Thinking about God like Wesleyans

Willimon

Willimon

By William H. Willimon

“The best thing about the new Wesley Study Bible,” a woman said to me as she slapped her new copy, “is its restoration of theological thinking to the church.” As one of the editors of the Wesley Study Bible, I pray that she is right.

A significant aspect of John Wesley’s vision was to teach ordinary eighteenth century people to be theologians. Reading Wesley’s sermons or his writings such as Notes on the New Testament can be tough going. We need to remember that he spoke and wrote for “the average Methodist,” not for theological experts. That we find Wesley too intellectual is proof, not that Wesley’s church was more theological than our own, but rather that theological indifferentism is sapping the life out of us.

Years ago I was in a group where some were excoriating Good News as the voice of “right wing conservatism” in our church. One of the group—a certified liberal social activist if ever there were—defended Good News. “Among Methodist leaders,” (he was a church bureaucrat) “evangelicals are about the only people who seem to believe that theological claims make any difference.”

I’m old enough to remember when “evangelical” meant somebody who swallows biblical theology whole without choking, no matter the current cultural trends. Got problems with the turgidity of Trinitarian theology? Can’t handle Chalcedonian doctrines of the Incarnation? Well, tough. We’re evangelicals and we adore our doctrine. We care enough about you and the state of your soul to teach our theology to you.

These days, I’m disturbed by the allegedly “evangelical” preaching that I hear where the rich good news is often reduced to a slogan that fits on a bumper sticker or three snappy platitudes about how to have a happy life. I’ve had it with allegedly “contemporary worship” where a snippet of Scripture is used to dive into a string of trite self-help truisms called “the message.” Sermons that attempt to scale down the faith to three slogans in PowerPoint is killing our spirit. In an otherwise healthy evangelical desire to lean over and speak to the world, we have fallen in face down. In attempting to get a hearing from the world, some of us preachers have jettisoned our high calling to preach the full counsels of God so that our sermons sound something the world could as easily hear from dozens of other simplistic, quick fix, self-help, pop-psychology gurus.

It’s my prayer that the spectacular success of the Wesley Study Bible—with its pastoral and theological sidebars paired with biblical texts, with its distinctive, robust, unashamedly Wesleyan scriptural exposition—signals the beginning of a widespread recovery of the Wesleyan theological imagination in our church.

I know that in saying the word “theology” I risk making your eyes glaze over. I worry that you may have contracted a too limited (Calvinist? Utilitarian? Academic?) notion of theology.

Theology means literally “God words”—our words to God and God’s words to us. Theology is what nearly everyone must do when they meet Jesus Christ because Jesus didn’t fit most people’s definition of God. So when Jesus claims, “I and the Father are one,” or his followers proclaim, “You are the Son of the living God,” well, we are thrown into an intellectual crisis. In my experience, theological thought is a distinctly reflexive, responsive enterprise. You are forced to be a theologian when you realize that Jesus goes against much of what the world believes “God” must be like if God is worthy of our worship or when you realize that Jesus is not at all what you had in mind when you prayed, “God, come into my life.” Theology in a never-ending enterprise, not because we want to ride the newest intellectual wave, but because Jesus keeps showing up, keeps revealing himself to us, keeps demanding more of us than we expected.

But theology is more than our deep thoughts about God; it is also God’s talk to us, that which the living God lovingly says to the world.

The story of God in Christ is so intellectually demanding, so strange, so against our natural inclination that we couldn’t have thought it up ourselves. Thus John’s gospel introduces Jesus as “the Word,” God’s great address to God’s Creation. Some people heard “the Word” as God’s word spoken to them and some didn’t. Something about Jesus leads people not only to say things like, “Here is the long awaited Savior of the World!” but also “He can’t be the Son of God. Can he?” or, “We never heard anything like this!” From the first, it was nearly impossible to say anything about Jesus without raising questions like, “Who is God, anyway?”

I don’t mean that everybody does good theology. Good, faithful, specifically Christian theology is informed by and responsive to Scripture, the historic faith of the church, and the contemporary promptings of the Holy Spirit right now in our lives. There is well formed, informed theology, and then there is theology that is merely “what seems right to me” or “here is something I heard on Fox News.”

This is where the Wesley Study Bible proves to be so helpful. Christians don’t have to reinvent the wheel, theologically speaking. We have faithful guides who will show us the way, if we dare listen. Faithful Christian theology arises in conversation with the saints (Scripture, the Wesleyan tradition, contemporary witnesses) who tell us what they have discovered about God when God discovered them. The WSB is unique in making explicit how, when we read Scripture, we join a lively conversation of the living and the dead that began long before you got here and shall continue long after you are gone. Despite his sometimes turgid prose, Father John can teach us today, if we will listen.

Scripture is highly charged, visionary literature that stokes, funds, and fuels our imaginations, presenting us with a more interesting world than the flat and demystified one we would have had if we had been left to our own modern devices, narrating a much more interesting and demanding God than that generic, flaccid, innocuous “god” that the world tries to pass off on us these days. (Another word for a “god” who meets all your needs and thinks only what you think is idol.) By grounding and initiating our thoughts about God and the world in Scripture, the WSB demonstrates that all our theology is accountable to Scripture; the Bible keeps our thought focused upon the God who, in Jesus Christ, has so graciously focused upon us.

The Wesleyan in me warns: Do not attempt faithful Christian theology on your own—Wesleyan thinking about God is a group activity. The Trinity is so wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious, and counter to who we expect God to be that, if you want to think faithfully, you need help from your friends. If God were merely a concoction of your own imagination and the Christian faith only a mishmash of ideas that “work for me,” then you could do theology alone. (Another word for theology done solely by you is “heresy.”)
The Bible is the product of the church’s life with God. Scripture’s primary audience is not some academic department of religion. All Scripture is from the church to the church. As Wesley said, Christianity is a “social religion”—you can’t do it alone; the test of this faith is its corporate embodiment.

