Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Convictions and Moral Discernment 1

Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment in this post.  We begin our discussion of the critical variables in moral discernment with the lower-right hand box, the dimension of:

Basic Convictions or “Ground of Meaning” Beliefs:

God  and Human Nature

Justification and Sanctification (or Forgiveness and Discipleship)

Love and Justice

The Mission of the Church in the World

Now, we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our basic convictions. (I will say more about this is in a future series on “The Craft of Theology.”)   Opinions are easily formed and easily changed.  We usually know when and how we came to particular opinions, too.  Convictions, however are different.  They are not easily formed, we often do not remember forming them and they cannot easily changed.  Further, convictions are so self-involving that we cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different.  If an individual or community changes one or more convictions,  then, in a real sense we are not talking about the same person or community.

Example:  Differences between those who hold that lethal violence is sometimes justified (“non-pacifists”) and those who believe that it is never morally justified to take the lives of human persons (“pacifists”) are fundamental differences of basic conviction.  As a former soldier who is now a pacifist (for 20+ years), I can testify that turning from a belief in “just wars” to gospel nonviolence is more like conversion from one religion to another (or from unbelief in any faith to faith in a particular religion) than it is like correcting an error in logic.  And, in a sense, I am not the same person that I was before I laid down my rifle and refused to don my uniform.  Yesterday, I debated the pacifism vs. just war question at a Christian high school. I doubt seriously that either myself or my JWT counterpart changed any minds–at most we could raise questions. Convictions are not changed just by logical argument–though one hopes that plays a point. It is a far deeper, more difficult matter.

Well, this first dimension of moral discernment doesn’t contain EVERY conviction, but those which my teacher, Glen Stassen, found were “critical variables.”  Differences in these 7 Christian theological convictions (or analogues in other belief systems) lead to very large differences in moral discernment.  (I will formulate this primarily for Christians, but try to indicate it’s adaptability to other belief systems.)   The first 6 of these critical convictions are paired because they tend to affect each other in noticeable ways. (Yes, every conviction affects every other, but these are not idly paired together as we will see.) 

God  and Human Nature.  How we understand God is a huge factor in our moral discernment.  Obviously, if one is an atheist or an agnostic, that also affects one’s moral judgment greatly.  But suppose one believes in God.  How one understands the character of God (Primarily loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, or primarily judgmental, wrathful,  capricious–or an impersonal Unmoved Mover disinterested in individual lives, etc.) is a major variable in one’s ethics–especially if one’s religion teaches that one should emulate God’s character.

  Also important is how one understands the way that God works in the world.  Someone who believes that God is removed from the world, that history and nature are closed systems will approach  things very differently than someone who believes that (in one way or another) God is dynamically active in history and the created order.  Example:  One reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to keep his followers nonviolent in the face of police  and mob violence was that so many shared his faith that they had “divine companionship in the struggle” (in his words), that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Imagine how different things  would  have been if most of those struggling in the Civil Rights movement had believed instead in a Deistic God that, watchmaker like, set the universe in motion, but left everything alone to impersonal forces.

Paired with our views of God are our views of human nature.  The ethics of someone who holds to the behaviorist views of B. F. Skinner, for example, in which humans simply respond to stimuli will have a different ethic than one who holds that most of our behavior is genetically determined.  Similarly, one can contrast those who think of people as mostly good with those who think of people as mostly evil or sinful.  (My own view is that we are mixed.  The best of us  are deeply flawed, but the worst of us can rise above our baser tendencies.) And someone who believes that humans have freewill will approach things differently than someone who holds to any form of determinism.

Now, someone who holds to a harsh, judgmental view of God and a view that humans are mostly evil will be very pessimistic and distrusting of people and desire strict laws with harsh enforcement to keep people in line. (So might an athiest with a pessimistic view of the world and people.) A person who views God as mostly loving and humans as free agents  who are mostly good will have a very different approach to things.  And so it goes–along nearly infinite combinations.

Next time: we’ll discuss justification and sanctification.

Advertisements

March 12, 2010 Posted by | blog series, ethics, moral discernment | 3 Comments

Baptist-founded Colleges/Universities with Phi Beta Kappa Chapters

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is the oldest collegiate/university honor society in the United States. It was started on the campus of the College of William & Mary in December 1776.  The presence of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on a college or university is a better clue to academic excellence than rankings in the annual U. S. News and World Report issue on colleges.  A Phi Beta Kappa chapter means that the liberals curriculum is given serious attention.  A school may be excellent without a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, but the honor society (which invites students to become members in their junior year) is a very good indicator. So the presence of a school on this list is a good indicator of excellence, but the absence of a school from this list may not mean as much.  There are other honor societies and other philosophies of education. The following are Baptist-founded schools with Phi Beta Kappa chapters. 

Bates College, 215 Hathorn Hall, Lewiston, ME 04240.  Founded in 1855 by Free Will Baptists who were abolitionists.  The founders believed strongly in freedom, human and civil rights, and the importance of higher education for all who could benefit from it.  The college has always admitted students without regard to race, religious creed, national origin, or sex and was the first coe-educational liberal arts college in New England.  The college is highly selective in admissions, but is very socially inclusive and, for that reason, forbids fraternities and sororities on campus.  No longer related to Free Will Baptists but still values that heritage. Still has a strong religion department and Christian presence.  Values of academic rigor, intellectual curiosity, social egalitarianism, social justice, and freedom. 

Baylor University, 1 Bear Place, Waco, TX 76798-7393.  Charted by the Republic of Texas in 1845, Baylor was founded by and still related to, the Baptist General Convention of Texas.   The undergraduate program includes an honors college based on the Great Books of the Western World.  151 undergraduate degree programs; 76 master’s programs; 30 doctoral programs.  The College of Arts and Sciences; Hankamer School of Business; School of Education; School of Engineering and Computer Science; Graduate School; Honors College; Law School; Music School; Louise Herrington School of Nursing; George W. Truett Theological Seminary; School of Social Work.  Baylor is now the largest university still related to Baptists.  Baylor’s desire is to become the “Baptist Notre Dame,” but the recent hiring of culture warrior Ken Starr as President puts that in jeopardy.

Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.  Founded in 1764 as the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Harvard and Yale (later Harvard “went Unitarian”), Presbyterian Princeton, and Episcopalian Columbia and UPenn.  Just as Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1636 as a colony open to people of all religious persuasion, so Brown was open to students from all religious backgrounds, the only such school in North America at the time.  Brown ceased to be Baptist-connected in the 1930s.  It is a member of the Ivy League.  Has a medical school and graduate school. Students design their own curriculum.  Need blind admission.

Bucknell University, 701 Moore Avenue, Lewisburg, PA 17837.  Founded in 1846.  Origin traced to a group of Baptists who decided that it was “desirable that a Literary Institution should be established in central Pennsylvania, with High school for males , another for females, a College, and also a theological seminary.”  125 years of co-education.  Has an honors program.

Colby College, 4000 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, ME 04901.  Founded in 1813 as the Waterville Literary and Theological Institution when Maine was still part of Massachussetts.  It was re-chartered when ME became a separate state.  It nearly closed during the Civil War because so many students enlisted. Donations from an industrialist named Colby kept it open.  Highly selective. Rigorous. No longer associated with Baptists.  Two-thirds of students study abroad. 

Colgate University, 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, NY 13346.  Founded in 1817 by “13 men with 13 dollars and 13 prayers,” 13 is still considered a lucky number at Colgate.  Connection to William Colgate began in 1823. 1839 was the first year that students were admitted who “did not have the ministry in view.”  Colgate Theological Seminary, which grew out of the religion department, moved to Rochester, NY and merged with Rochester Theological Seminary in 1928.  Colgate ceased to become a Baptist institution in 1928. Has a peace and conflict studies program.  Philosophy and religion department.   

Denison University, 100 West College Street, P.O. Box 810, Granville, OH 43023-0810.  Founded as the “Baptist Literary and Theological Institution” in 1831. One of the first colleges to be established in the old “Northwest Territory” west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio river.  Initially looked to graduates of Brown university for faculties.  Briefly offered a few graduate programs, but by the 20th C. decided to concentrate on undergraduate liberal arts education, with the term “university” retained for purely historical reasons.  177 years. Entirely residential because learning happens best in community.  Code of academic integrity.  Service learning is a major component of the university.

Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Highway, Greenville, SC 29613.  Founded in 1826 by Baptists.  The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was initially on the campus at Furman University before moving after the Civil War to Louisville, KY. 

Kalamazoo College, 1200 West Academy Street, Kalamazoo, MI 49006-3295.  Founded in 1843 by Thomas Merill, a Baptist minister.  Famous for its “K-plan curriculum.”  Has the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. In the 1840s, the college was a hotbed of abolitionist and early progressive activity.  Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Bronson Alcott, and Sojourner Truth were all frequent guests on campus.  Rufus Lewis Perry, class of 1861, was the first known student of African descent to attend. Catherine V. Eldred, first female graduate, earned her degree in the class of 1870.  In 1948, after 25 years on faculty, Frances Diebeld became the first woman promoted to full professor.  This is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.  Still affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA.

Morehouse College, 830 Westview Drive, SW Atlanta, GA 30314.  This is a college dedicated to the education of African-American men, although open to all races.  Founded in 1867, just two years after the 1865, as the Augusta Institute in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church, Augusta.  In 1879 it moved to Atlanta and became Atlanta Baptist Seminary.  In 1906, Dr. John Hope became the first African American Baptist.  In 1913, the school was renamed in honor of Dr. Samuel L. Morehouse, head of the National Baptist Home Mission Society.  The Morehouse School of Religion is now part of the Interdenominational Theological Centre (ITC) in Atlanta.  Although the college concentrates on the liberal arts, there is a dual-science and engineering degree program with the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and a School of Medicine.  Famous Morehouse alumni include Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee, Actor Samuel L. Jackson, U.S. Congressional Representatives Sanford Bishop, Jr., Earl Hillard, Jr., Samuel Dubois Cook, former president of Dillard University, Mordecai Johnson, former president of Howard University. 

Spelman College, 350 Spelman Avenue SW, Atlanta, GA 30314-4399.  Founded in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary.  This is a private, elite liberal arts college dedicated to the education of African-American women, though all races and ethnic groups are welcome.  Part of the Atlanta University Consortium.  Famous alumnae include Bernice Johnson Reagan (member of the SNCC Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, former administrator of the Smithsonian Institutes); Keisha Knight-Pulliam, Actor; Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Rev. Bernice King; Heather McTeer-Hudson, first female mayor and first African-American mayor of Greenville, SC–elected in ’03 at age of 28.

Stetson University, 421 North Woodland Blvd., DeLand, FL 32723.  Florida’s first private university, Stetson was founded in 1883 by New York philanthropist Henry A. DeLand as Deland Academy.  It was chartered by the Florida state legislature as DeLand University in 1887 and the name was changed to Stetson University in 1889 to honor John B. Stetson, a nationally-known hat manufacturer who donated generously to the school.  Until the mid-1990s, the school was closely related to the Florida Baptist Convention, but the trustee board voted to sever formal ties in order to prevent a fundamentalist takeover.  Stetson is a co-ed, private, restricted admission university with a College of Arts and Sciences, a School of Music, School of Business Administration, and a College of Law.

Temple University1801 North Broad Street , Philadelphia, PA 19122.  Founded in 1884 by Baptist minister, Dr. Russell Conwell. A seminary attached to the university moved outside of Boston, MA and merged with Gordon Divinity College to become Gordon-Conwell Divinity School.  Temple became a public university, but it still has a strong religion department.  There is also a nationally recognized honors program.

University of Chicago, 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637.  After an earlier attempt that failed, the current University of Chicago was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society, with major funding by millionaire Baptist John D. Rockefeller, and the genius vision of first president William Rainey Harper.  Designed to be a research university modelled after the University of Berlin.  From the beginning, the U. of Chicago was open to students of all races, both genders, and any religious conviction.  The Divinity School was Baptist affiliated until the 1950s.  The “Great Books” curriculum was founded at the University of Chicago in the undergraduate program, and it still forms the core of the curriculum.  The university has produced 85 Nobel Prize laureates.  Civic involvement and international study form an essential part of the curriculum.  In addition to the undergraduate college, the university has a Biological Sciences Division, the Booth School of Business, Graham School of General Studies, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, Law School, Divinity School, Humanities Division, Physical Sciences Division, Pritzker School of Medicine, and Social Sciences Division.  The Baptist Theological Institution is still the fundraising and runs the endowment of the Divinity School. 

