The Lordless Powers and Baptismal Renunciations: A Reappraisal

Some readers of my first essay on this topic found its terminology too academically oriented to speak to their experience of baptisms within the local congregation. Unfamiliar with Karl Barth and the liturgical history of the baptismal rites, especially of the loss and recovery of the “renunciations,” they wondered if I was writing to a select group of scholars.

After rereading the essay, I see that I rather quickly entered the realm of formal theology. But many of the questions I marked for exploration cannot be answered without addressing how baptism is actually practiced and understood, or misunderstood, within our congregations. What are we actually professing and rejecting at the water’s edge? What do we really think is happening when the congregation gathers to baptize children or adults?

Thus, I begin this second essay with examples from congregational life that show what is at stake for the formation of Christian disciples in the way we teach and practice baptism.

The ways that congregations react to the baptismal liturgy can often reveal that they have not yet grasped what is actually proclaimed and enacted in the liturgy. For example, parishioners observing the baptism of infants sometimes object when they are asked to join the parents in “reaffirm[ing] both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ”—as if the baptismal service applied only to the private concerns of the family seeking baptism for their child. Somehow, the ecclesial, interpersonal, and communal character of baptism is missed, even though the pastor asks, “Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church, reaffirm…?” Perhaps this reaction is the residue of Methodism’s long emphasis upon a personal conversion experience which often slighted the significance of baptism. On the other hand, it may be a sign of adaptation to cultural notions of the private character of religion.

Here is another example: The call to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…[and] reject the evil powers of this world” can elicit various negative or complacent reactions. In a series of interviews conducted to ascertain how congregations were receiving the revised baptismal rites in the Book of Worship, Byron Anderson quotes a respondent:

I think the baptismal service the church is using now [the revised United Methodist rite] is just terrible. To have the people stand up there and have to go through the Apostles’ Creed and all the rigmarole that’s this long service in there I think is terrible…. I like the simple, to-the-point baptismal service that’s meaningful to the parents and never mind the Apostles’ Creed at that point. That’s crazy to put that in the baptismal service…and all the stuff about their sins and whatnot. I don’t like that at all. (“Apotaxis and Ethics: The Baptismal Renunciations and Christian Discipleship” Studia Liturgica 42 [2012], 197-216)

Anderson’s analysis of this response raises three concerns that are central to our church’s baptismal and catechetical practice.

First, the respondent exhibits dis-ease with the use of the creed and the “rigmarole” of ritual that suggests a lack of congregational formation in what the church believes and how this is enacted in its worship and sacramental practice.

Second, the focus on what is “meaningful to the parents” indicates a secularized perspective that prioritizes human action and feelings rather than the church’s faith in God’s work in the sacraments.

Third, the respondent’s dislike of speaking of a baby’s sins exposes an ongoing confusion in the church’s use of liturgical rites—originally designed for adults—being applied to the children of believers. How can the use of renunciations be understood in relation to the baptism of children and their parents’ hope for them to live a life of freedom before God?

Anderson’s article shows how the revised United Methodist baptismal rite addresses each of these concerns, but notes how much work is yet needed by pastors and congregations to fully “receive” these rites and to recover the radical character of both confessing our faith and renouncing “the evil powers of this world.”

The Lordless Powers and Baptismal Renunciations

I would like to explore in my next few essays the challenge and promise that the Baptismal Renunciations provide to a culturally accommodated church. The questions to be asked include the following:

  • What liturgical and theological functions did the Renunciations perform in the early catechumenate?
  • What “powers” did they identify and reject?
  • What is the current use, function, and effectiveness of the Renunciations?
  • Is it possible to retrieve the radical character of the Renunciations of the early church for the cultural struggles of the contemporary church?
  • How might a deeper awareness of the role of the Baptismal Renunciations help the church to name, resist, and even publicly renounce the “Lordless powers” in our age?
  • What are some possible openings in pastoral practice for the recovery of the Renunciations?
  • What are the possible gains as well as dangers for such a recovery attempt?

The impetus for this exploration comes from reading a recent essay by R. R. Reno (“Benedict Option,” First Things, May 2017). Reno’s article takes aim at the powers at work in our public culture and appeals to Karl Barth’s analysis of “the Lordless Powers” (Church Dogmatics IV/4: Lecture Fragments; ET, The Christian Life [Eerdmans, 1981]). Reno’s essay and Barth’s acute theological appraisal center around the conflict between Christian freedom and captivity to the age. I believe their reflections have significant ramifications for catechesis in our time, particularly baptismal catechesis. Thus, I want to draw out from their theological claims some applications for pastoral practice and to invite the comments and suggestions of my readers. (It’s worth noting that the whole of these “lecture fragments” of Barth are an extended exegesis and commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.)

To begin our exploration, then, the Renunciations I have in mind are the questions asked in the Baptismal Liturgy before the candidate confesses faith in Jesus Christ. The form in the United Methodist Hymnal is as follows:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

Note the tension between human actions — renounce, reject, repent, resist — and the spiritual forces at play — evil powers, on the one hand; the freedom and power God gives, on the other. An initial question to mark for further investigation: what kind of teaching and formation is required for the candidate to make such renunciations with understanding and integrity? In other words, how are “spiritual forces” and “evil powers” named and identified so that the candidate knows the objects of rejection and what’s at stake?

