‘Methodists are free church Catholics’

Methodism could make a real contribution to our common life as Protestant Christians if we took seriously the ecclesial implications of Wesley’s stress on sanctification. I think Maddox is quite right to say that Wesley understood that without God’s grace we cannot be saved; but without our (grace-empowered but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save. Wesley, of course, was not unique in this emphasis — thus Augustine’s observation that the God who created us without us will not save us without us. Participation is, of course, signaled by baptism, by which we are made members of a community in which we are made accountable to one another. In short, Methodists are free church Catholics.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of Protestantism,” in Approaching the End

Stanley Hauerwas follows the statement above with an admission that very few United Methodist Churches would offer much support for his claim that we are “free church Catholics.”

I take his point to be that our tradition holds to a view of sanctification that requires a community to nurture us and hold us accountable. To “participate” with God’s grace requires the presence of other people. As Wesley would say, there is no holiness without social holiness.

I hear Hauerwas asserting that because of this there is no salvation without the church, not because the church has grip on the magic beans that get us into heaven but because it is impossible to grow in grace without being part of a community around you.

I’m not convinced I understand Hauerwas properly. I’m never convinced of that. I wonder how his quote above strikes you.

How do you get heard?

The dominant non-religious attitude in America toward sex is something like the attitude Americans have toward commercial transactions. So long as both parties are fully informed about what they are doing and agree of their free will, whatever they want to do is fine with most people.

The standard is the same whether you are standing in a pawn shop or cruising Tinder looking for a hook up.

Because this is the American attitude toward sex, it makes much of what the church says seem silly or reactionary or bigoted. What does God care if two people — or more — enter into a sexual encounter with open eyes?

That is the question.

And the problem is that it is impossible to answer without back-tracking pretty seriously.

You see, Christians historically have not accepted the idea that we own our bodies. We are created by God and redeemed by Christ. Our body — like everything else — is placed at our disposal for a span of time, but belongs to God. So, the notion that we can do whatever we feel like with it is a bit like the teenager who trashes his parent’s house when they leave town over the weekend. He was left in charge of the house, but he was not given license to do whatever he wanted.

Paul gets at this to a degree in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

This idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit gets into another issue.

Some people will ask why anyone should care about what another person does so long as “no one gets hurt.” The problem for Christians is that sin hurts someone. It hurts the sinner. It profanes the temple of the Holy Spirit.

By the time we go back this far, of course, we’ve totally lost non-Christian conversation partners. It is nonsense and foolishness to them. In truth, it is nonsense and foolishness to a lot of Christians because we have largely adopted the secular attitude about our own bodies.

I’m not sure how to combat this within the church. How do you get to the point where those of us who follow Jesus and read the Bible can see the way a biblical view of who we are is at odds with the commercial view? The commercial view gets so much more time to make its case, and has spent a lot more time crafting its message and delivery. I’m not sure how we get heard, even inside our own sanctuaries.

Can you be born again and not be saved?

This is one of those topics that will sound like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin to some, so please pardon me if you don’t care for these kinds of questions.

I have been reading RC Sproul’s excellent book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It is the kind of book that I wish Methodists could produce. In it, Sproul provides overviews of 100 important theological concepts. Each entry is brief and written for lay readers. It is clear but not at all simplistic. Being written by Sproul, of course, it is decidedly Reformed in its theology.

As an Arminian, which makes me a close sibling our Reformed brothers and sisters, much of the book speaks to me. Where I part ways with Sproul are when he writes about predestination, perfection, and the order of salvation. The last is the topic I want to consider for the balance of this post.

Sproul writes that the order of salvation goes like this:

  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

In other words, we must be born again before we can have the faith that saves us. And this regeneration has nothing to do with our own activity or action, of course. Faith is only possible once we have been regenerated or born again.

This is different than the Arminian understanding preached by John Wesley and Methodists after him.

We teach that it is not full regeneration but preventing (or prevenient) grace that comes before faith. Human beings — who would be utterly lost and hopeless without grace — have received the preventing grace that arouses in us those first desires to do good and to seek God. We often call this effect of grace our conscience. By cooperating and listening to the grace that precedes salvation, we are brought to conviction of our sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

We would list the stages in this way:

  • Awakening
  • Conviction
  • Justification & New Birth (regeneration)
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

For us, faith in Jesus Christ, justification, and new birth are all distinct things that occur at the same moment. When we have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we are justified. When we are justified, we are born again by the Holy Spirit.

Both ways of thinking about the matter center on justification by faith. We are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us. Both would say that once we are justified, we grow into sanctification. We work out our salvation. We differ significantly, however, on what happens prior to justification.

