Parable of the SUV

January 21, 2016

He put another parable before them, saying, “A certain ‘mainline’ Christian denomination may be compared to an SUV. This SUV was large, and held many passengers. It was a vehicle that had been on the market for many years and the world was quite familiar with it.

For perhaps as many as 30 or more years, this make and model of SUV had an increasing tendency to swerve very sharply to the left when it was driven. In fact, it almost seemed as if the SUV would move to the left while it was parked. It was possible for drivers to steer this SUV straight down the road, but only with a great deal of difficulty. And sometimes, no amount of effort would keep it from drifting to the left.

This SUV’s tendency to swerve to the left was well known by most people. Drivers and passengers alike knew about this tendency, as did other drivers on the road. Some of the drivers of these SUVs hoped, some even prayed, that the SUVs would stop swerving to the left, but none of their efforts met with success. Interestingly, some drivers and passengers actually liked this characteristic of the SUVs and never wanted another kind of vehicle. They appreciated this left-swerving tendency.

Importantly, this tendency for the SUV to swerve sharply to the left was well known by the executives of the auto maker. Some of the executives were actually quite pleased that the SUV had this performance characteristic and encouraged the engineers to keep and even enhance this design feature. Some executives seemed mostly ambivalent about the matter. They did not say anything one way or the other about it. Finally, there were other executives, who, while they were very much aware of this characteristic, did nothing to correct it even though they had the authority to do so.

It so happened that one of these left-swerving SUVs was driving down the road. This particular SUV was being driven and occupied by people who really preferred that the SUV not pull hard to the left. Not surprisingly, the SUV went off of the highway to the left, and rolled over in the center median of the highway. By the grace of God, all of the occupants were able, without assistance, to exit the SUV. Miraculously none of the them were injured physically. Yes, they were shaken up, some were trembling from the experience, but by and large they were reflective about what just happened and importantly why.

They huddled together in the median a short distance from the overturned SUV and prayed with grateful hearts for God’s gracious protection of them. Almost the instant that they said their ‘Amen’, the SUV burst into flames and it burned until their was nothing left but a smoldering shell of twisted steel. Curiously, several other SUVs of the same model passed by on the roadway immediately after the accident, their drivers struggling to keep their vehicles from also going off into the center median, many of them alternately driving back and forth between the left shoulder and the main lanes of the road.

The driver of that burned-out SUV soon had a new vehicle. This time, one that was able to be driven without the dangerous tendency to swerve to the left. And all of the driver’s passengers were quite relieved.”


John Wesley

January 21, 2016

[Note:  I recognize that there are folks who will disagree with the conclusions of this post and perhaps even assume that I have some ax to grind in my writing of it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I read the book and have written my conclusions.  Those conclusions are not necessarily flattering.  But even the editor of the book, who you will see was quite fond of Wesley, at least intellectually and academically, made note in the book that modern-day Methodists ought not be judged on the basis of the man who is credited with the founding of this stream of Protestantism.  If you hold some particular fondness for John Wesley, read the book yourself and see if you find me to be too far off base.  But read it objectively.]

John Wesley Albert OutlerJohn Wesley, (copyright 1964) edited by Albert C. Outler (1908-1989), is one of the volumes from the Library of Protestant Thought from Oxford University Press.

To my surprise, I have enjoyed skipping around through this book and reading sections from it.  The structure of the book allows for this approach, as it is a compilation of Wesley’s sermons, correspondence, and essays rather than a biography of Wesley or a history of his ministry.  Albert Outler, was regarded as a serious Wesleyan scholar.  He assembled a variety of these types of documents mentioned above, and wrote excellent introductory comments and provided numerous helpful footnotes and references to Wesley’s writings.

My enjoyment in reading this book was partly related to my acquiring information about one of the world’s better recognized  theologians (although one who held doctrinal positions that I disagree with) and partly because of what I found to be,  shall I say, unusual things about Wesley’s mind, his style and apparently his approach to theology.  The word that I would use to describe Wesley would be eccentric.  That characterization is certainly not unique to Wesley, and I concede that many might describe me using the same word.  But some of his eccentricities are curiously over-the-top.

The section of the book that I started with was one that Outler titled “Theologies in Conflict.”  Chapter IV of this section is called “The Struggle With Calvinists.”  (It only made sense for me to start here.)  “The Struggle” contains two essays that Wesley wrote and published; the first in 1752, the other in 1775.  Both dealt with his rejection of the doctrine of unconditional election, or predestination as Wesley usually referred to it.  The first of these two essays, Wesley titled “Predesitination Calmly Considered.”  I could not help but find the irony in that title because in reading the essay I felt like Wesley’s writing displayed neither calmness nor factual consideration.

