Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What If Wesley Was Right?

Last week, I delivered the keynote address for the Oxford Institute of Wesley Studies at Christ College, Oxford University. A copy of my remarks follows:

What if Wesley was right? That is, what if Wesley was right, not about everything he believed, but what he most essentially believed? Particularly, what if Wesley was right in what he believed about God - a Triune God who intrudes, makes new, transforms and empowers? What if Wesley was right about the transformative, miraculous power of grace? If Wesley was right, in what he believed about God and what he believed about transforming grace, then in what ways might we contemporary followers of Wesley be wrong? In what ways does Wesley judge us and challenge us today, if Wesley was right?

What If Wesley Was Right?

Silly question. We’re here because we all believe that Wesley was right, not right about everything, to be sure (“beware of panegyric, particularly in London”), but right about the things that matter. And if Wesley was right, about what he was most right about, then perhaps we should be uncomfortable. I suspect that some of you are here tonight, not so much because you believe Wesley was right, but rather because you think he was interesting. You have a Wesleyan affinity, you are part of the “Wesleyan tradition,” you are curious about Wesley, or you find him useful in explaining something else that interests you more than Wesley: “Wesley, the organizational genius of the eighteenth century,” or “Wesley, the Tory for all seasons,” or some other merely academic interest. As a sometime academic myself, I have some admiration for those of you who can muster enthusiasm for such matters. But not much.

What if “our Old Daddy” (Asbury’s somewhat mocking title for Wesley) was not just interesting but also right? We may be uncomfortable because if Wesley was right in what he thought and taught, then we may be wrong. To ask, “What if Wesley was right?” is to allow ourselves to be challenged by Wesley’s grasp of reality. And if we should be so engaged by him, interrogated by him, and if we find ourselves thinking about God with him, why, we might again become theologians ourselves. We might again believe that there is nothing more important to talk about and no one more important to listen to than God.

So if you have a mainly archeological interest in Wesley as a set of ancient texts - a man who was remarkable rather than a man who was right - I hope I have nothing to say to you tonight.

If Wesley was right, then a conference about Wesley can be dangerous as we endeavor to protect ourselves against Wesley by talking about him rather than daring to allow him talk to us. (Wesley’s dreaded “almost Christian” comes in many forms.)

To answer, “What if Wesley was right?” we need to think what Wesley thought. The most challenging task of thinking with Wesley is that we must become theologians. That is, we must begin where he began. To read Wesley is to be in the presence of a man who has been assaulted by the living, speaking, active, interactive personality of the Triune God. To read Wesley’s Journals is to be with a man who is driven, moment-by-moment (even the most mundane), thought-by-thought (even the most trivial) by a robust, resourceful God. (Only a man who had the stupidest idea of luck - which Wesley did not - or the most extravagant notions of particular providence - Wesley did - could rely upon casting of lots as a method of intellectual discernment.)

What if Wesley was right about God?

Wesley was more medieval than modern theologian. That is, he inherited the robust Trinitarian faith that had been worked out in the early centuries of the church. God is not an idea, an abstraction, a source of meaning, a wholly other, a general concept, or a technique to help us make it through the day; God is the One who presently, directly speaks, creates, intrudes, convicts, enlightens, demands, commands, passionately loves, continually transforms. Wesley’s biblical interpretation is a sort of anti-interpretation in which he assumes that God speaks through scripture, every word of it. Rather than assume that the task of the interpreter is to make the text more meaningful to sophisticated, modern people who drive Volvos, Wesley seems to assume that the task of the text is to make the interpreters’ lives more difficult.

As Wesley wrote to his father, at the heart of the Methodist movement is an “habitual lively sense of our being only instruments in His hand, who can do all things either with or without any instrument.” Much of American popular religion is instrumental - religion valued on the basis of its alleged personal or social utility. Wesley assumes that the reader is instrumental to the biblical text.

What respectful, deferential, intellectually constrained Deist could write so sensuously?

