Friday, April 25, 2008

How a Wesleyan Goes to the Scriptures

As a member of the Order of St. Luke, my devotional practice includes the praying of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. We are free in the Order to use whatever versions of the Daily Office we choose (the OSL, of course, provides their own resources). It has been my practice to use the version of the Book of Common Prayer given by John Wesley to the Methodists in America, viz., The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America.

Fairly recently I began to incorporate in my prayers the singing of hymns taken from The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7, "Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists" (Bicentennial Ed. - Over this past week I sang a series of hymns in a section entitled "Before reading the Scriptures," and I want to share a few stanzas from three of those hymns (pages 186-85).

Notice how different the Wesleyan approach to Scripture is from fundamentalism, on the one hand, and ultra-liberalism, on the other. Notice the affirmation of the inspiration of the writings of Holy Scripture, but also the necessity for the Holy Spirit to inspire them afresh and anew to us. Notice also the goal of going to the Scriptures, viz., to know God.

1. Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,
Let us thine influence prove,
Source of the old prophetic fire,
Fountain of life and love.
2. Come, Holy Ghost (for moved by thee
The prophets wrote and spoke);
Unlock the truth, thyself the key,
Unseal the sacred book.
3. Expand thy wings, celestial dove,
Brood o'er our nature's night;
On our disordered spirits move,
And let there now be light.
4. God through himself we then shall know,
If thou within us shine;
And sound, with all thy saints below,
The depths of love divine.
2. While in thy Word we search for thee
(We search with trembling awe!)
Open our eyes, and let us see
The wonders of thy law.
3. Now let our darkness comprehend
The light that shines so clear;
Now the revealing Spirit send,
And give us ears to hear.
1. Inspirer of the ancient seers,
Who wrote from thee the sacred page,
The same through all succeeding years;
To us in our degenerate age
The spirit of thy Word impart,
And breathe the life into our heart.
2. While now thine oracles we read
With earnest prayer and strong desire,
O let thy Spirit from thee proceed
Our souls to waken and inspire,
Our weakness help, our darkness chase,
And guide us by the light of grace.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Fellow Methodist* Prays for the United Methodist General Conference

Today, Wednesday, April 23 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church begins. The General Conference convenes every four years and serves as the denominations top policy-making organization. In fact, according to church law, only the General Conference (i.e., no other individual, including any bishops, or group) has the authority to speak for the denomination. For information on the UM General Conference click here.

This year there are a number of interesting and not a few significant resolutions coming before the delegates. Some of those resolutions may shape the direction of the denomination for years to come. Others may affect the relationships the UMC has with other denominations. As the largest denomination in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, this General Conference could have some affect upon all of the denominational members of the World Methodist Council, including the Church of the Nazarene.

Two issues being discussed this year are worth mentioning in this post: First, various resolutions are being brought concerning the ongoing debate over homosexuality. In fact, according to my OSL brother, the Rev'd. Sky Lowe-McCraken, nearly 950 of the over 1500 petitions of legislation deal with some aspect of the homosexual debate. Thus far, the UMC has consistently maintained that "Homosexual persons . . . are individuals of sacred worth" (Book of Discipline, par. 161, G.), on the one hand, but, on the other hand, they have consistently maintained that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" (par. 304.3).

The second issue deals with whether the U.S. church will become a central conference. If it does, it will keep the African and European United Methodists from voting at future (U.S.) General Conferences. If it does not become a separate central conference, then the voice of Africa will still be heard, and their votes will carry much weight. (From my perspective, if the African United Methodists remain a part of this General Conference, it could save the United Methodists from possibly experiencing the kind of splits that The Episcopal Church has experienced. In their case, the "orthodox" Anglicans sought oversight from Anglicans from the global South.)

One can track all of the legislation of interest by clicking here.

I will be watching the UM news, and perhaps issuing a few comments/reflections during the week of and the week following the General Conference. - It is my sincere prayer that the God of all wisdom will guide the delegates in all of the decisions that will be made. Further, it is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon the United Methodists afresh and anew, in order that God would be glorified in and through them.

