Monday, July 12, 2010

Preaching the Apocalypse

I am usually a lectionary preacher, but during the summers, I like to preach a series of sermons. Sometimes, I have even based the series on the lectionary itself. For example, when the lectionary takes us through the David stories, I preach a series of sermons on David, or Moses, or Joseph. In the Spring of this year, I let the congregation vote on an online poll on which subject they would like to hear a summer series of sermons. The choices were the book of Revelation, David, Moses, and the book of Genesis. The overwhelming percentage of those who voted opted for Revelation.

I had four weeks between annual conference and vacation. I am part of a clergy couple, so usually I preach every other week. My wife was gracious enough to let me preach for these four Sundays in a row. I decided that these would basically be teaching sermons- no cute stories and not too many applications. I let the congregation know what I was planning in advance, and I encouraged them to read the book of Revelation in advance, and I suggested that they read Mickey Efird's Revelation for Today as a guide. To my knowledge, no one actually bought the Efird book, but one person did buy another book that she saw at a bookstore. One man told me he tried reading Revelation on his own, but it was too confusing for him. I told him that it was confusing if you try to read it straight through without some kind of guide.

There was so much to cover in only four sermons; how could I possibly choose what to preach on? Finally, I decided to preach one introductory sermon, one sermon on the worship in Revelation, one on the reality of evil and judgment, and one sermon on the New Jerusalem. If you were going to preach four sermons on Revelation, how would you break it down? Here's a brief summary of each sermon:

In the introductory sermon, I talked about some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature and some of the different approaches to the book of Revelation. I closed with a look at the letter to the church at Laodicea. I closed the sermon by talking about (and leading the congregation in singing) the civil rights anthem, "We shall overcome," explaining how it is based on Revelation 3:21. (see Richard Hays' book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, chapter 8 for more on this connection. More generally, Hays' chapter on Revelation has had a profound effect on how I read the Apocalypse, as had John Howard Yoder's book, The Politics of Jesus, chapter 12.)

In the second sermon, the text was Revelation 4 and 5, the scenes of heavenly worship centered around the one who sits on the throne, and on the Lamb. I reflected on how we look for a lion, but what we get is the Lamb. Here, I was influenced largely by Eugene Peterson's book, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. I didn't think about it at the time, but in Simply Christian N. T. Wright's whole discussion of Christian worship is based on Revelation 4 and 5.

In the third sermon, I used Revelation 13 to talk about the reality of evil. This was the sermon that contained the most historical information because I went into some depth about the emperors Nero and Domitian as the ones John had in mind when he envisioned the "beast." I talked about how in Revelation, God's response to evil is appropriately wrath and judgment, which were actually signs of hope that were intended to lead us to repentance.

In the fourth sermon, I talked about the New Jerusalem, but first I cleared the air by explaining that in Revelation, there is no rapture, and that Armageddon and the Millennium were two of the kaleidoscopic images used by John to describe the Lamb's complete victory over evil. Of course, I explained that the sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth , meaning the Lamb conquers not through military swords, but simply by the power of God's word. The New Jerusalem is described in terms that recall Genesis 2 (the tree, the river, the garden, the fruit of healing). We are called to live now the way we know we will live in the New Jerusalem.

And that's how I preached the book of Revelation in only four weeks: introduction, worship, evil, and victory. How would you have done it? I would add that Marva Dawn's book, Joy in our Weakness: A gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation was very helpful for me. In the series, I included two quotes. One from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say why - I dream things that never were and say why not." Revelation invites us to imagine with John a new world and ask, "why not?" Revelation funds an alternative imagination from the limited imagination of Caesar. The other quote I included in the series was from Lee Camp:

We might summarize Revelation this way: in the ring of human history, there's a bleeding Lamb in one corner and a dragon in the other. "Common sense" would tell us we should place our bet on the dragon – but there's a new common sense, a new reality, in which the Lamb turns out victorious. It's the people of God, the church, who are supposed to know that secret, because the mystery has been revealed in Christ. (Mere Discipleship, second edition, p. 110).

