Comparing William Booth and Isaac Hecker: my paper at WTS

I’m looking forward to the annual Wesleyan Theological Society meeting late next week at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.  I’ve never been to Idaho, so I’ll be glad to see it first-hand, although I must confess I’d rather visit that state during a warmer time of the year!

This year’s theme is “Atonement in the Wesleyan Tradition,” and features keynote addresses by Ben Witherington III, Randy Maddox, and Jason Vickers.  A recent press release discussing the speakers and award recipients is available here.   You can find the full schedule of papers here.

I’ll be presenting a paper that builds on my dissertation research.  It will be presented in the Ecumenical Studies section, and the title is “Universal Atonement or Ongoing Incarnation? Comparing the Missional Theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker.”  Here is the abstract:

This paper will compare the missional theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker, two founders of 19th century missionary agencies. Booth, who started The Salvation Army in East London in 1865, was a Wesleyan revivalist who had previously been ordained in the Methodist New Connexion. Hecker was also raised in the Methodist church, but after a roundabout spiritual journey, became a Roman Catholic, first serving as a Redemptorist Priest, and then founding the Paulist Fathers in New York City, in 1858.

William Booth via wikimedia commonsBooth and Hecker were both possessed by visions of universal revival and reform in their later years, and both believed that God’s vision for universal reform extended beyond spiritual life, to social and political structures. However, the theological assumptions behind their universal visions for mission were markedly different, and are illustrative of divergences in 19th century Wesleyan and Catholic theology. The scope of Booth’s vision was founded upon the universality of the atonement, which provided a missionary mandate to evangelize the whole world, with a particular focus on those people not being reached by “the churches.” Hecker’s vision, on the other hand, was built on the universality of the Catholic Church as the historical extension of Christ’s presence in the world. These differing Christological starting-points funded two very different understandings of work of the Spirit, the place of the Church in God’s universal mission, and the relationship of their respective missionary bodies to established church structures. Whereas the Church has a rather ambiguous place in Booth’s understanding of world-wide redemption, Hecker’s view is thoroughly ecclesiocentric.

I will close by reflecting on the potential pitfalls of each view, and suggest some ways in which contemporary Wesleyans and Catholics might think together about universal mission in a way that avoids the theological extremes of our 19th century foreparents.

Hecker via wikimedia commonsFor Booth, the scope of Christian mission is very much related to his convictions about the universality of Christ’s atoning work, and the full implications of the atonement for human life.  As he got older, he came to believe that Christ had come not only to offer “spiritual” redemption, but to “destroy the works of the devil in the present time” by relieving humanity of temporal as well as spiritual evil (see his article “Salvation for Both Worlds” for example).  On other hand, for Hecker, the Catholic Church’s unviersality meant that the church was called to take up and incorporate the best of all the cultures of the world.  Hecker had a keen sense that the Spirit was guiding universal history, and had given “characteristic gifts” to the different cultures and races of the world, all of which needed to be directed to their proper ends and brought together in the one universal Church so that they might enrich the church’s life and bring glory to God.

As I’ve previously note here, I think Booth and Hecker are a very interesting comparison.  They are both compelling figures in their own right, but also provide an fascinating window into broader trends in the nineteenth-century church.   Hopefully the paper will help to bring out the contrast between the ecclesiological ambiguities of Wesleyan-holiness revivalism and the ecclesiocentrism of Catholic thinking from the same period.

John Wesley on Predestination

All his life, John Wesley stood within the tradition of English Arminianism, but from the early days of the Methodist revival, his position on predestination became a particularly important and divisive issue.  Of course, his relationship with George Whitefield was the background of the controversy, since Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist.  While they began their conversations about predestination in private, it wasn’t long before “pamphlet warfare” flared up as each side began to publish sermons and open letters advocating for their positions.  Wesley and Whitefield were able to reconcile to a certain extent, but the passionate and fiery debates made their mark on their relationship, and the Methodist movement as a whole.

The history of the controversy, which flared up three times during Wesley’s lifetime, is interesting in and of itself, but in this post I’m not going to go into those details.  Rather, I’m going to talk about two key areas of concern that motivated Wesley in his strident defense of the Arminian position, and then offer a basic summary of Wesley’s position.

