April 24, 2012

Why I Love the United Methodist Church

General Conference starts today. The weeks leading up to this meeting of the legislative body that speaks for our United Methodist Church, have brought extensive focus on those aspects of our communion that need to be rethought and reformed. This is as it should be, for we are a denomination in crisis. But as General Conference convenes today, I hope we will remember our strengths as we seek to address our weaknesses. There are many reasons to commend and love the United Methodist Church. Here are but a few.

Grace that transforms

I recall reading John Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection for the first time. I remember that I was blown away by Wesley's vision of magnanimity of God's grace. For the first time, I got a glimpse of the power of grace to transform in ways deeper than I've ever imagined. Wesley helped me to see that grace is not merely about forgiveness; it is about holiness. It is about the work of God to reproduce his own character within his people in order that we might bear his restored image to the world. This is our heritage as Methodists. I long and pray for the day when the United Methodist Church is, like Wesley was, full of passion for that grace that transforms rebel sinners into the sanctified people of a holy God.

Faith that works

Methodists affirm that salvation is by faith alone, but we also believe that true faith is itself never alone. It is always accompanied by works of mercy, charity, and justice. God saves us by faith not so that we can sit idly by and watch the world crumble under the curse of the fall. He saves us by faith so that we can be about the work of shining the light of his new creation into a world feeling the deep pain of sin and death. And as we set about our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, the world will be transformed because those who obey all that Jesus commanded will increase in number throughout the nations. And they will put their faith to work. I love the United Methodist Church because, when we are at our best, we are passionate about this outworking of our faith.

Truth that is experienced

Experience has always been a big part of the Methodist movement. We believe that the truth of scripture is brought to life in personal experience. A good example of this would be Wesley's emphasis on the doctrine of Assurance. Scripture tells us that our sins are forgiven and that we are right with God. But the witness of God's Spirit with our own spirit makes this more than words on page; the personal presence of the Spirit of God allows us to experience the peace and joy of the assurance of reconciliation with God. Truth is authenticated in our personal experience.

These are just a few features of our Methodist heritage that are worth celebrating. As our General Conference delegates deliberate over the future of our denomination and the changes that will best address our weaknesses, perhaps we can also remember, celebrate, and build on the good things that God offers the world through the people called Methodists.

April 19, 2012

Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century

I'm grateful to the folks at The Institute on Religion and Democracy for sending me a review copy of Mark Tooley's new book Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bristol House, 2011). As the title indicates, this volume is about the socio-political witness and activity of the people called Methodists over the course of the last 100 years. The book has a journalistic feel, and (contrary to my expectations) offers a limited amount of commentary. The detailed discussion reflects thorough and well-informed research. Anyone interested in the role of religion in American political history will find this study informative and illuminating.

The major theme of the story of Methodism in the 20th century, as Tooley recounts it, might be summarized in terms of a movement from a fairly influential and unified social and political witness to one much less so. Methodists were apparently a political force to be reckoned with in the early decades of the 1900's, though that could hardly be said to be true now. Some of the major issues treated by Tooley are prohibition (which Methodists strongly supported), the increasing intensity of the just war/pacifism debate, and civil rights. I was a bit surprised to discover how furiously Methodists battled for prohibition and grateful for the increased calls for peace.

As president of the IRD, Tooley is no stranger to the intersection of politics and religion, and with this book, he has provided a very helpful resource for a narrow topic within that larger field of inquiry. This book fills a gap in the study of Methodist history; indeed, I don't know of another book that tackles this subject. The extensive end notes provide plenty of material for interested readers to track down further detail, and there is a helpful timeline of "Major Events in the Methodist Political History in the Twentieth Century" (xiv-xvii). Tooley's hope is that Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century will be instructive as Methodists work to discern the future of our social witness both in the United States and the rest of the world. As to whether his hopes will be fulfilled, only time will tell.

April 16, 2012

UMC Must Align Resources with Mission

The 2012 General Conference (GC 2012) of The United Methodist Church (UMC) is only days away, and this quadrennial meeting is not lacking in importance as many issues relating to the future of our denomination will be decided by the delegates in attendance. Among those issues is to what extent the UMC will align its resources with its mission with regard to its official schools of theology. More specifically, GC 2012 will have to decide whether the UMC will maintain its current relationship with Claremont School of Theology, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology.

An interfaith seminary?

The mission of the United Methodist Church is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Unfortunately, Claremont has decided to abandon this mission in favor of an alternative mission of inter-religious training and credentialing. In 2010, Claremont School of Theology announced its decision to inaugurate what was then called The University Project, a program in which clerics in Islam and Judaism could be trained and credentialed in their respective religious traditions alongside Christian ministerial candidates.

