Saturday, February 28, 2009

Great Time for Wesleyan Evangelical Tradition 1

I've blogged here several times before on what a good time it is in the flow of ideas for the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. I've emailed several book outlines to my colleagues here at IWU of books we could write to that end (usually with the response, not another book outline!). We're on Spring Break as of today here at IWU. Have I accumulated enough thoughts to put these thoughts together?
A Great Time for the Wesleyan Evangelical Tradition

Chapter 1: Somethings in the Water

1.1 Changes Afoot
Segments of the evangelical church in America are majorly in defensive mode at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A number of developments in the biblical, theological, and philosophical world have brought some cherished Protestant traditions into question. Evangelical groups that once enjoyed pride of place within American, conservative Christendom have found themselves scrambling on the defensive.

However, not all Protestant evangelical traditions are equally threatened by some of the new ideological and social challenges in play. Indeed, unlike the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, it seems impossible--at least if you are being honest--to paint the new challengers to the status quo in terms of "those without faith" versus "those with faith." One could hardly accuse N. T. Wright, for example, of not having faith--at least not with any degree of sanity. Nor is James K. A. Smith a force of unorthodoxy with which to reckon. And surely no one who actually knows Shaine Claiborne or Brian McLaren would accuse them of being faithless.

These are some of the new faces of evangelical Christianity, broadly defined. We should make it clear from the very start that they are each quite distinct new forces. I do not mention them together because they represent the same things, but because they represent some of the distinct fires that a certain "old guard" within American evangelicalism is scrambling to put out. You may disagree with the ideas of these new faces in evangelical Christianity. But, if so, you probably will have to accuse them of being more messed up in their heads than their hearts.

This last comment gets at the very heart of those Protestant evangelical traditions that feel most challenged by these changes and those that might actually be in a good position to thrive in the days to come. Those evangelical traditions that have primarily oriented themselves rigidly around ideas--and often very specifically laid out ideas--are those most in crisis mode. In other words, it is those who have liked to think of themselves as the "thinkers" of the evangelical tradition, who have put most of their eggs in a particular ideological basket, that are most offended. Those who are best situated to thrive in this present age are the pietists, the revivalists, the charismatics, the missionally minded--those that the Reformed historians George Marsden and Mark Noll (questionably) put as the ground zero of early twentieth century "fundamentalism." [1]

This is our time to thrive, and in a new way. We have always thrived numerically. It was the revivalists that took the West by storm. It is the charismatics who are leading the way currently in the furthest reaches of the planet today. Meanwhile, Calvinist evangelicals have been known more for their intellectual prowess than their numeric growth. It is no coincidence that places like Wheaton and Calvin College are the "Ivy League" of evangelical colleges--and they are predominantly Calvinist in orientation.

However, in an ironic turn of events, we find at the beginning of the twenty-first century that the traditions that were not bothered to engage the ideological challenges of the early twentieth century are in a great position to lead the way in the thought of the twenty-first. I do not intend in this book to speak for charismatics or Anabaptists, although they will no doubt find supporting arguments for their traditions here that overlap with my own.

My intention here is rather to highlight a few ways in which some contemporary currents provide great opportunities for the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition to take a leading role within twenty-first century evangelicalism. I have four trends in mind in particular that at least potentially present exciting opportunities for synergies with the Wesleyan evangelical tradition:

1. new perspectives on Paul and Judaism
2. theological hermeneutics
3. missional Christianity
4. ancient-future movement

The chapters that follow will explore these "waves" in the evangelical church in greater detail, so we only need mention them only briefly here.

1.The "new perspective on Paul" has been a particular irritant to those in conservative Calvinist and Lutheran contexts. [2] To be sure, the "newness" has now worn off to some extent [3] and it might be better to speak of new perspectives than a singular new perspective. [4] Nevertheless, trends in the second half of the twentieth century have left an indelible impact on Pauline studies, whether you are sympathetic or hostile to the "new perspective." And Pauline studies are ground zero of the conservative Lutheran and Calvinist traditions.

