Disruptive Evil vs. Disruptive Grace in Newtown, Connecticut

This past week we all learned of the horrible acts of evil committed by a 20 year old young man armed with an assault weapon in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the end, 27 people were dead – 20 children (all 6 or 7 years old), 6 adults (including the mother of the killer) and the killer himself. This is a bold example of “disruptive evil.” It is the kind of evil which shocked and disrupted us at the deepest level. When the news came across the internet and television you could almost feel the shock and the depth of evil. Many of us were overcome with emotion and sadness. The normal course of our day and our lives was disrupted as the story of this horror entered our lives, and how much more so the lives of the parents and families of the victims. Jesus said that the devil comes to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). This week we saw the devil’s work: children were killed, lives were stolen and families were destroyed. Apparently, it all happened in about two minutes.

Do Christians have anything to say in the face of such evil? Well, I think our first response is not to say anything, but to “weep with those who weep.” Our first response, like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, is to share in the grief of those who are acutely sensing the depth of loss. We should first pray for those families. As a father of two children, I can only imagine the agony that news of such great loss brings. However, we must also remember that evil is not some strange outlier which occasionally raises up its ugly head in a kindergarten class or a movie theater. Rather, we live in a world which is headed towards death and destruction. The Psalmist declared, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any…who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none righteous, not even one” (Psalm 14:2,3). The evil which lost its cover and came so abruptly out in the open this week, is the same evil which is at work in the whole human race all the time in smaller ways.

In contrast, the gospel is about God’s intervention with “disruptive grace” which is even greater than the “disruptive evil” of this world. We are all headed towards death and destruction except through the merciful intervention of God. God has granted men and women free wills (or, more precisely, freed wills). This means that men and women are free to make real choices for evil or for good. Only free will truly makes love possible. God could have created a world of robots who obey his every will. But, obedience to God’s will is not the highest good. Rather, obedience which grows out of a love for God is. God wants our hearts, not just our obedience.

Love involves, by necessity, real choices, including the possibility of rejection. You can make someone obey you, but you cannot make someone love you. Therefore, the same free will which makes love possible also opens the door to the possibility of the utter rejection of God. Real choices which lead to evil, death and destruction are possible in this world, as we have seen this week. Both Mother Theresa and Adam Lanza made real choices in their lives. One chose to move to India and bring God’s love to the dying in Calcutta, the other chose to drive their car to the Sandy Hook elementary school and unleash evil.

This is part of a long narrative. Remember, on that very first Christmas when God the Father made the choice to send His son into the world, King Herod was soon found slaughtering infants in Bethlehem. The overlay of “disruptive grace” which ultimately trumps “disruptive evil” is a long road of redemption which winds though the ragged edges of evil and the crags of despair. Martin Luther King, Jr. summed it up well as he surveyed his own grim landscape of evil when he said “the arc of the universe is long, but it’s bent towards justice.”

If there is any comfort in this tragedy, it must be found in the knowledge that Jesus has borne all the evils and sins of this world on the cross, including the pain in Newtown, Connecticut. God alone knows the depth of this world’s evil. He alone has responded with the cross. The incarnation and cross of Christ is the ultimate act of “disruptive grace” which alone was sufficient to finally overturn the “disruptive evil” of this world. We do not yet see all things under his feet. However, in the end, God will judge the world and will set all things right. There are twenty children right now in the presence of Jesus who are counting on it.

My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.


Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!

Aslan is on the Move

There is a well-known line in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan responds to Lucy after she gets into a “what if” mood.  I’m sure we can all relate.   “What if this had happened, or that had not happened, how would the situation be changed.”   Aslan wisely responds by saying, “Aslan does not tell what would have happened.”   The point is this, we must focus on what is, not what we wished would be.

I sometimes fall into a series of “what ifs.”  Lord, what if the 7th century Christians had translated the Bible into Arabic, rather than dismiss Arabia as a worthless desert, would Islam have still arisen?  What if the pope had not excommunicated the eastern Patriarchs in 1054, would the East and the West be united today?  Lord, what if Leo X had taken Martin Luther’s protests to heart rather than dismiss Luther as a “drunken monk who when sober will change his mind”?   Lord, what if the mainline seminaries in the United States had remained faithful to historic orthodoxy, what would the United Methodist church look like today?  My “what if” list is quite long, how about yours?  