Please join with me in a prayer for our sisters and brothers at the UM General Conference. - The following prayer was suggested by the Abbot of the Order of St. Luke, the Rev'd. Dr. Mark Stamm. It is adapted from a collect "For a Church Convention" in the Book of Common Prayer (255):

Almighty and everlasting Father, you have given the Holy Spirit to abide with us for ever: Bless, we pray, with his grace and presence, the clergy and laity delegates, the bishops, and all the faithful assembled in your Name at (the United Methodist) General Conference, that your Church, being preserved in true faith and godly discipline, may fulfill all the mind of him who loved it and gave himself for it, your Son Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


*I know that some of my Nazarene colleagues would prefer to distance themselves from Methodism. However, my self-identification as a Methodist is based on a number of factors, which could require an entire post (or series of posts). For now, suffice it to say that I understand the Church of the Nazarene to be a Wesleyan-holiness branch of Methodism.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Our family, like so many in our part of the country were awakened around 4:30 this morning by a 5.2 (the last figure I've heard) magnitude earthquake. Thankfully, such events are few and far between here in southern Indiana! Later today, while in my study at the church, I had the opportunity to experience a good "after shock" while being wide awake. Again, quite an experience!

Recognizing that we sustained no real damage from the quake, and infinitely more important, our family was kept safe (I have not yet heard of any real injuries, though there may have been some), I wish to invite you to join me in giving thanks to God:

Almighty God who spoke all that is into existence and who sustains all that exists by the power of your Word, You parted the Red Sea, caused the mountain to tremble and ordered the sun to stop and turn back. When your Son, our Lord, was in the boat, He calmed the raging sea with but a word of peace. To You, Holy God, we give thanks for your mercy and mighty power which has kept us safe this day. Be with all who have sustained damage to property, and especially with any who may have incurred injury. And, recognizing that an earthquake accompanied the death and resurrection of your Son, may this occasion be so transformed and used by your Holy Spirit that those who do not yet know You may be drawn to You by your grace. Continue to be with us and protect us, we pray. And in all things may all glory and honor be yours now and forever; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Infant Baptism IV: What Happens When Infants Are Baptized?

In my previous posts on this topic I have attempted to set the practice of Nazarenes baptizing infant children within historical context. I then gave some of the reasons why we Wesleyan/Methodist Christians do baptize our young children. - This final post in my series on Infant Baptism has already generated some discussion in the comments section, and I have already given enough away in that section so that readers already have a pretty good idea where I am headed in this post.

Let me begin by identifying what seems to be the most common thoughts by Nazarene theologians (in writing) concerning what happens in infant Baptism. I will attempt to do that by looking to the two most recent Systematic Theologies produced by Nazarene theologians.

In A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill P. '94), Kenneth Grider says, "Even as God entered into a covenant with the male infant who was circumcised on his eighth day of life, God enters into a covenant to give special helps to an infant who is baptized. - This leads to the suggestion that infant baptism affirms the doctrine of prevenient grace - so important as a doctrine for Arminian-Wesleyanism" (503).

Ray Dunning, in Grace Faith and Holiness (Beacon Hill P. '88), says, "This may be interpreted as saying that baptism is the ordinary (a term Wesley insisted on) means by which the child appropriates prevenient grace, which would nonetheless by efficacious apart from baptism even as adults may be born again without the administering of water" (548, second group of italics mine). - (I would mention that Ray Dunning was my Theology professor at Trevecca Nazarene University. I hold him in high esteem and credit him with being the first to introduce me to a more classical Wesleyan Theology . . . though, at this point I have to say, I think he missed it.)

And, finally, the ritual for "The Baptism of Infants or Young Children" in the Manual (the Nazarene Book of Discipline) states clearly, "While we do not hold that baptism imparts the regenerating grace of God . . . Christian baptism signifies for this young child God's gracious acceptance on the basis of His prevenient grace in Christ and points forward to his (her) personal appropriation of the benefits of the Atonement when he (she) reaches the age of moral accountability and exercises conscious saving faith in Jesus Christ" (p 236).

Thus, it becomes clear that most Nazarenes seem to identify the Baptism of infants as a means of proclaiming that prevenient grace is at work in the child.

