On Pietists and Preaching

Recently I have been doing a tremendous amount of research on the Christian renewal movement known as Pietism. Pietism was a church renewal movement that grew out of German Lutheranism during the 1600s and 1700s. The German Pietists were convinced that the church would only experience broad renewal when both the clergy and the laity more deeply engrossed themselves in the Holy Scriptures and moved beyond a mere “head knowledge” of the Christian faith into a Christian faith of the “heart”

Pietism as an ethos deeply influenced the Anabaptist, Moravian, and Methodist movements. Indeed, even today, Pietism’s influence can be felt in modern Evangelicalism even if it is rarely acknowledged or recognized.

Perhaps the greatest manifesto of early Pietism was a book entitled Pia Desideria or “Pious Desires” by Philipp Jakob Spener. Spener was a Lutheran clergyman who, though devoted to the Lutheran Church, nevertheless found that his native church was severely lacking in many areas. Interestingly, a problem that Spener found especially troubling within his native church was the poor state of the clergy.

It was not that the clergy were poorly educated. Indeed, the average Lutheran clergyman had received rigorous training in Biblical languages, systematic theology, and logical reasoning, yet for all this training and knowledge, the preaching of many a Lutheran clergyman during Spener’s day was dull and ineffective.

Sermons had become highly academic affairs where pastors would wax eloquent over the most minor of theological matters. They would often lapse into long soliloquys in foreign languages the common people little hope of understanding. Sermons were often seen as opportunities for the pastor to show off their rhetorical prowess with little thought given to whether the sermon would be of any practical value to the laity. Sermons were primarily informational and rarely transformational.

Whenever I read church history, I read with an eye to discover wisdom for the modern church. There is “nothing new under the sun” and a careful reading of the church’s past can give us insight for how to deal with the problems of the present. As a preacher myself, I have often found Spener’s critique of poor quality preaching rather convicting. It has led me to ask questions such as “How does the preaching of the modern Evangelical church compare with that of the Lutheran church of Spener’s day ?” “Do I repeat many of the errors of Spener’s day when I get behind the pulpit?”

I must confess that I too have been guilty of simply wanting to show off what I know when I preach. I study hard and work diligently at being a competent speaker. I am proud of my work ethic and I am passionate about teaching theology. Sometimes pride creeps in. I’m convinced that when this happens, I am not as effective as I could be. It becomes about me rather than pointing people to Jesus Christ. This is never good.

Furthermore, I have personally experienced preaching that was seemingly just about dispensing information to the congregation. It was like listening to a seminary lecture only far less interesting. Worse still, I have experienced preachers that were warped with pride by their intelligence, education, and rhetorical prowess. I remember one in particular who would not cease reminding everyone that he had four degrees including one from a prestigious research university. Fellow preachers, if we are guilty of this sin of pride in our education and abilities then we need to repent. We have an important job to do. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed! We can’t get in the way.

Now, I do not want anyone to think that I am teaching against seminary education or intellectually engaging preaching. I believe very strongly in both of these things and frequently in Evangelicalism we have the very opposite problem. Preaching in many Evangelical churches is often an emotionally charged spectacle, yet simultaneously a doctrinal mess with little to no good content. Indeed, an anti-intellectual strain runs deeply within Evangelical preaching and it negatively affects our witness. This is not the kind of preaching I am advocating for.

Spener and the Pietists thought that preaching was vitally important. If revival and renewal were to take place in their time, better preaching was required. As preachers we must daily seek to preach more effectively by presenting sermons that while thoughtful and theologically sound, are also deeply practical. We need to preach sermons that provide for our people practical instruction in righteousness. We need sermons that point people to Jesus rather than our prowess and abilities. We need to be conscious of where our people are spiritually and intellectually so that we can gradually and carefully grow them into mature and theologically informed Christians.

I understand that this balancing act of the informational and the practical will not always be easy, but it is something we must strive for. I want my preaching to be effective and powerful, I want it to be transformational. When my eulogy is spoken, I want it to be said that my preaching pointed people to Jesus Christ rather than my abilities.

The Christian as Historian

According to many historians of a secular bent, a Christian’s religious convictions should play little to no role in their work as a historian. In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden notes that the academy sees the “Christian historian” in much the same way they see the historian who happens to be a bridge player. It is just fine to be a Christian or a bridge player, but these “extracurricular” activities ought to have no role in your work as a historian.[1] Furthermore, historian Jay Green notes that within the academy there is a profound bent towards thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” which tends to view religious phenomena skeptically, even dismissively.[2] Within such a thoroughly secularized milieu is there any “room” for the Christian historian to bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way? It is my contention that there is a way to accomplish this and I will attempt to sketch out very briefly what this might look like.

If we are to have an intellectually robust understanding of what it means to be both a Christian and a historian, a logical place to begin would be discussing the concept of historical study as a “vocation.” In his book, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green notes that the term “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare” which means “to call.”[3] Green suggests that the Christian historian can view their work in a spiritually richer way by realizing their work is not simply a means of providing for oneself, but rather a genuine, holy, and vital calling from God. Green further develops this line of thinking and suggests that perhaps one of the greatest blessings of the Reformation was the expansion of the concept of “vocation.” In the Medieval Catholic tradition, the concept of “vocation” or “calling” was closely tied to pursuing church related work while ordinary labor was often seen as morally neutral. The Reformers and their descendants eschewed this strong bifurcation between “holy” and merely “secular” work. To them, all work had “eternal and divinely appointed worth.”[4]

So, if all work (including historical work) has “worth” as 1 Corinthians 7:20 would seem to teach, what does it look like for a Christian historian to “live out” their “calling” in a way that brings God glory. Historian Douglas A. Sweeney sees the historian’s calling as essentially one of service to both their academic peers as well as their students.[5] Seeing their work in this light, the Christian historian should strive to be the best historian they can be. They should seek to serve their respective guilds by making healthy contributions to the field. They should do careful, balanced research that strives for objectivity, even if this is ultimately only an unattainable ideal.[6] The Christian historian must actively look for ways to serve their students, the church, and even the voices of the past. Christian historians should apply the golden rule to the historical sources they survey by interpreting them in the way we would want our words to be interpreted: In context and on their own terms.

Armed with a robust theology of vocation, the Christian historian can view their work in a more enriching and motivating light. They realize they there is a call on their lives to work for the betterment of society and to the glory of God. The Christian historian is uniquely motivated to search for the beautiful and true.[7] Can the historian working out of purely naturalistic and secular motivations boast of such an enriching and rewarding view of their work?

Now that we have established how the Christian historian’s motivations may differ from that of his more secularly inclined counterpart, we must explore whether the methodologies they espouse will look any different. On many points the Christian historian and their secularly inclined counterpart will probably espouse very similar methodologies. Both will display an appreciation for objectivity, careful and rigorous analysis of primary and relevant secondary sources, and (hopefully) modesty about their conclusions.[8]

However, the conclusion cannot be avoided that large swathes of the academy remain enamored with reductionist views of history that tend to rest on a deeply flawed “empiricist” epistemology.[9] This methodology insists that only things proven by observation can be considered factual. Historians of a Marxist bent have embraced such a method and have tended to boil down all religious phenomena to underlying issues of economics, class, and race.[10] Religion’s role in history has often been trivialized in modern historiography.

Within such a milieu, the Christian historian can offer a perspective that seeks to correct this “flattening” of the human experience. Fortunately, historians working in the recent past such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden, and Mark Noll have offered such correctives in the largely secularized academy. These scholars, and many more, have sought to show that religion should be seen as the defining and vital force in people’s lives that it truly is. Quoting Catholic historian Philip Gleason, Jay Green suggests that religion has shaped history just as much and perhaps even more than “ethnicity, race, class, gender, or power.”[11] Thus, it could be argued that the Christian historian can take a broader, fuller, richer view of history that truly does justice to the complexity of the human experience. To ignore the effect religion has had on humanity in the past is to write truncated history.

