Wesleyan Christology

Jason Vickers on Wesleyan Christology

Mark Tooley on October 16, 2020

Jason Vickers of Asbury Seminary has co-edited a new book on Wesleyan Christology that is especially timely as The United Methodist Church faces imminent schism. You’ll learn a lot from this rich conversation.

Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington DC with the pleasure today of conversing with Jason Vickers, professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in central Kentucky outside Lexington, specifically delightful Wilmore, known as the holy city. And we’re going to start off at least by talking about a new book just being released on Wesleyan Christology of which Jason is the co-editor. So Jason, thank you so much for being available today.

JASON VICKERS: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Mark. And just a quick shout out here at the beginning to the other co-editor Jerome Van Kuiken. It was a pleasure to work with Jerome, and so I just want to make sure we give him credit

Mark Tooley: Absolutely, and who are some of the other authors in this book?

JASON VICKERS: Yeah, there’s a nice range of authors. Paul Chilcote and Tom McCall. Mark Olson. There’s John Drury, Justus Hunter, Reggie Broadnax, Christina Smerick. That’s a sampling there. I’m sure I’m leaving a couple out but that’s quite a few of them.

Mark Tooley: Well, for the benefit of Methodists who don’t understand what their own tradition has to say about Christology, and also for other Christians who don’t know the particular distinctives of Wesleyan Christology. How does Wesleyan Christology differ from Lutheran Christology or Reformed Christology or Catholic Christology?

JASON VICKERS: It’s a very interesting question. In some ways, this book charts up a bit of a journey of development in the Methodist tradition in the area of Christology. And you can think of the journey as having three phases. The early…

Mark Tooley: Jason, if I could interrupt, getting really back to basics, explain briefly what is Christology.

JASON VICKERS: It’s the study of the person and work of Christ. So the relationship between Christ’s nature’s divine and human as well as the nature of his work on the cross, and especially how his sacrifice saves. So…

Mark Tooley: You were saying…

JASON VICKERS: Yeah, that so what we’re, what we’re really trying to show here is development in the Methodist tradition in the area of Christology, and it unfolds in the book in three big phases, an early phase, and you could say, sort of a middle and late phase, but the middle was really in the late 19th and the majority of the 20th century. And then the late phase, the last, the third and final section has to do with proposals today. Recent fresh proposals that are happening now.

Now, just quickly. What I think the book shows is that in the early going, Wesley, John and Charles Wesley and other early Methodists were in Christology mainly committed to kind of basic orthodoxy, what you find in something like the Nicene Creed. There is, I think it needs to be said, a bit of an emphasis on the deity of Jesus in the early tradition, you’ll certainly find that in someone like Thomas Coke, and Mark Olson addresses that in his chapter. Now the reason for that is that in the 18th century, things like Deism, Unitarianism, Socinianism, they raised some real questions around the deity of Jesus that early Methodist theologians like the Wesleys, John Fletcher, and Coke and others were concerned to respond to and they often kind of then emphasize the deity of Jesus, sometimes in a way that makes it seem like they are weaker on the humanity of Jesus.

So that’s an issue in the early tradition, but I think it’s largely a contextual issue that has to do with who they perceive to be a bit of a threat, if you will, to orthodoxy in their day. But in the broad, in the main they they’re really not doing too much innovative in Christology, especially in the early going. And if anything the focus of the tradition, and I think this remains true most of the way through, is on the work of Christ, rather than the person of Christ. So we tend to accentuate the atonement, Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

And specifically the universal scope of the atonement that Christ dies for all which would be a point that a lot of Wesleyans would say distinguishes us from the Reformed or Calvinist tradition. That it’s the universality, the universal atonement that’s a hallmark of the Wesleyan tradition in Christology, more so than any unique position on Christ the person. If anything, we tend to be a little underdeveloped on the person of Christ, compared to the work of Christ.

Now, just quickly, I’ll kind of summarize this quickly as quickly as I can from there. What happens is in the mid 19th century, and Tom McCall does a nice job with this, we have the emergence of what we call dogmatic theologians in the tradition. Methodist dogmatic theologians, most notably William Burt Pope in England. And what they try to do is provide for Methodists a Christological foundation that is deeply indebted to the Nicene Chalcedonian tradition, they try to flesh that out, more especially on Christ’s person.

