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John Wesley on “Continual Enjoyment” in the New Creation

Is the New Creation something we should welcome, or something we should grieve? For much of my life, my study of the last things or “end times” brought little more than terror. Taught that the rapture was surely coming soon and fed by the overwarmed and more-fictional-than-they-let-on narratives of the Left Behind series, I was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was something fearful.

I was so wrong.

In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley concludes with what is not only my favorite quote in the Wesley corpus, but perhaps the best description I know (outside of the Bible) of God’s Kingdom in its fullness:

As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for, or parting with, friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And, to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!

I was first exposed to this particular bit of Wesley thanks to my professor from Divinity School, Geoffrey Wainwright, in a lecture on the Kingdom of God and eternal life in Wesley. Some notable features:

  • Priorities. The end of death, sickness, and grief is a secondary joy to the end of sin, which he calls the “greater deliverance.” What would it mean if we lived as if we were more afraid of sin than illness, suffering, or death?
  • Communion. The theme of “constant communion” is used by various ways by Wesley. In a sermon by that name, he writes of the importance of the Eucharist as part of Christian piety.  Might it be that a constant communion via the sacrament is nearly the best we can do, this side of the parousia, to the constant communion of God’s unfettered presence in the Kingdom?
  • Father, Son, & Spirit. Wesley is unapologetically, explicitly Trinitarian.  The union that is the “crown” of all the New Creation is not with an ephemeral deity, some “force” or Ground of Being, but the particular God revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and Councils of the Church.  Wesley is doubly clear that this communion is “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit,” whom he also describes via shorthand as the “Three-One God.”  In an age, at least in North America, of increasing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s important to remember that the vision of the Kingdom that has animated Wesley and the church across time and space is solely dependent upon the Holy Trinity.
  • A joyful union.  Like other Arminians (and his grandchildren in the faith), Wesley is less focused on God’s glory (as Calvinists love to ponder) and far more interested in the joy of unbroken, perfect relationship to the Godhead.  It is not only a knowledge or worship of God, but a “continual enjoyment” of the Trinity, with all creatures in him. Many visions of heaven or of the Kingdom (see N.T. Wright for this critical distinction) are so dreary that one would hardly want to go: the Father has not wrought our salvation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit so we could play golf in perpetuity.  The end is rather, as the Westminster Catechism taught (and Wesley quoted frequently), to “enjoy Him forever.”  That’s why for Wesley, the bottom line of the New Creation is nothing less than the “continual enjoyment” of God without end.

Of course, for Christians, the enjoyment of the Kingdom is not simply a promise that we reach through the door of death, but a way of life here and now.  In his classic The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines the Kingdom as “the realm of God’s effective rule.” When Christ rules in our hearts, and with an increasing intensity as God’s ways hold sway over us through sanctification, we experience the joy of God’s reign.  This is why Wesley regularly insisted, contra the images of dour nuns and dull saints the media gives us, that holiness and happiness are joined at the hip.

That’s the unique enjoyment that only God’s rule in our lives and in our world can bring. That is the promise for which we hope. That is the longing – the one true desire – of which all others are only a pale imitation.

Why wait to experience that joy until the next life? We can enjoy God now, and, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, “anticipate that heaven below.”

When you think of God’s Kingdom, do you think of joy? Why do so many images of the last things focus on fear rather than the enjoyment of God? Leave a comment below!

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Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)

screwtape-fake

A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

[Author’s note: the fake Lewis quote about politics is making the rounds once again following the inauguration.  It was originally passed around in the Fall of 2016, but I suspect it will pop up every now and again.  Thanks for landing here, and for sharing these reflections. I still believe the quote below, actually from Lewis, is more profound than the fake one that has been popularized.]

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE 

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.

screwtape-quote

St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.

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Centrifugal Sin & Church Unity

Basic-ChristianityHuman beings were made for each other.

“It is not good for man to be alone” from Genesis is not first an indication of the need for romantic love, but a basic teaching about the nature of human beings: we were made for each other.  Like many other aspects of human life, this is distorted by sin; we are made for one another, but sin urges us a) towards unhealthy relationships (to adultery and lust, to using people as objects rather than treating them as sisters and brothers) and b) to dissolve relationships and attempt to live without others.  Sin, in a well-worn sermon illustration, distorts both our vertical (with God) and our horizontal (with others) relationships.

