I’m not a Methodist. I WAS raised Methodist and most of my family of origin are still Methodist, but I have been an Anabaptist-type Baptist for longer than I was Methodist. So, I present this as an “interested outsider,” rather than an insider. I offer these interpretations especially to Methodist friends and colleagues inviting feedback–agreement, disagreement, modification. alternative proposals, etc. The discussion should prove interesting.
1) Methodism as Modified Episcopalianism. In this perspective, Methodism is a variation on Anglo-Catholic Christianity. Neither John nor Charles Wesley left the Church of England. British Methodists have entered into a covenant with the Church of England. Methodism is an evangelical/pietist renewal (or internal critique) of Anglicanism. In the United Methodist Church, the bishops are the institutional home of this perspective–whether or not they think reunion with the Anglican Communion desirable. (This may also be true for the African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations, but I have never met a bishop in any of the forms of African Methodism, so I couldn’t say.) Had the Anglican hierarchy welcomed (not resisted) the Wesley’s Evangelical Renewal movement, it would have remained in the Church of England.
2) Santification as Key: Methodism as Holiness Movement. This view doesn’t see the 19th C. Holiness Movement, with dozens of new denominations spinning off from Methodism, as a new development, but as the original heart of Methodism itself. Had Methodism remained true to its Holiness heart, this view goes, there would never have arisen Free Methodists, Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Church, the Church of God (Anderson, IN-non-Pentecostal), etc. Wesley was influenced by Moravians, who were radical Pietists, and also by the “salvation as deification” theme of Eastern Orthodoxy. The essence of Methodism, in this view, is a Pietist-Holiness emphasis that includes both individual and social sanctification.
3) “Heart Religion”: Methodism as Doctrinal Pluralism. This is the theme of liberal Methodism. John Wesley had said that he didn’t want Methodists to be known “for their particular opinions.” Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate was not an intellectual change of mind, but finding his heart “strangely warmed.” This interpretation allows for a wide diversity of doctrinal conviction, united by an inner salvation experience. Examples would include the Boston Personalists (e.g., A. C. Knudson, Bordon Parker Bowne, Georgia Harkness, & L. Harold DeWolf), the many Methodist Process Theologians (John B. Cobb, Marjorie Schuchocki, Randy L. Maddox, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Schubert M. Ogdon), some feminist and liberation theologians.
4)Methodism as Part of the Free Church/Believers’ Church Tradition. In this view, Methodism’s soteriology and ecclesiology places it among the Believers’ Church traditions that include the Hussites, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Friends/Quakers, Baptists, the Stone-Campbell movement, Pentecostals. The major difference is that Methodists retain infant baptism since Wesley hadn’t attempted to formulate an entire “systematic” theology and accepted the structures of the Church of England. (Anabaptists–and Nazarenes–would say that Methodists are confused about baptism. Infant baptism doesn’t fit their soteriology or ecclesiology.) The social sanctification, the many Methodist struggles for justice and numerous Methodist pacifists are all explained by this perspective say its proponents. Some in this perspective include the late Franklin H. Littel, Justo Gonzalez, James Lawson, James Farmer, Elsa Tamez, Theodore W. Jennings, Donald W. Dayton.
Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are different ways to “slice” the same phenomenon. Do my Methodist friends find this helpful? I await your comments and dialogue with much anticipation.
David Swartz claims that one reason the “Evangelical Left” has failed as a popular movement (unlike the Evangelical Right which dominates an entire U.S. political party) is discomfort with the term “evangelical” itself. Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself “evangelical” and to identify with the Evangelical Left as it was then: Jim Wallis, Joyce Hollyday & the Sojourners Community; Tony Campolo; Ron Sider & Evangelicals for Social Action; Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, founded in 1942 by Clarence & Florence Jordan & Martin & Mable England as an interracial Christian community–in the midst of segregation and racism; Jubilee Partners and The Other Side magazine (1965-2005); Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Nancey Hardesty; Letha Dawson Scanzoni–Biblical feminism and the Evangelical Woman’s Conference (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Woman’s Conference); the radical Black evangelism of Tom Skinner, John Perkins (and Voice of Calvary Ministries), and William E. Pannell–these and other people and organizations were the Left wing of American Evangelicalism, but clearly recognized as evangelical by their more moderate and even conservative sisters and brothers. (Scanzoni and Mollenkott, Rev. Troy Perry, & a few brave souls at The Other Side even dared–and it was VERY daring at the time–to call into questian the consensus blanket condemnation of “homosexuality.” At the time, I did not dare follow their conclusions, but I did think the conversation should be open and free from fear of knee-jerk cries of “HERESY!”)
After all, when Time magazine referred to 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical,” it focused on a Georgia governor and Sunday School teacher making an unlikely run for U.S. President–Jimmy Carter. With Carter and Billy Graham (then a much less hardline conservative figure) defining the Evangelical Center, those of us on the Evangelical Left had little difficulty with the term “Evangelical.” Even when Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1978, he helped reinforce those of us in the Evangelical Left in identifying with the term “Evangelical” because Falwell & his ilk considered “Evangelical” to be a “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy term,” and proudly proclaimed themselves “Fundamentalists,” intead. (The Moral Majority even published The Fundamentalist Journal which didn’t just lambast liberal Christian publications such as The Christian Century, and Christianity & Crisis–the latter now sadly defunct–or Evangelical Left publications like Sojourners, The Other Side, Radix, or Katallagete (of which, only Sojourners is still in circulation), but indicted such staid organs of the Evangelical establishment as His, Eternity, and even Christianity Today as heretical.) Thus, Falwell and other Religious Right figures helped the secular mainstream media distinguish between “Evangelicals” and “Fundamentalists.”