Here are a few of my observations.  I hope that anyone who reads this will believe that these are not intended to be disrespectful of Wesley.  Clearly he was a brilliant man and his dedication to his understanding of the scriptures is beyond question.  Instead, the comments below are simply the impressions that I was left with from reading the very words of the man himself.

  • Instead of drawing comparisons between historic Calvinism and Wesley’s preferred Arminianism, he latches on to what would more accurately be described as Hyper-Calvinism.  This is the strange starting point for his rebuttals, which at times were pretty cranky.
  • Whereas historic Reformed theology, as I understand it, has never uniformly embraced supralapsarianism, (aka double predestination) that is the exact assumption that Wesley makes with respect to the meaning of unconditional election.  He contends that all Calvinists must necessarily believe in unconditional reprobation, if they (we/I) believe in unconditional election.  In Wesley’s words, “unconditional election cannot appear without the cloven foot of reprobation.”  In making this argument, he seems to overlook the teaching of Genesis 3 and elsewhere in scripture pointing to the doctrine of the natural depravity of mankind, which, as I understand it, is universally held in orthodox Christianity.  It would appear that on one hand he rejects the imputed sin of Adam (compounded by man’s personal sin), while at the same time receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ, for ALL mankind, mind you.  Oops, there is another area of dispute with the Calvinists he did not address…Limited Atonement.
  • There is comparatively little in the way of calm discussion in these essays.  Snarky and sarcastic at times, Wesley seems to get wound up the further he goes with his writings.  An apologist for Wesley would probably dismiss his tone as being passionate.  But one would have to be completely oblivious to the tone that was present in his writing to conclude that his argumentation was “calm.”  His style would be more accurately described as polemic.
  • As you read his essay, you can see that he is constructing a dialogue between a Calvinist and himself  But, the Calvinist is imaginary, and Wesley is playing both roles in this drama.  In so doing, he sets up all sorts of overstated straw men arguments (that generally have little to no basis in historic Reformed theology) and then knocks them down.  If this were parody it would be funny.  But, these were really Wesley’s writings.  The image I have is of an old man sitting on a bench rocking back and forth talking to himself.  But in this case, not just talking, answering his own questions, out loud.

Thanks to Albert Outler and his comments preceding each essay, as well as his excellent footnotes, we are given a peek into what I will call the psyche of Wesley.

  • There are several places in the second essay of this chapter, self-titled by Wesley as “Thoughts upon Necessity” where he identifies some particular theologian who he disagrees with and then quotes them.  One in particular was Jonathan Edwards.  Wesley indents the sections of text that are the “quotations” and then subsequently disputes whatever has been said.  Outler, however, sets the record straight with his footnotes.  It turns out that these are not, in fact, direct quotes of Edwards and others, just a “digest” or even a “rough digest” as Outler calls them.  I suspect a student in a modern-day seminary would be censured or even expelled for taking such liberties in quoting sources, especially if they were represented as direct quotes and then used as a part of a systematic rejection thereof.  I have to admit that I was simultaneously amused and alarmed by what had been revealed about Wesley.
  • In yet another example, similar in nature, Wesley cites a section of the Westminster Confession, in order to refute it.  But Outler notes that it is “a garbled version” of the Confession.  This, and the example above, have left me wondering if this apparent, shall I say, defect, was typical of Wesley, or if these were some rare exceptions that happened to be concentrated in one chapter, in one book.
  • Outler also notes, in his preface, that Wesley was so well versed in scripture that it was often difficult when reading him to know if his references to the word of God and his citations of it were direct quotations of an authentic translation or something else.  “The line between an obvious echo of Scripture and a definite quotation is often blurred” is the way Outler states it.  Does this mean that Wesley was prone to being a little loose with his quoting of scripture, even in his writing, when you might assume he could check his scriptural references?
  • Furthermore, Outler noted that Wesley was so well versed in the original languages, that he wrote his own translation of scripture AND quoted from it.  While on one hand, Wesley can and should be admired for his ability to translate the word of God from Hebrew and Greek, I have to say, for me, any translation of God’s word that has the benefit of a single human editor is something to be questioned.  Pick up a reliable modern, essentially literal translation, and there will have been a team of Biblical scholars working together to critically assemble the translated word of God.  This approach eliminates the potential of a single editor bringing his own doctrinal bias into the work product.  To suggest that Bible translation was not done by “editorial boards” during the time of Wesley is refuted by the fact that the Geneva Bible was translated by just such a board, and its first edition was in 1599.
  • That said, I was somewhat astonished that Wesley used comparatively little in the way of scripture to support his disagreement with Calvinism.  While simultaneously challenging his imaginary Calvinist sparring partner in the essay to provide scriptural support for “their” Reformed point of view, Wesley most often provided none in support of his contentions, as if they were to simply be accepted out of hand.