At its root, the new perspective on Paul is about having a more accurate understanding of ancient Judaism than the stereotypical views that have prevailed among Christians for over a millennium. Once one has this understanding, we discover that Paul and the early church were far more in continuity with the Judaism of their context than we have often thought. Since Augustine and the Reformers built their fundamental theologies on a slightly skewed understanding of Paul, their heirs within Protestant evangelicalism suddenly find some of their most fundamental assumptions in question. It is thus no surprise to find these groups suddenly scrambling to address blind spots that were exposed almost overnight.

Yet as far as the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition is concerned, we suddenly find elements of Paul that we have long emphasized, now featured in a place of prominence. For example, Arminians have often been accused of being Pelagians, of affording too high a place for "works" in the Christian life. And our emphasis on "free will" of a sort also has been a point of attack as a deviation from Paul's teaching on total depravity and predestination.

To be sure, many of these attacks already have represented a skewing of the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition's actual positions, as Roger Olson has pointed out. [5] Yet it is interesting that our accusers now suddenly find themselves on the defence against powerful interpretations of Paul himself. Did Paul actually teach ultimate justification at least in part on the basis of works? Did Paul really actually teach total depravity? And of course the vast majority of Pauline scholars--even prominent Calvinist ones--no longer see Romans 7 as Paul's ongoing struggle with sin. Arminian positions--even misrepresented ones--suddenly find themselves in the forefront of interpretive possibilities.

2. Theological hermeneutics is, again, a somewhat diverse movement that has in common its concern to read the biblical texts not only (or not at all) for what they meant originally, but also in relation to the meaning and significance these texts might have for us as Christians today. This may sound like what evangelicals have been doing all along, but to pursue theological hermeneutics is to profess this goal in the light of two other developments. The first is the immense deepening in evangelical awareness of what it might mean to read the biblical texts in context--and the corresponding distance this understanding often creates between us and the text. The second is the rise of postmodern hermeneutics that recognizes the immense flexibility language can have.

The effect of these developments is to undermine some of the key concerns of the first generation of neo-evangelicals in the 40's (and what I will call their fundamentalist forebears). [6] For one, it has called into serious question the notion that the original meaning of the biblical text is the be all and end all of interpretation. The children and grandchildren of these founding evangelicals took seriously the charge to submit to the authority of the biblical text and to listen to its meaning in context wherever it led... and they found the biblical text leading, not least, away from the all importance of the original meaning.

Again, we have found some of the stalwart intellectuals of evangelicalism turning their backs on first principles--for example, following the Bible's lead--and instead applying their intellect to defend now traditional evangelical positions. A large commentary volume, for example, aims to deny the obvious creativity in the way the New Testament authors interpreted the Old. [7] And standing on the sidelines, somewhat bemused, are those traditions who used to be the butt of criticism for their typological and "Holy Ghost" exegesis: pietists, revivalists, charismatics. It turns out that, although they may have done it without sophistication or self-awareness, they were in many instances following the Bible's lead in terms of hermeneutics far more than the pillars of neo-evangelicalism ever did.

Another effect of these sorts of developments is a certain kind of complexity that accrues to the issue of the Bible's authority and "inerrancy." The more the evangelical community has grappled with the contexts of the Bible, the more complex the idea of biblical inerrancy has become. Surely an error must be judged according to the parameters of the texts themselves rather than according to some contemporary standard that is as much a product of our current context as anything else. For example, it has seemed more and more bizarre to use modern criteria for historical and scientific writing when the biblical texts were originally written in ancient contexts for ancient audiences.

And what of the sense of development and dialog that we seem to find in Scripture. Should we not then define error in terms of where a particular biblical writing was in that flow of revelation? And what then of the allowance for meaning in the biblical text beyond the literal? What particular meaning of the biblical text are we to consider without error? By the time one has addressed these issues, it becomes difficult even to know what the word inerrant means, leaving some simply to say ambiguously that the Bible is "inerrant in all it affirms." [8]

This situation is far more of a crisis for the more cognitively oriented evangelical traditions than it is for their more experiential cousins. [9] In evangelical groups of the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, for example, many have always had a more intuitive sense of the Bible's meaning, in contrast to following a highly methodical, quasi-scientific method to arrive at it. To be sure, the proper meaning of the Bible has always held absolute authority in such circles. But because that meaning has not been limited to the original, historical meaning, the very word inerrancy, even where it has been used, has not usually taken on the more rigid sense it has in conservative Calvinist circles.

