March 10, 2014

So, John Piper has now responded to Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed” (Wipf & Stock, 2013). (For those of you who don’t know, Austin is Teaching Pastor at The Vista Community in Belton/Temple, Texas and his book is a run-away seller about his spiritual and theological journey in and out of Calvinism.)

Of course, you should read Austin’s book before making up your own mind whose right in the current debate about it–John or Austin. But see their very differing views of it at

and at

purpletheology.com/dear-john-piper/

Predictably (IMHO), John is arguing that Austin misrepresents his and Edwards’ view of God. Austin is arguing that he is simply saying what that view looked like to him when he stepped back and considered it biblically, theologically and logically.

In other words, Austin is saying “If I were a Calvinist, this is how I would have to think of God….” In other words, he is using an argument Calvinists themselves have LONG used against Arminianism–namely, the “good and necessary consequences” argument. Here’s how it goes: “IF you believe A and B is a ‘good and necessary consequence’ of A, then it is valid to say you also believe in B.” HOWEVER Austin (and I) go out of our way to say we KNOW Calvinists do not actually believe the “B” we see as a good and necessary consequence of the “A” they acknowledge believing. However, we say that “B” is what WE WOULD HAVE TO BELIEVE if we believed “A” and that Calvinists have not demonstrated how that is not the case–how it is that they can be reasonable and NOT believe “B.”

So, John Piper has said in the past that Arminians “must say” that the cross of Jesus does not actually save anyone but only gives people an opportunity to save themselves. (Don’t ask me where; you can find that yourself. John and I have e-mailed back and forth about it so I know he said it!) That’s the form of argument I outlined above EXCEPT that he collapses “B” into “A” with the “must.” The “must” MEANS “if they are going to be logically consistent…” because NO Arminian has ever said what he says they “must” say.

In other words, John was there (and elsewhere) using the familiar “good and necessary consequences” argument to defeat Arminianism. (I happen to believe there is no logical connection between the “A” and the “B” in his argument, though.)

Austin was (in his book) simply using the same form of argument against Calvinism. Namely: IF you say that God “designed, foreordained, and governs” everything that happens including sin and evil, you are logically saying (as a good and necessary consequence) that God is the author of sin and evil. However, Austin is careful (as I have been careful) to say that almost no Calvinist actually believes God is the author of sin and evil. He’s saying if HE were a Calvinist HE would have to believe God is the author of sin and evil because that is the “B” that is a good and necessary consequence of the “A” that Calvinists DO actually believe.

And, of course, both Austin and I are saying that it’s only reasonable to move from “only A” to “A and B” and that reasonable people will tend to do that.

Now, someone (maybe you!) will say “Who cares about being reasonable if the Bible says ‘A’ but not ‘B?’ Simply believe “A” and deny “B” even if “B” is a “good and necessary consequence of “A.” But wait! Listen! Pay attention! John Piper and all other Calvinists have been saying for a long time that ARMINIANS are not allowed to do that! One of their main arguments against Arminianism has always been that it’s logically inconsistent. They can’t play by double standards. If they value logical consistency they must pay attention when someone points it out in their own theology. They can’t just use the “good and necessary consequences” argument against others’ theologies and then turn around and say it doesn’t matter for their own theology! (Which is what I think they often do.)

Read Austin’s response to Piper. It’s irenic without backing down one iota. It’s reasonable and invites conversation. It’s respectful of Piper. Piper needs to admit that he misrepresented Austin’s view rather than the other way around (IMHO).

July 31, 2012

I know. I’m almost committing blasphemy by questioning Jonathan Edwards’ greatness. I wouldn’t be doing it except there seems to be a kind of cult of Edwards’ veneration–especially among American evangelicals. It’s not limited to American evangelicals, of course. Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson called Edwards “America’s Theologian.” New books are published every year about Edwards. The current (or now immediately previous) issue of Christian Century contains a review of a newly published b00k extolling Edwards’ virtues as a great Christian and great thinker. Most famously, perhaps, evangelical historian Mark Noll has often held up Edwards as THE paradigm of a great Christian intellectual whose example we should all follow.

Far be it from me to impugn Edwards’ deserved reputation as a great Christian preacher and intellectual. I just think it’s overblown. It tends to lead Christians who read these books (about Edwards) to overlook his flaws.

First, though, let me step back from criticism of Edwards (and those who extol him too much or too loudly) and criticize what our American public school system curriculum has done to him. I’ve taught college/university/seminary students for thirty years now and there’s one thing they (who attended public schools) agree on: they were misled about Edwards. The only thing most of them learned about Edwards in school was that he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They were led to picture him as a fire-breathing hell-fire preacher who denied the Lord’s Supper to parishioners he considered less than fully converted (viz., he was intolerant).

The facts are different, of course. His delivery of sermons, including that one, was not loud or coercive. Reports indicate that he read it or delivered it from memory in a calm voice (at least compared with the stereotypes of hell-fire and brimstone fundamentalist preachers). Also, Edwards was an intellectual who stood head and shoulders above most of his peers. He was well read in Enlightenment philosophy and science and ahead of his peers in understanding human psychology and nature.