What had not been so clear to me before reading Sproul’s book was that he would say it is possible to be born again but not be saved. For Wesleyans, the one cannot happen without the other. In the instant we are set right with God we are born again. When we are born again, we are justified.

As a pastoral matter, I am not sure how much these differences matter to the way we preach and teach and counsel. I have not worked that out yet. It does remind me, though, that just because a person uses words such as “born again” or “regenerated” does not mean they mean the same thing I do when I use those words.

Is theology always a golden calf?

To what degree is theology an outgrowth of its context?

A student of church history is taught early on that the great Christological debates of the early church grew out of the cultural brew of late antiquity. The proclamation of Christ ran up against the philosophy and world-view of the Greco-Roman culture. Out of this encounter eventually came the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian definition.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions and studying his theology, you can see how pressing questions of the day created crucibles in which theology was clarified and refined.

We might say these doctrinal truths were always lying in wait to be discovered — like pure silver hidden in the surrounding rocks. But you don’t have to go far into church history to see the way local and particular concerns give shape to theology in ways that can have lasting influence.

And so, I wonder, to what degree we should understand theology as the product of its times and circumstances.

This kind of question has been pressed quite forcefully in the last 50 years by feminist and liberation theologies of various kinds. My introduction to these forms of theology has come through the work of theologians concerned with disability. What I see them doing is placing a priority and primacy on experience as the source of key theological questions and the standard by which theological answers are judged useful.

It is writers such as James H. Cone, however, who put this in the most pointed terms.

For instance, in the introduction to his book Risks of Faith, he writes about his struggle to articulate a theology that was responsive to his deepest concerns as a black man living in the 1960s. He writes that his education at Garrett and Northwestern did not prepare him to respond to the questions black people of faith were asking.

I found myself grossly ill-prepared, because I knew deep down that I could not repeat to a struggling black community the doctrines of the faith as they had been reinterpreted by Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and Tillich for European colonizers and white racists in the United States. I knew that before I could say anything worthwhile about God and the black situation of oppression in America I had to discover a theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African-American people.

When I read Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome, I hear a similar commitment to making the experience of the disabled the test of theology. In Yong’s case, the commitment to experience becomes a strainer through which scripture must be squeezed. It leads Yong to find much of scripture unhelpful to his theological project and leads him to suggest new readings that fill in the silences of scripture with the experiences or points-of-view of those with disabilities.

I am tempted to say that all these are instances of a canon within a canon becoming the touchstone for all theology. The idea of a canon within a canon is not new. What I see here is an expansion of the idea of canon. For some theologians the canon within the canon is a particular book or the particular reading of a book of the Bible. For others the canon within the canon is the experience of being black in America or a woman or poor in South America or mentally disabled.

I think Cone would argue that the received theology in the Western church is based on the canon of white (straight?) (male?) European experience.

From these points of view, then, what is theology other than the momentarily popular opinion of whatever person or group happens to be writing and speaking right now?

How do I know I’m not dancing in front of a golden calf?

God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

Boundaries are good

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, NIV)

In August, I wrote a post that came out of a seminary experience that had been leaning hard on inculcating a love of pluralism. The post was a piece I read to the class. It was called “Edges are good.”

It was a bit of a cry of desperation. It was also an attempt to articulate something that I have been struggling to grab hold of for the last few years.

The Bible speaks a great deal about edges and boundaries and separation. The act of creation itself is described in Genesis 1 less as creation ex nihilo than as the kind of thing a fan of the Container Store would do. It is separating light from dark and dry from wet. It is bring form out of formlessness. Creation is the establishment of boundaries.

In many other places in the Bible, the importance of boundaries is stressed. The importance of property lines come up throughout the Old Testament. The need for demarcation of sacred space is a constant theme. The concern over insider and outsider is rehearsed over and over.

Of course, this is not the only theme. The talk of boundaries is counter-balanced by talk of hospitality. Outsiders can become insiders. Every city wall has a gate. The sheep pen does as well.

But the boundaries — while permeable — remain. If not, chaos ensues. The walls come down. Wolves run off with the sheep. Things fall apart.

This is not a hard concept to acknowledge intellectually, but I think we as United Methodists often struggle with it in practice. We are a denomination that is uncomfortable with boundaries, and so we attract people who struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries. And our congregations and denomination suffer for it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this on Facebook. Fences may not make good neighbors, but they do keep the next guy’s pigs out of your tomato garden.

By all means, we need gates. But here is the truth I’m trying to make a part of my heart and not just my head: Edges are good. Boundaries are good. Fences are good.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.