University of the Redlands, 1200 East Colton Ave., P.O. Box # 3080, Redlands, CA 92373.  Founded in 1907 on land donated by Baptist layman Karl G. Wells, by individuals associated with the American Baptist Churches.  Formal relations with the American Baptists were severed in 1972, but there are still warm unofficial ties.  In addition to the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, and the School of Education. 

University of Richmond,  28 Westhampton Way, University of Richmond, VA 23173.  Founded by Baptists in 1830.  Private, highly selective university with 5 schools:  School of Arts and Sciences, Robin School of Business, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, Richmond School of Law, School of Continuing Studies. 

Wake Forest University  1834 Wake Forest Road, Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7305.  Founded by North Carolina Baptists in 1834 just outside the capital of Raleigh, NC.  In 1941 the medical school moved to Winston-Salem and the rest of the university followed in 1956, selling the old campus to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The university contains Wake Forest College (an undergraduate college of arts and sciences), Calloway of Business & Accountancy, Wake Forest Law School, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Babcock Graduate School of Management, Wake Forest Divinity School, and Wake Forest Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.  There is an attached WFU Baptist Medical Center.  Thanks in large part to the influence of Pres. William L. “Dr. Billy” Poteat, a biologist and Christian layman, NC did not follow other Southern states in passing anti-evolution laws in the 1920s.  In 1942, the college became co-educational.  No longer directly controlled by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, WFU still has warm ties with Baptists, especially the Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, church history, education | 2 Comments

R.I.P. Gene Stoltzfus (1940-2010)

I had planned to blog something else today, but this takes precedence.  Earlier today, someone asked me whether or not Gene Stoltzfus, founding Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, was still alive. I said, “yes,” not knowing that yesterday, he passed for this life to the life eternal.  I did not know Gene closely, but all who had contact with him or with Christian Peacemaker Teams, have been blessed by his legacy.  A full obituary is found here on the CPT website

Rest from your labors, faithful servant of the Servant-King.  We who now tarry are impoverished without you. Amen.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | obituaries, pacifism, peace | Leave a comment

Critical Variables in Moral Discernment

Slightly modified reproduction of a series of posts on my old blog.  Part of the “popular series” from the older blog that I am trying not to lose here on Pilgrim Pathways. MLW-W

 I have noticed a need to discuss more the way in which people make moral judgments or come to moral convictions.  Below you will see what I can reproduce of a chart first created by my teacher, Glen H. Stassen.  The full chart should have arrows from each box toward every other box (because every dimension influences the others), an arr0w from the whole chart sticking out to the right showing the particular moral decision or conviction or conclusion, and a “feedback loop” of an arrow from that particular outcome back into the whole process, again.  I cannot reproduce those arrows on this blog, so I invite you to add them  mentally. I will discuss each element of each dimension in a series of posts.

Perception:  Way of Seeing

Authority: Locus, Degree

Threat: Nature, Degree

Social Change:  Acceptable or not; speed; acceptable allies; method(s)

 

 

Integrity of Information:  Open or not; manipulative or not

 

 

 

Style of  Reasoning

 

Utilitarian or Deontological

Virtues, Practices,  Rules

Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Friends, Mentors, Models

Practice-Loyalties

Community Loyalties

Ultimate Loyalty

 

 

Basic Convictions

 

God and Human Nature

Justification & Sanctification

(Forgiveness & Discipleship)

Love and Justice

Mission of the Church in the World

   Now, each of the four large boxes are  key dimensions in the formation of moral character and the making of moral judgements.  The top left box relates to moral perception: the elements in that box are the  critical variables that shape how we perceive the moral world.  The top right box relates to the mode or style of moral reasoning. In many ethics textbooks or discussions, this is the only dimension covered. But humans are more than cold intellects and more goes into our moral character and judgments than just our style of reasoning.

The bottom left box details our loyalties, interests, and passions.  These affect our moral character and judgment far more than most of us believe.  Take, as an example, the debate over abortion.  People do not just follow logical reasoning processes.  One has a commitment to a child with severe handicaps and sees any abortion based on fetal defects detected prenatally as an attack on the worth of that child (and on their care and loyalty).  Another has a sister who was raped and chose a “morning after” emergency contraception and reacts to any bill that would make abortions harder for rape or incest victims as an attack on his sister’s mental, physical, and spiritual health.  (One reason I have had a harder time with the issue of abortion than other  issuess is that I have complex loyalties on both “sides” of the debate.)  Notice that this is not mechanical: Not everyone loyal to a rape victim or a child with physical handicaps automatically comes out in the same place on abortion, for instance.  But to deny that these loyalties, interests, and passions influence our moral judgments is to deny reality.

Finally, the bottom right box depicts the critical variables among our basic convictions or our “ground of meaning beliefs,” those things that we do not usually argue for, but argue  FROM.  Now, in this chart the critical variables are labelled for believing Christians.  But if one holds to another faith or to a non-theistic moral philosophy there are analogous convictions that shape your basic moral character, too–and I will try to show that as we wade through this series.

Now, while walking us through this diagram, step-by-step, I may use particular moral debates as illustrations, as I already did with abortion and loyalties.  During this series, that’s all these are: illustrations.  Please do not attempt to sidetrack discussion in the comments to a debate over those particular moral issues.  That needs to be saved for another time.  This discussion is about understanding better how we live and think morally and why we not only disagree, but often seem to talk past each other on particular moral debates.  Feel free to use your own illustrations or refer to mine in discussion, but let’s keep the focus on this question, okay?

Now, why are these elements called “critical variables.”  A variable is an element that if modified or changed affects the outcome.  Think of x or y in an algebra problem: change the value of x or y and you change the outcome.  So, for instance, we have far more basic convictions or “ground of meaning” beliefs than the ones listed (even for Christians). But these are the ones that Stassen, in investigating the massive literature, found were critical, i.e. changes in them led to greatly different outcomes.

