Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Oden’

Podcast Episode #31: “One-Conditional Love”

October 13, 2018

It’s become a truism within Christian circles to speak of God’s “unconditional love” for humanity. But is this the most accurate way to describe God’s love? In this episode, following the lead of the late United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden (who first popularized the phrase “unconditional love” within theology), I argue that God’s love is best described as “one-conditional,” not unconditional.

As I warn in this episode, the difference between the two couldn’t be more consequential.

This is the second of two podcasts on the authority of scripture. 

Podcast Text: 2 Timothy 3:16-17

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, October 12, 2018, and this is episode number 31 in my ongoing series of podcasts. 

You’re listening right now to “Unconditional Love,” by the Altar Boys, from their 1986 album, Gut Level Music. The Altar Boys were a Christian punk band—yes, they had that sort of thing back in the glorious ’80s, when I was coming of age. This song was not one of their original compositions, however. It was written by two Christian musicians—the former “queen of disco,” Donna Summer, and producer-songwriter Michael Omartian. If you remember the eighties the way I do, you’ll recall that the song was a minor hit for Ms. Summer in 1983, and the music video featured the Jamaican boy band Musical Youth, who had just had a hit on MTV with their song “Pass the Dutchie.”

In a little while, I’ll switch gears and play the song “Crossfire” by Kansas from their 1982 album, Vinyl Confessions. This was the second album the band made after lead guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren—the writer of “Carry On, Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”—was converted to Christianity, along with bass player Dave Hope. 

You’ll hear that song later. But I’m starting with the Altar Boys because we Christians today practically take for granted that God loves us with un-conditional love. We use that expression all the time: unconditional love. In fact, I still remember an argument I got into many years on my blog with a dear Christian friend who challenged me on the notion of God’s unconditional love. God’s love, he said, is not unconditional. And I thought his words were borderline heresy! 

Imagine my surprise, then, just a few years ago, when I read a theological memoir called A Change of Heart by a well-respected theologian—who also happens to be United Methodist—named Thomas Oden. (Oden died in 2016.) In this memoir, he sheepishly admits that he was responsible for either coining the phrase “unconditional love,” or at least popularizing and applying it for the first time to theology—and to God’s loving relationship with humanity. He said he borrowed the concept from the psychotherapeutic work of psychologist Carl Rogers. 

When Oden first began writing about God’s unconditional love, he was a progressive Christian theologian. But he changed. In the late-’60s he experienced a conversion of sorts; by his own admission, he embraced orthodox Christianity—not capital O orthodox; he remained a humble Methodist. But he was no longer enamored with innovation in Christian theology; when it came to theology he liked the old stuff. In fact, he told Christianity Today that he had a dream once in which he saw his tombstone. His epitaph read as follows: “He made no new contribution to theology.” Oden became, in his own words, an “orthodox, ecumenical evangelical.” Read the rest of this entry »

Why I am not a “progressive Christian”

November 11, 2015

This blog post, “10 Ways to Describe Your Progressive Christian Faith without Saying ‘But I’m Not…,'” by Maggie Nancarrow made the social media rounds this week. It was a response to Buzzfeed’s recent viral video, “I’m Christian, but I’m Not…”

That video, with its accompanying hashtag, has already been justly and thoroughly lampooned, including by our friends at Lutheran Satire. I have nothing to add to the discussion.

But I do want to respond, as fairly as I can, to this “10 Ways” post. As recently as six or seven years ago, during and shortly after seminary, I identified as a progressive Christian. How different is my outlook today than it was then? I was curious to find out. (Nancarrow is an Episcopalian who earned a Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago and works with youth at a United Methodist church.)

The following are her ten points, with my comments. I’ll consider the first two together:

1. I am a Progressive Christian, and I believe that God loves me and you and everybody exactly as they are, unconditionally.

2. Yet, God loves us too much to leave us that way–I am a Progressive Christian because I believe that God is always pushing me to grow in love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.

This is true as far as it goes. By all means, God’s saving plan for the world through Jesus Christ begins with God’s love for sinful humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” (Ezekiel 33:11). These verses, and many more, reflect God’s love for sinful, unredeemed humanity.

