In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14).
To say that United Methodist anxiety levels are heightened would be an understatement. As deeply entrenched sides await this week’s arguments before the Judicial Council (our ecclesial high court), worry and frustration abound. And there’s no promise that it will subside, regardless of the Council’s decision. It’s painful. And in the midst of these stormy times, I have become persuaded that what the Church needs most – right now! – is a good dose of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty that characterizes Calvinist theology propagated by the young, restless, and Reformed. I’m not talking about a God who irrevocably elects and condemns. I’m talking about what John Wesley meant when he said in his sermon “On Divine Providence” that God “is infinite in wisdom as well as power: And all his wisdom is continually employed in managing all the affairs of his creation for the good of all his creatures” (Sermon 67:14). About this teaching Wesley said, “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation, which is of deeper importance than this;” he also said there is no other doctrine so “little regarded, and perhaps so little understood (Sermon 67:7) In painful times, we need to focus on what’s important. We need to know that God has not given up on his children. He loves us. And he is at work for our good.
Providence and well-being
Wesley’s doctrine of God’s providence derives from his doctrine of creation. If God made everything that exists, then God knows every detail about everything that exists, because he is the author of that detail. And he did not create this complex world only to ignore the details. After all, the number of the hairs on our heads, be they many or few, are known by God (Luke 12:7). Scripture led Wesley to conclude that God is deeply concerned with what seem the most insignificant details in the lives of his children. There is no affair so small that it is beneath the regard of the triune God. “For we know that, to those who love God, he works all things together for good, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added).
Brothers and sisters, the current troubles of the United Methodist Church have not taken God by surprise. He is not caught off-guard. He frets not. He is not wondering what to do with us. To the contrary, he is at rest. And from that posture he is working within our circumstances to bring good for those who love him and are committed to his purpose for the Church and the world. His countenance is marked by noble and kingly joviality. His care for his beloved is unhindered. And his ultimate purpose to fill his creation with the knowledge of his glory will not be undone. Rest assured.
This means that, despite what we want, we can and must be patient. We want all of our problems to be resolved, and we want them to be resolved now. Patience feels like doing nothing. And we don’t want to wait around for the next press release or the next conference or the next declaratory decision. We want to do something. We want it fixed. We want the pain to go away.
But patience is not idleness; it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s an expression of faith that we can trust God to work for our good no matter how long it takes. It is of the utmost importance to remember that God’s great priority is not our daily or temporal comfort. He is primarily concerned to fill the world with the unparalleled beauty of his glory by reproducing his holy love in creatures who bear his image and bear it well. And that takes time.
Wesley understood this and made the point in paragraph 15 of “On Divine Providence.” To summarize, it takes time because being made in the image of God comes with some degree of liberty, and far too often we’ve use that liberty to mess things up. God will not magically fix all of our problems today because that would counteract his work of making human beings in his image with the relative freedom that involves. I don’t know how long it will take to find resolution for our United Methodist mess. I do expect that it will get worse before it gets better. But we must not allow that expectation to rob us of joy. We must trust that God is at work to renew us in the image of Christ in the midst of this mess. That’s what we need. That’s what the Church needs. That’s what the world needs. That takes patience. So, pray for me. And I’ll pray for you.
There’s a condition
I cited Romans 8:28 above to make the point that God is attentive to every detail in the lives of his children, and that he is at work in every circumstance to bring good. It would be inattentive, however, to neglect the point that this promise comes with a condition. It is for “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” Let us not forget that, for Jesus, love is expressed in obedience (John 14:15). God has revealed his purposes in scripture. He has called us to be his people. He requires our believing obedience. If we are committed to those things, we can rest assured that he is at work for our good. The operative word there is rest. Love Jesus. Obey scripture. Rest in the knowledge that God loves you and is at work for your good.
I don’t know what the Judicial Council will decide after all the arguments are made later this week. I do know that, whatever they decide, a lot of people will be unhappy. Now more than ever, the faithful need to remember that the God who loves us is at work in us to reproduce his character in us for the life of the world. That is what matters. And he will not be thwarted. The bride of the Lamb will one day be clothed with holiness and splendor. You can count on it. God will not give up. And neither must we.
During my recent trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to film another episode for Seedbed‘s growing Seven Minute Seminary series. This one explores the relationship between future bodily resurrection, Christian identity, and holiness. These three themes were at the heart of my PhD research, and I’m grateful to Seedbed for making some of that available more broadly. If you receive this via an email subscription, click here to watch the video. And be sure to check out my other contributions to Seven Minute Seminary over on the video page.
We are now into the season of Easter (or Eastertide). That’s right. If you follow the Church calendar, Easter is not just one day. It’s fifty days. And that, of course, is why we call it “The Great Fifty Days.” In the spirit of the season, I wanted to point to a few resources that I’ve had the chance to be part of, along with some great colleagues, that highlight the significance of the season. The first three are from the team at So What? Podcast (Web, Soundcloud, iTunes). The fourth is a 7 Minute Seminary (with bonus footage) from Seedbed. All of them dig into the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the resurrection of believers in the future, and all of them take the practical and pastoral significance of resurrection as major points of consideration.