I have found this chart to be a very useful tool in analyzing not only my own moral beliefs, discernments, changes, but also those of others.  When I listen to a sermon on a moral topic (e.g., war) or read an op-ed on a matter of public moral debate (e.g., immigration), I ask myself  questions like “What kind of moral reasoning is the author using? Deontological or utilitarian?  Or is the author arguing for a particular group to engage in particular practices that  form particular virtues and, if so, why these and not others?  Is the author arguing on a rules level or principles level, etc? What interests or loyalties are discernable (or do I know based on other information about the author)? Where is the threat as this author perceives it?

This is a deeper analysis than just asking, Did the author make a logical error (although that is not unimportant)? And, yes, sometimes it is easier to see these things in others than in oneself. I  have had others point out to me how a particular variable was affecting my views  on a particular moral issue in ways I had not seen.  Sometimes, that leads to rethinking and, maybe, changed views.

I hope this series will prove useful.  Next time we will begin with the bottom right box: the basic convictions dimension.  (I start here because, in the classroom, I found that beginning anywhere else is not helpful. The class keeps wanting to discuss  this box first.)

March 7, 2010 Posted by | blog series, ethics, moral discernment | 9 Comments

Jonathan Marlowe & Methodist/Wesleyan Theology

Taking up my challenge in the comments after the Wesley post, Jonathan Marlowe, UMC minister who blogs at The Ivy Bush, will write a series of posts profiling those he decides are the Ten (10) Most Important Methodist Theologians Since the Wesleys. [update: He will do 20! 1st installment up today!]  He has 16 candidates so far. 🙂 Especially (but not only) if you hail from the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition, check out his list and upcoming series.  Discuss/debate with his choices.  I have too often heard non-Wesleyans and non-Methodists (especially Lutherans and the Reformed) claim that the movement is long on organization and short on theological depth.  I don’t think that is true and I hope this series displays some of the theological depth in this form of global Christianity.  I have also challenged Jonathan to follow the series with a list of “New Voices” in the tradition from around the world.

Here’s Jonathan’s current list of 16 which he hopes to whittle to 10:

Contemporary with John and Charles Wesley in the 18th C.:

John Fletcher (first “systematic” Methodist theologian), Thomas Coke, and the Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield.

Since that era (in no particular order). Those marked with an asterisk * are not known to me:

Albert Outler

Georgia Harkness

Edwin Lewis *

Borden Parker Bowne

Edgar Sheffield (E.S.) Brightman

Thomas C. Oden

John Cobb

Nathan Bangs*

William Cannon*

Geoffrey Wainwright

Stanley Hauerwas (recently become an Episcopalian)

E. Stanley Jones

William Willimon

Richard Allen

Richard B. Hays

James Cone.

Because I want discussion to move to Jonathan’s blog, I will close comments on this post–not my usual practice.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, church history, ecumenism, Methodists, theologians, theology | Leave a comment

E. Earle Ellis (1926-2010): Rest in Peace, Faithful Witness

On Wednesday, 02 March 2010, famed New Testament professor E.(dward) Earle Ellis, died after complications from surgery.  Several New Testament blogs ran this announcement yesterday, but I waited until I could provide this link to the news at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX, where Dr. Ellis taught for much of his career–one of the few biblical scholars of international rank ever on that faculty (known more for a long series of brilliant church historians).

Ellis died two weeks before his 84th birthday and leaving unfinished a major commentary on 1 Corinthians for the new updating of the International Critical Commentary.  Born in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Ellis served in the U.S. Army during WWII (1944-1946).  Afterword, the young FL Baptist showed his academic prowess by using the G.I.Bill to finance an education that began with a B.A. in pre-law at the University of Virginia (cum laude, 1950) with concentrations in law, economics, political science, and history.   He spent one year at the University of Virginia’s prestigious law school (consistently ranked in the top 10 law schools in the nation) before deciding that God wanted a different use of his gifts.  Ellis initially enrolled in an unaccredited, ultra-conservative seminary, Faith Seminary in Wilmington, DL, but transferred to the graduate school of Wheaton College, earning both an M.A. and B.D. in 1953.  By 1955, he had earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland).

Ellis was one of the founders of the Institute for Biblical Research and the International Reference Library for Biblical Research.  A conservative evangelical scholar who often wrote against prevailing winds of skepticism, Ellis’ contributions were nonetheless recognized by a wide range of interpreters.  He wrote numerous groundbreaking volumes including, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, The World of St. John, and his amazing study of textual criticism and the formation of the New Testament canon, The Making of the New Testament Documents.

On both his 60th and 80th birthdays, he was honored with Festschriften and the contributers came from around the world in each volume.  He was also known as an excellent classroom teacher, a faithful churchmember, and someone who could take courageous moral stands that might not be popular at the momemt.

I never had Dr. Ellis as a teacher and met him only once at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Though we are both Baptists and both evangelical Christians, my own theological and critical perspectives tend to be about 2 steps more “liberal” than his. What matter? He was a Christian gentlemen in the finest sense of the term and a teacher and scholar of great gifts for the Church.  Those gifts, and Dr. Ellis himself, will be missed.

Dr. Ellis funeral will be held at the Truett chapel of SWBTS on Wednesday, 10 March 2010 at 10:50-noon.  A graveside service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetary, Dallas, TX.  Visitation will be on Tuesday, 09 March, from 4-6 pm at the Rose Room of the Naylor Student Center of SWBTS.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, Bible, biographies, obituaries | Leave a comment

A Tribute to the Wesley Family

On my old blog,  I wrote a tribute to the Niebuhr family. Now, as a Christian pacifist heavily influenced by some strands of the Anabaptist tradition, I have tensions and disagreements with Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, as would be expected. But I am still impressed with the way God used the incredibly talented Niebuhr family for the sake of the church.  In this blog, I decided that I would pay tribute to other families that have made incredible contributions to the life and faith of the Church, not just as individuals, but precisely as extended families. I will probably reprint that tribute to the Niebuhrs from my former blog, but I want to begin with this tribute to the Wesley family in Anglican and Methodist history.  I do this as someone who is neither Anglican nor Methodist. I WAS raised in the United Methodist Church, and some of those influences remain, but I could not be considered Wesleyan for many years.  So, this is a tribute from an appreciative outsider.

The preeminent Wesleys, of course, were brothers John and Charles, founders of the 18th C. evangelical renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which became a separate Christian denomination.  But there were non-conformist (i.e., non-Anglican) ministers on both sides of the family, although John and Charles’ parents were strongly Anglican.  We begin with those non-conformist ancestors.

