April 30, 2013

Key United Methodist Beliefs by Abraham and Watson (#andcanitbe)

It has sometimes been suggested that "Methodist beliefs" is an oxymoron. Fortunately, an increasing number of voices are working to dispel this false notion. Aside from the simple sociological reality that a group with no common and definitive beliefs is no group at all, United Methodism falls within the broad stream of Protestant orthodoxy, as even a quick look at our Articles of Religion will easily demonstrate. Key United Methodist Beliefs is a new book from William J. Abraham and David F. Watson that clearly sets forth those doctrines that are most basic and central to our Wesleyan heritage and is a must-read for anyone interested in what it means to be a United Methodist. 

Practical Orthodoxy
Methodists have long recognized the importance of Christian experience. Sometimes, however, doctrinal integrity has been sacrificed at the altar of personal experience. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the way Abraham and Watson consistently hold doctrine and experience together. Each of the first nine chapters begin with a section called "A Wesleyan Faith", in which the basic belief that is the topic of the chapter is explained with particular regard to the life and thought of John Wesley. The initial section is then followed by another called "A Lived Faith", which discusses practical implications of the doctrine, and then there is a section on "A Deeper Faith", which takes up some of the more challenging aspects of the belief under consideration. The authors then summarize the topic through a series of catechetical  questions and answers before concluding each chapter with a series of questions designed to aid the reader in working through the issues in their own words. This intentional movement from orthodoxy to orthopraxy - right belief to right practice - will challenge the reader to experience doctrinal contemplation as a formative spiritual discipline rather than a detached intellectual exercise. 

Distinctly Methodist
While the authors show how Methodist theology falls squarely within the the boundaries of historic Protestantism, they also do a great job of pointing us to that which distinguishes the Methodist voice from others. This is seen especially in their discussion of sanctification in chapter 6, which takes up the question: "What is Salvation?" Wesley is known for his doctrine of Christian perfection or entire sanctification, which Abraham and Watson explain with clarity:
With God's help, however, we can reach a point whereby we do live without sinning. At least, we do not sin intentionally. Wesley called this Christian perfection or entire sanctification. Wesley did not mean that we become perfect in the sense that we are free from error, mental or physical disabilities, or temptation. Rather, he simply meant that the Holy Spirit can work within us to such an extent that we no longer willfully sin (78, italics original). 
This aspect of our Wesleyan heritage has been neglected in much recent and contemporary Methodism. Hopefully, Abraham and Watson will help us to recapture this doctrine for which Wesley himself believed God raised up the people called Methodists with the specific purpose of proclaiming. 

This little book will be useful in a variety of settings and will be suitable in a local church adult education course, a new member class, or even as a textbook in a seminary course on United Methodist doctrine. Whether you are a lifelong Methodist or new to our denomination, Key United Methodist Beliefs will illumine and sharpen your understanding of what it means to be a part of the Wesleyan tradition. It will be the first resource I turn to in order to help others gain a better understanding of the transformative power of Wesleyan doctrine. I hope others will do the same. 

April 25, 2013

Were Paul's Letters Really Substitutes for his Preaching?

It's fairly common to hear that Paul's letters were crafted in order to communicate what he would have said were he able to be present with the communities to which he wrote. He would rather be there to speak to them face-to-face, but since that is not possible, for whatever reason, he resorted to letters. While it's certainly true that Paul often desired to and did visit his churches in order to minister in person, I wonder more and more to what degree he really intended the letters to function as regrettable substitutes for personal presence. Two verses in 2 Corinthians drive the question. 

First is 2 Corinthians 10:10, "I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ - I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away." Paul here recognizes that his face-to-face interaction with the Corinthians is of a different character than his letters. His presence is marked by humility; his letters by boldness. He is so aware of this difference that he seeks to mitigate the typical perception of his letters as bold by declaring the gentle nature of the present appeal. The second instance comes just a  few sentences later as Paul is describing what others say about him, "For they say, 'His (Paul's) letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible" (10:10). Here again Paul acknowledges that his speech is perceived differently than his written letters. 

