Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.

Billy Abraham on doctrine

Methodism as option 3

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.

Billy Abraham at the crossroads

Here is a copy of a talk that William J. Abraham gave to United Methodists behind the Methodist Crossroads initiative.

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.

Faith > Bible?

Something Adam Hamilton wrote recently about the Bible reminded me of William J. Abraham’s counsel at the end of his little book The Bible: Beyond the Impasse.

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.

Billy Abraham on engaging the culture

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.