Wednesday, August 29, 2012

According to the light they have...

One of the concerns I have always had about my denomination, the Wesleyan Church, is that because we are not a very theologically reflective denomination, we have a tendency simply to absorb whatever is in the water of our bedfellows.  In the late twentieth century, we were church growthies, mainly interested in growing ever larger churches.  It was a time of what Webber called "pragmatic evangelicalism," multiplication without much on the brain other than multiplying numbers.

During that time, for those few Wesleyans who studied Bible or theology in any depth, it was a fairly innocuous time because no one really cared.  The church emphasized growing numbers, leaving those at the Wesleyan colleges to do their thing. A good trend in one respect is going on right now, namely, that Wesleyan colleges, large churches, and church leadership are in greater contact than ever. These are arguably the three main centers of leadership in the denomination right now.

It is also a time when we are in greater contact with the broader evangelical world than ever before, and this has potential consequences, where theological options can accidentally go away or be inadvertently modified. For example, in a move designed to count something deeper than mere prayers for conversion, Wesleyan districts have moved to counting baptisms instead. The idea is that we are looking for more substantial commitments to Christ than the mere assent of words.

Here's the danger.  The Wesleyan Church has in its history both Wesleyan Methodists who could baptize infants and Pilgrims who, like the Salvation Army and Quakers, did not baptize at all.  To me, these elements of our history should stay on the books as options.  Few Wesleyans today baptize infants. Few Wesleyans today will not be baptized at all.  But both reflect a fundamental theology that says, "Baptism itself does not save you.  It is an outward sign of an invisible grace, and the grace can exist without the sign."

I was thinking today about another idea that was previously quite acceptable at least in Pilgrim circles. I heard a story about a former Pilgrim general official who on his deathbed felt spiritually inadequate. The quote I heard was that "surely Seneca will get into the kingdom before me, given the light I've had." Seneca was a Roman moralist, a good man who tried to help Nero become a better person. Nero put him to death. As far as we know, Seneca never heard about Jesus, although there is an old tradition that he and Paul died at around the same time and met each other.

What this old Pilgrim was expressing was the Quaker idea that God judges us according to the light we have. Although Wesley didn't have this idea, it is an extension of his idea of prevenient grace, a grace that seeks us out long before we realize it. Chris Bounds once told me that although Wesley didn't have this idea, it was a natural implication of his theology. In short, it is more the Calvinist tradition that would consign those who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus to hell. It is in better keeping with the Wesleyan tradition to wonder if, on the basis of Christ, some will be saved because they have responded appropriately to the light they have, even though they have never heard of Jesus.

Flash forward to today. As Wesleyans make connections, we should be careful to recognize that while we have much in common with other evangelicals, we are not always exactly the same. For example, we may agree with the vast majority of, say, the Lausanne Conferences. But it would be regrettable if, not realizing our own history and the strengths of our tradition, we inadvertently lost some of its richness because we didn't know what we were doing.

Wesleyans, as long as they are Wesleyans, will always be somewhat uneasy partners with broader evangelicalism.  We have our own history, and there has always been debate over whether we belong or don't belong. I suspect that if we get too comfortable with the title, we've changed without realizing it.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

There is your (Wesleyan) history and then, there is the emphasis on "praxeology". How can one practice what they do not believe, or know they believe? And isn't this where the emphasis on "discipleship" fits well within the camp of evangelicalism? But, it also fits well into behavioralism, because of its emphasis on praxeology. Habit formation (identification), family tradition (heritage), political activism (social problems), and using one's gifts in the name of Christ (Kingdom building), etc.

"According to the light they have..." Does this justify legislation that seems to create the "biblical culture"? in that sense, both sides of the "culture wars" are doing what they do because of the light they have. Both thinking the other one has "limited light". Isn't the "light" the light of the "supernatural" versus the "natural"?

Do Wesleyans believe that Tradition or Scripture trumps experience? And how do they know this? Since a believer's reason is "conditioned" within a certain paradigm, then, how can reason be free from experience to judge objectively what one experiences? Is science objective or biased upon certain premises of objectivity itself? Isn't all knowledge dependent? But, since science seeks to falsify assumptions by experimentation, then isn't science more believable? Isn't social science another "species" of science? How can a social scientist be free from his own bias, as he lives within a social context. Isn't this where postmodernity affirms individual "realities" in human experience? Isn't communication about affirming different realities and understanding them with a context? without an understanding of differences of understanding one's experience, there can be no understanding, compromise, negotiation, or settlement in diplomatic efforts. Isn't this what counselors do when they counsel those struggling with mental and social problems?