Two things. First, all this leads me to wonder whether Paul really saw his letters as substitutes for what he would say if present with the churches. If he knew that his verbal interaction with the Corinthians was distinctly different from his written correspondence, why should we think his letters record what he would have said were he present? Further, if there is something Paul really wants to say, but is concerned that his poorer ability to engage in person might negatively effect the success of his argument, then we might expect him to write a letter instead, especially if he thought his letters more rhetorically effective. Perhaps, knowing he had a rather difficult and important case to make, he preferred to use a letter instead of a personal visit in order to avoid coming off as weak and unpersuasive. Being more proficient at writing than oratory, he opted for the former. Not to say this is always the case, but it may sometimes be. 

Second, in the case of 2 Corinthians 10, we may actually be hearing what Paul would say were he present with the Corinthians. Indeed, he seems to indicate that in 10:11. He intentionally reminds them that he is humble in person and goes to great lengths to help them hear his meek and gentle tone. He's propping up the argument by appealing to the character of his personal presence. So, in this instance, he may be writing what he would have said were he present. But, it seems, this could be the exception to his normal practice. Thoughts?

April 17, 2013

When Convictions Collide: #Gosnell, Abortion, and Capital Punishment

I've said before that I oppose the death penalty for the same reason that I oppose abortion. When it comes to questions of life and death, we should err on the side of life. But in the last week these twin convictions have come into tension, perhaps I should even say conflict. One of these two convictions, both of which are based on the principle of the immutable value of human life, has been challenged, and by the other conviction no less.

What has precipitated this conflict of conviction? It is the capital murder trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Abortion is the greatest moral and justice issue of our day. It is a horror, and the crimes of which Gosnell stands accused are particularly horrific. He delivered these little ones, endowed with the image of their creator, and he decapitated them. It is exceedingly unlikely that he will be acquitted of the charges. And since he is charged with capital murder, he may face the death penalty.

In recent years I've found myself increasingly hesitant to support capital punishment. I don't think capital punishment is necessarily unjust. I don't think that the government has no right to deliver capital punishment. It is simply that, in matters of life, I believe mercy is to be preferred. Such mercy is usually undeserved, but that is, after all, what makes it mercy.

I believe that God has made all people in his image and they are, therefore, persons of sacred worth, and nothing they can do can strip them of the divine image they bear. They may mar and profane that image, but the image remains. God desires that all people come into a saving relationship with him, a relationship of life-giving love. The conditions of entrance into this relationship are repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sins and raised bodily from the dead that we might be justified in God's sight. I also believe in hell. And when a person dies an unnatural and premature death, no matter how evil their acts, my heart cringes as the possibility that they might not enjoy forever the fullness of the presence of God in the new creation. I want people to get every possible chance to be found by Christ, to be joined to him in his death in order that they might also share his life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, "Die before you die; there is no chance after." 

But as I learned last week in greater detail the heinous crimes of which Gosnell stands accused, I found myself not wanting to maintain my principled stance against capital punishment. My opposition to abortion was embattled with my opposition to the death penalty. I am generally opposed to capital punishment, but in this case, in the case of countless slaughtered babies, I found myself willing to make an exception. So much for principle. 

Then an article by Robert George came across my feed. It was titled, "A Plea for Mercy for Kermit Gosnell". Here is what he said:
Kermit Gosnell, like every human being, no matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in wickedness, is our brother—a precious human being made in the very image and likeness of God. Our objective should not be his destruction, but the conversion of his heart. Is that impossible for a man who has corrupted his character so thoroughly by his unspeakably evil actions? If there is a God in heaven, then the answer to that question is “no.” There is no one who is beyond repentance and reform; there is no one beyond hope. We should give up on no one.
If our plea for mercy moves the heart of a man who cruelly murdered innocent babies, the angels in heaven will rejoice. But whether it produces that effect or not, we will have shown all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that our pro-life witness is truly a witness of love—love even of our enemies, even of those whose appalling crimes against innocent human beings we must oppose with all our hearts, minds, and strength. In a profoundly compelling way, we will have given testimony to our belief in the sanctity of all human life.
Our objective should be "the conversion of his heart." I almost wished I had not read it, but George nailed me at the very place in which I was beginning to negotiate my principles. I couldn't argue the point. He was right. It took me a couple of days to admit it, but he was right. 