What changed? The fierce doctrinal debate over whether Scriptural authority should be understood by the term “inerrancy,” a debate which began first among Missouri Synod Lutherans (leading to a schism) and then moved into para-church Evangelicalism before dominating the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979–c.1990–and resulting in schism and fragmentation) was one factor. As some factions defined “inerrancy” every more strictly or insisted that one who rejected this term was no longer “evangelical,” many of us in the Evangelical Left became weary of that fight. (I wanted to spend less time debating the nature of biblical authority and more time learning to interpret Scripture carefully and to demonstrate loyalty to biblical authority by the way it shaped lives and communities of faithful disciples. )
But the success of the Religious Right as a political movement was another major factor: As the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others gained more and more worldly political power, they gave up the term “Fundamentalist,” and embraced “Evangelical.” But the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later, the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, “Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage–this terms includes us.” No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were “true Evangelicals.” They even began to deny that Jimmy Carter was evangelical! And the media followed suit with this. So, by the early 1990s, most people in America thought that “Evangelical” automatically meant all of the following: Conservative Republican who supports: teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools; the use of federal tax money to support private Christian schools; bannings or restrictions of pornography–and this could be defined to even include great works of art like the Venus de Milo sculpture (During the 1st term of the presidency of George W. Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft (R-MO), a member of the Religious Right, draped a cloth over the statue of Justice to hide the statue’s naked breast!); banning the teaching of biological evolution; uncritical support for a huge military budget and nationalist wars. It also meant one opposed: The Equal Rights Amendment; all or nearly all abortions (the one part of the Religious Right’s agenda which did have some legitimacy even though I disagreed with all their conclusions–the Left’s refusal to see any moral dimensions at all to abortion was sheer blindness); opposed women’s leadership roles in churches as well as society; wanted restrictions on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual & transgendered persons and promoted fear and hatred of them in the churches. Opposed government aid to the poor. Opposed environmental stewardship–even when re-christened “Creation Care.” Demanded uncritical support for Latin American dictators who were “pro-American” and gave uncritical support for the apartheid government of South Africa for the same reason (and was surprised that this was called “racist.”) By the ’90s, the agenda included uncritical support for the government of Israel and opposition to ALL efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Jimmy Carter’s Middle East peacemaking, once heralded with pride by American evangelicals were now considered both heretical and treasonous.) By the Bush years, to be “Evangelical” in America meant to endorse a unilateral authority to declare war and invade anyone designated as even a possible future enemy and to approve torture.
I LIKE the term “evangelical.” It literally means “gospel centered” & I, like most Christians, want to be “gospel centered.” Historically, the term “Evangelical” referred to the Reformers of the 16th C. and, in much of Europe and Latin America today, “Evangelical” is simply a synonym for “Protestant.” Well, I am definitely a Protestant. Another use distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Reformed,” so that “Evangelical” means “Lutheran” rather than “Calvinist.” Well, I am neither of those, so I don’t have any investment in this definition of “Evangelical.” In the 18th C., the “Evangelical Revival” in the United Kingdom and North America was led by George Whitfield and the brothers Wesley. Well, I was raised United Methodist and retain enough Wesleyan influence to identify with that meaning of “Evangelical.” And since the days of Charles Finney, “Evangelical” has also meant “revivalist,” and I was “born again” at a revival, so, despite my criticisms of the shortcomings of the revivalist tradition, I am “evangelical” in that sense, too. I am NOT “evangelical” in the sense the word aquired after the Furndamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and definitely not in the sense of the Religious Right. And my theology, while having many influences from the Evangelical tradition as described above, has other influences too: from the Anabaptist tradition and the Anabaptist strand of the Baptist faith, from the more Christocentric strands of Protestant liberalism, from some forms of Neorthodoxy and the post-WWII “Biblical Theology” movement, from Liberation theologies and theologies of Hope, etc. If one has to avoid all such influences to be genuinely “Evangelical, then I am NOT Evangelical. If one must be conservative politically, then I, a Green-leaning democratic socialist and registered Democrat, fail the test.
It gets tiring to have to respond to the question, “Are you an Evangelical?” with “It depends on your definition” and then sketch the history above. Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term “Evangelical?”
Scriptures (Read by different members of the congregation, beginning and ending with 1 John 4:7-8.):
Deut. 6:4; I John 4:7-8; John 1:1-5; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; I Peter 1:2.
Trinity: The Heart of God is Love
At the heart of Christian faith is the Trinity, the Tri-unity of God, but preaching on the Trinity is one of the hardest tasks of any preacher. It is a mystery, not in the sense of a “Whodunit,” which one can solve by following the clues, but in the sense of a phenomenon that, the more you understand one or more aspects of it, the more you realize there are other aspects you don’t comprehend. So, today, I want you to hold onto one central concept if you remember nothing else: The Trinity is important because GOD IS LOVE. Love is relational. The word “Trinity” names the fact that God is already a community of giving and receiving love IN GOD’S SELF. Creation comes out of the overflow of that love; God does not just learn to love after God has become Creator. We’ll come back to this, but if nothing else makes sense about today’s sermon, please remember that “Trinity” is another way that Christians say God IS love.
