Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists

Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists

by Al Truesdale

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Wesleyans aren’t fundamentalists because that would require them to exchange a high doctrine of Scripture for a low one.

Wesleyans and Christian fundamentalists (hereafter referred to as fundamentalists or fundamentalism) agree on many aspects of Christian doctrine, but there are major differences that involve what Wesleyans believe about revelation, the “Word of God,” truth, discipleship, and fidelity to Christian doctrine. The following distinctions are not meant to discredit anyone’s love for God.

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Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, as it exists among doctrinally conservative Protestants, arose in the latter part of the 19th century. It was largely a reaction against threats to Christian orthodoxy posed by certain features of modernity. Threats stemmed from modern critical studies of the Bible, from some developments in the sciences, and from default on some parts of historic Christian doctrine, including the deity of Christ. Without doubt, many of the perceived threats were real and had to be rebutted. By the 1920s, fundamentalists found themselves living in a culture that was becoming openly post-Christian.

The term fundamentalism, applied to Christians, derives from a series of booklets published in the U.S. between 1910 and 1915 titled The Fundamentals. The series defended what the authors saw as essential Christian doctrines under attack from liberal Christianity.

Defining fundamentalism is challenging. There is no uniform list of characteristics. Historian George Marsden defined early 20th-century fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.”¹ Major distinguishing features of fundamentalism are as follows:`:

1. A doctrine of inspiration of the Bible that insists upon its absolute inerrancy in all topics it addresses, whether God, religion, morality, history, or the sciences.

2. An unyielding rejection of the critical study of the Bible by using modern tools of literary analysis.

3. A belief that fundamentalism is the only faithful evangelical and orthodox interpretation of the gospel.

4. Traditionally, for most fundamentalists, a strong commitment to premillenialism.

5. Militant opposition to some developments in the sciences, especially neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.

6. Usually a reliance upon Reformed (Calvinist) theology.

Today, fundamentalism also includes what is called Neo-Fundamentalism. Neo-Fundamentalists battle what they see as threats coming from post-modern influences.

The principal difference between Wesleyans and fundamentalists springs from contrasting doctrines of Scripture and revelation. Other differences proceed from there.

For fundamentalists, revelation is thought of primarily as divine information or truth about God, humans, and the creation. For example, when Exodus 12:37 states the number of Hebrew slaves who left Egypt, that information is part of divine revelation. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant deposit of divine revelation. For that reason it is the Word of God. God unerringly communicated his revelation in various ways—through patriarchs, prophets and apostles, oracles, signs and wonders, and ultimately through Jesus Christ. Regardless of the topic the Bible addresses, it is part of God’s infallible revelation. It stands to reason that an inerrant God would communicate through an inerrant vehicle.

Therefore, in the Bible God has given us an inerrant source of truth. Either the entire Bible is without error, or the Scriptures as a whole must be false. Either Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote all of Isaiah, or the Bible is deceptive. Equally essential for fundamentalism is belief that the body of revelation the Bible contains is accessible to all who will rightly use their reason, and who will submit to what the Bible teaches.

We can see that for fundamentalists, “truth” is principally “divine truths” God has communicated to humans and recorded in the Bible. This makes the Bible “the Word of God.” Faith, then, is principally a matter of understanding and assenting to truth, to revelation, without reservation. This doesn’t minimize the importance of personal trust in Jesus Christ.

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Wesleyan Doctrine

Wesleyans hold to a different understanding of revelation. The difference directly affects our doctrine of the Scriptures. God himself, not information about him, is the primary content of revelation. God manifests himself, his person, his “Name,” and his will in all the earth. he reveals his “glory” as Creator and Savior, the proper end of which is our worship of and obedience to him. God declares his Name particularly by creating a people who, in covenant with him, will bear redeemed witness to his holiness, his love, his Kingship, and his faithfulness. The Bible uniquely and definitively tells the story of God’s self-disclosure and of humankind’s response. But not everything in the Bible is essential to God’s self-disclosure.

For Wesleyans, knowing the truth is primarily a matter of knowing God, of being transformed and gifted by him, and of being placed in his kingdom service. Thinking of knowing the truth as principally a matter of assent to a body of divine knowledge or propositions strikes Wesleyans as once-removed from knowing him who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

The Bible becomes the “Word of God” in that it faithfully and definitively bears witness to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnate (Luke 24:13-27).Calling the Bible the Word of God must maintain this critical order. For Wesleyans, the Bible’s truth is not primarily demonstrated and vindicated in a book or by arguments. Confirmation of the Scriptures happens in people who have been born again from above by the Holy Spirit, and who live as new creations in the power of the Spirit. Wesleyans read the Bible by asking “soteriological” questions (questions about salvation), not by asking questions about facts. They ask: How does a particular event or a book lead us to better understand who God is, his reign in the world, and what it means to be his people?