Let me be clear. If Gosnell is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged, he deserves the death penalty. If he did the things of which the grand jury indictment accuses him, if he is guilty of the acts of evil described by the witnesses against him, capital punishment would be justice done. I do not dispute that. 

But what sort of message would it send to the world if  we who define ourselves as "pro-life" plead for the life of Kermit Gosnell? What if granting him the very mercy that he withheld from those defenseless children and vulnerable women could be used as a means of grace by the God who raised Jesus from the dead to penetrate the cold, hard, and murderous heart of that abortionist doctor? What if he spent the rest of his days in prison confronted with knowledge that the people of God who hated his crimes were praying for his redemption? What if? 

For these reasons, and despite my sinful desire for retribution, I'm adding my voice to the pleas for mercy for Kermit Gosnell. May he live out his days in prison, but may he live. And may the grace of God overcome the hardness of his heart that he may know and enjoy the God who has life in himself. May God grant him to become that which he is not, a man of mercy; and may God fill his heart with perfect love. And may the world know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is God alone. 

April 15, 2013

The Gospel and Dr. #Gosnell (@TheIRD)

The team at Juicy Ecumenism was kind enough to publish my reflections on a few things the church must learn from the initial silence on the Gosnell trial by mainstream media outlets. Here's an excerpt:
Abortion and infanticide are two stops on a single road, and the road has a downhill slope. Make no mistake. The current situation in which abortion practitioners are engaging in infanticide is the result of our desensitization by the decades long effort to devalue and destroy the lives of the preborn. Sin and death always look for new territory to conquer, and having eradicated the safety of the womb, they now proceed to do violence against the newly born. They will not stop until infanticide is canonized as a basic constitutional right of free choice. Then they will move on to wreak havoc and destruction elsewhere. 
Don't believe me? It's already happening. As I've indicated above, a representative of Planned Parenthood has argued that ending the life of a child born after a botched abortion should be a decision left to the woman and her doctor. Sound familiar? The exact same language that was used to normalize abortion-on-demand is now being applied to infanticide. In 2011, two bioethicists argued in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics that ending the life of a newborn, which they nonsensically call "after-birth abortion", is moral and should be permitted under law. Sure, there is outrage now, but give it a little time. Congressional testimony and the scholarly opinions of allegedly respected ethicists are significant steps down the path to what will one day be horrifically  called safe, legal, and rare infanticide. It would take only a single lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court in which the petitioner claims an undue burden in maintaining the life of a newborn baby to change the law of the land. We aren't there yet, but we are closer than we think. 
The rest of the essay considers how the gospel should inform the church's response to the Gosnell horror. Read it here

April 11, 2013

Enemy Love and the Challenge of Holiness (#andcanitbe)

Here's an extended quote from Marcus Borg that does a great  (and somewhat discomforting) job applying Jesus' command for enemy love by considering it in light of the original context.
"Love your enemies" thus had the connotation of "Love your non-compatriots." What would this have meant in teaching directed to Israel in the late twenties of the first century? It had an inescapable and identifiable political implication: the non-Jewish enemy was, above all, Rome. To say "Love your enemy" would have meant, "Love the Romans; do not join the resistance movement," whatever other implications it might have had. That it would carry this meaning in a milieu of political conflict is illustrated by what the saying would be understood to mean when uttered in a modern situation of conflict, whether in Northern Ireland or Central America or elsewhere. To say "Love your enemies" would have a concrete as opposed to generalized meaning. It would not simply inculcate a discarnate attitude of benevolence, but would meant to eschew acts of terrorism and revenge" (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, 142).
The most important feature of this paragraph is the way it pushes us to think concretely about the identity of our enemies. Borg is right that when we read Jesus' command to "Love your enemies" we tend to think of that as vague kindness or simply being a generally nice person. You know, not getting too mad when someone cuts you off in traffic. But the implications are much more striking and serious when we consider that Jesus spoke those words in a day when Israel was being occupied and heavily taxed by the world's most powerful military. Borg argues that Jesus' conflicts with various parties arose out of competing visions of holiness. Some saw holiness as rigorous law observance; others as purifying and preparing oneself to do battle with the enemies of God and his people. It was a time when powerful social and cultural forces pressured young Jewish men to join resistance movements against Rome. Against these movements, Jesus challenged his hearers to think of holiness in terms of love, and love for enemies not least. He taught that holiness was manifest in bearing the burdens of the occupying forces and interceding before God on behalf of those who levied taxes so heavy it was near impossible to put food on the table. That's tough. Real tough. Jesus' command for enemy love stands in stark counter-cultural contrast to the typical perspectives of his day.