This is not the place for an extended study of Barth’s final lectures on dogmatics (which are an exceedingly rich exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and the foundation of the Christian life in baptism), but his discussion of “the Lordless powers” can provide a broad theological vista for considering and expounding Baptismal Renunciations, even if one disagrees with his interpretation of baptism. Nor must we agree with all of Reno’s interpretations of the current political and cultural scene to acknowledge that he has made a fruitful connection between Barth’s teaching and the struggle between Christian freedom and the “powers” of our age.

Nevertheless, a brief exposition of Barth’s perspective can help orient our investigation. First, his teaching about the powers to be resisted is grounded in the petition, “Thy kingdom come.” It is in the prayer that Jesus taught that we are given the command and the freedom to call on God, “and in so doing … to know this kingdom even in the midst of the kingdom of disorder, to look toward it and to call for it” (The Christian Life, 234).

Second, corresponding to God’s action there is a human response: “Christians have been given the certainty that God has taken in hand and actualized order in his creation for the good of man and that he will finally manifest and enforce it in its perfection. They thus revolt against all the oppression and suppression of man by the lordship of lordless powers” (205n1). Thus, Barth defines Christian life as “entry into a conflict.”

Reno helpfully summarizes the third aspect of Barth’s perspective: “Barth observed that when man [sic] no longer accepts God’s authority, he is not in fact free. Instead, otherwise healthy aspects of the created order ‘become spirits with a life and activity of their own, lordless indwelling forces’” (67). Barth is clear that these powers have only a “pseudo-objective reality” since they are not “ontologically godless forces” but rather “human abilities, exalting themselves as lordless forces, against man himself … [and] they derive power and lordship over him because of the disintegration of his relationship to God.” It’s important to note that Barth is not here returning to an older form of demonology; he makes clear that “because they do not have more than pseudo-objective reality, we can speak of them only in consciously mythological terms” (The Christian Life, 215-16).

Barth names among the lordless powers the following: the “demonism of politics,” the “myth of the State,” Mammon and money as a symbol, “intellectual constructs” known as ideologies, and “chthonic forces” (which Reno summarizes as “the instinctual powers that surge within our created natures”). Some of his examples will be useful in our later discussions of the Renunciations. I invite my readers to enter this discussion with me.

In Memory of Thomas C. Oden

Most of my essays in Catalyst have focused on Christian formation, catechesis, and various aspects of the catechumenate. These essays might not have been written if it had not been for one of my teachers, Thomas Oden, who catechized me and many others in the deep wells of the classical Christian tradition. I have been thinking of him a lot since he died on December 8, 2016.

There are numerous thoughtful obituaries and memorials of him that can be easily googled. I want to remember him here, in a more personal way, not only as a United Methodist teacher and catechist for the Church Catholic but as a faithful shepherd to many students, pastors, and laypeople. So, I offer the letter below, which I sent to Tom in 2004. Some memories have been added since the letter was first sent.

Dear Tom,

All Saints’ Day seems like a good one to write this letter. I’m writing to say thank you for your work as a teacher of the church, and especially for all that you have done for me as teacher, mentor, friend.

Your Retirement Colloquium was a wonderful event. Not only did it pay necessary tribute to your life’s work. It portrayed your career in a holistic way and generated many thoughts in me and those present about our own vocations. These thoughts call forth gratitude.

I can still remember standing in a religious book store in 1979 or ’80, eagerly reading your Agenda for Theology. It spoke directly to my disappointment in The United Methodist Church. Many of my fellow pastors seemed uninterested in the gospel itself. They wanted to be amateur therapists or political activists. It took me a few more years — with testing and failing and discerning — but I eventually showed up in your graduate school classes in 1984. This was an answer to prayer and one of the most significant changes of direction in my theological vocation. It was your book that kept me aiming at a “theological existence.”

You were a professor who closely listened to your students, and you were truly Socratic in an environment that was becoming more and more enamored of, and constricted by, categories of class, race, and gender. Your seminars on the doctrine of God, Kierkegaard, and Wesley were exciting intellectual conversations that required us to struggle with texts in the light of the whole of the Christian tradition.

As a real conversation partner with your students, you often shared with us drafts of the books you were writing, and would surprise us with the generous listing of our names, alongside serious senior scholars, in the acknowledgments section of your books when they went to print. Once, when we asked for writing advice, you pointed to the draft you had shared with us and said, “This is my eleventh draft,” revealing how you wrote within a community of Christian conversation.

I am also grateful for your invitation in 1994 to join you and others in the meeting that evolved into The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church. My return to the parish after completing my doctorate was initially a great personal trial. I almost failed. But your invitation to remain theologically engaged, at whatever post the Lord had assigned me, resulted in great blessing for me and a remarkable healing in the Trinity United Methodist congregation in Lansing. I cannot thank you enough for this. It was the mark of a true theological mentor. You did not forget about my work because I did not immediately enter the academic realm; you saw it whole within the church — a sign to me of the integrity of your theological perspective.

Thank you, Tom, for the patience, persistence, and tenacity with which you pursued the retrieval of a “classical consensual tradition.” Breaking free — indeed repenting — of the chains and blinders of modernity, you pioneered a pathway for many of us. Seeing how your various projects have led to the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, even though that may not have been in your mind at the beginning — this gave me courage to keep working at my vocation when I still could not see what tapestry all the threads were actually weaving.

There was one element missing, I think, in your Retirement Colloquium. Although it was touched upon, no one really tackled your polemical, Kierkegaardian, renewalist role in mainline Christianity. Perhaps that topic is better approached in a different setting than a retirement context. Still, given the vaunted political engagement of liberal academics, it is too bad they could not engage, or describe intellectually, the polemical-irenical character of your work. For those who read your work developmentally, it is clear you had already worked out in Agenda that an irenicism that listens goes with a polemicism that confronts.

