Thursday, January 31, 2013

Neil Young, After the Goldrush (1970)

After the Goldrush (1970) probably vies with Harvest as the most critically acclaimed Neil Young album and for good reason. The thin vulnerable fragility of Young's barely twenty-year old voice captures the self-introspection of the era of the singer-songwriter as much as Leonard Cohen's deadpan delivery or Bob Dylan's nasal poetry. 

Tell Me Why opens the album with a series of existential questions set to a rollicking acoustic guitar arrangement. "Sailing hardships through broken harbors / Out on the waves in the night / Still the searcher must ride the dark horse / Racing alone in his fright / Tell me why, tell me why." The apocalyptic title track with its sparse piano setting boasts a beautiful melody into which a French horn suddenly breaks. Yes a French horn. (makes another appearance in "Till the Morning Comes" the little single line ditty that closes side 1) Young sees "Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s" and envisions a science fiction scenario to avert the ecological disaster (or at least give the human race a fresh start elsewhere).

Well I dreamed I saw the silver
space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying
and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
They were flying Mother Nature's
silver seed to a new home in the sun.

Southern Man with its blistering electgric guitar workout is in the same genre as Harvest's 'Alabama' which drew the ire of Lynyrd Skynyrd in Sweet Home Alabama
"Well I heard mister Young sing about her / Well, I heard ole Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don't need him around anyhow.' And Young is certainly unsparing in his condemnation.


I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin'
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Southern man
better keep your head
Don't forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man

The ragged glory of Young's frenzied distorted guitar work mostly around two or three notes jabbing and biting like he really means business.

The cover of the country standard Oh Lonesome Me takes the jauntiness of the original and transforms it with a more downbeat depressive arrangement more in keeping with the lyric. Birds must surely be one of the most beautiful songs Young has written. Its chorus: 'When you see me fly away without you / shadow on the things you know / feathers fall around you / and show you the way to go / It's over. It's over.' The rocking When You Dance (I Can Really Love) is reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield-era Neil. The plaintive I Believe in You positively aches  - 'Now that you've made yourself love me do you think I can change it in a day? How can I place you above me? Am I lyin' to you when I say that I believe in you?' The album closes with Cripple Creek Ferry bringing to mind Huck Finn on the mighty Mississippi a tribute to Young's adopted country. He is after all the most American Canadian alive.

I give this stone cold American classic 5 stars!
Original gatefold cover to vinyl LP

Seeing and Believing: The Eye of Faith in a Visual Culture

The following is a talk I gave at the Book Launch for my colleague and friend, Stuart Devenish.  Seeing and Believing: The Eye of Faith in a Visual Culture (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012)

On 7 January 1839, members of the French Academy of Sciences were shown the first rudimentary photographs thus changing the visual arts forever. This remarkable invention was the work of the Parisian painter and printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who manipulated light to capture unique images on highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. The “Daguerrotype” as it was humbly dubbed by its creator was superceded around 1885 when the American inventor George Eastman managed to create a portable camera that could transfer an image onto celluloid film. Of course this remarkable technology was itself superceded and the Eastman Kodak company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2012, a victim of the digital revolution. 

When the Lumiere Brothers invented the cinematograph in 1895 pictures suddenly came alive with movement and audiences gasped and screamed and fled away from the screen at the strain of registering this new experience. The eye had let light in but it took a while for the soul to catch up with what it all meant. The stage was set for a new era of visual culture that is still with us.   

Of course the delighting of the eye (and the soul to which it is a window) is an ancient as well as a modern experience. The rich mosaics and tapestries of the ancient world and the kaleidoscopic narratives captured in medieval stained glass delighted the eyes and thus the hearts and imaginations of the ancients just as surely as the cinema has captivated moderns. Stuart Devenish has linked both the ancient and the modern together by drawing us engagingly into his theme of “the eye of faith in a visual culture.” His book is infused with the awareness that seeing is a profoundly spiritual business. He reminds us that faith is something deeply visional, of the need to look at the world through Jesus’ eyes, and that the Bible is a visionary text that brings into being a wide-eyed people. Just as the camera manipulates light to give us fresh visions, so Christianity is a way of light whose wisdom enchants the imagination, produces spiritual vision and turns us into focused disciples.     