As an official school of the UMC, the University Senate investigated Claremont's new endeavor but ultimately decided that Claremont could retain its status as an official denominational school of theology and engage in its inter-religious educational ambitions.

Since the initial announcement, the name of the project has been changed and is now known as Claremont Lincoln University (CLU). CLU is its own distinct institution formed through a partnership between Claremont School of Theology, The Academy for Jewish Religion, and The Islamic Center of Southern California. One is easily inclined to suspect that this initiative was transformed from a project housed by Claremont itself to a new university in which Claremont was a partner in order to appease critics opposed to the idea that a UMC seminary might undertake to train the leaders of non-Christian religions.

Dialogue does not equal training

Opposition to this move by Claremont has sometimes been portrayed as opposition to inter-religious dialogue. This is not accurate, though. Claremont has gone far beyond dialogue. I affirm the importance of inter-religious dialogue, but I also affirm that dialogue and conversation can happen without devoting UMC resources and seminary personnel to the training of the leaders of other religions. Claremont's insistence on training the clerics of various religions reveals their intention on moving beyond dialogue in a way that is antithetical to the mission of the UMC "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Align resources with mission

Everyone knows that the UMC is in crisis, and GC 2012 will hopefully make some changes that will help all of us to focus on our mission. One of those changes should be to align our denominational educational resources with our mission. As an official school of theology, Claremont receives funding from the UMC, which means our resources are going to support an institution that has diverged from the mission of our Church. In this time of crisis, we must realign our resources to support institutions that share with us in our disciple-making mission, which means we must break relationships with those who do not.

Two Annual Conferences (Alabama/W. Florida and Mississippi) have petitioned  (#20745) GC 2012 to rescind the status of Claremont School of Theology as an official UMC school. As the author of the petition submitted by the Alabama/W. Florida Conference, I can say that this legislation is not about hindering inter-religious dialogue. It is about stewardship of our missional resources. If we are to be faithful, we must align our resources with our mission, even if it means breaking with an institution with which we've had a long relationship. Such a break might be difficult, even painful, but it is necessary. In this time of crisis, our mission must be our chief priority.

April 12, 2012

Substitution not Abandonment: A Response to Dan Wallace

Having recently written on Jesus' cry of forsakenness from the cross, I was pleased to see this piece by Al Hsu at Christianity Today that likewise argued against the view that God the Father actually turned his back on Jesus the Son as he hung on the cross. With Hsu, I take the whole of Psalm 22 to be the determinative factor in interpreting Jesus' quote from the first verse of that very Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Even with this agreement, I want to be clear that I think Hsu is unhelpfully accommodating to those who charge that the crucifixion of Jesus is divine child abuse.

Dan Wallace thinks so as well, if not more so, and recently wrote a response to Hsu criticizing him for going soft on a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Wallace seems to take the reality of the Father's abandonment of Christ on the cross as necessary to a penal substitutionary view of atonement. I affirm Wallace's commitment to penal substitution, a doctrine to which I too am committed. I also want to affirm that Wallace has made many positive contributions to contemporary Christian theology, not least with regard to our understanding of the textual reliability and the language of the New Testament. His work has been a great benefit to me and has informed the way I read the scriptures. His books have probably taught me as much about New Testament Greek as any. I appreciate Dan Wallace and his work. However, I find his response to Hsu to be problematic four at least four reasons. So, having written on the view that Wallace is here criticizing, I offer these points in response:

1. As I said, Wallace suggests that God turning his back on Jesus is essential to understanding the death of Jesus as taking the penalty of human sin on himself. I want to assert that the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23), Jesus most assuredly suffered this penalty, the benefits of which are applied to those who believe in him. Where does scripture say that the penalty of sin is God turning his back?

2. I find Wallace's argument to be insufficiently trinitarian because he seems to take the wrath of God to be exclusively the wrath of the Father (click here for more on this). However, the gospels present a different picture. In Matt 25:31ff., it is Jesus himself who bestows blessing on the sheep and executes the just wrath of God's judgment against the goats by consigning them to eternal fire (25:41, click here for more on this). Jesus seems to think the role of judge against unrighteousness falls to him. Thus, the wrath of God is not merely the wrath of the Father, it is the wrath of the triune God, which means it is also the wrath of the Son. If the wrath of God means forsaking the Son, then the Son must in wrath forsake the Son, which is nonsense. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is the judge who takes the penalty that his own judgment requires upon himself for our sake. No self-abandonment necessary.

