Covenant: Crown or curse?

Have you ever read the full statement from which the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition is adapted?

Directions for Renewing Our Covenant with God

In the second section of the pamphlet, Wesley lays out the choice in clear terms:

Turn either to the right-hand or the left; lay both parts before you, with every link of each; Christ with his yoke, this cross and his crown; or the Devil with his wealth, his pleasure and curse: and then put yourselves to thus: “Soul, thou sees what is before thee, what wilt thou do? Which will thou have, either the crown or the curse? If thou chose the crown, remember that the day  thou take this, thou must be content to submit to the cross and yoke, the service and sufferings of Christ, which are linked to it. What sayest thou? Hadst thou rather take the gains and pleasures of sin, and venture on the curse? Or will thou yield thyself a servant to Christ, and so make sure the crown?

Suffice it to say, Wesley was not schooled in seeker sensitive ministry.

Read the entire pamphlet for the full scope of the meaning of covenant in the Wesleyan tradition that is suggested and hinted at in the prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal.

Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?

Biblical morality without the Bible

Victor Paul Furnish does not want us to use the Bible poorly. He wants to steer us clear of interpretations that have no credibility in the eyes of the world and ethical arguments that are based on flawed conceptions.

Biblical statements about the nature of the universe afford a useful analogy. Insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture, that creation is a gift of God and that we are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given, they may and must be constantly affirmed. However, we would be irresponsible in our stewardship of creation were we to rely on them for specific judgments about the morality of, for example, strip-mining, clear-cutting the earth’s rain forests, or colonizing other planets; for what was presupposed in antiquity, and therefore in Scripture, about the physical properties of the universe is demonstrably wrong.

This interesting little argument from the opening chapter of the book The Loyal Opposition will be used by Furnish in the next few sentences to makes some arguments about sex, but before we read those, I wanted to dwell for a few moments on this passage.

A few things strike me as interesting here.

First, Furnish posits the existence of something called “the fundamental witness of Scripture” and then goes on to provide a summary of that fundamental witness. What is not at all clear is how this witness was arrived at and who has declared it the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding creation.1

In Wesleyan theology, we do have something called “The Analogy of Faith,” which does summarize a grand framework for interpreting the Bible.

For John Wesley, that “sense of the the whole” was reflected in how he understood the way of salvation: humans have a problem that God overcomes in Jesus Christ, so that our sin is forgiven and we are able to live a new life of inward and outward holiness.

I suspect Furnish has some sort of similar encapsulation of the whole message of Bible, but I am not sure exactly what it looks like or if it is compatible with a Wesleyan theology.

Second, Furnish appears to believe that it is dangerous to make moral judgments about colonizing Mars based on the teachings of the Bible about the nature of the universe. He says, indeed, it is irresponsible to do so. I’m not sure, however, what the concern is. Certainly it would be a bad idea to use the Bible as a technical or astronomical manual for planning a trip to Mars. The planet Mars is not, in fact, a light in the firmament that encircles the Earth. But the engineering challenges of travel to Mars is something quite different from the moral questions about whether we should invest time, talent, and energy into making the trip. It seems to me that the Bible has a lot to contribute to that discussion.

In short, I do not understand why the Bible’s statements about the windows of heaven and the pillars of the Earth matter at all in any morality of creation stewardship. Scientific knowledge is quite useful, but does it tell us anything about the morality of strip mining that we could not say if we knew nothing about geology?

These questions repeat as I read the next few lines of Furnish’s paragraph.

Similarly, we may affirm the biblical statements about sex, insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture that sex is part of God’s good creation, for which we have continuing moral responsibility. But scriptural counsels about sex that are based on discredited presuppositions can be of no specific help as we consider what it means in actual practice to be faithful stewards of our God-given sexuality.

Here we see the same issues. Who, exactly, determined the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding sex? The Bible does speak of sex quite a bit, but I’m not aware of any place where it is discussed as a generic thing for which we have some undefined moral responsibility.

