Monday, March 22, 2010

Number 17: William J. Abraham

We continue our series on the twenty most important theologians in the Methodist tradition with a look at William J. ("Billy") Abraham. Born in Belfast in 1947 , Abraham studied at Queen's University, Belfast and Asbury Theological Seminary before earning a doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford. He then went on to serve as a Methodist minister in Ireland and on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University before becoming Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas from 1985 to 1995. In 1995 he was appointed to the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins, working as a philosophical and systematic theologian. Abraham regularly accepts invitations as lecturer and preacher and is in demand throughout the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia.

Perhaps Abraham's best known work is Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism. In this work, Abraham argues that the early church understood its canon to be more than Scripture; canon, which always had a soteriological focus, also included the creeds, the bishops, the fathers, and the sacraments. These were not to be understood as criteria; they were to be understood as canon: a list of sources that were understood to be means of grace. When they came to be seen as criteria by which one could judge the validity of truth claims, serious damage was done to both the canon and the criteria. The result has been confusion in the church in the area of epistemology.

Abraham has written much in the area of evangelism, including his book, The Logic of Evangelism. Abraham defines evangelism as the church's particular activity of initiating people into the Kingdom of God for the first time. In his book, The Art of Evangelism, he argues that evangelism requires creativity and dexterity. It is not a single act or technique. It is a varied set of activities like farming or teaching. His work in the area of evangelism has been a source for thousands of seminary students who are now required to take at least one course in evangelism.

Although he now has the chair named in honor of Albert Outler, he has been critical of Outler's vision of United Methodism. Abraham acknowledges all the good that Outler did in helping modern Methodists to recover Wesley, but he sees Outler as someone who helped promote a version of liberal protestantism. Of Outler, Abraham writes: "I think that the overall outcome of the Outler strategy across 40 years can be stated simply: the Church becomes an endless seminar in search of elusive and ultimately unattainable truth — rather than the carrier of the rich and salutary faith once delivered to the saints… " Abraham has argued passionately that the Methodist emphasis on the quadrilateral has moved Methodism away from substantive theological claims and into the realm of mere methodology. The unfortunate result is that anyone who can make any argument that touches on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, thinks they are doing faithful Methodist theology. The test of good theology has become merely technique rather than substance. Abraham has provided the evangelical segments of the UMC with the intellectual resources they have needed to challenge the Protestant Liberalism that dominated the denomination's first 20 years of existence (1968-1988).

Abraham does not attempt to hide his displeasure with Liberal protestantism. He describes himself in contrast to Protestant Liberalism:

I am an unapologetic, died-in-the wool, small l liberal, committed to the fostering of intellectual virtue and the inhibiting of intellectual vice. I have never been a big L Liberal, and I have never felt guilty that I have not been one. Indeed much of what I do and write involves a deconstruction of big L Liberal Protestantism. While Liberal Protestants did much to help the church come to terms with some critical intellectual challenges facing us in the last two centuries, they also systematically gave away vital doctrinal and spiritual treasures that have to be retrieved today. They took the wine of the gospel and turned it back into water. They also arrogantly laid claim to being especially intellectually virtuous. In fact, they made the fatal mistake of making their own material theology and practice the criterion of truth in faith and practice. They tried to corner the market on being small l liberal, dismissing their critics as ignorant, dogmatic, backward, bigoted, and the like. This is still common in some academic and ecclesial circles.
In addition to evangelism, Abraham emphasizes the importance of doctrinal renewal in the church:

Evangelism is a ministry of the church; renewal is the healing of the church. Evangelism is constituted by practices of proclamation and catechesis aimed at grounding new believers in the kingdom of God in the church. Renewal is facing head on the diseases of the church and seeking to find ways to let God cure the church and bring her to all that God intended her to be. The two need to go hand in hand today. When evangelism is done in the robust way I envisage then we find the church is often too sick or weak to do the kind of evangelism we need. In these circumstances we do what we can in evangelistic practice, seeking patiently to improve on what we currently do. But we also allow a robust vision of evangelism to drive us to renewal and the healing of the church. Thus evangelism over time fosters and depends on the renewal of the church from top to bottom.
Abraham has been instrumental in the formation of "The Confessing Movement within the Untied Methodist Church." Through this movement, thousands of lay and clergy within United Methodism have been challenged to forsake Liberal Protestantism and embrace the historic roots of orthodox Christianity and the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.