How did this strange idea of Tri-unity in God come about? It doesn’t seem self-evident. My mother always complained about theology in general and the Trinity in particular as too complicated. She prided herself on having “simple faith” and wanted simple ideas about God to go along with it. Well, our faith may be simple in the sense of simple and pure trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior—which is what I think my mom meant. But wanting a simple theology is like wanting simple astrophysics—it can only be as simple or complex as the reality we seek to describe. We don’t have to be needlessly complicated for complexity’s own sake or to make it seem as if we are smarter than we are, but when we think about God and the gospel we should expect that sometimes it will be hard thinking, headache material.
Let’s start by saying that neither the word “Trinity,” nor any developed teaching or doctrine about it is found in the Bible itself. It took the church centuries to work out a teaching on the Trinity—with many fierce debates—and theologians still work on it, today. But the Scriptures we read today, and others, started the thinking and debating process that produced the concepts we call the Trinity.
It began with the fact that all the earliest Christians were Jews. We read today from Deut. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is One Lord.” Jews call this “the Shema,” from the Hebrew word for “Hear.” It is the heart of Jewish faith—There is only one God, the Deliverer from slavery in Egypt who embraces Israel in covenant at Mount Sinai and whom the covenant people come to see is also the Creator of the entire universe. Israel’s constant temptations were the temptations of empire: to renounce the liberated Jubilee life God has shown them in the covenant to return to patterns of oppression and slavery like they had known in Egypt, and to abandon faith and loyalty in God for the many gods of empire. The Exile from the Land cures the latter problem. From the time of Israel’s return from Babylon and the other nations where they were scattered to the Land of Promise, several centuries before Jesus, they fiercely guarded against idolatry. (Oppression was a harder habit to break.)
So, what would make Jews, like the disciples and the earliest Christians, begin the process that would lead to our teaching about the Trinity? Some have claimed it was a mistake. That it resulted from the early split between synagogue and church and Christianity becoming a mostly Gentile religion. Had the Church stayed largely Jewish, they claim, no pagan, Greek philosophical ideas would have infected us with a semi-return to polytheism, the belief in many gods. Count me among those who disagree. The earliest Christians KNEW that God is ONE, but they also experienced Easter and Pentecost. They encountered God in Jesus and in the Spirit that Jesus had promised God would send. Jesus typically referred to God as “Father,” and taught his disciples to pray that way, too. (We’ll address feminine images for God later. For now, because we have enough on our plate, let’s stick with the traditional, admittedly patriarchal, language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”) Before long, Christians, mostly Jews, were using words for the risen Christ that were usually reserved for God. They even began to pray to Jesus and to the Spirit, although the usual New Testament and early Christian pattern was to pray TO the Father, in the NAME of Christ, and by the POWER of the Spirit.
Experiencing God in Jesus and in the Spirit got the ball rolling toward Trinitarian faith. Christians remained monotheists, believers in one God, but, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, we are not SIMPLY monotheists. Count me among those who believe that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God, the true and living God. But we understand God differently. For different reasons, Jews and Muslims both believe that Christians have compromised our monotheism in holding to the Trinity. We are tempted to minimize our differences in interfaith dialogue—and to build bridges of understanding, we SHOULD start with our common ground—One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—and of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian, whose monotheistic faith bears many similarities to Islam. But, not even for the sake of solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers can we downplay the differences—in Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we have met again the One God of Liberation and Covenant. And in the promised Spirit, named in Scripture as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, we live, move, and have our very being IN God. Christian life is life in the Spirit. Christian life and worship is INEVITABLY Trinitarian in shape. The way the doctrine worked out was shaped by Greek philosophy because that is the culture in which the debates took place. Doubtless the terms and shape of our faith would look different today if the early Church had first flourished in India or China. (Much of it did flourish in Africa, but parts of Africa already influenced by Greek and Roman culture.) But I am convinced that, regardless, SOMETHING LIKE the Trinitarian teaching would have developed because of Easter and Pentecost.
Now, as I said, the details took centuries of debates to work out—and the arguments have never ended. We won’t go into them all here. To even cover the basics would take a long sermon SERIES on the Trinity. Today, I will just mention a few key points, some ancient, and some very contemporary.
1) The “persons” of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal. It’s not that the Father is REALLY God and Christ and the Spirit are secondary. Already in Col. 1:19, Paul states that in Christ, “ALL the FULLNESS of God was pleased to dwell.”
2) It’s not that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “masks” for God or roles that God plays. The church rejected this teaching as “modalism.” But many Christians are unknowingly Modalists. But this ends up with either denying the Incarnation—that God was fully in the human Jesus of Nazareth, or it ends with believing that the baby Jesus is guiding the stars and planets from his crib! Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. Jesus doesn’t turn into the Spirit after death and resurrection. One form of Pentecostalism, the United Pentecostals, embrace this modalism, believing that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are merely “titles” for Jesus and baptizing only into Jesus’ name and not in the Trinitarian formula of Matt. 28:19 which we heard read. They have a kind of “Unitarianism of the 2nd Person.” No, each of the 3 persons is fully God.