There are a couple of problems with this position, from my perspective. First, (except in the case of Dunning, above) this position removes Infant Baptism from the category of sacrament. A sacrament for Wesleyan Christians is an outward sign of an inward grace and a means whereby we receive the same. In the position espoused above the Baptism of infants is no longer a means whereby grace is received, but rather merely a means of proclamation . . . that prevenient grace is already at work in the child. (Dunning manages to escape this trap by identifying Baptism as "the ordinary . . . means by which the child appropriates prevenient grace," even though he goes on to say that it would nevertheless be efficacious without Baptism.)

In addition to the problem of stripping Infant Baptism from its "sacramental status" is the issue of what "prevenient grace" refers to. - Certainly, it refers to God's grace that "goes before" we can do anything. And, in as much as that is true, Infant Baptism does proclaim the prevenient nature (at least) of grace. However, when speaking of prevenient grace, one usually refers to that grace that extends to all humanity due to the Atonement of Christ, which is at work in every sinner's heart, seeking to awaken, convict, convert, and sanctify, and granting us the gracious ability to respond to the call of the gospel (cf. An Introduction to Wesleyan Theology. Greathouse/Dunning. Beacon Hill P. '89. p 60 & 72). In the case of infants, what is essentially being said in baptism (according to the view espoused above) is that our children are "covered by the atonement" until they reach an age of moral accountability. - Keep in mind, this is true whether we baptize them or not. Infant Baptism is seen as simply proclaiming that particular aspect of God's grace.

The problem is that while the practice of Infant Baptism is consistent with Wesley, and the doctrine of prevenient grace is consistent with Wesley, the combining of those two doctrines in the way that Nazarenes have (above) is completely foreign to Wesley (and the ancient Church). In fact, such a view seems to have only recently originated within the Wesleyan-holiness tradition (though there may be evidence of it in some earlier Methodist writings).

So what was Wesley's view? - Frankly, Wesley believed that infants who were faithfully baptized were then and there regenerate and "born again." Wesley does not identify Baptism as being the same thing as the new birth. And he recognizes that a person may be "born of water," and yet not "born of the Spirit" (Staples 184). And, one may experience being "born of the Spirit" by faith prior to Baptism, as seen in Acts. However, of infants Wesley says, ". . . all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time born again . . ." (Wesley's Works 6:74).

Such a view does not mean that the child does not need to "own the faith" for his/herself when they are old enough to do so. They, like all of us, must do so. Neither does it mean that they cannot fall from grace (as in a kind of "once baptized, always saved" idea). It is also important to note that Wesley rejects a mechanical ex oper operato doctrine. Rather we are called to bring our children to the sacrament of Baptism with faith in Christ.

I am of the opinion that John Wesley's view is more consistent with that of the Church Fathers, and I am in full agreement with him on this point.

Now, how does a Nazarene maintain such a position? If I were a United Methodist, the answer would be simple: Wesley's Standard Sermons are a part of their doctrinal standards, and Wesley, there, espouses this position. But we Nazarenes do not have that standard listed in our Manual. - Nevertheless, I would maintain that such a view is not contrary to our Articles of Faith (though it certainly is not espoused there). I recall a very helpful conversation with a former professor of mine concerning the sacraments. I ask him how he reconciled his own views with the Manual's so very weak (sacramentally speaking) statements on The Lord's Supper. He replied that he believed our Manual statement . . . he believed "at least that much." - My views on infant Baptism, I think, fall into the same category.

It is true, however, that our ritual for infant Baptism seems to outright deny Wesley's position as even a possibility. In order to make it compatible one would have to invoke a technicality that says Baptism does not impart regenerating grace; God imparts regenerating grace through Baptism. But it must be admitted that the intent of the ritual is to rule out such a view.

I take solace in knowing that we are not bound by the rituals in our Manual, and thus not by doctrinal positions placed there which are absent from our Articles of Faith. This is illustrated in a number of ways. First, with the exception of the ritual for membership, the Manual does not require the use of our rituals. Second, it was the Manual Editing Committee that commissioned Dr. Jesse Middendorf (now General Superintendent) to write The Church Rituals Handbook, which our publishing house produced. And finally, if our rituals are not used at our General Assembly by certain of our own General Superintendents, it surely means that we are not require to use them.

Therefore, while I may be awfully lonely, I believe myself to still fall within Nazarene boundaries when espousing Wesley's view of infant Baptism.