The measure of importance for any part of the Bible depends upon its role in declaring the Name of the Lord and in training God’s people in holy living. Not all aspects of the Bible equally serve this purpose. That God is the Creator is absolutely central; how he did it is incidental. That God delivered the hebrews from Egyptian bondage is absolutely primary, but how many escaped is secondary. That God will consummate his kingdom is paramount, but how and when is of marginal importance.

The Bible’s sufficiency for teaching us all things necessary for salvation and Christian practice defines its authority; forcing its authority to go beyond this will gravely distort the Bible’s purpose. Claiming too much for the Bible will end up diminishing its proper authority.

Next, while fundamentalists believe that through reason the content of the Bible—revelation—is accessible to any right-thinking person, Wesleyans believe that apart from the enlightening work of the Spirit the Bible remains inaccessible. Of course anyone can read the Bible, but unless the Holy Spirit bears convincing witness that what the Bible says about God the Redeemer is true—not as information, but as transformation—the Bible will remain a dead letter.

John Wesley taught that not only did the Holy Spirit inspire those who wrote the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:20-21), he must also enlighten those who read the Bible in earnest prayer.² This is the “the internal witness of the Holy Spirit” who alone can transform the written Word into the living Word. Wesley and John Calvin agreed: “Scripture suffices to give a saving knowledge of God [only] when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” Knowledge of the Bible’s real meaning and authority cannot be separated from the grace of regeneration.³ The goal of revelation, confessing “My Lord, and my God,” is something the Spirit alone can accomplish (John 15:27; 16:8-11).

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The Free Word of God

The irony in the contrast between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology is that Wesleyans end up taking the Bible more seriously than do fundamentalists. Though well-intended, fundamentalism requires of the Bible a perfection the Bible doesn’t require of itself. Consequently, the Bible cannot be itself.

Because Wesleyans don’t lock the Bible into an artificially imposed perfection, its long and rich history of composition (including the slow development of the Hebrew language) is permitted to speak. We can learn from various types of literature (genres) that characterize the books, and take seriously what genre tells us about purpose and social context. By studying the temporal setting of 2 Peter and its similarity to Jude, for example, we can gain a better understanding of its role in the New Testament and its importance for us today.

Only by taking seriously an author’s theological perspective can we hope to understand a book such as Chronicles. Moreover, the Wesleyan doctrine of Scripture doesn’t force the Book of Genesis to become a book about science. Thus, the Bible’s rich testimony to the living God stands forth in all its beauty and diversity, and its exposition becomes more fruitful. By contrast, because of its low doctrine of Scripture, fundamentalism can’t utilize these rich tools and crippling consequences follow.

Fundamentalism can certainly be chosen over a Wesleyan doctrine of Scripture. But we must not make the mistake of confusing the two. We shouldn’t ask the Church of the Nazarene, which is a Wesleyan denomination, to exchange its high doctrine of Scripture for a lesser one. What attracts us most is asking the Holy Spirit to so enliven the Scriptures that they will teach us how to become Spirit-filled and Spirit-led people in the Church and in the world.

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Notes:

1. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4).
2. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, comment on 2 Tim. 3:16.
3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, 8.13.

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary

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This article  was originally published in Holiness Today, September/October 2012 and reprinted by Nazarene Communications Network (NCN) News, November 23, 2012.

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The Parable of the Persistent Widow for Today

The Parable of the Persistent Widow for Today

(Photo from: http://access-jesus.com/Luke/Luke_18.html)As the future grows bleak and some wonder what it might hold or how bad it may get, it is important to remember that Jesus taught that just prior to His coming, things would get really bad, nothing like what we may experience in the next few years.  I’m not one who carries a sign and cries, “the end is near!”  I don’t even spend much time studying end-times prophecy.  I am one, however, who takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to watch and be ready; with “being ready” as the thrust of that admonition.

With that in mind, however, Jesus does offer some help for when times are tough. While Jesus was talking about really tough times- like when you don’t pause to gather your belongings before high-tailing it out of town, or you dare not attempt to go back to your house from the field before running for safety; I believe that the help He offers is also available today when Christians feel like things are bad enough to call on Him, really call on Him.  Let’s look at this parable to see how to access that help:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, NIV)

To correctly understand this parable of the Persistent Widow found in Luke 18:1-8, we must be sure that we understand the preceding passage which has Jesus telling His disciples about coming trouble.  This passage in Luke 17:22-37 equates the days before Jesus’ return with the days before the judgment of the world in Noah’s lifetime and the days before the judgment of Sodom in Lot’s lifetime.  Jesus makes clear that life will be going on as usual, eating, drinking, marrying, etc.  This seems to agree with other statements of Jesus where He makes clear that people of the earth cannot fully know the day or the hour of His coming.