Your irenicism was especially clear to your former students when you published your memoir, A Change of Heart. Many of us had seen, close up, attempts by students and faculty to sideline or shame you in the university community for your outspoken questions about the theological reasoning of various radical theologians. Your willingness to speak frankly and pastorally about abortion and end-of-life issues had garnered visible hostility. Yet your memoir was gracious and generous to all your detractors.

For all this I am very grateful, Tom. Every year I become more aware of what a gift you, your witness, and your work have been to me as a disciple, a teacher, and a pastor.

Your student and friend in Christ,

Les

Deep Church Catechesis (2)

In the penultimate chapter of their challenging book, Deep Church Rising (Cascade, 2014), Andrew Walker and Robin Parry develop a series of proposals for the kind of catechesis that will be required for their vision of “Deep Church.” This is one of the best accounts I have seen, in brief form, of how to equip the church’s pastors and teachers for the staggering task of forming Christians who are not “squeezed into the world’s mold.”

Building on the concept of paideia — the formative means by which ancient Greece transmitted its cultural heritage through the schooling of virtue and the cultivation of character — the authors sketch out eight dimensions of a “kingdom paideia” that is necessary to the formation of a deep church living in creative opposition to the principalities and powers of contemporary plausibility structures.

“Dimensions” is the right word for these tasks of formation. Taken as steps or mere resources they would be reduced to educational “tools,” thus robbing them of their power as interpenetrating realities in which the church must live if its life together is to be transformative. The authors periodically make this point, but I think they should have been even more emphatic.

Here and there, the authors clarify the deep reality of the catechetical tasks they identify. For example: “Conforming our lives to the pattern of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit but it is a divine work that we are called to co-operate with, in community. It is a long journey with twists and turns and ups and downs, with periods of radical transformation and long stretches where little seems to change” (138). Or again: “Worship is a learned set of practices…. Such learning cannot simply be didactic — teaching about good worship — but must also be a regular, engaged participation in communal worship” (135).

Well said, but the ingrained practices of Christian educators and congregations that consume educational “resources” and “tools” in endless cycles of six-week classes on some “hot topic” or the “newest online program” will not be reformed by occasional references to holistic or participatory learning. Our denominational publishing houses are enslaved to “programmitis” and to the production and sale of niche curricula.

Walker and Parry come closer to showing what radical transformation is needed in our catechetical practices when they entitle their sixth dimension, “Catechesis Involves ‘Exorcism.’” They make reference to the regular use of exorcisms by the early church in its administration of the catechumenal journey toward unity with Christ and his body in baptism. And they call for the church to “name” the various compulsions that people worship as “idols” and to provide the spiritual direction and mentoring required to throw off such enslaving powers.

The power of recovering the catechetical journey of the early church has the advantage of showing that entry into life with Christ and his body requires some detoxification from the intoxications of the surrounding culture on the way to a life of holiness. Unfortunately, this book on Deep Church Rising, while calling for exorcism, does not confront deeply enough the superficial educational practices of so many of our congregations.

In spite of my criticism, I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book. I still stand by my comment in Part One of these essays on Deep Church Rising that “the authors provide a trenchant critique of the inadequacy of contemporary Christian education practices in the face of the ‘torrent of life-shaping influences’ that flows from modern media entertainment, advertising, and consumerism.”

The weakness I am pointing to is that their description of the “astonishing formative power” of the culture of entertainment, advertising, and consumerism is not matched by an equally compelling description of the kind of exorcism needed for the “deep transformation” they point to in ch. 8. Perhaps that needs a book of its own.

Deep Church Catechesis (2)

In the penultimate chapter of their challenging book, Deep Church Rising (Cascade, 2014), Andrew Walker and Robin Parry develop a series of proposals for the kind of catechesis that will be required for their vision of “Deep Church.” This is one of the best accounts I have seen, in brief form, of how to equip the church’s pastors and teachers for the staggering task of forming Christians who are not “squeezed into the world’s mold.”

Building on the concept of paideia — the formative means by which ancient Greece transmitted its cultural heritage through the schooling of virtue and the cultivation of character — the authors sketch out eight dimensions of a “kingdom paideia” that is necessary to the formation of a deep church living in creative opposition to the principalities and powers of contemporary plausibility structures.

“Dimensions” is the right word for these tasks of formation. Taken as steps or mere resources they would be reduced to educational “tools,” thus robbing them of their power as interpenetrating realities in which the church must live if its life together is to be transformative. The authors periodically make this point, but I think they should have been even more emphatic.

Here and there, the authors clarify the deep reality of the catechetical tasks they identify. For example: “Conforming our lives to the pattern of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit but it is a divine work that we are called to co-operate with, in community. It is a long journey with twists and turns and ups and downs, with periods of radical transformation and long stretches where little seems to change” (138). Or again: “Worship is a learned set of practices…. Such learning cannot simply be didactic — teaching about good worship — but must also be a regular, engaged participation in communal worship” (135).

Well said, but the ingrained practices of Christian educators and congregations that consume educational “resources” and “tools” in endless cycles of six-week classes on some “hot topic” or the “newest online program” will not be reformed by occasional references to holistic or participatory learning. Our denominational publishing houses are enslaved to “programmitis” and to the production and sale of niche curricula.

