Posts Tagged ‘William J. Abraham’
I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.
People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)
In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.
Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.
The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”
Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.
The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”
Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”
Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”
Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.
I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.
In the talk he assesses the local option offered by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and lays the foundation for a global Methodist church that might arise out of our current crisis.
At the outset let me say this categorically. If losing your current understanding of scripture will lead you to abandon your faith, then I would insist that you should absolutely hold on to the vision of scripture you currently embrace. From a Christian point of view, nothing is more disastrous than the loss of faith. So if your theory of the Bible is integral to your having faith in the first place, then stick to your theory.
And he goes the other way as well.
I would say equally categorically that if holding to the inerrancy of scripture leads you to lose your faith, then you should not hesitate to stick with your faith and look for a much better way to think of its nature and use. … What matters is coming to know and love God; theories of scripture are secondary and should be treated accordingly. So if your theory of the Bible gets in the way of knowing and loving God, go find a better one.
Here’s a video I had not seen before about ways the church could and should engage the world. His talk has three section: the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ, the changing culture of North America, and engaging that changing culture with the unchanging gospel.
About 18-19 minutes in he has this interesting claim: We should no longer accept the claim that we United Methodists are an American mainline church.
*Note: He gets Kenda Creasy Dean’s school affiliation wrong. She is at Princeton.
Brian McLaren has inspired some further reflection about the things that William J. Abraham has been arguing about the nature of scripture.
After posting the Asbury definition of holiness, I spent a few minutes digging around for another voice addressing the same question. In just a few minutes, I did not find exactly what I was looking for, but I did find this interesting McLaren blog post in which he defends Rob Bell and Love Wins from a criticism by Albert Mohler.
In the post, McLaren explains that all we have as Christians are different interpretations of the gospel. We do not have the gospel itself, but our own versions of it.
Our versions (mine included) are all, then, human interpretations of the gospel of Christ and the apostles, and human interpretations of the original message are not exactly the same thing as the original message. Some are more true to the original and some less, but no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed. That doesn’t mean we can’t proclaim anything with confidence, but it demands a proper and humble confidence rather than a naive and excessive confidence.
Which brings me back to Abraham’s thesis, laid out in the opening sentence of the first chapter of his book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology:
The fundamental problems which arise in treatments of authority in the Christian faith stem from a long-standing misinterpretation of ecclesial canons and epistemic criteria.
To an extent, McLaren illustrates the argument Abraham has been making.
I was reading John Stott‘s classic little book Basic Christianity the other day. Stott begins with a move similar to the one CS Lewis makes in Mere Christianity. He examines the things Jesus says about himself and concludes that Jesus either is who he said he is or he is not to be trusted at all.
Stott sets out the case well and his passion is clear.
With some of the recent reading and thinking I’ve been doing in the work of William J. Abraham, though, I wonder if Stott’s approach is compatible with Abraham’s warning that we not turn the Bible into a foundation for truth claims. Stott, it seems to me, is doing exactly that.
Abraham wants us to begin with the claim of the church — Jesus Christ was divine. He does not try to prove this by appeal to scripture. Indeed, he argues that making our confidence in Christ’s divinity depend on scripture opens up all kinds of problems for Christianity.
I am, frankly, not well versed enough in philosophy or epistemology to appraise Abraham’s argument to any extent. Its similar to when the air conditioner repair man says I need a new coil. How do I know?
But I am trying to figure out what Abraham’s argument means for what have been effective apologetic and evangelistic arguments in the past. What does it mean if Stott and Lewis and Wesley have defended their claims about Christ on what amounts to a “for the Bible tells me so” argument?
And what does Abraham offer us in place of such resources? I suspect not a lot of my readers are Abraham experts, but if you have some thoughts on the subject, I’d love to read them.
As I prepare to enter my second year of seminary, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the first year. William J. Abraham’s interesting little book The Bible: Beyond the Impasse touches on something that a year of Old Testament classes has impressed upon me. In the opening chapter, he writes about the creation of the discipline of biblical studies and its subsequent growth.
The outcome is now clear: biblical studies no longer acts as a feeder discipline for theology. It has become a region of expertise on its own that is carefully guarded by the scholarly guilds. … More importantly, there are simply no secure results that the theologian can now rely on in the foundations of his or her work. We simply have a Babel of voices in the guild; and theologians are in no position to adjudicate the alternatives.
In my first year of Old Testament classes, what struck me the most while writing exegesis papers was the Babel of which Abraham writes. Reading scholarly commentaries and articles on a particular book or section of a text is to be drawn quickly into a cacophony of conflicting voices and interpretations. If you read more than the most recent scholarship and delve back through the decades, you also discover that yesterday’s dead certainty passes quickly into obscurity today.
