losses in today’s church has been the collapse of catechesis, both in the church as well as in the home.  The faith is not being passed down, so the next generation often does not “echo” it.  We are left with an increasingly domesticated gospel which is far less reproducible than the gospel of the New Testament.

If you look down through the history of the church you will discover many rich traditions of catechesis.  In the New Testament we find catechesis central to the Apostolic message (See 2 Timothy 2:2).  The period after the close of the New Testament, known as the Patristic period, had a rich tradition which put catechesis into two parts.  Part one stretched from Lent to Easter whereby the catechumen was instructed in the basics of the Christian faith.  The instruction culminated in the catechumen’s baptism at Easter.  Part two, known as mystagogy, stretched from Easter to Pentecost.  During this period the newly baptized believer was instructed into the mystery of the church.  Later, we discover the Celtic model of catechesis which was less individualized and more communal.   The monastic tradition became an important model of catechesis.   The Celtic Christians also infused their catechesis with active service of the poor.  The Reformation produced some excellent catechisms which parents used with their children.  They typically focused on several key areas such as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount.  They were often set up in Question and Answer format for memorization.  The Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms are among the most famous in history.  You may recall the famous first question.  What is the chief end of man?  The answer:  To love God and to enjoy him forever.  And so it continued with nearly 100 additional questions.  Surely, one of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition has been their ability to pass down their doctrinal heritage to the next generation.

When I look back at these catechisms I am impressed how each one provides great insights into the the art of transmitting the faith.  John Wesley was acquainted with all of these traditions, as well as a few others I do not have space to mention.  John Wesley drew from the best of all of these and created one of the best models of catechesis in history.  In an upcoming blog I will share a few more thoughts about Wesleyan catechesis.