Category Archives: Doctrine

Wesley, Sermon 134 , on the importance of doctrine

John Wesley Quote

There is this notion that John Wesley somehow cared very little for “orthodoxy, or right opinions,” and yet, we see throughout his sermons (which are official doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church) a sound footing placed not on experience of emotions and subjective ideas, but on these right doctrines as expressed best in the three creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian).

If his sermons are doctrinal standards (and they are) then this means we should based our doctrine moving forward on these sermons. In as such, I want to focus on one in particular (for now). This one, True Christianity Defended, has the basis of Wesley’s vision for the individual Christian. What we see is not a turning, or loosening of, from doctrine to nothing but good works (i.e., recent definitions of Social Justice). Rather, what is seen is a concrete call to these right opinions as matters of the heart and practice.

This post will be done in two parts. One focusing on Wesley’s view of doctrine and the second, focusing on Wesley’s view of practice. You can find it here if you would like to follow along.

Wesley is distressed at the lack of sound doctrinal teaching. If you look at the collected sermons, you will not teachings on various doctrinal points — The Trinity, Justification, etc… — and not just good works. Anyway, this part really nails it, I think.

We have likewise cause to give thanks to the Father of Lights, for that he hath not left himself without witness; but that there are those who now preach the gospel of peace, the truth as it is in Jesus. But how few are these in comparison of those (hoi kapeleuontes) who adulterate the word of God! how little wholesome food have we for our souls, and what abundance of poison! how few are there that, either in writing or preaching, declare the genuine gospel of Christ, in the simplicity and purity wherewith it is set forth in the venerable records of our own Church! And how are we inclosed on every side with those who, neither knowing the doctrines of our Church, nor the Scriptures, nor the power of God, have found out to themselves inventions wherewith they constantly corrupt others also!1

That last line is a doozy, ain’t it? Those who know nothing of the foundation of the Christian Church make up things as they go along. (I honestly blame the seminaries here who seem more intent on teaching innovation and bureaucracy than Scripture, Tradition, and Reason). First, this should tell us Wesley understood well the reasoning behind Tradition. Second, it tells us Wesley did not care for “new” or “innovative” because they more often than not betray the lack of connection the inventor has with Christianity.

What had gotten Wesley so riled up is that he believed the Anglican Church (and perhaps the Church Universal) as infected with debasing doctrines. Just before this quote, he has harsh words for his community, words I dare say would never be uttered today by many United Methodists,

How faithful she was once to her Lord, to whom she had been betrothed as a chaste virgin, let not only the writings of her sons, which shall be had in honour throughout all generations, but also the blood of her martyrs, speak;—a stronger testimony of her faithfulness than could be given by words, even

By all the speeches of the babbling earth.

But how is she now become an harlot! How hath she departed from her Lord! How hath she denied him, and listened to the voice of strangers! both,

I. In respect of doctrine; and,
II. Of practice.

Honestly, though, imagine a pastor standing up in a local UMC congregation and telling it that we had gone astray because we had not listened to Scripture (writings of her sons) and Tradition (blood of the martyrs).

In what areas did we go astray, the Staff Parish committee would say, as they were preparing the letter to tell the Bishop the pastor had gone insane.

The pastor, watching the Trustees nominate from the congregation people who can only be bivocational bouncers-slash-pallbearers, says simply,

In doctrine and in practice.

Doesn’t that (the seemingly sole focus on Scripture) sound a bit… fundamentalist! Hardly.  While we can imagine Wesley was a “man of one book,” Wesley did not discourage many others books besides — but actually recommended many, many books.  He writes,

It cannot be said that all our writers are setters forth of strange doctrines. There are those who expound the oracles of God by the same Spirit wherewith they were written; and who faithfully cleave to the solid foundation which our Church hath laid agreeable thereto; touching which we have His word who cannot lie, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There are those also, (blessed be the Author of every good gift!) who, as wise master-builders, build thereon, not hay or stubble, but gold and precious stones,—but that charity which never faileth.

Believe it or not, Wesley valued Tradition, albeit a firm — apostolic — Tradition. He knew that Scripture and Tradition could be expounded upon (the former) and expanded (the latter) — but when one dismissed either of them, substituting their own ideas and experiences for the Christian message, then this was what actually damaged the Church. “Babblings of the earth” are those things separated from Christian Tradition.