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gifts of the Small Church: A Review

A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.

But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God. . .

What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together


Ever wished that more pastors heeded the wisdom that Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered in Life Together? I sure have. As a matter of fact, I wish that I paid more attention to Bonhoeffer's warnings myself. How many of us United Methodist clergy have ever been to a district clergy meeting when we did not hear a pastor complaining about his/her congregation? It almost seems like a favorite pastime. If we do not hear other clergy grumbling about their congregations, we may hear the opposite extreme: clergy praising their congregations as if they were First Church Philippi. This can of course be merely a subtle way of bragging about ourselves. So we hear complaints about unfaithfulness or undue praise for accomplishments and growth. But what is often missing is a realistic presentation of our churches for all their gifts, graces, and foibles. That's exactly what Byassee offers us in his latest book, The Gifts of the Small Church. It's almost as if Byassee wrote this book with the above quotation from Bonhoeffer hanging over his desk.

Byassee's book is a good example of what Bonhoeffer is asking for: not a complaint about our churches, but rather a thanksgiving. I don't mean to suggest that Byassee doesn't tell the stories of how weird his local church was; he does. And they are often funny, sometimes sad, and usually provocative. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many weird experiences Byassee had that were common to my experience as a pastor of a small church. I frequently found myself thinking, "ok, good, I'm glad I'm not the only pastor that this happened to." He doesn't hide any of the church's idiosyncrasies or down-right weirdness.

But what he does do is to tell them as a member of their community, not as an outsider. He tells the stories not from the academic distance of an impartial observer laughing at these backwards people. Rather, he tells them from the point of view of someone who is actually genuinely in love with his people. They are weird people, but they are his weird people. As such, he always describes them not only with honesty, but also with the tenderness and even admiration that only a loving pastor could possess.

Byassee will occasionally indulge in some holy laughter, but it is never cruel. It is always the kind of laughter that goes on in a loving, healthy (even if somewhat dysfunctional) family. Byassee is genuinely grateful to God for the people in his church, and the reader cannot help but be endeared to him for it.

I especially enjoyed Byassee's description of what it means to be a pastor's husband, probably because I am also one. It is understandable when pastor's wives resist the stereotypes of what it means to be the pastor's wife. There's just so much baggage that goes with that. But as Byassee points out, folks haven't figured out yet quite what to expect from us pastor's husbands, so we just get to enjoy the ride. It is so much fun!

Another aspect of this memoir that I appreciated was the theological reflection almost seamlessly woven into this tale. A few trinitarian reflections never hurt anybody, especially when they come so naturally out of pastoral experience. The overarching theological concept that kept surfacing in my mind was Incarnation. God does not wish to be known in the general or abstract, but in the particular and specific: flesh and blood. And so it is in the flesh and blood of these particular people that Byassee encounters God. And it is especially in the flesh and blood of people that we might rather avoid, too! The great advantage of a small church is that you can't be anonymous, and you can't avoid your enemies. Thus, small churches tend to be more incarnational churches than large, anonymous mega-churches. But Byassee does not blast the mega-churches either, as a mater of fact he points out that they are at their best when they adopt the Wesleyan strategy of meeting in small groups - like small churches within large churches. So don't let Byassee's informal style fool you: underneath it all, there is a theologian's mind at work.

This book reminded me somewhat of Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, but it did not include Taylor's increasingly skeptical views of historic church teaching or her sense of alienation from the institutional church. Indeed, Byassee's pastoral experiences tended to confirm orthodox Christian teaching and root him more deeply in the Christian community. In this respect, it is more like Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: a kaleidoscopic view of different glimpses of the church, each one conveying surprising layers of grace.