One final clarifying note on adult baptisms: such a view of infant Baptism does not imply that every adult who is baptized is thereby "born again." In the case of adults, the call is still to exercise faith in Christ, to repent and to be baptized. Also, while it may be maintained that Baptism is not absolutely necessary for salvation (i.e., a person may be "born again" prior to being baptized), nevertheless it must also be recognized that it is a command of our Lord, and the New Testament knows nothing of "unbaptized Christians."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Bishop of Rome Travels to America

(For link to the Pope's U.S. visit click here.)

The Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict, arrives in the United States today. His theme for his U.S. visit is "Christ Our Hope." (Perhaps we, Nazarenes should listen in, since our quadrennial theme has been "Jesus . . . The Hope.")

As a Nazarene, I am well aware of some of the anti-Catholic sentiments that fill some Nazarenes and other Protestant Christians. I've heard reports at district assemblies about conversions, and it is often mentioned if the person experiencing the conversion was a former Catholic (as though their conversion is something to really rejoice about!). And, it doesn't help matters when missions materials spout things like, "This country is almost completely non-Christian; it is 90% Roman Catholic." Such attitudes may not possess all Nazarenes or Protestants, but they are expressed by far too many. - Often times these views have been reinforced by unfortunate (and I would argue unsound) interpretations of the Book of the Revelation which have identified the Church of Rome with "the great whore." - How sad! (But it does explain some of the attitudes of many Evangelical Christians.)

Oh, I know there are a number of things with which we and the Roman Church disagree. And I could enumerate them. However, I think far too many spend far too much time doing so. Besides, I just think that there are far more (significant) things that we have in common, including (but not limited to) our claim that Jesus Christ is our one Lord, the creeds (expressing our one faith), our practice of the sacrament of our one baptism, and our profession of our one God and Father of all (cf., Ephesians 4:5).

For my part, I pray that the visit of Pope Benedict will be used by God to draw people to God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our one Lord. I pray that the good Bishop would be used as an instrument of God to foster a more "catholic" (i.e., universal) spirit throughout Christ's one Church. After all, didn't Christ, Himself, pray that we be one?

For all Wesleyan/Methodist Christians, it might not be a bad idea to take a look at: John Wesley's, "A Letter to a Roman Catholic."

One should also read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This document, originally agreed on by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, was also adopted by the World Methodist Council at their last conference. (It was a unanimous vote, including the delegates from the Church of the Nazarene. We are, of course, a denominational member of the WMC.)

Also of interest might be David M. Chapman's In Search of the Catholic Spirit: Methodists and Roman Catholics in Dialogue. Peterborough, Great Britain: Epworth Press, 2004. (This book was reviewed by John W. Wright in the most recent issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal.)

For Nazarenes, in addition to the above, I would encourage a reading of Chapter 7 "The Roman Catholic Church" in either What Is a Nazarene? Understanding Our Place in the Religious Communion (Wes Tracy & Stan Ingersol. Beacon Hill Press, NPH.) or Here We Stand: Where Nazarenes Fit in the Religious Market Place (the latter being an expanded book that contains the former book). - The treatment of other Christian traditions in these books seems to be fair and in a spirit of Christlike generosity, identifying commonalities, as well as differences in the way that we understand the Christian faith.

In the meantime, I offer this prayer for the Pope (adapted from Wesley's ritual for "The Ordination of Superintendents"):

Most merciful Father, send down upon your servant, Benedict, your heavenly blessing, and so endue him with your Holy Spirit, the he, preaching your Word, may not only be earnest to reprove, beseech, and rebuke with all patience and sound doctrine, but also may be to believers a wholesome example in word, in conversations, in love, in faith, in charity, and in purity; that faithfully fulfilling his course, at the latter day he may receive the crown of righteousness laid up by the Lord, the righteous Judge, who lives and reigns one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Infant Baptism III: Why Wesleyans/Methodists Baptize Infants

In this post I do not intend to list all of the reasons why those of us in the Methodist tradition baptize infants. What I intend to do is briefly rehearse four of the reasons John Wesley gave. I find each of these to be strong arguments, but combined, I think them irrefutable arguments for infant Baptism (though I'm sure that my Baptist brothers and sister would disagree).