Now, taking religion seriously in historical investigation is one thing, but can the Christian historian expand their method even further? Can the Christian historian posit divine causation or influence behind the events of history? Perhaps before we can answer such a question it would be wise to mark off what is almost certainly “out of bounds” methodologically for the serious Christian historian.

In his book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, John Fea documents well the problems associated with writing so called “providential history.” This kind of history seeks to show definitively God’s “mind” and “will” behind history. This method has flourished amongst those who wish to prove that the United States was founded as a uniquely and explicitly Christian nation. Unfortunately, this methodology tends to distort the historical record in favor of its’ predetermined interpretive paradigm and presumes to know too much about the mind and will of God. Fea suggests that the Christian historian must practice restraint in their craft. When positing the divine will behind history they must season their conclusions with words such as “perhaps,” “maybe” or “might.”[12]

Nevertheless, many notable Christian academics believe that there is a responsible way to posit God’s “breaking into history” whilst avoiding the egregious errors of providential history. Historian Mark Noll has suggested enlisting the “missiologists” to help decipher God’s activity in the past.[13] Furthermore, C. Stephen Evans has convincingly argued that historical texts replete with miracle accounts should not a priori be dismissed as unreliable and without historical value.[14]

Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. Thus, it is unsurprising that many Christian scholars have stepped up to defend its’ most central historical claims and the Resurrection of Jesus has received intense focus.[15] Can the Christian historian legitimately seek to demonstrate the historical veracity of miracles? I believe they can if they are willing to jump into discussions about metaphysics and show that belief in the possibility of miracles is more reasonable than the belief that miracles demonstrably cannot occur. To be sure, the Christian historian will need to be cautious when investigating the veracity of supernatural phenomena in history. Nevertheless, I believe that the Christian historian can investigate miracle claims responsibly. Furthermore, I believe we can affirm with Wolfhart Pannenberg that the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity’s central miracle, has “good historical foundation.”[16]

In conclusion, the Christian historian can bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way. They may recognize that their work as historians is a “holy calling” imbued with eternal worth. Furthermore, they are uniquely positioned to take the phenomenon of religion in history seriously and thus achieve a broader and fuller understanding of the human experience. Finally, The Christian historian may be able to “glimpse” God’s working in history. However, exercising thoroughgoing caution in such investigations cannot be overstated.

Footnotes

[1] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 20.

[2] Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 12-13.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 151-154.

[5] Douglas A. Sweeney, “On The Vocation Of Historians To The Priesthood of Believers: A Plea to Christians in the Academy,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, ed. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 300.

[6] James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) 46-50.

[7] D.H. Williams, “Protestantism and the Vocation of Higher Education,” in Revisiting the Idea of Vocation: Theological Explorations, ed. John C. Haughey, S.J. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 162.

[8] Bradley and Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources, 146-148.

[9] Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 29-31.

[10] Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions, 12-17.

[11] Ibid, 33.

[12] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 64-84.

[13] Mark A. Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 120-123.

[14] C. Stephen Evans, “Critical Historical Judgement and Biblical Faith,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 41-68.

[15] See Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

[16] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 91.

Bibliography

Bradley, James E., and Richard A. Muller. Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.

Fea, John., Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historians Vocation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Fea, John. Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Green, Jay D. Christian Historiography – Five Rival Versions. Baylor University Press, 2015.

Haughey, John C. Revisiting the Idea of Vocation Theological Explorations. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

Wells, Ronald. History and the Christian Historian. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.

The Resurrection of Jesus Defended

This will be my final post on Christian Apologetics for a little while. I pray your faith has been strengthened by this series of blog posts. God Bless and good reading! – Julian Pace.

Even the casual observer of the worldwide Christian church would conclude that on many issues of theology, spirituality, and practice Christians disagree, sometimes markedly so. However, this same observer would be remiss if they were to conclude as well that Christians are not united by anything at all. Indeed, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox or Protestant all would affirm certain doctrines as essential to the Christian faith: The Trinity, Jesus as true God and true man, and of course the Resurrection of Jesus. Of these doctrines, perhaps none is more essential to the Christian faith than that of the Resurrection. Indeed, if Jesus of Nazareth is dead today then the other doctrines just mentioned are mere fantasies. While the doctrine of the Resurrection has come under heated assault almost since its’ first proclamation, the good news for the Christian is that the historical foundation for this doctrine is strong. Indeed, it will be the purpose of this article to demonstrate that the Resurrection is supported by multiple lines of historical evidence and the Christian can be confident of this event’s reality.

The truth of the Resurrection has been defended by a number of intelligent and informed Christian scholars such as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, N.T Wright, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Many lines of evidence have been suggested by these scholars as supporting the factuality of Jesus’ Resurrection. In this article, I will focus only on three. First, it will be shown that the vast majority of New Testament scholars affirm that Jesus existed historically and died by crucifixion sometime in the early first century. Second, it will be shown that Jesus was probably given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that the tomb he was interred in was found empty by his followers. Third, it will be shown that the early Christians almost certainly had veridical experiences of the Risen Lord.

It should first be noted that almost no professional historian of antiquity nor New Testament scholar rejects that Jesus of Nazareth existed historically and was crucified sometime in the early first century. Indeed, the much-celebrated New Testament Scholar Bart Ehrman (no friend of orthodox Christianity) says this

Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea[1]

Now, it is not the position of this article that because the vast majority of scholars accept Jesus’ existence and crucifixion then it is therefore necessarily true. However, the fact that there is almost no debate on these issues in the academy does speak well for the quality of the evidence that undergirds these two important facts about Jesus of Nazareth.

The fact of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence and crucifixion are further buttressed by the fact that a strong case can be made for the basic historical reliability of the Gospels in our New Testament. Indeed, it should be noted that E.P. Sanders in his acclaimed book The Historical Figure of Jesus makes a cogent and balanced case for the Gospels being correct on at least the important details of Jesus’ life. Interestingly, Sanders still affirms their basic historical veracity despite the fact that he is quite willing to admit that the Gospels have a number of historical and methodological problems. Sanders concludes that the Gospels contain enough eyewitness accounts and were written close enough to the lifetime of Jesus for us to consider them reasonably accurate sources for the life of Jesus.[2] Even if one is convinced that the Gospels do contain some historical errors there is simply no reason to conclude that they contain no historically accurate information about Jesus at all. Indeed, all of the Gospels were written within sixty years of Jesus’ lifetime and contain at least some eyewitness testimony.[3] Furthermore, all of them assume Jesus’ existence and all of them record that he was crucified by the Romans. Thus, it can be reasonably stated that skepticism over the basic details of Jesus’ life, such as his existence and crucifixion, is simply unwarranted. Indeed, Bart Ehrman sums up well the weakness of the case that Jesus did not exist historically

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus[4]

Indeed, the evidence for the basic details of Jesus’ life is quite strong.

