Friday, September 21, 2012

Reply to Geordan Hammon's 'John Wesley's Sacramental Theology and Practice in Georgia'

Given at the Uniting Church Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville, 27 August 2012

The Wesleys in Georgia icon by Louise Shipps
Note: There is some duplication in the first section of this post from my earlier post on 'Listening to John Wesley in the Uniting Church.' Those who do not wish to read that again can skip down to the next section

It is a genuine honour to be invited to respond today to the excellent paper of my colleague Dr. Geordan Hammond. Before I respond directly to the paper, I would like to reflect briefly on the Uniting Church context.

Listening to John Wesley in the Uniting Church

It is sometimes difficult to say too much about one of the precedent traditions of the UCA since to do so might seem to be privileging the contribution of one tradition over the others. There are those who feel that hearkening back to Wesley would be a backward step when the UCA is called to be a new, dynamic, and forward-looking Church.  Yet the Basis of Union calls us to pay close attention to the formative voices of the past.        

Paragraph 10 of the Basis of Union calls upon the Uniting Church to ‘listen to the preaching of John Wesley in his Forty-Four Sermons (1793)’ and commits its ministers and instructors to ‘study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ’s people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.’[1]

Davis McCaughey, in his Commentary on the Basis of Union, reflected on the Uniting Church’s readiness, expressed in Paragraph 1 of the Basis of Union, to ‘go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ, the living Head of the Church.’[2]

It would have been easier to say, ‘we shall go forward loyal to the best of our traditions as Calvinists and Wesleyans…And…we would neglect what Calvin and Wesley have to teach us to our peril. But at the beginning the Basis of Union reminds that our loyalty is not to them but to Christ.[3] 

There is wisdom in these words.  The ancestors are not to be followed blindly or uncritically and our loyalty is first to Christ. Yet to neglect Calvin, Wesley and other fathers and mothers of the faith is to be imperiled. Earlier this year I read Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson’s Theology for Pilgrims, a collection of important formal documents of the UCA. It was interesting to note the tendency in the definitive sources selected to appeal to John Wesley and the Methodist tradition when wishing to affirm the ongoing significance of Evangelicalism and evangelistic activity in the Uniting Church.[4] The idea that Wesley’s thought may be an important theological resource for the Uniting Church was less evident.  I think it is fair to say that the renaissance in Wesley studies that was initiated in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to the present, has made it much clearer than the framers of the Basis of Union could have foreseen, how valuable a theological resource is the founder of Methodism.

The Christocentric features of the Basis of Union make the document profoundly Evangelical in the broadest sense of that term, and there is at least one particular place where a characteristically Wesleyan theological emphasis may be identified.  Paragraph 6 confesses that Christ, by the gift of the Spirit, ‘awakens, purifies, and advances in [us] that faith and hope in which alone [the] benefits [of new life and freedom] can be accepted.’[5] Giving close attention to Wesley’s theology can continue to be one way that the Uniting Church can live out of that freedom which is made ever new by the Spirit. 

Wesley and the Sacraments

Dr. Hammond has provided us with a careful and comprehensive account of Wesley’s approach to the sacraments, well grounded in the sources and in Wesley’s own immediate context, particularly in Georgia. His paper is a model of what Albert Outler called ‘Phase III’ of Wesley Studies.  ‘Phase I’ was the hagiographical approach to which early biographers and admiring Methodists were particularly prone.  ‘Phase II’ was the attempt to claim Wesley as belonging to a particular tradition - Anglo-Catholic (Rattenbury), Reformed (Cell, Cannon, Deschner), Puritan (Monk), Moravian (Towlson, Hildebrandt), and others.  ‘Phase III’ according to Outler was long overdue and would open toward a ‘new future for Wesley studies’ reading Wesley on his own terms and in light of his sources.[6]

So thank you Geordan for making clear the influence of the Nonjurors on Wesley’s sacramental thought and practice, for providing us with a summary of John Johnson’s Unbloody Sacrifice, Daniel Brevint’s Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, and William Wall’s History of Infant Baptism, and for describing Wesley’s sacramental practice in Georgia.  The observation that Wesley held a minority view within the Church of England on the Prayer Book in keeping with the Usagers among the Non-Jurors is of very real interest.  It is also worth noting in Geordan’s conclusion that, though Wesley later dropped some of the practices applied in Georgia, his overall theology of the sacraments did not undergo significant change later in his life.    
Such careful contextual reading of Wesley has too often been neglected so that we have ended up with readings of Wesley that are coloured by what some modern Methodists wish that Wesley had said and did, rather than what he actually did say and do.  Protestants, and especially Evangelicals, have often been embarrassed by Wesleys sacramental views, and have attempted to show, either that Wesley uncritically accepted the Anglican formularies, or that his theology underwent a change after his Aldersgate experience, as if he had been a High Church sacramentalist beforehand and a Low Church evangelical afterwards.  This is wide of the mark.  There seems to have been little shift in Wesley’s sacramental views after Aldersgate although Swedish Bishop Ole Borgen argued in the 1970s that after 24 May 1738 there was in Wesley’s view of the sacraments a greater stress on God’s action rather than on human action.[7] The claim that Wesley’s sacramental theology is muddled or inconsistent or that his Protestant theology of justification cannot be reconciled with his Catholic theology of the sacraments is uncritical and thus misplaced.  

