Q&A: Bill Arnold

Photo by Wes Wilcox, Asbury Theological Seminary.

Photo by Wes Wilcox, Asbury Theological Seminary.

By Walter Fenton –

You have authored and co-authored a number of books on the Old Testament and the history of Ancient Israel, many of them for college and seminary students; what made you want to write Seeing Black & White in a Gray World?

As a matter of fact, I didn’t want to write it. I actually put aside a number of other writing projects to do this. Those other projects are more central to my calling as a United Methodist minister.

I stopped writing Seeing Black and White after finishing the first chapter, and returned to my other projects. But I just couldn’t shake myself free from this book. After praying over it, I returned to the project last summer (2013) and finished it, ironically just before our current denominational crisis deepened.

In the last decade I became more involved in service to my annual conference, and that led eventually to involvement at the jurisdictional and general church levels. Once that happened, I became deeply concerned about the way United Methodism was framing the debate over human sexuality. We still haven’t learned to think theologically about this topic, and our current debates are more driven by secular sensibilities than by theological reasoning. In this book, I tried to draw us back to the rich resources of our tradition in order to change the nature of the debate, which is probably more than any one book of this size can accomplish. But much of the debate is happening in popular-level writing, especially in the blogosphere. So I tried to address the problems in the debate at a more popular level.

Why did you think it was important to specifically respond to the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White?

Adam is such a great leader. I’ve watched him from a distance for years, and more recently, I’ve had opportunity to interact with him. He has amazing gifts for communication and leadership, and our church is blessed to have him. My respect and appreciation for him has not diminished, despite our differences.

I read his book on my way to Tampa in 2012 because I wanted to understand the issues of our debate better. But I was dismayed by the book, as is clear by now, and so I read it again several times. I came to think that we have failed to put Adam’s arguments to the sorts of tests needed in such debates because he is so influential in our denomination. His tremendous success, and the way United Methodists respect, even admire Adam, is rightly deserved. But it’s just possible we have not been discerning enough about his arguments and assertions on human sexuality. So I took his book as representative of others making similar arguments.  It seemed the best way to address directly the problems at the heart of our church’s debates.

In his book Hamilton claims that steering to a middle-way could actually solve a number of controversies in The United Methodist Church; why are you skeptical about this approach?

It sounds unreasonable to object to such a noble goal. Right?

But as I explained in the first chapter, it’s a logical fallacy to assume we can find a middle-way on every controversial issue. Just because we may find middle-way solutions on questions like theistic evolution or justifiable war theory, that doesn’t mean we can find centrist solutions to every problem. Nor should we necessarily seek them. The point of turning around the “black-&-white” metaphor is to say, sometimes we’ve been guilty of looking for gray when it doesn’t exist. In such cases, it’s better to refine and clarify what we believe our theological resources are saying to be true about this or that issue.

What are the black-&-white truths that define us? 

My book argues that middle-way solutions are helpful and healthy for the church whenever and wherever they are first possible, second preferable, and finally, wherever they constitute real progress. Just because a solution is possible, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s preferable. By that I mean, the church could easily embrace a solution that is simply wrong and untrue, which of course, is exactly unhelpful and unhealthy. Our culture in North America has now decided same-sex practices should be normative, celebrated, and accepted as equal to traditional sexual relationships in every respect. Is it possible for the church to change Christian sexual ethics and agree with our culture on this point? Sure, it’s possible. But is it preferable? I argue that, no, our theological resources (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) do not support such a change. Furthermore, even if we could convince ourselves that it’s preferable, against our theological resources, it wouldn’t be progress for the church. It hasn’t been demonstrated that changing United Methodism’s current position on same-sex practices is a way of turning around our decline.

Hamilton claims that finding third-way compromises to our disagreements could lead to a “new reformation” for Christianity, and yet you disagree, why?

This was a big part of my criticism of Adam’s book. I saw a need to address his call for a new reformation of Christianity because I think it’s overreaching and unnecessary. Much of what he longs for was accomplished in the first Reformation, and especially in the English reformers John and Charles Wesley. I think what Adam is calling for is far less than a new reformation, but is, in fact, already available in the wonderful Wesleyan revival of the eighteenth century and preserved in our own church’s heritage. We need look no further than the Wesleys for a high view of Scripture, with rational and critically engaging answers to most of the questions that threaten to rend us apart.

