May 2010


Conclusion

The rest of the book looks at these themes in more detail.  Chapter 2 looks at the Wesleyan focus on the heart before the head   We can reject the extremes of postmodernism and yet recognize that it has exposed the degree to which our ideas are not always about what we say they are, as well as the degree to which the way we formulate our thinking is a function of the whims of time and culture.  Human motives are more constant and true to who we are than the ideas we often use to present them, even cover them up.

Chapter 3 looks at how new perspectives on Judaism and Paul have tended to bolster a Wesleyan-Arminian reading of the New Testament.  The reason is the renewed sense of how important works were in Paul’s thinking about final justification before God, in conjunction with a more accurate sense of how they functioned within Judaism.  The Wesleyan emphasis on righteous living, captured well in Wesley’s notion of entire sanctification, fits well with this renewed understanding, even if the way the tradition has often formulated entire sanctification is more of an experiential inference than a clearly stated biblical teaching.

Chapter 4 continues to look at Wesleyanism and the Bible, this time in terms of developments in hermeneutics.  Again, we do not have to go to the extreme of saying that texts have no meaning to recognize that postmodernism has demonstrated the extreme polyvalence of words.  The broader evangelicalism of the mid-twentieth century, which flowed largely from the influence of the Old Princeton school of the 1800s, has not been nearly as well equipped to handle this multiplicity of meaning as Wesleyan and Pentecostal traditions, which have always tended to read Scripture more pneumatically than contextually.  With a clearer sense than ever of the way the New Testament itself interpreted the Old, these latter traditions are in a good position for taking biblical hermeneutics forward in the twenty-first century.

Chapter 5 then turns to the notion of social justice.  To be sure, the connotations of social justice in the Old and New Testaments do not translate exactly into our world the way they did in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, the Wesleyan tradition has historically championed the cause of the oppressed and disempowered.  It may require some sophistication to lead such causes forward on a large scale today, but this emphasis again finds ready spirits in the younger generations of evangelicals today.

Chapter 6 closes out the book with a look at the “can do” spirit of the Wesleyan tradition and its sense that mission trumps method.  This pragmatic spirit requires a clear sense of priorities and a willingness to compromise on non-essentials.  In an age of inconceivably rapid development in which the emphasis is what Christian groups have in common, these are values that should be perpetuated.

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The fifth MDIV cohort of the year starts today with their Pastor, Church, and World class, taught by Russ Gunsalus.  Our seminary head, Wayne Schmidt, is giving the opening devotional in the picture.

We also this week have the two January MDIV cohorts on campus for the Cultural Contexts of Ministry course, with Norm Wilson teaching.

We are very grateful to God for letting us reach our initial goal of 75 new MDIV students (in addition to the some 65 new MA students this year, about 140 new students this year in all in the seminary).  We are clearly reaching a segment of the ministry population that the traditional seminary is not reaching.

Gloria Deo!

Also, here is Eric Key taking a seminary class in Israel in conjunction with the undergraduate program:

This continues the Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition series.  The last one is here.
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The bulk of those in our tradition continued to interpret the Bible in an individual and direct way.  God might make a specific verse come alive just for you.  He might give you a “life verse” or give you specific directions from a phrase or word that jumped out at you.  The common origins of the Wesleyan and the Pentecostal tradition showed strongly in the way each used Scripture.  These pneumatic and non-contextual uses of Scripture were more individualized than throughout most of church history, but followed the same method many New Testament authors used.

But these were the non-intellectuals of our tradition.  The intellectuals of the Wesleyan tradition joined the stream of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.  It is no surprise that when modernists were treating the Bible as if it were mythical and erroneous in the same way as any other ancient literature that Christians would respond by emphasizing Scripture’s truthfulness and inerrancy.  Evolution was the tool of social Darwinists and was presented in opposition to the Bible.  The bottom line is that those few Wesleyans who engaged in these debates understandably took the fundamentalist and then evangelical side in them. 

But of course the bulk of Wesleyans in the pew were not engaged in such debates.  Those who were took on the errors of that debate.  In particular, both sides in the fundamentalist-modernist debate operated with the same modernist assumptions, leading to some of the key peculiarities of late twentieth century evangelicalism.  For example, the entire debate about the truthfulness of Scripture operated almost exclusively in terms of precise historicity and often a simplistically literal understanding of the Bible. 

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most Wesleyan Bible scholars would recognize that these standards of error are largely foreign to the biblical text.  Most Wesleyan denominations have actually removed the word inerrancy from their articles of religion because of the modernist baggage attached to the word.  Those like the Wesleyan Church that have retained the word have done so without giving it the precise definition it had among the Calvinist evangelicals who promoted it in the mid-twentieth century.

Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of late twentieth century Wesleyanism was the emphasis on mission and evangelism.  It was neither legalism nor fundamentalism that was the emphasis of the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Rather, the focus was on church growth and evangelism.  Even here, however, the emphasis often deteriorated into a myopic focus on numbers.

We must thus view the preoccupations of twentieth century Wesleyanism as mixed.  They continued to preach the power of the Spirit over sin in the Christian life and some lived it authentically.  Others got sidetracked into legalism.  The popular Wesleyan continued to hear the Spirit in the words of Scripture.  Others got too preoccupied with defending the Bible on a playing field set by the Enlightenment, rather than by the Bible itself.  The emphasis on the mission of the church continued, but often with hostility to social justice and with a shallow focus on numbers…

I decided for the sake of seminary students not to confuse what I’m reading this summer with what most of you should be reading.  I plan to read through Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity.  But if you’re taking the Introduction to Theology class this August, you might better spend your reading time this summer with Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding.  It’s a lot shorter and it’s the required textbook!

If the second century of mainstream Methodism brought mixed results, we might say the same for the Wesleyan offshoots of the 1900s.  We have been tracing a number of threads starting with Wesley.  One is a focus on the heart and life change even more than on the head and ideology.  A second is an optimism about the extent to which God wants to make us good in this life.  A third was Wesley’s emphasis on changing society for the better, and a fourth was the priority of mission over method.  We mentioned a further characteristic that surfaced in some of the holiness groups of the late 1800s and early 1900s, namely, a kind of individualized, “spiritual” interpretation of the Bible.

Of these, the Wesleyan holiness denominations of the 1900s largely focused only on the second, entire sanctification. But by mid-twentieth century it had deteriorated in many circles into a shallow kind of legalism focusing on what you should not wear, things you should not do, and places you should not go.  In the meantime, the Wesleyan sense of social justice–standing for those who could not stand up for themselves–also deteriorated into the impulse to preach against the kinds of superficial things it associated with entire sanctification.  Preaching for others deterioriated into preaching against things. 

Meanwhile, most Wesleyan holiness denominations stood by idly as some of the greatest social challenges of the twentieth century passed by.  With great irony, churches that had started to advance the abolitionist cause at best ignored the civil rights movement.  At worst, they actually opposed and resented the very kind of civil disobedience that had once characterized them…

For the last bread crumb, see here.
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So these offshoots of Methodism, as well as many grass roots Methodists, retained some of the same characteristics as John Wesley himself had demonstrated.  They maintained an emphasis on the power of God over temptation in this life.  However, they even more retained Wesley’s emphasis on social justice.  Most of the holiness offshoots of the 1800s formed not as a protest against liberalism or against personal sin but because of social issues.  Indeed, if we were to apply contemporary labeling anachronistically to the Wesleyan Methodists and Free Methodists, we would say they left the Methodist Episcopal Church because it was too socially conservative while God was calling them to liberate society from its fallen structures.  Chapter 5 again takes up this thread of the Wesleyan tradition today.

American evangelical Christianity in the 1800s had two dominant streams.  The one was the heavily cognitive form of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield at Princeton Seminary.  However, one might argue that the more dominant and influential form of evangelicalism at the time was revivalism. [7]  Charles G. Finney in the first half and D. L. Moody in the second advanced a personal form of Christianity that focused more on experience and a personal encounter with God than the Calvinist “evangelicals” at Princeton.  This emphasis on feeling certainly related to the currents of the age, but it also stood in continuity with Wesley’s own orientation around the practical and experiences of the Holy Spirit.  Chapter 2 will take up the focus on the heart more than the head in relation to today, while chapter 6 will revisit the practical spirit of Wesleyanism in carrying out the missio Dei, the “mission of God” in the church and the world. 

The more the emphasis on the direct experience of the Spirit, the more the Bible became an immediate channel of divine revelation to specific individuals.  In this sense, the meaning of the Bible became more and more loosed from traditional interpretations and became more and more “privatized.”  To be sure, the Reformation with its “priesthood of all believers” had encouraged individual believers to interpret the Bible for themselves. [8] 

But for the first three centuries of Protestantism, only significant leaders took this privilege of the individual believer and started new movements with their particular interpretations.  In nineteenth and then early twentieth century American Christianity, with the emphasis on individual experience of the Spirit, the formation of new Christian groups spun out of control, and almost anyone with any charisma could start a new church or denomination.  Split after split saw the rise of tens of thousands of little denominations, each thinking they were the ones truly following the “Bible alone.” [9]