The second line of evidence is more contested within the academy, though perhaps not as greatly as one might assume. Indeed, many fine critical scholars are willing to accept that Jesus of Nazareth was given an honorable burial in a tomb and that said tomb was found empty by his early followers. Indeed, there are a number of good reasons to believe that the empty tomb narrative is basically correct. Noted apologist and scholar William Lane Craig has ably defended the fact that Jesus was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea in his well-received book Reasonable Faith. Craig is convinced that the burial story recorded in the Gospels is accurate for two reasons. First, Craig demonstrates that the historical detail of Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea is contained in the Gospel of Mark, this is important as the Gospel of Mark is both an early and independent source for the life of Jesus and thus Craig reasons that the burial account is probably sound. Indeed, at least some scholars are convinced that Mark was written only fifteen years after Jesus’ lifetime, thus greatly increasing the likelihood that it is a reliable source for the life of Jesus.[5] Furthermore, Craig cites the German source critic Rudolf Pesch for further support as Pesch is convinced that the source behind the burial narrative dates to within seven years of Jesus’ lifetime.[6]

Second, Craig is convinced that Jesus was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea because he thinks it is unlikely that the early Christian community would have invented a story about a member of the Sanhedrin showing such respect for the body, and thereby the person, of Jesus of Nazareth. [7] Acts 2:23, 36 and 4:10 demonstrate well the animosity the early church held towards the Sanhedrin. Indeed, Acts 2:23 records the Apostle Peter as saying “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. (NASB)” The reference to “godless men” by Peter is almost certainly a reference to the Sanhedrin and demonstrates well how poorly the early Christian community viewed this body.

The burial account by Joseph of Arimathea has received some criticism from scholars. Indeed, Bart Ehrman has suggested that the Romans would have had no reason to release Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea. In fact, they preferred to let the bodies of those crucified rot as an example to would be rebels. Furthermore, Ehrman is convinced that Pontius Pilate, being the rather intractable person that he was, would not have released Jesus’ body under any circumstances. There are a number of problems with this argument. First, it simply does not deal with the evidence in favor of the burial narrative specifically enough. To very specific lines of evidence Ehrman responds with an argument that is the equivalent of “this could have possibly happened” which is not a very strong argument. Second, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Romans may very well have bowed to Jewish pressure and allowed them to remove the bodies of those crucified on certain occasions. Particularly during Passover which was one of their most sacred festivals. Indeed, Josephus notes that Pilate upon entering Jerusalem offended Jewish sensibilities by displaying Roman effigies and standards within the city. After much Jewish agitation, Pilate removed the images.[8] Third, we are privy to at least one example of crucifixion victims being removed from the cross due to the petition of a Jew. This Jew being Josephus when he begged the Emperor Titus to release three of his acquaintances from the cross. Titus eventually acceded to Josephus’ request. [9] Ehrman is a credible biblical scholar, and his critique should not be dismissed out of hand, but his objections are not strong enough to discount the basic historicity of the burial account of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is also much historical evidence in favor of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth finding his tomb empty a few days after his death by crucifixion. Interestingly, a study done by Gary Habermas that surveyed the vast majority of the literature pertaining to the study of the Resurrection of Jesus in English, German, and French between 1975 and 2005, showed that an impressive seventy-five percent of scholars who wrote on the subject were convinced that Jesus’ followers found his tomb empty a few days after his death by crucifixion.[10] Again, it should be noted that the argument presented here is not one in favor a majority vote deciding a historical event’s veracity. However, the fact that such a large number of scholars find the evidence in favor of the empty tomb at least credible should cause the skeptic to at least give the matter some consideration.

The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb is recorded in a number of early sources. Not only is it recorded in the Gospel of Mark but it is also found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. The latter passage states

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (NASB)

Scholarly consensus places the writing of the 1 Corinthians sometime around C.E. 55 which is only about twelve years or so after the lifetime of Jesus. Furthermore, William Lane Craig and Dale Allison are both convinced that the passage Paul quotes here is probably the product of an early Christian writer other than himself.[11] Thus the tradition behind this passage could date to within a couple years of Jesus’ lifetime. It should be noted that while the empty tomb is not explicitly mentioned it is strongly implied by the phrase “He was buried.”

Perhaps the most interesting detail of the Markan account of the empty tomb is that the writer of Mark’s Gospel records for us that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women (Mark 16:1-8). While this does strike us moderns as unusual, this was truly noteworthy in first century Palestine. This is because in Jesus’ day women were not seen as reliable witnesses to an event regardless of the circumstances.[12] If the Apostles created a legend about the tomb being empty it is unlikely that the legend would have recorded that women were the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. The fact that Mark’s Gospel records what was probably a rather embarrassing detail to the early Christian church, greatly increases the likelihood that the account is true.

Several objections to the truth of the empty tomb have been suggested. Perhaps the most popular secular explanations of the empty tomb are the Wrong-Tomb Theory, The Apparent Death Theory, and the Conspiracy Theory. The Wrong-Tomb Theory explains the empty tomb away by asserting that the disciples simply visited the wrong tomb on Easter morning. This explanation is implausible for two reasons. First, if the story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea is true then there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ final resting place was not reasonably well known. Second, it is implausible to suggest that the Sanhedrin would have allowed the early Christian belief in the Resurrection to continue if the correct tomb could have been located and Jesus’ body put on display for all to see that he was truly dead.

Almost no one defends the Apparent Death Theory as an explanation for the empty tomb any longer though it was embraced by some people such as Friedrich Schleiermacher the great liberal theologian of the early nineteenth century.[13] This view states that when Jesus was taken from the cross he was not yet deceased. Once laid in the tomb Jesus revived and presented himself to his disciples as the Risen Lord. This view is deeply problematic for it ignores the fact that the Romans were expert executioners who simply would not have allowed for a mistake of this magnitude.[14] Simply put, no one who endured the entire punishment of crucifixion could have reasonably survived.

The Conspiracy Theory, like the Apparent Death Theory, has fallen on hard times lately and is simply not an explanation that critical scholars take very seriously any longer. This theory states that the early disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb and lied about his Resurrection. This view falls apart for the simple reason that it fails to take into account that the early Christians were willing to give their lives for their faith. Indeed, one wonders why a group of disillusioned men who just saw their beloved Rabbi die a terrible death would cook up such a conspiracy when there was so little to gain from doing so. The well-respected New Testament scholar Michael Licona says

The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs. … The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus.[15]

Indeed, due to the fatal flaws inherent to the Conspiracy Theory, it was only embraced by a few deists in the nineteenth century. Its’ multiple flaws must indeed force us to conclude that a better explanation must be available.

The third and final line of evidence is that there are multiple accounts of many people seeing Jesus of Nazareth alive after his crucifixion. Indeed, the Gospels and the New Testament epistles provide for us multiple early and independent sources that demonstrate that many early Christians were eyewitnesses to the Risen Lord.[16] In 1 Corinthians 15, a source that dates to within at least fifteen years of Jesus’ lifetime, the Apostle Paul mentions that Jesus was seen by “Peter”, “The Apostles”, as well as “five-hundred other Christians.” Interestingly, Paul also mentions that James, the brother of Jesus who at first rejected his claims to messiahship (Mark 3:21), saw Jesus of Nazareth alive after his crucifixion. It is almost certain historically that much of Jesus’ family rejected his ministry prior to his Resurrection as this detail is recorded in Mark which is an early source. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the early Christian church would have invented something so embarrassing. The fact that James later came to believe in Jesus must force us to conclude that some very powerful experience must have made him change his mind about his brother. Indeed, the plethora of evidence has forced the rather moderate New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders to conclude

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know[17]

E.P. Sanders expresses well the opinion of many New Testament scholars. Most are convinced that the early Christians had experiences of some kind that lead them to believe that Jesus was alive. However, whether these experiences were veridical or the product of hallucinations is typically where scholars diverge.