Seeing things is not just about a passive reception of stimuli upon the optic nerve. I once insulted the theologian Alister McGrath (a man I greatly admire) by telling him that a good speaker doesn’t need a power point presentation.  My comment wasn’t aimed at his presentation but was my attempt to make the point that a good public speaker uses words to create pictures in the minds of the hearers and does not need to rely overly much on visual aids. This is why video did not in fact kill the radio star.  When we listen to the radio our brains get to create their own pictures rather than the somewhat more passive delivery of ready-made images offered by television and film. We are, it seems, created as image making beings. 

Though our physical sight may be lacking, our spiritual sight can remain strong. I have known several sight-impaired women in the congregations I have served and most of them have had a spiritual vision that far outstripped the rest of us. Fanny Crosby was born blind, but do you think the woman who wrote the hymn To God be the Glory Great Things he Hath Done had no vision?  Do you think she never saw Jesus?  It was this blind woman who wrote:

Redeemed and so happy in Jesus 
No language my rapture can tell

I know that the light of His presence

With me doth continually dwell

I know I shall see in His beauty,

The King in whose law I delight

Who lovingly guardeth my footsteps

And giveth me songs in the night.

In fact, physical sightedness can often be a hindrance to true vision.  In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, the monster who is hated and hounded by the villagers because of his ugliness and frightful appearance, stumbles into the cabin of an old blind hermit.  Unaware of his ugliness the hermit offers him food and gentleness motivated by both loneliness and the demands of Christian charity. He is the only character in the book who offers the monster anything like the milk of human kindness. This blind man could see something in this pitiful creature the sighted people could not see. Where the physical eye saw only a figure of horror and revulsion, the spiritual eye saw a creature deserving of compassion. Only after Samson had his eyes gouged out, did he gain the vision he needed to see that romantic alliances with Philistine women could only lead to disaster.  It was as an eyeless and tragic hero that he gained his greatest victory over God’s enemies. He stood between the pillars of the Philistine temple and pushed against it until the whole building toppled. He had a spiritual vision when “Eyeless in Gaza” that he had never possessed before

In his tenth and final chapter Stuart writes of the temptations present in the absence of spiritual desire and the ever-present potential to be blinded by sin. He provides us via Bruce Haddon, with a “postmodern catechism” designed to sharpen our focus. Such training of the eye in spiritual sight has a long and honoured history in the Christian spiritual tradition.     

The Authorised Version of the Bible renders Matthew 6:22-23 in the following way:

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

These words are part of the Sermon on the Mount and come after Jesus has warned against religious hypocrisy. Modern translations render the Greek word aplous as “sound” or “healthy” rather than “single” but there is a good argument for the older translation given that the Greek word can carry the meaning of simplicity and unification of purpose.  

Earlier generations spoke of the “single eye” in terms of such purity of intention.  To have a single eye was to have a pure motive.  In the famous definition of Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” John Wesley’s sermon “On a Single Eye” followed the holy living tradition of Jeremy Taylor and William Law in understanding the “single eye” in this way. The sermon seems partly to have been motivated by concern about the tendency among Methodists to marry their sons and daughters into wealthy families regardless of the personal piety of their partners.

You, whom God hath entrusted with sons or daughters, is your eye single in choosing partners for them? What qualifications do you seek in your sons and daughters in law? religion or riches? Which is your first consideration?...Which will you prefer? - a rich Heathen, or a pious Christian? - a child of the devil, with an estate; or the child of God, without it? - a lord or gentleman, with the devil in his heart…or a tradesman, who…has Christ dwelling in his heart? O how great is that darkness which makes you prefer a child of the devil to a child of God! Which causes you to prefer the poor trash of worldly wealth, which flies as a shadow, to the riches of eternal glory!...Repent, repent of your vile earthly-mindedness! Renounce the title of Christians, or prefer, both in your own case and the case of your children, grace to money, and heaven to earth! For the time to come, at least, “let your eye be single,” that your “whole body may be full of light!”