Walker and Parry come closer to showing what radical transformation is needed in our catechetical practices when they entitle their sixth dimension, “Catechesis Involves ‘Exorcism.’” They make reference to the regular use of exorcisms by the early church in its administration of the catechumenal journey toward unity with Christ and his body in baptism. And they call for the church to “name” the various compulsions that people worship as “idols” and to provide the spiritual direction and mentoring required to throw off such enslaving powers.

The power of recovering the catechetical journey of the early church has the advantage of showing that entry into life with Christ and his body requires some detoxification from the intoxications of the surrounding culture on the way to a life of holiness. Unfortunately, this book on Deep Church Rising, while calling for exorcism, does not confront deeply enough the superficial educational practices of so many of our congregations.

In spite of my criticism, I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book. I still stand by my comment in Part One of these essays on Deep Church Rising that “the authors provide a trenchant critique of the inadequacy of contemporary Christian education practices in the face of the ‘torrent of life-shaping influences’ that flows from modern media entertainment, advertising, and consumerism.”

The weakness I am pointing to is that their description of the “astonishing formative power” of the culture of entertainment, advertising, and consumerism is not matched by an equally compelling description of the kind of exorcism needed for the “deep transformation” they point to in ch. 8. Perhaps that needs a book of its own.

Deep Church Catechesis

For several years my Catalyst essays have been exploring various aspects of the “lost art of catechesis”: the deep resources to be recovered in the pre- and post-baptismal catechesis of the early church known as the catechumenate; the craft and musicality of catechesis; and its recovery in certain historical forms like John Wesley’s boot camp model of formation and Charles Wesley’s hymnody of sung theology.

If church history shows anything, surely one recurring pattern is the loss of sound catechesis and the continual struggle for sound teaching and practice of the faith. Catechesis decays into mere methods and techniques. The great doctrines become ossified slogans rather than windows into the mystery of salvation. Recovery attempts that strive after new “spiritualities” and “practices” become in their turn spiritual “technologies” that miss the mark and distort the gospel.

Attempts at the renewal of catechesis can never be just the repristination of methods once tried and now forgotten. They must participate in a recovery of the gospel itself for contemporary believing, behaving, and belonging.

A recent book that provides a promising perspective in this regard is Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy, by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry (Cascade, 2014).

In less than 200 pages the authors provide a series of provocative proposals for a robust ecclesiological response to the challenges of modernity and postmodernity — a response articulated through the notions of a “third schism” and “deep church.”

“The Third Schism: On Losing the Gospel” (part one of the book) is devoted to a forthright, yet clear and accessible, analysis of the rise of secularism, identifying modernity and postmodernity as the roots of the “third schism.”

The authors argue that the first two great schisms (the separation of Western and Eastern Christianity and the split in the West between Catholics and Protestants) divided Christianity, yet still allowed for a “family resemblance” among the different communions. The term “third schism” points to the reality that now there are forms of Christianity utterly opposed to the Christian tradition, denying many central gospel claims, yet spread throughout and across the various communions.

“The third schism … undermines the very basis of Christian faith in its denial of the Trinity, incarnation, and the resurrection, and in its treating Scripture as an object of scientific inquiry rather than as a sacred text” (x). Schism, in this sense, represents not so much the dividing of denominations as the rending of the church and a loss of the gospel.

William Abraham has commented on the third schism concept as a “whole new way” of tackling “the problem of naming … the present nasty divisions across Christendom,” which avoids the old superficiality of right/left, conservative/progressive labels. He argues that the concept has heuristic value that, even if eventually rejected, allows for a new angle of vision (see his “Foreward” to Notes from a Wayward Son: A Miscellany, by Andrew G. Walker, ed. Andrew D. Kinsey [Cascade, 2015], xi).

Walker and Parry are frank about their call for a vigorous defense and recovery of historical and Trinitarian orthodoxy. (Appendix two provides a clear delineation of their position from fundamentalism.) At the same time, they see any return to the sources as only a “half-turn.”

“Christians cannot think and behave as if modernity has not happened. And it cannot be with the aim of simply repeating the theology and practice of past Christianity. Rather, it must be a retrieval that has an eye to recontextualizing in our living contexts — a fresh improvisation of the faith that is both deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition but also alive to the worlds we now inhabit. Christian tradition has never been a static notion” (44).

Using the concept of a third schism as a way of identifying “versions of modern Christianity which, although modern are not Christian,” Walker and Parry seek a recovery/discovery of a richer and deeper form of the faith that they identify as “Deep Church,” a term originally coined by C.S. Lewis as an alternative to his famous reference to “mere Christianity.”

“Deep Church: On Recovering the Gospel” (part two) unpacks their vision of deep church in chapters that describe deep faith, deep worship, and deep living — all aimed at articulating orthodoxia as right believing and right worship, and orthopraxia as right practice.

There are also chapters on deep roots (Scripture and tradition) and deep church (Eucharistic community), but the chapter of especial interest for these Catalyst essays is “Deep Transformation: Recovering Catechesis.” Here, the authors provide a trenchant critique of the inadequacy of contemporary Christian education practices in the face of the “torrent of life-shaping influences” that flows from modern media entertainment, advertising, and consumerism.

Walker and Parry outline a series of catechetical implications for a deep-church vision that consciously seeks to build a “kingdom paideia.” My future Catalyst essays will attempt a critical engagement with and analysis of their proposals.