Not a book I would recommend to the casual reader, it is certainly a good one at providing a peek under Wesley’s “hood.”  Kudos to the editor, Albert Outler, who I gather was quite an admirer of John Wesley.  He referred to his interest in Wesley as “a rather tedious menage a trois” between Wesley, himself, and his wife.  (Eeeww!  I think I would have steered clear of that analogy.)  In spite of his obvious affection for the man and his theological legacy, Outler did a wonderful job of allowing Wesley, himself, to reveal his peculiarities, idiosyncracies, and eccentricities.

I guess you have to admire their stubborn determination

October 28, 2011

About 15 months ago, I noticed an article in the United Methodist Reporter that was trying to diagnose the reason why young people are leaving the United Methodist Church, in favor of (according to the article) churches that adhere to a Reformed theology.  The solution, according to the author of that article was for the UMC to “include more Wesleyanism” in their youth education curriculum.  The irony, which should be obvious, is that young people are rejecting Wesleyanism in favor of the Doctrines of Grace, so the solution hardly seems to be teaching more of that which has already been rejected?  (As if young people respond well to that kind of tactic.)  Still, I conceded at that time that you can hardly expect the UMC to have any other option available other than to “teach more Wesleyanism.”  Still, I suggested that there are some non-soteriological doctrinal and discipline matters that the UMC could undertake to at least try to stem the tide of youth abandonment of their church.  You can read my thoughts as well as that original UMR article by clicking HERE.

That aside, the writers at the United Methodist Reporter are at it again.  This time one of their columnists is suggesting that Arminianism is essential for Methodist recovery.   Once again, I “get” that they really cannot advocate another theology without gutting their entire church history.  So I am neither surprised nor unsettled by that appeal.  And on a certain level, I do sympathize with what the author is trying to get at.  For example, he makes that appeal, in the context of the degree to which  theology in general has taken a back seat to other concerns of the UMC, such as “social justice” which in itself is a loaded term.  In that sense, I agree that the essentials of theology have been left behind while in pursuit of what some think are highly noble causes, but which in most cases have very little to do with justification and sanctification.  And equally these tend to label the UMC as a liberal mainline denomination.  A charge that is not without other substantial evidence to support it. 

Where the author gets way out of line is when he seems to make the argument that a clear contrast needs to be made between the UMC and the theology of John Calvin from the late 1500’s.  While most modern-day Reformed churches do in fact practice a theology that is based on many of the teachings of John Calvin, to use his writings and project them in a near absolute sense to the 21 century Reformed church is silly on its face.  In other places in the article, he quite simply mistates the doctrines of Reformed theology, to his own advantage.  This approach lacks the necessary intellectual honesty to be taken seriously.  My hope is that the author knows better, but I fear he may not.  

My fear is in part supported by the fact that he attempts to make three “simple” contrasts between what Methodists should believe (according to him) and what he asserts “Calvinists” (aka the contemporary Reformed church) do believe.  Two of these three are inaccurate, with the opposing view so misrepresented as to be laughable.  The very least that one can do in trying to argue against another person’s point of view is to make a fair and honest representation of those opposing beliefs. Perhaps in the interest of brevity, he was not able to do so.  That is about the kindest option I can think of as ignorance, or maliciousness are alternatives that come to mind, but which would be ungracious on my part to allege.

Out of the three contrasts the author makes, he did get one right.  And it serves, in part, to define the differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology.  And that difference boils down to a person’s view of the sovereignty of God and His absolute decretal power over all that is, and the degree to which creation and more specifically mankind has been corrupted by sin.  To the Arminian, God is something less than completely sovereign in the classic understanding of that expression, given that sinful man is capable of resisting God’s redemptive advances. In other words, God is “all-powerful” with the exception of his power over man with respect to his (man’s) salvation.  The all-powerful God, who otherwise is totally self-sufficient, transcendent, lacking in nothing, is dependent on man to choose to pursue and follow God.  That is quite a thing to consider.  A “needy” God would be one who comes up a bit short of complete perfection, would it not?

Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches that man is in no way able to resist the regenerating power of an omnipotently sovereign, loving, God.  And furthermore man is not able to make a choice contrary to his thoroughly sinful nature to pursue a path of holiness, without God’s gracious assistance in regeneration.

I tremble at the thought of someone standing before the creator of the universe and insisting that he, the person, was more powerful than God in the sense that for a time, or perhaps forever, was able to resist God’s overtures to him. Or that he, the person, made some sort of ultimately determinative decision about salvation, contrary to his sinful nature, and independent of God’s regenerating and enabling power.  That sin of pride alone would be sufficient to condemn them to Hell.

In the article, the matter of “election” comes up several times.  With respect to this doctrine which is undeniably present in the pages of scripture, I think the dividing line between Arminians and those who are persuaded by Reformed theology is that Arminians are perhaps imposing their own view of “fairness” on God, wondering why He would save some and not others, whereas, the “Calvinist” wonders why God would save any.  And, there seems to be a glaring oversight on the part of the Arminian with respect to the evidence that God has provided of His character in “electing” certain people in favor of others, even to the point of utter destruction of those not chosen, starting with the book of Genesis, and flowing though to the book of Revelation.  My question to the Arminian would be, was God not being fair when he chose Noah, his wife and his three sons and their wives but destroyed everything else in the flood.  Was God not being fair when he imposed the plagues and finally struck down the first-born of Egypt in the process of liberating His CHOSEN people, Israel?  Well, was he?  The pages of scripture are filled with examples of God’s seeming unfairness if the measuring rod is man’s sensibility. And the ultimate unfairness was for Jesus to die for my sins when he committed none of them, and by all rights, what is “fair” would be for me to be punished.  Once again, I tremble at the thought of someone standing before God and shaking a fist, or wagging a finger and saying “it isn’t fair that you saved some and not others!” when this has been God’s testimony of Himself since time began. 

For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  Eph 2: 8,9

When kids leave the church

July 22, 2010

“When kids leave the church” is the title of the cover article for the July 23, 2010 issue of The United Methodist Reporter.  You can read the entire piece by clicking HERE.

The article strikes me as one that merely identifies the problem that the UMC is experiencing, that is, losing young people from its roles, but fails to really deal with the sharp edges of why those loses are occurring.  The article seems to suggest that there is not enough “Wesleyanism” being taught in UMC youth curriculum, as if that is the solution, particularly when they acknowledge that when youth are exposed to Reformed Theology, they tend to bolt from the UMC.  So, let me get this straight…when young people are exposed to the self-evident truths of the Doctrines of Grace, the solution is to give them more Wesleyanism?  Yikes!   Is it possible that Reformed Theology is simply more Biblically persuasive that Arminianism?  My opinion aside, the statistics seem to speak for themselves.  The UMC should perhaps look beyond the data exclusively related to their own youth, and take note of the huge upswing in young people embracing reformed doctrine.

Still, I get that it would be disingenuous for the UMC to NOT teach Wesleyanism as a counter proposal to Reformed Theology.  While it may be a losing game, I understand the dilemma they are in.  So, perhaps they should look beyond their fundamental doctrine to areas where they have departed from historic Christian orthodoxy, and deal with those stumbling blocks they have set up for themselves with respect to keeping or attracting young people to continue to associate with their denomination.  Perhaps they should begin by challenging the culturally expedient, but completely unbiblical policy of ordaining women as pastors/elders which leads to them being installed in roles where they teach and have authority over men.  Is it possible that when young people read the writings of the apostle Paul that they see a willful disobedience on the part of the “church of their youth,” and decide that they need to be nurtured under the more Biblically faithful institutions?  Is it possible that some of the left-leaning social justice sensitivities of the UMC and their support of explicitly un-Christian theological education at one of their affiliated seminaries is not an attractive set of policies for young people?  Indeed, these are also off-putting for adults, who are also leaving the UMC in droves, just as they are from other similarly liberal old mainline denominations.

“More Wesleyanism” may be a strategy that is unavoidable for the UMC, even if its effectiveness is questionable.  So perhaps energy should be expended on areas that can and should be changed, and which might actually prove to be helpful in retaining kids (and their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles…) before they leave the UMC.

This sounds about right.

February 18, 2009

A recent Ellison Research study found that 22% of respondent prefer one brand of toothpaste and use it only.  Similarly, 19% prefer one brand of toilet paper, and use over all other brands.  16% of respondents said they prefer one religious denomination over all others, and “use” it exclusively.  Conclusion…surveyed people have a stronger preference for what they use to clean their mouths and their bottoms, than for the institutions that serve to teach about the salvation of their souls.