What I like to tell students about Edwards is that he was harshly critical of New Englanders who stole land from the Native Americans. He told them to pay the Indians for the land they took from them and to treat them humanely. When his congregation expelled him from his pulpit (partly, at least, for that), he went off to the frontier and lived among the Indians. For his time, Edwards was progressive in some areas of social thinking. On the other hand, he owned a slave, so he wasn’t consistent.

Toward the end of his relatively brief life, Edwards became president of what is now Princeton University (the College of New Jersey). He died of a smallpox vaccination gone wrong. We have no idea what he would have gone on to do in terms of intellectual contributions to American philosophy, science and theology had he lived longer.

Without doubt, Edwards was a great man and deserves more and better respect than he gets in American public education.

Having said all that, I still do not understand why so many of his fans overlook or excuse Edwards’ very significant errors. I can identify with Charles Finney who said of Edwards “The man I adore; his errors I deplore.” It seems to me that many of Edwards’ fans (especially among American evangelicals) are too quick to pass over the obvious logical flaws in his theology.

For example (and here you will have to trust me or look at my chapter on Edwards in The Story of Christian Theology and my many allusions to him and his theology in Against Calvinism): Edwards argued that God’s sovereignty requires that he create the entire universe and everything in it ex nihilo at every moment. That goes far beyond garden variety creation ex nihilo or continuous creation. It is speculative and dangerous. He also asserted that God is space itself. And he came very close to denying that God’s creation of the world was free in any libertarian sense as if God could have done otherwise. (He said that God always does what is most wise, something with which few Christians would argue, but somehow one must admit the possibility that God might not have created at all. Otherwise the world becomes necessary even for God which undermines grace.)

All of those ideas can perhaps be dismissed as the speculations of a mind obsessed with God’s greatness, glory and sovereignty. But things get much, much worse when Edwards deals with free will. Free will, according to him, only means doing what you want to do–following the strongest inclination provided to the will by the affections. It does not mean being able to do otherwise. In fact, Edwards seemed to deny the whole idea of “otherwise”–even in God. He did not merely argue that libertarian free will as ability to do otherwise was lost in the fall; he argued that the very idea is incoherent. If that’s true, then we cannot attribute it to God, either. And the fall becomes not only inevitable but necessary.

The question that naturally arises is: from where did the first evil inclination come? Edwards claims a creature formed it; it arose from a creature’s (Lucifer’s and later Adam’s) own nature. God simply “left ’em to themselves” so that sin and evil followed inevitably or necessarily. That is to say that God withdrew or withheld the grace creatures needed not to sin. God rendered the fall and all its horrible consequences inevitable or even necessary. And yet, creatures are to blame for sinning even thought they could not do otherwise.

Edwards wanted to get God off the hook for being the author of sin and evil, but ultimately he couldn’t. And he didn’t draw back from admitting that IN SOME SENSE God is the author of sin and evil. But he insisted that God is not guilty of sin or evil because…God’s motive in rendering them certain was good.

Now, let’s stop and examine this line of reasoning a bit. First, the very idea of libertarian free will is incoherent so even God cannot have it. God, too, is controlled by his strongest inclination/motive. Where do God’s inclinations come from? If one says “from his nature,” then, with the denial of libertarian free will, God becomes a machine. Everything God does is necessary–including rendering sin and evil certain. And why does God render sin and evil necessary? For his glory. (See Edwards’ Treatise Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.) So, sin and evil are necessary and serve God’s glory.

And yet, Edwards insisted that God abhors sin and evil. Why? If they are determined by his wisdom and necessary for his glory, why would he abhore them? Edwards tried to resolve this by appealing to God’s larger and narrower views. In the grand scope of things, seen from the widest perspective possible, sin and evil are part of the grand scheme of God to glorify himself. On the other hand, in the narrower perspective, God abhors them and commands creatures not to do them. And punishes them with eternal suffering for doing what serves his glory and is necessary.

Need I go on making my case that Edwards’ theology contains massive flaws? The single greatest flaw is the character of God. This inevitably makes God the author of sin and evil (something Edwards reluctantly admitted) and makes sin and evil not really awful at all but necessary for the greater good. It’s not just that God brings good out of them. For Edwards they are necessary for God’s full glorification.

Now don’t anyone say “Only in this creation; not overall or in general.” That won’t work. This creation is necessary if God does not have libertarian free will which he cannot have if the concept itself is logically impossible (incoherent).

In attempting to pay God too many and too large metaphysical compliments, Edwards ends up chasing his tail and contradicting himself. Is that the mark of a great mind? Well, I’m not saying he didn’t have a great mind. I’m only saying that he either didn’t seem to notice his own contradictions or he chose to overlook them while vehemently pointing out and condemning contradictions he thought he saw in Arminianism.