And what do the debatable historical conclusions of scholars about the nature of sex — which Furnish argues discredit the biblical texts — really tell us with any certainty? Our “knowledge” about sexuality today or 2,000 years ago bears little resemblance to empirical science. An operational definition of the term “sexuality” that permits observation and measurement of the phenomenon has proven elusive, to state just one major problem with treating the topic of sex like a science. If biblical statements about sex have been discredited, it is because biblical notions are out of fashion in gender studies and sociology departments at universities, not because there has been an empirical breakthrough with regard to the meaning of the word sexuality and its attributes. We have no Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo when it comes to sex.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way we are urged to be morally responsible and to steward faithfully the God-given gift of sex in a context in which the term “morally responsible” has no meaning. If the witness of the Bible on sex reduces to the claim that it is good and we should be morally responsible in our sexuality, then we have to look outside the Bible for guidance on what it means to be morally responsible with regard to sex.

Indeed, in the end, our “biblical” ethic of sex ends up looking exactly like the ethic of sex we would adopt if the Bible had never been written. The Bible has been reduced to a vague “fundamental witness” that provides no independent teaching on the will of God or moral behavior.

All of this is my way of saying that the proposals of the sexual progressives in the United Methodist Church about the way we should use scripture in our theological discernment strike me as incoherent from the point of view of our theological heritage and task. What Furnish and others appear to be advocating is a sexual ethics that looks exactly like the sexual ethics devised by the world that does not read the Bible or call Jesus Lord.

I suspect Furnish would argue that he is merely using the best understanding of modern science and scholarship to inform his reading of Scripture. He is using reason. But other than saying the word “God” I don’t see how his ethics of sex is in any way distinguishable from the consensus opinion that center-left upper middle-class America would come up with independent of the Bible.

Which may explain why our ethics around issues such as the use of money also bears almost no resemblance to the biblical conversation around money. Indeed, it may be that our successful efforts to exclude the Bible from our economics may have set the stage for the argument that Furnish would have us make with regard to sex.

But that is probably a conversation for another day.


1I also find Furnish’s description of creation as a “gift” of God and also something over which we must exercise good stewardship confusing. I have always understood a steward to be one who has control over something owned or possessed by another. A master does not give his estate to his steward as a gift, but as a responsibility. This may be a minor semantic point, but it does raise questions for me.

Flee from the coming ________?

From an interesting Seedbed post on the wrath of God:

For several years I taught at a historically United Methodist conference center where thousands gather every summer. Despite the majority of participants being active in local churches for decades, I was saddened by how many did not know basic teachings from Scripture or basic teachings out of the Wesleyan corpus. In one of the Bible studies I taught involving a large number of people, I asked participants to complete the following sentence: “Do you desire to flee the coming _____________?” Silence followed. No one knew the answer. No one even knew the question was ever asked in Methodism. When I began to explain the origins and the biblical reasoning for the question, many sat in stunned silence.

‘To be all love’

In a 1762 letter to a Methodist he called Miss Furly, John Wesley sought to counter some false teaching about the nature of perfection.

[S]anctification … does not include a power never to think an useless thought, nor ever speak an useless word. I myself believe that such a perfection is inconsistent with living in a corruptible body: For this makes it impossible “always to think right.” While we breathe, we shall, more or less, mistake.

In reading Wesley, it is remarkable how much time and energy he had to spend explaining this point. The word “perfection” was a constant thorn in the side of his theology because he had to constantly explain what it did not mean and clarify what it meant.

I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach. And this perfection is consistent with a thousand nervous disorders, which that high-strained perfection is not. Indeed, my judgment is, that (in this case particularly) to overdo, is to undo; and that to set perfection too high, (so high as no man that we ever heard or read of attained,) is the most effectual (because unsuspected) way of driving it out of the world.

I like that phrase “to be all love” as a summary of his doctrine of perfection. But we must make sure to remember that it is love directed both to God and our neighbors. When we are all love, we love God. And we love God by keeping his commands.

With that caveat, though, I think “to be all love” is as good a description of perfection in Wesley’s theology as any I have read from his or other pens. It reminds us of the totality of love. It reminds us of the centrality of love. I prevents us from fixating on things that are not love. It reminds us that Christianity is a matter of the heart.