The Wesleyan tradition was no more immune to this tendency than the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Restorationists, the Pentecostals, and so forth.  Even when the heavily cognitive Calvinist tradition of Princeton began to call Christian intellectuals of the early 1900s back to the “fundamentals” (largely in reaction to the “liberal” challenge), grass roots Wesleyanism continued its “pneumatic” interpretations, where preachers stood before camp meetings or congregations and spoke what they thought the Holy Spirit wanted to say to the congregation on that occasion.  Respectable Wesleyan intellectuals of the 1900s would reject this form of interpretation in lieu of the “neo” evangelicalism that rose in the 1940s.  But there were also some strengths to these pneumatic interpretations that we can now recognize more clearly than Wesleyan intellectuals did at one time.  We will revisit these in chapter 4.

[7] As Donald Dayton showed in his celebrated, Discovering and Evangelical Heritage (***)

[8] Martin Luther advanced the idea of the priesthood of all believers in opposition to the Roman Catholic view at the time that saw priests as necessary intermediaries between the common person and Christ.  Luther insisted by contrast that all believers went directly to God through Christ.  The Roman Catholic Church of today has recently acknowledged the same, that in terms of salvation, the believer stands directly before Christ. **  Luther also taught the “perspecuity” of Scripture, the idea that the message of salvation was clear enough in Scripture that any individual believer could find it without the help of a priest.

[9] Paul Tillich considered this dynamic part of the DNA of Protestantism, calling the tendency of Protestantism to split as each individual interpreted the Bible for him or herself the “Protestant Principle.”

The series continues…
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Wesleyanism in the 1800s
Methodism certainly took on a life of its own in North America after Wesley himself passed on and what had been colonies of England became a nation of its own.  The Methodism of the frontier became the established middle class Methodism of the Midwest.  By the mid-1800s, the requirement to be part of one of Wesley’s class meetings slipped away, as did Methodism’s sharp social conscience–at least among Methodist leadership.  It would not be long before Wesley’s emphasis on “Christian perfection” also slipped away from the hierarchy.

It is thus not surprising that the mid- to late eighteen hundreds saw a number of Wesleyan offshoots take form.  We can debate whether they should have stayed with the parent group.  Their exit surely only facilitated a kind of watering down of Wesley’s original vision.  We have to respect someone like Luther Lee, who was forced from the Methodist Episcopal Church because of his opposition to slavery, yet who returned to it after the Civil War had decided the issue in the public forum.  Thankfully, the United Methodist Church of today has recovered some of Wesley’s original sense of social action, ironically while many of its offshoots struggle to regain it.

In the 1800s, however, these Wesleyan splinter groups pointed to the increasing “respectability” of the mainstream Methodist tradition–and to a corresponding loss of social vision.  The Wesleyan Methodist Church formed in 1843 because the Methodist Church refused to take a stand against slavery, leading Orange Scott and Luther Lee as Wesley to go outside the church to proclaim God’s word for the day.  And it unfortunately would not be in a Methodist Church that the woman’s suffrage movement began (1848)–working for the right of women to vote.  It would be in a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York.  And Luther Lee unfortunately did not preach the first ordination service of a women in a Methodist Church (1853) but in a Congregationalist one.  The Methodist Episcopal Church itself would not ordain a woman until 1956, almost a hundred years after its Wesleyan offshoots had made it a regular practice.

The Free Methodist Church formed in 1860 not only over slavery, but also because of the un-Wesley like social stratification created in the Methodist Church by renting the best pews to the highest bidder.  Any number of “holiness denominations” emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reclaim Wesley’s vision for the elimination of intentional sinning in the life of a believer.  To be sure, the idea of entire sanctification had taken on new nuances and at times extremes.  In particular, the impact of Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) modified Wesley’s ideas in some significant ways.

For example, Wesley ranged from a more optimistic expectation that a person might experience “entire sanctification” after seeking it for some time to a more pessimistic sense that only a few people relatively late in life might experience it.  He also emphasized that “perfection in love” was something God dispensed in His own time.  By contrast, Palmer advocated a “shorter way” that put a greater emphasis on the faith of the person seeking sanctification.  Rather than focusing on God’s timing, she focused more on how much faith a person had in seeking.

Most of the Wesleyan-holiness denominations founded in this era have arguably matured in their understanding of sanctification over the last century.  They have both tempered Palmer’s influence with some reclamation of Wesley’s theology and have grounded their sense of Christian righteousness on sounder exegetical ground.  Chapter 3 will look at some of the ways in which today is a great time for the Wesleyan tradition in its sense of “victory” over temptation in the life of a believer…