The most common response to the early Christians experiencing the Risen Lord is that they were the victims of hallucinations. However, the problem with this explanation is that early and independent sources affirm that “groups” of people were witnesses to the Risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15) and most Psychologists remain unconvinced that “groups” of people can experience the same hallucination at the same time.[18] Furthermore, we would be justified in remaining skeptical about the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection if only some or even one of his early followers came to the conclusion that he had been resurrected. Indeed, sometimes people convince themselves of falsehoods when under serious emotional and mental pressure. However, the judgement of most New Testament scholars is that very many early Christians were convinced that they had experienced a resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.[19] With these considerations in mind, the Hallucination hypothesis simply does not explain why groups of people were convinced they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion.

In conclusion, the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is quite strong. Not only is there overwhelming evidence for his existence and crucifixion, a reasonable case can be made that he was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea, his tomb was found empty by his followers, and that they saw him alive after his crucifixion. With these facts in mind, Christians should not shy away from skeptics when they ask tough questions about the Christian faith. The evidence is strongly in favor of Jesus rising again on the third day and we should not be afraid to affirm his resurrection as a historical reality. Furthermore, as Christians we should readily take comfort in the truth that our own resurrection has been rendered certain because Jesus’ resurrection has been confirmed by the historical evidence as well as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. With all this in mind, perhaps the only thing left to say would have to be “Even so come, Lord Jesus come! (Rev 22:20)”

Endnotes

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.12

[2] E.P. Sanders, The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 57

[3] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.

[4]Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 96

[5] John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000.

[6] William Lane Craig, Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 362

[7] Ibid, 364.

[8] Josephus, Jewish War 2.9, 2.4

[9] Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, 76.

[10] Gary R. Habermas, “Resurrection Research From 1975 To The Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal For The Study Of The Historical Jesus3.2 (2005): 135-53. 141.

[11] Craig, Reasonable faith, 365.

[12] Ibid, 367.

[13] William Lane Craig, “Jesus’ Resurrection.” http://Www.reasonablefaith.org. Accessed August 10, 2017. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/jesus-resurrection.

[14] Ibid

[15] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a new historiographical approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 370.

[16] Craig, Reasonable faith, 381.

[17] Sanders, The Historical figure of Jesus, 280

[18] Gary R. Habermas, “Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: Hallucination.” http://www.equip.org. Accessed August 10, 2017. http://www.equip.org/article/explaining-away-jesus-resurrection-hallucination/.

[19] Craig, Reasonable faith, 392.

Select Bibliography

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 362.

Geisler, Norman L. Systematic theology. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002.

Habermas, Gary R.”Resurrection Research From 1975 To The Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal For The Study Of The Historical Jesus3.2 (2005): 135-53.

Licona, Michael R. The resurrection of Jesus: a new historiographical approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 370.

Sanders, E.P. The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Robinson, John A.T. Redating the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000.

Towards A Confident Christian Faith

Hi everyone, here is the second entry for the series on Apologetics I have been doing. May the Lord Bless You and Keep You, Julian Pace.

First Peter 3:15 says “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (NIV)”. Ever since the Pilgrims set out for the New World in 1620 in search of religious freedom, the Christian faith has played an integral role in shaping American culture. For many, the Christian faith was a stabilizing and positive influence in society. However, with the rise of secularism in the United States as well as the broader western world, many people increasingly look at the Christian faith with a skeptical, even hostile attitude. Will it be said of us that we as believers responded to this challenge with composure and grace, or that we shrank when skeptics asked the tough questions?

Many Christians live in fear of someone asking them a question such as: Why do you believe in God? Why do you call Jesus your Savior? Why is attending Church services so important to you? While we should always be ready to admit that we don’t have all the answers, we should also be equally confident of the fact that we serve a God who does. In James 1:5 we are given the promise that if we pray and ask God for wisdom he will give us the wisdom we so desire. Thus, we should always remember that before we set out to gather knowledge, we must first ask for wisdom from God. Only then will we know how to wisely apply the knowledge we gain from study and reflection.

Christians should receive a boost of confidence from the fact that the tradition we are a part of is filled with intellectual and spiritual giants. Indeed, great thinkers today still mine the words of Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, for insight on topics as diverse as ethics, philosophy, history, and theology. Indeed, these thinkers ably defended the faith on intellectual grounds in the face of questions from skeptics from many different backgrounds. Leaning heavily on the thinking of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1, Christian apologists have often pointed out that the order and beauty of the universe points to the existence of a wise, master creator. Indeed, Psalm 19:1 proclaims “The heavens declare the glory of God (NIV)” Furthermore, the very existence of the disciples’ faith after Jesus’ crucifixion points to the truth that they actually saw their Savior resurrected on the third day. These are just a few of the arguments that have been put forth in favor of the reasonableness of our faith.

It should be noted that 1st Peter 3:15 is just as concerned with the spirit in which we defend our faith as well as the reasons we suggest for why we think our faith to be true. Christians are to be people who show love to all persons, in all situations. Indeed, the command to love our neighbor is given without qualification. When we share our faith with others we should always take care to be fair and respectful to those who disagree with us.

Perhaps it is only fitting that I should save what I believe to be the most important aspect of sharing one’s faith for last. While I do think Christians should be both intellectually and emotionally fit witnesses for the faith I think it is perhaps eminently more important, and probably more persuasive, for Christians to be ready to share at a moment’s notice what God has accomplished in their lives personally. Oftentimes, people will be more impressed by someone’s account of how God brought them through a battle with cancer, or how God healed them from bitterness and resentment towards a person who wounded them earlier in life. We should also be ready to share our testimony of how Jesus Christ drew us unto himself and brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light. All the knowledge and eloquence this world has to offer fare poorly when placed in juxtaposition with how God can transform people for the better. Indeed, this must be the most effective evidence for the truth and vitality of what we believe.

Always Be Prepared to Give An Answer

Hi everyone! Over the next few weeks I will be releasing articles and videos that all in some way touch on the subject of Christian apologetics, that is, the task of defending the faith. I hope you are enriched by my thoughts on this important subject. Good reading and viewing to you!

1 Peter 3:15  has for the past several years been one of my favorite verses in the Bible. This verse states “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)” This verse commands us to be bold (and yet polite) witnesses to Jesus’ saving power at work in our lives. It commands us to be prepared to share our faith in a reasonable and winsome way whenever the opportunity arises. 

I am also convinced that this verse endorses the project of “Christian Apologetics.” Christian Apologetics is often a confusing term to many Christians. Often it is thought to connote “apologizing” for being a Christian. This could not be further from the truth. The word “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word “Apologia” which simply means “to make a defense.” Thus, the term Christian Apologetics could be reasonably defined as “Defending the core doctrines of the Christian faith.”

Christian Apologetics as practiced by people such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Nabeel Qureshi, and others, typically focuses on how belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. Furthermore, these Apologists will try to show that the Resurrection of Jesus is supported by the historical evidence we have available. Fundamentally, the task of the Christian Apologist is to demonstrate that Christianity better corresponds to reality than any other worldview.

The work of Christian Apologists (especially the work of William Lane Craig and Nabeel Qureshi) was very helpful to me a couple of years ago when I questioned the truth of the Christian faith. Their work helped show me that the Christian faith is reasonable and can withstand the most challenging questions of the skeptics.

Unfortunately, many Christian people have a very negative view of Christian Apologetics. Sadly, I think this is sometimes due to a misunderstanding of the word “faith.” Many are convinced that having true and authentic “faith” means believing something wholeheartedly without evidence. Demanding that what we believe be reasonable is for some Christians a sign that the person asking for evidence has a weak and inauthentic faith. However, God has not asked for us to believe in him without evidence. Rather, Romans 1 demonstrates that God has revealed himself to us in nature and John 1 tells us that he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Apologist is to show that these truths are reasonable and can be supported by the evidence. Faith is not believing “what you know ain’t so,” nor is it believing something without evidence. Finally, it is not belief based on emotion or sentimentality. Faith is placing our trust in God’s revelation of himself because it is reasonable and best corresponds to reality.

