Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Story of Christianity

Church history has become an area of passionate interest for me in the past couple of years, so among the books currently on my bedside table is The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. It is a general overview of church history, and I have been working my way through it slowly over the past eight months -- I'm sure it's going to take me at least another eight months to finish it, since I have barely reached the Middle Ages. (It's not dense reading at all; I just don't have lots of time to devote to it, and I am trying to fully process what I am reading as I go along.) Gonzalez is a Methodist, and although his Methodism peeks out in corners, it is so far an engaging read without too much bias. The is my first chronological jaunt through the entire history of the Christian faith. I'm learning a lot and thinking about a lot, so I thought I'd begin posting my thoughts on this reading as I go along -- they will have the tag "the story of Christianity."


Dana said...

I generally try to stay away from too much denominationalism but your comment on Methodism made me think of something.

We have been reading a lot of things written back around the Revolutionary War. A lot of it includes some outstanding statements by pastors. Who seem to end up being Methodist.

How does that work? Have they changed that much in 200 years, or am I just a Methodist at heart?

Rebecca said...

I used to stay away from too much denominationalism too. Ecclesiology becomes a sticky problem for protestants. The church is supposed to be one, and we have a hard time knowing what to do about that.

Funny Methodism should come up like this...seems to be the theme of the week at our house. Without elaborating the whole history of how this happened, our church ended collaborating with the Methodist church for VBS this past week. People in the congregation have been enthusiastic about this, but they don't realize that there are some hairy theological difficulties involved in us as Lutherans working together with Methodists in a teaching and outreach ministry such as VBS.

This led dh and I into a discussion of the history of Methodism. John Wesley was an Anglican pastor who felt his heart "strangely warmed" while attending a conventicle of Moravians (pietist anabaptists). This "conversion experience" shaped his theology and preaching, with "Christian perfection" being the hallmark of his theology.

Methodism was very big in the 18th -early 20th centuries in America. It's emphasis of holiness of life made it very popular, and the pentecostal (and thus the charismatic) movements, as well as revivalism and the Great Awakenings, and the Temperance movement are its offspring.

So maybe you're not a methodist at heart, but you're probably a spiritual grandchild of Wesley, since his theology forms the core of most of American evangelicalism. A lot of famous historical figures were Methodist, including the Ingalls family, and I think William Wilberforce was one, too.

There are definately theologically and morally liberal forces at work within the Methodist church now, so I guess they have changed a lot in 200 years. But there are conservative churches and pastors too. The one in our town is. But in spite of that, here is, in part, what's at the core of our little VBS conundrum, quoted from Religious Bodies of America by F.E. Mayer (whose Lutheranism peeks out in corners in this book):

"One of the distinctive characteristics of Wesley's theology is subjectivism. After his "religious experience" Wesley continued to use regularly the means of grace. But to these he added prayer and discipline. In Lutheran theology the assurance is based on the objective character of the means of grace apart from any personal subjective feeling. Wesley, however, rested his assurance on his own intense religious experience, rather than upon the objective promises of God." This subjectivism is the beginning of the slide into modernism.

As for Gonzalez Methodism "peeking out" in The Story of Christianity, I'm mostly referring to places where he places emphasis on subjective experience, and where he takes an anti-sacramental tone when discussing the very sacramental faith of the early church.