Sometimes my “what ifs” are not so grandiose as wondering about great junctures in the history of the church.  Sometimes, they can get very personal.   What if I had prayed more about this or that situation?   What if I had been a better father?  What if I had taken more time to listen in this or that situation rather than jumping to conclusions or running my mouth?  My personal “what if” list is quite long, too.  Turning the clock back is not just an annual ritual at daylight savings time, but is something I rehearse in my mind when I get in a “what if” mood.  What if I could turn the clock back and re-live that situation.

The good news is that God does not want us to spend time weighing out all these possible contingencies, with the resulting guilt, or self-righteousness, or pity-parties, etc. that arise.  The key is to not focus on human actions or inaction, but on God’s action.  The gospel always trumps both our action and our inaction, even though the gospel will not unfold apart from us.  The amazing truth is that despite human failings, sins and rebellion, whether it be at great junctures in church history, or last night when a conversation with your wife or children when awry, God is on the move.  God can turn every possible scenario, even death on a cross, into an avenue of redemption and hope.  We must trust that God is at work in human history and in our lives. 

This is, at root, what it means to be an “eschatological people.”  This means that we are a people living in the present, but with an eye towards the future and the final consummation of the ages.  We know that all things will end with the vindication of God’s true church and the bending of every knee and the confessing of every mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Admittedly, the plot is nuanced and, at times, our way seems convoluted. But, if we fix our eyes on Jesus and trust in Him, He will bring us to our final destination.  When we look back, even our darkest hour of regret will be yet another testimony to his faithfulness and his redemptive power.

Prevenient Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

First, I am a Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is a collective term for all the ways in which God’s grace comes into our lives prior to conversion. Prevenient grace literally means, “the grace that comes before” and captures well what the early church called the preparatio evangelica, i.e. the preparation for the good news. One of the ways in which the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition is sometimes misunderstood by those in other traditions is in regard to our doctrine of sin. It may come as a surprise to some of our Reformed readers that the doctrine of total depravity (the famous T in the Calvinistic TULIP) is shared by Wesleyans and Methodists just as ardently as by Calvinists. Methodists, like our Reformed brothers and sisters, believe that salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner. Total depravity means that we are dead in our sins and therefore cannot help or assist ourselves. Sin is not merely a “ball and chain” which impedes our progress. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Methodists affirm this truth. However, Methodists take very seriously the theological tension which exists between, on the one hand, the clear teaching of Scripture that we are dead in our sins and totally void of any ability to save ourselves (Eph. 2:1, Col. 1:21, 2:13; Lk. 15:24) and the universal call to the Gospel which requires us to “come” (Matt. 11:28), “repent”(Acts 2:38), “believe” (Acts 16:31) and a whole array of other commands, all of which call us to specific acts of faith and obedience. Since spiritually dead people have no capacity to respond, it is clear that God is bestowing grace in countless ways into our lives prior to our regeneration or conversion. Prevenient grace provides the link between human depravity and universal call. The important difference between Methodists and Reformed Christians is not on the fact of depravity, but on whether God’s prior action is limited to the elect (Limited Atonement – the L in the TULIP) or is universal. Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Methodists believe that God has universally acted on behalf of Adam’s fallen, depraved race. We believe that Christ, as the Second Adam, rescued the human race with an act of grace which grants them the capacity to accept or reject the good news of the Gospel when it is proclaimed. Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God. For, if a spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to God’s call, then upon what basis is he or she held accountable for sin? Prevenient grace demonstrates how we can be totally depraved, yet given grace to respond and, if we do not respond, can be held fully accountable for our disbelief.

For Methodists, 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). Methodists understand this text as referring to a divine 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), lifting us up and giving the human race the capacity 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.”1

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. 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 Adam’s 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. I love the fact that Methodists believe that even if you go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, you will always find that God precedes you and, in effect, “beats you there!” Perhaps prevenient grace is summed up best by the famous interruption to a missionary who was lecturing in Africa about how the missionaries brought the Gospel to Africa. The African believer interrupted and said, “The missionaries did not bring the Gospel to Africa; God brought the missionaries to Africa.” This insightful comment shifts the emphasis to God’s prior agency and the great missio dei (mission of God) whereby God is always the first actor in the great drama of redemption. Wesleyans fully embrace the importance of human decision and the exercise of the will. However, this is not possible without God’s prior action.

1 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 189. Unless otherwise noted, this blog uses the New International Version.

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, http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/16-20/20-01.htm, 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.

“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.