I am convinced that more Christians in the western world will need to embrace the project of Christian Apologetics in the coming years if we want to be effective in sharing our faith. Answers soaked in emotion and sentimentality will do little to sway the hearts and minds of people in the information age. Yes, we need to share our personal testimonies of how Christ saved us, we need to share how comforting Christianity is to the human heart and soul, but we must also demonstrate that Christian faith is reasonable. I see no other way to win people to Christ in the 21st century. Indeed, I am glad that when I had questions and doubts, someone was there to show me that my worldview was reasonable, without it, I doubt I would be a Christian today. Thus, whenever you are tempted to dismiss the task of Christian Apologetics remember that there are many people like me who continue to walk with Jesus largely due to the work of those that defend the Christian faith.

Women in the Diaconate: A Tradition Across the Ages

More fruit from my doctoral research! I hope you enjoy. God Bless, Julian.

Introduction

This literature review will show, beginning in the Patristic era and moving into the Reformation and Modern eras, the important role that deaconesses have often played in the pastoral and liturgical work of the Christian Church. Careful attention will be given to the type of work these deaconesses performed as well as how they were viewed within the respective communions and traditions that utilized a female diaconate.

The Deaconess Tradition in the Patristic Era

Aided by helpful documentary surveys such as Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek’s Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, as well as many other sources, we see that the practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was widespread in the Christian East[1] during the Patristic era, though probably not elsewhere in the Church.[2] Patristics scholars Madigan, Osiek[3], and Corrado Marucci[4] note that we must distinguish in the records of the Fathers (as they seem to have done themselves) between the “widows” of the Church who though supported by the Church and performing pastoral work on behalf of the Church, were not ordained in the same fashion as women belonging to the order of deaconesses. Madigan and Osiek are gently critical of older scholars that tended to conflate these two distinct categories of women in ministry.

Marucci notes that Clement of Alexandria and Origen both mention in their writings the existence of women in the diaconate,[5] even though the practice was probably never common in their locale.[6] Furthermore, Pietro Sorci notes that both the Didascalia Apostolorum (an anonymous work belonging to the genre of church orders probably written in the 230s) and the Apostolic Constitutions (a similar work written sometime in the 380s) mention in some detail the ordination rite for deaconesses.[7] Most of the literature on deaconesses in the Patristics era generally focuses on 1) the ordination rites for deaconesses, 2) the types of ministry they performed, and 3) what was their relationship to the other orders of ordained ministry (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon.)

Drawing on evidence from the Apostolic Constitutions  and the disciplinary canons of the Council of Chalcedon (451) Marucci notes that deaconesses were indeed ordained and considered a part of the clergy.[8] Furthermore, the Byzantine Church in particular has preserved a rite of ordination for deaconesses.[9] Patristics scholar Cipriano Vagaggini draws on much of the same evidence and echoes the conclusions of Marucci and argues that women were clearly ordained to the diaconate in the Christian East and were considered clergy.[10]

Vagaggini also explains in some detail the Byzantine rite of ordination for deaconesses. Drawing on text from the Apostolic Constitutions, he notes that deaconesses were ordained in the Church building (as opposed to lectors and subdeacons who were ordained outside of the Church building) via the laying on of hands by the presiding bishop. This ceremony would be conducted in the presence of the presbyters, deacons, and other deaconesses. The presiding bishop would then recite a proscribed prayer of blessing over the deaconess inviting the Holy Spirit to empower her ministry.[11] Marucci[12] and Vagaggini[13] generally agree that the ordination rite for deacons and deaconesses was quite similar.

As to the types of ministry performed by deaconesses the literature is reasonably united. Pietro Sorci reports that although the duties of deaconesses varied by region somewhat, most deaconesses in the Christian East would have anointed women prior to and immediately after baptism, catechized women prior to and after baptism, and aided ill women in the Church. Sorci mentions other tasks deaconesses may have performed that some scholars do not mention such as serving the elements of the Eucharist to women and children in extreme circumstances and even being a spokesperson for the bishop from time to time.[14] Corrado Marucci mostly echoes the claims of Sorci only diverging from him somewhat by noting that most likely deaconesses would have only served the elements of the Eucharist to sick women during Easter time. With Sorci and Marucci, Vagagginni reports that deaconesses would have anointed female candidates for baptism, catechized females, and provided support to ill women. He is less certain about whether they carried the elements of the Eucharist to women and children.[15]

There is less scholarly consensus as to the relationship of deaconesses to the other orders of ordained ministry during the Patristic era. Corrado Marucci notes while older scholarship tended to see the Patristic Church placing, in terms of prestige and honor, the office of deaconess between the “major orders” (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon) and the “minor orders” (e.g. subdeacon, lector, cantor and so forth,) most scholars now think that the office of the deaconess was basically equivalent to that of the deacon at least in the Byzantine Church. However, deaconesses could perform far fewer ministerial functions than deacons and fell under their authority.[16] They could not preach nor teach publicly, they did not assist at the altar when the Eucharist was celebrated, nor could they baptize.

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective, Cipriano Vagaggini notes that there was little consensus in the Patristic era as to where deaconesses should be placed in the respective orders of ministry with some sources placing them between the “major” and “minor” orders (or even below the “minor” order of subdeacon in some cases) and other sources giving them more honor.[17]

Both Marucci and Vagaggini mention that in the Didascalia Apostolorum vivid Trinitarian language is used to describe the respective orders of ministry with the bishops in some sense representing God the Father, the presbyters God the Son, and the deacons and deaconesses God the Holy Spirit.[18] For the Church Fathers, just as the Holy Spirit always exercises it’s ministry in such a way as to point to and glorify the Son, so does the deacon or deaconess in regards to the presbyter.

Thus, if we know quite a great deal about the deaconess tradition in the Patristic era and its’ relative vibrancy in the Christian East, why does this tradition gradually disappear from the historical record? In answer to this question the literature is united. Sorci notes, with Marucci and Vagaggini concurring, that one of the most important duties of deaconesses was the anointing of adult female baptismal candidates and thus as infant baptism became more common, with adult baptismal candidates becoming simultaneously less common, the deaconess tradition gradually lost much of its’ necessity in the Christian East.[19]

The Deaconess tradition in the Reformation Era

It has already been noted that the deaconess tradition was never widespread in the Western Church. However, during the Reformation era (1517-1648) this tradition saw a small revival. Reformation scholar Kenneth J. Stewart notes that John Calvin, more so than any other magisterial reformer, voiced support for a female diaconate.[20] Furthermore, Calvin thought that the deaconess tradition was of Apostolic origin. Calvin conceived of a female diaconate working closely under the authority of male deacons and dispensing aid to needy families in the local church.[21] Stewart does note that the deaconess tradition was ultimately never revived in Calvin’s Geneva nor in the other Reformed Churches until much later. He also finds it curious that this aspect of Calvin’s thought on church order has not received very much scholarly attention, even in Reformed circles.[22]

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective to Stewart, Baptist Scholar Charles W. Deweese notes that in Calvin’s ecclesiastical system he only recognized four offices in the Church, that is, pastors, doctors (teachers), elders, and deacons. In his schema, deaconesses are not mentioned. Furthermore, in a commentary on 1st Timothy, Calvin concludes that the term “deaconess” was a reference to the wives of clergymen. However, Deweese does note that Calvin did think that the wives of clergymen would be highly involved in their ministries and may even minister to the needy on behalf of their husbands.[23] Perhaps Stewart and Deweese’s respective views on Calvin and the deaconess tradition need not be pitted against one another. By synthesizing their respective views, we could surmise that Calvin conceived of women in the diaconate, most of them wives of clergymen, not ordained in the same fashion as a deacon, and working under the close supervision of a clergymen.

