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.