Bartholomew Westley (c. 1596-1680).   Son of Sir Herbert Westley of Westleigh, Devon.  His mother was Elizabeth Wellesley of Dangan.  We know little of his early life, but he studied both medicine and theology at Oxford University.  At some point, Bartholomew was ordained a priest in the Church of England and became rector of Allington, a suburb of Bridgport.  He also preached at Catherston.  At some point, he became influenced by Puritanism and when Charles II ejected Puritans from the Anglican ministry after the Restoration of 1660, Bartholomew lost his parish.  He continued to preach as a Nonconformist minister.  He lived in Charmouth for some time, supporting himself by practicing medicine while preaching in Nonconformist chapels in the West Dorset area.  In 1665, Parliament enacted the Five Mile Act whereby no clergyman could live within 5 milies (8 km.) of a parish from which they had been ejected unless they swore an oath never to resist the king, nor to attempt to alter the government of Church or State.  Bartholomew fell afoul of this act and had to leave Charmouth.  His plain speech in sermons and lack of tact led him to be known as a fanatic. Because of his short stature, he was also nicknamed the “puny parson.”  His last years were spent in seclusion at Lime Regis, where he was buried in 1680 at about age 85.

John Westley (c. 1636-1770).  Bartholomew had married Ann Colley, daughter of Sir Henry Colley of Carbery Castle, Kildare. They had one son, John.  John was a very pious schoolboy who kept a diary or spiritual journal–all trace of which has disappeared so it is not possible to compare it to the journals of his famous grandson of the same name.  As a student at New Inn Hall, Oxford, John was a serious and devout student–much like his illustrious grandson.  He did exceptionally well in Oriental Languages and came to the views of Dr. Owen, the Vice-Chancellor, concerning Church Government. (Thus, though Puritanism is far more associated with Cambridge, it was apparently not unknown at Oxford, despite the Anglo-Catholicism of the later “Oxford Movement.”)  Instead of seeking ordination as an Anglican priest, he left Oxford at the end of 1657 or beginning of 1658 and sought a “gathered church” at Weymouth where he first exercised his gifts as a preacher.  He ministered to fishermen and his preaching found favor among “judicious Christians and able ministers” and led to many conversions.  When the Vicar of Winterborn-Whitchurch died, the people of that parish chose John Westley as their pastor.  Since this was now the period of the Interregnum, John went before the Triers, Cromwell’s Board of Commissioners, who examined every candidate for holy orders, and he was at once approved.  Though he was pastor to a community of about 500 people, his annual salary was only £30 and though an increase of £100 was promised, shifting politics prevented that promise from being fulfilled.  He married a “Miss White,” daughter of the patriarch of Dorchester, in 1659.  After the Restoration, he  was ejected from his church and forced to wander from place to place ministering to Dissenters, sometimes in secret.  This led to constant poverty and his early death at the age of 42.

Samuel Annesley (c. 1620-1696) was the maternal grandfather of the famed generation of Wesleys.  Related to the first Earl of Anglesey.  Born at Kenningworth near Warwick.  He earned both a B.A. and M.A. from Queen’s College, Oxford. He was ordained an Anglican priest, but on 18 Dec. 1844 he was one of 7 Anglican priests who recommended the Westminster Standards and he resigned his Anglican ordination and was re-ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  He became chaplain to Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, admiral of the Parliamentary fleet.  On 26 July 1648 he preached a sermon before Parliament and was then awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity.  In 1657, Oliver Cromwell nominated Dr. Annesley to be lecturer at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In 1658, he became Vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate where he served until 1662.  Unable to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662 after the Restoration, he was ejected from St. Giles.  After this, Annesley was forced to preach semi-privately, but his goods were confiscated  for keeping a “conventicle” (underground, illegal church) in Little St. Helen’s.  He was an author of several biographical works and his sermons were published in various collections as “Morning Exercises.”  He was the father of 25 children (!), including Susannah Wesley, the  “Mother of Methodism.”

Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), the son and grandson of dissenting ministers became an orthodox Anglican priest and a famous poet.  Born the year of the Act of Uniformity, Samuel (after grammar school) was sent away to a series of Dissenting/Nonconformist academies to prepare for the ministry, since non-Anglicans were barred from the great English universities until the 19th C.  At the last of these, Newington Gate, Samuel’s fellow student was Daniel Defoe, later author of Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders.  Around 1680, Samuel converted to the Church of England, resigned his annual Dissenting scholarship, and walked to Oxford where he enrolled at Exeter College as a “poor scholar,” meaning that he paid his way by being a “servitor” to more wealthy students.  During his time at Oxford, he dropped the “t” in his family name of “Westley,” claiming that “Wesley” was the original spelling. In truth, the alteration was probably to keep his Nonconformist roots from drawing too much attention.

In 1688, he married Susannah Anneseley, and together they had 19 children, 9 of which died in infancy. Three boys and 7 girls survived to adulthood.  Because 2 of those three boys were John and Charles Wesley, from the perspective of the church historian, Samuel’s roles as husband and father are the most important things he did.

In 1693, Samuel published a poem known as “Life of Christ,” which he dedicated to Queen Mary, leading her to appoint him as Vicar of Epworth, the parsonage where the founders of Methodism were raised.  But Samuel’s high church liturgies, academic and poetic proclivities, and loyalist Tory politics were a complete mismatch for his illiterate parishioners.  As they said then, “Mr. Wesley was not well received,” an expression that would also have been understood in the Old (U.S.) South only a generation or so before me.  Despite numerous volumes of published poetry and the Queen’s support, the Wesley household was soon in debt and Samuel Wesley spent the rest of his life trying to make ends meet.  In 1709, his parsonage was destroyed by fire, and his son John was barely rescued in time.

Susannah Annesley Wesley (1669-1742).  The “Mother of Methodism” was the daughter of a Dissenting or Nonconformist minister and on both sides the granddaughter of same.  She was the youngest of 25 children born to Dr. Samuel Annesley and Mary White.  Susannah apparently had a mind of her own in matters of religion for at age 13, she stopped attending her father’s church and was received into the official Church of England.  At 19, she met Samuel Wesley and they were married on 11 November 1688.  Together, they had 19 children, of whom 9 survived infancy and 8 of whom were still living at the time of Susannah’s death.