The first key concern had to do with the character of God.   It is a mistake to think that Wesley’s rejection of unconditional election was rooted in an optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a more robust Calvinist understanding of depravity.  Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.  As Randy Maddox writes,

“the fundamental difference between Wesley and his Calvinist opponents really lies more in their respective understandings of the nature of God than in their evaluation of the human situation.” (Responsible Grace, p. 55-56).

Wesley felt that the idea of absolute unconditional predestination by divine decree was inconsistent with God’s justice, as well as his love and goodness.

This fundamental difference can also be seen in the respective ways in which the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions have approached the question of divine sovereignty.

Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has seen sovereignty through the model of a ruling monarch, whereas Wesley conceived of sovereignty primarily through the model of a loving parent.

The monarch’s power over his subjects is conceived primarily as an exercise of “will,” and hence the fact that some are saved while others are not is explained by recourse to a decision of the divine will for Calvinists.  On the other hand, the parent’s power over their children is conceived primarily as an exercise of love, and from this Wesleyan perspective it is inconceivable that a loving parent would eternally decree some of his children to life and others to death.

Wesley’s second key concern related to the character of the Christian life. Wesley worried about the pastoral effect of preaching a Calvinist approach to predestination, feeling that it would lead to antinomianism.  If salvation is unconditionally established by an eternal decree, why would any of us concern ourselves with obedience and discipleship?

Wesley felt the Calvinist approach undercut the pursuit of holiness, because the connection between God’s gift and our response is marginalized.  In his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace,” which ignited the first round of public controversy with Whitefield, Wesley wrote,

“So directly does this doctrine tend to shut the very gate of holiness in general, to hinder unholy men from ever approaching thereto, or striving to enter thereat.” Sermon 110 [number 128 in the older Jackson numbering], “Free Grace,” §11.

It was on the basis of these two areas of concern that Wesley advocated for his evangelical Arminian position on predestination, which can be outlined in the following six points:

  • Total depravity is affirmed by Wesley, meaning that the fallen human being is completely helpless and in bondage to sin.  This means, contrary to popular misconception, Wesley does not believe that fallen human beings have an inherent freedom of the will.
  • The atonement is universal in scope.  Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, not only an elect few, as proposed by five-point Calvinism.
  • Prevenient grace is universally available to all, restoring a measure of freedom so that the human being can respond to God’s grace.  This is how Wesley could affirm that all human persons were free to respond to God’s grace – but note that the freedom which humans possess is a measure of freedom (not libertarian freedom) and is by grace, not an inherent endowment that is retained in fallen humanity.
  • Grace is resistible and can be rejected, to our own destruction.  God is actively drawing all people to himself, but his grace is not coercive.
  • Predestination is therefore based on God’s foreknowledge, not his will.  That is, God corporately predestines all those who respond in faith to salvation, and by foreknowledge he knows who will respond.  His foreknowledge does not cause their response.
  • Assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit, who witnesses directly to our adoption as children of God through Christ, and is also confirmed indirectly by the fruit of the Spirit.

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life is part of the Ancient Christian Practices series, published by Thomas Nelson.  Chittister, who has an excellent reputation as an author and speaker, is well qualified to write on this subject: as a Benedictine sister, she lives as part of a community whose life is profoundly shaped by the seasons of the traditional liturgical year.

The book is accessibly written, with 33 short chapters.  The first eight chapters cover introductory topics, while the rest of the book is shaped around the liturgical year itself, beginning with Advent and continuing through Orindary time, with a few other topics interspersed as she goes.

Chittister sets the liturgical year in the context of the life of discipleship.  Observing the Christian seasons is not simply a way to mark time, but it is a way to “attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ” (6).  By allowing the liturgical year to bring the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ before us again and again, we learn what it means to follow Christ:

From the liturgy we learn both the faith and Scripture, both our ideals and our spiritual tradition.  The cycle of Christian mysteries is a wise teacher, clear model, and recurring and constant reminder of the Christ-life in our midst.  Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our midst the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same (10).

This is possible because the liturgical year “immerses the Chrisitan in the life and death of Jesus from multiple perspectives” (27).  Worship, then, is not simply about us expressing our feelings to God, or about celebrating what God has done. Worship is also formative; it shapes us in our faith and our life with Christ.  I fully agree with Chittister on this point, that the liturgical year can and should be “a catechesis as well as a celebration, a spiritual adventure as well as a liturgical exercise.”