3. This point flows out of the previous one. I find Wallace's method to be flawed as well. He goes primarily to the letters of Paul to explain the gospels. But we know that good inductive hermeneutic method gives primacy to the book-as-a-whole as the most significant context for exegesis. That is not to say that Paul was wrong; he wasn't. Neither is it to say that Paul does not inform our readings of the gospels; he does. It is to say that Wallace needs to attend first to the views of the particular gospel writers of sin, judgment, atonement, and divine wrath as they relate to the words of Jesus that those same gospel writers record from the crucified Jesus before correlating that with Paul. What Wallace neglects is what I've attempted to do in #2 above, though only as a start.

4. Since we're talking about Paul, I finish by saying that I see no reason that any of the Pauline texts to which Wallace appeals must require that we take the Father to have turned his back on Jesus. Was Jesus cursed for us? Yes. Does that necessarily mean God turned his back on Good Friday? I don't think so. The curse is death, not abandonment. And was Jesus "handed over"? Certainly he was, but it is far from clear that being handed over for crucifixion is the same thing as being abandoned by God. Wallace would have to do extensively more work to persuade me that the penalty is not only death but divine abandonment as well. The series of proof-texts he provides are insufficient.

April 8, 2012

Easter Hymn


Ye choirs of new Jerusalem
Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

How Judah's Lion burst his chains,
And crushed the serpent's head;
And brought with him, from death's domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.

From hell's devouring jaws the prey
Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.

Triumphant in his glory now
His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.

While joyful thus his praise we sing,
His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

-N. T. Wright

April 7, 2012

The Day after Jesus Died

I heard the question raised this morning as to what Jesus' followers were thinking the day after he was crucified. And the question got me to thinking about the biblical evidence that might give us insight as to how Jesus' closest followers perceived his death at the hands of the Romans. None of the canonical gospels provide extensive information about the activity of the disciples the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels basically move from the burial of Jesus on Friday to the events surrounding his resurrection on Sunday. Luke indicates that after Jesus was buried, his friends rested on the Sabbath in accord with the commandment (26:56). Not much to go on there.

After the initial announcement of the resurrection to the women, Luke does tell us of two travelers on the road to Emmaus. Having heard reports of the resurrection but not knowing what to make of them, these two men were discussing the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. We are then told that the resurrected, though incognito, Jesus came along and began to walk with these two men questioning them as to the events that had taken place in recent days. They were somewhat shocked that he was unaware of the goings on, but they proceeded to tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, about his trial, condemnation, and resurrection. Luke then records this telling statement, "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel" (24:21). This brief comment provides a glimpse into the hopes of Jesus' followers, which may also give us some insight into their response to his death.

The statement by the travelers to Emmaus confirms what we already know from other gospel texts: Jesus was thought by his followers to be Israel's Messiah, that is, the one who liberate Israel from Roman oppression and reestablish them as a sovereign and autonomous nation indicating that the favor of God had returned to his people. Jesus was not the first Jewish man of his time to make Messianic claims about himself and to have others make similar claims about him. Jesus was crucified as a Messiah figure, and as the sentiments of the travelers on the road to Emmaus confirm, a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah (probably to quote N T. Wright).

This gives some insight into the thoughts of Jesus' followers the day after his death. Apart from the shock that their beloved friend and family member was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, their hope for national liberation was suddenly and violently torn from them. When Jesus died, their dream for freedom from foreign oppression died as well. Jesus was the one in whom all of their hope for rescue was focused, and when he breathed his last, their hope was extinguished. What occupied the thoughts of Jesus' friends and followers the day after they laid him in the tomb? Not only were they focused on the shock of losing their beloved Jesus, they were crushed to discover that their hope for the dawning of the Messianic age and the return of the favor of God would not be realized as they had hoped. They may have had other thoughts as well, but the text of scripture points us, at least, to these conclusions.

April 6, 2012

Culture and Communication

"...the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation. I might add that my interest in this point of view was first stirred by a prophet far more formidable than McLuhan, more ancient than Plato. In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth." I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction. But even if I am wrong in these conjectures, it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture's intellectual and social preoccupations" (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, New York: Penguin, 2005, 8-9).

April 4, 2012

Incarnation and Incorruption

As this Holy Week progresses toward Good Friday and then next week to Easter morning, I'm inclined to share this excerpt from Athansius' On the Incarnation, a book that continually nourishes my soul and refreshes me. Athansius writes:
"Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire" (8).