Serious engagement with the Wesleyan tradition began for me during my college years with a book by Dr. Dennis F. Kinlaw. A Christian since childhood, I had long suspected there was more to the faith than the mere forgiveness that often characterized evangelicalism in the second half of the last century. The book was The Mind of Christ, and it was given to me at a missions conference in 2000 by Dr. Harold Spann, then Chancelor of Wesley Biblical Seminary. That book exposed me like never before to the deep truth for which I longed but had not yet understood. With it, Dr. Kinlaw taught me that forgiveness of sin is only the beginning of the Christian journey, not its end. I learned that forgiveness is an instrument and necessary means to the end of holiness. I learned that what the world really needed was to see women and men embody the holy love that is the character of God revealed in Christ and Spirit, and to do it consistently and comprehensively. And I learned that all of that is above all a work of grace. It is no understatement to say that this book set me to the course I am on today. Other important volumes have come along. This one will always have a prominent place among them.
From that point forward, I read everything by Dr. Kinlaw that I could get. I sought out his sermons online and listened to as many as I could find. Some repeatedly. Kinlaw had a way of communicating stunningly rich and deep theological truth in a clear and understandable way. His turns of phrase often gave me pause and prompted extended reflection on scripture, discipleship, and ministry. My first published book review was in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, and the book I chose to review was Let’s Start with Jesus. With this book, Dr. Kinlaw flexed his theological muscles to interpret scripture in light of the Church Fathers and give us a vision of the unparalleled beauty of the God who is triune. This book was altogether robust and practical in every way as an invitation to dwell in the beauty of God’s perfect love, and to have that love made perfect in us.
During my time as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I was privileged on one occasion – and long after his retirement – to have Dr. Kinlaw as a substitute lecturer. The course was Triune Theism taught by Dr. Al Coppedge, who is also a mentor to me and son-in-law to Dr. Kinlaw. Dr. Coppedge had to be away one day, and the class was a small one. So, we were instructed to meet at Dr. Kinlaw’s house that day instead of in our regular classroom. We were to read Let’s Start with Jesus beforehand so that we could discuss it with the man who penned it. That day will always stand as a highlight of my seminary education. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Word began to circulate yesterday that Dennis Kinlaw died, and the Wesleyan world now feels the weight of losing one to whom so many of us looked for leadership, instruction, and nurturing. He modeled a combination too rarely seen. He was a scholar thoroughly familiar with advanced issues in biblical criticism, but his sermons never sounded like lectures. He was both theologian and preacher. And he was one of the first to model the union of those two vocations for me. My own sense of calling and vocation has been indelibly stamped by his preaching, his scholarship, his witness. He was a man set apart by and for the love of Christ to preach scriptural holiness. And we are all the better for it. His death for us is a loss, though it is gain for him. He has joined the saints at rest in the presence of the One whose love abounded in his life. And he now waits in hope, with all the saints, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. Thanks be to God.
So says N.T. Wright in the opening chapter of his Paul and his Recent Interpreters (Fortress, 2015): “though we have been accustomed to thinking of Paul as a ‘religious’ figure, that is a function of the way our culture has seen things in the last two hundred years,” but this is “not a necessarily ‘correct’ way to approach him” (10). Having just wrapped up my Ph.D. in Pauline studies, I’ve been eager to dig into this book and work through Wright’s assessment of the field. As an aside, the home stretch of writing and defending the dissertation is the reason for the lack of regular posts here at the blog.
Back to Wright’s point. His concerns emerge from the reality that the word “religion” means something very different now than it did in Paul’s world. In our day, religion is often seen as a private affair set off in its own compartment away from one’s public or professional life. In the ancient world, religion intersected with every aspect of life. You couldn’t set it off to the side while you go about other business. That’s how we often treat religion today. Paul’s religious thought engaged every aspect of life with the claims of Jesus, the resurrected Messiah and Lord. He did have something to say about what we might call “religion”, but he also had something to say about philosophy, ethics, cosmology, economics, and government, among other things. Wright prefers to call Paul a “public figure,” and he is happy to remind us that Paul “was not inviting people into a private ‘religious’ world” (10, italics original).
This is one instance where we modern folk have something to learn from the ancients in general and Paul in particular. Our culture is deeply fragmented. We have tried to sort religion and politics and ethics and activism into separate bins, only to be taken aback when someone takes public action and grounds it in their religious conviction. We need to learn the lesson that religion is part of an integrated whole. Worship encompasses all of life. If we follow those who label Paul a “religious” figure and attempt to mute his voice in our secular society, we do so to our detriment. If, however, we allow him to speak at his full volume and engage our culture with the message of the gospel, we may just find a fresh and compelling vision of God’s world and our place in it.
Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called “chronological snobbery.” For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I’m reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It’s called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:
Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time.
The new episode of the So What? Podcast went live this morning. In this edition we continue the discussion of Pelagius and Pelagianism. It was particularly fun to get clear on the Wesleyan critique of Pelagianism and how it differs from the Reformed (or Calvinistic) critique. There’s also some great Wesley quotes on original sin. Check it out below or subscribe in iTunes. And don’t forget to give us review.