Genuine, honest stories about the small local church, set within a theological narrative of Incarnation and Trinity. What more could you ask for? Maybe just a tad bit more on race, but not everyone can be Tim Tyson. Byassee allows Bishop Willimon to offer a different perspective on the small church in the afterword, but one that I think is not ultimately incompatible with Byassee's basic premise: that God's primary way of saving people is through the small church.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Number 14: Paul Ramsey

We resume our discussion of the twenty most important theologians in the Methodist tradition with a review of Paul Ramsey, who checks in at number 14. Paul Ramsey (1913-1988) was born in Mendenhall, MS to Mamey McCay Ramsey and Rev. John William Ramsey (who was an ordained Methodist minister). Ramsey spent almost all of his theological career at Princeton University.

Ramsey graduated from Millsaps College in 1935. While at Millsaps, Ramsey absorbed the typical Methodist Protestant liberalism of his day and became what John Howard Yoder would later call an LPP (liberal Protestant pacifist). However, when he went to seminary at Yale, he was quickly disabused of his LPPism, thanks largely to the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. He graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1940. He received his PhD from Yale in 1943. While a student at Yale, he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr's brother, H. Richard Niebuhr. In Ramsey's unpublished papers stored in the archives of the Duke libraries, the only notes from any of his classes were those he took while listening to H. Richard Niebuhr lecture.

Perhaps Ramsey's most influential work has been his Basic Christian Ethics. I first read this book in the fall of 1987. It was my first semester of college at Emory, and I took Religion 354: Christian Ethics. That first semester of college was very formative for me, and this book was a large part of it. The book, which was published in 1950, was foundational for many colleges, universities, and seminaries in the subject of Christian Ethics. It remained the most widely used text book in these settings for decades.

The theme of Basic Christian Ethics was the disinterested love of neighbor. Ramsey sought to provide a Christological account of what disinterested love of neighbor might mean. He would disagree with what James Gustafson would later call a theocentric ethic. He begins his book by proclaiming boldly: "The first thing to be said concerning Christian ethics is that it cannot be separated from its religious foundations." (p. 1 ). Ramsey goes on to describe two sources for Christian love: the righteousness of God and the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus. The righteousness of God includes both human righteousness (mishpat) and God's tsedeq (God's unwavering covenant fidelity). He draws on Paul, Luther, and Wesley to display the love of God Christologically.

The second source of Christian love is the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus. Ramsey accepted the idea from Schweitzer that Jesus was wrong about his expectation for the Kingdom of God to come in the 1st century: "few contemporary Christians accept the kind of Kingdom-expectation Jesus considered of central importance, and rightly they do not." (p. 35). (It is regretable at this point that Ramsey did not live long enough to see these views corrected by the work of N. T. Wright, namely that the eschatological urgency in the three synoptic gospels was centered on the return from exile as enacted by Jesus in his arrival in Jerusalem and subsequent death and resurrection). Ramsey then goes on to explain that Christ teachings on the disinterested love of the neighbor can be disentangled from Jesus' eschatological expectations. In the course of his argument, Ramsey asserts, "Certainly Christian ethics is a deontological ethic, not an ethic of 'the good' " (p. 116).

Ramsey is perhaps best known for his defense of just war theory. He grounds just war theory not in terms of self-defense (which is actually excluded on the basis of disinterested love), but on love of neighbor. Unfortunately, he was not able to see the Vietnam War as something that grossly violated just war theory, nor was he able to use just war theory to mount a serioius critique of the US policy of nuclear deterrence. Many years later, he changed his mind on his statements on the moral acceptability of the "bluff" (Newsweek, July 5, 1982). Ramsey did acknowledge that the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities in World War II was grossly immoral.

Ramsey developed several other interests and projects in his theological career. He provided an account of medical ethics that was basically deontological in nature (The Patient as Person). He was (along with his friend and sometimes sparring partner James Gustafson) a strong critic of Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics. Near the end of his life, he dedicated himself to a careful study of Jonathan Edwards, whom he identified as the greatest of all American theologians.