Rise my soul with ardor rise,

Breathe thy wishes to the skies;

Freely pour out all thy mind,

Seek, and thou art sure to find;

Ready art thou to receive?

Readier is thy God to give.

Friend of sinners, King of saints,

Answer my minutest wants,

All my largest thoughts require,

Grant me all my heart’s desire,

Give me, till my cup run o’er,

All, and infinitely more.

Wesley assumes a God of plentitude, a God who is extravagantly, abundantly revelatory (my cup run o’er, All, and infinitely more). Most of us have been trained to - when we’re thinking about God - to assume deprivation. We lack enough information about God to speak with any authority about God.

Since the Son hath made me free,

Let me taste my liberty,

Thee behold with open face,

Triumph in thy saving grace,

Thy great will delight to prove,

Glory in thy perfect love.

Since the Son hath bought my peace,

Mine thou art, as I am his:

Mine the Comforter I see,

Christ is full of grace for me:

Mine (the purchase of his blood)

All the plenitude of God.

If Wesley was right about God, then we are wrong. We hear Wesley from within a dysfunctional family where death is normal. John Milbank accuses contemporary theology of dying under the grip of a “false modesty” in which theology finds it impossible to declare anything with conviction. We say that are so respectful of the ineffable mystery of God. In reality, we are reluctant to speak about God for fear that in the process we might discover a God who says something definitive and authoritative to us. Spent Calvinism, sliding into a renovated Deism, has triumphed. Silence is what you get when you know everything about God except that God is love. God is all distant concept, abstraction, and essence (Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity) and never speaking, revealing, troubling subject. We’ve got just enough God to give our lives a kind of spiritual tint without so much God as to interfere with our running the world as we damn well please.

I have just listened to the taped sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of their sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday. Yet in a depressing majority of these sermons there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, they were fine sermons.

One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Jesus putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things we needed to do. We were told that we must resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should strive to “increase in wisdom and in statue.” We ought to spend more time with our families (despite Jesus’ abandonment of his own family).

Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic rant on all the things that we need to do if we (lacking a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world.

This is what Barth condemned as “religion,” defined in Romans as “a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, to make it a practical ‘something’, for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without God….”

Of course, most congregations that I know love such moralistic Deism. The subtext is always, You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea you can save yourselves by yourselves. Whether preached by an alleged theological conservative or would be liberal, we’re all Schliermachians now. Theology is reduced to anthropology because unlike Wesley, we’re obsessed with ourselves rather than God. God is humanity spoken in a resonate, upbeat voice backed up with power-point presentation. Our noble Arminianism really does degenerate into Pelagianism when the divine gift of divine-human synergism loses its divine initiation. My image of us United Methodists on Sunday morning is that we come to church with pencil and pad ready to get our assignments for the week, not from God but from the preacher: “This week church, work on your sexism, racism, and be nice to sales clerks. Come back next week and I’ll give you another assignment.” God thus becomes the patron of politics of the right (IRD) or the left (NCC) in a last ditch effort to give God something useful to do.

Wesley’s much touted “Catholic spirit” was right to draw the line at extending the open hand of fellowship to Deists. (I define Deism, with James Burtchell, as the theological equivalent of safe sex.) Though Wesley might have been wrong in his belief in the reality of witches; he was right in his belief that the Deists’ disbelief in witches was not to be trusted because of their truncated theological imaginations.

Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in face down. Too troubled by our expectations of what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes anybody could accept and no sensitive, thinking person could resist. “Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors.” Our testimony got reduced to whatever the market could bear. In the process of such “preaching,” distinctive Christian speech was jettisoned and the discourse of instrumental, utilitarian, therapeutic Deism is the dominant homiletic mode. Finney’s pragmatism triumphs. A-theistic, simplified wisdom now dominates popular preaching (Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”) because preaching is no longer an expression of the peculiar actions of a Triune God. People on top, well fed, well empowered people always love Wisdom Literature because of its lack of a God who either judges or redeems. Well fixed people always want therapy more than salvation. We thus violated Barth’s “first axiom of theology” - the First Commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Today the Methodist movement, at least in it North American and European vestiges, suffers from the debilitating effects of a truncated theology. We are attempting to revive a church on a too thin description of God. Whereas Wesley’s robust Trinitarianism produced a vibrant, experimental, missional, adaptable ecclesiology that rejoiced in radical manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit among ordinary people, today a virtually deistic view of God has rendered a dispirited, ossified ecclesia that in so many ways appears to be organized as a defense against the Holy Spirit. I marvel at Wesley’s determination to deal with all organizational and missional questions from a theological point of view. Wesley was open to development and to change of the very structures he had created because he was determined to worship a living God whose perichorietic, trinitarian nature demanded a certain sort of institutional embodiment.

Church growth guru, Paul Borden spoke to our pastors. Borden is creating a virtually new, bourgeoning denomination among once dispirited American Baptists in California of all places. When asked, “What qualities do you most desire in pastors who are employed to start new congregations?” Borden replied, “They must be joyfully Trinitarian and orthodox in their theology, stressing the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ.” I thought I was hearing Wesley.

Ecclesiologically, when the name “God” designates a stable, abstract essence rather than an active, reaching Trinity, then internal maintenance displaces external mission. The ministry that once was sent now becomes almost exclusively settled and parochial. The church that once planted congregations in thousands of places in order to follow Jesus everywhere is left behind by Jesus as we maintain and subsidize thousands of little churches that have long since ceased to bear any of the visible marks of the church and Jesus moves on to his next area of conquest.

Wesley’s “conjunctive theology,” (Ken Collins) in its complexity and tensive holding together of seemingly disparate emphases (knowledge and piety, sacramentalism and evangelism, faith and good works, justification and sanctification, personal holiness and social holiness, reason and enthusiasm, etc., etc.) is just the sort of sweeping intellect that is produced by the worship of a complex God for whom Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, these three, are one.

If Wesley was right, then the best thing about John Wesley was the three-personed God who met Wesley at Aldersgate and elsewhere. As I read him, Wesley didn’t so much love the poor as he loved the God who for our sakes became poor (Phil. 2:6-10). He was not so much an organizational genius of the Eighteenth Century as a man who experienced first hand the reality of the Incarnation. Methodism, Wesley kept contending, was solely a miraculous work of God. He was not so much a great pastoral theologian as someone who was trying to figure out what had happened to scores of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people after God had gotten to them in the miraculous movement called Methodism.

But if Wesley was right, then the Trinitarian God may not be done with the Methodist movement yet, then God may find a way to meet us again in the present age. When you’ve got a resurrected Christ, we always have more future than past. God give us more theologians and fewer historians. Limp, static, inoffensive and uninspired merely contemporary views of God can be judged and corrected by our encounters with Wesley who brings us into encounter with a living God. When I read Wesley, I find that one of the Trinity’s prominent attributes is not order, righteousness, or even love - it’s momentum. Wesley’s God is truly God in action, intruding everywhere. So whereas Dr. Whitehead emphasized, in his funeral sermon for Wesley, the pacifying, steadying effect upon the general population, tonight I celebrate the potentially dislocating, disruptive effect of his robust view of a living God.

Thus Wesley may be able to rise up and speak to us yet -- for he believed in an active, personal God who can kill and make alive, who refuses to be silenced, who loves to make a way when we gave up hope that there was a way. If Wesley was right.

Transforming Grace

My friend Hauerwas is fond of saying that when contemporary Anglicans talk about the Incarnation, they don’t know what they are talking about and when Methodists speak today of grace we know even less. Without the personality of a Trinitarian God to give it specificity and content, “grace” becomes a vaguely benign spirit of divine beneficence toward an already benign humanity. Today, we’re more inclined to “accept our humanity” than to worship a God who means radically to change us and to enlist us.