After detailing some issues with Bishops of the Anglican Church who had tried to focus more on works than on faith, Wesley concludes:

But why should we seek further witnesses of this Are there not many present here who are of the same opinion who believe that a good moral man, and a good Christian, mean the same thing that a man need not trouble himself any further, if he only practises as much Christianity as was written over the Heathen Emperor’s gate, — ” Do as thou wouldest be done unto;” especially if he be not an infidel, or a heretic, but believes all that the Bible and the Church say is true

Oh snap. You mean Wesley believed there was a difference between morality (of which anyone could have) and Christianity? In other sermons, Wesley went far to say atheists had better morality and works than Christians! Indeed, Wesley believed there was a difference between morality and Christianity, separated by doctrine. Notice the last line here. Wesley honors both Scripture and Tradition (that…the Church say is true). Fr. John is pointed here. It takes more to be a Christian than morality — it takes more to be a Christian and moral than to simply honor the “golden rule.”

I would not be understood, as if I despised these things, as if I undervalued right opinions, true morality, or a zealous regard for the constitution we have received from our fathers. Yet what are these things, being alone What will they profit us in that day What will it avail to tell the Judge of all) “Lord, I was not as other men were; not unjust, not an adulterer, not a liar, not an immoral man” Yea, what will it avail, if we have done all good, as well as done no harm, — if we have given all our goods to feed the poor, — and have not charity How shall we then look on those who taught us to sleep on and take our rest, though “the love of the Father was not in us” or who, teaching us to seek salvation by works, cut us off from receiving that faith freely, whereby alone the love of God could have been shed abroad in our hearts

Does this need explanation? Wesley honored the Tradition he received as needful, the doctrines he received as just and required, but demanded morality equally. In the next section of the sermon, he turns to practice (orthopraxy).

We are condemned if we consider ethics as equal to or primary to doctrine. Equally, we are condemned if we consider doctrine as unimportant. 

If this is our (United Methodist Church) doctrinal standard, then why do we suffer through those who do the exact thing condemned herein?

Wouldn’t those who think that nothing exists outside of Scripture find a better home in the Southern Baptist Convention while those who think subjective experience and emotionalism reign find a better home in the UCC?

What makes us Wesleyan if Wesley would not recognize us?

  1.  John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

the progressive fundamentalist

In the thick of the street festival, some demo...
In the thick of the street festival, some demonstrators used the occasion to get their message out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, because of a shared post on FB and my recent post on Rob Bell (1 that was critical v. the dozens or so that are supportive), I have encountered what can only be called progressive fundamentalism. Do not get me wrong. Not all of those who disagreed with me can be labeled as such, nor do I want to make a sweeping generalization, but in these examples and in my continued defense of orthodox Christianity (doctrines, creeds, councils, etc…), the progressive fundamentalist will regularly rear its head. As a former fundamentalist of the opposite side, it is pretty easy to spot one. The behaviors are the same, almost exactly so.

It is neither logical nor fair to label everyone who is different than I a “fundamentalist.” Indeed, this term is often debated. Does it refer to the early 20th century movement? Yes, but when I do so, I usually try to capitalize the “f” (Fundamentalist). However, it can and should refer to those who have adopted an unquestionable stance. Like the Fundamentalists who drew a line around historical inquiry into Christianity, these modern-day fundamentalists draw lines around certain things as well. Granted, for them, the line is drawn rather tightly around specific axioms of individual experience and belief. While we often look to conservatives to be the bastions of immovability, progressives have their fair share of individuals who simply require intellectual inquiry.

Unmovable and unquestionable are two different things, to be sure. For example, I have a high Christology (which is connected to my orthodox stances). This is unmovable because what makes up orthodox Christianity begins with a high Christology. Yet, this belief (in the divine sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity) is questionable given new data regarding such things as Second Temple Judaism and the like. I welcome questions because, frankly, a faith without questions is stupid. And it keeps me less judgmental because I’m usually okay with most things, even Gnostics (Gary!).

The one thing I usually lack the strength to overcome is fundamentalism. Why? because fundamentalism is a harmful system.

Progressive fundamentalism is a real thing. These PFs tightly define a set of specific believes, albeit even if it is a “this is what we cannot allow” and require others to follow it. As I wrote previously, even progressives build walls to keep people in.

Because I want to use others sources to help flesh out fundamentalism as a label (before adding “progressive”), I want to turn to a recent post highlighting a growing trend of fundamentalism in the Orthodox Church, a system I once thought impenetrable to fundamentalistic thinking.

Dr. George E. Demacopoulos writes,

Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them.  Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching.

We can see this easily applied to both the conservative (not merely Westboro types, but the Ken Hams, Mike Huckabees, and Robert Jeffresses of the world) and the progressive sides of Christianity (for instance, those who think we cannot dare challenge Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and current attitudes towards justice, peace, and inclusion). Each side has a litmus test established, usually on individual preference, to insure that the axioms of the “faith” are followed and in this litmus test, they deem all others unworthy, if not sinful/heretical/evil — or, ironically, fundamentalist.1 Equally so, they are legalistic. If you step out of line, you will know about and you will be shamed into compliance.