The problem with it is that the intellectual culture generally speaking in the late 19th century shifted quickly after people like Pope put out three volume theologies, right, and whole volumes on Christology. And suddenly their style or way of doing theology was seen as very out of date. And so the tradition moved on from them really before it ever reckoned with their work or absorbed it, it’s sort of dismissed the minute it came off the press.

You can see this especially in the way some of the Boston personalists handled that material, they were quick to just dismiss it. And with personalism and Borden Parker Bowne and others you quickly get into a reframing of Christology in new categories.

So with the personalists you reframe teaching about Jesus, who He is and what He does in personalist metaphysical terms. So it’s a kind of philosophical theological project. So we cover that and then we move into other proposals, mid 20th century proposals around the person and work of Jesus, most notably those associated with Albert Outler. And John Deschner. And there you have an emphasis on historigraphical work with Outler and really a reworking of Christology in Barthian categories in John Deschner following Karl Barth.

Okay, so then you get into the more recent proposals, feminist, Latino, let’s see, next, liberation type proposals, as well as some interesting chapters on where do we go after Oden, after Tom Oden. Justus Hunter writes that chapter, and where do we go after Karl Barth. And that’s John Drury, and they’re kind of reckoning with, are grappling with the legacy of Barth and Oden respectively and what do we take from them.

And do we adopt their proposals or do we need to go in some new direction? Now look, the bottom line. All of that is that the story that really ends up being told is one, and this won’t surprise you, of increasing pluralism in the Methodist tradition, that what you have is, whereas you have a kind of unity of teaching in the early tradition that it’s broadly and basically orthodox on the person and work of Christ. By the time you get to the mid 20th century, and this just continues down to the present day, the question really becomes whether any such unity exists anymore within the Methodist tradition among its theologians, or whether we’ve got a kind of radical pluralism on something as important as who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us and for our salvation.

So that’s really in a sense, the volume. Kind of puts that question on the table. Is there any unity to be discerned here among all of these 20th and now 21st century Methodist theologians?

Mark Tooley: The book is published by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education. Is that correct?

JASON VICKERS: That is correct.

Mark Tooley: Now is a book like this a signal of an ongoing renaissance of Wesleyan theology? Would a book like this have been published say 30 years ago?

JASON VICKERS: No. But here’s an interesting reason why because 30 years ago, most of the focus was on Wesley. And one of the things that is new and fresh in this book and I think signals and reflects a new direction in the way of scholarly interest overall right now, is in the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition after Wesley. So in other words, we spent 50 years, a good half century, going back to the 1960s and into the early aughts, you know, writing a book a week on Wesley. And so we’ve really done Wesley a lot. And we’ve been better off for that, of course, but now a lot of scholars are interested in what happened.

In fact the precipitating question that gave rise to this volume was a question that Jaroslav Jan Pelikan asked of the Methodist tradition. The great, the imminent Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Jan Pelikan reviewing John Deschner’s book on John Wesley’s Christology asked the question: So what happened to Christology in Methodism after Wesley? Pelikan’s question actually inspired this volume in many ways. And because we haven’t grappled with that, not only in Christology, but but also other areas, we really don’t have a good grasp of what happens in Wesley’s theology, Methodist theology after Wesley. So one of the things we have discovered is that we had some really interesting intellectually gifted theologians in the mid 19th century like William Burt Pope, Thomas Summers would be another one, that, as I said earlier, were quickly dismissed at the time during their lifetime. Well, we’re beginning to unearth their work and realize there’s a lot of really good work that’s done here that we have no idea about and we’re beginning to explore that. So I do think it signals a bit of a new direction on the part of scholars right now, Wesleyan scholars who are working to come to grips with what has happened, theologically to Methodism after Wesley.

Mark Tooley: So it turns out Methodism, it was not just John Wesley. It’s also a 250 year old tradition.

JASON VICKERS: Absolutely. And one of the most contentious areas of discussion that you can find is who gets to be a part of that when you’re telling that story. So if you take someone like, and this is an ongoing argument actually between myself and Kevin Watson and Billy Abraham, for that matter, and he gets in on this as well. So you know Billy would would insist that Borden Parker Bowne and the personalists belong to Methodism.

They are part of the tradition. We may decide that they are out to lunch on any number of things. But for Billy, they are still Methodists. I think our good friend Kevin wants to at least question that a little bit and say, well, but how far can you stray from, you know, whatever your criteria are theological or otherwise, and still be considered in the Methodist fold. So what this kind of looking at the history after Wesley and looking at theological doctrinal development after Wesley, what it does, it raises that question of where are the boundaries, if you will. And what are the criteria and can we agree on that, as to when someone you know has left the Methodist tradition.