I do have some concerns with Chittister’s approach to the liturgical year, but before idenitfying some of them, I’ll say a bit more about the content of the book and its strengths.

Chittister notes that the liturgical year is not simply about the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so on, but also includes Sunday observance, Ordinary Time, and (in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and some protestant traditions) the cycle of saints’ days.  She offers some good insights about the message of the different seasons – far too many to note in this short review.  But I since Advent is fast approaching I can give some examples from those chapters.

First of all, Chittister reminds us that, historically speaking, Advent was not the most important season of the liturgical year, and Christmas was not even celebrated until the 3rd century in Egypt, and even later in other regions (28).  While Christians today seem to place the greatest emphasis on Advent and Christmas, it was Easter which historically formed the centre of Christian liturgical observations.   She speaks of Advent as being about “three comings”: the birth of Jesus, the coming of Christ in our midst today, and the final return of Christ, and asks us to consider our own spiritual growth by asking ourselves which of the three we are waiting for (64-66).   She also covers the traditional themes of the four weeks of advent, before spending a chapter reflecting on the basic character of Advent as a season of joy.

There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from this book, particularly for those of us who are evangelicals and are not steeped in liturgical tradition.  I personally hope that many evangelical churches will embrace the liturgical calendar, at least to a greater extent than they do at present.  While the observance of the various saints’ days is not likely to fly outside of Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican circles, following the major seasons in the church year can provide a way to root the focus of our preaching and teaching more consistently in the narrative of God’s saving action in history through Jesus Christ.

My concern with Chittister’s approach relates to the theological presuppositions that she brings to the table.

First, as a matter of emphasis, she seems to lean very heavily on Christ’s role as an exemplar for us, without a strong enough emphasis on the cross and resurrection as Christ’s work on our behalf.   It’s not so much that she denies the latter, but I was sometimes bothered by what she was not saying.

For example, she says that  “Jesus embodied what the role of the cross was to be in the life of us all”  (15).  While I certainly believe that all Christians are called to take up their cross and participate in the cruciform life of Christ, I wouldn’t say that Jesus’ death was simply the embodiment of what we are all called to be.  Surely his death was more unique than that – the one, full and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world!

She continues in this vein,

It was, if anything, a sign to us of our own place in the scheme of things, in the order of the universe, in the economy of salvation. Now, it was clear, every capacity for good, every effort  of anyone, every breath of every human being had significance…Now it became obvious: if the life of Christ was to continue here on earth, it must continue in us.  Such an astonishingly piercing assessment of who Jesus really was and what that implies for those who call themselves Christian constituted a momentous breakthrough in the human awareness of the panoptic significance of the individual spiritual life (16).

It seems to me that Chittester is identifying Jesus as the greatest example of human spirituality – a person who inspires us to exercise our capacity for good.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, but as I read the book I was thinking that, for Chittister, it is not the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus, but the realization of a more fundamental category of human potential that she thinks is the most important thing.  In other words, it is not the saving work of Jesus Christ which is most fundamental, but the significance of the individual spiritual life, which is revealed in Jesus and enabled through our participation in him.

Another quote emphasizes this last point:

Finally, it is in coming to know the Jesus whose life was fine-tuned to the voice of God within him and whose death came out of unremitting commitment to the will of God, whatever the cost, that our own life is shaped and reshaped (41).

Here she frames the death of Christ as “unremitting commitment to the will of God” – a true statement, but one which is de-particularized in such a way that it becomes an example of that to which all human beings are called.  Rather than the once for all sacrifice in our place, Christ’s death becomes the greatest example of doing God’s will.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to say that Christ’s death is, in one sense, an example of what it means to do the will of God no matter the cost.  But I think that this emphasis can go astray if insufficient attention is given to the radical uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of his work on our behalf.  We are called to follow after Christ, but that is about us being conformed to Christ’s likeness, not Christ illustrating a general standard of what it means to follow God.  Rather than God incarnate, condescending to rescue humanity, Jesus becomes framed as the one who shows us “what it means to be a human on the way to God” (58).    In her own words, this perspective turns the story of the death and Resurrection of Jesus into “the call to recognize the resplendency of humanity” (47).   I see this as a skewing of the gospel narrative, turning it into the story of humanity’s ascent to God, rather than the story of God’s rescue of humanity.