 

February 1, 2011

I’ve been reading Jonathan Edwards and John Piper on the atonement lately.  Both (naturally because Piper emulates Edwards on most theological issues) highlight what has traditionally been called the “rectoral” dimension of the atonement.  That is, the atonement was primarily about preserving and demonstrating God’s moral governance of the world.

Now, the irony is that this view of the atonement is traditionally associated with Arminianism.  (I have a chapter on that in my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.)  In relation to Arminianism it is known as the “governmental theory of the atonement.”  Not all Arminians hold it.  For example, Wesley did not. 

Both Edwards and Piper seem to emphasize the idea that Christ had to die to justify or vindicate God’s righteousness in saving the elect.  The idea in traditional moral governmental theory (going back to Hugo Grotius–one of the original Remonstrants in Holland) is that Christ suffered the equivalent punishment for sins.  That is, he did not suffer your punishment or mine but a equivalent one to ours.  The purpose was to demonstrate God’s justice with regard to sin and vindicate God’s forgiveness of sinners as righteous.

What I have not been able to find is where Edwards or Piper explicitly say that Christ suffered every individual elect person’s punishment (the traditional penal substitution theory). 

If you know of some place in their writings where they say that explicitly I would very much like to know it. 

Why does it matter?  Because many Calvinists accuse Arminians of denying the orthodox doctrine of the atonement (which is assumed ot be the penal substitution theory).  Of course, many Arminians including Arminius himself (!) held to it.  During the 19th and 20th centuries, however, Grotius’ theory enjoyed a renaissance among Arminian scholars (e.g., John Miley and H. Orton Wiley).

I think it would be interesting and ironic if Edwards and/or Piper emphasize the rectoral nature of the atonement without equally asserting the penal nature of the atonement.  But, I’m not drawing any conclusions just yet.  I would like to know if anyone knows some place in Edwards’ or Piper’s writings where one or both clearly and unequivocally affirm the penal substitution view of the atonement.  Thanks.

March 28, 2020

The “Ultimate” and the “Penultimate”: An Important Distinction in Christian Ethics

Lately I’ve been re-reading Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. It’s a collection of essays edited by Bonhoeffer’s good friend and protégé Eberhard Bethge. Many of the essays were found after Bonhoeffer’s death. Some of them were hidden in his parents’ attic and others were buried in their backyard. Bethge collected them and put them some kind of order, although, as many commentators and reviewers have mentioned, the order seems odd. But my point here is not about the architecture of the book; it is only about one major contribution of Bonhoeffer to Christian ethics—the clear distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate.”

However, I’m not even going to spend time here quoting Bonhoeffer or sticking closely to his own words about the subject. If you don’t believe me about Bonhoeffer, check it out for yourself. This is not really about Bonhoeffer, per se. It is about my adoption and adaptation of his distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate” and its relevance to Christian ethics.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.* 

Basically, the ultimate is what ought to be the case in a perfect world—a world we hope for, look forward to based on God’s promises, and strive to actualize now, in this world, as much as possible. The penultimate is what is actually possible and sometimes must be the case in this world that is not yet that future perfect world. “Must be the case” here only means what theologian John Stackhouse means in his excellent book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. It means (for me) the best that we can do, given the limitations of this “not yet perfect” world.

It seems clear to me that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist and believed that in a perfect world with no bloody dictators or genocides or other evils preying on innocent people we Christians should be absolutely and always non-violent. On the other hand, as I have argued here before, I know from reading Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer that, when presented with the opportunity and (he believed) necessity of participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he chose the penultimate—that which is less than perfect but necessary given reality as we know and live in it now.

The ultimate, then, is what God calls us to. But sometimes God calls us to what is impossible—for now, given reality as it is before the great liberation of the creation from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

This means, for example, that I can be a pacifist with regard to the ultimate while acknowledging the necessity of violence penultimately. That does not endorse violence; it only reluctantly acknowledges that violence sometimes cannot be avoided. I have often referred to the movie The Machine Gun Preacher as an illustration of this distinction. This newly minted Christian, recently converted, went on a mission trip to a part of Africa dominated by a guerilla militia that was killing women and children and kidnapping children into their ranks to commit horrible acts of violence. He, the so-called “Machine Gun Preacher,” was thrust into a situation where he felt he had to participate in a violent reaction against that militia—to save children’s lives.

Bethge says that Bonhoeffer asked what is the duty of a Christian who sees a madman driving a vehicle into a crowd of people, killing many of them? According to Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s response to his own question was that the Christian’s duty in that situation is to get the madman out from behind the wheel of the vehicle by whatever means necessary. Looking back on Bonhoeffer’s life during World War 2 it’s difficult to resist the thought that this parable was meant to explain his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.

Sidebar: I have already used Bethge’s biography to contradict those pacifists who recently have argued that Bonhoeffer did not participate in an assassination plot. There is no doubt that he did. He even told Bethge that he would shoot Hitler himself if he could. His co-conspirators turned down his offer. Read Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer and then you will have no need to read any later one.

