Ministry study and Wesleyan theology

Despite my attempt at a humorous take on The Study of Ministry Commission report a couple posts down, I did read with interest the report during a break from work earlier today. I found myself pulling out my pen to mark some of the language at the front of the report where it discussed theology.

Here is the report on Wesleyan theology:

Beyond context, our theology is always shaped by our call to mission and Christian experience. Wesley’s doctrines of grace and holiness were expressions of his own practical theology in eighteenth century England. While our doctrinal standards are received tradition, our theological task is ongoing. Thomas Langford used this analogy: “Doctrine is the part of the cathedral that is already completed, exploratory theology is creative architectural vision and preliminary drawings for possible new construction” (Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, p. 204).

I’ve not read Langford’s book, so I do not know if he means what this paragraph appears to imply. Here is how I read it.

Wesley’s doctrines were personal to him and his context. They were “his” doctrines, created out of “his own” practical theology that was firmly rooted and tied to a certain time and place — eighteenth century England.

These doctrines come to us as “received” tradition — not living — but the real work is in creating the new.

I see the upshot of this approach when I read on the next page the commission’s definition of justifying grace.

Justifying grace is a reminder to us that salvation is a gift to be claimed and shared with others.

A reminder? So, it is like a big flag God waves in our face to remind us that we should get about the task of laying claim to salvation? I know this is not Wesleyan. Which new creative architectural vision is this?

I understand that many candidates for ordination find the required questions on Wesleyan theology nothing more than a hoop to get through. As someone said at a recent gathering of Wesleyan United Methodists, they write the essays and then forget it.

Reading statements such as these in this report, I understand that attitude. I understand why the UMC website puts quotes around “standards” on the page that links to the Doctrinal Standards from the Book of Discipline. I wonder, to be completely honest, whether I should give up on this idea of pursuing a mid-career ordination. I don’t actually want to be a pastor who views Wesleyan theology as a dead relic like so many ruined cathedrals.

FYI: Dan Dick gave a more comprehensive read of the report on his blog. John Wilks replied to Dan’s post on his blog.

18 thoughts on “Ministry study and Wesleyan theology

  1. John,
    I do not view Wesley’s theology as a dead relic. If it was a dead relic why is a course n Wesley theology required by boards of ordained ministry for ordination. My ministry is guided by Wesley’s theology, always has and will until the day I die (ministry doesn’t cease on retirement.) If those ho came up with this thing called the Call to Action report truly believe this mumbo jumbo then we are truly in trouble and we are the UNTIED Methodist Church rather than the United Methodist Church.

    1. Agreed Ed… This is “mumbo jumbo”. It is not Wesleyan theology. The UMC IS in trouble. Retired pastors like you and me no longer have much of a voice in the church. But we can still be in ministry. We can be engaged in ministry in our neighborhood–outside the church. Recently, at the Wesleyan Leadership Conference,, SMU professor The Rev Elaine Heath stated that “mature Christians are those in ministry OUTSIDE the church in the neighborhood.” (paraphrased) It distresses me to see the official leaders of the United Methodist Church losing their focus on the Wesleyan centers of justification and sanctification. However, you and I do NOT need to lose OUR focus. We can continue in a Wesleyan form of ministry even without the official UMC. Sad isn’t it?

      1. But we do not need to be sad about it because God is good.

        We do need to seek to be faithful.

        1. Thank you John. I need that reminder. I think I am grieving. Part of the truth is that the institutional UMC may indeed need to die. The institution is so culturally bound and racist that institutional death may be the best prelude to the rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan movement. Perhaps as the authorities in the church discard the Wesleyans (as the Church of England resisted Wesley himself) we will once again see scriptural holiness begin to spring up. Christ is risen indeed.

  2. A question – Who are the people who comprise these commissions and task forces? Do they have any concept of reality or are they heads of boards and agencies who don’t have a clue?

    1. Ed, I’m sure they are a mix. I know only a couple names on the last page of the report, but I’m sure all of them have good intentions. I just, for the life of me, don’t understand the theology behind statements like the ones above.