But I want to hear Nancarrow say more about the meaning of “exactly as they are, unconditionally.” It’s true that through repentance and faith in Christ, God embraces us “exactly as we are,” the way the father embraces his younger son in the parable, after the son repents. We who were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) become, by grace through faith, children of God. Once this happens, don’t we experience a deeper or qualitatively different kind of love than the love that God has for sinful humanity in general?

Regardless, whether we experience God’s love in this way is conditional. It depends on repentance and faith, which are themselves made possible through he work of the Spirit.

In his recent memoir, former liberal-turned-orthodox United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden takes responsibility for popularizing the idea of God’s “unconditional love” back in the ’60s:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

I also agree with #2 that “God loves us too much to leave us that way,” although I worry that Nancarrow makes the gospel sound like a mere project for personal improvement. Yes, through sanctification, God wants us to “grow in love of God, neighbor, and self,” but this only happens as God deals with the sin in our lives that threatens to destroy us—indeed, that would have destroyed us eternally if not for Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

Humanity’s main problem is not that we’re not as loving as we should be. Our lack of love is a symptom of the main problem: We are sinners whose sin has separated us from a holy God. And God has justifiable wrath toward sin.

Furthermore, inasmuch as God’s love is “unconditional,” it isn’t that way forever: we will all face final judgment, after which God, for the sake of his perfect justice, will punish the unredeemed in hell. While I believe that even hell is a necessary consequence of love, it’s hardly the kind of “love” suggested by the blogger’s first two statements.

From my perspective, therefore, Nancarrow’s words here badly underestimate the crisis that humanity faces.

3. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that my God actually chose to be human like us–and live the beautiful, painful, messy life of a human just like us–solely to love us better.

Two thoughts: First, shouldn’t we point out that Jesus’ life—beautiful and painful though it was—was not as messy as ours, simply because, unlike the rest of us, he didn’t sin? Unlike us, he obeyed his Father perfectly. When I consider my life, I bring most of its “messiness” on myself through sin.

More importantly, God didn’t become fully human “solely to love us better,” but to make us lovable—so that we could be in a right relationship with him! Nancarrow’s statement makes it sound as if the problem in humanity’s relationship with God were, prior to the Incarnation, on God’s side—that God needed learn something about us, that God needed to grow. Perish the thought!

4. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that God rose from the dead in order to prove how much we are loved.

What an odd way to put it! First, why avoid Trinitarian language? Scripture speaks of God the Father sending Jesus, guiding Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Spirit. Yes, Jesus is also God, so in that sense “God rose,” but this language sounds unitarian. Why?

I wonder if, by avoiding the Trinity, Nancarrow wants to avoid the meaning of cross, which, you’ll notice, she doesn’t mention in any of her ten points.

Remove the Trinity from the work of Christ, and there’s no sense in which God the Father wanted or willed or sent his Son to die; there’s no sense in which Christ’s death was necessary and good in order to bring about our forgiveness; there’s no sense in which (and this gets to the heart of it, I believe) Christ’s death was a propitiation to his Father on our behalf (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). If God isn’t a Trinity, then God requires nothing that Christ’s death satisfies—certainly not the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

I suspect that Nancarrow would say that the cross was incidental to God’s mission to love and be loved.

Besides, as in my citation of Romans 5:8 above, the Bible itself says that Christ’s death, not his resurrection, is the thing that “proves” God’s love. Sure, resurrection does that, too, but it’s as if she’s emphasizing the wrong note in the melody. Again, why not mention the cross?

5. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that my God gives me the tools–and the command–to spread the story of resurrection and love to those who need it most.

Is she talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, the Great Commission, and evangelism? Why not say so?

To those who need it most. Who needs it more than anyone else? We all need the gospel of Jesus Christ, apart from which all of us are lost and bound for hell.

6. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that I–and all people–are invited to find healing from all pain, sorrow, and failure at God’s table during communion.

Notice she says we need “healing” from failure rather than sin.

