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A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

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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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Worshiping at St. Relevant of the Contemporary

Your Growtivation for the Day

In the closing chapter of his highly enjoyable For Our Salvation, Geoffrey Wainwright pauses to reflect upon the usefulness of the munus triplex (Christ’s “threefold office” of Prophet, Priest, and King) for today’s church:

“First, the reference of prophet, priest, and king should have some relevance to the human condition.  While the ‘cult of relevance’ is deplorable, it would be a betrayal to think that the gospel were irrelevant to human needs and possibilities, properly understood.”

There is a world of meaning implied in the phrase, “properly understood.”  There is the rub.  The ‘cult of relevance’ operates on the assumption that people’s needs felt needs should determine both the medium and the message (for they are not really as separable as many adherents to the cult would claim).  Church, worship, faith, and worst of all, Jesus, thereby become means to all kinds of ends that have little to nothing to do with the gospel.  Warm feelings are felt, children are entertained, and all can go home satisfied that they have had some kind of meaningful “experience” (which is not really meaningful at all, because in fact they have merely imbibed a product that was marketed, designed, and sold to produce that very effect).  This runs utterly counter to the first principle of Christian discipleship, which tells us that our needs are not needs at all: denial of self.

As Wainwright points out, this “cult” (and it is not too strong a term) really is deplorable.  And yet, as is so often the case, there is a nugget of truth in the lie.  The gospel is by no means irrelevant to our real needs: to our brokenness, our alienation from self and other, our need for meaning and value and worship.  To really address those things, we must stay focused on the One who really is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem: Jesus.  If you seek Christ, the rest will work itself out. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”

P.S. Watch the video above, but be warned: you may not be able to look at your worship service the same afterwards.

P.P.S. For a better, more thoughtful argument similar to what I have made above – and a theology of worship that goes deeper than “whatever works” – check out Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn.

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John Wesley Lays the Smackdown on Predestination

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Granted, it is doubtful that Wesley would be a WWE fan, but it seems like an adequate description of the argument I am about to share.

 
Came across this gem as I began to reread Randy Maddox’s modern classic Responsible Grace in hopes that it will spark ideas as I begin to write my ordination papers.  For Methodists, there is probably no better broad interpretation of Wesley’s whole project than this monograph.  For non-Methodists, it is important for its contributions to practical theology and for its suggestions (via Wesleyan soteriology) toward healing the Orthodox-Catholic rift.

This particular passage comes during a discussion of Wesley’s view of Scripture.  For Papa John, it was important that any text be interpreted within the structure and thrust of the whole Bible.  To defend a devilish doctrine – like predestination – on Scriptural grounds was, for Wesley, an affront to the whole testimony of the Bible.  Predestination, he says,

destroys all His attributes at once.  It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth.  Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil…. But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’.  Hold!  What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be.  Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this….There are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you or I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory.  But this I know, better it were such say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this….No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all this works. (“Free Grace,” quoted in Maddox, 39.)

Calvinism has been resurgent lately (and not the friendly, graceful Barthian version).  I’m not sure why, except perhaps that in an age of sloganeering and polarization, there are folks attracted to strong convictions of whatever sort, regardless of theological merit.  Of course, hardcore Calvinists will say that we Arminians lean towards works righteousness or universalism.  But, with Wesley, I would affirm that double predestination turns the God of the Bible into an unrecognizable tyrant.

 

 

The full text of the above sermon is available here.

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Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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Barthian Snow

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As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2.  From my slight exposure, I love Barth.  I dig his project.  I dig the postliberals that follow his lead.  I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously).  But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.

I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology.  But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians.  I identify with both camps.  In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right).  And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true).  I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper.  I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.

But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head.  Election is now, in his words, an election of grace.  In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical.  But my oh my, is he convincing.  Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be.  But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God.  Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox).  But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself.  In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation.  Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us!  We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).

I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong.  I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides.  But it’s a work in progress.

Now, a little of why I love Barth:

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.  In Him God reveals Himself to man.  In Him man sees and knows God.  In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will.  In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.  In Him God has joined Himself to man.  And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)

I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality.  In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.

At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me.  Or you.  Thanks be to God!

In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?

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