An encounter with biblical studies is quite often the cause of the well-traveled stories about seminary students having a crisis of faith when they go to seminary. They discover that what they thought was solid has melted into the air. I did not have that experience in my Old Testament classes, but I did struggle to find pastorally useful insights in my exegesis homework.
Abraham does not seek to recreate biblical studies, but rather to get us in the church — if not the seminary — to stop betting the theological farm on the notion that we can find in scripture a foundation for all our truth claims. He argues that evangelicals in particular have tried to put too much weight on a doctrine of scripture that cannot support the load.
Evangelicals have constantly lost their own precious children because they overcommitted themselves in their doctrine of scripture. They then paved the way for conversions to Roman Catholicism, for shifts into various Liberal or Radical forms of Protestantism, or for the outright embrace of agnosticism or atheism. They did so in the nineteenth century; and they are doing so today. It would be interesting to develop a list of scholars or church leaders who began as evangelicals or “fundamentalists” and abandoned it because of problems with the doctrine of scripture.
To meet this challenge, Abraham argues for a shift in our vision of scripture. He calls this a shift from an epistemological view of scripture to a soteriological one. He argues for treating the Bible as a resource given to us by the Holy Spirit as means of grace that helps lead us to salvation. He writes that we should understand scripture as wisdom. The Bible, he writes, was written and passed down to us to repair the effects of sin and rebellion in our hearts and lives and equip us for service in the kingdom. This is its primary purpose and meaning in the church. It is only derivatively a source of truth to resolve theological arguments and apologetic needs.
It is a sure sign that I do not fully understand Abraham’s argument that I cannot easily explain it to you. You’ll have to read the book to decide for yourself if it is helpful.
Here, though, is a quote that I liked and will continue to wrestle with in my pastoral work — even if the exegesis papers call for something else:
Whatever we do, the most important thing is to immerse ourselves in scripture in any and every way possible. It is scripture itself not theories about scripture that really make a difference in our lives and the life of the church.
My recent post from the new book Key United Methodist Beliefs raised a couple of questions about how the authors, William J. Abraham and David Watson, discuss the issue of sin. So, here is a follow-up that I hope does justice to their chapter in the book.
Each chapter in the book is broken down into five sections.
- A Wesleyan Faith – A presentation of John Wesley’s teaching and the roots of it in Christian tradition.
- A Living Faith – A engagement with how the particular issue might affect the way we live our faith.
- A Deeper Faith – A place to tackle tough questions or complicated issues raised by the topic of the chapter.
- Catechism – Questions and Answers with Scriptural support where possible.
- In Your Own Words – Questions designed to help the reader or small group formulate their own responses and understandings based on the chapter.
Chapter 5 “What Is Sin?” begins with the observation that John Wesley viewed all people as sinful. It then asks the obvious question: “What is sin?” The answer: “It is any violation of God’s will.”
From this definition, the chapter moves immediately to a discussion of original sin as understood by Wesley and based on the writing of Paul and interpretation of Augustine. The authors discuss original sin as a distortion of our desires and also as inherited guilt. (Wesley, to my reading, did not share this emphasis on inherited guilt, but the authors may have in mind Augustine here more than Wesley.)
They note the nature of sin as personal (which they term small scale) and social (which they term “on a grand scale”) and argue that sin is not simply something people do but is a spiritual agent. Their discussion on this topic, as much of the book, attempts to describe what many people believe without being entirely prescriptive.
The chapter moves on to discuss living faith by writing about situations in which we know what we should do but do not want to do it.
It is simply a part of the human condition that at times we will want to think, speak, and do things that God does not wish. We should expect this to happen, and when it does, God allows us to choose the right way or the wrong way to live. When we choose the wrong way, however, we should not expect to find lasting happiness. Only in God can we find lasting happiness and true fulfillment.
The rest of the “Living Faith” section of the chapter is a discussion of the last line above, including reference to Augustine’s famous observation that our heart is always restless until if finds rest in God. Our tendency to seek fulfillment in things other than God leads us to idolatry and misuse of things and people.
In the “Deeper Faith” section of the chapter, as I discussed in my earlier post, the authors explore the reasons behind the rules as an interpretation on Mark 2:27 where Jesus says the Sabbath was made for humankind.
The chapter closes with the catechism and the questions to answer. Both include focus on the person and work of Satan, which is highlighted in the “Living Faith” section of the chapter. The catechism quotes Psalm 51:5 as it discusses original sin, which highlights the idea of original guilt, which as I wrote above I do not think was an emphasis on John Wesley.
I’ll close with just a couple of general comments about the book. First, it is well done, although with a few typographical issues. It is well organized and written in a way that does not assume a seminary degree. I don’t think it would work well for a class of new Christians, but would be good for Christians who are trying to understand their faith more deeply. In many ways, the book tries to do the impossible — describe what United Methodists believe — but it does it well.