Is she talking about “open communion,” which Methodists and Anglicans, among others, practice? I believe in open communion, but that hardly makes me a theological progressive. Besides, even in the Methodist tradition the table isn’t open without qualification, only to those who “earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.” The table is open because we don’t presume to look into people’s hearts and see whether or not that’s the case. I’m sure God does look into their hearts!

7. I am a Progressive Christian because I believe that through Jesus, God declared that death, hate and oppression are never the last word.

I agree without qualification. Yay!

8. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that, in our very busy world, my Christian faith offers me a time to slow down and take my relationships seriously.

This is a bromide. It’s not that it isn’t true, it’s that it isn’t even untrue.

9. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that, in our divided and fearful world, my Christian faith offers me a way to live into connection, belonging, and trust.

See my response to #8 (although watch out for ISIS!).

10. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that racism, and sexism, and all the isms that separate us from seeing each other as full humans, are sins against God, and in faith, we are called to stand up against them.

Does she add this because we conservative evangelicals are fully supportive of racism, sexism, and any other -ism that “separates us from seeing each other as full humans”? Please!

Besides, is Pope Francis for those “-isms,” too? Yet he’s no progressive.

The overarching problem with this list is Nancarrow’s refusal to deal with the authority of scripture. What doctrine of the Bible, after all, would permit her to disregard so much of it, to ignore the traditions of interpretation surrounding it, and to redefine so much of its unambiguous language?

She begins her post by saying that the “crazy/fundamentalist/mean/convinced that there is a war on Christmas” Christianity is “not normative—it is not the true Jesus movement, it is not our religion.” That’s fine; there’s plenty of room in between that form of Christianity, if it exists, and her own. But what makes her think that hers is the “true Jesus movement”—when she’s thrown away the only scale by which we can measure its truthfulness?

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.

“Freedom from the dread of dying”

August 26, 2015

odenI’m afraid of dying. As a Christian, I feel slightly guilty in saying this. But it’s true. I am not yet at the place where the apostle Paul was, in Philippians, when he could look forward to death: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

I am unimpressed, therefore, when I hear atheist apologists, as I often do, accuse us Christians of being weak-minded—that our faith is a psychological crutch to help us cope with the harsh reality of death.

Oh, please! I find the materialistic alternative—that our existence ends in death—much easier to believe! In other words, without examining the evidence, without reasoning it through—relying on gut feeling alone—I find it harder to believe in heaven and future resurrection.

What about you?

I hope and expect, God willing, that this fear of death will diminish over time, that God will give me the grace to deal with my own death when I need it. In the meantime, I take comfort in reading credible testimonies of Christians who have near-death experiences. In saying this, I’m well aware that near-death experiences are controversial—and I’m skeptical of many of them, too.

But I do believe that in some cases, at least, God gives people a spiritual experience when they are close to death, which bolsters their faith when they recover. For them, these experiences are a gift of grace.

One such testimony comes from theologian Thomas Oden, which he describes in his recent memoir, A Change of Heart. He had open-heart surgery back in the ’80s. There were complications after completing the bypass, so the doctors needed to go back in for a second, emergency procedure. He nearly died.

I regained partial consciousness in between those two surgeries and could hear the voices in the operating room and was conscious enough to realize that a serious medical emergency was occurring. During that unforeseen waking moment, I had the clear impression that I had already died. Unexplainably I felt an unexpected sense of relief, joy and entry into a distinctly new world where a bright light was radiating into my soul.

I was bathed in a glorious world of light—stunning, radiant light of a different sort than I had ever seen. The light seemed to be not the light from the operating room ceiling but from somewhere far beyond. I was surprised that I was not at all afraid. After the second surgery, when I woke up I realized that I had not died…

The deeper discovery for me was the lasting realization that I was not afraid of dying. This is not a report of a near-death experience but rather an imagined death experience. After that I felt a freedom from the dread of dying that has offered inexpressible comfort to me in the ensuing years. At my lowest point physically I underwent a peace experience spiritually. It was as real as anything I have ever experienced.[1]

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 182.

Is God’s love “unconditional”?