John Stott, in his classic little work Basic Christianity, observes:

The tendency of sin is centrifugal. It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors. It estranges us not only from our maker but from our fellow-creatures too. We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity. We find it very difficult to ‘dwell together in unity’.  But God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to himself. So he does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another, he is calling out a people for his own possession. (102)

Another evangelical Brit, John Wesley considered “social holiness” an essential of Christian faith.  This is not, how it is often misunderstood, about social action – he certainly emphasized that, but called it something else – but about pursuing full sanctification in accountable small groups.  The early Methodists knew that disciples grew best not as single potted plants, but as part of a well-tended garden.

To put it simply:

The Spirit draws us together.

Sin drives us apart.

Take a look around at the church and at our world.  Which one is winning?

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Martin Luther Roundtable (#ICYMI)

What do you think of Martin Luther?conciliar post

That’s the question that a group of us have addressed for a recent Round Table discussion over at Conciliar Post.  I’m really humbled to be a part of such a healthy and deep conversation among Christians of different traditions.  In case you missed it, I wrote the Methodist response, but all of them are well worth a your time (especially the others).  Here’s a sample from my contribution:

Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation.  I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself.  The reasons are twofold.  For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition.  Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are.  Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated.  It should be remembered, of course.  Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery.  But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?

The full article is here.  Thanks again to the CP team for letting an amateur Wesleyan theologian hang out with such a sharp group of talented, bright folks.

Is Reformation Day worthy of a celebration? Is Luther a hero or a villain? Leave a comment below!

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Unprofitable Conversation

Don't cast your pearls before swine, friends.

Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to converse with people who are allergic to insight.  This is hard for me, as I enjoy conversation, dialogue, and argument.  But we all know people who seek conversation not out of a genuine search for truth or honest curiosity, but rather out of a desire for power, influence, and self-aggrandizement.  These temptations are there for me also, of course. Only the holiest of saints are totally immune.  But I try to admit when I’m wrong, when I’ve said something poorly or ill-thought.  “Whoever hates correction is stupid,” says Proverbs 12:1.  I’ve learned much from Henry Cloud on how to handle the foolish and the evil (though I’m sometimes better at it in theory than in practice).

So, after wading into conversation with evil fools who despise correction, after giving too much of my attention and energy to those whose only truth is power, whose only language is manipulation, I found these words from John Wesley helpful.  Perhaps you need these words today as well.  And I thank you, dear readers, for correcting me when I am wrong, for offering critique when I could be more clear, and for joining your own reflections to mine that we all might grow in the knowledge and love of God.

From Sermon 81, In What Sense We Are to Leave the World (emphasis added):

8. Here is the sum of this prohibition to have any more intercourse with unholy men than is absolutely necessary. There can be no profitable fellowship between the righteous and the unrighteous; as there can be no communion between light and darkness, — whether you understand this of natural or of spiritual darkness. As Christ can have no concord with Belial; so a believer in him can have no concord with an unbeliever. It is absurd to imagine that any true union or concord should be between two persons, while one of them remains in darkness, and the other walks in the light. They are subjects, not only of two separate, but of two opposite kingdoms. They act upon quite different principles; they aim at quite different ends. It will necessarily follow, that frequently, if not always, they will walk in different paths. How can they walk together, till they are agreed? — until they both serve either Christ or Belial?

9. And what are the consequences of our not obeying this direction? Of our not coming out from among unholy men? Of not being separate from them, but contracting or continuing a familiar intercourse with them? It is probable it will not immediately have any apparent, visible ill consequences. It is hardly to be expected, that it will immediately lead us into any outward sin. Perhaps it may not presently occasion our neglect of any outward duty. It will first sap the foundations of our religion: It will, by little and little damp our zeal for God; it will gently cool that fervency of spirit which attended our first love. If they do not openly oppose anything we say or do, yet their very spirit will, by insensible degrees, affect our spirit, and transfuse into it the same lukewarmness and indifference toward God and the things of God. It will weaken all the springs of our soul, destroy the vigour of our spirit, and cause us more and more to slacken our pace in running the race that is set before us.

