Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wesley our grandfather (IWU Coffee Talk)

The other day I jotted down some of the great coffee talk we've had at IWU in the last 10 years, mostly around coffee or the lunch table, with religion and other colleagues like Keith Drury, Russ Gunsalus, Chris Bounds, Steve Lennox, Dave Smith, Burt Webb, Bud Bence, etc...  I've tried over the years to share some of those conversations here.

Perhaps it's a bit presumptuous, but I honestly feel that those lunch conversations have been ground zero for theological reflection in the Wesleyan Church.  I can't think of any other context where generative theological thought on this level is taking place in the church, at least not with impact.  I hope the seminary at some point will become such a place, but it is not there yet.  And of course even the undergrad group has disintegrated a bit, with Burt Webb going to Northwest Nazarene, Dave Smith to Bethany, Bud Bence retiring, I've gone to the seminary, etc...

I thought I'd share one insight from those years of coffee talk.  Not surprisingly, it comes in its most potent expression from Keith Drury--"John Wesley was not the father of our church.  He was more like our great-grandfather, and Phoebe Palmer more like our grandmother."  If you've already done it, don't worry about it, but you should think very seriously about picking Wesley as a doctoral topic if you're just starting.  For one thing, Billy Abraham has pointed out that Wesley is pretty much exhausted as a topic of study.

There is a certain Wesleyan trajectory where a person begins to realize aspects of our tradition that are a function of late 1800s culture and then turns to Wesley to deepen.  But a lot of us feel that if a person doesn't at some point locate Wesley as a function of 1700s culture, you've not gone far enough.  Basically, focusing on Wesley these days is not a good ticket to a teaching job.  Too many on the market.

Wesley was a great man.  His practices were full of great insights.  His theology is full of potential.  But he did not found the Wesleyan Church or the Nazarene Church or the Free Methodist Church.  We have the freedom and I hope the profundity to think greater thoughts than he did.  After all, we have 200 more years of good stuff to integrate and evaluate with.  For example, he was a pre-modern biblical interpreter.  His interpretations may end in truth, but he would not have received good grades in an inductive Bible study class.

Don't fawn over grandpa.  He was good.  But if we can't be better today, we're mediocre.

10 comments:

Missio-Dei Conversation said...

Dr. Schenck, I wished I had the opportunity to sit in on the theological converssations.My time in the Wesleyan church has left me and a few of my friends with many questions regarding the impact of Wesley's theology in our contemporary theology. While I would admit and admire the work of Charles and John, there seems to be a lack of deep theological reflection among the local churches. I often wonder if the lack of deep reflection is part of the reason Western churches seemingly lost their impact in culture. Or, maybe we never had it to begin with?:-)
So, I guess all this to say.. I agree and ask what has been the trajectory of Wesleyan theology? Where are we going? Would Wesley had really wanted us to stand on his shoulders theologically or would he have been part of the coffee talk? I think the latter..

Ken Schenck said...

One of the great insights of those theological discussions, I think, was that ideas are rarely the cause of impact in themselves. Rather, it is when ideas focus the energies of practical dynamics and felt needs that they become "more powerful than you could imagine" (quoting Obi Wan there). In other words, it is when someone is able to capture or direct in thought or words what a lot of people are feeling that ideas become powerful forces. I think this is a great insight, myself. And again, it is I think another insight from the decade of theological generativity at IWU (2000-2010).

Robert said...

To me Wesley's achievement lies in the way that, having been dragged into something which was already happening, he developed a theology - encapsulated in his 'alls' - which met the needs of the time, plus a structure which enabled it to be communicated to ordinary people. We need to do that again, for our time. All the theology in the world is no good if we don't communicate it!

FrGregACCA said...

When are y'all gonna discover and take seriously the fact that Fr. John Wesley was not only Anglo-Evangelical, but also, Anglo-Catholic?

Rick said...

Although I think he may overstate it a bit, I think FrGregACCA is right. Part of Wesley's value comes from his strong attempts to incorporate theology from the various, ancient streams of Christianity. He was "ancient-future" before ancient-future was cool.

Anonymous said...

i had asked this question on the global history section but it was days after you posted it so im not sure you saw it. What books would you recommend for general global church history

Ken Schenck said...

The books we're using are the one volume of Justo Gonzalez' The Story of Christianity. As a second text, we had them in the onsite intensive read Martin Marty's The Christian World, I think it is. We are probably for the online version substituting Phil Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity for Marty.

John Mark said...

This discussion is over, but I would like to point out that some in the AHM thought that 'we' saw things Wesley did not see in scripture; with thanks to him of course. I just picked up a copy of Diane LeClerc's book (Exploring Christian Holiness, I think, don't have it with me) and have only skimmed through it.....she surveys and evaluates where we been in the last one hundred years, admittedly, from first glance, from a Nazarene perspective.
The forward is written by Rob Staples who was at the heart of the great conflict at NTS 30 some years ago which put us into the identity crisis we have been in for a while now. It should prove an interesting read, but as I am in a couple of other books now it will have to wait.

John Mark said...

As you would know, btw, Dennis Kinlaw is optimistic over the doctrine of holiness due to the great renewal of interest in Trinitarian theology in the 20th c. So I suppose we don't have to settle for mediocrity :) though I don't know where it will all end up for the AHM; which is one reason I am very interested in LeClerc's book.

FrGregACCA said...

Outside the mainstream of the historic Apostolic Tradition, anything "Holiness" constantly stands in danger of becoming legalistic and pharisaical, as happened in the past, or, rightly rejecting that, moving in precisely the opposite direction.

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