You will, however, notice some particular interests of the authors peaking through the curtains as you read. As part of what once was a theological construction project called Canonial Theism, they have particular views about Scripture and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit provided to the church to help form people in the way of Christ. So, for instance, their chapter on Scripture is about the Bible and the creeds. In another place, the catechism over the Trinity uses Eastern Orthodox answers, which remove the filoque clause, although the authors do retain the clause in the version of the Nicene Creed reproduced from the United Methodist Hymnal.
These are minor, but to me interesting, observations. All in all, the book is well done, engaging, and certainly a useful one for any church wanting to delve more deeply into the meaning of the faith.
In their book Key United Methodist Beliefs William J. Abraham and David Watson take a look at the question “What is Sin?” They discuss John Wesley’s definition of sin and the Western Christian tradition. They look at how we might live out these beliefs, and then they frame the issue in terms of why it matters. In this last section, they argue that God’s rules exist to foster human flourishing:
Rules are certainly important, but they are important because they lead us into a deeper relationship with God. Take a commonplace example like smoking. Christians are right to say that smoking is not consistent with Christian life, but why? Because cigarette smoke offends God? Of course not. Rather, the reason is that God wishes us to care for our bodies and to use our bodies in ways that honor the fact that they are gifts from God. … We humans are not made simply to obey rules. Rather God leads us to establish particular rules and guidelines for living within our communities so that we can flourish as God wishes.
From this section of the book, I take the following interpretative rule: We should be able to explain sin in terms of how following God’s rules sustains and supports the flourishing of people and communities.
That is an appealing interpretative rule, but I wonder if it might prove too malleable in our hands. We are pretty good at coming up with reasons to explain why we should do what we want to do, regardless of rules.
Perhaps this is why we need the community of faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve been carrying around in my head for about a year now the six-fold description of the reign of God that William J. Abraham sketched out in his book The Art of Evangelism. The six dimensions are the moral, the experiential, the theological, the horizontal (community life), the operational (hands and feet of Christ), and the disciplined (practicing spiritual disciplines).
Abraham argues that Christians live into the reign of God as they mature into each of these six dimensions, but he conceives of them as more or less independent. You can enter the reign of God through any of these dimensions and you can progress along them somewhat independently of the others. So, for instance, a person might begin his or her journey into the reign of God with social activism (operational dimension) or by being born into a church family and being raised among Christians (horizontal) or by undergoing conversion (experiential). At some point, Abraham argues, mature Christians must grow into all six dimensions, but there is not one pattern for that.
When I read the works of John and Charles Wesley, I can track all six of these dimensions in their work. They touch on them all, but is a significantly different way than Abraham does.
For the Wesleys, the experiential dimension is the central movement around which all the other dimensions are arranged. The experiential dimension is the experience of conviction, pardon, new birth, and sanctification that the Holy Spirit works in a believer. For the Wesley’s the kingdom of God was primarily about these experiences worked out in the life of the Christian.
Other dimensions mentioned by Abraham could be understood in relation to this central thrust. So, the operational dimension (being agents of Christ in the world) was understood as works of mercy, which were both fruits of the spirit and disciplines to mold the temperament and bring the Christian into closer communion with Christ. The moral dimension served to show a sinner his sin and to provide the pardoned sinner a guide to Christian life. The theological dimension gave the Christian knowledge of God, which helped her to better know the object of her love and to better see the life to which she was called in Christ.
For the Wesleys the experiential dimension was the keystone of the entire kingdom. A Christian could be moral, could practice spiritual disciplines, could know the Bible back to front, but without an inner experience of conviction and repentance, forgiveness and new birth, and finally perfect love, the rest was mere outward religion.
I’m sure I am being too fast and loose with both Abraham and the Wesleys, but I do think the basic contours of this comparison are at least close to helpful.
So the question I am left with is whether the Wesleys gave us one possible way of understanding the relationship of these six dimensions of the reign of God or whether their articulation of the kingdom is incompatible with Abraham’s articulation of six independent dimensions. John Wesley certainly did not articulate a rigid set of things that must happen in only one order. He was too subtle an observer of the spiritual life for that. But he also consistently understood the key element of the life of the spirit the experiential dimension. Perhaps he was merely highlighting the one of the six that he felt was most misunderstood and neglected in his context. I am not certain. But my sense is that Wesley would not arrange these six as equals. For him the experiential stood at the heart of the matter.
And, so, I wonder, should it for us?
I fear that my writing in this post has been more muddled than usual. My apologies for that to my kind readers. If my fog is not too dense, I welcome your thoughts.
- Six dimensions of the rule of God (johnmeunier.wordpress.com)