For Wesley, grace was the constant, moment-by-moment active working of God in us that gives us a different life, indeed a different world, than we would have had if God had left us alone. Without God we wretched sinners can do nothing, thought Wesley, with God we being-sanctified saints can do all things. Wesley took the Moravian one-time experience of spiritual enlightenment and made it a lifetime process of daily awakening to what grace can do among us. Responsible grace (thank you, Randy Maddox). As early as 1734, Wesley preached the “one thing needful” as a soul that was being transformed by constant encounter with a living God.

A transformed life is the anthropological result of a theological claim -- "The best of all is God is with us.” A Trinitarian God never stops being Creator pro nobis, transforming everything that God touches. One of the most memorable impressions of Dick Heitzenreiter’s The People Called Methodists is his depiction of the Spirit-induced heroism of ordinary Methodists. For Wesley, the transforming Holy Spirit was more than personal and subjective; it was corporate and ecclesial. Wesley delights to report the transformative work of the Holy Spirit on thousands of ordinary folk, even more than his delight in chronicling the results of the Holy Spirit on himself. Transformed lives confirmed Wesley’s pneumatology.

At Aldersgate, Wesley experienced verification of the truth he had heretofore preached. As Heitzenrater puts it, at Aldersgate, “A long tradition of propositional certainty of faith met the power of a personal experience of the faith.”

Robert W. Cushman first told me that it was not so much Aldersgate that transformed Wesley but rather field preaching. Field preaching was against just about everything Wesley had been educated to be for. I love Wesley’s surprise at the response God gave to his field preaching. About the same time as Jonathan Edwards was marveling at “the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton” (1737), Wesley was stunned by the effect of his field sermons at Bristol. When I read Wesley’s written Sermons I share Wesley’s shock that anybody got moved by his preaching. I find little to account for his homiletic effect other than a God who loves to raise the dead and to speak despite us.

As you know, Wesley’s full embrace of both forgiveness and radical personal transformation sent both Lutherans and Calvinists through the roof. On the cross, Jesus didn’t just do something about our guilt; Jesus defeated the kingdom of Satan and established the Kingdom of God; Jesus recreated the world and us, making us into a new people who had a fresh start in life. What Lutherans and Calvinists thought wrong was Wesley’s extravagant assertion that something radical was done not only for us but also is being done in us to sever our desires from their evil affections and to infuse us with robust craving to live a life of love toward God and neighbor.

Don’t you find it revealing that Wesley expended so much theological energy defending his notion that human beings could actually contribute something to their salvation. We must spend our time defending the divine side of divine/human synergy. It’s not radical for us to think that we save ourselves by ourselves. What’s radical is to assert a God who is able to work signs and wonders. In my own efforts to prod denominational renewal, I would say that disbelief in a God who is able to do among us what God demands from us is the biggest impediment to renewal. The Enlightenment still holds our imaginations captive and that captivity is killing us.

Our conference is concerned with matters of ecclesiology, missiology. May I begin the conversation by stating my belief that the God who transforms lives formed the basis of Wesley’s ecclesiology? A sent ministry is what you get with a God who loves to go on “processions” (as the Fathers put the sending work of the Trinity). Why do we contemporary Wesleyans wring our hands over our alleged lack of an ecclesiology when, seen from one angle, that’s all Wesley did - ecclesiology. His vision of God being so great and so lively as massively to transform the lives of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people is an ecclesiology worth having - if Wesley was right.

Our great challenge, in ecclesiology is that we’ve made salvation personal and subjective (William James has won). For Wesley salvation was always corporate. His elaborate, detailed attention to the life of the Body of Christ is a rebuke to our religion-as-subjectivity. The wrong turn we took in frontier revivalism nurtured under William James, brought to flower in capitalism, now running shamelessly among us as evangelicals wreak havoc in a church that once embodied holiness. Pragmatic evangelicalism has fostered theological minimalism. Everything is reduced to “the message” - some trite expression suitable for a bumper-sticker. Rather than transformation, preaching’s goal becomes communication and acceptance of “the message” rather than life-changing encounter with Jesus the Messenger, becomes the goal of preaching.