Back to the “ultimate” versus the “penultimate” in Christian ethics. The word “versus” is not quite right. In Christian ethics the two are interdependent. We do not play them off against each other. The penultimate is judged and purified and driven by the ultimate. The ultimate is always kept in mind as the goal, the perhaps impossible possibility to strive for anyway. I would even say that the penultimate, when it clashes with the ultimate (and there’s no other reason for the distinction), is sin. Violence is always sin. But God is gracious and merciful and knows our weakness and the “not-yetness” of the reality in which we live. God does not expect us to live always and only in the ultimate yet because that is impossible.

A question that naturally arises is how do we know when the penultimate is forgivable? The only answer can be—when the ultimate demands it. What is the ultimate? Love. Not sentimental, romantic love as a feeling but benevolence toward being (Jonathan Edwards).

Yes, this means we, Christians, are caught in an existential crisis situation—between the commands of perfection and the demands of the messy reality around us. We cannot wiggle out of it. We cannot live our lives as if only the ultimate is real and we cannot live our lives as if only the penultimate is real. Both are real. In this live, before death, before the resurrection and restoration of all things in the eschaton, we live in the penultimate, not the ultimate, but we keep our “eyes” on the ultimate and constantly judge “what is good and necessary” by the ultimate and the sad reality of the penultimate.

There is no perfection in this world, but there can be penultimate acts that push toward the ultimate even as they fall short and even sometimes contradict the perfection of the ultimate.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

March 21, 2020

Why I Am Disobeying the Bible

I was brought up to believe, as I was taught, that a true Christian always obeyed biblical commandments with certain rare exceptions. One such exception had to do with the Old Testament. We did not believe Christians were expected to observe all the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament that pertained to Israel, to the Hebrew people. For example, we did not believe circumcision or strict adherence to dietary laws or observance of Saturday as the Sabbath were necessary for Christians. However, clear New Testament commandments were to be strictly obeyed with few, if any exceptions.

In 1966, in the midst of the radical, death-of-God theologies and the controversy surrounding them, Episcopal theologian-ethicist Joseph Fletcher published Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Almost immediately my spiritual mentors reacted negatively, very negatively. Discussions about “convictions” versus “inviolable rules” died down as fundamentalist spiritual leaders loudly condemned situation ethics—often without reading the book.

My intention here is not to review Situation Ethics (the book) again, but to point out that there are times when a situation requires disobeying a clear New Testament commandment.

According to Hebrews 10:25 we Christians should not be “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” The context makes clear that this commandment refers to Christians meeting together for “church”—Christian fellowship for the purpose of exhorting and encouraging one another.

When I was growing up in the “thick” of fundamentalism (in its Pentecostal expression) this verse allowed exceptions for those who could not attend church due to health problems. However, in the churches I grew up in (two—one from birth to age 11 and the other from age 11 until much later) the churches always opened and held worship and Bible studies regardless of weather or crises in the social order or anything. Sometimes, due to weather, for example, people would walk a mile or more to church in knee-deep snow. I do not recall us ever cancelling church.

However, now, in the Spring of 2020, nearly all churches in America and possibly around the world, are closed even on Sunday morning. Does “streaming worship” count as “meeting together” in the sense meant by Hebrews 10:25? I think not.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

However, this COVID-19 virus crisis illustrates how most, if not all, specific biblical commandments allow exceptions or we must make exceptions to them given specific circumstances not envisioned by the authors of the New Testament.

I am involved in a very long, difficult research project about the history of Christian ethics. I am finding some very surprising things. Martin Luther, for example, implicitly permitted Prince Philip of Hesse, a major supporter of the Reformation, to marry a second wife while still married to his very ill first wife. But even more shocking, Luther argued that if a woman marries a man and discovers he is impotent (or he may have meant sterile or both) she may have sex with his brother in order to have children. You don’t believe me? Read his treatise “Advice to the Nobility of the German Nation” all the way to the end.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay about lying which is included in his Ethics book edited by Eberhard Bethge. There this later follower of Luther argued that lying can be permitted because we do not owe some people the truth. Although he gave an illustration from childhood, anyone who knows that when he wrote this essay he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler knows that he was probably justifying lying to Nazis in order to save Jews and other potential victims of the German regime.

I will be disobeying Hebrews 10:25 this Sunday—as I have been for two Sundays recently and probably will for several more Sundays. (Who knows how many or for how long?) Even extremely conservative Christian churches are canceling their services and closing their doors—indefinitely—in direct violation of Hebrews 10:25. Or is it a violation of Hebrews 10:25? Like many biblical commandments that do not actually allow exceptions, many experts in biblical hermeneutics can and will argue that “social distancing” is not a violation of Hebrews 10:25—by assuming that the author of Hebrews would agree with this exception, that he (or she) did not actually mean “no exceptions.”

