Friday, October 08, 2010

Wesleyan Theological Vision Part 2

This is going to be much rougher than yesterday.  Call it impressions and random thoughts.  I'm not an expert in dogmatics or church history, but here are some "angles" I wish might be workable in Wesleyan theological teaching, assuming they can bear the scrutiny of informed examination.  These are what I consider the best and most appropriate views but the likelihood of any one Wesleyan scholar holding to them all is of course not very likely.

1. I would like to see theology taught with a sense that "thought systems" are vehicles for Christians being in the world.  We believe they point to truths, but we don't mistake the language or precise thought structure for reality and truth itself.  It points to it, but the truth is transcendent.  Language is time conditioned.  So relationship with God and a transformed being/heart takes precedence over ideological system.

2. What we are advocating here is a kind of critical realist epistemology, one that accepts that absolute truth underlies reality as being what God "thinks," but which does not believe that human categories and thoughts correspond in any straightforward or one-on-one relationship to it.  It would not reject scientific or empiricist method or advocate the kind of "seclusionism" of much popular Christianity.  Scientific discoveries broadly conceived must be engaged and while they also are susceptible to the finitude and skewedness of human understanding, consensus is something we must take very, very seriously.  The thought systems that challenge us are not conspiracies, although it is always possible that they are driven by false presuppositions.  But our presuppositions are also subject to examination.

3. If relationship/transformation is the primary concern, then ethics is the secondary concern, relationship with neighbor (love in particular).  The ideological theological agenda is the third order of business for systematics.  Certainly societal social justice will be the main focus of Wesleyan ethics, with personal ethics secondary.

4. Christ would be the center of theology, meaning the lens through which God is viewed, the lens through which revelation is viewed, the lens through which humanity is viewed.  God is thus not viewed as the abstract set of attributes of the scholastics, rationally derived, but as the Father of our Lord.  Classic apologetics is thus seen as somewhat deficient because it tends to argue for a deist or non-trinitarian theistic God. Humanity is not primarily viewed as the hopelessly depraved but as the potentially and fully redeemed and restored, with Christ as that humanity to which earthly humanity can attain through the power of the Spirit. 

5. The dynamic interaction of the Spirit in the world is strongly affirmed, both in His prevenient work with humanity, His sustaining and benevoling work in the world, His ongoing revelation of God's will and contextualizing of the gospel and righteousness of God in the world toward salvation and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

6. We would move back before Augustine on issues of depravity to a more Eastern view.  Humanity is thoroughly depraved (rather than totally depraved, necessarily) and we must give God's grace the credit for goodness, but who is to say the precise equation of human wickedness?  And God has left some common, natural goodness in the world.

7. History, whether pre-biblical, biblical, or Christian would be taught from the standpoint of progressive revelation, with points at which it reaches a kind of apparent terminus on various issues (e.g., monotheism, Christology, etc).

8. The Wesleyan-Methodist tradition would be viewed as a mediation between Catholic and Protestant, neither in complete agreement with the fountainheads of the Reformation nor the reformed Roman Catholic Church.  We would view it as "catholic" small c.  We are thus able to see the balance between common Christian tradition and reformation.  We recognize initial justification by Christ alone, by grace and faith alone.  However Scripture is never the sole source of Christian theology, nor does the fragmentation of Protestantism bode well at least for Luther's sense of perspicuity.  Wesley's so called "quadrilateral," appropriately adjusted in the light of other points here is more balanced (e.g., reason is not a separate source but is the unavoidable processor of all sources.  Tradition is the Spirit-led appropriator of Scripture).  Similarly, works are an element in final justification.

9. In American history, we would not see the Puritans or nineteenth century Princetonians as the torchbearers but more individuals like Roger Williams in Rhode Island, the nineteenth century Quakers and Salvationists, etc.  We would not see the Christian goal in governance as one of creating a set of laws as close to our particular understandings as possible but one in which humans do not harm each other or themselves, while being free to choose between good and evil when it does not harm others, a system that encourages the good while allowing for freedom of will, thus reflecting our Arminian roots. We would thus not push a legal agenda that is based solely on uniquely Christian convictions.

10. Methodist history, including Wesley, would be evaluated fairly.  Wesley is not seen as inerrant but is fully recognized as a child of the Enlightenment with its positives and negatives (a good deal of the Enlightenment was positive and we can thank it in part for so much of our present prosperity).  Wesley was still too Augustinian and Calvinist in some areas--categories that need to be transcended.  Wesley is thus seen more as our grandfather than our father.  The reformism and revivalism of the 1800s is our mother.

11. The social impulses of Wesleyan Methodism in the 1800s are embraced.  The legalistic holiness and fundamentalizing tendencies of some 20th century Wesleyanism are rejected as aberrant and ignoble, including the tendency of popular Wesleyanism of the late 20th century to be on the wrong side (from a Wesleyan standpoint) on many social issues (e.g., civil rights, resisiting empowerment of women and minorities, bias against the poor and immigrants).  The drive to protect the rights of the unborn and children in situations of abuse and trafficking is affirmed.  Twentieth century Liberalism and the social gospel are seen not as a reaction against anything but as what was left of genuine Christianity after belief in the supernatural was lost.  Its social values are thus affirmed as thoroughly Christian, even if fundamentally deficient.