Wesley follows Augustine and the Western tradition generally in distinguishing between the signum (the sign) and the res (the thing signified). There are two parts to a sacrament and they naturally belong together, though they cannot be identified as the same thing. This is why Wesley is able to say that baptism is not the new birth, and at the same time that it is brings the new birth.[8] The word ‘baptism’ sometimes refers only to the outward sign of water, and in this sense baptism is not the new birth.  However, when the word is used in the sense of including the inward reality of baptism - justifying and regenerating grace - then baptism does bring the new birth. When Wesley refuses to identify the signum with the res, he is certainly not suggesting that they should ever be separated! Notwithstanding any misgivings about the mind/body distinction that may be in our audience, for the sake of the argument – the mind and the body are to be separated in logical distinction, but no one would want them to be separated in experience.  The soul is not the body and the body is not the soul, but body and the soul together make a person.  Similarly, the outward sign is not the inward reality and the inward reality is not the sign, but both together make a sacrament.[9]

Whilst John Wesley maintained the importance of the formal validity of sacramental administration among the episcopally ordained priests of the Church of England, this insistence was, for him, a question of church order.  He had a much deeper concern and that was the concern to demonstrate that unless God himself validates the sacraments, they are of no effect, regardless of who performs them, or how closely the rubrics are followed.  Unless God’s grace effectuates the sacramental signs they are nothing. It is not the validity of the orders of the one who presides that matters, or even the form of words, but the grace of the one who effectuates, a kind of ex opera Deus is at work.

William Wall's History of Infant Baptism
Wesley on Baptism

It is traditional in meetings such as these for the respondent to find something to criticise in the main paper. I have no real criticism to make and the suggestion I do make now hardly even qualifies as a quibble.  It may have been preferable in considering the sacraments to begin with baptism before moving on to the Eucharist, since baptism is constitutive of Christian identity and it is baptismal grace that provides the foundation of all subsequent religious experience and entrance to the Eucharistic feast.       

Whilst baptism is not absolutely necessary for salvation, it is, according to Wesley, God’s ordinary means of conveying justifying grace.  Christ, the Second Adam, has found a remedy for the disease of sin, and ‘the benefit of this is to be received through the means which he has appointed; through baptism in particular, which is the ordinary means he hath appointed for that purpose; and to which God hath tied us, though he may not have tied himself.  Indeed, where it cannot be had, the case is different, but extraordinary cases do not make void a standing rule.’[10]

This does not mean that Wesley saw baptism as any sort of absolute guarantee of heaven.  It is possible to strangle the seed of new life implanted in baptism.  Wesley never loses sight of moral responsibility, which is why he was able to declare to the baptized gentlemen at Oxford, ‘You must be born again!’  It wasn’t that they hadn’t been born again at baptism, but that they had so quenched the Spirit through a lifetime of willful sin, that they must now repent and believe.  In baptism ‘...a principle of grace is infused, which will not be wholly taken away, unless we quench the Holy Spirit of God by long-continued wickedness.’[11]

Infants, as well as older believers, are the proper recipients of baptism, a position for which Wesley argues ‘from Scripture, reason, and primitive universal practice.’[12]  Borgen contrasts Wesley’s approach with that of modern Methodists.
[Modern Methodism has] reduced [infant baptism] to little more than an ‘excuse’ for demanding certain vows of the parents.  God is not allowed to give his grace    to anybody who is not of age.  The emphasis is purely on human actions and experience.  Such views exhibit a frightening ignorance of what Wesley actually        teaches concerning baptismal grace…Modern Methodism practically push[es] God out of the picture.  Wesley always stresses experience, but his emphasis is on God’s work, and not on [human] ability or ‘experience.’[13]

Infants ought to be baptized, furthermore, since they ought to come to Christ and be admitted into the Church and thus dedicated to God through the means he has appointed.[14] Turning to apostolic practice, Wesley argues, ‘If to baptize infants has been the general practice of the Christian Church in all places and in all ages, then this must have been the practice of the Apostles, and consequently, the mind of Christ.’[15] He cites Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine in support of this.  Indeed, there is not ‘ instance in all antiquity, of any orthodox Christian who denied baptism to children...[Such practice was] never opposed till the last century but one, by some not very holy men in Germany...[W]e may safely conclude, it was handed down from the Apostles, who best knew the mind of Christ.’[16]

Finally, Wesley argues from the covenant of grace.  All that was promised under the Old Covenant has its equivalent under the New Covenant. Just as children received circumcision then, they ought to receive its equivalent in baptism now. 