A bestselling book of the past year says it all: Leaving Church. Our God dis-incarnate determines that we all must disembody our faith and leave church in order to follow the governmentally approved ordo salutus - saving ourselves by descending ever deeper into our subjectivity. Because of our limp theology, our anthropology becomes too stable, and the purpose of our preaching is adjustment, confirmation rather than conversion. Preaching thus becomes another means of self-cultivation as well as a well reasoned defense against true transformation.

Wesley’s ecclesiology has proved difficult for us heirs of Wesley to maintain, not because Wesley was too strict or too obsessive but rather because his was an ecclesiology that requires a certain sort of God to sustain it. (Wesley’s lively Trinitarian God of constant processions.) Only a person who has a most extravagant notion of the miraculous power of God could devote nearly one-fourth of his first collection of Sermons to expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, taking with direct seriousness the ability of God to produce people who could live the lives assumed by the Sermon on the Mount.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,

Change my nature into thine:

Move and spread throughout my soul,

Actuate and fill the whole:

Be it I no longer now,

Living in the flesh, but thou.

Holy Ghost, no more delay,

Come, and in thy temple stay;

Now thy inward witness bear

Strong and permanent, and clear;

Spring of life, thyself impart,

Rise eternal in my heart!

If Wesley was right, then we have some serious theological work to do. Wesleyan theology is a gift of God to make Wesleyan ecclesiology and Wesleyan mission as difficult as they ought to be. We’re in great need of theological, Christological refurbishment. If Wesley was right about God, grace, mission and the church, then we’ve got lots to talk about, at least two weeks’ worth. Thank God we’ve got someone as interesting as the Wesley to converse with.

Not long ago I disposed of an hour recently with a man who has a nationwide ministry in which he tries to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. This he claims to do with a combination of prayer and exorcism. I of course assumed that his ministry was bogus. Still, I told him that if Wesley was right, then even stranger things than him are possible with prayer.

Go with me to a dilapidated ex-warehouse that is today the Church of Innerchange at the interchange of I-20 and I-459 outside Birmingham. There, in a ministry that ranges from Bible study to paint ball tournaments, the Innerchange Church ministers to hard living blue collar people. I’m there on a Sunday.

Before you speak, we’ll show a video clip,” the pastor told me. (I don’t approve of multimedia homiletics, believing that preaching ought to be done the way Jesus did it - stand and deliver without aid of technology.)

So just before I speak, a voice on the video says, “Why do you come to the Church of Innerchange?”

A young African-American man looks into the camera and says, “I met Pastor Mike. I told him I had a drug problem that I hadn’t been able to shake. Pastor Mike told me, ‘That’s good. It’s a sign that you know something’s wrong in America. Lots of people aren’t smart enough to know that God intends us for a better world. But drugs won’t get you what you want. Let me show you Jesus. I’ve been here ever since. One year, drug free. I couldn’t have done it without Jesus and Innerchange.”

A young woman, holding a small child says, “One night my husband beat me so bad that I didn’t leave the trailer for a week. I was so ashamed of how I looked. But the baby needed milk so I put on these sunglasses and a lot of makeup and went to the store. There, at the vegetable section, this woman comes up to me, takes off my glasses and asks, ‘What happened to you honey?’

“I lied and told her I had a car accident. ‘A man did this, didn’t he?’ she said. ‘I know what that’s like. Let me take you somewhere where you and your baby will be safe. She brought me to Innerchange. This is the family I always knew God wanted me to have.”

Through my own tears and inability to stand up to preach, I mumbled, “So, Wesley was right!”

Bishop's Podcast now available! Bishop Willimon invites you to listen to the first two episodes of his new podcast. Click here for information. There will be a new podcast posted each Thursday.


Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

WOW! What a message!

Psalmist said...

Amen, Bishop.

Thank you for this timely reminder what I (and the church of which I am a part) am called to be about in the Reign of God. Your words have challenged me to live up to the promises I have made as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to be an effective witness to the power of Christ's resurrection.

Anonymous said...

WOW!You have articulated in the clearest voice what I have been concerned about for quite sometime.The rightness of Wesley's theology still amazes me!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Thank you, Bishop. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I was here yesterday and interested in several comments that raised questions about the post. I hoped to see dialogue on the issues raised.

What happened to those comments? Are questions not allowed on this blog?

Anonymous said...

Discussions are always appreciated and some questions will be answered. What question did you want to have answered?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Methodist. I don't know anything about Wesley. But this makes me want to know a lot more about him, in hopes that would help me with the real question-- how do I live like that? To live assaulted by the living God. What else is there? And how I run from it. Who am I to live wired in to the God "who presently, directly speaks, creates, intrudes, convicts, enlightens, demands, commands, passionately loves, continually transforms?" It's too much. It's entirely too much.

Who are we that we have been offered life like this?

Thank you for this.

- Joanna

Anonymous said...

I guess I didn't realize blogs got edited. That's weird.

What I wanted to know was more about the question of believing a powerful god can heal things like addiction and violence.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bishop Willimon,

Many thanks for this excellent challenge!

Tom McCall
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Keith Tilley said...

Bishop Willimon,
Thank you for that well-articulated statement. I agree wholeheartedly. I am a UM pastor in East Texas and starting a D.Min. with Len Sweet at George Fox. Your observations line up well with my project. I will certainly add your paper to my research. If you have any further suggestions I would appreciate them. My project overview is below...

Leadership in Emerging Culture

Area of Interest

I would like to study missional paradigms for the Church in an emerging post-Christian culture. As a pastoral church leader, I have a great appreciation for the entire history of the Church universal, and the many ways God has moved and changed the course of Christ’s Church to engage a variety of cultures so that His mission would be accomplished. I would like:
1. to review attributes of the early Methodist movement and Wesleyan distinctives and explore how if applied creatively today, might benefit the current institutional Western church in moving from a maintenance mode to becoming mission focused once again, and
2. to explore what other contemporary church leaders are suggesting and doing in light of the general decline of the Western institutional church.


There is an obvious cultural and generational disconnect between the current institutional Western Church and many younger adults (age 40 and below). Overall, the current state of the church is much more focused on maintaining its current institutions and programs than reaching new generations of people with the good news of Jesus today. What will it take for the 21st century Church to move from an internally focused maintenance mentality to a healthy, vital, missional approach?

Structure and organization is necessary to carry out the work of God, but unless adapted and adjusted regularly, consumes the focus and resources of a group of well-intentioned people. John Wesley and early Methodists re-imagined how faithful followers of Jesus should live back in their day in response to the institutionalization of the Anglican Church. This has happened many other times in the history of the Church. There are several church leaders today engaging in conversation regarding post-modern thought and emerging culture and exploring how the church must re-invent itself to offer an authentic witness for Jesus in today’s world.

William H. Willimon said...

Thank you for such a generous response to my Wesley speech. Your work sounds interesting, much needed in our church. I really like what Len Sweet does, though he is probably more interested in the "culture" part of our theology/culture mix than I. I find that Methodism has so thoroughly enmeshed itself in the culture that we're hardly saying anything the culture is not. Keep me posted on your work as it progresses. We need fresh, deep thinking in our church!

Sky McCracken said...

Bishop Will:

I've read a lot of what you've written and preached, and even argued with you to your face over some of it. But this is by far your best.

The bishopric hasn't ruined you after all. [grin]


Unknown said...

I appreciate the message. I also wanted to let you know I quoted from your comment about Finney. I welcome your review and comment on my writing POSTED HERE in part 6 of my Finney series.