Indeed, much of the genius of the Wesleyan revival was its call to return to apostolic Christianity, with a fresh commitment to the ancient creeds of the early church, combined with a social consciousness that offered to the most vulnerable in society a new vision of grace, forgiveness, and restoration that had been lacking in the church’s message at that time. The Wesleyan revival changed the world because it was the message the world needed. I don’t think the way to regain the world-changing dynamic of Methodism is by seeking middle-of-the-road solutions to controversial issues but by proclaiming boldly the message we already have in our hands. The world is just as needy today as it was in the eighteenth century, and we have the message they need.

The implication of the subtitle of your book (“The need for theological reasoning in the debate over sexuality.”) is that there is an absence of “theological reasoning” or “reasoning” in general when it comes to the debate over homosexuality. Where do you see such a lack of reasoning?

Many of us have been overly influenced by friends and family members who experience same-sex attraction. And understandably, our debate is characterized by strong feelings, passion, and sometimes kneejerk responses. The blogosphere has not always enhanced the quality of our debates, obviously. We seldom have calm, theological reflection about the important issues before us.

To make matters worse, United Methodism’s overriding commitment to unity above almost everything else has contributed to this crisis of theological reasoning. At times, I think we’ve demoted truth and theological scrutiny to second-order commitments, while we’ve elevated unity to a first-order virtue. We should value unity, of course. But our greatest commitments, flowing from our love of God and neighbor, are to the grace of God extended to a lost and dying world, in all of the chronological manifestations of God’s grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.

I often hear people in our debates say, or even boast about the idea, that the United Methodist Church is not a doctrinal church. But of course, that’s oxymoronic because the word “church” itself requires doctrinal substance if it’s to have any meaning. And besides, we’re clear that our Doctrinal Standards are firmly rooted in the ecumenical creeds of the early Church, especially since our first two Articles of Religion are essentially reaffirming Nicaea and Chalcedon, respectively. We have doctrinal commitments, pure and simple, and those are firmly grounded in the apostolic church. Statements today to the contrary are stubbornly holding onto our flirtation with “pluralism” after the 1968 merger, which failed miserably. So yes, in my view, this crisis over sexuality is really a crisis of theological reasoning.

This is why I turned in one portion of my book to Richard Niebuhr’s classic study of the way Christianity interacts with culture (Christ and Culture, 1951). Even though I don’t agree with everything Niebuhr asserts in that work, I think Methodism is dangerously close to becoming another bland version of what he calls “cultural Christianity,” or a church which simply interprets Christ through and by means of contemporary culture, picking and choosing teachings from Scripture that seem to agree with human culture. We’ve gotten into this mess, in my view, because we’ve lost the ability to think and minister theologically, while we’re being overly influenced by the culture around us.

What are the issues and problems seminary students see for the future of the church? What are their perceptions about its future?

I get questions all the time about whether they should stay in the ordination process, or leave now. We’re currently experiencing schism because so many have already left the UM Church in favor of other denominations with strong commitments to church planting and evangelism. Students who are in the ordination process at the moment are especially vulnerable and confused. But I constantly tell them to hold steady. God isn’t finished with the UM Church yet.

The perceived debacle of the 2012 General Conference combined with the increasingly shrill nature of our debates have left students with little confidence in our future. We need to be decisive in 2016. Portland’s General Conference should be seen as an opportunity to chart a new course for the future, and put the UM Church on firm foundation for a great period of evangelism and growth. Some see it as a dark cloud looming on the horizon. But it’s also a great opportunity for the Wesleyan movement.

Many people think the UM Church is obsessed with the debate over homosexuality, but you actually argue that the debate goes much deeper, how so?

I explain that our disagreement over same-sex practices is only a “presenting issue,” which is a front-line question that needs resolution. Most often, such questions expose other underlying issues that are really at the heart of the struggle. I don’t consider same-sex practices particularly central to our understanding of who we are as a church, but in our current context, the way we understand divine revelation and the nature of Scripture, the operation and results of God’s grace, and the understanding of our denomination as a global church are all more centrally important issues. Human sexuality is indeed the presenting issue, but it requires us to address several underlying issues that are more fundamental to who we are. I tried to address each of these issues in the book, along the way to addressing also the debate over human sexuality.

Comments

  1. Merle Friesen says

    I have become interested in why Charge Conferences are most often used rather than Church Conferences. After brief study it seems to me that is a choice between rule by an inside “click” as opposed to rule by the Church membership.
    What is the history of those and what are church leaders fearful that the congregation would do if given the power to vote. Maybe one clue is how difficult it is to petition the District Superintendent to call for the Church Conference.
    One thought is that it actually taxation without representation!

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