The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis, Part Two

In “The Musicality of Catechesis,” we saw how the virtuoso performance of the catechetical teaching and preaching of Augustine cannot be fully grasped without resort to a category like musicality. Applying this insight to the Wesleyan tradition highlights how the hymnody of Charles Wesley not only teaches and explains but also sings our doctrine.

In “The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis,” we explored further the thesis that Charles Wesley’s hymnody is one of the “pillars of Wesleyan Catechesis,” finding examples in his hymns exhibiting a strong Christological focus where Jesus himself is identified with a new song of salvation.

This current essay will focus in a more personal and practical way on the pedagogical character of catechesis that gives scope to musicality without reducing formation to mere lesson plans and programs.

One of the pillars of classical catechesis, alongside the catechism and the sacraments, is the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, basic instruction for living the Christian life is not only information about what the church believes and how believers receive grace in baptism and Eucharist; it teaches the convert how to pray, how to continue seeking the face of God in the way of discipleship.

This is precisely the role the Wesleyan hymns played. Take, for instance, Hymn 438 in The United Methodist Hymnal. It teaches the disciple to greet the new day singing:

Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, my daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know in all I think or speak or do.

It characterizes the life of faith as a gathering up of every human effort and divine gift into a vision of a vigorous “run” and an intimate “walk”:

For thee delightfully employ whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given;
And run my course with even joy, and closely walk with thee to heaven.

Christian tradition is full of spiritual directors who recommend a “rule of prayer” for those who want prayer to become a solid shaping force in their lives rather than an occasional or irregular happening. John Wesley, himself, urged that “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it, first, in the way of prayer.” As you might guess, John had a “rule of prayer” just as he had the “three simple rules” that were maintained by all the Methodist Societies. He arose early every day for private prayer. In words similar to Luther, he declared, “I have so much to do that I spend several hours in prayer before I am able to do it.”

That his prayer life was more than the habitual rituals of a driven man was witnessed to by one of his contemporaries who wrote, “[John] thought prayer to be more his business than anything else, and I have seen him come out of his closet with a serenity of face next to shining.”

It was out of his own urgent, daily struggle of intimate prayer that John urged others never to neglect a disciplined prayer life. “The neglect of private prayer, or the hurrying over it, is perhaps the most frequent sin of omission. This lack cannot be supplied by any other means whatever; the life of God in the soul will surely decay and gradually die away.”

Still, such a view of a disciplined prayer life might have become another form of rigorism and spiritual legalism without the balancing harmony of Charles’s hymns. Charles helps turn a rule of prayer into a song. Let me speak from personal experience. Over the years, I have tried various rules of prayer. I have set for myself different formats, times of the day, kinds of prayers, Scripture readings, and on and on. It is almost laughable how our desire to be intimate with God can turn into an exercise in religious drudgery! One thing is certain; every “rule” fails sooner or later.

Something different happens when we sing our prayers. Augustine stated this hard-won truth when he wrote, “Those who sing pray twice.” When I have been too tired or dull in spirit to pray, I have discovered that a memorized hymn can ignite the desire for God. When I have been too hurried to say my morning prayers, singing hymns on the way to work has redeemed the time, turning a spirit of haste into praise and preparation for the day. I first began singing the hymns as a fallback discipline when I couldn’t “keep the rule.” But soon the hymns had transformed my rule-keeping into delight and my car into a prayer-closet.

Methodism’s original vitality as a renewal movement sang its way into people’s hearts while it was preaching good news and serving the poor. The elements of musicality, of delight, of heart and voice united in meter and music transposed into prayer transformed the repetition of creeds and catechisms into the songs of disciples. The reclaiming of this pillar of Wesleyan catechesis may be a way beyond the domesticating, psychologizing, and politicizing of much of our contemporary pedagogy.

The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis, Part Two

In “The Musicality of Catechesis,” we saw how the virtuoso performance of the catechetical teaching and preaching of Augustine cannot be fully grasped without resort to a category like musicality. Applying this insight to the Wesleyan tradition highlights how the hymnody of Charles Wesley not only teaches and explains but also sings our doctrine.

In “The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis,” we explored further the thesis that Charles Wesley’s hymnody is one of the “pillars of Wesleyan Catechesis,” finding examples in his hymns exhibiting a strong Christological focus where Jesus himself is identified with a new song of salvation.

This current essay will focus in a more personal and practical way on the pedagogical character of catechesis that gives scope to musicality without reducing formation to mere lesson plans and programs.

One of the pillars of classical catechesis, alongside the catechism and the sacraments, is the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, basic instruction for living the Christian life is not only information about what the church believes and how believers receive grace in baptism and Eucharist; it teaches the convert how to pray, how to continue seeking the face of God in the way of discipleship.

This is precisely the role the Wesleyan hymns played. Take, for instance, Hymn 438 in The United Methodist Hymnal. It teaches the disciple to greet the new day singing:

Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, my daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know in all I think or speak or do.

It characterizes the life of faith as a gathering up of every human effort and divine gift into a vision of a vigorous “run” and an intimate “walk”:

For thee delightfully employ whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given;
And run my course with even joy, and closely walk with thee to heaven.

Christian tradition is full of spiritual directors who recommend a “rule of prayer” for those who want prayer to become a solid shaping force in their lives rather than an occasional or irregular happening. John Wesley, himself, urged that “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it, first, in the way of prayer.” As you might guess, John had a “rule of prayer” just as he had the “three simple rules” that were maintained by all the Methodist Societies. He arose early every day for private prayer. In words similar to Luther, he declared, “I have so much to do that I spend several hours in prayer before I am able to do it.”