Susannah’s life was one of hardship.  Formal education was not available to girls and women in 17th C. England, but her father was a scholar and he taught her to read and think for herself and she systematically studied her father’s library, which prepared her well for her future as the “Mother of Methodism,” but also led to her conversion to the Church of England.   She and her husband were separate for over a year because of a dispute and twice he spent time in debtor’s prison, leaving the full burden of the family upon her.  Twice the parsonage was burned down in fire and once her son John had to be rescued from a second story window.  After the second fire, Susannah was forced temporarily to split up her children and have them stay in several different homes–and was horrified to find that they played more and studied less in these fostering contexts.

She was the primary source of her children’s education. Unable to afford to send them to grammar school, Susannah led in what, today, in the States would be called “homeschooling.” Classes began for each child the day after their fifth birthdays. All but three (whom she judged “slow”) memorized the English alphabet the first day of class.   Each child, girls as well as boys, were instructed in both Latin and Greek.  They were well tutored in the classics.  The family schedule was rigid and began at 5 a.m., explaining the orderly “methodical” habits of sons John and Charles.  Susannah devoted one night each day of the week to conversation with each child as a way of helping them to grow spiritually.  John preferred that she write him letters. She wrote numerous letters to every child on spiritual and biblical subjects, including what were, in effect, biblical commentaries.  She also wrote extended commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed.  All these were intended only for her own use and that of her children, and many were destroyed in one of the rectory fires, but many survived.  Many of the surviving letters and manuscripts were published after her death by her son, Charles. 

She also emphasized music in her children’s education, an influence that was especially strong on Charles, composer of thousands of hymns.

Susannah’s education of her daughters was so thorough that, had they been living in a later age, all would certainly have been admitted to university and, at least one, Mehetabel (“Hetty”), would probably have become a scholar in her own right;–she did become a published poet. (Hetty also fell in love with a suitor who was not approved by her parents. She ran away and lived out of wedlock with him–far more scandalous then than now–and returned still unwed and pregnant.  The child died early.  Her father, Samuel, never forgave her, not even on his deathbed.) All 7 daughters, Emilia, Susannah, Mary, Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezia had lives that were marked by loneliness and unhappiness.

Susannah’s educational preparation of her sons was strong enough that all 3 earned both B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oxford University. The oldest of the boys, Samuel Jr., would today probably be diagnosed as bi-polar.  After teaching in London’s Westminster School and being appointed Headmaster of Blundell’s School in Tiverton, he converted to Catholicism and married a minor daughter of the gentry.  He then had an affair with his housekeeper which ended that marriage and he was forced to marry the pregnant housekeeper.  His life finished in poverty and disgrace.  The other two boys turned out rather better.

For more on Susannah and the Wesley household that produced John and Charles, see:

Edwards, Maldwyn Loyd, Family Circle:  A Study of the Epworth Household in Relation to John and Charles Wesley.  London, 1949.

Maser, Frederick E., The Story of John Wesley’s Sisters; or, Seven Sisters in Search of Love.  Rutland, VT, 1988.

Newton, John A., Susannah Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism.  London, 2002.

Wallace, Jr., Charles, ed., Susannah Wesley:  The Complete Writings.  New York, 1997.

John Wesley (1703-1791), Anglican priest & Christian theologian and reformer.  Primary mover of the 18th C.  transatlantic revival known in the UK as the “Evangelical Revival” and in North America as “The Great Awakening.”  Primary founder of the renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which, first in the U.S. and then in the UK, became a separate denominational tradition from the Church of England, though Wesley himself never left the Anglican priesthood. 

Born in Epworth as the 15th child and 2nd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley, at the age of 5 he had to be rescued from a second story window as the rectory burned to the ground.  This strongly influenced the developing spirituality of the precocious child as he began to consider himself saved from death by God for the purposes of God’s Kingdom, a “branch plucked from the burning” in his own words.

Young John had other deep personal religious experiences as a young boy and, combined with the strict and pious education by his mother, early led him to live a strict and regimented life of piety.  However, at age 11, he was sent to Charterhouse School in London.  At this boarding school, he began as a pious and studious boy, but soon began backsliding into sinful habits–at least such as would be considered so by the pious of the day.  He was a victim of unmerciful hazing by other students–in ways that traumatized him forever after. 

In 1720, John matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, earning his M.A. in 1927.  During this time he was influenced by several devotional classics, including Thomas a Kempis’ Practice of the Presence of Christ and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.  He was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725 and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College (Oxon.) in 1726.  He served his father’s parish as curate for two years before returning to take up his duties at Oxford. 

Many people date the beginnings of Methodism to John’s return to Oxford in 1729, but I am with those who still consider this part of the prehistory. The real beginnings of Methodism come later.  However, it is true that in 1729, John and Charles founded a “Holy Club” at Oxford, composed of students and faculty who strove to live devout lives dedicated to prayer, study of the Scriptures and devotional literature, abstention from alcohol and other stimulants and abstention from “worldly amusements and frivolities,” such as dancing, card-playing, gambling, cockfighting, dogfighting, horseracing, foxhunts, etc.  They were also to lead honest lives without gossip or cruelty to others.  The members of this “Holy Club,” were mocked as “methodists,” because of their highly organized and methodical approach to devotional practices–the roots of which undoubtedly lie in the organized home life that their mother, Susannah (a de facto single parent for much of the time), used to manage her large household.

In 1735, Governor Oglethorpe, governor of the Crown Colony of Georgia in North America, asked for a clergyman as a missionary to the Native Americans of Georgia. He wanted no pampered court clergyman, but someone “inured to the contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, [given] to bodily austerities, and to serious thoughts.” John Wesley responded to this “want ad” that seemed to be written with him directly in mind as a personal call from God.  He remained in the Georgia Colony two years, returning to England in 1738, deeming himself a complete failure and greatly depressed over it.  At least two factors enter into this sense of personal failure:  (a) Wesley completely failed to convert a single Native American.  This was deemed a failure not only by himself, but by the colonists and Gov. Oglethorpe.  (b) On board ship to America, Wesley met one Sophia Hopkey, and they became romantically involved–though it is unclear whether this romance involved any sexual relationship.  On the advice of a Moravian minister with whom Wesley confided, he broke off the relationship with Miss Hopkey.  The spurned Sophia publicly denounced him, claiming that he had promised to marry her and broken his sworn word.  She proceeded to marry another, one William Williamson, and when the feud led Wesley to refuse to serve her the Eucharist (Holy Communion), the Williamsons sued Wesley in court.  The proceedings ended in mistrial, but John Wesley’s reputation was in tatters, and he returned to England out of realization that there was nothing he could do further for God in Georgia. (Though the 18th C. testimony is circumspect in description, the strengthn of Hopkey’s anger at her rejection, and the speed with which she married another, leads me to believe that the romance with John Wesley HAD been sexual. That would also explain the Moravian minister’s advice to break off the affair and Hopkey’s loud complaints about Wesley’s broken word over a promise to marry.  A “deflowered and rejected” young woman of the time would have felt greatly wronged–and had justice on her side.  The evidence is inconclusive, but very suggestive.)