Now, for myself, I’ve always said that if nothing else, the unlimited atonement has dogmatic status in the Wesleyan tradition, so that if you show me someone that denies the unlimited atonement that says no Christ did not die for everybody, He only died for a handful of folk. Or however many you know, maybe he only died for Americans, you know, or or whomever.

Well you’ve now crossed the line that, in my judgment, you’ve stepped outside the Wesleyan tradition, you’re embracing a teaching that is so deeply opposed to a central tenet of Methodism that you, it’s really incoherent to call yourself a Methodist at that point.

Mark Tooley: Do you yourself call the Boston personalists Methodist?

JASON VICKERS: I really do think they are. I mean, I read them as exploring an option and philosophical theology that they are drawn to especially Bowne. He’s drawn to the option that he goes for in Germany, where he studies, because he inherits from his Methodist clergy, you know, father, and he grows up in a good Methodist home, good pious home, this emphasis on the importance of experience. And so the appeal to experience that he’ll run into, though, in a very different concept of experience, to be sure, but I think it resonates with him, intellectually, because there had been an emphasis on experience. And have a personal sort you know from day one in his upbringing, so you can at least see why he goes down the road that he goes down. Now he’ll end up in an arguably different place for having gone that way. But there is a sense in which it makes sense now. Now what you could say here is, are Methodists free to explore contemporary proposals in something like metaphysics. Because really, that’s what the personalists are doing.

They’re taking the raw ingredients of the faith, if you will, and seeing if they can fit them into a new metaphysical framework. Now the process theologians down the line, excuse me, will do much the same thing. They will take the process metaphysics of Whitehead, and later Hartshorne and see if they can shoehorn the faith, as it were, or at least the kind of reconception of it, in those terms now. So the question that both the personalists and the process tradition raise would be this. Is there a, if you will, required metaphysics, to be a Methodist? Do you have to embrace say a Platonic metaphysics, for example, or some other metaphysics? Is there a standard of doctrine, if you will, on metaphysics, or our method is free to explore various proposals in metaphysics? Right. That’s to me an open question.

The fact that we have standards of doctrine that on, say, the Trinity, or the person of Christ and any number of other doctrines, just on the books, so to speak, on the face of it, there’s no wedding of the tradition to a particular set of metaphysical proposals.

Mark Tooley: This book is written for Methodists or is this book written for Christians of all sorts who’re interested in a Wesleyan perspective?

JASON VICKERS: You know, realistically, I think the most interested audience will be Methodists who care about the development of the tradition. But hopefully there will be theologians and historians outside Methodism who see this volume is giving insight into where we’ve been, as a tradition on the person and work of Christ.

Mark Tooley: And pivoting off this book, where Is Methodist theology today? A good place, a bad place, or somewhere in between? And how does it relate overall to say American Evangelical theology today comparatively?

JASON VICKERS: Well, those are huge questions as you know. I think that Wesleyan or Methodist theology right now is trying to figure out where to go after a half century of work on Wesley. And again, I want to be clear, I’m not disparaging that work at all, we needed to come to grips with Wesley. There is a sense we now are the beneficiary of all that work. We have, you know, extraordinary materials ready on hand, primary resources. In the bicentennial edition of the Wesley Works Project as well as multiple volumes exploring Wesley’s theology as a whole and various aspects of his theology. So we really are blessed in that regard.

But now I think it’s a real question of where do we go from there. You can only write so many books about John Wesley’s theology. So one of the options is this kind of traditional approach which this volume, that we’re talking about represents. But then there’s a question about whether or not to pick up the work of something like dogmatic theology that Pope and others were doing in the 19th century, as new and fresh in the 21st. So that’s not to say that you’re writing, you’re going to do work on William Burt Pope, but rather perhaps Wesleyans should try their hand at dogmatic theology again or systematic theology. We’re really under delivered in that area.

I say that as a theologian, so I can hold myself. I can get in line first and say that I’m as responsible as anyone for the under delivery, but we’ve not exactly done a good job in the way of producing substantive significant works in dogmatic and systematic theology. Now, I think a lot of people would agree with that. But the question is who’s going to step up and do something about that. Who’s going to try their hand at it. It’s an intimidating task. You don’t just sit down on a random Tuesday and say, you know, I’m going to write a dogmatic today. It’s usually thought of as kind of a lifelong work. Recent significant works in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions in theology, like Robert Jensen’s systematics, you know, it comes out toward the end of his career after a lifetime’s work. More recently, Katherine Sonderegger’s systematics has just come out, and she’s near the end of a long career. So it’s really, these are works of mature reflection that take time and hopefully we will have people in the Wesleyan tradition who will produce works like that.

The other big emphases or areas of to consider would be ongoing and this is one I think near and dear to your heart, Wesleyan political theology. Will Wesleyans do serious work in political theology? I think that Theodore Weber’s work on John Wesley’s political ideology was absolutely first rate. I think it’s one of the most underrated books ever written about Wesley, it’s deserving of a much wider reading than it’s ever gotten. It was certainly influential for me. But since then, we haven’t done, we haven’t exactly done a lot of work in political theology. So as you know, it’s an open question as to whether you know, we want to claim someone like Hauerwas as a Methodist. He himself was always nervous about identifying with Methodism, routinely calling himself an Anglo Catholic or those sorts of things.

But, you know, we’ve got others someone like Robin Lovin or Steve Long, they’re doing work in moral theology, but I don’t know that they’ve produced mature works in political theology. So that’s another area, for development in the tradition that’s needed right now.

Really, Mark, what we need and then I’ll try to get to your evangelical question. What we really need in Methodist and Wesleyan circles is we is a lot of fresh and innovative work being done and we need to create space and room for that work by supporting younger scholars who are beginning to work their way up through the ranks, and giving them the support as well as the freedom they need to undertake that work. There’s actually a lot of work to be done our tradition, as I said before, more than one area is underdeveloped. And there are all kinds of reasons for that, which will tie me into the evangelical piece. You know, I do think that for years Billy Abraham has been known as a critic of the quadrilateral and being you know obsessed with issues in epistemology and authority and theology. And I think those are long running features of evangelical theology, more broadly, with their worries about Scripture and authority of Scripture, that they tend to be worried and that all comes. There’s a long history that goes back to things like the fundamentalist modernist controversy, for example, in the early 20th century.

Now where I want to go with this is to say that in the United Methodist wing of the Wesleyan tradition, you know, we’re staring down the barrel of a church split, you know, and one of the temptations that I think there is to say that we’re going to double down on something like scriptural authority, maybe in the form of even something like inerrancy, see, because what we want to do is make sure that the issues that are dividing us can never crop up again. You know, we want to put it into this once and for all.

And so where the focus is going to be is on matters of authority, not just theological authority in the traditional sense say of biblical authority, but also who who’s going to make a call. You have to have living interpreters, whether that’s bishops or a judicial council or whatever. Someone has to be in a position to say whether or not someone has violated something right. So we’re going to worry a lot about that. And I think we’re going to be so focused, that the worry I have is, will be so focused on those issues. That we won’t take the time because there is an opportunity here to take the time to do some very important work in terms of our doctrinal standards.

We really need to be patient here and not just resort to a kind of pragmatism that says, look, you know, we’ve got to have everything done here in the next 18 months because we’ve got to move on to new church. I think that’s a recipe for disaster. So where I think they’re similar is that, now Methodism and evangelicalism, is historically in that area of a focus on epistemological issues, issues of authority and theology as opposed to matters of primary doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ and so forth.

So I think our energy has been in that area of methodology and epistemology, and I think we need to move. We need to grow and mature beyond that, that’s one piece. The other is that particularly for the conservative wing of Methodism of the Wesleyan tradition that we don’t neglect theology because we’re caught up in, you know, for lack of a better term, the culture wars. And, and I think that’s where you know you can raise some questions about evangelicalism today, is there’s a deep investment in the culture wars. It’s not that these are not legitimate concerns, but that you’re more worried about SCOTUS and that kind of thing and getting the right people in place so that someday you can overturn Roe v. Wade, than you are the doctrine of the Trinity now.

It could be that these things have something to do with one another. And again, this is not to say the the first worry is not legitimate, but I do think what I see in a lot of evangelicalism and conservative Methodism is over investment in kind of major cultural issues that are important, but an ongoing under investment in theology and doctrine which has been a besetting sin of the tradition for a very long time.

Mark Tooley: Jason Vickers, professor of theology at Asbury seminary, thank you for a fascinating conversation on Wesleyan Christology. We all look forward to reading your book.

JASON VICKERS: Thank you, Mark.

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