If you read Demacopoulos’s post, you will see more connections between what he describes as an Orthodox fundamentalist and what you might see demonstrated by both the left and the right (especially in Protestant circles). For instance, the regular use of misrepresentations of history and act to achieve their goals. In reality, Jesus wasn’t about inclusion (unless it was about Gentiles into Israel’s covenant). He excluded (abusers, sinners who refused to heed the call, and those who hated others). Further, Jesus did have social justice aims (what the ancients called a “leveler”). Eunuch doesn’t mean what you want it to mean. Yet, often times these facts are chucked in order to make a point. They create this fanciful notion of the idyllic Christian message — either to the welfare line or to hell.

Demacopoulos goes on. “The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism.  By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.” If you remove “Orthodox” and replace it with conservative, progressive — or, better, just the word “ALL”, it becomes truer.

Fundamentalists, as he writes, are reductionists. They (both conservatives and progressives) remove Tradition so that their interpretation remains unchallenged. They create a basic set of unquestionable doctrines or tenets of belief required to be “right.” They remove points of departure and unity so that the walls remain high — to keep people in. Then they go heresy hunting.

Both sides, both extremes, include more fundamentalists than they care to admit. They share similar behaviors, and similar worldviews. Indeed, they inhabit the same system of abusive, control, and manipulation. Neither side allows questioning and if it happens, such action is met with abusive behavior and shunning.

There is no way to stop it — it develops naturally in every system. The best we can do is to recognize it and attempt to provide a buffer against it — without becoming fundamentalists ourselves.

  1. The term “fundamentalist” is often thrown around by progressives as a way to stop conservation and is used as a wall to keep people in. After all, the one thing you cannot tolerate as a progressive is a fundamentalist.

Does God want us to be more than human?

The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Crana...
The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Peter 2.14 is hardly the sum total of the doctrine of theosis, but it is what gives us a sound start and finish when we begin to explore it. St. Athanasius puts it like this, “God became human so that humans can become divine.”

What if this was God’s plan all along? That we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 2.14)? Indeed, if one starts in Genesis 2 and then goes to the last few chapters of Revelation, we see a great cosmic plan, The Great Code, that does not merely recapitulate itself, but has this circle of life that prepares us for something else. Let me explain.

In Genesis 2, we are told there are 2 trees in this Garden. The Garden should be seen as the cosmic temple, and I believe if you know your Book of Kings (x2) you will immediately understand why I suggest this. In this Garden, God gives the first covenant — this is yours, he says, except for this one tree. What tree? It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was one that related to more than moral information. It included a valued knowledge that would be necessary in order to have the ability to make a clear distinction between what was beautiful or ugly, helpful or harmful, approved or disapproved. Knowledge is obtained from instruction, but what is done with that information can be either good or evil. Putting knowledge into life requires the ability to discriminate between the two.1

The Jewish Study Bible says the same thing. The merism of “good and evil” is meant to represent not merely the extremes, or opposites (good v. evil) but everything in between. But, it goes deeper. Good and evil are not merely right and wrong. Knowledge is not merely the intellectual understanding of right and wrong, either. It is, rather, the knowledge that comes from experience.

I know that a red burner means the stove is hot. I know that if I touch it, I will burn my hand. However, I know this two ways. One, I was always told that. Two, because I did not listen, I touched it and it burned my hand.  This is experiential knowledge and understanding.

Growing up, one reads the great love stories. We even “fall in love” throughout our adolescent years. We fantasize what it would be like to be loved. Why? Because we have read about it and believe it is necessary to our existence. But, we know only of it by word of mouth. Perhaps we see it too, with our parents or caregivers. But, we do not really know love until we experience it ourselves. (And because love is so elusive, we may not really know it then!)