On John’s trip to Georgia, he encountered members of the Herrnhuter Brudergemeine, the “Unity of Brethren,” a pre-Luther Protestant Church known in English-speaking lands as The Moravian Church.  Moravians are Pietists, emphasizing “warm-hearted” spirituality and underlying Christian unity, as well as upright living.  At their origins in the 14th C., they were a peace church with pacifist convictions, though this is downplayed today and several branches of the Moravians/Unity of Brethren commission military chaplains.  (It is unclear whether the Moravians whom Wesley encountered would have been pacifists or not.) When the ship encountered a terrible storm that threatened to capsize it, Wesley was terrified, but the Moravians remained calm and this convinced Wesley that they had a strength and maturity in spiritual matters that he lacked.  Upon returning to England in 1738, completely depressed by the disaster of his mission to Georgia, he turned to the Moravians for guidance.  On 24 May 1738, he went to a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, London and heard a reading of the preface of Martin Luther’s Epistle to the Romans.  At that reading, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” became convinced that Christ’s atoning death was for him, personally, trusted in it’s salvific power, and dated his personal new birth in Christ to this experience.  He briefly joined the Moravians (though never surrendering his Anglican priesthood), even traveling to Herrnhut, Germany (then the Moravian headquarters) to study for two years. 

Upon his return to London we can date the real beginnings of Methodism.  Wesley began organizing laypeople into “bands,” and “circles” of disciplined study and prayer.  He wrote hymns for them.  He stressed the need for personal faith for salvation, but, in contrast to Luther, he stressed that justification was to be followed by a transformed life of sanctification–which could even lead to a form of Christian perfection, a “perfection of love.”

Wesley preached with new power and empowered the laity, including lay preachers. The Church of England reacted negatively to this lay preaching and in 1739 closed pulpits to Wesley. So, following the example of the more Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield, Wesley declared “the world is my parish!” and began open air preaching.  Wesley did not clash with Anglicanism over doctrine, but over what he perceived as the failure to call sinners to repentance and personal faith.  He traveled thousands of miles on horseback preaching all over Britain and his Methodist movement grew.  He soon ordained Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to take the Methodist movement to the American colonies. They did and Methodism grew even faster on this side of the Atlantic. 

Unlike George Whitefield, the other superstar evangelist of the Great Awakening, John Wesley was not a Calvinist.  His soteriology was Arminian. That is, like the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, Wesley claimed that Christ’s atonement was (potentially) for everyone–no one was elected to damnation.  Because of God’s prevenient grace, humans could respond to the offer of saving grace freely–and even though given assurance of salvation, they could just as freely later commit apostasy and reject their former salvation.  The Church of England contained both Calvinist and Arminian strands, but Wesley opted strongly for the Arminian, drawing past the Reformation to the early church, even Eastern Orthodox sources. (The similarities between Wesley’s “entire sanctification,” and the “salvation as divination” view of the Eastern Fathers has been noted by many.)

Like Martin Luther, his theology, though having a logical structure, was not systematic, but pastoral, contained in thousands of published sermons, letters, tracts, and journals.  He was one of the earliest English theologians to speak out against slavery.  He also championed the poor and called war the chief example of original sin.  Wesley was not QUITE a pacifist, but his reservation seems less because of a theological endorsement of Just War Theory and more because of his Royalist politics.  He never wanted Methodists to become a separate church or denomination. Yet, the American Revolution sparked this development in North America and, at his death, British Methodism also separated formally from the Church of England–though earlier this year it agreed to reunion. (Other Methodist branches have not made that agreement.)

The Works of John Wesley come in several editions. The number of volumes and publishers varies, along with how much editing and commentary. They range from 7 volumes to 24 volumes. 

John Wesley, The Sermons of John Wesley:  An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1991).

Selected secondary works:

Stephen Tompkins, John Wesley: A Biography(Eerdmans, 2003).

Richard P. Heizenratter, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Abingdon Press, 1995).

Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley:  Holy Love and the Shape of Grace(Abingdon Press, 2007).

Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace:  John Wesley’s Practical Theology(Kingswood Books, 1994).

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) , 18th child and 3rd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley.  Susannah’s education gave Charles an independent spirit.  When the parsonage burned down, Charles was sent to live with his much older brother, Samuel, and there became a somewhat rebellious spirit.  When he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford in 1726, he initially wasted much energy looking for a good time.  However, he had settled down and decided to take his spiritual life seriously by the time his brother John returned to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College.  Together they formed the Oxford “Holy Club” for the purpose of Bible study, serious devotions, and daily reception of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).  The regimented structure of the “Holy Club” soon led others to mock its members as “Methodists.”

In 1733, Charles earned an M.A.(Classical Languages and Literature) from Oxford, having become especially scholarly in Latin.  In 1735, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England.  Charles accompanied John to the Georgia Colony, becoming secretary to Gov. James Oglethorpe.  However, he failed to adjust to the climate and returned to England a year later.

In the Spring of 1738 Charles experienced his own profound religious awakening.  He became more convinced than ever of the New Testament message of salvation by faith alone and of the power of faith in Jesus Christ to dramatically transform lives.  For the next 50 years he joined John’s work in spreading this message to as many as possible, working especially in the poor slums of London. 