10. By the same degrees all needless intercourse with unholy men will weaken our divine evidence and conviction of things unseen: It will dim the eyes of the soul whereby we see Him that is invisible, and weaken our confidence in him. It will gradually abate our “taste of the powers of the world to come;” and deaden that hope which before made us “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” It will imperceptibly cool that flame of love which before enabled us to say, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!” Thus it strikes at the root of all vital religion; of our fellowship with the Father and with the Son.

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John Wesley’s Creed

John Wesley and Creed.  Now that's perfection.

John Wesley and Creed. Now that’s perfection.

“What I like best about being a Methodist is that you can believe anything you want.”

-Charles Wesley (via John Meunier)

Creeds are a point of contention among Christians.  Because we live in an age where authority is a dirty word, the idea that Christians should assent to any set of beliefs about God* is a scandal (dare I say – a heresy?).  Even churches that do affirm the creeds, like the United Methodist Church, are sometimes wary about their liturgical and pedagogical use.  An old article still (unfortunately) found on the UMC homepage actually claims, “Affirmations [like the creeds] help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith.”

The last thing we as Christians need is “our own understanding of the Christian faith.”  There is, after all, a deposit of faith that was revealed in Christ and taught by the apostles; this is what Jude refers to as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

Several folks I read to great benefit have been reflecting on creeds recently, and I commend their work to you.  David Watson of United Seminary asks if the Wesleys were creedal.  Joel Watts develops this, compiling an impressive list of quotations by Wesley on the creeds.  Lastly, Andrew Thompson from Memphis Theological Seminary weighs in on Wesley and the creeds with a focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, including some quite helpful reflections on common misconceptions about the creeds and Methodist worship.  Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards’ thoughtful feedback here and here on two of the above posts is also worth your attention.

Below is an excerpt from a letter that Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic, attempting to find some common ground.  Thompson, linked above, quotes this section in part, observing keenly, “Wesley resorts to a creedal form of writing.”

Ted Campbell once suggested this list “is as close as John Wesley came to a statement of essential fundamental teachings, even though it is not structured as a list of fundamental teachings.”  While not a formal creed, it draws heavily on the structure and content of the Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed.  More specifically, it bears commonality to the baptismal form of creeds (note the personal language of “I believe”). Campbell also notes that a certain Bishop Pearson – whom Watts quotes in the above link – contemporary with the Wesleys, had written a well-known exposition on the Apostle’s Creed, which may have influenced the whole Wesley clan (including Mama Sussanah, who herself wrote a commentary on the Apostle’s Creed).  With all of this in mind, consider what I am happy to call, with only a bit of tongue-in-cheek, John Wesley’s Creed:

A true Protestant may express his belief in these, or the like words:

As I am assured that there is an infinite and independent Being, and that it is impossible there should be more than one, so I believe that the one God is the Father of all things, especially of angels and men; that he is in a peculiar manner the Father of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, whom he adopts in his Son as co-heirs with him, and crowns with an eternal inheritance; but in a still higher sense the Father of his only Son, whom he hath begotten from eternity.

I believe this Father of all, not only to be able to do whatsoever pleaseth him, but also to have an eternal right of making what and when and how he pleaseth, and of possessing and disposing of all that he has made; and that he, of his own goodness, created heaven and earth and all that is therein.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Saviour of the world, the Messiah so long foretold; that, being anointed with the Holy Ghost, he was a prophet, revealing to us the whole will of God; that he was a priest, who gave himself a sacrifice for sin, and still makes intercession for transgressors; that he is a king, who has all power in heaven and in earth, and will reign till he has subdued all things to himself.

I believe he is the proper, natural Son of God, God of God, very God of very Gods and that he is the Lord of all, having absolute, supreme, universal dominion over all things; but more peculiarly our Lord, who believe in him, both by conquest, purchase, and voluntary obligation.

I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.

I believe he suffered inexpressible pains both of body and soul, and at last death, even the death of the cross, at the time that Pontius Pilate governed Judaea under the Roman Emperor; that his body was then laid in the grave, and his soul went to the place of separate spirits; that the third day he rose again from the dead; that he ascended into heaven; where he remains in the midst of the throne of God, in the highest power and glory, as mediator till the end of the world, as God to all eternity; that in the end he will come down from heaven to judge every man according to his works, both those who shall be then alive and all who have died before that day.

I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions, purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.