Obviously here I am simply pointing out the truth of some form of “situation ethics” without agreeing with Fletcher’s “new morality” all the way. But even Augustine famously said (as Fletcher loved to point out) “Love and do as you please.” In other words, for both Augustine and Fletcher, true love, charity, what Jonathan Edwards called “benevolence towards being” (On the Nature of True Virtue), could serve as the only Christian “rule” if it could be lived out consistently.

Love for others demands that in this particular situation in which we find ourselves in the Spring of 2020 we set aside a strict interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 and forsake meeting together for Christian worship and fellowship. I am as sure as I can be that the author of Hebrews did not think sending letters to each other counted as meeting together. So I do not think he (or she) would have agreed that “virtual church” counts as “meeting together.”

Yet, there are times and circumstances in which a particular biblical commandment has to be set aside and violated when love demands it. Not “love” as vulgarized in popular culture as a feeling but love as Edwards rightly defined it—“benevolence toward being” and especially toward the vulnerable and weak.

The grave danger, however, is that people who get used to forsaking meeting together for this good reason, not spreading a potentially deadly virus during a pandemic, will stay away from church after the pandemic ends. Church leaders need to find ways to stay in close “touch” virtually, by e-mail and streaming video, etc., with members and attenders during this extremely unusual “situation” that demands a kind of “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard).

I am not advocating Fletcher’s peculiar “situation ethics” in which, seemingly, anyway, he suggested discarding rules altogether and encouraging people to live ethically solely by the principle of “love.” We need rules, but all rules are “rules of thumb,” in the sense that they must be open to exceptions. Not frivolous exceptions like the teenage boy in my church youth group (when I was as teenager) who talked openly about “sin breaks.” And he didn’t mean breaking away from sin; he (and some of his friends) meant that they felt perfectly free to sin occasionally because striving to obey God’s rules was just too hard (especially seemingly for adolescent boys).

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

March 2, 2020

What I Mean by “Moderate” or “Progressive” Evangelical

I often identify myself as an evangelical Christian, but especially these days—since at least 2016—I have to modify “evangelical” because so many Americans misidentify the label and the category. I have explained here many times before why I will not simply give up the label. Historically-theologically, even in contemporary culture and religion, there is no better label to describe my particular brand of Christianity. Yes, I use other labels such as “Arminian” and “Baptist,” but they cannot substitute for “evangelical.” For me, “evangelical” rises above all other labels except “Christian.” (Yes, in some contexts I do feel it important to also say that I am a Protestant, but rarely does anyone think otherwise as I move almost exclusively in Protestant circles. And if I say that I am an evangelical Christian very few people think I am Catholic as “evangelical” is not a common label used by Catholics.)

I have found no good substitute for “evangelical;” all other candidates have just as many and as troubling misconceptions attached to them.

For me, in the circles in which I move (write, speak, etc.), I cannot avoid identifying my theological-spiritual “flavor” of Christianity. And the institution where I have worked for twenty-one years advertises itself as “evangelical,” “orthodox,” and “in the Baptist tradition.” So I often am asked what I mean by “evangelical.” I am always happy to explain that by it I do not mean anything political; the evangelical brand or flavor of Christianity does not (historically) indicate a political view.

To those of you who question that, may I respectfully point out that “evangelicalism” is a world wide phenomenon; it is not “American” per se. There are evangelical Christians all over the world. So far as I know it is only in America in the recent past that “evangelical” has come to be identified with a particular political stance.

I approach all labels and categories in religion historically and refuse to tie them exclusively with a passing fad or fashion. To me, “evangelical Christianity” arose in the “evangelical awakenings” in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. I often mention two major prototypes of evangelical Christianity in the English speaking world while acknowledging that evangelical Christianity has holder roots and precursors in many countries (especially in northern Europe). The two are Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley—both born in 1703. Both, along with many other leaders of the evangelical awakenings, believed in and taught the necessity of a born again experience for authentic Christian identity (being “saved”).

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Why do I add “moderate” and/or “progressive” to “evangelical” when I identify myself as evangelical? Simply to distinguish my brand of evangelicalism from fundamentalism. Most fundamentalist Christians in America especially also now identify as “evangelical.” I won’t say they aren’t. But I do not want to be lumped in with them by people who have come to think of evangelical Christianity as fundamentalist Christianity.

My series here about theological questions is my attempt to explain “moderate-to-progressive evangelical Christianity.” Another label might simply be “non-fundamentalist evangelical Christianity,” but I prefer to identify my own spiritual-theological identity positively rather than negatively (by what it is not).

For me, a major issue in pushing me to identify as moderate-to-progressive (or one of those adjectives) is biblical inerrancy. I could embrace the concept when and if it only meant/means “perfection with respect to purpose,” but I believe the word itself implies something that is not compatible with any close study of the Bible itself. Almost every lay Christian I know (and also many pastors) think “biblical inerrancy” requires a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis and of most of the book of Revelation. Also, most lay Christians I know (and many pastors) think “biblical inerrancy” requires a forced harmonizing of passages in the Bible that seem to refer to the same event.

