Albert Outler remembered

By Leicester R. Longden

On September 1, 1989, Albert C. Outler, world-reknowned theologian and Wesley scholar, died at the age of 80 in Bradenton, Florida. We honor the 25th anniversary of his passing by republishing this obituary that appeared in the November/December 1989 issue of Good News.

Albert Outler

Albert Outler

Some people seem unfamiliar when we meet them in a different context. We have known them so well in one setting we are surprised when we discover they have inhabited another sphere with distinction and verve. Such was the case with Albert C. Outler. His friends in psychiatric circles were puzzled to discover that he was a noted editor and historical theologian. Scholars and ecclesiastics who had seen him helping Roman Catholic bishops translate Vatican II documents and who knew his translations of Augustine and his work on the Greek Church Fathers could be dismayed when they saw him turning his scholarly talents to the study of such a “minor” figure as John Wesley. One of Outler’s colleagues at Perkins Seminary once said that he had labeled Outler only as a “Yale man” until he went to Europe with him and saw the leading theological minds of the day seeking Outler’s opinion as a respected equal. Great theologians and bishops who knew him personally were perplexed at the number of occasions that Outler offered himself to speak to students, congregations and civic groups.

This man of many contexts will seem even greater to us now that he has left us. His death on September 1 has called forth a number of recollections from the many communities that knew and loved him. The reading of these obituary notices may be for us an instructive exercise in understanding the Wesleyan sense for taking the world as one’s parish.

Born in a Methodist parsonage in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1908, he grew up in what was called “the cultural and psychological and social cocoon of Georgia and Southern Methodist traditions.” He once joked in print that some have come “further” but “none from further back.” Learning from his family how to be both a free and loyal Methodist, Outler burst his cocoon to become an outstanding student at Yale, earning a Ph.D. in patristics while at the same time receiving the equivalent of an M.A. in psychotherapy and social psychology. A professor first at Duke University and then at Yale (while also serving as a pastor), he went to Perkins Seminary and Southern Methodist University in 1951 where he served the cause of theological education in the Southwest until his “retirement” in 1974.

During his distinguished career Outler established a worldwide reputation in academic, ecclesial, and ecumenical affairs. As an academician he established himself as a gifted teacher and publishing scholar. The esteem in which he was held by theologians, historians, and university faculties is seen in that he was elected to more than 80 endowed lectureships, given 14 honorary degrees and had 2 endowed faculty chairs named after him. He was president of the America Society of Church History, the American Theological Society, and the American Catholic Historical Association. His scholarly achievements will live after him especially in his contribution to the critical edition of John Wesley’s Works. In United Methodist circles he was teacher to a long line of pastors and scholars, preacher to the Uniting Conference in 1968, and the chair of the Doctrinal Study Commission from 1969-1972.

Outler was widely recognized as an ecumenical figure of significance and creativity, particularly for his 10-year role as the chair of the North American Section of the Faith and Order Study Commission on Tradition and Traditions and as a delegated observer to the Second Vatican Council. On Aldersgate Day, 1987, the Benedictine Order honored him with its Pax Christi Award, stating that “for many of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, [Outler had been] their most valued interpreter of what they themselves were doing.”

Albert Outler and Ed Robb

Albert Outler and Edmund W. Robb

In the latter part of his career, Outler became increasingly identified with a renaissance of Wesley studies in which he played an important role in reinterpreting John Wesley as a significant theologian, over against the earlier stereotypes of Wesley as “founder” or “organizer.” Frank Baker, in a survey of Wesley studies from 1960 to 1980, called Outler a “colossus towering over all others throughout this period.” Another important contribution during these years was his cooperation with United Methodist pastor and evangelist Edmund W. Robb in the establishment of A Foundation For Theological Education (AFTE). With a board of trustees which includes bishops, theologians, pastors and laity, AFTE awards fellowships to promising pastor-scholars seeking the Ph.D. degree. The purpose has been to make an impact on theological education by strengthening the “classical Christian witness within the church and it seminaries.”

Reflection on the breadth of his theological vision, along with a re-reading of his sermon for the Uniting Conference of 1968, could call us again to the high task of being a catholic, evangelical and reformed church. It would be too easy for those who praise Outler’s own role in the recovery of Wesley as theological mentor to overlook Outler’s own significance as theological mentor to United Methodism. It may be reasonably claimed that the story of 20th-century United Methodism and its struggle for theological clarity regarding its historical and doctrinal identity cannot rightly be told without describing Outler’s place within it. But if he is appreciated only in one context, then the founding of AFTE will excite some, but they will be puzzled by the statement on Our Theological Task, which raised the many conflicts over the concept and experience of “pluralism.” In the same way, those who value freedom above all else in theological pluralism may be puzzled by “truth.” Perhaps what is needed is a renewed search for “our common history” (a favorite phrase of Outler’s) and an understanding of theological pluralism that looks for the continuity of traditions within the whole stream of Christian tradition. Outler could be very impatient with the polemics and politics of various “theologies” over against each other. His “theological vocation,” as he saw it, was to be a Christian who took the modern world and its ambiguities seriously and yet “still claimed [a] full share of the whole of the Christian heritage.”

In the famous Christian Century series of “How My Mind Has Changed,” Outler offered in his mid-career a self-judgment which may now inform our memory of him and instruct our continuing vocation: “If I could choose my own epitaph I would want it to speak of one who was sustained in a rather strenuous career by the vision of a Christian theology that gives history its full due; that makes way for the future without having to murder the past; that begins and ends with the self-manifestation of God’s mystery in our flesh and our history.”

Leicester R. Longden is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship, Emeritus, and Director of United Methodist Studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.     

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