If we accept that the Reformation ended with the ratification of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (as most scholars do) then the Baptist tradition is to be accepted alongside the Reformed and Lutheran traditions as a genuine, if second generation, Reformation tradition. Charles W. Deweese notes that the deaconess tradition was revived in the Baptist tradition very early in the 1600s. Indeed, some of the earliest Baptist leaders such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys voiced support for women in the diaconate. Deweese notes that several early Baptist confessional documents explicitly state that the Church has the power to “ordain” both male and female deacons. Somewhat confusingly, these early Baptist documents often use the terms widows, deacons, and deaconesses interchangeably.[24] Deweese is noncommittal as to whether early Baptist congregations appointed very many deaconesses, though support for the existence of deaconesses undoubtedly developed very early in the Baptist tradition.

Remarkably, relatively little scholarly attention has been given to the development of the deaconess tradition during the Reformation. Many scholars who study women’s issues and the Reformation have appraised the Reformation’s contribution to women’s empowerment as at best a mixed one because the most common outlet for female religious expression during the Medieval period, that is, the convent, declined during the Reformation era.[25] Other scholars such as Kirsi Stjerna[26] and Beth Allison Barr[27] have pointed out that the rediscovery of doctrines such as the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons during the Reformation probably did create some space for women to minister publicly, at least in later eras. However, most of the scholarship on women’s issues and the Reformation has ignored the (admittedly) small revival of the deaconess tradition that that did take place then. Only Barr alludes to how certain “Reformation doctrines” (e.g. the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons) may have created space for the latter mass revival of the deaconess tradition in the Protestant churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[28]

The Deaconess Tradition in the Modern Era

During the modern era, the deaconess movement would be most noticeably revived in the Methodist tradition as well as in the various “Holiness” groups that broke from the Methodist tradition. However, the literature also reflects that some Pietist communities revived the deaconess tradition as well. Martin Marty has called “Halle Pietism” his “favorite” strain of Pietism due to its’ emphasis on social justice and it’s revival of a female diaconate.[29] The literature also reflects that the Moravian Pietists began appointing and ordaining deaconesses in the 1730s and 40s.[30] Moravian deaconesses probably performed a very wide range of duties including dispensing relief to the poor, assisting the priest at worship services including during communion, and maybe even preaching under extraordinary circumstances.[31] Despite the evidence of deaconesses playing at least some role in Hallensian and Moravian Pietism, the literature has given this aspect of the Pietist story rather scant attention. Certainly, more research needs to be conducted in this area to flesh out the story of Pietism.

Emilie G. Briggs, writing in 1913, reports that the deaconess movement became more widespread in Europe largely through the work of Theodore Fliedner, a German Lutheran Clergyman, who in 1836 founded the “League of Kaiserswerth,” an order for deaconesses.[32] Briggs reports that the “League” expanded and chapters were founded in other parts of Europe. These deaconesses were largely ministers of mercy and provided relief to the poor. They were not ordained in the same sense as deacons, presbyters, or bishops, and they worked closely under the leadership of a male clergyman.[33]

Briggs notes that the “League” inspired a revival of the deaconess movement in the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland in the mid-1800s with deaconesses in these traditions largely doing the same kind of work as their continental counterparts. However, she does note that in the Church of Scotland deaconesses were regularly “ordained” at the “kirk-session,” thus enjoying more honor than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. However, the ordination of the deaconess was not regarded as on par with that of a deacon.[34]

Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Benjamin L. Hartley notes that Methodist missionaries to Germany and India were inspired to create deaconess movements of their own. Hartley notes that the inspiration to revive a female diaconate within a Methodist context was largely due to their missionaries reportedly losing some of their female converts to the Lutherans of Germany and India due to the Lutheran Church already having an established female diaconate.[35]

Briggs also reports that the deaconess movement was transplanted to the United State in the mid-1800s with Lutherans, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists and others all establishing deaconess orders. She notes that the Wesleyan/Methodist movement has perhaps embraced the deaconess movement most visibly and widely.[36] Furthermore, their deaconesses often performed the most varied work as they nursed the sick, taught, and even preached in some circumstances.[37]

Further Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Priscilla Pope-Levinson notes that while social work in largely urban environments was an important part of the work of Methodist deaconesses in late 1800s and early 1900s, many Methodist deaconesses were also very actively involved in evangelism.[38] Levinson emphasizes the evangelistic work that Methodist deaconesses performed far more than Briggs does. Levinson notes that the revival and later expansion of the Methodist deaconess movement is largely due to two women named Jane Bancroft Robinson (1847-1932) and Lucy Rider Meyer (1849-1922) who, though often at odds with one another, both helped carve out space for the Methodist deaconess movement to grow and flourish. These women founded schools to train deaconesses. Institutions such as the “Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions” as well as the “New England Deaconess Training School” produced many highly trained deaconesses and inspired the founding of many more deaconess schools and academies.[39]

Pope-Levinson notes that deaconesses in the Methodist Church engaged not only in private evangelism but public evangelism as well, frequently leading revivals and even pastoring small churches on occasion.[40] Laceye Warner concurs with the judgement of Pope-Levinson and notes that women “deaconess-evangelists” frequently led revival meetings and movements in the Methodist Church in both Britain and America[41] There was a conservative backlash within the Methodist Church in America against deaconesses moving outside of their traditional purview (e.g. providing relief to the poor) though they were largely unsuccessful in curbing the rapidly expanding duties of deaconesses in the Methodist Church in late 1800s and early 1900s.[42]

Echoing the claims of Emilie G. Briggs, though relying on far more archival data, Barbara B. Troxell notes that although most of the major Protestant denominations in America revived the deaconess tradition in the late 1800s, the Methodist movement embraced it the most wholeheartedly and allowed their deaconesses to perform the widest range of duties. She reports that out of 2000 deaconesses serving in America at the turn of the century, 1200 of them were Methodists.[43] She also notes that other Wesleyan groups such as the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association created deaconess orders in the early twentieth century.[44] With Pope-Levinson, Troxell emphasizes the important role of Lucy Rider Meyer in reviving the deaconess movement in the Methodist tradition.[45]

Many of the various “Holiness” offshoots of the more mainstream Wesleyan tradition also embraced a female diaconate. According to theologian and historian Paul L. King, my own tribe, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, licensed and ordained women as deaconesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Deaconesses in the early Christian and Missionary Alliance often served on church staffs and were occasionally leaders in inner city missions.[46] Deaconess in the Christian and Missionary Alliance engaged in youth ministry, evangelism to women and children, mercy ministries, and occasionally public “Gospel preaching.”[47] King does note that while deaconesses were typically not allowed to administer the ordinances of communion and baptism, they sometimes did so in the absence of a male clergyperson.[48]

Conclusion

When the literature on this subject is carefully consulted, we see quite clearly that deaconesses played a significant role in the pastoral ministry of the Eastern Christian Churches during the Patristic era (100-451.)We know in some detail as least one of the ordination rites (The Byzantine rite) that was used for deaconesses in the Christian East, as well as the kind of pastoral and liturgical work they typically performed. The deaconess tradition does not seem to have been widespread in the Western Church nor in Egypt. Only during the Reformation would voices like John Calvin, Thomas Helwys, and John Smyth give support to the appointment of deaconesses. However, it does not seem that their support for deaconesses immediately resulted in a widespread revival of the practice. Moving into the modern period, some Protestant groups such as the Pietists of Halle, the Moravians, and later the Methodist and Holiness Churches spawned vibrant deaconess movements of their own employing them to do a variety of pastoral work such as mercy ministries, women and children’s ministries, teaching, and in some cases public preaching.