3) We also see that our congregation’s doxology [which uses “Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost”], while fine as a doxology, does not say everything that needs to be said. No song can do that, nor sermon, nor book. But our doxology, BY ITSELF, can give the impression that only the Father is Creator, that only Jesus is Redeemer, and only the Spirit is Sustainer. Look at your bulletin cover. See the symbol there [see picture at bottom] and how the 3 points also connect and intersect? That very ancient Trinitarian symbol points to something called by the Greek word “perichoresis.” You don’t need to remember the word, but what it means, is that each person of the Trinity participates in the life and actions of the other. Remember our Scripture from the Gospel of John—in which the Word, Christ, is not only affirmed to be God, but is creating, too—without Whom nothing was made that is made. In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the chaos waters as God begins to create. Likewise, Jesus Christ the Son is not the only agent in salvation. GOD was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s Self. And the sustaining and empowering and sanctifying work of the Spirit is also the work of Father and Son. Each participates fully in the work we primarily identify with another “Person” of the Tri-une God.
4) There is much, MUCH, more that could be said, but let me finish our reflections today with the question of how the Trinity relates to feminine images for God. My prayer life reflects my theology—among other things, no doubt. As a young Christian, I primarily addressed God in prayer as “Papa,” believing that this was the Southern cultural equivalent of Jesus’ “Abba.” When I began to realize the importance of the Trinity, I adopted the early Christian pattern, especially in public prayer, of praying to the Father, in the Name of Jesus the Son, and in the Power of the Spirit. Then, as a seminary student, I encountered the feminist critique of all-masculine God-language. Now, let it be said that it is NOT true that the ancient Christian theologians who formulated Trinitarian doctrine believed that God was literally male. Some modern TV preachers may believe that, but Athanasius, and Augustine, and the Cappadocians, specifically and repeatedly affirm that both male and female humans are made in the image and likeness of God, just as Genesis 1 says. But it is true that the constant use over centuries of Father, Son, and Spirit language, while ignoring feminine imagery for God in the Bible gives the impression that, to say the least, men are more in the image of God than women are. This false belief has fed sexist patterns of male supremacy in home, church, and society. So, I came to my teacher, Dr. Molly Marshall, and I asked her, “Is it possible to be a thorough Trinitarian and still embrace the feminist critique of all-masculine God language? Can one be a Trinitarian feminist?” She got that twinkle in her eye that we students came to associate with her sharp sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White,” she said (I was still single, then), “But you will forever after be condemned to using very complex sentences.” So it has proved.
God is not male. We are free to call God “Mother,” as well as “Father.” We can refer to God as “She.” In ancient Christian art, the Spirit was often depicted as feminine. The Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians often call the “Old Testament,” depicts the Wisdom of God as feminine (see Prov. 8)—and it is that Wisdom tradition that is the background for John’s calling Christ “the Word.”
Now some disagree on both sides. Some theologians, like Donald Bloesch and David Jenson, while acknowledging feminine imagery for God in Scripture insist that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are the way the New Testament teaches us to NAME God. So, we can’t call God “Mother” they say. I disagree. If that were so, the New Testament writers and other early Christians would have used ONLY “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” language for God and never any other images, but this is not the case. On the other side, feminist theologian Sallie McFague thinks the Trinity is a category mistake that comes when metaphors become hardened into idols. She wants to replace the metaphors of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” with “Mother, Lover, and Friend.” I have no trouble using any of her terms for God, but not as replacements. Two feminist theologians have worked hard to reaffirm the tradition while still incorporating the feminist critique of all-masculine God language. If you’re up for some DEEP reading, I highly recommend Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s, She Who Is: Feminist Theology and the Mystery of God.
We do have to insist that Jesus of Nazareth was biologically male. That is the scandal of particularity. He was also Jewish and spoke Aramaic. Incarnation is in the particular. But the pre-existent Word is also Wisdom and the risen Christ, though usually referred to as Son, can also be given feminine imagery. If humans, both male and female, are made in GOD’s image, then ALL of God, each member of the Trinity, embraces both feminine and masculine aspects—however difficult that is to say in a baptismal formula or doxology.
We have barely scratched the surface and our time is up. We end where we began. Trinity is another way of saying “God is LOVE.” “One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” “Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit,” a community of love in God’s Self and pouring out that love in Creation, in Sustaining and empowering the universe, and in salvation, liberation, redemption. In the words of Catherine LaCugna, Trinity means that God is GOD FOR US. Amen.
This Sunday, like so many around the world, I will be preaching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity–the Tri-Unity of God. After, I’ll post that sermon here. For now, I thought I would list a few excellent theological works on The Trinity.
For beginners in theology:
Alister McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1990).
Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity. (Guides to Theology Series). (Eerdmans, 2002).
Modern works on the Trinity:
Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society. Trans. from Portuguese by Paul Burns. (Reprint Wipf & Stock, 2005).
Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse. 10th Anniversary Edition (Crossroads Publishing, 2002).
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. (HarperOne, 1993).
Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Fortress, 1993).
Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Milestones in Catholic Theology).
There are many others, but these should keep you busy for awhile.
This prayer can also be sung as a hymn. It works well with the tune of “The Servant Song” composed by Richard Gilliard copyright 1977 Maranatha Music.
Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.
We expect you this glad hour, waiting for Your strength and light.
We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.
Break upon Your congregation, give us vigor, life anew.
Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with Your presence new.
Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to You.
Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with Your love.
Burst upon Your congregation, give us gladness from above.
Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each Word anew
deep into our tired living ’till we strive Your work to do.
Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.
Breathe upon Your congregation, and inspire us with Your Word.
Words and tune by Marty Haugen. Copyright 1989 by GLA Publications, Inc.
The refrain is to be sung before each verse and then once more in conclusion after all verses are completed.
Send Down the Fire
Send down the fire of Your justice,
Send down the rainse of Your love,
Come, send down the Spirit,
Breathe life in your people, and
We shall be people of God.
1. Call us to be Your compassion,
Teach us the song of Your love;
Give us hearts that sing,
Give us deeds that ring,
Make us ring with
the song of Your love.
2. Call us to learn of Your mercy,
Teach us the way of Yourpeace;
Give us hearts that feel,
Give us hands that heal,
Make us walk in
the way of Your peace.
3. Call us to answer oppression,
Teach us the fire of Your trugh;
Give us righteous souls,
‘Til Your justice rolls,
Make us burn with
the fire of Your love.
4. Call us to witness Your Kingdom,
Give us the presence of Christ;
May Your holy light
Keep us shining bright,
Ever shine with
the presence of Christ.
Words and tune from Marty Haugen. Copyright 1987 by GLA Publications, Inc.
Spirit Blowing Through Creation
1. Spirit blowing through creation,
Spirit burning in the skies,
Let the hope of your salvation
fill our eyes;
God of splendor, God of glory,
You who light the stars above,
All the heavens tell the story
of Your love. (To verse 2)
2. As You moved upon the waters,
As You ride upon the wind,
Move us all Your sons and daughters,
As You shaped the hills and mountains,
Formed the land and filled the deep,
Let your hand renew and waken
all who sleep. (To refrain).
3. Love that sends the rivers dancing,
Love that waters all that lives,
Love that heals and holds and rouses
You are food for all Your creatures,
You are hunger in the soul,
In Your hand the brokenhearted
are made whole. (To verse 4).
4. All the creatures You have fashioned,
All that live and breathe in You,
Find their hope in Your compassion,
strong and true;
You, O Spirit of salvation,
You alone, beneath, above,
Come, renew Your whole creation
in Your love. (To refrain).
Spirit renewing the earth,
renewing the hearts of all people;
Burn in the weary souls,
blow through the silent lips,
come now awake us,
Spirit of God.
Reprinted from my previous blog,Levellers.
Previously, I posted a blog on “My Favorite Liberal Theologians” in which I listed the top 10 theological liberals whom I consider my “essential dialogue partners.” I promised a follow-up on evangelicals, but it has proven tougher because, broadly speaking, I am part of the evangelical tradition and because the parameters of “evangelical” are not all that clear. Liberals, who begin with human experience and intentionally adjust Christian doctrine to modern knowlege, are easier to define. Originally, the term “evangelical” meant “Protestant,” then “Lutheran,” (in some European countries, “Evangelical” [Lutheran] is still contrasted to “Reformed”), then referred to the 18th C. renewal movements which became Pietism in Germany, the Wesley-Whitefield revivals in Britain, and the “Great Awakening,” in the U.S. Beginning in the late 19th C., “evangelical” began to take on the meaning of “conservative Protestant,” but there were also “Evangelical Liberals.” Here, I have in mind that part of conservative Protestantism that essentially grew out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. Today, I list my essential dialogue partners among the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum. A follow up blog will list my dialogue partners among the wider evangelical spectrum. My continuing series’ on mentors and heroes will name/describe my theological “home,” whereas these posts, like my post on theological liberals, describe outside conversation partners. I think I will also do posts on essential dialogue partners among Catholics (liberal and conservative), Orthodox, Jewish thinkers, and (possibly) philosophical skeptics. Perhaps this is a sign that I am more eclectic than an original, creative thinker, but I find it impossible to do theology (even theological ethics, my specialization) except in conversation with others, including others who present strong challenges to my perspectives.
But no one can dialogue with everyone. Like others, I usually ignore voices that I don’t find helpful in some fashion. Thus, although the broadly Reformed tradition informs me (Baptists have both Puritan and Anabaptist roots; I draw more from the latter, but try not to ignore the former), I do not find its scholastic forms at all helpful: I have long since stopped reading anything from Kuyper or Dooyeweerd, nor the “Old Princeton school” of Hodge, Warfield, & Machen, nor their Baptist disciples: Boyce, Manley, John Piper, or Al Mohler. If you find them helpful, fine, but I cannot stomach them at all.
- Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) represents the best of the post WWII evangelical renewal in the U.S.–at least until the early ’80s. His The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) pushed his fellow conservatives out of their apolitical slumbers–although an Eisenhower Republicanism was the most social conscience he allowed. An adult convert and former newspaperman, Henry went on to earn 2 doctorates (Th.D., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University), and after teaching at his alma mater (NBTS), went on to help found Fuller Theological Seminary as an institution both ecumenical and evangelical (though it eventually defined the latter term more broadly than Henry desired) and then became founding editor of Christianity Today, so Henry’s influence cannot be underestimated. Henry represents what I call “evangelical rationalism,” a position whose strength is to push evangelicals away from a fear of reason, but whose weakness is a theology that has little place for mystery–either in a pentacostal or a sacramental direction. He also epitomizes evangelical obsession with epistemology–writing not a systematics or dogmatics, but 8 volumes defining and defending biblical inerrancy! I have read all of these volumes (indeed, when Henry came as a visiting prof. to SBTS–back when my alma mater was allegedly full of liberals!–, I had to nurse several conservative students through his God, Revelation, and Authority, who had gone to class expecting sermon outlines instead of serious apologetics), and they have many strengths, including more interaction with non-evangelical theologians than was common during the period Henry wrote. I have to say that I did not feel that Henry always understood his opponents–including Barth, Brunner, or even Pannenberg, try though he did. I find Henry’s overall approach sterile and lifeless, but his shadow is so large in American Christianity that I would be a fool not to read and interact with his work. But my biggest criticism of Henry is that he was a poor exegete. For me, that is a damning statement. No one who spends 8 volumes defending a particular view of biblical authority should be as inept at close readings of the biblical texts themselves! (This was true not only in his writings, but on the two occasions when I heard him preach.)
- F. F. Bruce (1910-1990), by contrast was a first rate exegete and set new standards for evangelical biblical scholarship. I do not agree with him always (his defense of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, for instance, remains unconvincing), but his love for Scripture and for the gospel showed in his careful handling of texts. He is a great example of how an education in the classics can prepare one for a career in biblical studies. I also appreciate his commitment to teaching in religious studies departments in secular universities rather than in confessional seminaries. (This partly reflects his “Open Brethren” tradition which has no ordained or paid clergy, and whose congregations are led by scholarly laity. Bruce preached and taught in Brethren pulpits–and those of other Christian denominations–throughout his career.) Bruce’s generous spirit toward “liberal” Christians, including Rudolf Bultmann, was also rare for his day. He showed by precept and example that one could be orthodox without launching a war on believers from other traditions.
- Bernard Ramm(1916-1992) is another conservative evangelical whose works I greatly appreciate. His early writings included textbooks on the basics of biblical interpretation, studies on sin and soteriology, and attempts to reconcile science and theology, eventually adopting theistic evolution. His later works bear the impact of Karl Barth in a very healthy way. I also appreciate the way Ramm considered himself always a Baptist, but never wedded to any one Baptist convention. During his career, he taught at institutions related to the American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Baptist General Conference, Canadian Baptists, and Conservative Baptist Association–and did not see this as “switching denominations.” My only criticism is that Ramm saw Baptists as one branch of the Reformed tradition–period. Had he interacted with the Anabaptist dimensions of our heritage, would that have made changes to his theology–particularly his lifelong attempts to wed head, heart, and life? I think so and I think those changes would have been positive.
- The Australian Anglican, Leon Morris(1914-2006), was another sound exegete and one whose mild Calvinism tried to face seriously the challenges to that tradition from within it. I especially appreciate the way his later writings showed how he learned from criticisms of earlier work. For instance, early on Morris defended substitutionary atonement, and especially propitiation, as the only viable atonement theory. Later, while still insisting on the validity of these dimensions, Morris recognized that the cross event was bigger than any one atonement theory and attempted to incorporate other elements–relating each perspective to particular biblical texts.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Prof. of New Testament at Denver Seminary, was my Greek and NT teacher and academic advisor at Palm Beach Atlantic College in South Florida during my undergraduate days. I learned huge amounts from Craig and became friends with both Craig & his wife, Fran. I had already begun learning Greek from my home pastor, but Craig added more, reinforced my love for close exegetical work, and introduced me to liberation theologies–evangelical and otherwise. I was one of the few students at this conservative Baptist college who was (even then) more liberal than Craig, not holding to inerrancy (not even his nuanced version–and I delighted in citing his own teacher, I. Howard Marshall, on my side!) and defending evangelical feminism against his own complementarianism. (Ironically, in practice, Craig & Fran’s marriage always looked perfectly egalitarian to me and these days Fran is on staff at an emerging church congregation and is earning a Ph.D. in Missiology from the International Baptist Theological Seminary at Prague.) But Craig never tried to make cookie cutter followers of his students; he wanted followers of Jesus Christ, instead. When I teach, much of my teaching methods come from Craig–including his habit of assigning pairs of textbooks, one more “liberal” than his view and one more “conservative” than the approach he was taking. How many evangelical scholars, especially in the U.S., have co-written a dialogue book with a Morman theologian? Craig Blomberg has–and that kind of “critical openess” pervades his work. He has chided fellow evangelicals for blanket condemnations of liberation theologies and of pacifism (though I have yet to convince him to become a pacifist). His recent work, Contagious Holiness, is an important corrective to Marcus Borg’s contention that Jesus’ meals with sinners show a lack of concern with holiness/purity, but that, instead, Jesus’ compassionate and inclusive table fellowship attempted to spread holiness.