How do we appropriate this for the church today? Borg's book was originally published in 1984; so his references to modern day conflict are somewhat dated. But if you want to feel the force of Jesus' command, pause for a moment to consider it in light of ongoing world conflicts. Then read Matthew 5:46-48 and ask yourself (if you dare): Who are my enemies? Who are the people who seek to do me harm? Do I love them? Do I pray for them? Do I believe Jesus? Am I obeying him? Am I holy?

April 8, 2013

A Must-Read for Theology Students

If you are in seminary or thinking of going, Michael P. Jensen has written a book that you need to read. It's called How to Write a Theology Essay, and it will only benefit you as you prepare for the task of serious theological writing. Jensen teaches at Moore Theological College in Sydney, and in this book he has summarized countless conversations with students on crafting and composing a solid theology paper. The focus is on the theological writing in general, but it could be easily applied to biblical studies or historical theology with minimal adjustment. I wish I'd had a resource like this before beginning seminary. Jensen covers a number of topics about which I asked professors as I worked on papers for their classes. Many of the issues he covers were ones I simply had to learn the hard way or figure out by looking at model papers. If you read this short book before you get started or while you are still in your theology degree, it will save you a lot of trial and error time. Read it now to save yourself a lot of guesswork.

All the chapters are practical and full of important tips. Especially helpful were the chapters on analyzing questions, how and what to read, advice on quoting, and different types of argumentation. Read and re-read the chapter on how to treat your opponents. The book is bound together in that all of the chapters are working to help you move beyond summary work to engaging in the higher learning skills of evaluating, synthesizing, and analyzing, which are essential to balanced and critical thought. 

This book is also important because, in my experience, there was not a great deal of instruction on how to write a paper in seminary. It is generally assumed that graduate students in the humanities know how to write a research paper. But seminary is something of a different bag. Many students who come to seminary don't have a background in the humanities. They may have math, science, or engineering backgrounds and, having experienced a call to ordained ministry, decided to go to seminary. Sadly, even many students who come out of a humanities undergraduate program are still quite weak on their writing. Jensen's book will help you through the challenges and get you up to speed on how-to matters that your seminary profs will expect you know.

This book will only help you learn to communicate more effectively and elegantly. It is a witty and humorous read that you will want to keep around for consultation. You will not be disappointed.

What has been your experience with paper writing in seminary? Do you feel well-prepared or under-prepared for the task? If you have finished seminary, what do you think about as you look back at paper writing? Did you find it important? If so, why? If not, do you think more instruction on writing a good paper would have made the exercise more productive?

April 4, 2013

Three Things this Methodist Learned from Calvinists

The Gospel Coalition was kind to publish a piece of mine on a few ways I've been influenced by reading and listening to Reformed authors and teachers. Here's the intro:
C. S. Lewis once cautioned against the blindness inherent in every age. Like others in our day, he warned, we are "specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes." For Lewis, the solution was reading old books. New books share the presuppositions of our time; old books challenge our generational narrow-mindedness. The same warning could be issued with regard to theological tradition. If we read only those who share our basic framework and agree with us on most things, then we nurture devotional and theological nearsightedness. To counteract this tendency, we ought to be disciplined in reading other traditions and perspectives, not just to critique them but also to discover what we can take in from them. We may be surprised to find how much we have to learn.
I'm a United Methodist pastor, but I've learned a lot from reading Reformed authors and listening to Reformed preachers. While we certainly disagree on some important matters, we also stand together in the broad stream of Protestant orthodoxy. I've learned there is great wisdom and insight to be gained from Reformed voices both past and present. Here are three ways in particular that I've benefited from the Reformed tradition.
Click through to find out what those three things are