12. The varied views of atonement are taken to give different pictures of the truth of this mystery.  Certainly no rigid sense of penal substitution is endorsed, as if God's justice requires the exact amount of payment for every drop of sin.  God's drive to mercy is given priority over his drive to justice, meaning that His holiness is not some automatic mindless issue of wrath on evil.  The freedom of God to forgive is emphasized over the necessity of God's nature to punish injustice, which is denied as a necessity of His nature.

These are just a few of my proposals for theological education in the Wesleyan tradition for the 21st cntury, submitted for discussion and critique.  What have I missed?


John Mark said...

I process things so slowly that I am still working my way through this. However, I find this fascinating, and I would hope you might expand on some of your thoughts, such as (you have mentionted this before) referencing others in American history besides the Puritans. Also, your idea about a legal agenda; are you suggesting that we change how we have approached law in the past, or do you simply object to some of the attempts by constructionists to 'go back to the Constitution'---or just turn back the clock, so to speak, to, say 1950?

Ken Schenck said...

I am a novice, but the great thing about blogging is how much I learn from those out there who disagree and know more than me on subjects like this one. I actually see the "non-establishment" clause of the Constitution to be a perfect fit with my Arminian theology. The Puritans had a "take over the government" approach, IMHO.

Pastor Al said...

You can be hard to follow...but so very thought provoking:

1.&4. Truth became incarnate, transcending our inabililty to
...apprehend 'truth.' We must consider that God is the perfect
communicator. Agreed that all works of systematic theology are indeed secondary...yet invaluable.

2. Truth is truth, independent of schools ofthought (physics, physcholgy etc.). However, I suspect more probability for error from thinkers who refuse assumptions involving a Creator.

3. Mildred Wynkoop 'Theology of Love' developed this idea nicely.
However, I see problems with (3.) with regard to its natural extension. 'Certainly societal social justice will be the
main focus of Wesleyan ethics, with personal ethics secondary.'
I view this as a primary weakness, in that society will never be
saved; justice will only be secured when Jesus comes. Certainly
we have a mandate to confront society...but it has no soul to
transform...and historically all 'Christian Societies' have failed in their miserably. The world is not getting better. Methodism has lost its transformational edge whenever the focus of personal transformation through 'hearts strangely warmed' has been neglected. Only Spirit empowered individuals can effectively confront the world systems.

4. & 5. Resonate with these statements.

6. Yes and no. Common grace is self-evident and Wesleyan theology
acknowledges this nicely. However, it is a goodness that lacks the
ability to satisfy God. 'Our righteousness is as filthy rags.' To take our goodness too seriously... risks the ability to relate to the need of salvation.

7. Yes, progressive as revealed by God. No, with respect to man's
ability to progressively understand....from an historical view point. The latter supports a notion that we create
progressive enlightenment. Every generation goes through the
same arguments, being more of a loop than progress.

8. Anglican roots do not fall far from the Catholic tree. I reasoned
this after reading 'Common Grace.' I like to view the quadrilateral
as the three legged milk stool; nothing stands higher than
Scripture, in referencing tradition, reason, or experience. It explains how honest Christan scholarship can come up with
different answers. However, where Scripture speaks plainly, we
have no further discussion.

9. Seems to be a contradiction my understanding of point 3.
Individual or can't have it both ways..with respect to primary means of transformation. Political systems are competing ideologies...they keep pushing back until you react or play dead.

10. No man can be deemed inerrant. Post Modernism will fade away
with all the other historic world views. It is just a matter of time.

11. Reading Thomas C. Oden's research of Phoebe Palmer. She
balanced Wesleyan impulses better than most people I read today.

12. I can see where this line of thinking develops with multi-generational Christians. Christ came to destroy the works of the devil; His sacrifice is sufficient to satisfy all sin.
How many drops of Christ's Blood is sufficient...when in fact
He gave His all? Holiness theology creates a sensitivity to sin,
which by nature is rebelliousness toward God's authority. Sin is
by nature destructive of all relationship, both Divine/human and human/human. The 21st Century has not changed man's humiliating
need of a Savior, nor his calling to live in habitual victory over
sin. The wrath of God stems from something within the character of God (Holiness), which may be logically refuted, but only at the expense of human reason over Scripture. I don't think that will work.

I stand to be corrected. Blessings, Al

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Al! The societal ethics takes precedence over personal ethics is a line I debated in the moment of writing. Someone else on campus asked for clarification and I realized it was as much an impression as something well thought out. Just to give an initial clarification, I had already placed personal transformation/relationship with God as the number one order of business for me as a person, so by "individual ethics" I am talking about my behavior rather than about my transformation.

Some of the impression was quantitative. If we can change the behavior of a culture toward others, the gain is exponential in contrast to my changing my own attitude. Things to think through and debate... or maybe let's just do them both!