Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Wesleyan Spirit

Mark Schnell asked a good question about a comment I made in the last post--one particularly pertinent to him since he is doing MDIV work at Gordon Conwell. He/you asks, "Are you saying that you don't want the legitimate cohesion that takes place between Wesleyanism and Calvinism to happen at the new seminary?"

What I want is for more to take place at the Wesleyan seminary than just those possible cohesions. Let me be more specific.

1. What I don't want to typify this seminary is the very restrictive and combative boundary patrol that I think sometimes typifies some Calvinist institutions and still often surfaces in ETS. The tone is one of who doesn't belong here rather than what points of commonality can I find with those outside my tradition.

2. So to word it positively, we want a generous spirit toward people of non-Wesleyan traditions who want to study with us, including Calvinists themselves. I would like to think that Baptists will feel very welcome at our seminary. We have two Anglicans who have just started our MA program. We have a significant number of African American students in our MA program who are everything from Pentecostal to Baptist to African Methodist Episcopal (MDIV).

By contrast, I have known Wesleyan students at conservative Calvinist institutions to be asked very seriously why in the world they had come there.

This generous spirit and freedom to explore the boundaries means that we welcome cohesion between Calvin and Wesley for those who feel led in this direction. The difference I am pushing is not "no Calvin allowed." It is "much more than some Calvinized Wesley" allowed. Conservative Calvinists themselves are very welcome if they'll play nice. In my thinking, the difference between the kind of Calvinized Wesleyan I am thinking of and a more ideal Wesleyan has more to do with narrowness of mind rather than specific positions themselves.

3. So not only men, but women fully included. If you don't believe women can be senior pastors, you are welcome to come through our program, if you play nice. We will treat you with respect and let you have your full voice. But don't bother applying to teach here.

4. not only the original meaning, but the Christian one. We will teach the tools of reading the Bible in context to be sure. But we will focus more on the Bible as God's word to His Church today, and we will do it fully conscious of the fact that we may at times be reading the Bible theologically as well as historically. And we will be very open to the voice of the Spirit through Scripture, whether it has anything to do with what the text meant originally or not.

5. heart and life before ideas. We will emphasize heart and life change and a godly life first and then ideas. We are interested in ideas. We'll try to determine what the right ideas are and we will start with the assumption that the common understandings of Christians everywhere are right. But we'd rather you be faithful in your life than know for sure what the right stance on the precise nature of the atonement is.

6. not afraid of postmodern critique... We will welcome those who think they have it all figured out ideologically if they'll play nice. We believe in absolute truth and absolute morals. But we are open to those who have concluded we know far less than we think and that there is a lot more gray than others are comfortable with. Those who focus on (head) propositions more than a relationship with God and a godly life are welcome, if they play nice.

7. inerrancy, yes, but not rigidly defined. Those who insist on the narrowest interpretation of the Chicago statement are welcome if they play nice. I have no doubt that the majority of students and professors will operate with that as a default. But as David McKenna insisted as president of Asbury in the 80s, we will not get into the divisiveness of the particulars of this issue like so many Calvinist institutions have. And we welcome those who have a more liberal understanding as well, as long as they play nice too.

8. a broad understanding of atonement. Those who insist on a very narrow sense of penal substitution are welcome, as long as they play nice. But we will not ostracize or excommunicate those who understand Christ's representation and satisfaction of justice in a more general way or who focus more on other aspects of atonement like the victory of Christ over evil powers, the reconciliation of an alienated world, or the expression of God's love.

Basically, by the Wesleyan spirit I mean an optimistic, welcoming, loving spirit that puts a primacy on a relationship with God and our neighbor as the first order of business and getting our ideas sorted out second. Ideas? Yes, for sure. But first things first!

And of course it goes without saying that our professors will take those positions all Wesleyans have in common: a belief in the possibility that anyone might be saved, the importance of a godly life after conversion essential for final salvation, the possibility that God can give consistent even exceptionless victory over conscious temptation, and so forth.

The bullets above relate to those aspects of theology on which there is not a single Wesleyan position. On these, I am arguing it is more Wesleyan to allow for a spectrum of possibilities, while a more Calvinized Wesleyan might insist you can only take one of the positions and be legitimately Christian, let alone Wesleyan.

1 comment:

Mark Schnell said...

Thanks for this, Ken. What I miss the most while spending time in this bastion of Calvinists is #5. This obsession with all things systematic drives me crazy. While I'm getting a good education at GCTS it's ALL academic. If I didn't have years of my years of ministry to filter this through I would have surely left after the first semester. I feel like I can handle this place because I'm able to eat the fish and spit out the bones as the old saying goes.

To be fair though, I have never been picked on for being Wesleyan. I have been asked many times why I chose that school but it has always been students that have asked, never professors. There are a few professors that Arminians here and a few pentecostals too.