August 17, 2015

odenI’m reading Thomas Oden’s theological memoir A Change of Heart, and I did a double-take when I stumbled across the following passage. Oden describes how, in the ’60s, he spent time integrating the psychotherapeutic ideas of Carl Rogers with his own “demythothologized” version of Christian theology (which he has long since renounced). Here, he describes how successful his efforts were—unfortunately:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

While I haven’t preached God’s “unconditional love”-without-qualification in some time, I’ve taken for granted that it still expressed some truth about God’s love for us. But why? The concept isn’t found in scripture. Yet, since my formative years in Southern Baptist youth group, I’ve heard that God loves us unconditionally.

As a first-generation MTV viewer, I’m sure I was even influenced by this 1983 video by Donna Summer and Musical Youth!

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.

Christmas needs the cross, part 2

December 19, 2013

In a current series of posts entitled “Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” United Methodist pastor, blogger, and author Jason Micheli writes the following (sorry—the man likes carriage returns):

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As I said in yesterday’s lengthy post, I responded to his words above with the following:

Saying that Jesus “came to die” is an inelegant, un-nuanced way of expressing the truth that Jesus did, in fact, come to rescue us from our sin and reconcile us to God.

Yesterday, I began laying out why I disagree with Micheli (and why I find his overall tone—that any half-wit can see that he’s right and nearly everyone else is wrong—obnoxious, to say the least).

I felt slightly intimidated, however, because he says (without citing any sources) that he’s not saying anything that classic Christian thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus didn’t also say.

But of those thinkers, I’ve only read a little of Aquinas, so what do I know, right?

I thought, “Am I missing something?” Has my seminary education once again let me down? At Emory—which is hardly Bob Jones University, after all—we were never taught, for example, that God sent his Son for some reason other than to save us. “For us and for our salvation,” the Nicene Creed says, “he came down from heaven.” And this view certainly corresponds to Wesleyan thinking on the subject.

But to appreciate my insecurity, you must understand something about me: over the past five years, I have experienced nothing less than an evangelical reawakening. I have fallen in love with the Bible again. I believe in its infallibility. I believe that the Bible is sufficient to inform our thinking about God, humanity’s relationship with God, and Christian faith.

To put things in perspective, there was a time when I thought (to my great shame) that C.S. Lewis—C.S. Lewis!—wasn’t a sophisticated enough Christian thinker, unlettered as he was in modern theology! Isn’t that hilarious? I was literally sophomoric when I graduated from the Candler School of theology. (“Sophomore” literally means, from Greek roots, “wise fool.”)

By the way, Jason Micheli lost me the moment he prefaced a quotation of C.S. Lewis by saying, “I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis but…”

So here I am, trying to understand what the Bible says, believing that the Bible alone ought to inform our understanding of the incarnation. After all, the Bible already has much to say about it without resorting to philosophical ideas outside of the Bible.

In his defense, Micheli says he’s doing speculative theology, that he’s only speculating on ideas about which the Bible is silent but which are nevertheless philosophically necessary—as any trained chimpanzee could surely see, he might add.

In principle, speculative theology that’s unopposed to biblical theology is O.K., so long as our speculations don’t become dogmatized (as with the Marian dogmas or transubstantiation in Roman Catholic theology). But as I’ve tried to argue, Micheli’s argument comes into conflict with what the Bible actually says.

He says, for instance, that God can’t truly love us unless or until God becomes incarnate in Christ. I am always very reluctant, even in theological discourse, to say what God can and can’t do. I’ll let God speak for himself, which in this case I believe he has—in scripture! John 3:16, for example, certainly contradicts Micheli’s idea: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Because God already loved the world, he sent his Son. The incarnation was a consequence of God’s prior love. Not to mention that God loved his people Israel in the Old Testament, as the Bible says in a thousand different ways.

Micheli also says, for instance, that it’s incorrect to say that God became incarnate to save us from sin. But against this idea, I read verses like Matthew 20:28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. Or Galatians 4:4-5: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” God sent his Son to redeem. Or Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He partook of flesh and blood that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

As Jesus turns his face to his impending suffering and death on the cross, he says, in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is his being lifted up on the cross. For this purpose I have come to this hour—to die on the cross. 