That his prayer life was more than the habitual rituals of a driven man was witnessed to by one of his contemporaries who wrote, “[John] thought prayer to be more his business than anything else, and I have seen him come out of his closet with a serenity of face next to shining.”

It was out of his own urgent, daily struggle of intimate prayer that John urged others never to neglect a disciplined prayer life. “The neglect of private prayer, or the hurrying over it, is perhaps the most frequent sin of omission. This lack cannot be supplied by any other means whatever; the life of God in the soul will surely decay and gradually die away.”

Still, such a view of a disciplined prayer life might have become another form of rigorism and spiritual legalism without the balancing harmony of Charles’s hymns. Charles helps turn a rule of prayer into a song. Let me speak from personal experience. Over the years, I have tried various rules of prayer. I have set for myself different formats, times of the day, kinds of prayers, Scripture readings, and on and on. It is almost laughable how our desire to be intimate with God can turn into an exercise in religious drudgery! One thing is certain; every “rule” fails sooner or later.

Something different happens when we sing our prayers. Augustine stated this hard-won truth when he wrote, “Those who sing pray twice.” When I have been too tired or dull in spirit to pray, I have discovered that a memorized hymn can ignite the desire for God. When I have been too hurried to say my morning prayers, singing hymns on the way to work has redeemed the time, turning a spirit of haste into praise and preparation for the day. I first began singing the hymns as a fallback discipline when I couldn’t “keep the rule.” But soon the hymns had transformed my rule-keeping into delight and my car into a prayer-closet.

Methodism’s original vitality as a renewal movement sang its way into people’s hearts while it was preaching good news and serving the poor. The elements of musicality, of delight, of heart and voice united in meter and music transposed into prayer transformed the repetition of creeds and catechisms into the songs of disciples. The reclaiming of this pillar of Wesleyan catechesis may be a way beyond the domesticating, psychologizing, and politicizing of much of our contemporary pedagogy.

The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis

My last essay on “The Musicality of Catechesis” led me to further reflections on how crucial the recognition of musicality is to teaching the faith. It brought me all the way back to my first essay on Catalyst Resources in which I appealed to J.I. Packer’s definition of catechesis as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight.” Delight seems to imply musicality. Without it we can rightly speak of the “lost art” of catechesis.

Going back even further, one can find the tonality of delight in the very word “catechesis.” The Greek verb katēcheō has as its root the word echō (“to sound”, “to ring out”). Thus the word catechesis and its verb form “to catechize” (from kata + echō = “to sound from above”) has come to mean “to teach,” or “to instruct.” But the words suggest more than simple oral instruction.

For example, here is how Cyril of Jerusalem spoke to catechumens who had signed up at the beginning of Lent to take the final steps of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil:

You used to be called a catechumen, when the truth was being dinned into you from without: hearing about the Christian hope without understanding it; hearing about the Mysteries without having a spiritual perception of them; hearing the Scriptures but not sounding their depths. No longer in your ears now but in your hearts is that ringing: for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your soul the house of God. (Procatechesis 6, in The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 1, in The Fathers of the Church [Catholic University of America Press, 1969], 75)

Cyril is making a wordplay between “catechumen” and catēcheō (“dinned into you from without”). The seekers are now echoing in their thought and conduct what were previously only words of teaching. The seeker is now becoming “attuned” and “sounding with” the Spirit and the church.

A contemporary Orthodox educator, Daniel J. Sahas, writes of the church’s catechesis as the “tuning together of the members of the Body … the thorough learning and practicing of the ‘tone’ according to which the Church ‘chants,’ that is, believes, worships, and expresses herself — these three together” (Catechesis: The Maturation of the Body [Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1984], 16, 17)

This confirms my thesis that the ministry of Charles Wesley is an example of the musicality of catechesis and that his hymnody is one of the pillars of Wesleyan catechesis. By means of his poetic imagination and lyrical genius Charles transformed creed and catechesis into songs of worship. Learning “sound” doctrine in our tradition thus means that it must sound on our lips and echo in our hearts and actions. The early Methodist societies sang their theology. After all, the first hymn in our hymnal declares

O, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise….

What is not as commonly noticed is the strong Christological interpretation Charles gives to singing and music in the church. He identifies the very name of Jesus with music and salvation.

Jesus! The name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘tis music in the sinner’s ears,
‘tis life, and health, and peace!

Over and over again Charles’s hymns call attention to the power of the human voice as an instrument of praise when indwelt by Christ. In his 1749 hymn, “Jesus, Thou Soul of All Our Joys,” numerous lines sound this note. The first stanza sings:

Jesus, thou soul of all our joys,
For whom we now lift up our voice,
. . . .
Compose into a thankful frame,
And tune thy people’s heart.

The fourth stanza sings let us our voices raise in order that our souls and bodies’ powers unite. The sixth and seventh stanzas call for a similar healing and harmonizing of human faculties by means of praise when Christ is present:

The joy from out our heart arise,
And speak, and sparkle in our eyes,
And vibrate on our tongue.

Jesus, thyself in us reveal,
And all our faculties shall feel
Thy harmonizing name.

Yet, it is clear in the fifth stanza, that singing and music in themselves, unless enabled and renewed by the indwelling Spirit, are mere fallen human powers.

Still let us on our guard be found,
And watch against the power of sound
With sacred jealousy;
Lest haply sense should damp our zeal,
And music’s charms bewitch and steal
Our heart away from thee.