Charles was an excellent preacher and theologian, but he had neither the raw preaching power of George Whitefield, nor the logical clarity and organizational genius of his brother, John.  Charles’ great strength was as a hymn writer.  He spread the Methodist message through song, often taking well-known tunes (even drinking songs) and changing their lyrics.  He wrote literally thousands of hymns during his lifetime.  Many of his better known hymns (e.g., Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; O! For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!) are sung in churches around the world to this day–and as much outside as inside Methodist circles.

An independent mind, Charles did not always agree with his more famous brother, John.  He, too, was an Arminian, but he rejected John’s doctrine that one could be “entirely sanctified” in an abrupt, even instantaneous process.  For Charles, sanctification was a gradual and progressive process, the work of the Spirit over a lifetime.  Further, he did not think that sanctification could result in any form of perfection (not even a “perfection in love”) this side of death. Perfection awaits the after-death experience of glorification.  (My friend, Jonathan Marlow, UMC minister, thinks I overplay their differences over sanctification, but says that the differences over the Church of England’s claim to “Apostolic succession” in ordination was larger than I have said.)

Charles was also more adamant than John in retaining his loyalty to the Church of England.  He did not join in the open-air preaching, but remained in his London parish.  He refused to go along with the ordination of Methodist ministers.  And, at the time of his death, he reminded Anglican leaders of his loyalty to the Church of England and demanded to be buried in the Anglican graveyard.  Both Charles’ son and grandson were also famous hymn writers and church musicians.

Charles Wesley, Charles Wesley:  A Reader , ed. John R. Tyson (Oxford University Press, 2000).

John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim:  The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley(Eerdmans, 2008).

Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity(Oxford University Press, 2007).

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. Praising the God of Grace:  The Theology of Charles Wesley’s Hymns. (Abingdon Press, 2005).

Truly an amazing family.  A multigenerational gift of God to the Church universal.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, church history | 12 Comments

Scot McKnight Reviews Brian McLaren

In the latest issue of Christianity Today (which I read only sporadically), Scot McKnight, who teaches at North Park University and blogs at Jesus Creed, reviews Brian McLaren’s latest book, A New Kind of Christianity. 

McLaren, pastor of the mega-church Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland, has been a kind of guru for the “Emergent Christianity” movement among 20-somethings and early 30-somethings.  I have found the Emergent movement too vague and fuzzy for my taste, but I have not been among its critics because I also recognize it as a possible renewal movement in U.S. Christianity. It has been especially helpful in sparking a new social conscience among younger evangelicals who are rejecting the Religious Right which has dominated evangelicalism since c. 1979 and the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority.” (I come from the older “Evangelical Left” movement which grew out of the encounter of white evangelicals with the Black Church in the Civil Rights movement and encounter with the Vietname War. So, themes which Emergent folk find brand new, I experience as a–usually welcome–recovery from before the hijacking of the evangelical ethos in American Christianity by Religious Right fundamentalists.)  McLaren has seemed to be to embody the strengths and weaknesses of Emergents well.

Likewise, I have found McKnight to be a good conversation partner in theology.  So, I read his review with interest.

On the whole, I found it to be balanced.  McLaren does tend to paint all Western evangelicalism in broad fundamentalist strokes and to trumpet his own liberation from all that in the overheated prose of the convert and true believer.  If you are looking for nuance, McLaren is not your speed. McKnight does also highlight McLaren’s strength in “poking” (McKnight’s word) evangelicalism’s weaknesses, especially it’s largely conformist social conscience.

McKnight is a careful historian of early Christian origins, so he is annoyed at the overly broad strokes in which McLaren paints a “Greco-Roman narrative” which, McLaren claims, sidetracked and distorted Christianity early on.  But McKnight goes overboard in painting McLaren as a new Adolf von Harnack (although I do find echoes of John A. T. Robinson and John Shelby Spong!).  And McKnight’s attempt at guilt by association lumps McLaren in with the likes of Karen Armstrong, Harvey Cox, and Marcus Borg–who are all very different scholars and who do not form any kind of school, much less any new form of the Religionsgeschictlicheschule of 19th C. Germany.

Because McKnight has great respect for the theological work of the early church councils (especially Nicea and Chalcedon), a respect which I share, he dismisses McLaren’s contrast of the “Greco-Roman narrative” and its “Theos god” with the Abba of Jesus as simply the “old saw” of a the Fall of the Church with emperor Constantine.  As one influenced by the Anabaptists, I take exception to the idea that the Constantinian Fall of the Church is merely an “old saw.” One can admire later developments (as I do) while still recognizing that Constantine’s “conversion” began a process (completed under Theodosius) that dramatically changed the nature of Christianity–and in many ways for the worse.  The shift from an outlawed and often persecuted religion most popular with women and slaves to an imperial religion that was soon persecuting Jews, pagans, and heretics, is not a slight shift or mere adjustment.  It was a calamity and the term “Fall” is not unadvised, even if it does tend to obscure positive developments later. 

In short, I suspect that BOTH McLaren and McKnight paint in overly broad strokes when tightly weaved arguments and detailed portraits are needed.  McLaren wants to outline a paradigm shift (to employ an overused term) in Western Christianity, but he’d already done this in A Generous Orthodoxy.  McKnight correctly notes that McLaren has been partially successful in generating a new social gospel among (younger) North American evangelicals.  I also think McKnight is onto something in claiming that evangelicalism serves as a “necessary devil” (a foil) for McLaren and I always think that theologies of reaction too easily become overreaction.  But the same applies to McKnight. Although he notes strengths, he doesn’t really review McLaren in an evenhanded way. He comes to the book irked by elements in McLaren’s earlier work and expecting to be further irked here–and is not disappointed.

McLaren and the Emergent movement he represents are still too “fuzzy” and vague, but McKnight seems caught between roles:  that of cautious advisor to Emergents and one of defender of the Evangelical old guard.  McLaren’s book (all his writings) needs evaluation and review from someone sufficiently distant from these internal struggles for objectivity and Scot McKnight falls short.

March 3, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, ethics, pop culture, theology | 3 Comments

Biggar v. Hays on Nonviolence

Andy Goodliff highlights the debate between British theologian Nigel Biggar and Duke NT scholar Richard B. Hays over whether nonviolence is normative in the NT and for contemporary Christians.  It’s a good summary with links. I think Hays has the better argument, but I am biased in this area as a convinced pacifist.  Check it out.

March 3, 2010 Posted by | pacifism | Leave a comment