This is the second post (see the first here) of the second section (see the last of it here) of a little project that is meant to capture my vision for the Wesleyan tradition in the early twenty-first century.
Christianity does have two great absolutes of action: love God and love neighbor. The rest is complicated. These principles play themselves out in different ways in different times and places, and they play themselves out differently in different situations even within a particular context. This is the approach that Jesus and Paul modeled in Scripture, and it is only our penchant for systematizing and easy answers that would lead us in a different direction.
The conflict in Mark 2 over the Sabbath is illuminating. In this story, the Pharisees question why Jesus' disciples are violating the Sabbath by plucking grain on Saturday (2:24). Jesus does not say, as the impulse of many today would be, that the Pharisees do not understand the Sabbath law. He does not say, for example, that the Sabbath is about rest or worship. Jesus accepts the accusation and argues instead that there is a time to make exceptions to the rule. Did not David and the high priest make an exception to the rule against eating the bread of presentation because his fighting men were hungry? In short, Jesus does not treat the Sabbath law as an absolute.
Indeed, Paul treats it as a matter of personal conviction in Romans 14:5. Again, the impulse of some might say that it is only a legalistic keeping of the Sabbath that Paul rejects. But where is there any evidence for such a position in the biblical text? The Sabbath law in the Old Testament is a purely concrete law, not some abstract principle. It is about not working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is not about worshiping on Saturday. It is not about taking some time off some day each week. You will not get such abstractions from what the biblical texts actually say, only from an impulse to find some principle behind every specific command.
So we might be shocked to find Paul telling the Romans that keeping the Sabbath law is a matter of personal conviction (Rom. 14:5). We might be shocked to hear Colossians telling its Gentile audience not to let anyone judge them for their observance of Sabbaths (Col. 2:16), connecting such observance to the "elemental spirits" (2:20, NRSV) that are limited to an earthly realm they have left behind as believers. We will find no text in the New Testament that reduces the Sabbath law to a principle of rest or that transfers it to Sunday. Instead, Paul relativizes this Ten Commandment, reducing it to a matter of personal conviction.
The point is that we should certainly start as Christians with the specific ethical commands of Scripture, but it is really the two great commands that are the absolutes: love God and love neighbor. Because history and culture change, these principles must always be contextualized when it comes to specifics. An insistence on keeping the letter of Scripture sometimes only results in peculiarity--we confuse women's hairstyles in the forties and fifties for keeping 1 Corinthians 11. At other times it can work against the main principles.
For example, it was the American "letteralists," the fundamentalists if you would, of the early 1800s that argued in favor of slavery as an institution. Do not Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter accept slavery as an institution, and tell slaves to submit to their masters even when their masters are unjust? A careful reading of Philemon as well confirms that Paul even there does not tell this slave owner to free his slave Onesimus. Following the letter and the specifics of Scripture did not lead to abolition but merely to reform within the institution.
It was thus groups like the Wesleyan Methodists and the Quakers who saw beyond the letter to the true absolute principles and worked for abolition. The trajectory of the kingdom was clear enough--in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). So why would we not abolish slavery now if we have the chance? If we really viewed the slave as our neighbor, if we really treated them as we would have others treat us, would we not grant them their freedom? Would we not rather make all humans our equal and abolish the very institution, the very earthly structure that facilitated "hate" of neighbor?
The heart of the Wesleyan tradition is thus not "letteralist" or fundamentalist. It is principled, but on the two great ethical principles that appear consistently throughout the New Testament and that were anticipated in key Scriptures of the Old: love God and love neighbor. The working out of the specifics may start with the specifics of Scripture, but it must end with the complex, corporate wrestling of the body of Christ with the specifics of any time and place, with a view to the trajectory of God's kingdom to come.
In the implementation of these two great principles, the Wesleyan tradition clearly has a tendency toward what is called "pragmatism," a focus on what works or what seems useful rather than on uncompromising principles. Here we once again see a difference in flavor from other traditions. The very word "compromise" is a dirty word in many Christian circles. Some might stereotype a pragmatist as someone who either does not understand theory or who does not have the courage of will to stick to his or her principles. What we are suggesting here instead is that the theory of the person who condemns us is in fact incorrect, as are some key principles. The nature of love, the key principle, is to compromise on everything but the most central principles when it is appropriate. For God, people trump rules.
This line of thought leads us to the question of absolute truth. Does the pragmatic, Wesleyan tradition believe in absolute truth? ...