Notes

[1] Pietro Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 59-86. Sorci’s article demonstrates well how widespread the deaconess tradition was in the Christian East by showing its’ presence in the Byzantine, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian Churches.

[2] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.) 1-2

[3] Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, 2-4.

[4] Corrado Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 42.

[5] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[6] See Ugo Zanetti, “Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 136-140.

[7] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 66.

[8] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 43-47.

[9] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 46.

[10] Cipriano Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 96-103.

[11] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 103-107.

[12] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 48.

[13] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 106.

[14] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[15] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 90-120.

[16] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 51-55.

[17] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 112-114.

[18] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[19] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[20] Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.) 230.

[21] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[22] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[23] Charles W. Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005.) 21-22.

[24] Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, 27-29.

[25] Fleur Houston, “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women,” Feminist Theology 26, no.1 (2017): 19.

[26] Kirsi Stjerna, “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation,” Ecumenical Review 69, no.2 (2017)

[27] Beth Allison Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” Fides et Historia 48, no.2 (2016): 85.

[28] Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” 88.

[29] Martin Marty, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

[30] Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.) 182.

[31] Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership, 183.

[32] Emilie G. Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess” The Biblical World 41 (1913): 382.

[33] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess,” 383-384.

[34] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 385.

[35] Benjamin L. Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182.

[36] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386-390.

[37] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386.

[38] Priscilla Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 108-114.

[39] Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History,196-197.

[40] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 114-116.

[41] Laceye Warner, “Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176.

[42] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 115-116.

[43] Barbara B. Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 120.

[44] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 120-121.

[45] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 121.

[46] Paul L. King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance (Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.) 74.

[47] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 74.

[48] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 232.

Bibliography

Barr, Beth Allison. “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howard’s ‘Discriminating Sifter’” Fides et Historia 48, no. 2 (2016): 80-88.

Briggs, Emilie G. “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses” The Biblical World 41, (1913): 382-390.

Deweese, Charles W. Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service. Macon: Mercer University, 2005.

Hartley, Benjamin L. “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182-197.

Houston, Fleur “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women.” Feminist Theology 26, no. 1 (2017): 19-33.

King, Paul L. Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.

Madigan, Kevin and Carolyn Osiek. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Marty, Martin, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

Marucci, Corrado.“History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 40-58. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Muir, Elizabeth Gillan. A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Pope-Levinson, Priscilla. “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 101-116.

Sorci, Pietro.“The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 59-86. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Stewart, Kenneth J. Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.

Stjerna, Kirsi “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation.” Ecumenical Review 69, no. 2 (2017): 201-2014.

Troxell, Barbara B. “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 119-130.

Vagaggine, Cipriano.“The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 90-120. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Warner, Laceye.“Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176-190.

Zanetti, Ugo.“Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 136-139. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

 

 

The Christian As Historian

According to many historians of a secular bent, a Christian’s religious convictions should play little to no role in their work as a historian. In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden notes that the academy sees the “Christian historian” in much the same way they see the historian who happens to be a bridge player. It is just fine to be a Christian or a bridge player, but these “extracurricular” activities ought to have no role in your work as a historian.[1] Furthermore, historian Jay Green notes that within the academy there is a profound bent towards thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” which tends to view religious phenomena skeptically, even dismissively.[2] Within such a thoroughly secularized milieu is there any “room” for the Christian historian to bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way? It is my contention that there is a way to accomplish this and I will attempt to sketch out very briefly what this might look like.

If we are to have an intellectually robust understanding of what it means to be both a Christian and a historian, a logical place to begin would be discussing the concept of historical study as a “vocation.” In his book, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green notes that the term “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare” which means “to call.”[3] Green suggests that the Christian historian can view their work in a spiritually richer way by realizing their work is not simply a means of providing for oneself, but rather a genuine, holy, and vital calling from God. Green further develops this line of thinking and suggests that perhaps one of the greatest blessings of the Reformation was the expansion of the concept of “vocation.” In the Medieval Catholic tradition, the concept of “vocation” or “calling” was closely tied to pursuing church related work while ordinary labor was often seen as morally neutral. The Reformers and their descendants eschewed this strong bifurcation between “holy” and merely “secular” work. To them, all work had “eternal and divinely appointed worth.”[4]

So, if all work (including historical work) has “worth” as 1 Corinthians 7:20 would seem to teach, what does it look like for a Christian historian to “live out” their “calling” in a way that brings God glory. Historian Douglas A. Sweeney sees the historian’s calling as essentially one of service to both their academic peers as well as their students.[5] Seeing their work in this light, the Christian historian should strive to be the best historian they can be. They should seek to serve their respective guilds by making healthy contributions to the field. They should do careful, balanced research that strives for objectivity, even if this is ultimately only an unattainable ideal.[6] The Christian historian must actively look for ways to serve their students, the church, and even the voices of the past. Christian historians should apply the golden rule to the historical sources they survey by interpreting them in the way we would want our words to be interpreted: In context and on their own terms.

Armed with a robust theology of vocation, the Christian historian can view their work in a more enriching and motivating light. They realize they there is a call on their lives to work for the betterment of society and to the glory of God. The Christian historian is uniquely motivated to search for the beautiful and true.[7] Can the historian working out of purely naturalistic and secular motivations boast of such an enriching and rewarding view of their work?

Now that we have established how the Christian historian’s motivations may differ from that of his more secularly inclined counterpart, we must explore whether the methodologies they espouse will look any different. On many points the Christian historian and their secularly inclined counterpart will probably espouse very similar methodologies. Both will display an appreciation for objectivity, careful and rigorous analysis of primary and relevant secondary sources, and (hopefully) modesty about their conclusions.[8]

However, the conclusion cannot be avoided that large swathes of the academy remain enamored with reductionist views of history that tend to rest on a deeply flawed “empiricist” epistemology.[9] This methodology insists that only things proven by observation can be considered factual. Historians of a Marxist bent have embraced such a method and have tended to boil down all religious phenomena to underlying issues of economics, class, and race.[10] Religion’s role in history has often been trivialized in modern historiography.

Within such a milieu, the Christian historian can offer a perspective that seeks to correct this “flattening” of the human experience. Fortunately, historians working in the recent past such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden, and Mark Noll have offered such correctives in the largely secularized academy. These scholars, and many more, have sought to show that religion should be seen as the defining and vital force in people’s lives that it truly is. Quoting Catholic historian Philip Gleason, Jay Green suggests that religion has shaped history just as much and perhaps even more than “ethnicity, race, class, gender, or power.”[11] Thus, it could be argued that the Christian historian can take a broader, fuller, richer view of history that truly does justice to the complexity of the human experience. To ignore the effect religion has had on humanity in the past is to write truncated history.

Now, taking religion seriously in historical investigation is one thing, but can the Christian historian expand their method even further? Can the Christian historian posit divine causation or influence behind the events of history? Perhaps before we can answer such a question it would be wise to mark off what is almost certainly “out of bounds” methodologically for the serious Christian historian.