Prior to looking at these arguments, I want to make it clear that the Church of England affirmed the practice of infant baptism in its Articles of Religion, as well as in its rituals. So, too, Wesley not only followed the practice (having, of course, experienced it for himself in infancy), but passed the practice on to American Methodism through his Articles of Religion and the rituals of The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. The Church of the Nazarene, from its beginning, likewise retained the practice in its Articles of Faith and rituals as found in the Manual (our Book of Discipline).

In his "Treatise on Baptism," Wesley sets forth his reasons for retaining the catholic (i.e., universal) Christian practice of baptizing infants of Christian parents. For a thorough understanding of Wesley's thoughts on the matter, I commend his "Treatise" as found in the Jackson Edition of Wesley's Works vol. 10:188f. (Unless I've overlooked it, the Bicentennial/Oxford edition of the Works has not yet published a volume containing this "Treatise.")

The first compelling argument focuses on the covenant of God and the God given sign of the covenant. - It is clear from the Old Testament that the mark of the covenant was circumcision. All of the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant would seem to imply that infant children would be incapable of entering such a covenant. And yet, it is quite clear from Deut. 29:10-12 that "little ones" entered into covenant with God. Further, the mark of the covenant, viz., circumcision, was performed when the infant was only eight days old. Thus, it is clear that infant children of faithful Jews entered into the covenant with God through circumcision.

St. Paul identifies circumcision (the mark of the "old" covenant) and Baptism (the mark of the "new" covenant) in Col. 2:11-12. Baptism is now the sacrament of initiation into the covenant of God through Christ. Thus, there is in Scripture a continuity within the covenant before and after Christ, but through Christ, circumcision is replaced by Baptism. Wesley concludes "Infants are capable of entering into covenant with God. As they always were, so they still are, under the evangelical covenant. Therefore, they have a right to baptism, which is now the entering seal thereof" (10:195). - The continuity between the covenant mark of circumcision and Baptism is a strong argument for baptizing infant children of Christian parents.

The next argument I find compelling looks to Matthew 19:13-14 and Luke 18:15. There we see infant children being brought to Jesus. When the disciples tried to stop this from happening, Jesus rebuked His disciples. Jesus goes on to declare "it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." In fact, Jesus tells us "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." Thus, "infants are capable of coming to Christ [and ] of admission into the Church . . ." (10:195). - If Jesus makes the point that the kingdom belongs (uniquely) to these young children, and that we must enter the kingdom like them, then surely they should bear the kingdom mark in Baptism. Wesley concludes that infant children ought to be brought to Christ and admitted to the Church through the initiatory sacrament of Baptism.

The third and fourth compelling arguments focus on the tradition of the ancient Church. - Wesley argues that if the apostles baptized infants, then we must do the same. This proposal holds utmost strength, for me. - The problem is the New Testament does not give explicit proof that the apostles did baptize infants. However, Wesley is aware that the Jews baptized all infant children of proselytes. Since this was the practice, since Jesus and the apostles knew this practice, and since Jesus did not instruct the disciples otherwise (in addition to Jesus' clear teachings cited above), it seems very likely that the apostles would have baptized infant children of Christian converts. Further, the Scripture does record the instances of entire households being baptized. This is a term that would include any infants of that household. Finally, Wesley points to the words of St. Peter which, upon instructing the people to be baptized, declares "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away . . ." (Acts 2:39 NRSV italics mine).

As an extension of the previous argument, Wesley's final compelling argument turns to the practice of the catholic (i.e., universal) Church. He argues that if the Baptism of infants was "the general practice of the Christian Church in all places and in all ages, then this must have been the practice of the Apostles, and, consequently, the mind of Christ" (10:197). Wesley goes on to list the Church Fathers as witnesses to the Church's practice of infant Baptism in all places and all times. Further he cites those Fathers who explicitly affirm that the practice was handed down by the holy apostles, themselves. And the Church has continued to baptize infant children of Christian parents to this day. (For more on this point, cf., my previous post.)

As I've stated, each of these arguments provide a strong rational for the practice of infant Baptism, but, when combined, they seem to me to be irrefutable. There are, undoubtedly, other arguments employed by Wesleyan/Methodist Christians for baptizing our children, but these four I find more than sufficient to settle the question.

In my next post in this series, I will turn to the question of what I believe is going on in the baptism of our infant children.