Also, as a moderate-to-progressive evangelical I am open to “new light” emerging out of faithful and fresh interpretations of the Bible. Two examples are open theism and N. T. Wright’s (and others’) new interpretation of Paul on the subject of justification. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals (and it’s often difficult to tell the difference) are usually closed-minded toward any reconstruction of traditional Protestant doctrines. They tend to elevate something like nineteenth century theologian Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology to the status of the “last word” in constructive Christian theology. They tend to treat Hodge or someone like Hodge as virtually equal with Scripture itself in terms of a system of biblical doctrine. Ironically, they might disagree with his ecclesiology and his eschatology, but in other areas of doctrine he (or someone like him) becomes a kind of magisterium for modern evangelical thought.

My point is that conservative evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, become extremely nervous and react in knee-jerk fashion against any new interpretation of Scripture. As one said publicly (I was there) “If it’s new, it can’t be true and if it’s true it can’t be new.” And the context of his saying made abundantly clear that he was talking about interpretations of the Bible.

I used to describe myself as a “postconservative evangelical” but that was so widely misunderstood, in spite of all my attempts to explain it, that I had to give it up. I was, for example, confronted about it by my former colleague Millard Erickson who simply could not accept that it doesn’t mean “liberal.” I had other, similar encounters where no  matter how much I explained the adjective people simply could not accept that it didn’t mean “theologically liberal.” My own opinion is that many such people cannot accept that there are more than two options in theology. For them a theologian is either liberal or conservative. But that was at a time when “conservative” was being identified, in my opinion, with a new kind of fundamentalism.

Being moderately evangelical, progressively evangelical, postconservatively evangelical does not mean being open to anything and everything new and it does not mean allowing culture to determine doctrine or ethics—for Christians. It means being open to new insight, new light, new interpretations of the Bible and of traditional Christianity insofar as they are they are either required by fresh and faithful interpretation of the Bible itself or can make a strong case for that.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

February 21, 2020

What I Appreciate about Methodism

Roger E. Olson

*This is a presentation I gave to a Baptist-Methodist dialogue event held at Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University on February 20, 2020.*

Image result for John Wesley

I recently endorsed a new book entitled The Spirit of Methodism by Jeffrey Barbeau. It’s one of several books with that title. Reading this book was just the most recent in a long history of my non-Methodist encounters and interactions with Methodists. But before talking about my acquaintance with Methodism, please be patient as I talk about what I mean by “Methodism.” Here, in this presentation, I am not specifically talking about the United Methodist Church but about the spirit or ethos of Methodism that stems from the ministries of John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century. That includes many churches and ministries that do not contain the word “Methodist” in their names. For example, the many so-called “Holiness churches” that arose mostly in the 19th century to renew the spirit of Methodism that they perceived as being lost in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. Nazarenes, Churches of God, Wesleyans, even the Salvation Army—all are part of the spirit of Methodism. Then there are those “other Methodists” such as the Free Methodist Church and the Evangelical Methodist Church—small Methodist denominations not part of the United Methodist Church. These I also consider when I think and talk about the spirit of Methodism. So, to me, “Methodism” is trans-denominational.

Now, a little bit about my own personal encounters and interactions with Methodism. My stepmother and her many siblings, my aunts and uncles, were raised in the Methodist Episcopal church in Iowa. Some of them, including my stepmother, became Pentecostals through the ministry of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson who belonged to the Salvation Army before founding her own quasi-Methodist Pentecostal International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. My grandparents on my father’s side were member of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) whose founder Daniel Warner was a Methodist (among other things). When I was a child and youth my parents took me every summer to the Nazarene camp meeting in West Des Moines and I knew many Nazarenes when I was growing up. During my doctoral studies at Rice University my mentor was Methodist theologian Niels C. Nielsen. Another professor was Methodist James Sellers. I taught a series on Wednesday evenings at Memorial Drive Methodist Church in Houston. In 2003 I was invited to give a plenary address about Wesley’s Arminian theology at Asbury Theological Seminary’s celebration of Wesley’s 300th birthday. I have spoken at Methodist churches including First United Methodist of The Woodlands. I have two books published by the United Methodist Publishing House/Abingdon Press and perhaps my greatest claim to Methodism is Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a mega-church in Kansas City, Kansas. Adam was in the very first theology class I taught at Oral Roberts University. When I taught at ORU it was trying to become a Methodist-related university and seminary. Many of the professors in the Graduate School of Theology were UMC ministers and one, I recall, was a retired UMC bishop. I had lively interactions with them. Over the years I have formed relationships with UMC theologians such as Billy Abraham, Don Thorsen, and Kenneth Collins.

Now to what I appreciate about the Methodist tradition. Again, I want to say that my focus will be on the spirit of Methodism, not any particular Methodist denomination or church.

The Methodist spirit is experiential.

The Methodist spirit is Arminian.

The Methodist spirit is activist.

The Methodist spirit is transformational.

The Methodist spirit is ecumenical.

The Methodist spirit is quadrilateral.

The Methodist spirit is intellectual.

First, then, the Methodist spirit is experiential. This goes back to John Wesley’s famous “warmed heart” experience at a Moravian gathering on Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738. To this day many Methodists celebrate May 24 or the Sunday closest to it as “Aldersgate Day.” Debate continues among Methodists over whether this experience was Wesley’s “conversion” or simply a kind of epiphany. I personally know two influential Methodist scholars who disagree about that I’ve heard them debate it publicly. I respect them both and don’t take a side. However, clearly, it was an emotional experience for Wesley, an experience of immediacy of God to his soul, his heart. At their best Methodists have always emphasized the importance of having what I will call “epiphanies” of God the Holy Spirit in the heart. And in the Methodist spirit these are not just new insights of the mind; they are “inner man” experiences as the Pietists called them. Methodism was strongly influenced by European Pietism but took it to a new level while at the same time avoiding some of its excesses.

What I am talking about here is best illustrated by pointing to alternative views of Christian experience and spirituality. Many Christians in Wesley’s time viewed becoming Christian and remaining Christian as primarily a matter of learning doctrines and giving mental assent to them. Many others emphasized Christian initiation and existence as primarily a matter of worshiping in the right way—according to a defined liturgy—and participating in the sacraments. Finally, many other Christians have regarded Christian initiation and existence as primarily about using the will to turn over a new leaf and do the will of God as a matter of duty.

Wesley and the spirit of Methodism do not discard these as invaluable, but they view them as insufficient for holistic, robust Christian existence. Experiencing God in the “inner man” such that one’s “heart” feels “strangely warmed” lies at the center of the spirit of Methodism. And as a post-Pentecostal Pietist Baptist I love that about the spirit of Methodism.

Second, the Methodist spirit is Arminian. People who know me well will not be surprised that I bring that up here. The first Baptists were also Arminians—whether they used that label or not. They probably did not. However, John Wesley knew he was Arminian; he named his magazine The Arminian. But he was what theologian Alan P. F. Sell called an “Arminian of the heart” and not an “Arminian of the head.” During Wesley’s life many Arminians had become theologically liberal; Wesley did more than anyone else to reclaim true, historical Arminianism—as it was intended by Jacob Arminius himself and his immediate followers the early Remonstrants. So what does this mean? I have written a whole book about it and I will be shameless here and mention that: Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities published by InterVarsity Press. In it I quote Wesley extensively—together with later Methodists such as Philip Watson and John Miley. In a nutshell “Arminianism” simply means belief that sinners are given the free will by God to repent and believe in Jesus Christ and that whether they do so or not is not determined by God alone. The sinner who repents and believes unto conversion is not earning or meriting any part of his or her salvation but is freely choosing, enabled by prevenient grace, to cooperate with God’s saving grace. Grace alone is the efficient cause of salvation, but human repentance and faith are the instrumental causes of salvation. In other words, Arminians are Christians who reject unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace—hallmarks of the Calvinist system of belief.

Third, the Methodist spirit is activist. Wesley was renowned as a revivalist and there have been many Methodist revivalists. The revivalist spirit may have been born with Wesley and his colleague George Whitefield—also a Methodist (even if a Calvinist one). But evangelism was not the only activity dear to their hearts or to Methodism since its beginning in the revival fires of the Evangelical Awakening. Methodists were in the forefronts of social change from the beginning. Wesley strongly opposed slavery as did many Methodist in the nineteenth century. The first Christian denomination to ordain women was the Free Methodist Church—on offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal Church around 1860. Deliverance from oppression has long been at the heart of Methodist activism. One of the only Protestant Latin American liberation theologians, Jose Miguez Bonino, was an Argentinian Methodist. All around the world Methodism has been a light of liberation from all that dehumanizes people—from sin to sexism to racism to poverty.

Fourth, the Methodist spirit is transformational. Wesley was not satisfied for himself or his followers merely to be forgiven and reconciled to God; he wanted himself and his followers to be transformed inwardly—even promoting the possibility of “entire sanctification” if not sinless perfection. His heart was not only warm; it was filled with love. Wesley himself never claimed to be entirely sanctified, perfected in love, but he preached that possibility—even before the resurrection. Something that is not well known about Wesley, even among Methodists, is that he was strongly attracted to the Eastern Orthodox concept of deification (“theosis”)—becoming partial partakers of the divine nature-through faith. Ever since Wesley, Methodists have rejected the typical Lutheran idea of simul justus et peccator—“always righteous and a sinner at the same time.” They have preached and taught that the Holy Spirit can so invade and take over a person’s heart and mind that he or she rises above the constant struggle with sin.

Fifth, the Methodist spirit is ecumenical. Wesley’s motto toward non-Methodist Christians was “If your heart is as mine, give me your hand.” In other words, even if we disagree about some doctrines and about the sacraments and about church government, if your heart has been truly warmed by the Holy Spirit and is warm toward God and the things of God, we can cooperate. So far as I know Methodists have always had open communion. They have been in the forefront of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation between Christian denominations and communities. Wesley did not intend to found a separate denomination; that happened as a result of his appointing bishops to lead the Methodist churches in America when they could not function under the authority of the Church of England because of the War of Independence. It was the Church of England that broke off fellowship and created a schism with Methodism. Wesley always only intended Methodism to be a renewal movement within the Church of England. Ever since then Methodist denominations have been reluctant sectarians, always seeking out other warm-hearted and activist Christians for cooperation and fellowship.

Sixth, the Methodist spirit is quadrilateral. Methodist scholar Albert Outler created this term to describe John Wesley’s approach to doctrine and theology. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the four sources and norms of Methodist theology and doctrine. I personally think that this approach existed before Wesley. In fact, he borrowed it partly from Church of England theologian Richard Hooker but added “experience” to Hooker’s “three legged stool” of Christian authority which omitted it. I think Christians have always taken experience into account in developing doctrine and theology and church practice—whether they call it a “quadrilateral” or not. But Methodists have especially elevated and promoted the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” as the proper method for carrying out the critical and constructive tasks of theology. I agree with them, but I am confident that, contrary to some modern Methodist theologians, Wesley would have insisted that the quadrilateral is not an equilateral; Scripture trumps tradition, reason and experience if there’s any conflict between them. The Methodist spirit, at its best, has always focused on the Bible as the supreme source and norm for Christian belief and practice but without neglecting other sources such as tradition. Wesley himself was steeped in the church fathers, for example, and held firmly to the Nicene Creed. But when the Bible was not as clear about a subject as he wished it would be, Wesley turned to tradition, reason and experience as tools for understanding the Bible and supplementing it.

Seventh, and finally, the Methodist spirit is intellectual. Revivalism and intellectualism are often considered alternatives, competitors, incompatible with each other. The Methodist spirit, however, has always, at its best, combined them. My favorite biography of John Wesley is Reasonable Enthusiast by Henry D. Rack (Abingdon Press). The “hook” of the title is that it seems to signal an oxymoron. “Enthusiast” was a bad word in England in Wesley’s time; it was the equivalent of today’s “fanatic.” “Reasonable” speaks for itself. But being reasonable is not what many people think of when they hear John Wesley’s name mentioned. Nevertheless, like his American revivalist counterpart Jonathan Edwards, Wesley was a highly educated scholar, a modern man in many ways. His critics, such as Bishop Joseph Butler, did not see Wesley as reasonable, but that says more about Butler than about Wesley.

I won’t go more deeply into the reasons for Rack’s title; I will only strongly suggest that you read the book if you are interested in Wesley’s life, character, career—and the Methodist spirit he created.

At its best, throughout three centuries plus, the Methodist spirit has encouraged education, biblical and theological scholarship. Methodists have founded many universities and seminaries around the world. Westminster College, Oxford University, was founded by Methodists. In the United States one can mention Boston University, Duke University, Northwestern University and many others—as examples of Methodist intellectualism. For those of us devoted to the evangelical spiritual ethos mention must be made of Asbury College and Seminary, Seattle Pacific University, and the numerous Free Methodist schools such as Roberts Wesleyan University.

Methodism has put its indelible stamp on American culture. One scholar of American religious history, I don’t remember who at the moment so I’ll just say it was Martin Marty, called the nineteenth century in America “the Methodist century.” During that century Methodism grew from a tiny sect still somewhat attached to the Church of England to a robust and independent truly American denomination that had more members than any other American religious group. At its height the Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the United Methodist Church, had almost fifteen million members in the U.S. and many, many more around the world. Membership in the UMC has declined in the U.S. but the Methodist spirit lives on in numerous churches and institutions even outside the UMC’s own boundaries.

As editor of the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (published by Abingdon Press) I found nineteen distinct denominations that I would say embody the Methodist spirit each in its own way. Each one looks back to the ministry of John Wesley as the founder of its distinctive Christian ethos with strong emphasis on sanctification. Many Pentecostal denominations are not included among those nineteen but were founded by people imbued with the Methodist spirit.

Especially in the South, Methodists and Baptists have often been regarded as competitors, but those days are fading away. Today Methodists and Baptists find much common ground. Speaking only for myself, I would say that Baptist could learn something about church connexionalism from Methodists even as we maintain the formal autonomy of the local congregation. I believe we also can learn from Methodists much about the Holy Spirit’s power to sanctify people toward, if not into, true holiness of mind and heart. And I believe we can also learn much from Methodists about how mind and heart can work together, how we can be “reasonable enthusiasts.”

*As always, here, on this blog, I speak for no one but myself. If you choose to post a response, please make sure it is civil, kind, and respectful. Please keep your response brief and do not include a photo, image or internet link in it.*




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