Charles Wesley theologically interprets singing and music as powers that are redeemed by Christ and therefore sounds reverberating from the new creation. Take, for example, another 1749 hymn, “Thou, Jesus, Thou My Breast Inspire”:

Thou, Jesus, Thou my breast inspire,
And touch my lips with hallowed fire,
     And loose a stammering infant’s tongue;
Prepare the vessel of thy grace,
Adorn me with the robes of praise,
     And mercy shall be all my song.

All of the action here comes first from Christ, who inspires, touches, looses, prepares, and adorns; after that, “all” of our song is about his mercy! As the final stanza of the previous hymn puts it, Christ’s work in us calls forth a song that not only employs all our earthly powers, but is “endless,” the song of a new heaven and new earth.

With calmly reverential joy,
Oh, let us all our lives employ
     In setting forth thy love;
And raise in death our triumph higher,
And sing, with all the heavenly choir,
     That endless song above.

The Musicality of Catechesis

When thinking about catechesis, that is, oral instruction in the life of Christian faith, we often get caught in categories like creed, curriculum, lesson plans, and Bible study. We use them as tools or maps for navigating the biblical texts and the life of faith. But they are not the terrain itself.

Some of our greatest teachers, while virtuoso performers in all these categories, find ways to teach that move beyond mere abstractions and intellectual interpretations. William Harmless, in his marvelous Augustine and the Catechumenate (Liturgical Press, 1995) writes of the “musicality” of Augustine’s teaching and preaching:

If one approaches Augustine with a programmatic eye, one leaves disappointed. He offers no neat lesson plans, no orderly scope-and-sequence chart, no clear and distinct curricular architecture. Yet if one comes to Augustine … with an ear for music, patterns begin to emerge. His catecheses moved melodically, not structurally … their flow was more fugal than linear. It is this musicality that makes his work so hard to outline or to summarize. (373)

The “musicality of catechesis” may also be found within the Wesleyan tradition in the ministry of Charles Wesley. We might even go so far as to say that his hymnody forms one of the “pillars” of Wesleyan catechesis, alongside the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments. Borrowing the metaphor proposed by William Harmless, Charles sings rather than explains our doctrine.

Jason Vickers argues that Charles had a rich doctrine of the Holy Spirit that Methodism has lost over time (“Charles Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: A Vital Resource for the Renewal of Methodism Today,” Asbury Journal 61, no. 1 [2006]: 47-60). By recovering Charles’s deep sense of the personal activity of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome the “domestication” of Wesleyan-Methodist language about the role of the Spirit in Christian life.

Vickers traces the way contemporary Methodism replaces the language of personal activity by the Holy Spirit with an abstract vocabulary of grace. We speak of justifying grace, illuminating grace, sanctifying grace, and perfecting grace rather than the revealing, empowering, purifying, and equipping activities of the Holy Spirit. We talk of grace as a concept relating to various phases of religious life. Charles sings and teaches us to long for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who makes it possible for sinners to participate in God’s own Triune life.

Here’s how Charles — in a hymn not found in our hymnal — expressed his robust sense of the Spirit’s active role in Christian experience:

O that the Comforter would come!

Nor visit as a transient guest,

But fix in me his loved abode,

The temple of indwelling God!

Come, Holy Ghost, my heart inspire!

Attest that I am born again!

Come, and baptize me with fire,

Nor let thy former gifts be vain.

(Hymn 365 in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7 [Abingdon, 1983], 534-35)

It’s not as if we have stopped believing in the Holy Spirit, but it is clear that Charles names specific actions of the Spirit, whereas we habitually refer to a general concept of grace. As Vickers puts it, “Referring to the Holy Spirit as a living, breathing, divine personal agent who convicts of sin, reveals the true identity of Christ to the human heart and mind, applies the blood of Christ, and makes us partakers of the divine nature is far more robust theological vocabulary than attributing salvation in a generic way to grace” (54-55). I would add that what makes this vocabulary “robust” is its musical character.

Vickers offers several reasons why Methodism may have domesticated the vivid Spirit language of Scripture by replacing it with grace talk. First, the constant accusation by Calvinists that Wesleyans were really preaching a subtle form of “salvation by works” may have led Methodists to overstress the phrase “salvation by grace.”

Second, the pressures and skepticism of the modern secular age ranked talk of the Holy Spirit with unscientific appeals to magic, superstition, and aliens. Modern Methodists, ever sensitive to the changing cultural context, opted for less shocking religious language.

Third, the rise of Pentecostalism and charismatic movements made many Methodists eager to distance themselves from excessive claims about speaking in tongues and healing miracles. Unfortunately, this tended to silence Methodist talk about the Spirit and make it the monopoly of Pentecostals.

Finally, it may be that the neglect of Charles’s hymns, and their poetic, personal, and musical language for the work of the Holy Spirit, left us with an impoverished theological vocabulary. Here is all the more reason for us to read and sing Charles carefully, and to place him consistently alongside his brother John in our teaching of the faith.

The Legacy of Albert Cook Outler: Nostalgia, Challenge, Prospect (Part 3)

[In part one of this lecture, I sketched Albert Outler’s significance and legacy, and in part two I discussed challenges posed to Outler’s contributions.]

Proposals

I want now to move from these challenges to Outler’s proposals — still insisting that these are not fully settled questions, and that the full import of his legacy is still open before us — and turn now to a brief exploration of what challenges he may yet have for us.