In the last years of his life, Paul Ramsey and Stanley Hauerwas were consultants to the United Methodist bishops as they wrote, "In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace." Hauerwas was a representative of the Christian pacifist position (which was unintelligble without christology and ecclesiology) and Ramsey represented just war theory. Hauerwas and Ramsey were good friends, although they disagreed on the ethics of war. They had worked together many years earlier at Georgetown as they studied with doctors in their attempt to forge an adequate medical ethic. Ramsey and Hauerwas had both warned the United Methodist bishops to stay away from survivalism as the motivation to address the nuclear crisis, but the bishops grounded their arguments in the very survivalism about which Hauerwas and Ramsey had warned them. Ramsey had always said, "God intends to kill us all in the end, and in the end he is going to succeed," but the bishops did not heed the warnings from their theologians. As a result, Ramsey wrote, Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism, with an epilogue by Stanley Hauerwas, in which the two authors critiqued the bishops for their survivalism.

In Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism, Ramsey widened his discussion to include more than just the morality of war. In calling for a more robust theological discourse among the people called Methodists, Ramsey called for a return to Wesley's General Rules. He found fault with Methodism's tolerance for abortion and called on Methodists to make the sacrifices necessary to offer women real alternatives to abortion. He called for the 1988 General Conference to return to traditional language and doctrine for Trinitarian and Christological confessions. He died before that 1988 General Conference was convened, but he likely would have been pleased with the outcome.

Near the end of Ramsey's life he had some sharp words for his friend James Gustafson, who had just completed his volume on Theocentric Ethics: "I feel lonely at the drawing of a theological enterprise that does not center upon the things that we had thought we had shared with you at the level of first order discourse, namely prayer, worship, liturgy, the confessions of the church, and going to the Lord's table." One could almost hear the disappointment and sadness in his voice.

Paul Ramsey's influence on the study of Christian ethics in the latter half of the 20th century was felt by all who desired to enter into serious discussion about the moral claims of the Christian life. There is still much to be learned from his work today. If modern Christian disciples are not going to be pacifist, then they ought at least to take the just war theory seriously. One of the best ways to do that is by engaging the work of Paul Ramsey. Perhaps Gustafson summarized his influence best when he wrote in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective : "In North America Paul Ramsey has been a towering and forceful figure for almost four decades; his writing has forced persons with alternative views to come to grips with his thought, and had a deep impact on a younger generation of authors. He has been a persistent critic of moral fads, a steadfast proponent of the Christian ethic of love, and a vigorous participant in debates about public policy and medical ethics" (p. 84).

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Hauerwas on the two natures of Christ

"What many people find hard to understand, or at least what strikes them as unusual, is how I combine what I hope is a profound commitment to fundamental Christian convictions with a socially radical ethic. At bottom, the convictions involve the claim that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. If he is not fully both, then we Christians are clearly idolaters. A socially radical ethic follows from this theological conviction because our worship of Jesus is itself a politics through which a world is created that would not exist if Jesus were not raised from the dead. Basic to such politics is the refusal of a violence that many assume is a “given” for any responsible account of the world." - Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir, p. 136

Friday, April 30, 2010

John Wesley on how to treat Aliens

Exodus 22:21 -- "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."

John Wesley's commentary on Exodus 22:21:

A stranger must not be abused, not wronged in judgment by the magistrates, not imposed upon in contracts, nor any advantage taken of his ignorance or necessity, no, nor must he be taunted, or upbraided with his being a stranger; for all these were vexations. For ye were strangers in Egypt - And knew what it was to be vexed and oppressed there. Those that have themselves been in poverty and distress, if Providence enrich and enlarge them, ought to shew a particular tenderness towards those that are now in such circumstances as they were in formerly, now doing to them as they then wished to be done by.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Number 15: Thomas C. Oden