Secondly, I felt that Chittister’s perspective was underwritten by a kind of mysticism.   By this I mean that she seemed to presuppose that God is already always within us, and that our ultimate destiny is absorption into God and even into creation.  She writes, near the beginning of the book:

The seasons and feasts, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe (6-7).

I want to retain Luther’s insight that salvation is something that comes from without, not from within.  We do not have the resources within ourselves to find salvation.  We need the external Word to speak to us, and the Spirit to indwell us.  But even this indwelling does not mean that we are called to go “deeper and deeper into the self.”   Finally, becoming “one with the universe” does not seem to me to be a particularly Christian aspiration.

I hope I have not misinterpreted Chittister’s message, but I found these aspects of the book to be at odds with my own convictions.

This review is already getting too long, so I’ll stop there.  If you want to learn about the liturgical year, this book provides a short, readable introduction, and contains some interesting perspectives.  But I would urge the reader to be aware of some of the theological presuppositions that Chittister brings to the table.

Disclosure : I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions I have expressed are my own.

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” as Quaker Polemic

Though I’m sure I’ve heard it before, this hymn was brought to my attention when I watched the movie Atonement.   There is an amazing 5 minute scene (all shot in one take on one camera) in which lead character Robbie is wandering on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated to England.  The beach is in complete chaos, with thousands of soldiers hanging around, seemingly without any organization – fighting, drinking, trashing vehicles, and waiting helplessly.  In the midst of the chaos, however, a choir of soldiers stands in a bandstand, singing this hymn of clamness, stillness, and rest.

The hymn is taken from a longer poem called “The Brewing of Soma,” written in 1872 by Quaker poet John Greeleaf Whittier.  In context, it is actually a strong Quaker critique of more traditional forms of Christian spirituality.  Whittier begins by depicting a scene from Vedic religion, in which priests concoct a drink, called “Soma,” which is then used in an attempt to come into contact with the divine.  In those times, “All men to Soma prayed,” Whittier writes, but his eye is on more recent Christian worship practices, which he believes are no better.  “And still with wondering eyes we trace / The simple prayers to Soma’s grace, / That Vedic verse embalms.”

Clearly Whittier has the Christian sacraments, hymns, and liturgical prayer in mind.  As the poem continues he writes,

As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

All religious ceremony is, in his mind, a vain Babel-like attempt to reach the heavens by human effort.

The final six verses of Whittier’s poem are the ones we have come to know as “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”  The seventh to the last verse is the climax of his critique:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

It’s amazing that we have taken this polemic against historic forms of Christian worship and turned it into a standard hymn, particularly popular in Anglican circles!   When you keep Whittier’s Quaker faith and the rest of the poem in mind, you can still catch the traces of polemic in the verses we know and sing:

  • The “simple trust” in unmediated grace (v. 2)
  • the idea of rising up “without a word” (v. 2)
  • the “Sabbath rest” depicted as the “silence of eternity” (v. 3)
  • the “noiseless” blessing of God falling on the worshippers (v. 4)
  • the “still dews of quietness” which cause “all our strivings” to cease (v. 5)
  • and finally, the dumbing of the senses in the presence of the “still small voice” (v. 6)

Reading it from this perspective, these verses clearly reflect Quaker theology and practice in a very distinctive way.

Should non-Quakers still sing this song, since we don’t ascribe to their beliefs about worship?   I would say so.  Though it is good to recognize the Quaker aspects of the hymn, poetry does not have one fixed meaning.  Even anglo-catholics might be able to interpret this hymn in  a way that fits with their approach to worship, particularly since most of the imagery in the hymn is thoroughly biblical.   All Christians can affirm the restfulness of being in God’s presence, the place that quietness ought to occupy in worship, and the way that God’s blessing comes to us in spite of our strivings – without taking these convictions in the direction of Quaker theology.

And to be honest, most people are probably so enraptured by the amazing tune, Repton, that they wouldn’t notice the distinctive Quaker aspects of the hymn!

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.