Returning to good and evil for a moment, Bonhoeffer captures well what it is meant here. He writes,

Good and evil, tob and ra, thus have a much wider meaning here than good and evil in our terminology. The words tob and ra speak of an ultimate split in the world of humankind in general that goes back behind even the moral split, so that tob means also something like “pleasurable”  and ra “painful”  (Hans Schmidt). Tob and ra are concepts that express what is in every respect the deepest divide in human life. The essential point about them is that they appear as a pair, that in being split apart they belong inseparably together. There is no tob, nothing that is pleasurable/good/beautiful, without its being always already immersed in ra, in that which is painful/evil/base/false. And what is painful/evil—in this wide sense—does not occur without a glimmer of desire for pleasure, which is what makes pain so completely pain. That which is good, in the sense of tob, is for us always only something that has been torn from evil, that has passed through evil, that has been conceived, carried, and borne by evil. The luster of the pleasurable/good is its origin in evil, in its overcoming of evil, to be sure, but in the same way that a child overcomes the mother’s womb, that is, in such a way that the good is enhanced by the greatness of the evil from which it has torn itself. To us Ignatius is ‘greater’ than Francis, Augustine is greater than Monica, Hagen is greater than Siegfried.2

Good and Evil can be the same as pleasure and pain, wealth and woe, joy and hurt. This is a phrase, I contend, for the sum total of human experience. This is what it means to be human, to experience everything — individually and corporately.

But, did it have to be that way? I do not wish to step into the realm of the mystery of suffering, or theodicy, but maybe it did have to be this way.

Perhaps God wanted us to be more than human. If humans had stayed only in the Garden, we would not know the beauty of the rest of the world. If we had never lost, we would not know gain. If we had never hated, we would not know love. If we as a species had never warred, we would not know peace — if we had never killed, we would not know the value of life. Again, I speak not about an intellectual understanding, but that knowledge that can only come from having experienced it.

St. Justin Martyr said, “…but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves…yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.” (Trypho, CXXIV)

Perhaps it was God’s plan to always have us become partakers of the divine nature, to be more than human. Surely, the divine has experienced all of the things we do. As Christians, we believe that the suffering of Christ was not limited to the suffering of the physical body. Does God grieve with us when we grieve? Is God joyful when we are? Think about the wide range of experiences God shares with us (as mentioned in Scripture). Then, remember that what Scripture mentions is not the total of the Infinite.

When the command is given, followed by the prohibition of “you shall surely die,” remember, the opposite — unsaid of that command — is, “but you will surely life.”

If this tree is meant to represent the totality of what it means to experience everything (good and evil is a merism), does that mean that at some point that experience will be over? Perhaps that is why we no longer see that tree at the back of the book (of the Christian canon). The only tree remaining is the Tree of Life (Revelation 22.2) and it is for all nations to gain healing.

If we look at Christian Scripture as a great cycle, or circle, we begin with a tree that promises to reveal what it means to experience everything, continuing with a goal from God to become sharers in the divine nature, and finally ending with that tree no longer there but with the hope of life from eternity. Or, we see that the human experience is necessary to achieve, through Christ, the chance to become a sharer of the divine nature. Indeed, this view must transform what the Incarnation means as well.

Genesis 2 begins with a covenant and Scripture continues to build on that covenant until the final consummation, when we are simply with God. How is this achieved? As the Fathers knew, it is achieved only through Christ.

  1. Wilbur Glenn Williams, Genesis: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1999), 52.
  2.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (ed. Martin Rüter, Ilse Tödt, and John W. de Gruchy; trans. Douglas Stephen Bax; vol. 3; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 88.

erecting walls around the mind

John F. Kennedy
Cover of John F. Kennedy

I am forever the recovering fundamentalist — reminded of those times and that system by various things in my life. Further, I am trying to prepare a post about orthodoxy (again) and why it is healthy. I heard something on the radio this morning and it struck me as something pertinent to mainline Christianity. It got me to thinking…

Fundamentalism is about walls and restrictions — the aim is to control even the thoughts of the Christian. Indeed, how many of us have heard of “tearing down the strongholds” of the mind. If you search that phrase, you will find commentary regarding this. What does it really mean? Ironically, it often means the exact opposite. Rather than helping to clear away the selfishness of our human side, this phrase simply means that any hint of independence in the individual believer must be destroyed.

Fundamentalism builds walls to keep people in. As a system it rejects science, Tradition, change, and introspection. These things provide doors and windows for people to see the outside world. And like these governments, it terrifies them that they cannot control the mind of every individual. And yes, like the Berlin Wall, there are guards, gatekeepers, and watchers in fundamentalism that serve to prevent people from leaving.

I rather enjoy Mainline Christianity (and I won’t even begin to tell you what that is) because it is Christianity that reaches back into Tradition but forward into the unknown. Maybe it is not the best, but to borrow something from John F. Kennedy —

Our Christianity is far from perfect but we do not have to erect walls around the mind to keep our people in…

I hope the sides in our current UMC debate understand that. We see the sides becoming more rigid. We see threats and mistreats when one person steps away from their side on particular issues. We see walls being built to keep the sides clearly defined and to keep people in their respective sides. Indeed this is why people deny that a middle, a via media, can exist — because there is no wall that keep us in.