      I’m sure if I were better educated I would understand the history and the development of theological thinking over time better.

      But … that definition of justification is not even in the ball park of Wesley preached as one of the absolute central doctrines of the revival. I don’t see how we can call ourselves Methodist and treat Wesleyan justification like some sort of quaint idea from the past that goes up on the shelf to show the guests.

  3. RE: Justifying grace is a reminder. Perhaps it is just clumsy English. Maybe what they meant is something more like ‘The fact that God justifies by grace through faith in Christ and what he has done on our behalf also reminds us that …”

    1. That may be the case, Mitchell. The section header is about the way we are formed by grace in community, so it certainly would not have been out of bounds to speak more directly about the pardoning and redeeming work of grace that leads to new birth. That is part of the formation process, is it not?

      Of the three, prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying, only sanctifying grace “does” anything in the discussion in the document.

      Prevenient grace is a “foundation.” Justifying grace is a “reminder.” Sanctifying grace is a “shaping and pruning.”

      Even a paraphrase of the Book of Discipline’s language in the Wesleyan Distinctives section would have been a big improvement.

      Given the paragraphs earlier that emphasis the passe quality of Wesleyan theology, I was primed to read the justification statement as intentionally non-Wesleyan. It may just be clumsy language. I would be pleased to learn that.

  4. If a theology is described as contextual to Wesley, it doesn’t mean it’s a dead relic. It means that if we are going to find God in our 21st Christian lives, we can’t just read Wesley’s writings as if they we verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible.

    The whole agony about institutional church growth in the US is a great example of non contextualism. We are in a non-Christian social era but we keep chanting the mantra that if we are just filled with the Holy Spirit and preach proper doctrine, people will come flooding through the doors of the institutional church. Not only that, they will joyfully want to sit through a service they don’t understand and which doesn’t help them on bit to find God in their everyday lives.

    No wonder we need strict doctrine, because we don’t have God. Really? We don’t understand that God has brought salvation into the world and that salvation of the universe is a done deal and it the job of Christians to make that clear to those who don’t understand? Really? That’s totally unWesleyan? I really AM a completely different religion.

    (Pardon bad typing on PDA leading to bad grammar. This blogging software doesn’t allow PDAs to go back and make changes.)

    1. Wow, Pam. Where did I write two-thirds of that?

      And when have I been lobbying for more concern about institutional church growth?

      Your realized eschatology is quite contemporary. Wesley, of course, thought the task was a good bit more than telling people about something that already happened. He was convinced that people still needed saving and transformation and liberation from actual and active spiritual darkness that held them in chains. The chains are not a byproduct of not understanding the real state of things. They are real, present, spiritual, and unbreakable by human effort or intention.

      We can have a productive conversation about what a realized eschatology means for Wesleyan conceptions of grace, but it is settling the argument in advance to declare that Wesley’s theology was personal to him and bound to a particular setting and therefore of little more than historical interest to us today who are about more pressing things.

      Wesley certainly did not understand his theology that way. He understood it as apostolic.

      Now, we can decide he was wrong or deluded in his own understanding. We can certainly point out where he changed, contradicted himself, or just did not reason well or from actual facts. But if we want to remain in conversation with him as a living tradition, then we cannot act as if his understandings have nothing to say to us because they were articulated in the 18th century.

      And we certainly should not take a term like “justifying grace” and make it a mere reminder of something we should do.

      If we don’t want to remain in conversation with him in any meaningful way, we are free to do that as well. Millions of Christians never give him a thought. I just don’t see why we call ourselves Methodists if we do that.

      I was not conscious of anything I wrote being about institutional churches or attractional models of church growth. I would certainly not drag Wesley in to defend those given the conduct of his ministry.

      1. John, I don’t think we’re communicating and I confess that I don’t even understand how most of what you’re saying applies either to what I wrote or to your original post.

        I understand “realized eschatology” to mean that there is no future eschaton. I don’t believe that at all. I do, however, believe that God’s Kingdom is “now” as well as “not yet” and I believe that Wesley thought that too. I believe that the final, completed, eschaton will be of God’s doing and not of human doing because human beings will always be sinners.

