February 22, 2013

Joel Green on the Centrality of Scripture for Wesley (#AndCanItBe)

Given the ongoing discussion with regard to our "invisible Wesleyan message" and my recent reflections on finding our Wesleyan voice, I thought I'd point to a couple of paragraphs from Joel Green's book, Reading Scripture as Wesleyans. These quotes illustrate the centrality of scripture for Wesley and for the tradition that bears his name.
For the heirs of John Wesley - I will call them "methodists" - the central importance of Scripture in the formation of God's people is nonnegotiable. Evidence for this claim in Wesley is easy to document. Consider Wesley's own words: "Bring me plain, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it" (1). "You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour if you depart ever so little from Scripture" (2). In his eighteenth-century Britain, Wesley and his movement were slandered for their emphasis on Scripture. Like rotten tomatoes, names like Bible-bigots and Bible-moths were tossed at them by their detractors. Wesley wore these derisive words as badges of honor (p. vii). 
To push further, we need to recognize that our heritage as Wesleyans is a tradition that underscores the importance of theological formation for biblical interpretation. As Wesleyans, we read with a constant eye to what Wesley called, "the Scripture way of salvation." We read with a constant eye toward the ongoing formation of the people of God in holiness. There are other ways to read the Bible, to be sure. But methodists locate their reading of the Bible within the larger Wesleyan tradition. We read the Bible as Wesleyans. And we need to know what that looks like (p. ix).
Green certainly recognizes that the role of scripture in Methodism has been debated. Nevertheless, his comments help us to take stock of our heritage as we look to the future reflecting on the essential role of scripture in regaining our Wesleyan message.
____
1. John Wesley, Advice to the People Called Methodists with Regard to Dress, 5.1.
2. John Wesley, Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection.

Related Posts
John Wesley and the Trustworthiness of Scripture
Wesley & God's Concern for His Own Glory

February 21, 2013

Further Thoughts on Wesleyan Renewal: A Respone to @CraigAdams49 (#AndCanItBe)

I'm grateful to Craig Adams for his thoughtful interaction with my previous post on finding our Wesleyan voice. Craig made some good points to which I'd like to add a few further comments.

Out of Step
I'm glad Craig agreed that entire sanctification is the right place to begin an effort to reclaim a Wesleyan voice. But in his view the challenge is the reality that this is out of step with where most Methodists are theologically. I agree completely, and I think Craig's observation that most Methodists are shocked or confused to learn that something called "Christian perfection" was central to the birth and spread of the Wesleyan tradition. In fact, this was my experience. Though I have been United Methodist from childhood, I didn't start reading Wesley until college. And I was very surprised to discover that he had written a book called A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. I was well into the United Methodist ministerial candidacy process when I discovered this was the defining point of our theological tradition. At first, I was frustrated; then I began studying Wesley's understanding of sanctification and reading books by some living theologians who thought Wesley was on to something. What I found was stunning and compelling. I remember thinking long ago that there had to be more to Christianity than forgiveness, as vital and beautiful as that is. My discovery of Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification became that something more for which I was looking. 

Swimming Upstream
Given the lack of emphasis on Christian perfection among Methodists, Craig further suggests that beginning a renewal effort with a focus on this doctrine will "be an exercise in swimming against the stream." I think he's absolutely right. The point I want to make in response is simply this: that's what makes it renewal. All efforts to renew anything, not least the church, are a matter of swimming upstream. We wouldn't need renewal if something important were not lost; and finding something that has been lost so long that it is no longer missed presents real challenges. We must not be discouraged. Wesley himself knew this reality well. His efforts to renew the Church of England were nothing if not an uphill battle, and entire sanctification was essential to the effort. We may be swimming against the current, but that is in the DNA of Wesleyan revivals. 

Both Theology and Practice
I'll take the conversation a step further by pointing to another theme that has come up in the #AndCanItBe discussion on Wesleyan essentials: we need a structure to cultivate the realization of the holiness for which we call. We must have practices that support our theological distinctives. Wesley accomplished this by organizing the early Methodists into groups of varying sizes for discipleship, formation, and accountability. An authentically Wesleyan vision of Christianity will involve both an emphasis on entire sanctification and the practices that enable and cultivate that transformative growth in holiness. The method is essential to the successful appropriation of the theology. The distinctive combination of these two emphases will be essential for another Wesleyan revival.