Here Wesley draws on the Christian spiritual tradition of the “single eye” to address a very practical issue – what should be our relationship to money? Should financial security for our loved ones be given priority over their spiritual well-being? Stuart Devenish’s Seeing and Believing stands in that same tradition.  It directs us to the deep wellsprings of the Christian vision so that we can “disciple the eye” in making the smaller daily decisions that contribute to the tapestry of our whole lives.

The book is well written, thoroughly grounded in Stuart’s area of scholarly expertise without ever being arcane, and it breathes a remarkably Catholic spirit. It draws upon the riches of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions with respect and genuine appreciation; the same is true when dealing with other faiths as he points out genuine differences between the Buddhist and Christian meanings of the term ‘enlightenment.’ I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand Christianity as a living spiritual tradition that provides insight into the nature of reality.  Perhaps the citation in the book that captures the centre of its concern best is that of C.S. Lewis. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”    

Seeing and Believing is available for purchase at this link

Thursday, November 22, 2012

From the Earth to the Moon
by Jules Verne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love early science fiction and Jules Verne is the grandaddy of the genre (I recently read "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" and it was a great read). However, with this one I had to wade through 112 pages of mostly technical and engineering detail with very little dialogue until anything like an interesting plot development occurs. It's hard to know whether the Frenchman Verne genuinely admires Civil War era American ingenuity or whether his praise is an ironic device designed to point out the folly and hubris of the same. Certainly the unresolved ending leaves open the possibility that the novel is more critique than adoration.  As J. T. Maston muses at the book's conclusion, "Those three men [admittedly one is a Frenchman] have carried into space all the resources of art, science, and industry.  With that one can do anything..." Perhaps, but then perhaps not.  H. G. Wells' "The First Men in the Moon," obviously inspired by this earlier work of Verne's has far greater narrative appeal and depth of character development. However, anyone who wishes to understand the science fiction genre will want to read "From the Earth to Moon" even if only for its historic significance.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Wesley Church
11 November 2012
Text: Mark 12:38-44

Beware of theologians in long robes! Such a warning has a bit of a hollow ring to it when spoken by a theologian in a long robe. Jesus issued a warning in Mark 12:38-40 about the religious leaders of his day who enjoyed their privileged status and used it to abuse more vulnerable members of the community.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (vv. 38-39)

Yet behind this religious façade and community respectability lay darker motives and activities for, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (v.40)

In contrast to these men who were viewed with the greatest esteem in the community, in verses 41-44, Jesus set forth a different kind of example altogether. While the religious leaders were devouring widow’s houses – taking advantage of her weaker status to shore up their own wealth – poor widows themselves were giving out of their poverty motivated by love for God.

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (vv. 41-44)

It was poor widows like these who in Jesus’ eyes approached more closely the ideal of the kingdom than the professional religious class. Jesus made this kind of contrast often in his teaching. Those who looked outwardly as though they were representatives of the kingdom (scribes and Pharisees) were often in fact only focused on their own little kingdoms of self-righteousness. On the other hand those who seemed the most insignificant – women, children, widows, and even despised lepers and prostitutes – were much closer to the kingdom than any of the religious leaders.

The Queensland government has been debating a bill that will make it legal for motel and hotel owners to refuse to rent rooms to sex workers. Many Christians will support this law because of their opposition to prostitution as an immoral activity. However, since this kind of private prostitution is legal in Queensland, anti-discrimination officials have quite understandably pointed out how unjust such a law would be. They have argued that it is wrong to consider a sex worker to have fewer rights than other citizens under the law. Whatever one may think of this particular debate, Jesus came to overturn the idea that prostitutes, or widows, or little children  were second class citizens with less rights than others. Rather, every person, even the most insignificant, is the object of God’s love and should be treated with justice and respect.