But this sounds about right to me.  I have contended for some time, including in couple of articles at this site, that the last 25 or so years have brought with them the diminishing of religious denominations and the flourishing of faithful individual congregations.  Some of these congregations, might “network” with other like-minded groups of believers, but those networks sometimes include congregations that bear a different “brand” on the sign outside their places of worship.  Religious liberalism has brought with it the presumably unintended consequence of the destruction of the overarching institutions which their leaders represent and the elevation of the local body of believers, even among so-called connectional denominations.  I am convinced from personal experience and observation that the parent churches among the Presbyterians (USA), the United Methodists, the Episcopal Church (USA) among others, are nearly rotten to the core. 

Yet, there remain faithful individual congregations among them that still are unwavering in their belief in such essential “first order” theological matters as the authority and accuracy of scripture (particularly as it relates to the subject of qualifications for the office of elder in a church, and the clear teaching of the Bible on such matters as sexual immorality, both homosexual and heterosexual),  the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ’s atonement for sin, the Trinity, and the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. 

It is the apparent uncertainty, or dismissal of these core doctrines that have resulted in the irrelevancy of denominations, while adherence to them has caused individual collections of faithful believers at the local congregational level to thrive.

It seems to beg the question…”Do the facts not speak for themselves and are the metrics of membership loss and indeed even entire congregational loss not obvious to everyone, particularly the people who sit in the seats of authority among these old and dying institutions of faith?”  It seems so plainly obvious, that it speaks not so much to ignorance, but perhaps more to a sordid sort of defiance.

Sperately, but not unrelated, check out this link and be sure to look at both the “Breakdown of Religious Belief” and the “Topography of Faith”.  The map is almost too cool.  Roll your mouse over the map of the US and look at the stats to the right.

This gives the intent of the expression a whole new significance.

July 19, 2008

A few years ago, The Coca-Cola Company declared that its operating strategies would be to “think globally, but act locally.”  The concept was probably not invented by Coke, and there are other organizations and causes that have co-opted the same philosophy.  By that expression, they meant that the products of The Coca-Cola Company will stand for refreshment, affordability, high quality, fun, etc., on a world-wide basis.  Likewise, the company itself will insist on high standards of business ethics and professionalism in every market in which it operates.  But, the company also acknowledged that individual markets have unique an particular requirements.  And to be a valued supplier, The Coca-Cola Company needed to be both aware of, and responsive to those requirements.  It makes sense.  But it bears mentioning that “thinking locally” never granted permission to a local manager or executive to do ANYTHING counter to or harmful to the global image or positioning of the company or its brands.  Violators pay with their careers, as senior corporate executives are totally committed to preserving and protecting the good name and reputation of the company and its products.

The United Methodist Church is facing a serious threat to its authority.  “Thinking globally,” United Methodist Church law, forbids its ministers from performing ceremonies that celebrate the union of same-sex couples.  This has been a contentious subject for a number of years, but so far, a part of the “global operating strategy” of the United Methodist Church is to uphold the belief that homosexual practice is not compatible with Christian teaching. 

Unfortunately, the United Methodist Church has, within its ranks, a number of ministers who have taken the “act locally” concept a bit too far.  The Los Angeles Times reported last Thursday, that United Methodist ministers in California, (where the state’s supreme court recently ruled in favor of permitting gay marriage) are performing, or are planning to perform same-sex marriages.  These ministers will be performing ceremonies in direct violation of the church law of the denomination they have freely chosen to be ordained and governed by ecclesiastically.  It is my hope that the bishops of the United Methodist Church, its “senior executives,” will be as thoroughly commited to the clear teaching of scripture, as the top management of The Coca-Cola Company is with respect to the principles and image of their company. 

If a denomination is to remain relevant, it must have global standards by which it conducts its global ministry.  And while ministry clearly is a local activity, in fact it really is an individual person-to-person activity, it is not an unreasonable expectation on the part of any church that its ministers support the laws and teaching of that church.  Ministers who are not faithful to the laws of their church must be disciplined in a serious and credible way.  Given the seriousness of this matter, that is individuals doing violence to the very church laws that they pledge to uphold, expulsion seems like the appropriate response.  It seems to me that this is no small matter.  The name and reputation of the United Methodist Church really does hang in the balance. 

The world will be watching.  The Lord is watching.