In his book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, John Fea documents well the problems associated with writing so called “providential history.” This kind of history seeks to show definitively God’s “mind” and “will” behind history. This method has flourished amongst those who wish to prove that the United States was founded as a uniquely and explicitly Christian nation. Unfortunately, this methodology tends to distort the historical record in favor of its’ predetermined interpretive paradigm and presumes to know too much about the mind and will of God. Fea suggests that the Christian historian must practice restraint in their craft. When positing the divine will behind history they must season their conclusions with words such as “perhaps,” “maybe” or “might.”[12]

Nevertheless, many notable Christian academics believe that there is a responsible way to posit God’s “breaking into history” whilst avoiding the egregious errors of providential history. Historian Mark Noll has suggested enlisting the “missiologists” to help decipher God’s activity in the past.[13] Furthermore, C. Stephen Evans has convincingly argued that historical texts replete with miracle accounts should not a priori be dismissed as unreliable and without historical value.[14]

Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion; Thus, it is unsurprising that many Christian scholars have stepped up to defend its’ most central historical claims with the Resurrection of Jesus receiving focus.[15] Can the Christian historian legitimately seek to demonstrate the historical veracity of miracles? I believe they can if they are willing to jump into metaphysical discussions and demonstrate that belief in the possibility of miracles is at least as, if not more reasonable than saying that miracles demonstrably cannot occur as naturalism would have us believe. The Christian historian will need to be cautious when investigating the veracity of supernatural phenomena in history. Nevertheless, I believe that the Christian historian can investigate miracle claims responsibly. Furthermore, I believe we can affirm with Wolfhart Pannenberg that the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity’s central miracle, has “good historical foundation.”[16]

In conclusion, the Christian historian can bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way. They may recognize that their work as historians is a “holy calling” imbued with eternal worth. Furthermore, they are uniquely positioned to take the phenomenon of religion in history seriously and thus achieve a broader and fuller understanding of the human experience. Finally, The Christian historian may be able to “glimpse” God’s working in history. However, exercising thoroughgoing caution in such investigations cannot be overstated.

Footnotes

[1] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 20.

[2] Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 12-13.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 151-154.

[5] Douglas A. Sweeney, “On The Vocation Of Historians To The Priesthood of Believers: A Plea to Christians in the Academy,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, ed. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 300.

[6] James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) 46-50.

[7] D.H. Williams, “Protestantism and the Vocation of Higher Education,” in Revisiting the Idea of Vocation: Theological Explorations, ed. John C. Haughey, S.J. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 162.

[8] Bradley and Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources, 146-148.

[9] Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 29-31.

[10] Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions, 12-17.

[11] Ibid, 33.

[12] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 64-84.

[13] Mark A. Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 120-123.

[14] C. Stephen Evans, “Critical Historical Judgement and Biblical Faith,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 41-68.

[15] See Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

[16] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 91.

Bibliography

Bradley, James E., and Richard A. Muller. Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.

Fea, John., Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historians Vocation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Fea, John. Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Green, Jay D. Christian Historiography – Five Rival Versions. Baylor University Press, 2015.

Haughey, John C. Revisiting the Idea of Vocation Theological Explorations. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

Wells, Ronald. History and the Christian Historian. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.

 

Faith in a time of “Social Distancing”

Although I am not yet thirty, and thus my memory and experiences are somewhat limited, I can honestly say that I have never seen something grind our world to a halt quite like the Coronavirus has. Schools and Universities have closed for a time and moved their classes online, cruises, conventions and festivals have been canceled, even Churches have moved their services online to try and halt the spread of the Coronavirus. Understandably, many people are scared, a few are blase, and some are even panicking (just try and find toilet paper of all things at your local supermarket!)

How are we as Christians to respond to the Coronovirus pandemic? How can we be salt and light when we are being encouraged to forego normal social contact? I have a few suggestions.

1. Don’t Panic. 

2 Timothy 1:7 tells us “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV) As Christians, we should not be blase about a virus that has the real potential to endanger the lives of many people (especially the elderly.) However, we must also not give in to fear that makes us irrational. We must not give in to an “every man for himself” kind of attitude where we greedily hoard resources. God makes it clear in this passage that he will help us act with courage and rationality even when we face very scary circumstances such as global pandemics like this one.

2. Find a trusted source for information about the Coronavirus, such as the Center for Disease Control, and listen to what they have to say. 

Practicing very good hygiene and “social distancing” (ie forgoing normal social contact) as the CDC is recommending is actually a very good way for us to show love to our neighbors as the Scriptures so clearly command (Mark 12:30-31.) By practicing social distancing, we can slow the spread of the virus, better protect the elderly and more susceptible, and help prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed. I am proud to serve as the pastor of a Church that has many medical professionals as members. I can’t think of a better way to show them love than to help them do their jobs with as minimal stress as possible. Furthermore, we need to love the elderly and more susceptible enough to be inconvenienced for a while.

3. Find creative ways to minister to others.

Even though local churches may have to forego normal services for a while, I encourage all churches to use social media platforms to share sermons, scripture, and words of encouragement. We can be a source of hope on social media when many people are giving into fear. When the lost see Christians responding to this crisis with rationality, confidence, and hope, they may begin to realize that there is something to the Christian faith. Furthermore, we can call, text, or email the elderly and more susceptible just to check on them, encourage them, and see if they are ok. This crisis gives us an opportunity to be the Church! Let’s be the Church!

4. Pray.

During this time, we need to pray that God will allow us as Christians to respond to this crisis with love, rationality, hope, and confidence so that we can better glorify our Savior. We need to pray for the infected that God will heal them. We need to pray that God will give leaders in the political, medical, and scientific realms supernatural wisdom during this time as they seek to find solutions to this problem. We must also pray for the many people whos’ livelihoods will be hurt by this pandemic. There will be challenging days ahead for these people, we must pray for them and help them in any way that we can. We must continually be in prayer during this time for as the Scriptures say in James 5:15-16 “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (NIV)

John Wesley: Pietist Theologian

John Wesley has been quoted as saying that doctrine is but a “slender part” of true religion. judging by this statement, especially in isolation, one might assume that Wesley was a doctrinal indifferentist. However, upon further investigation we find that this could not be further from the truth. Wesley was not indifferent when it came to the task of articulating Christian doctrine.  We see this in his numerous tracts and sermons that deal with lofty concepts of Christian theology such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, the means of grace, original sin, prevenient grace and so forth.

To understand this statement of Wesley’s, we must understand him as fundamentally a pietist theologian. John Wesley was strongly influenced by pietist thought through the writings of Johan Arndt as well as by the Moravians whom he met on his voyage to Savannah, and with whom he spent much time with in England and Germany. The pietists communicated to Wesley, through both personal correspondence and their writings, that the Christian life did not consist solely of affirming certain theological propositions, heartfelt relationship with Jesus of Nazareth was necessary for a robust Christian life as well. Christianity consisted of both illumination and transformation. That is, transformation of the individual who though once isolated and alienated from God could now enjoy deep fellowship with God, who could grow into real, scriptural holiness and truly be more like Jesus!

Wesley understood this reality all too well. Prior to his “Aldersgate” experience, Wesley was more than ready to affirm the doctrines affirmed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Wesley had plenty of good theology and yet his spiritual life was empty, he had no real relationship with Jesus, he had not yet come to recognize Christ as his “personal” Savior. Wesley could affirm many truths about Christ but only when he had a real relationship with Christ did he finally experience spiritual peace.

I think the experience of Wesley, and the other pietists, provide us with valuable lessons for today. Good theology is important no doubt, and without good theology we will not have good spirituality. However, rational assent to scriptural truths (though extremely important) is not the whole of the Christian life, it is but a part. Our task as Christians today is to balance the rational and relational aspects of the Christian life. If we drop but one we will have a truncated and perhaps even counterfeit Christianity. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the scriptures I am convinced that we can balance these two aspects of the Christian faith quite well and present a robust version of the Christian faith that speaks well to both the head, and the heart, of the people we have the opportunity to minister to.