- George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), who taught New Testament at Fuller Seminary, worked hard to bring North American evangelicals to an eschatology that did not involve dispensationalism. Ladd also sought to engage the “Biblical theology” movement and the challenges of the 2nd wave of the “quest for the historical Jesus.” He was unfairly attacked from both the right and the left.
- George R. Beasley-Murray(1916-2000), British Baptist New Testament scholar who taught at Spurgeon’s College (twice, including a stint as Principal), the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary and moved to Prague, Czech Republic), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Ladd, Beasley-Murray also worked in New Testament eschatology, though, being British, he wasn’t constantly engaging Dispensationalism! Beasley-Murray, another of my teachers, was attacked by conservatives because his strong defense of Mark 13 as going back to the historical Jesus involved his concluding that Jesus was mistaken about how soon the End would come. He translated Bultmann’s commentary on John, although his own 2-volume commentary on the same book found far more historical material. A truly amazing exegete and biblical theologian. See an excellent tribute here. As with Blomberg above, I almost listed Beasley-Murray as a mentor, rather than a dialogue partner. It was a close call, but both scholars are so identified with “Evangelicalism,” that I could not omit them here.
- Donald Bloesch (1928-2010), a Reformed theologian from the conservative end of the Presbyterian Church, USA, attempts to reincorporate the pietist tradition into evangelical Reformed thought. Bloesch really sees the dangers to evangelical thought of Henry’s rationalism. Although he continues to use the term “inerrant,” for Scripture, he stretches that term considerably in his interaction with Barth and Brunner. See also here.
- G. C. Berkouwer(1903-1996), the Dutch Reformed theologian and conservative Barthian. Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture rescues its authority from liberal neglect and from Protestant scholasticism. His defense of perseverance of the saints almost convinced this born and raised Arminian. For years the leading theologian at the Free University of Amsterdam, Berkouwer led the Gereformeede Kerken in Nederland (“The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” a conservative splinter group from the Dutch Reformed Church) to join the World Council of Churches, becoming one of the first evangelical denominations to unite with the mainstream conciliar ecumenical movement. His 14 volume Studies in Dogmatics, map out a “middle orthodoxy” which is a firm middle ground between fundamentalist rationalism and liberal flights of fancy.
- Augustus H. Strong (1893-1921) may have been the most important evangelical Baptist theologian of the late 19th and early 20th C. President and Professor of Theology at Rochester Theological Seminary in upstate New York (now merged as Colgate Rochester Crozier Theological Seminary), Strong, converted as a college student under the preaching of Charles Finney, worked to reformulate Calvinist-Baptist thought for the modern era. He abandoned inerrancy as indefensible, and had a mild view of election. He came to embrace theistic evolution.
- James Leo Garrett, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary also taught church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before returning to his native Texas. His new 2 volume Systematic Theology is an excellent, centrist, evangelical Baptist work–and notable for its historical interactions.
There are many others from the broader evangelical tradition and I will try to post on those dialogue partners in the near future.
My Favorite Liberal Theologians: A List of Theological Liberals I Find “Essential” as Dialogue Partners
This reprints a post I wrote on my old blog, Levellers, in October 2006. It started a well-received series on “theological dialogue partners.” I will reproduce and index the entire series–and perhaps extend it on this blog. I don’t find anything in this list I would change.
I must be a glutton for punishment. No sooner do I reassure many evangelical readers of this blog that I am “born again” with testimony of my conversion and faith in Christ, than I write about favorite liberals. What am I thinking? Actually, though, I had been working on this post for some time and, YES, I am planning a companion piece on essential dialogue partners among the Conservative Evangelicals (caps important).
First, let me make two things clear: 1) I do NOT use the term “liberal” in theology to refer to all people who reject biblical ‘inerrancy’ (a rejection I share). “Liberal” theologians, while they have many disagreements, are united in an anthropological starting point (i.e., they begin with some form of general human experience) and in some form of a “method of correlation” (Tillich) between theology and the Modern (Enlightenment and after) world. 2) I do not consider myself a “liberal” since I begin with God’s revelation in Christ through the biblical witness and since, at most, I believe only ad hoc correlations are possible.
The big influences on me theologically are neither “liberal,” nor “conservative.” Those influences: Yoder, Stassen, Marshall, Barth, Moltmann, McClendon, H.R. Niebuhr, Letty Russell, Rauschenbusch, M. L. King, Deotis Roberts, and some others have been or will be the subject of my ongoing series of blog postings on “mentors.” By contrast, the folks below are “dialogue partners,” as are those who will be listed in the companion piece on Conservative Evangelicals.
So, who are my liberal dialogue partners? First, from the Classic Liberal period 19th C.-mid-20th C.) :
F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), not only the “Father of Liberal Theology,” but the father of all modern and, yes, postmodern theology, too. The first to give theology a truly scientific and systematic shape beyond the summa or the handbook (Calvin’s Institutes clearly was simply a handbook). It is simply not possible to do serious theology since that time without building on Schleiermacher’s legacy, even when challenging or greatly revising it, as Karl Barth knew well. There is much in old Friedrich to deplore, including his anthropological starting point and his reductionism of Christian experience to a feeling of utter dependence, but his work is a huge attempt to relate the Pietist tradition to the modern world and that remains, in my view, a worthwhile project. Link: Schleiermacher Society.