It is clear, then that Wesley’s theology of baptism, far from being muddled, confused, or uncritical, is a well thought through position, consonant with the classical Christian consensus.  Certainly, Wesley displays no great innovation in his theology of baptism, and some might see this conservatism as less than a virtue.  His most important work on the subject, A Treatise on Baptism (1758) is an extract from his father, Samuel’s work Pious Communicant (1700).  Some find fault with this, as if Wesley ought to have done more thinking of his own in this area and come up with a theology of baptism that fit more neatly his evangelical doctrine of the new birth.  But Wesley’s theology of infant baptism is no less evangelical than his theology of justification by faith.  (The same of course is true of Martin Luther’s doctrine.)

Wesley on the Eucharist

Geordan has helpful distinguished Wesley’s views on the Eucharist from Richard Hooker’s ‘receptionism’ identifying Wesley’s approach as closer to that of the Non-jurors with their stress on the Spirit’s role invoked in the epiclesis.

Let me here briefly make some other comparisons. Wesley affirms a real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, which is close to Calvin with his idea of ‘Spiritual Presence,’ but whereas Calvin stresses the presence of Christ in terms of ‘power and strength,’ mediated through the Holy Spirit,[17] Wesley stresses the Presence of Christ in his divinity.  ‘[I]n fact the whole Trinity is present and acting, bestowing upon men [and women] the benefits of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.’[18] Thomas Cranmer held a two-fold Presence - figurative in the sacrament and real and spiritual in the hearts of believers, and Wesley comes close to this view.[19] Whatever the case, Wesley seems furthest from the Zwinglian ‘real absence’ position.[20] ‘The sacraments,’ for Wesley ‘are true and effectual means of grace; thus all purely memorialist conceptions are excluded.’[21] In Wesley’s view of the Eucharist the church reverently adores God and transcends time and space so as to enter vicariously into the Eternal Now of Christ’s sufferings.[22]
The Trinity and the Sacraments

There is a Trinitarian shape to the Wesleyan theology of the sacraments exhibited in the 1780 Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. The following is from a section entitled ‘At the Baptism of Adults.’ 

                        Come Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
                        Honour the means ordained by thee!
                        Make good our apostolic boast,
                        And own thy glorious ministry...
Father, in these reveal thy Son;
In these for whom we seek thy face
                        The hidden mystery make known,
                        The inward, pure baptizing grace...
Eternal Spirit, descend from high,
                        Baptiser of our spirits thou!
The sacramental seal apply,
And witness with the water now![23]       
The sacrament of baptism is here spoken of as having been ordained by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than simply by Christ, as we might expect.  The Father is asked to reveal his Son in those who are to receive ‘the hidden mystery’ of ‘pure baptizing grace.’  And it is the Spirit who comes down and applies the sacramental seal. In another, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in solemn power come down,’ the entire Godhead is present, along with the angels, ready to plunge the candidate into a second birth, into ‘the depths of God.’ The divine character that is impressed is not that of any one Person alone. The Father reveals his love, Jesus imparts his name, and the Holy Ghost renews and dwells in the heart. [24]

In the much-neglected Eucharistic hymns of the Wesleys we also see a distinctively Trinitarian stamp. As the believer approaches the Lord’s Table there is the need for a supernatural quickening of the imagination that will make clear the fullness of the Father’s love in giving his Son up to death for our sakes.  It is the Spirit who provides this supernatural assistance. 

                        Come, Thou everlasting Spirit,
                        Bring to every thankful Mind
                        All the Saviour’s dying Merit
                        All His Suffering for Mankind[25]

The objective record of revelation given to us concerning Christ’s redemptive death, and the justifying and sanctifying grace that flow from it, are experienced only through the application of the Spirit’s presence and power. Such a Trinitarian spirituality as we find in the Wesley hymns is a powerful antidote to a certain type of piety, found in both Evangelical and liberal forms, that focuses on human decision and human agency in such a way as to obscure the priority of diving grace and action. Too often individualistic appeals for human decision at an altar of prayer have been allowed to obscure or even replace the communal nature of the Eucharistic feast where we sit down together as sisters and brothers at our Father’s table, the guests of our Jesus our Host, and through the Spirit of Adoption anticipate the heavenly banquet.