I believe that Christ by his apostles gathered unto himself a Church, to which he has continually added such as shall be saved; that this catholic (that is, universal) Church, extending to all nations and all ages, is holy in all its members, who have fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; that they have fellowship with the holy angels, who constantly minister to these heirs of salvation; and with all the living members of Christ on earth, as well as all who are departed in his faith and fear.

I believe God forgives all the sins of them that truly repent and unfeignly believe his holy gospel; and that at the last day all men shall rise again, every one with his own body. I believe that, as the unjust shall after their resurrection be tormented in hell for ever, so the just shall enjoy inconceivable happiness in the presence of God to all eternity.

 Before you say, “It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do,” hold the phone.  Wesley adds briefly after this list: “Does he practise accordingly? If he does not, we grant all his faith will not save him.”  For Wesley, it is faith AND works, belief AND practice that make up the Christian life.

So, what do you make of John Wesley’s Creed? What holds up today as truths central to Christian belief? What doesn’t?

Thanks be to God that the Christian faith is not malleable based on our whims.  The good news is this: I don’t have to grope in the darkness and come to my own understanding of God. God has come for me and to me long before I have ever sought out God. What is this God like? I have only to look in the back of the United Methodist Hymnal.

*Outside of believing that God is benignly benevolent and really wants me to be personally fulfilled on my own terms – AKA Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

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Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

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Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven

“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

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A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

Image

Methodist DNA, courtesy of United Methodist Memes

Earlier this month, Mark Tooley of the always-cuddly IRD got a Chris Matthews-style “thrill” up his leg courtesy of John Piper’s poem “The Calvinist,” now set to a dreamlike video complete with cheesy musical score.  This surprisingly apparently moving poem stirred up all kinds of warm fuzzies about Calvinists for Tooley:

“These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama.”

This is in contrast, he says, to the Methodist world. We Methodists are a friendly bunch, with our pot lucks and warm smiles, but we are not particularly inspirational. “Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has,” he laments. Tooley even asks if we would have the moxie to produce something akin to Piper’s bold poem/video.

I’m afraid this confirms a long-held suspicion for me: the leaders of the denominational caucuses, left and right, are not lovers of the Methodist tradition. They look longingly to the progressive utopia of the UCC or Episcopal Church, or enviously to the famous pulpits and lockstep doctrinal enforcement of the Reformed and conservative evangelical communities, and everywhere see greener grass than that of their own ecclesial yard. Yes, they love that John Wesley was inclusive, or read the Bible a lot, but their interest in being United Methodist Christians pales in comparison to their desire to see their ideological agendas win out among competing factions. I am reminded of Solomon deciding the case between two women who both claimed to be an infant’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28); the difference here, of course, is that both “mothers” (read: ideological agendas) would sooner see the baby split in two than the other side “win.”

But on to my own Ode. I have no gift for rhyming; I’m no Jay-Z or Charles Wesley, but I do love my church family, warts and all. Yes, there is some truth to Jon Stewart’s charge that we can be the “University of Phoenix” of religions, and we’ve all felt the Methodist Blues. Wesley’s descendants are nice to a fault, which is probably why the LifeWay study showed we have the most positive name recognition of any denomination. We don’t have celebrity pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll (for which we thank the Almighty), but we do have some pretty awesome folks like Will Willimon and Adam Hamilton. If the 19th century was the Methodist century, and the 20th century was the Christian Century, then the 21st sometimes looks to be a dystopian spiritual landscape in which only the most shallow or extreme forms of Christianity can survive. What is left for the messy middle, or, more properly, the Extreme Center?

I believe the movement started by the Wesleys still has much to offer. We do not have great systematic theologies from our founders to pore over like the Calvinists do, but we do possess  some excellent sermons and correspondences, and hymnody so fantastic that even stoic Presbyterians can appreciate it. We may not be known for dogmatic rigidity, but we are doctrinal bridge-builders: Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology combined the juridical concerns of the Christian West and the therapeutic focus of the East in a unique manner that offers a potential grounds for détente between these two long-separate parts of the Body of Christ.

That is characteristic of Methodism, actually. As my teacher Randy Maddox (see link above) put it, Methodists hold together what other Christians often pull apart. We can boast a love for Scripture & tradition, works of mercy & works of piety, spiritual & intellectual formation, evangelism & sacramental life, grace & works, personal & social holiness.  In other words, we demand to have the cake and devour it, too.