This passage in chapter 17, however, indicates extremely difficult times, from which escape will be difficult and those being plucked away in that persecution and/or judgment will be swift and apparently indiscriminate.  It is in these terrible days that Jesus says the disciples will be driven to long for the day when He was physically with them, offering His sound wisdom, comforting words, and powerful intervention.  His disciples of future generations will also long for days that they had not known, but will greatly desire Jesus’ physical presence.

It is to these fearful days that Jesus brings the teaching on prayer that we find in the parable of the Persistent Widow.  The Biblical author introduces the parable with his suggestion of why Jesus shared this parable with his disciples:  “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1).

The judge that Jesus describes is one likely not recognizable to Christians today.  21st century judicial systems, at least in the developed world, are generally fair and impartial so that someone bringing their case before the court can be reasonably assured of fair and just treatment.  Today’s Christian needs to try to imagine a judge who has no regard for the rule of law, no fear of personal retribution for his rulings and no real concern for people who come before his bench.  This is the type of judge which Jesus presents in this parable.

The widow who Jesus introduces could be more easily recognized by 21st century Christians.  Many people today know that little old lady whose husband died years ago and who either never had children or whose children don’t live near her and therefore offer her little assistance.  Before he died, her husband squeaked out a respectable, but meager, living which now barely provides for the essential needs of his surviving wife.

Now this widow finds herself in need of legal help, “justice” as Jesus puts it.  As she peruses the docket, she discovers that her deepest fear is realized.  Again, her case was assigned to the worst judge in the county, the one who seems not to care at all about her case and has little concern for how much she needs his help.  But again, just as she has done countless times before, she patiently pleads her case to the inattentive judge, hoping that maybe this time he will show some compassion and find in her favor.

But relief, yet again, eludes her.  Once again the judge denies her request and once again she goes home discouraged, hopeless, alone.  But still, as often as she can get her case on the docket, she goes back to the courthouse.  And just as often, she gets that same judge who continuously denies her request.  Until one day, after countless retellings of her complaint and repeatedly hearing the “whack” of the gavel accompanied by the angry word from his lips, “denied!” she hears the unexpected.  The judge relents; he gives in to her request and grants her relief.

The judge readily admits that  he has little concern for her case, that he does not care whether she gets the help she needs or not, but he is sick and tired of her constantly coming before him and wasting his time with the same old complaint, week after week.  So to finally be rid of her, he grants her request.

In our passage, Jesus contrasts this judge who “neither feared God nor cared about men” (v. 2) to the Heavenly Father.  All of the original readers would understand that the Heavenly Father is nothing like this unjust judge.  Christians today, with the benefit of the rest of the Bible, know that God cares about all of His creation.  He cares about the needs and burdens of His children, His disciples.  Everyone who knows God knows that He hears their prayers.  In this contrast Jesus asserts with His ratorical question what should be obvious to all who believe, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (v. 7)

But Christians should be careful not to confuse this loving and caring God with a judge similar to one I came before once as a teenager during my wild oats-sewing days.  I found out after I got off with a minimal fine that he was known as the “freedom judge” because he so often lets people off, or with only minor fines.  God will not give to those who ask Him anything they want.  He will not just be the go-to-God for any whimsical desire or shallow plea.  To see the answers that God wants to provide, believers need to seek, as they  pray, the divine will of God in their situation.  It could be deliverance, healing or rescue.  Or perhaps it could be grace to persevere in the midst of trials or inner peace that allows one to live within  a society without peace and full of turmoil.  It may be  healing, deliverance or rescue that is provided by the passing from this life to the next.  Or, sometime in our future, it may mean martyrdom, dying for your faith.

So Christians today need to be aware that there are difficult days ahead.  They may feel that after the recent election that this country is in the midst of those days, but rest assured that this is nothing compared to the days that are coming just before Jesus returns to the earth.  There will be persecution; there will be great fear as everyone wonders who can be trusted or who may be watching who to report to the authorities for their Christian witness.

When these days come, or even when Christians experience difficult days in their lives today, Jesus wants them to remember that God will hear their prayer for help.  He will see as they earnestly come to Him with their request, praying for the will of God to be accomplished in their lives and their world.  But as this parable reveals, it is those who pray persistently, who come to Him “day and night” (v. 7) who will receive His sure and effective answer.

Jesus concludes this parable with the rhetorical question, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (v. 8) The Christian’s faith grows with every answer to prayer that God provides.  The Christian’s faith grows as he or she observes God’s hand at work.  The Christian’s faith grows as obedience and holy living produces the promised results of an abundant and full life.  So as Christians live their lives as the Scripture teaches, their faith will ultimately grow and this faith, along with that of millions of other Christians around the world who have also persevered, will greet Jesus when He comes in the air to receive them unto Himself, answering His question with a resounding, “Yes, He will find faith on the earth!”

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(Sermon by Daryl Densford)