Jerry Mercer warns that when ‘the liturgy has the congregation rather than God as its primary referent [it] is a tragedy of unbelievable proportion [for] only when personal and social holiness are understood to be the result of the faithful living out of Word and Table can there be a renewal of the church local and the Church catholic in the spirit of the New Testament.[26]

Tracing the history of the development of sacramental neglect in Methodism makes a fascinating, though tragic, study.  Was it Francis Asbury or another early American Methodist preacher who, in answering the lack of interest in Wesley’s Sunday Service amongst his preachers, stated ‘Our preachers prefer to pray with their eyes closed.’  The rugged frontier and its illiteracy made liturgical worship less suitable in early America.  As Methodists became increasingly influenced by theologies of human agency with their attendant Pelagianising tendencies, sacramental theology became more and more humanly focused.  John Miley’s Systematic Theology (1893) shows early signs of this rationalistic drift in describing the sacraments as means of grace only in so far as they set forth lessons to us, which through our ‘proper mental exercise’ convey the realities they signify.  No longer are they means of grace as that term is classically understood. Instead they have become mere object lessons.

Modern Methodism for all practical purposes must be considered Pelagian, with little spiritual power and very limited intercourse with God in the lives of the individuals.  The sacraments have become ‘empty,’ mere signs...Wesley’s emphasis upon God’s work and initiative, coupled with [hu]man[ity]’s responsibility, will serve as a much needed corrective to our self-sufficient, middle-class work righteousness...In short, without a recovery...of the substance of Wesley’s theology of the sacraments and the means of grace, the future of [Methodism] as the living body of Christ is rather doubtful...There need to set...the Word and preaching in opposition to the sacraments.  Wesley demanded both.  The distinction between ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘sacramentalism’ must never be applied to Wesley.  For him these two aspects were one, and later Methodism has paid dearly for tearing apart what God has united.[27] 

Dr. Hammond closes his paper with the suggestion that Wesley’s high sacramental theology and practice should ‘continue to shape Wesleyan theological reflection and sacramental practices.’ Perhaps during our discussion time we may begin to think through how that might be the case. 

[1] The Basis of Union 1992 Edition (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 2003), paragraph 10, pp. 9-10.  All references to the Basis of Union (hereinafter referred to as BoU) are from the 1992 Edition.
[2] BoU, paragraph 1, p. 5.
[3] J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980), 8.
[4] Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008).  This is my anecdotal reflection, though specific page numbers could be provided.
[5] BoU, Paragraph 6, p. 8.
[6] Albert C. Outler, “A New Future For Wesley Studies: An Agenda for Phase III,” in  Thomas C. Oden
and Leicester R. Longden, eds. The Wesleyan TheologicalHeritage: Essays of Albert C. Outler.  Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 125-142.
[7] Ole E. Borgen, John Wesley on the Sacraments (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), 271-73
[8] John Wesley, Works (Jackson Edition throughout), VI: 73-74.
[9] Borgen, 57.
[10] Wesley, ‘Treatise on Baptism,’ Works X: 193.
[11] Wesley, Works, X: 192.
[12] Wesley, Works, X: 193.
[13] Borgen, 144.
[14] Matthew 19:13-14; Luke 18:15.  Those churches which dedicate infants recognize the need to incorporate children into the community and provide for it through a service of infant dedication. However, a ‘dedication service’ is of human, not divine, origin. Jesus did not institute a sacrament of infant dedication, but he did institute a sacrament of baptism. Once it is conceded that infants may be baptised, and therefore infant baptism is a legitimate sacrament, a service of infant dedication would appear to be redundant.    
[15] Wesley, Works, X: 147.
[16] Wesley, Works, X 197-98, cited in Borgen, 144-45.
[17] John T. McNeil, John Calvin’s Theological Institutes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1362-1381.
[18] Borgen, 67-68.
[19] Thomas Cranmer, ‘Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacraments’ in C.G.E. Duffield, ed.  Works of Thomas Cranmer (Appleford: Sutton Courtney Press, 1964), 45-233.
[20] Borgen indicates that ‘real absence’ was not in fact taught by Zwingli, though this is often leveled at him. But this tantalizing reference is not elaborated upon.  Borgen, 68. Zwingli did teach that Christ was present in the midst of the gathered community of believers when they partook of the Supper.
[21] Borgen, 68.
[22] Borgen, 89-94.
[23] Hymn 464, Works, VII:646-47. 
[24] Hymn 465, Ibid., 647-8. 
[25] Op. Cit. ‘These prayers to the Spirit for power to realize the Passion and Death of Christ must not be confused with the epiclesis, that is to say, the prayer to the Spirit to quicken the bread and wine into means of grace, of which we find examples in later parts of the book.’ J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (London: The Epworth Press, 1948), 27. 
[26] Jerry Mercer, ‘The Centrality of Grace in Wesleyan Spirituality,’ Asbury Theological Journal 50:2 (Fall 1995) and 51:1 (Spring, 1996), 233. 
[27] Borgen, 282.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Phantom in the Mines of Death