The reversal occurred when Will Herberg, my irascible, endearing Jewish mentor and my elder colleague at Drew, held me accountable to my religious heritage. He told me straightforwardly that I would remain theologically uneducated until I had studied carefully Athansius, Ambrose, Basil, and Cyril of Alexandria. In his usual gruff voice he said, "Tom, you have not yet met the great minds of your own tradition. Just as I, after my Communist days, found it decisive to read the Talmud and the Midrashim carefully to discover who I was as a Jew, you will have to sit at the feet of the ancient Christian writers to discover who you are as a possible person of faith. Without solid textual grounding, you will become lost in supposed relevance. If you are going to deepen to become a working theologian instead of a know-it-all contemporary pundit, you had best get at it -- and until you do, you are not a theologian except in name, even if remunerated as one." I was stunned. He had nailed me. (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 2003, p. 87)


I think I could stop there, and you would know almost everything you needed to know about Tom Oden, the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University. And how ironic that Tom Oden, the great champion of Christian orthodoxy, needed to be told this by a non-Christian. It is just one of many ironies that make the story of this Methodist theologian so interesting and compelling. Thomas C. Oden (1931-) is number 15 on my list of the most important theologians in the Methodist tradition since the Wesleys.

First of all, we need to know why the reversal was such a reversal. Oden was from the southwestern corner of Oklahoma. His parents were progressive and pious Methodists. He went to college at the University of Oklahoma and seminary at SMU before obtaining his PhD from Yale in 1960. He has described his early years as remarkably like Hillary Clinton's: a combination of Yale and socially liberal Methodism; the two of them have an amazingly high number of close mutual friends who accompanied and mentored them along that path.

Oden spent the first decade of his academic career trying to use his religion to butress socially liberal idealism. His real authorities were the familiar trio of Marx, Freud, and Nietzche. He says that he spent that time trying to read the New Testament without the premises of incarnation and resurrection-- something he confesses was very hard to do! Then things began to change for Oden beginning in the early 70's.

In addition to the splash of cold water thrown in his face by his Jewish friend, one other factor played a key role in the awakening from his dogmatic slumber. The only time I have personally heard Oden speak was when he came to Duke in 1992 to address our Theological Students' Fellowship. As he spoke to us that night, he recounted how horrified he was to realize in the early 70's what actually happened in an abortion. Of course, he had been an advocate of liberalized abortion and early feminism throughout the 60's. When he realized exactly what he had been defending in the name of choice, it shook him to the core.

Since the mid 1970's, Thomas C. Oden has been churning out book after book on the basics of Christian orthodoxy. I have a review of one of his books here. In numerous places, Oden describes orthodoxy in these terms:

Christian orthodoxy is textually defined by the apostolic testimony, as a fulfillment commentary on the Hebrew Bible. The term paleo-orthodoxy (paleo means "primitive," "ancient") is employed to make clear that we are not talking about neo-orthodoxy , a particular movement within twentieth-century Protestant theology that actually was far more attached to assumptions of modernity than is postemodern paleo-orthodoxy. Were it not for neo-orthodoxy as a popularly recognizable movement, the term paleo-orthodoxy would be an oxymoron. Paleo becomes a necessary prefix only because the term orthodoxy has been preempted and to some degree tarnished by the modern (Bultmannian-Tillichian- Niebuhrian) tradition of neo-orthodoxy.

Christian orthodoxy in its ancient (paleo) ecumenical sense is summarily defined sacramentally by the baptismal formula (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), liturgically by the Eucharistic event, and doctrinally by the confession and its precisely remembered rule of faith as recalled in the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and their subsequent consensual interpretations.... Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, p. 130.


At the conclusion of Oden's book Requiem (1995), he lists by tradition some of his colleagues in the expanding list of paleo-orthodox writers, some of which I will highlight:

Eastern Orthodox: David Ford, John D. Zizioulas
Roman Catholic: Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Ratzinger, and Avery Dulles
Anglican: Alister McGrath, John Milbank, Robert Webber, Lesslie Newbigin
Lutheran: George Lindbeck, Peter Berger, Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, Wolfhart Pannenberg
Reformed: Elizabeth Achtemeier, Brevard Childs, Nicholas Wolterstorff
Baptists: Stanley Grenz, Willie Jennings, Clark Pinnock
Wesleyan: William Abraham, Roberta Bondi, Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon

Thomas Oden played a key role in the formation of the United Methodist doctrinal statement that came out with the 1988 Discipline. He and Dick Heitzenrater had a very public and hotly debated dispute on the doctrinal standards of American Methodism and the status of Wesley's Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament. I encourage the reader to study Tom Langford's book, Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, for the particulars of the debate. Basically, Heitzenrater was arguing that only the 25 Articles of Religion were understood to be doctrinal standards, and Oden was arguing (along with all of Methodist tradition) that Wesley's Sermons and Notes were also doctrinal standards. During the course of this debate, Oden published his book, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (1988). This debate came to a happy conclusion at the 1988 General Conference when a compromise was settled upon: The Articles of Religion were understood to be the clearest examples of doctrinal standards and the Notes and Sermons were recognized historically as the definitive Wesleyan interpretation of these doctrinal standards. (tip: this topic will come up again later in this series....)

Despite Oden's great reversal, some points were retained that he still affirms:

-his five decade defense of women in ordained ministry
-his abiding interest in African and Asian theological traditions
-his repeated defense of interculturalism with an emphasis on the catholicity of the church
-his frequent use of existential analysis as a theologian
-his immersion in experimental psychotherapies and group processes

These are all re-affirmed in Requiem. There is also in this book an ambiguous reference to his pacifism; it was unclear to me if he still considers himself a pacifist or not. If so, it would presumably be because all of the early church fathers he has studied so carefully read the Scriptures in a way that did not allow Christian disciples to use the sword.

Jeffrey C. Pugh, in his article on Oden in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians (1996), recounts the strengths of Oden's work, but he also asks some pointed questions:

Yet the weaknesses of Oden's approach can be found within the strengths. Oden calls attention to the characteristics of the so-called postmodern situation. An emphasis on embodiment, contextuality and construals of the subject are very much in the forefront of the current quest for understanding. In the midst of the voices of modernity that argue that understanding domesticates difference, Oden's work will not have much appeal. But these perspectives cannot be ignored, and the problematics they point to cannot be looked beyond to construct a simple view of the past.... Perhaps the most important concern is whether Oden has sought recovery in a too simplistic manner. Is there a too easy juxtaposition between a corrupt present and an honored past in Oden? (p. 344)
Some will say that Oden's work lacks an ethical edge, and that is probably a fair criticism. Others will point to his work in establishing The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church as a weakness. Although I have sympathy for the Confessing Movement's concern to maintain Christian and Methodist orthodoxy, I am troubled by the organization's tendency to oversimplify and sometimes sensationalize what are really quite complex theological questions. For this reason, I have never been a part of the Confessing Movement, and I think that one of Oden's shortcomings has been his association with this group. This does not change my respect and appreciation for some of the key leaders of that movement, including Oden, Abraham, and Cannon -- all of whom have been a part of this series.

Perhaps one of Oden's most lasting contributions to Methodism and the wider church has been his recovery of Patristic sources and his insistence that just because the early church fathers and mothers happen to be dead, that does not mean that they should not have a vote in matters of church doctrine. Certainly, Oden's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series will be an enduring witness for many decades to come -- not only to Oden's brilliance, not only to the collective wisdom of the early church, but most importantly to the lordship of Jesus Christ over every sphere of human life and indeed over the entirety of all creation.

That word ('inclusive') remains the key shibboleth of my hyper-liberated generation. We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most premodern wisdom. Now I experience a gracious sense of multigenerational inclusion in the communion of saints. Those saints precede and transcend modern life and will survive its death. The faithful belong to a much more inclusive communion than is even conceivable within the limits of modern ideologies.... Now I revel in the very premises I once carefully learned to set aside: the triune mystery, the preexistent Logos, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord, the grace of baptism.... Rather than interpreting the texts, I found the text interpreting me..... It is the winter season for rigorous Christian teaching. Modernity is a winter season for classical Christianity. Spring will come, but only to those who have survived the winter. (quotes taken from various places in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy and Agenda for Theology).