I was once taken out to dinner by a denominational leader who was head of a large missionary department in the United States. The restaurant was quite expensive and I was a little surprised to hear that the cost would come out of the missionary department’s budget. Of course I understand that some money may legitimately be spent on hospitality toward overseas visitors. But my heart sank when I thanked him for the meal and he replied, “Don’t thank me; thank the little old lady who saved her coins to support the missionaries.” That comment seemed to me to convey disrespect toward such faithful givers and left me sadly reflecting on the cynicism sometimes displayed by religious leaders.   

During the days of the U.S.S.R. the government placed severe restrictions on the churches believing that religion was destined to die out in any case. Only a few old ladies with headscarves were interested and these would soon pass on, leaving state-sanctioned atheism to take their place. But the faith did not die out in Russia and when the Soviet Union collapsed the Russian Orthodox Church was revived.

A congregation in Romania had their church appropriated by the government under the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. When their bishop died they were not permitted to bury him in the traditional location of the church’s crypt. Determined to defy the order they took a jackhammer and began to open up the pavement at the front of the church.  As the young uniformed police officers attempted to stop this activity, little old Orthodox ladies took their umbrellas and began to beat them crying, “Shame on you; shame on you!  How can you do this thing”?  That story could be seen as a metaphor for the end of the repression of the Church in Romania.  Again we see the faithfulness of widows doing what they can to keep the faith alive. Thank God for those ‘little old ladies with headscarves’ who kept the faith alive during that period of repression, allowing it to blossom back into life when the time was right.

The reason Jesus praised this poor widow was that while others gave larger sums, and she only gave two small copper coins, she gave more because she gave all that she had. It seems that God is not so much interested in how much we give but in how much we keep.

This week George Lucas (pictured right) the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises struck a deal to sell his company Lucas Film to the Disney corporation. He “has announced that he will be putting the vast majority of the $4.3 billion dollars from the sale into a foundation which will focus on education. Lucas is the sole shareholder of Lucas Film so the entire sum will go to him and he is free to do what he wants with all of it.  This donation will put him on par with Bill Gates in terms of his charitable giving.”[1]

I think people like George Lucas and Bill Gates are to be applauded for their charitable giving but this widow even more so, for they gave out of their abundance but she out of her deep poverty.

If you have ever spent time in the developing world you will have experienced the generosity of the poor. People who have very little will generously share the little they have with you, motivated by hospitality. On the other hand the wealthy can at times be so protective of their wealth that they cling to it possessively.  I remember being involved in a bitter church dispute over property and finances. The way the congregation divided over the issue was very interesting.  Those who were quite well off financially were arguing the case for frugality and concerned about what would make the most money for the church.  On the other hand those with little resources – pensioners, missionaries, and welfare recipients all argued the case for generous and extravagant giving without thought of financial return.

In today’s Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17:8-16 we learned about the widow of Zarephath. During a time of famine, this starving widow gave the prophet Elijah her last meal, which she had reserved for herself and her son. As a reward God miraculously provided her with bread and oil until the drought broke.       

In some circles it is taught that the more we give financially the more God will bless us financially in return. Televangelists have been among those who have promised miracles in return for money. Early one morning I was shocked to hear one of these tell his audience how God had blessed him when he was able to swoop in on a foreclosure and get a bargain basement house.  No thought was given to the poor farmer and his family whose house had been devoured due to the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Now, if viewers (many no doubt poor widows) would send in a generous donation to the televangelist’s ministry they too could expect God to perform such financial miracles on their behalf.

Neither the poor widow of the Gospel story nor the starving widow of Zarephath gave with such motivation in mind. They gave out of their poverty because they were motivated by love.  They made no showy pretensions of piety. They didn’t care to announce how much they had given. When they gave, their left hand knew not what their right hand had done.         

Beware of religious leaders who devour widow’s houses. Look instead to unimportant people (unimportant in the world’s eyes) who in the generosity they display in the midst of their poverty are the true and best examples of God’s kingdom of extravagant love.   +

[1] accessed 10 November 2012

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.


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