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I somehow had never heard about the Pilgrim Holiness not baptizing - despite the fact that it's the side my family comes from - but I have always wondered why baptism was never emphasized when I was growing up, and the fact that we were in churches from the Pilgrim Holiness side of the merger would make more sense. (My mother has also commented on the fact of it never being emphasized as well, but never put it together that it wasn't done either...she does remember that the baptistry was added to the church AFTER it was built (as in after it was no longer First Pilgrim Holiness) so that makes so much more sense now too!)

Of course I think we must have had a Wesleyan Methodist preacher at one point because we finally figured out that I was Christened and not Dedicated as a baby - though my parents conveniently forgot about it for many years (and I ended up being baptized (or rebaptized but I didn't know it) at 16 - despite "getting saved" at 4 - mostly because that was when we were finally joining a Wesleyan church that was pushing for baptism (but then again - they were from the other district - the one that was all the Wesleyan Methodists! So they would have been more concerned about baptism!)

Anyway - I know the baptism issue wasn't the point of your post, but just know that you turned the lightbulb on for one girl who has been confused about this whole thing for most of her 30 years of life...

Ken Schenck said...

I didn't mean to give the impression that Pilgrims didn't baptize, only that some didn't and it didn't seem to be emphasized, especially early on.

WayneM said...

Our first child was born during the four years or so that I spent as a Wesleyan, and was dedicated in the Wesleyan Church. The pastor did let me know that he was quite willing to go either direction, baptism or dedication. Our other two children, who were born after I returned to the United Methodist Church, were baptized, along with our oldest.

I was made aware of other differences during the time I was in seminary. While taking the Wesleyan Church course on Discipline, I did a project examining the doctrine of Christian perfection, and found distinct differences in the statments found prior to the merger, in the old Manual of the Pilgrim Holiness Church (1966) and the Wesleyan Methodist Discipline (1963). The Pilgrims were insistent on language like "instantaneous work" and "Baptism of the Holy Spirit," while the lack of that distinctive language gave the appearance that the Wesleyan Methodist emphasis tended more toward the gradual and continuing work afterward. When they put them together, it really wasn't as blended an effort as they may have tried to attain.

This played out in an interesting trip as a candidate for pastor at a south Georgia Wesleyan Church, which apparently had originally been a Pilgrim Holiness Church. Because I didn't use any of the "buzz words" to show I was on board with their distinctives, I was turned down.

I guess any church with merger history can exhibit the roots that were present earlier. Our own UM denomination is the result of the Methodist/Evangelical United Brethren merger in the 60's, and the strands can be differentiated, though I find they are a bit harder to detect than the Pilgrim/Wesleyan differences.

Interesting discussion, I appreciate what you do here, though I don't generally comment often enough to tell you so.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Don't Wesleyans believe as the Catholics do that one's social conditioning is what makes the difference? Therefore, social problems are the result of "not honoring God". Our country's problems are directly associated with "not following God", according to Tradition and/or scripture.

Doesn't this presuppose that God directly intervenes in the affairs of man? And even if not, that believers have a "creation mandate" that believers must implement, otherwise, men are disobeying God's creation order.

Didn't the Founders believe in "ordered LIBERTY"! That means that the purpose of the law was to protect liberty, within boundaries that were respectful? The goal of one's life cannot be confined, or defined by religious understandings alone, otherwise, government abuses power against personal differences.

John Mark said...

WayneM's comment speaks to precisely what I referred to in another post; the seemingly small treatment of the doctrine of holiness in an overall fine book on Wesleyan Church history. I can't help but wonder why this wasn't dealt with a bit more deeply, especially in light of Wayne's comments that reveal to me a lot of information and background that I was not aware of.

Ken Schenck said...

I think it is an implicit indicator that the authors don't think holiness as it used to be preached is going to feature prominently in the identity of the Wesleyan Church in the immediate days ahead. It's not of course that they don't believe in it. Keith Drury has been one of the most prominent voices in favor of it. But he clearly doesn't think it gels well right now with most Wesleyans.

John C. Gardner said...

I thought the account you gave of the idea that one is judged by what one knows was interesting. It seems somewhat analogous to the idea of the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who wrote of those in other religions as anonymous Christians. I myself believe that God will provide revelation necessary to salvation through either a missionary, dreams, or visions(cf Aquinas). This was a good post.