Abraham has not been without his critics. He has been accused of focusing too narrowly on historic doctrine to the exclusion of continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit in the church today. In the book, United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake-Up Call (2003), Leon Howell has called into question the motives of the Confessing Movement, in which Abraham has played a major role. Howell and others decried the Confessing Movement's "rigid" interpretation of Scripture and theological tradition. In my opinion, most of these criticisms are off the mark. Abraham is right to call us back to our sources, and he has done so with a level of theological and philosophical sophistication that most Liberal Protestants have yet to acknowledge. He has also challenged evangelicals in the UMC today to abandon their anti-intellectualism and embrace the wider, catholic tradition of the church.

Abraham is important in the Methodist theological tradition because he reminds us of the importance of our doctrinal heritage at a time when it would be easy to lose sight of it. He writes:

In the end, the church cannot endure without a body of systematic and coherent doctrine. This was not the problem Wesley faced two centuries ago. His challenge was to take the doctrine the church already possessed in her canonical traditions and make it accessible to the masses of his day. Hence, he did not make doctrine a high priority in his efforts to renew the church of his day. Two hundred years later, the situation is radically reversed. We have become so doctrinally indifferent and illiterate that the church is starved of intellectual content. Indeed in many quarters the church has become internally secularized. It has no shared public discourse of its own, other than that borrowed from the secular world, to think through its pastoral care, its mission in the world, its evangelism, and its internal administration. Hence pastoral care is reduced to therapy, mission to sociopolitical action, evangelism to church growth, academic theology to amateur philosophical inquiry, and church administration to total quality management. To be sure, only a fool would claim that we cannot learn from the best secular inquiries of our day… Yet it is patently obvious that the Christian tradition has its own special way of thinking about its healing care, its mission, its evangelism, its internal structures, and the like. That special way of thinking is inescapably doctrinal… The recovery of doctrinal identity is not then some abstract exercise in constitutional archaeology; it is integral to the deep renewal of the life and work of the church in the current generation. (Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, pp. 104-105)


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think Abraham is like the girl with the curl in he middle of her forhead: when she's good, she's very good and when she's bad, she's awful. Abraham is right about how the quadrilateral has been misused, but wrong about Outler.

His works on revelation, scripture, and canon are good and move Methodism back to a small-c catholic vision that both Wesleys shared.

His attacks on liberal Protestantism are too sweeping, not seeing the strengths, but only the weaknesses. And, unlike most Wesleyan-Methodist theologians, Abraham's work is almost completely devoid of social justice dimensions.

The term "confessing movement" brings up images of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church under Naziism, but this distorts the current context.

His work on evangelism is excellent--up there with Mortimer Arias (another Methodist).

Since his D.Phil. was done at Regent's Park College (Oxon.), Baptists can take some credit (and blame) for Abraham, I think.

Jonathan said...

Abraham also references Mortimer Arias. In the book that I referenced, Methodism @ Risk, Howell also calls into question the term, "confessing movement" because of its associations in history.

John Meunier said...

Great series of posts. I look forward to them all.

Craig L. Adams said...

Yes. Thank you for this series of posts, Jonathan. Keep up the good work!

Br. Scot said...

As a current and long-time student of Prof. Abraham's, I think that this article is fairly accurate. I'm currently working (as in, putting off writing at this very moment) a paper on the early Outler and Abraham--focused on their views on original sin.

This article could leave someone with the impression that Billy is a conservative in the vulgar sense. Nothing could be further from the truth. While he is very clear that his position on several social issues is aligned with the conservatives, his reasons for those positions are often very carefully nuanced and not at all "because the bible says it."

His ties to the confessing movement are not quite as clear as given here. As more of the Good News folks move into the confessing movement, folks like Billy have been quietly distancing themselves.

As for Outler, just last week he commented that my generation may be able to bind up "Uncle Albert's" wounds and provide a revisionist account of his work in the church which distances him from the overt Liberal Protestant worries. Let us not forget that Outler was a patristics scholar of the first order.

OK, back to it. Glad to see others are taking Dr. Abraham's work seriously even if they disagree with him.

John Meunier said...

I'd love to hear more about the differences between the Confessing Movement and the Good News folks.

I'm not looking to stir up controversy. I was just not aware that the groups were aware of themselves as distinct groups.

Br. Scot said...

I'll see if I can find the notebook where I got Dr. Abraham of onto a tear about the two.

Basically, the Good News are a biblical/scriptural focused group with broadly evangelical aims. The Confessing Movement aims more to be in line with historical Christianity than biblicism.

The fact that there is confusion about the two makes the point all the more obvious.

The jargon is pretty impenetrable. But the differences seem to center around the role of "orthodoxy" (historical Christian beliefs) vs. "biblical Christianity."

Billy's canonical theism group would clearly fall in the "orthodoxy" and not "biblical Christianity" camp.