The Phantom #1580
September 2010
Frew Publications
“The Mines of Death”
Story: Sverre Arnes
Art: Heiner Bade

In this reprint of a Scandinavian story from 1990, The Phantom sells himself into slavery in order to break a human trafficking ring. The story is set up well with a Bengali villager who has suffered the loss of property and livelihood through a hurricane that destroys his village. In order to continue to support his family, Kenneth (a rather odd name for a Bengali villager) must take a job in a ‘sulphur mine.’ Upon being asked to ‘make his mark’ on the work contract Kenneth replies, ‘I can read and write…’ thus rebuking the racist assumption of his white overlord. He soon finds that he has been tricked into slavery in a gold mine, where his wages are held by the bosses and he is forced to work twelve hours a day and receive only the smallest amount of food. All communications with the workers’ loved ones have been cut off. Old, sick and weak miners are dropping like flies and the bosses only work them harder and without mercy.

Meanwhile The Phantom makes a visit to Kenneth Landola’s home village of Lando to survey the damage wreaked by the hurricane. Kenneth’s wife Roza asks The Phantom to investigate her husband’s situation as she has not heard from him since he took the job in the mine. (Is there a slight Scandinavian dig at the Americans as the Phantom muses, ‘I’ve heard rumours about the Americans who run this mining company before!’) The Phantom visits his old friend Luaga, President of Bengali, and they plan to make an official inspection of the mine. The mine bosses put on a good show but The Phantom, as Kit Walker, is suspicious. He returns to the mine alone, disguised as ‘John Smith’ looking for work. As The Phantom and with a little bit of help from his trusty wolf Devil, he busts open the slavery ring. President Luaga appropriates the mineral wealth of the mine and distributes the proceeds equally among the workers (is Bengali then a socialist state?). Kenneth is able to return to his family, purchase a new fishing boat and start afresh, in the final two panels enthralling his wife and children with stories of The Ghost Who Walks, who moves even ‘faster than lightning itself’ to establish justice.

The translation seems clunky at times. Surely, as an expression of mischievous laughter, “Hee Hee Hee!’ would be preferable to ‘Hi Hi Hi!’ There are problems with punctuation, including missing full stops and unwanted question marks. Here and there the lettering fits oddly into the speech balloons. It seems the Scandinavian speech balloons have been left and the English translation made to fit into the same spaces, resulting in some speech balloons having excess space and others being overly crowded. The interior art by Heiner Bade is well executed. Bade’s Phantom is particularly menacing. Strangely, though, the skull from the triangle on The Phantom’s belt is missing in most panels. The cover art by Antonio Lemos is not up to the same high standard. His front and back painted covers look amateurish and poorly rendered. Not a bad issue overall – three stars from me.

Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in AmericaTaking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America by John H. Wigger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, along with Wigger's more recent biography of Francis Asbury, is American Methodist history at its finest. Tracing Methodism's emergence and development until the mid-nineteenth century it provides a thoroughly researched and eminently readable account. It's all here - the circuit riders, the itinerancy, camp meetings and their 'boiling hot religion,' slavery, and an excellent chapter on women in Methodism. The Methodist 'croakers' who decried the decline of the movement from about the 1820s were not concerned about statistical decline (with a few slumps Methodists growth continued to meet or exceed aggregate national population growth until the 1950s) but about decline in spiritual fervour. From the first decade of the nineteenth century Nathan Bangs argued that Methodism was right to enter into the mainstream of American life and laboured to this end, in an ironic twist claiming that his cause came to him in a prophetic dream. But Peter Cartwright and many other aged itinerants mourned in their published memoirs the loss of an earlier frontier experience. One of the great religioous dramas of the modern era, the story of American Methodism continues to fascinate and enthrall. Anyone serious about the study of American Methodism will already have read this book. Those who are yet to discover it are in for a treat.

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