Moreover, we may not have American theologians as renowned as Jonathan Edwards, but we have an impressive network of hospitals, camps, universities, and other mission agencies (in the US and abroad) doing God’s work in diverse ways. Our empire may not have the grandeur of Calvin’s Geneva, but we can boast an early emphasis on abolition and women’s ministry that Calvinism cannot.

Tooley sounds forlorn when stating that Methodism, while quaint, doesn’t “spark the electricity” that Calvinism does. But Jesus never describes the Kingdom like a bolt of lightning (that has a decidedly pagan ring to it). Instead, he says it is like a mustard seed: small, but growing into a giant tree. Or, the Kingdom is like leaven, working slowly and quietly, but with great impact. No, Methodism does not snap and crackle like Calvinism does, but if a little less wattage is the price we pay for not having the horrific imagery of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on our conscience, it is a happy trade in my book.

As for poetry, I’ll see Dr. Piper’s wager (as sexist as it is simple) and raise hymn (ha!) a Charles Wesley tune which, for my money, has more beauty in this single stanza than Piper’s entire poem:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In closing:

For me, being a part of a church is a bit like a marriage. We belong to the church in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. When other suitors begin to look more attractive than our own spouse, it’s not time to wax poetic (and adulterously) about someone who is betrothed to another. Rather, it is time to rekindle that old flame and remember the covenant. That might be my prescription for Tooley and for all in my tribe to who appear to be more about “Right” or “Left” than anything resembling the faith and practice of the Wesleyan movement (or about Jesus, for that matter!): take some time, look at the old photographs, pull out the love letters from the shoe box in the attic, and remember that no relationship grown cold has ever been reignited by singing the beauty of another.

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     If you can’t say anything nice about your own church,
          at least don’t sing the praises of other churches.

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“God has so strangely made them free”: Wesley’s Letter to America

wesley reading

Seems like an appropriate read for the 4th of July: John Wesley’s letter to the Methodist ‘Brethren’ in America, following the conclusion of the American Revolution and the need for the American Methodists to become an independent body.  Note the primary reason for Wesley’s sending of Coke and Asbury: the need for the sacraments, despite his own discomfort with breaking Church of England order. Also notice how odd he thinks it is that there is no national church.  Fascinating stuff. Courtesy of The Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University.

To ‘Our Brethren in America’ [12]

BRISTOL, September 10, 1784.

1. By a very uncommon train of providences many of the’ Provinces of North America are totally disjoined from their Mother Country and erected into independent States. The English Government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical, any more than over the States of Holland. A civil authority is exercised over them, partly by the Congress, partly by the Provincial Assemblies. But no one either exercises or claims any ecclesiastical authority at all. In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these States desire my advice; and in compliance with their desire I have drawn up a little sketch.

2. Lord King’s Account of the Primitive Church [See heading to letter of Dec. 30, 1745, to Westley Hall.] convinced me many years ago that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain. For many years I have been importuned from time to time to exercise this right by ordaining part of our traveling preachers. But I have still refused, not only for peace’ sake, but because I was determined as little as possible to violate the established order of the National Church to which I belonged.

3. But the case is widely different between England and North America. Here there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man’s right by appointing and sending laborers into the harvest.

4. I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury to be Joint Superintendents over our brethren in North America; as also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey to act as elders among them, by baptizing and administering the Lord’s Supper. And I have prepared a Liturgy little differing from that of the Church of England (I think, the best constituted National Church in the world), which I advise all the traveling preachers to use on the Lord’s Day in all the congregations, reading the Litany only on Wednesdays and Fridays and praying extempore on all other days. I also advise the elders to administer the Supper of the Lord on every Lord’s Day.

5. If any one will point out a more rational and scriptural way of feeding and guiding those poor sheep in the wilderness, I will gladly embrace it. At present I cannot see any better method than that I have taken.

6. It has, indeed, been proposed to desire the English bishops to ordain part of our preachers for America. But to this I object; (1) I desired the Bishop of London to ordain only one, but could not prevail. [See letter of Aug. 10, 1780.] (2) If they consented, we know the slowness of their proceedings; but the matter admits of no delay. (3) If they would ordain them now, they would likewise expect to govern them. And how grievously would this entangle us! (4) As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.

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