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), gave an irreducibly moral shape to modern theology and helped recapture the centrality of the concept of the Kingdom of God, which for centuries had just been understood as “heaven.” Ritschl’s view of the Kingdom is inadequate, as was Rauschenbusch’s who drew so much from Ritschl, but the recovery of its theological centrality is still of incalculable importance. Ritschl’s contention that Christianity is characterized by 2 foci, individual salvation and social ethics, still seems right on the money, to me. Further info. here.
William Newton Clarke (1841-1912), the first in North America (taught in both Canada & U.S.) to write a systematic theology from a Schleiermachian perspective. Theologians debate how much Clarke borrowed from Schleiermacher and how much he simply thought along similar lines. There were also connections to Ritschl and Hermann.
Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1877-1948), Canadian-born Baptist theologian at Yale attempted to make theology an empirical science. He was an enormous influence on the brothers Niebuhr and later Process Theology, but also on the postmodern (ana)Baptist theology of my mentor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Recent study found here.
Adolf von Harnack(1851-1930), for his incredibly encyclopedic knowledge and display of the history of Christian doctrine. (But his reduction of the “essence of Christianity” to the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” was incredibly weak–and patriarchal to boot.)
Top 10 Favorite Liberals: Contemporary and Recent Past
10. Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), German feminist political theologian. See Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.
9. Marjorie H. Schucocki (1933-), Feminist Process Theologian. Best 1 vol. systematic from a process perspective.
8. Gary Comstock, both for his early work on narrative theology (mapping out some of the varieties) and for his subsequent work on theology from an openly gay male perspective. Whatever one believes about “homosexuality” pro or con, one cannot ignore the theological challenge and Comstock is the best theologian among those proposing full inclusion. I do wish he would relate this to his earlier work on narrative theology so that one could judge the adequacy of connections.
7. Eric Rust, a British Baptist educated in both physics and theology, came to the U.S. after both pastorates and academic positions in the U.K. He taught for decades at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where he forged an “evolutionary theology” that was an early process theology not as fully dependent on the metaphysics of Hartshorne and Whitehead as most later versions. Rust helped many, many reconcile science and theology and was one of the first to see the challenge of the ecological crisis to theology. He related the covenant and salvation history themes of the Scriptures to evolutionary worldview in a very persuasive way.
6. Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) Chicago’s giant from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Gilkey was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but, unlike the latter, he forged a “theology of culture” that could actually be understood! Gilkey’s book Naming the Whirlwind essentially demolished the “Death of God” movement. For more info. see here and here.
5. Hans Küng (1928-), the brilliant star of the radical Catholics whose work both led to Vatican II and charted the path further. Sidelined in Catholic life for challenging papal infallibility, Küng’s works On Being a Christian, and Does God Exist? are major apologetic works for our time which take seriously Christianity’s skeptical critics (as conservative apologists seldom do) without capitulating to them. He also has helped pioneer Christian interfaith dialogue in ways that are not just the nonsense of “all roads lead up the same mountain.” Biblio-blogger Chris Tilling’s excellent reflections on Küng’s importance are found here.
4. Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), was a pioneer process theologian who work was far more connected to the major Christian tradition and its symbols than most in the Whitehead/Hartshorne school. Unfortunately, Williams’ most important works, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; and The Demonic and the Divine are all out of print.
3. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) African-American mystic whom I profiled earlier as a Baptist prophet. See the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. There is also a Howard Thurman documentary film project here. Morehouse College houses the Howard Thurman papers. The interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which Thurman founded in San Francisco, is still in existence. Thurman was a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Harvey Cox(1929-) — American theologian most in touch with the currents of culture. Beginning with Barth & Bonhoeffer, Cox moved from celebrating “the secular city,” to being one of the first liberals to notice that secularism was dying. He rediscovered in a new way the centrality of Jesus in, of all places, his interfaith dialogue! Cox became one of the first mainline liberals to take Pentecostalism seriously, too. Never anything close to a systematician, Cox remains one of the most astute theologians of culture for North America. Currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
1. Marcus J. Borg whose biblical work is among the strongest in the “Jesus Seminar,” but who also has sought to revitalize liberalism in ways that are easily communicable to laity. The Heart of Christianity renews the Pietist tradition of the heart in a radical post-modern world. Do I always agree? No. But it’s not your average liberal who advises congregations to have more Bible studies! More info. here and his books here.
Runners Up: Peter Gomes, John Cobb (for relating process theology to liberation thought and ecological theology); Clark Pinnock in “Open Theism” phase; L. Harold DeWolf & Walter G. Muelder for Boston Personalism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Beverly Wildung Harrison; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; Carlyle Marney.
Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving. I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.). Whole books could be (and have been) written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!) It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.
Biblical theology. All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture. However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer (or Sunday School class, congregation/parish, etc.) attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology. Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc. But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and must seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense. It is a synthetic task–and not an easy one.
Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting. This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today. Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).
Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate. A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission work one listens and learns as much as one teaches.
Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.
The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative: Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology. So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems. A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology. I have no preference between these terms and tend to use them interchangeably.
I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church.
I want to get feedback from readers on the series so far before I attempt another post showing why ethics is as much a part of theology as is doctrine.