February 19, 2013

Finding Our Wesleyan Voice (#AndCanItBe)

A conversation has recently begun taking up the question of why the Wesleyan tradition has so very little presence on the web and in social media. UM pastor and Wesley scholar Kevin Watson got the discussion started with a Facebook post which he then followed up with a longer entry on his blog in which he suggested that 
"we are not doing a very good job of getting our message out. For at least five years I have heard people raise the lack of visibility of Wesleyans in print publications, for example, with some regularity and frustration. I once heard a UM leader make the point that you would not find hardly any books in Barnes and Noble that were written from a Wesleyan perspective."
I think Kevin's observations are spot on. We Methodists don't have people who are writing books, curricula, and other resources that are widely used outside our tradition. And our web presence in minimal. As a result, our message is not finding a wider audience. This raises the question: How do we find our Wesleyan voice? And how do we get the message out? Here are a few brief reflections on those questions. 

Is there a Wesleyan Message?
One challenge that faces any effort to establish a Wesleyan voice to a wider audience is the reality that a variety of groups with very different theological perspectives and agendas lay claim to Wesley's name. Some groups focus heavily on a renewal of John Wesley's own theology and practice while others who take doctrinal stances very different from those of Wesley still invoke his name to advance their particular social program. With this disparity among those who see themselves as heirs of the Wesleyan tradition, it is difficult to find a single and unified voice. And with no particular voice, it's tough to get your message out. Contrast this to another group that is presently growing in influence; when someone tells you they are Reformed, you basically know what they mean. 

Discovering our Roots; Finding our Voice
In a more constructive direction, I want to suggest that any authentically Wesleyan message will intentionally emphasize what John Wesley himself emphasized (and I am, by no means, the only person to make this suggestion). You don't have to read much Wesley to recognize that he was convinced that God raised up the people called Methodists to renew the church with the message of entire sanctification. This is our primary distinctive. This is our contribution. We are the people who believe that God's grace is powerful enough and big enough to deal with our sin and produce in us the life of holiness in a comprehensive way. We believe that God can actually transform us such that we live in a way that consistently glorifies his name. We need to rediscover our roots in this doctrine and let it define our voice. Little to nothing else is distinctive about Wesleyan theology. If we do not articulate what is distinctive, then we have no contribution and no voice. 

Getting the message out
It's clear that we need to do a better job getting our Wesleyan message out to a wider audience, not least in web and social media. One step towards accomplishing this would be to create a central site that hosted key Wesleyan blogs by scholars, pastors, and other writers. The Gospel Coalition has become a central site for Reformed thinking and, judging by how often you see their material show up in various places, they appear to be doing it with some effectiveness. Any group with a message must have unified voice and a platform, a central website would go a long way in creating both. 

What do you think? How can we Wesleyans find our voice and effectively articulate our message to a wider audience? 

February 11, 2013

Why evangelism? It's about worship.

Why must we do evangelism? What is the goal? A great many answers to these questions have been put forward. We do it to see people converted, to see them become disciples of Jesus increasingly conformed to his image. We evangelize out of obedience to Christ, love for the lost, and for the glory of God. All of these reasons are good and right. But there's another word that comes to mind, one that we don't always hear associated with evangelism. What is that word? It's worship. Evangelism is about worship.

In the opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul celebrates the manner in which the the good news first came to the believers in that city. He says that when he first preached the gospel to them, it came "not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1:5). For Paul, the gospel is about the saving work of God through the death and resurrection of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25; 15:1-4). And evangelism, as the announcement of that good news, is a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works powerfully to produce conviction in the one who hears enabling them to respond with believing obedience to the message they've heard. 

But that is not all that Paul celebrates. That means of grace serves a greater end. Near the end of the same chapter he commends the Thessalonians because word about them has spread to other regions. And what were people saying? They were talking about how the Thessalonians had turned "to God from idols" (1:9). Why does Paul get really excited about evangelism? Why did he give his life to evangelizing the Roman Empire? He did it because there were people out there who did not worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead (cf. 1:10). The goal of evangelism is to bring people into the worship of the one living and true God.

One pastor is well-known for saying that, "Mission exists because worship does not." We can easily, and for the same reasons, say that evangelism exists because worship does not. There are great and untold numbers of people who have not yet come into the life-giving worship of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth. When they do, our evangelistic imperative will come to an end. But until that day, God has granted his people the privilege of announcing the good news of "the one who loved us and gave himself for us." This is our joyful duty until that day.