Saturday, March 07, 2009

Great Time for Wesleyan Tradition 2

Unless and until this series of thoughts might become something different, I thought I might continue to piddle with the initial idea. The first installment was here.

1.2 Identifying Wesleyan Evangelicalism
A movement is never really a set of ideas. At best, it may be a collection of people professing certain ideas. On the other hand, many movements are not best defined by their ideas at all. They might be better defined by their practices or some other defining feature.

Similarly, reaching back into the history of a movement often provides perspective, but it may or may not actually tell you anything definitive about the current identity of the movement. If a group continues to self-identify with those who came before, it is reasonable to think some significant degree of continuity exists. But ultimately, the identity of a movement is a function of the collective identity of its members at a given point in time.

The first question we must ask, therefore, when we seek to define "Wesleyan evangelicalism" is to identify which individuals in particular we have in mind. The adjective Wesleyan implies some connection with the Methodist tradition started in the 1700's by John Wesley. This would potentially include not only the United Methodist Church but also smaller groups that started in the late 1800's and early 1900's, groups such as Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and Wesleyans.

The term evangelicalism points to a certain subset of this group of "Wesleyans" and is significantly more difficult to define. For one thing, the Wesleyan tradition in general has always sat somewhat more loosely to this label than certain other groups. The well known series, The History of Evangelicalism, would identify the English speaking evangelical tradition most closely with English speaking Calvinism, with Wesleyan movements somewhat more tangential. [1]

It was in fact the work of Donald Dayton in the late 1980's more than anything that won Wesleyans a place at the evangelical table, if they wanted one. His book, Discovering and Evangelical Heritage, pointed out that the Wesleyan tradition, particularly in its non-United Methodist forms, might easily fit the core characteristics of what an evangelical is. [2] The types of characteristics he had in mind were not dissimilar from those later set out by Mark Noll in the series mentioned above, namely, 1) conversion, 2) the Bible, 3) missionary activity, and 4) centrality of cross in atonement. [3]

In the second half of the twentieth century, the term evangelical largely related to a movement known as neo-evangelicalism that started in the late 1940's and was associated with names like Billy Graham, Charles Fuller, and Harold Ockenga. Once again, while thinkers of the Wesleyan tradition participated in this movement, the key members of the movement have generally come from the Calvinist tradition. Wesleyans founded the Wesleyan Theological Society in the 1960's seeking an outlet for their interests, an outlet that the Evangelical Theological Society did not so much afford at the time. It seems safe enough to say that the sociological and ideological relationship between the Wesleyan tradition and American evangelicalism has not always been clear, either from the standpoint of Wesleyans themselves or of those whose evangelical credentials have never been questioned.

A second issue that comes into play here is the relationship between the Wesleyan tradition of which we speak and fundamentalism. George Marsden and Mark Noll in particular have tended to identify fundamentalists as "revivalists, Pentecostals, and dispensationalists." [4] In his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll depicts fundamentalists as conservative groups who chose to retreat from the intellectual debates of their age rather than engage them as his ideal evangelicals of an earlier age had. [5]

This seems a possible illustration of Foucaultian analysis on Noll's part. For one, he sets his standard with the great Puritan Calvinists of the 1600's, with those that follow measured against them. This valuation is interesting for it sets the standard for ideal evangelicalism within Noll's own tradition. Secondly, in the twentieth century, his own Reformed tradition not surprisingly comes out the least in deviation from the ideal.

Then in what seems an amazing slight of hand, those who most engaged modernism head on--individuals like J. Gresham Machen--turn out not to fit within his definition of fundamentalism at all. Fundamentalism, a term that originally seems to have been used by those directly engaging modernism, comes to be used of groups that largely retreated from such engagement. Meanwhile, those who most directly engaged modernism turn out to be those in the age who most retained the spirit of earlier evangelicalism!

In the end, what is important for defining "Wesleyan evangelicals" today is not so much the particulars of who was or was not a fundamentalist in the early and mid-twentieth century. What is important is to correctly recognize contemporary paradigms and to gain any relevant insights we might from the crucibles in which they were forged.

Thus we might speak of two distinct paradigms in play in the forebears of the Wesleyan evangelicals of which we speak. The one are those intellectual leaders such as those who founded the Wesleyan Theological Society and who taught at educational institutions in this basic tradition. They tended to identify paradigmatically with the broader currents of neo-evangelicalism, particularly when it comes to the nature of Scripture.

On the other hand, the Wesleyan tradition, particularly in its revivalist strands, has generally emphasized personal experience and piety above the cognitive domain. This fact remains a principal distinction between Wesleyan evangelicalism and the more dominant strands of evangelicalism. While those in the Wesleyan tradition who most engaged the ideas of modernism might be called anti-modern (which we think is a better way to define fundamentalism), the bulk of Wesleyans--those who more retreated--would be better called pre-modern.