Monday, April 19, 2010

N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and others at Wheaton

Last week, Wheaton College hosted a conference entitled: "Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright." N. T. Wright spoke, and there were responses from scholars such as Richard Hays, Jeremy Begbie, and Marianne Meye Thompson. All of these presentations have been made available to watch or listen to on line. So treat yourself. By the way, lest anyone think that a pacifist would not be invited to speak at Wheaton, Richard Hays joins Stanley Hauerwas, D. Stephen Long, and Bill Cavanaugh in that category :)

The top twenty countdown of Methodist theologians will resume shortly, I think :)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Number 16: William R. Cannon


Next in our series on "The Twenty Most Important Theologians in the Methodist Tradition since the Wesleys" is William R. Cannon (1916-1997). This is the first theologian in the series with whom I had any personal contact. I heard him speak at Emory a couple of times when I was an undergraduate student there. My father also had some classes with him when he was a professor and dean of Candler School of Theology.

William Cannon was known as a scholar, theologian, historian, educator, dean, and bishop. Born in Tennessee and raised in Georgia, Bishop Cannon attended college at the University of Georgia and went to seminary at Yale Divinity School. He also received his Ph.D. at Yale in 1942. His main interests academically were in the study of Wesleyan theology, ecumenism, history, and Scripture. He joined the faculty of Candler in 1943 and became dean in 1953. He served as dean of Candler until 1968 when he was elected a bishop.

Perhaps his most important book was The Theology of John Wesley with special reference to the doctrine of Justification (1946). The year 1946 also saw the publication of Swedish scholar Harold Lindstrom's Wesley and Sanctification. 1946 was a good year for Methodist theological studies, as these two books became the definitive works on these two doctrines, which Wesley identified as the two key doctrines of the Methodism. Although they are not as widely read in seminaries today as they were in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, they remain to this day the major reference works for these two important doctrines.

Bishop Cannon became good friends with another famous resident of Atlanta: Jimmy Carter. President Carter asked Bishop Cannon to give the prayer at his inauguration in 1977. The prayer carried a somber tone, almost penitential in its call for a return to honor and decency (the Nixon-Watergate scandal was still fresh on everyone's mind). Before a national audience he prayed, "We ask Thy forgiveness for those sins that marred our national character and impaired the effectiveness of our government in recent times. Help us as a people to confess our sins, not to blame our politicians alone for them. In their evil and wrongdoing, Thou dost hold before our face a mirror in which we see our own misdeed writ large." Several journalists commented on the sternness of his prayer. He also served as an unofficial envoy for President Carter on many occasions, traveling to the Middle East as an unofficial representative of the President to help resolve Arab-Israeli differences. As president of the World Methodist Council, Cannon presented Jimmy Carter with the World Methodist Peace Award in 1985.

Cannon was regularly elected to general conference beginning in 1948. He met every Pope from Pius XII to John Paul II, and was a Protestant Observer to Vatican II. Later, as a Bishop, he also observed the Extraordinary Synod of the Roman Catholic Church in 1985. He became friends with Pope John Paul II, who sent a statement to be read at Cannon's funeral in 1997.

As the dean of Candler, he guided the school through integration and through the "God is Dead" controversy. He defended the academic freedom of Thomas Altizer, although he also wrote a strong refutation of his ideas. As a bishop, he delivered the episcopal address in the 1984 General Conference, in which he welcomed the first female Methodist bishop, Marjorie Matthews, to the college of bishops:

The election of Marjorie Matthews is a watershed in ecclesiastical history. There is no other instance in the whole of Christendom where a major world communion has opened its episcopal ranks to a woman. By divine providence The United Methodist Church in this way has given validity to the New Testament claim: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). The revelation of God is not static. Divine disclosure does not end with the last verse in the New Testament. What happened in the first century needs the achievements of subsequent ages, including the 20th century, to provide a full account of the mighty acts of God in history. "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without as should not be made perfect" (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Late in life, Cannon became one of the leaders in the Confessing Movement within the denomination. He always emphasized the importance of evangelism in the life of the church. He challenged what he perceived to be liberal tendencies at work in the denomination in the 1982 Congress on Evangelism:

Evangelism is essential to Christianity. Christianity is sterile and incapable of reproducing itself apart from evangelism. Indeed, without effective evangelism, Christianity would die with the present generation of Christians. The enemies of Christianity in the contemporary world have seen this more clearly than its adherents. Whereas the latter have been complacent, indeed reticent to press the claims of the gospel on others, the former have been diligent in their efforts to circumscribe Christianity and to confine the faith to those who now profess it.