        However, I do most emphatically believe that the church’s theological task is ongoing. And I understood your original post to be disagreeing what that point. If that’s not what you were saying, I apologize.

        I didn’t say you were lobbying for more church growth. It was an illustration of why I think the church needs to move forward in trying to find God in our own culture and context rather than assuming that we will continue to find God in the same way that people did in the 18th century. As to who is doing that kind of thing – the UMC and many other denominations who are evaluating the effectiveness of “church” and pastors mainly on the basis of how many new members join.

        1. Pam, I think I read the report as making a stronger claim than you read in it.

          I see it saying our ongoing task can leave behind the past without much concern or attention. The real action is out in the new “construction.” This interpretation may be over-reacting. It is rooted in the language of the report in both the items I quoted above and the other language in the first couple pages.

          I certainly do not think theology is done or has nothing left to do. But I do think there are certain doctrines that were apostolic and continue to be central to the life of the church. I am perhaps too quick to detect people pitching those over the rail, but I do hear people suggest that, usually by pointing out that such ideas were once useful but a no longer so.

  5. There are of course both objective and subjective sides to the soteriological coin. That God objectively achieved our salvation on the cross is not in doubt anywhere in Wesley. In fact, he also steadfastly denied that sanctification has any sense of self-will or merit. It is all a matter of the Spirit of God breathing into us and we exhale the love of God back toward Him and to humanity. As John M. mentions though, even as we are justified freely of God’s grace we still feel the weight of sin. The Spirit gives us power over outward, intentional sin, but we must learn to lean more and more on God as He crucifies the flesh of our hearts. That much does not need contextualization, and I’m Wesleyan because I believe it is the apostolic faith. We can certainly contextualize our evangelism, but we must not lose the true message of our faith in the process.

  6. Pam, I think I read the report as making a stronger claim than you read in it.

    I see it saying our ongoing task can leave behind the past without much concern or attention.

    OK. When I read it as a total outsider, I see a fairly boring document about ecclesial ordering.

    The Primitive Methodist movement in the UK evolved and grew to be arguably the strongest force in Methodism while holding views about ordination and ministry in very strong opposition to Wesley’s teachings. And we somehow managed to stay Christian. So I can’t get too exercised about a matter that I see personally see as neither doctrinal nor very theological but simply a matter of order and – sadly often – of perceived privilege.

    I’m assuming I’m missing triggers that are apparent to folk who are sensitive to UMC partisanship, so I’ll shut up.

  7. John – Getting away from the specifics of the report for a minute, I think it’s worth noting that the report is based on some pretty significant assumptions: that the church is a temporal as well as a sacred institution. It has the same requirements for financial viability and effective institutional leadership that every other human institution does. Dress it up with religious language as you will, but the church is acting like an employer who is unilaterally changing the employment contract. The new contract is much more heavily weighted toward management. Get the education we direct. Jump through our hoops for certification. And then you get the privilege of annually competing for work. I like the new euphemism “transitional leave.” Transitional to what? To being unemployed, and potentially unable to feed or house your family. Transitional leave is being fired. Strip away the God talk, and that’s what you’ve got. I’m sure that the powers that be wish it were otherwise, and maybe that’s the way it has to be, but it sure does sound like every other institution in the world.

    What interests me most in this is the way that the church is willing to adjust to the realities of the world, even when those adjustments have a real human cost. Governments and businesses also live with financial realities and problems of labor effectiveness. We are willing to make “concessions to reality” for ourselves that we seem to be unwilling to make for secular institutions. Do we hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?

    As an elder in an extensions ministry, I doubt that I will be personally affected by the change. Even under the current system, I’ve been told not that I have no “right” to an appointment after I retire from the Army. C’est dommage. I’d like to serve a local church again, but I’ll probably retire from both the Army and the conference at the same time.

    1. Mitchell, I hope some of these pointed questions get discussed and aired at GC. I think your point about the contrast between business and government and our own practices is one that needs consideration.

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