3. A third trend is the move toward what, for lack of a better word, we might call "missional" Christianity. [10] To be sure, one of the key concerns of American evangelicalism in the late twentieth century was evangelism, particularly among the less cognitively oriented parts of that fellowship. Indeed, some have argued that the church growth movement dominated cultural evangelicalism in the late twentieth century. [11]

What we are seeing at the dawn of the twenty-first century is a more holistic and robust sense of mission than was true of the church growth movement. Part of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was a battle with what was then called a "social gospel." The intellectual world of American Christianity in the late 1800's had abandoned belief in miracles or the divinity of Christ, with the result that Christianity for them had become about following Jesus' example as a model human and helping the needy. The gospel had largely become limited to social concerns.

In keeping with human nature, the corresponding reaction in evangelicalism often came to associate helping the needy with liberalism. Ironically, one of the core concerns of the Gospels became a sign that one was not a good Christian. The current generation of younger evangelicals largely has not retained the memory of these earlier feuds. Responding to the clear message of the Bible, they recognize that the mission of Christianity must address the whole person, body, wallet, and social status included.

And it is with some pride that I point out that the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition has been where many younger evangelicals are only now arriving. John Wesley himself is a primary footnote in the history of England coming to establish child labor laws and abolish slavery. In America, Quakers and the Wesleyan Methodist connection were strong voices in the abolitionist movement. [12] Long before the feminist movement made it popular, these groups were championing the right of women to vote and preach. [13] The Salvation Army is itself a church in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. We are delighted to find that the rest of evangelicalism is finally coming to its senses!

Meanwhile, we not surprisingly find many in the conservative Calvinist tradition dragging their heals on issues like the ordination of women. [14] Forced to modify positions that even their followers would now recognize as blatantly unChristian, the modern complementarian movement is a dying attempt to maintain the primacy of the male in the home and church in the face of the obvious trajectory of the kingdom. To be sure, many complementarians are godly people whose problem is more with their heads than their hearts. And those of us in more pietist traditions, because we value the heart more than the head, are generously willing to wait for them to come around and see God's will here more clearly. We are convinced they will, as well as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

4. A final trend we see taking place is what we are calling the "ancient-future" movement. [15] Younger evangelicals by and large have not inherited the strong feelings their grandparents had against Roman Catholics, probably in part because the Roman Catholicism of the last fifty years has itself become far less rigid since Vatican II. Where much of pop American evangelicalism used to react very aversely to anything that smacked of "empty ritual" or formalism, we are currently seeing a resurgence in interest in things like liturgy and sacramentalism.

Some of this resurgence corresponds to a revaluing of symbolism after the overemphasis on literalism that has so plagued modernism. We now find low church Protestants giving up things for Lent and holding Ash Wednesday services. We find evangelical fellowships where they take communion every Sunday and say the Apostle's Creed. We find evangelical colleges offering courses in the church fathers and the Ancient Commentary on the Bible series. [16]

In heremeneutics we find a dovetailing of this ancient-future trend with theological hermeneutics. There is an increased sense in some evangelical circles of the importance of the church beyond the New Testament in fleshing out the trajectory of the New Testament in doctrine. [17] Once again, the Wesleyan tradition is known for its more balanced hermeneutic, sometimes called the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral." [18] In this Wesleyan hermeneutic, reason, experience, and tradition are given an important role to play in figuring out God's will in addition to the primary element, Scripture.

The Wesleyan tradition is thus better situated to recognize the importance of the common faith of Christendom than other traditions for whom sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," has been a highly well defined priority. [19] Not only are we situated to flow with the new reappraisal of tradition, but we are well situated to engage the new reappraisal of experience. In our postmodern context, attention has been drawn to the inevitable perspective we as individuals bring to our understanding. Pietist, Wesleyan, and charismatic traditions have always had a significant place for experience in their hermeneutic, and we are better prepared to engage these realities than those evangelical traditions whose two points of reference have been Scripture and reason.

On Monday, d.v.... 1.2 The Wesleyan Evangelical Tradition

[1] Marsden and Noll.

[2] E.g., John Piper, The Future of Justification, one of the more polite responses.