The late Robert Webber did us a great service in his book The Young Evangelicals. [6] In this book he presents a more balanced sense of evangelicalism than Noll, particularly in the last part of the twentieth century. While Noll, in keeping with his own tradition, tends to focus on ideological elements as key criteria, Webber notes that late twentieth century evangelicalism was as much focused on church growth as on ideas. Indeed, some of what individuals like Greg Beale consider to be evangelical drift were enabled by an evangelicalism more preoccupied for decades with non-ideological matters than with the finer points of evangelical thinking. [7]

How then are we to define this group of which we speak, this group for which the currents at the dawn of the twenty-first century are a great boon? Perhaps we can slightly modify the four key criteria of Noll and Bebbington in the following way:

1. the centrality of Scripture
2. the necessity of personal faith within a community of faith
3. the importance of mission and transformation of the whole person and the whole world
4. the centrality of Christ as the only way to God

You can immediately see several key modifications I have made not only to give the criteria a Wesleyan flavor, but also to reflect important emphases of our day. For example, the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition has never been quite so adamant about penal substitution as the primary model of atonement. If broader evangelicalism insist that we have a rigid view here, then we are content to consider ourselves a slightly different entry in the dictionary.

Further, the Wesleyan tradition has always been interested in far more than narrow evangelism. The importance of santification to its furthest possible limits in this world has always been a key feature of our way of being in the world. Further, the best of the Wesleyan tradition has always been interested in far more than simply saving people's souls. It is no surprise that the Salvation Army sprang up from Wesleyan roots.

Third, it simply will not do to focus on some merely individual relationship with Jesus Christ. We recognize at the turn of the millennium that we are members of communities of faith. None of us have our faith in God on our own. Although a good deal of Wesleyan revivalist history has focused on individual experiences, we have in the fountainhead of our tradition, John Wesley, a reminder of the importance of accountability and growth in community.

So what do we mean in this book by "Wesleyan evangelicalism"? For one, we mean those descendants of John Wesley--United Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Free Methodist, and so forth--who work out their beliefs and practices on the playing field of Scripture. We mean those who, like their forebears, read that Scripture with the eyes of common orthodox faith and with the eyes of their Wesleyan-Arminian particulars.

These particulars include, not least, the belief that anyone can potentially be saved, and that God has made it possible for a person to break fellowship with Him after being in true fellowship with him. It thus includes the sense that how we live in this world has an impact on God's final verdict about us, even after we have enjoyed His gracious forgiveness. We affirm the best strand of our tradition and fully affirm women as co-participants in every aspect of the life of the church and home.

We continue to affirm the centrality of Christ for the reconciliation of humanity to God and as the central revelation of God to humanity, even more central than Scripture. We refuse to restrict atonement to one paradigm such as penal substitution, although we recognize that the notion of Christ becoming a curse for us is found in Scripture. But we would not impoverish atonement by lifting this image above other images such as Christ's victory over evil powers and Sin, Christ's restoration of the deep order of the cosmos, and Christ's example set for us.

We continue to affirm the need for an individual to surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a decision that those capable must make eventually on their own. But we believe this affirmation of faith must be placed within the context of a believing community, or else the plant is sure to wither quickly. Finally, it is perfectly in keeping with our Arminian roots that we strongly believe in the mission of the church to reach to the world. And it is in keeping with our Wesleyan roots that we see that mission in terms of whole people and whole communities, body and soul.

A key thing to realize about "Wesleyan evangelicalism" as we define it here is to recognize that it is not at all clear that the cognitive element is the dominant element in the identity equation. From a descriptive standpoint, the most important priority for the Wesleyan evangelical tradition has more been the necessity of personal faith resulting in a transformed life. We would affirm the primacy of Christ theologically, but since our tradition is not primarily oriented around ideas, the primacy of Christ can be seen more the way it impacts our living rather than our ideological rhetoric or formulations.

The role of Scripture in many Wesleyan evangelical communities has become somewhat ambiguous at the turn of the millennium. The church growth movement paid largely lip service to the Bible both in its preaching and emphasis, at the same time that it lifted evangelism--one aspect of the church's mission--to center stage. To be sure, the Bible has retained a primary role in the grass roots of the Wesleyan evangelical tradition, although largely still from within a pre-modern paradigm. The older anti-modern evangelical paradigm of Scripture, which the founders of the Wesleyan Theological Society held in common with broader evangelicalism, has remained a strong element in many educational institutions of the Wesleyan evangelical tradition.

[1] Volume 1: Mark Noll, The Rise of the Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004). Volume 2: David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005); Volume 3: John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers, and Finney (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007).

[2] Discovering

[3] page

[4] See n.* above.

[5] Scandal

[6] Young Evangelicals

[7] Inerrancy

1.3 Surfing the Waves

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