In the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, Paul connects the birth and incarnation (“having been found in human form”) directly to the cross (“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”)

But this is just me citing scripture. I’m no Duns Scotus, after all. So I consulted United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, which synthesizes the Bible and the the thinking of the Church Fathers. In his the section of his book entitled “The Necessity of the Incarnation,” Oden writes[†]: “Scripture states the point starkly: he came to die (Athanasius, Four Discourses Ag. Arians, 3:58). The relationship between his birth and death can be stated schematically,” and he includes the following schematic (click to expand):

oden

 

All that to say, I hope, that it is no theological mistake to say that the main reason God became incarnate was to save us from sin. To say that the meaning of Christmas is found in the cross. Or, indeed, even to say that Jesus was born to die.

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 272.

Is the doctrine of hell an essential part of Christianity?

October 2, 2012

The scripture I preached on last Sunday, Acts 4:1-22, includes these words from Peter, which go against the prevailing Oprah-fication of American culture: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (v. 12).

If it’s true that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus, then our mission as a church couldn’t be more urgent. Toward the end of my sermon, I expressed this urgency as follows:

If we don’t start speaking and acting and praying and inviting, don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love will miss out on the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might die without having given their lives to Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might be eternally separated from God in hell.

To our shame, we United Methodists rarely talk about hell, even though Jesus himself talked about it frequently. We often avoid it like the plague, although we may do so for the best of reasons: none of us, after all, wants to be judgmental.

How exactly is it judgmental to warn people about the possibility of hell? We Christians don’t have any biblical warrant to say who goes there: God is the judge, not us. What we can say—and what we ought to say loudly and confidently—is that through faith in Jesus Christ we will avoid hell. An important part of what it means to be saved from our sin is to be saved from hell.

Of course, we can also avoid talking about hell for the worst of reasons—which is, we don’t really believe it exists. If so, we should heed the words of theologian Thomas Oden, a United Methodist, reflecting on both scripture and the church’s traditional understanding of the doctrine:

The stark words “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire” [from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats] have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text (Jerome, Ag. RufinusFC 53:109). The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it. Every mitigating theory is wrecked on these words, which are “not as doubtful or ambiguous as represented; and even if they were, the rule is to interpret the obscure by the plain” (Banks, MCD: 362). The problem is not that the words are obscure, but that they are all too plain (Augustine, CG 21:23; Kierkegaard, On Self-examination).[1]

To fail to believe in or emphasize hell, as theologian Jerry Walls, another United Methodist, points out, is to risk trivializing the gospel.

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[2]

I don’t think Walls would argue that the gospel doesn’t also mean personal fulfillment, or a positive self-image, or a better outlook on life. I have certainly experienced it that way, and I preach that. But long before we get there, the gospel must mean salvation from sin, death, and, yes, hell.

1 Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 827.

2 Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

Wesley’s theology, in one nice package

August 9, 2012

Methodist preacher’s kids!

I’m sympathetic with Scot McKnight, an Anabaptist writer and theologian, when he says that Wesley’s theological ideas are “hard to access.” Wesley, after all—unlike Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin, not to mention many theologians of the past century—never bothered to organize his theology into one neat package that we call “systematic theology.” Wesley was a preacher first and foremost. His theology came across mostly in sermons, Bible commentary, journal entries, and letters. And—good heavens—as many others have said, he never had an unpublished thought!

Fortunately, for those of us interested in Wesley’s theology, United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden has come to the rescue. I just ordered the first volume of a new four-volume project to systematize what had previously been, um, unsystematizable. (I have to occasionally use words like that so you’ll know that I’ve been to seminary.) Oden has organized and synthesized Wesley’s ideas as if Wesley himself had written systematic theology. The project is called John Wesley’s Teachings.

I haven’t read it yet, but I trust Oden to do the job. I frequently refer to his previous work of systematic theology, Classic ChristianityIn that three-volume work, he aspired, he said,  to say nothing new. Rather, he created a systematic theology based on the consensus of Christian thought: here’s what most Christian thinkers over the past two millennia have believed on topics related to God, humanity, Jesus, salvation, atonement, the Holy Spirit, etc. I often use Classic Christianity to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

Along with McKnight, I hope Oden’s new work will mean that theologians will “no longer be able to ignore Wesley.”