Unfortunately, what the avowed enemies of Christianity see so clearly, many so-called Christians do not see at all. There are those too numerous, even among the clergy, who disavow evangelism and stigmatize it as an affront to the adherents of other religions and as an insult to free thinking, self-determining human beings. Of course, all of us recognize the pluralistic nature of our society, and the necessity for voluntarism in relationship to all religious practices. But for a Christian minister to be so zealous to protect the uncommitted from the gospel (s)he is supposed to be committed to proclaim, one cannot help but wonder whose side they are really on. Given the bland complacency and cold indifference of too many of our clergy, I might welcome just a little fanaticism. It is easier to restrain a fanatic than it is to revive a corpse.

In many places, the gospel must come as an uninvited guest, even in Western Democratic Society. Truly, this is an inhospitable age, but so was the first century in which the gospel was originally proclaimed.

I will close with this excerpt from Bishop Cannon's address to the 1984 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. In it, Cannon seems to be expressing his pacifist views:

Unless we can abolish war, the chances are there will not be any world left for us to reform. An all-out nuclear war would eradicate civilization and in all probability destroy human life itself. Proposals and plans to curtail nuclear developments, to impose a nuclear freeze, to guarantee nuclear parity between the Soviet Union and United States are no more than palliatives. They do not cure the disease. All nuclear weapons possessed by any and every nation must simultaneously be destroyed, and neutral nations that do not possess such weapons must be the agents engaged to destroy them and to guarantee that their destruction is complete.

War is malignant. And, given the disposition of governments to exercise military force unconscionably for purposes of expansion, ideological uniformity, the coercion of populations, and nationalistic prestige and power, conventional weapons are also intolerable.

Christian conscience demands total disarmament by disbanding armies, navies, and air forces over the face of the earth. The early church with one voice condemned war. The Augustinian and medieval doctrine of the Just War was a later concession by the church to secularistic society and imperial government which at the time were at least nominally Christian. When its provisions were strictly adhered to, all it did was to enable Christians to kill other Christians on a restricted scale and a bit more humanely than otherwise, but they got killed just the same. Under contemporary circumstances the doctrine of the Just War is a ridiculous anachronism. Jesus came that all might have life and have it more abundantly. We are the disciples of the
Prince of Peace. He died on the cross rather than call down legions of angels to destroy his enemies. The church's message to the world is that any nation that selfishly tries to preserve its national existence by military means alone is bound to lose it, while those nations that give themselves unselfishly to the saving of their people and humanity will by divine grace achieve an exemplary place in history and become an earthly model of the kingdom of God.

Just as important as the abolition of war are the universal respect for human rights, the freedom of persons in every nation and society, the safeguards of life, liberty, and the means of happiness to all people who inhabit the earth. The danger of enslavement is as terrifying as the threat of nuclear disaster. The inability freely to express one's thoughts, to disseminate new ideas, and to pursue the dictates of conscience are as oppressive as death itself. The domination of any portion of humanity by an oppressive, totalitarian regime is an evil which the church must resist with the same vigor and determination that it resists war.

Blackmail of one nation by another through superior military force and the suppression of the citizens of a country by its own government are comparable to a holocaust. Jesus announced his mission and therefore the mission of his church: "to preach deliverance to the captives" and "to set at liberty them that are oppressed" (Luke 4:18). "Give liberty to whom liberty is due," proclaims John Wesley, "that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own voluntary choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion."