Al Mohler interviews Stanley Hauerwas

Here’s an interesting interview of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler.

The whole interview is interesting reading, but here is one nugget that caught my eye right off the top:

I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

This expresses very well Hauerwas’ focus on the church as the center of all the action in our faith. It also raises an interesting critique of our Methodist roots. This would likely be the exact kind of complaint that Church of England bishops had about John Wesley and all those Methodists running around talking about assurance of salvation. Perhaps this is part of the reason Hauerwas is no longer a United Methodist.

It also gets at some of the tension we have within our current church, I think. The question he suggests for us is which is primary: Our personal relationship with Jesus or our participation in the body of Christ?

I bet the answers that various people give to that question would be interesting.

I find I tend to wax and wane on that. I am a mushy modern Methodist and want to say “both/and.” But I think that is evading the question. It suggests Hauerwas is not capable of seeing that both play a role. No, his question is which is primary.

I think if forced to side, I’d have to say the participation in the body is primary because it is the way by which we come to know who Jesus is and what it means to be one of his followers. The Holy Spirit works through means of grace that are in the stewardship of the church.

But then my “both/and” emerges because I also believe that Christianity is not something you get by osmosis. It is not a T-shirt you buy at the gift shop. It is something that changes you. It is personal. And if it is not personal, it is ultimately incomplete.

It is complicated. And each Christian has his or her own story and own understanding of how the personal relationship with Jesus and the corporate existence among Jesus’ people shape us.

I guess that is why I value theologians who raise such interesting questions. They help me see the richness of our faith and they keep me from settling into easy and shallow answers.

If you get the time, I encourage you to read the entire interview. It is thought provoking and sheds some light on Hauerwas’ thought. Hauerwas’ answers to Mohler’s questions about the nature of the gospel and the meaning of the cross were most helpful to me as someone who has puzzled at times over what Hauerwas means by what he writes. I found Mohler’s closing monologue to his evangelical audience itself worth the time spent reading the whole piece.

Evangelical preaching

From Mark Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism:

The preaching that occasioned these conversions represented something new because its practitioners were intending to work directly on the affections and were aiming directly at life-transforming results. This preaching was sometimes provided by itinerants (Whitefield, Howell Harris and soon many imitators), sometimes by settled ministers (Daniel Rowland, Jonathan Edwards) but in all forms it sought not simply intellectual communication but also the responsive engagement of the whole person. The power of evangelical preaching lay in its depiction of a severe divine law and a capacious divine gospel.

This description is of the preaching that was beginning to take hold in England in 1739 and thereafter. What strikes me about this description is how we tend to divide the two things that Noll observes were joined. The very notion of a severe divine law is deeply contested today and often overtly criticized. It was so in the 18th century as well, at least to a degree. Wesley complained frequently about preachers who were all gospel and no law.

Have you heard preachers hold law and gospel together with skill and power? Is it needed today? Would it yield results?

Canterbury & Rome

Here’s a British Catholic’s take on the similarities between the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Pope. It gets beyond some of the headlines and media glitz, especially on offering a picture of Pope Francis. For instance:

The future Pope Francis was never a typical Latin American Jesuit. He distrusted Catholic liberation theologians, preferring the company of evangelicals who entered the slums to preach about God and Satan rather than models of economic justice.

Plague on both houses

An interesting look at liberal and conservative Christianity and the challenges that both face in the contemporary context.

As it becomes clear that the fates of liberal and conservative Christianities may not be as distinct as is commonly assumed, the time has arrived for a re-evaluation of liberal Christianity. For conservatives, the task is to stop interpreting the demise of liberal congregations as a victory for evangelical Christianity, and to explore what might be learned from the fact that liberal Christianity’s roots lie in the attempt to adapt and respond to cultural diversity and modern individualism. For liberals, the challenge involves far more than finding the courage to address the significant decline in church membership. Their task begins only after acknowledging that liberal Christianity has a real problem transmitting itself to subsequent generations. As Steve Bruce has observed, liberal churches generally appeal more to disaffected conservatives than they do to people with no previous background in Christianity. This fact suggests that liberals need to give greater attention to why the doctrines and traditions of Christianity should matter to someone not already familiar with them.

Olson: Evangelicalism is dead

Roger Olson spoke recently at George Fox Seminary about the future of evangelicalism. I found it an interesting history of American evangelicalism and some bold claims about its future.

He posted a copy of his talk on his blog but without any formatting. I took it and made a Google doc that is easier to read. Here it is.

Can we find a common foundation?

Perhaps because he was an evangelical striving to keep other evangelicals within the Church of England, I find John Stott to be one of the contemporary writers who most reminds me of John Wesley in tone and broader concerns. His little book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness is a real gem.

Near the end of the book, he has this summary:

We have been preoccupied through much of this book with the trinitarian shape of the evangelical faith, that is, with the initiative of God in revealing himself, the love of Christ in dying for our sins, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in facilitating every aspect of our Christian discipleship. More simply, we have focused on the Word, the cross and the Spirit as three essential evangelical emphases. To be an evangelical Christian, however, is not just to subscribe to an orthodox trinitarian formula. The evangelical faith reaches beyond belief to behavior; it brings with it a multifaceted challenge to live accordingly.

Nothing Stott writes here is novel, which I imagine was his intention. His effort in the book was to identify the core essentials that can be the foundation for unity among the sometimes warring tribes of evangelicalism. Wesleyan Methodist, for instance, can agree with everything he writes even as we continue to hold some particular beliefs about entire sanctification.

It is not at all a new observation that liberals and evangelicals within United Methodism often have more in common with liberals and evangelicals in other denominations than they have with each other. As I was reading Stott’s book, it struck me that the things that liberal and evangelical United Methodists have most in common are mostly in the areas that Stott considers secondary.

Outside the core evangelicals emphases (summarized in the paragraph above), Stott describes things that good evangelicals can disagree about and still regard each other as good evangelicals. His list includes things such as: sacramental theology, polity, the role of women in ministry, liturgy, and the meaning of mission.

My hypothesis is that most of the things that hold us together as United Methodists come from Stott’s list of secondary or indifferent issues. While liberals and evangelicals would agree on the Trinity as crucial and share some language about behavior being an important outgrowth of belief, we are often deeply divided on issues regarding the inspiration and authority of scripture and centrality of the cross — things that Stott argues are essential to evangelical Christianity. At the same time, we find common identity in things like our form of polity and a set of vocabulary words that come from Wesley, although we often differ on the meaning of these words.

Is it possible for United Methodists to find common ground on the core trinitarian affirmations of our faith, or are we doomed to ground our unity on the less certain ground of bishops and infant baptism and the hymns of Charles Wesley?