St. Bonaventure on what comes with being in “the image of God”

Saint Bonaventure
Saint Bonaventure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, the loftiness of power requires that there be produced creatures that are not only traces, but also images; creatures not only irrational, but also rational; creatures moved not only by natural instinct, but also by free will. Moreover, a creature made to be the image of God is by that fact capable of possessing God and hence is called to the beatific vision; a creature that is rational is capable of distinguishing the truth; and a creature possessed of free will is capable of ordered or disordered actions in terms of the law of justice.1

Image, if you will, a creature without free will claiming to be in the image of God. Yes, while we can wrestle with what it means to have free will, we have to understand that this is what the image of God means. Are we merely minions of God, His pawns in some cosmic chess game against Himself?

Admittedly, I do not believe in free will in many ways, yet I do not believe in determinism either. Either we chose to worship God or we do not (yet). Either we are rational (which, by the way, means we have a sense of right and wrong) or we are not and thus not bound by any sense of morality.

  1. Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium (trans. José De Vinck; vol. 2; The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal Seraphic Doctor and Saint; Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1963), 278.

John of Kronstadt, the Image of God in Everyone, and Unity

Icon of Saint John of Kronstadt.
Icon of Saint John of Kronstadt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am unfamiliar with the stylization of “saints” in the Russian Orthodox Church. John of Kronstadt is a saint, I believe, of that patriarchy. 

There are among us ways to interact with ourselves — and with those who are not of the household of God. Often times, we see even our brothers and sisters in Christ as opponents. There can be no reconciliation if, in the end, one side has lost. Indeed, when any body becomes factious, it has ceased to be a body.

In reading Christian Century yesterday,  I came across this quote from John of Kronstadt:

Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.

I wonder how this would play out, I mean if we actually felt this way, in the way we treat secular prisoners or those we have so easily deemed sinners? Could we stop seeing them as wretches and then begin to see them as unhealed (Revelation 22.2)?

In another part, John says:

Remember that every man is an image of God, and that all his glory is within him, in his heart. Man looks upon the face, whilst God looks upon the heart.

Christ, the Son of God, the Most Holy God, “is not ashamed to call us sinners brethren;” therefore do not at least be ashamed to call brothers and sisters poor, obscure, simple people, whether they be your relatives according to the flesh or not, do not be proud in your intercourse with them, do not despise them, for we are all actually brothers in Christ — we were all born of water and the Spirit in the baptismal font and became children of God; we are all called Christians, we are all nourished with the Body and Blood of the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, the sacraments of the Church are celebrated over all of us, we all pray the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father…” and all of us equally call God our Father.

How unified would we be if we actually treated the waters of baptism as the blood of family?

 

a helpful dose of possibility

Major religious groups
Major religious groups (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When discussing theism and things such as this with others, I sometimes hear the phrase “X needs a dose of reality.” This can come from either the theist or the atheist. I am troubled by the notion that theism is supposed to represent reality when in fact we have such a difficult time “proving” it. So, the thought occurred to me that what we may need is a dose of possibility. In summarizing Farrer’s Saving Belief, the authors write,

…Farrer already is in the process of transition to making this view explicit in a brilliant opening chapter on the relation of faith and reason. There he introduces his concept of “initial faith.” The notion of God is not a neutral but a loaded term, to which we react positively or negatively. Farrer compares it to the concept of a mother. Even an orphan feels moved by simply entertaining the notion of a possible mother, whom he imagines he might still have but whose whereabouts is unknown to him. So too with God. If we do not find ourselves at all moved by the notion of the possibility of God, we will not be able properly to recognize the data that relate to the existence and reality of God. God will remain an abstraction, unable to move us toward a full faith. But if we are at all inclined to the possible reality of God, then this “initial faith” can turn into an explicit commitment as we carefully consider the testimony of nature, the gospel stories, the life of the Church, and the lives of saintly people. To pursue such intellectual work properly requires some positive engagement, some spiritual development in order to overcome the blindness of those who stop with limited questions and do not allow admittance to what has the power to wholly convince the mind and heart.1

Does the possibility of a God, rather than the probability, offer a better heuristic analysis?

I am not a theist in the traditional terms, nor am I an atheist. Not because I believe or disbelieve in a higher power. Rather, I do believe there is the possibility of a higher power, of a deity… of the God. This is not a presupposition, but it is a subjective starting point to remind me always to question and in questioning, I have a better reason to believe.

I also have a tough time with people trying to prove God, more so than I have with people trying to disprove God.

  1. David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson, Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 61–62.