[3] Francis Watson

[4] Wright, Justification

[5] Arminian Theology

[6] As I will mention below, it is not puzzling to me that two Reformed historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, have chosen to define the more pre-modern elements of the early twentieth century as "fundamentalist," while excepting from that label those who actually took the "fundamentalist" side of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

I will subsequently refer to the revivalists and Pentecostals of the early twentieth century as more experientially oriented evangelicals, pre-moderns, and reserve the word fundamentalist for its more proper referrent--anti-moderns like J. Gresham Machen and the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary.

[7] Beale and Carson, Commentary on the Old Testament in the New.

[8] Asbury Theological Seminary

[9] Thus Greg Beale's new book

[10] Much of this concern is driven by the "emerging" and "emergent" movements, but the trend is much broader--and much more fundamentally Christian--than any label of this sort or any particular group today.

[11] Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals

[12] Quakers and Wesleyans both have a similar pietist and Arminian orientation.

[13] The woman's rights movement of the late 1800's was launched in a Wesleyan Methodist Church and one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist connection preached the sermon at the ordination of the first woman in America.

[14] Here we might mention Wayne Grudem and John Piper in particular.

[15] Again, this movement is also often associated with the emerging or emergent church. Whatever squabbles one might have with these groups, it would be foolish to dismiss all their ideas simply because we object to some of them. That is, in fact, fallacious reasoning.

[16] InterVarsity.

[17] I believe we have yet to see the real groundswell of this element in the equation. Theological hermeneutics in its current form has not yet fully let go of the original meaning as a guiding goal.

[18] John Wesley himself did not use or coin this term. It was rather coined by the Methodist historian Albert Outler as a description of Wesley's hermeneutic in practice.

[19] To be sure, John Wesley affirmed sola scriptura.


james petticrew said...

Ken I am with you on this book, we need some great Wesleyan scholars like yourself to get it written

Nathan Crawford said...


I think this is a great project. I'm working on an edited text that seeks to do some of this right now, but I think yours is much more focused and purposeful. And, placing it around the four areas is a great idea.

Couple of questions - would this be an edited volume? Or, would this be your baby alone? I've got a couple of ideas if you are looking to edit - like take each topic and put a Biblical scholar, theologian, and practical person in conversation around the topic. You could have them each write a short piece and then react to each other, or get them together and have a conversation.

Anyway, this is very interesting.

Ken Schenck said...

I have suggested it as an edited collection, but didn't get much interest on my earlier suggestions.

james petticrew said...

Ken, Deirdre Brower at NTC in Manchester is doing her PHD on some of this stuff I think, she would be a great person to get involved.
What about Brian Russell for some of the missional hermeneutical stuff?

Ken Schenck said...

Brian would be a great person in a collected volume. I don't know Diedra (you know how hard it is for Wesleyans to mix with Nazarenes :-)

Anonymous said...

As a Wes-Arm, I appreciate this post. Although a small matter, I was interested that you did not mention Eastern Orthodoxy in your "ancient-future" section, rather you just mentioned the RCC. I think there is a growing interest in that segment, and Wes-Arms in particular may be more interested in that than the RCC segment

MJCauley said...

Well done, if a bit lengthy for a "blog"

Personally input from Randy Maddox at Duke might prove helpful!

Have fun!

Nathan Crawford said...

Hey Ken,

I know some people who may want to contribute to something like this (me included). I also am thinking of a couple of people who would fit into this - one off the bat would be David Fitch at Northern Seminary (see His stuff is quite missional and quite good.

Anyway, if you want to talk about it further or bounce some ideas around, let me know.

don bryant said...

Thanks for the thoughts. As to women's ordination, of the 2.2 billion professing Christians on planet earth, 2 billion are RC and Orthodox. I don't think the small trends you see in the evangelical corner of Christianity comes close to touching the consensus you see in larger Christendom. Us evangelical Protestants get so excited about all the trends we produce while RC and Orthodoxy swallow us whole. We are standing on a whale fishing for minnows. I am an evangelical and mean to be one, but much that I hold dear is being protected, not by increasingly thoughtless evangelicalism, but by the RC/Othodox branch. Their clarity on male headship is a corrective to trendy evangelicalism. And it won't change in your lifetime, your children's, or your great-grandchildren's.

Ken Schenck said...

Time will tell!