One of the great gifts of the WSB is to introduce you to a host of new friends, chief among them the brothers John and Charles Wesley, friends living, and friends dead, all of whom want to have a lively conversation with you about theology. While you may not have been thinking about God in Jesus Christ that long, don’t worry. The brothers Wesley took as their special mission to introduce people to the living God and to urge ordinary people to risk having their lives enlisted into God’s work. Their heirs in the Methodist movement have been talking about God to anybody who will listen for over 200 years. They have a lot to say.

The good news is that you don’t have to come up with words about God—theology—on your own. Wesleyan Christians are those who think about God with the Wesleys. The theological revolution begun in Eighteenth Century England has now spread to every corner of the globe. Millions have met the true and living God through the ministrations of the Methodists, heirs of Wesley. The Wesley Study Bible is presented as an exchange between the diverse speakers within Scripture (those in Israel and the early church who had so vivid an encounter with God that they just had to talk about it to figure out what had happened to them), and (in the sidebars in the WSB) a conversation between the Wesleys and Wesleyans on their particular experience of God. There are also the sidebar testimonies of present day pastors on the life applications for the biblical and Wesleyan insights. For Wesleyans, all theology is practical; our ideas about Jesus are meant to be put into action with Jesus, “Warm hearts and active hands.”

You don’t have to be a Wesleyan to do faithful Christian theology, but forgive me for thinking that it really helps. John and Charles Wesley’s discoveries about God still astound and challenge. The worldwide renewal of the church launched by the Wesleys has exceeded their wildest dreams. Wesleyan “practical divinity” (one of John Wesley’s favorite terms for his sort of theology) is as revolutionary and as badly needed now as ever.

Mark says that while Jesus was hurrying down the road a man stopped him and asked a deep theological question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). One gospel says that the man was a “ruler,” another says that he was “young.” All agree that he was “rich.” At first Jesus brushes him off with, “You know what Scripture says—obey the Ten Commandments.”

“I’ve obeyed all the commandments since I was a kid,” replies the man. (Never broken a commandment? Who could say that? This man is not only successful in accumulating wealth; he is successful at morality too.)

Then Mark says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him”—the only time that Jesus is said to have loved a specific individual. Then, in one of the wildest demands Jesus ever made of anybody (because “he loved him”?) Jesus told the man to, “Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, then come, follow me.”

With that Mark says that the young man got depressed and departed, leaving Jesus to lament, “It is very difficult to save those who have lots of stuff; as difficult as it is to shove a fully loaded dromedary through the eye of a needle. But with God, even the salvation of the rich is…possible.”

While the North American in me is distinctly uneasy about Jesus treating affluent people like me in this brusque way, the Wesleyan in me loves Jesus’ response to the man’s big theological question. Refusing to be drawn into an intellectual bull session, some ethereal blather about “eternal life” (which Jesus discusses only rarely), Jesus hits the man not with ideas about eternity but with ethics here on earth—the Ten Commandments, redistribution of wealth, moral transformation, and discipleship. Here this rather smug, successful person attempts to lure Jesus into abstract, speculative theology and Jesus, after citing scripture, then forces the man to talk about obedience and action. Jesus doesn’t say to him, “think,” “ponder,” or “reflect.” Rather he speaks to him only in active verbs: “Go…sell…give…follow me.”

To my mind it was a wonderfully Wesleyan theological moment. The man wants a relaxed discussion; Jesus gets practical and demanding. Jesus never said, “Think about me!” He said, “Follow me!” All the man may have wanted was a polite exchange of ideas about “eternal life” but what he got was a cruciform call to go, sell, give, and be a disciple.

When Wesley discusses this passage in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament he focuses upon both Jesus’ love for this person and the need for a loving personal response to that love. Wesley praised, “The love of God, without which all religion is a dead carcass.” Then exhorted readers, “In order to obtain this, throw away what is to you the grand hindrance of it. Give up your great idol, riches.”

I think Mark 10:21 is the only place in the gospels where someone is called by Jesus to be a disciple and refuses. Yet for all that, it’s one of the most explicitly Wesleyan gospel moments. God’s love is gracious, but also demanding. Wesley was not much interested in any theology that couldn’t be put into practice; warmed hearts and good intentions were no substitute for active hands. And the point of having deep conversations with Jesus about what to believe was to be better equipped to obey Jesus. Theological reflection on Jesus was in service of better following Jesus. To think in this fashion is theology in the Wesleyan spirit. In his short tract, “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley noted that Methodism is distinguished, not by unique doctrines but by a shared commitment to theological renewal paired with an active obedience to a living Lord.

As evangelicals, Matthew 28:18-20 is a key text for us. Usually our stress is upon the, “Go…make disciples of all nations….” But note that here Jesus not only commands us to “Go…make” but also to teach “everything I have commanded you” (verse 20).

In my roaming about, I notice that churches sometimes put some boast on their sign out front like, “Friendliest Church in Town,” or “No shirt? No shoes? No problem! Come, worship with us.” I pray for the day when a United Methodist congregation will say, “Come join us; we won’t hold back or limit ourselves to the thoughts of the average person in the pew. We promise to teach you to obey everything Jesus commanded.”

William H. Willimon is presiding bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is not only one of the joint editors of the Wesley Study Bible but is also author of This We Believe, a book that is tied to the study of theology using the WSB. Bishop Willimon has been a long time contributor to Good News. This fall Abingdon Press will publish his book Why Jesus?

Photo courtesy of Ben Williams.

 

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