There is enough material here to launch several more lectures, but let me just offer a few brief suggestions to show that we are not through with Albert Outler. He has yet more to teach us. Here are snapshots of three avenues for exploration.

First, in spite of whatever criticisms we might make of his views of theological pluralism, he posed a question for Methodists that is still on our agenda: Do Methodists have a doctrine of the church? His essay with that title came out of the 1962 Oxford Institute on Methodist Theological Studies where he made the claim that Methodism “was really designed to function best within an encompassing environment of catholicity.” It arose, not as an independent church but as “an effort to meet an emergency situation, with needful extraordinary measures.” Therefore, “we need a catholic church within which to function as a proper evangelical order of witness and worship, discipline and nurture” (quotations from The Wesleyan Theological Heritage, 225, 226).

The burden of Outler’s ecumenical ventures in the decades after that was to find what that “environment of catholicity” might entail. Fifty years after he raised this question, it is heartening to see how it was taken up recently in the journal Ecclesiology (vol. 9 [2013]) where the editor, Geoffrey Wainwright, and authors Justus Hunter and Robert Martin respond in fresh ways to the challenges presented by Outler’s original question. And thus, the challenge for us from Outler still remains: Will we answer his question fruitfully?

A second avenue for pursuing Outler’s continued influence and legacy is his work on Wesley’s Trinitarian pneumatology. A number of scholars have already begun work in this area. Vickers called attention to this as the most “notable” of the “theologically more substantive aspects of Outler’s work,” and suggested that “follow[ing] Outler’s lead” here can help Wesleyan theologians not only to think more systematically about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, but to see the “imminently practical” character of Wesley’s Trinitarian reflection. Even further, he suggests that some of the problems in Outler’s perspectives on Q, and theological methodology and epistemology could find clues to their resolution in a more developed doctrine of the Spirit’s role in the awakening of the “spiritual senses” (“Albert Outler, 63-64).

The final challenge I want to lay before you is what Outler still has to say to pastors. Why should you keep reading him if you are not a Methodist historian or Wesley scholar? What would an engagement with Outler beyond seminary look like?

As a young pastor I was first drawn to reading Outler when I learned from him that John Wesley might be a different kind of theological mentor than the ones I read in seminary. And I was drawn even closer to Outler when he described himself as a “theological general practitioner.” This notion of being a theological GP kept me grounded, I believe, in my whole pastoral career and on into teaching, constantly looking for the relation between my theological studies and the daily work and demands of pastoral ministry.

You probably read some Outler in seminary somewhere in your history, doctrine, and polity courses. He seems to be required reading on Wesley and on Q. My question is whether he has remained as a conversation partner. I’m convinced that readings in seminary classes on Methodist history and doctrine need to be supplemented by a deeper engagement with Outler if pastors are not to be caught in the traps of platitudes and superficial appropriations of him that lead to “dilettante” performances of the Methodist tradition.

A key question for his legacy, then, is how Outler may continue to be our teacher. As I end this lecture, then, let me sketch some reading assignments for you – possible ways to pursue the rich resources for growth still available in reading Outler.

You might begin with a short essay he wrote in 1988: “The Pastor as Theologian” (in The Pastor as Theologian, ed. Earl E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland [Pilgrim], 1988), 11-29). Let that serve as an invitation to get reacquainted.

A second approach might be to read his several essays on the Holy Spirit, especially the ecumenical working paper he wrote for the World Council of Churches in 1989 shortly before his death: “Pneumatology as an Ecumenical Frontier” (Ecumenical Review 41 (1989): 363-74); also in The Ecumenical Theologian: Essays by Albert Cook Outler, ed. Leicester R. Longden, vol. 7 in The Albert Outler Library [Bristol, 2001], 277-93. Other key essays by Outler on the Holy Spirit include “Veni, Creator Spiritus: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” in New Theology, no. 4, ed. M. Marty and D. Peerman [Macmillan, 1967]; “A Focus on the Holy Spirit: Spirit and Spirituality in John Wesley,” in The Wesleyan Theological Heritage, 159-73). Look at his accounts of Wesley’s Trinitarian pneumatology, and test for yourself whether a conversation between you, Outler, and Wesley opens up a new and practical awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit.

A third reading assignment might be to dip into the collected lectures and essays and sermons in the Albert Outler Library edited by Bob Parrott. Whether your passions are in evangelism, pastoral care, Patristics, or ecumenical theology, there are multiple entry points to draw you into fruitful engagement with his work. One volume I would highlight is the collected lectures on Christology (vol. 4, ed. Tom Oden). Many United Methodists know him only for his work on Wesley or ecumenism, but throughout his career he was lauded as a brilliant lecturer, who in at least a dozen major university lectureships returned again and again to the key issues of Christology in the context of their historical development. This was one of those unfinished projects he never brought to publication. I encourage you to test the depth and breadth of the Christology you first developed in seminary by letting Outler take you deeper in and higher up.

The only warning I would offer with these reading assignments is that you take care not to mistake Outler himself for the object of his vocation. There is always a tendency, if not temptation, to get caught up in Outler’s brilliance and breadth.

The ultimate question for us all is this: Are we actively receiving the legacy-gift Outler makes available in our tradition? Legacies, after all, have to be unwrapped and put to use. And given both the challenges made to his work, and the challenges he makes to us, and not forgetting the invaluable resources now available through the Bridwell Archives, the legacy of Albert Cook Outler is ripe for new appropriation.

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