Posted in book reviews

Square Peg: “Wesleyan” fundamentalists?

Dr Morris Weigelt taught my “Hermeneutics” course at Nazarene Theological Seminary. One day he advised: “When reading anyone’s work, ask yourself this question: What are they reacting to?”

Weigelt’s advice has served me well across the years, and his question is relevant when considering the book edited by Al Truesdale, Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Amazon Kindle edition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012). Eight writers take up diverse topics including the historic meaning of Fundamentalism, Christian faith and science, unity/diversity in the Church, and the authority of Scripture. In-turn, formal responses give the book the feel of a dialogue. Square Peg responds to what Paul Bassett called the “Fundamentalist leavening of the Holiness Movement” [see Wesleyan Theological Journal 13 (Spring 1978):65-91], which has manifested itself most recently in the activities of groups like the “Concerned Nazarenes.” [See also my essay, “Nazarene or Baptarene? When Traditions Collide,” available here].

In the introduction (p. 8), Al Truesdale lays out the book’s thesis:

“We shall see that differences between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology are so important that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan.”

The volume’s strengths are several. Fred Cawthorne’s chapter, “The Harmony of Science and the Christian Faith,” is alone worth the book’s price, as he ably takes the reader through cosmology (including the “Big Bang”) and evolutionary biology from a theistic perspective, making a convincing case for the compatibility of Christian faith and scientific inquiry. I especially appreciated how he validated the role of the Creator God as both “upholding and sustaining,” affirming that God not only began the creative evolutionary process but actively oversees and shepherds the emerging universe. Cawthorne (pp. 104-105) contends:

“If we say that God cannot create through a gradual, progressive process such as evolution, then we limit God’s transcendence and immanence…his full participation in nature and his gracious empowerment of nature…Consideration of evolution should deepen our affirmation that God works above, in, and through creation; it should strengthen, not threaten, our faith.”

Also particularly helpful is Joel Green’s contribution, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Biblical Authority: The Formation of Holy Lives.” It is one thing to mentally assent to God’s Word as “authoritative,” but what does that mean if we rarely crack open a Bible or meditate upon Scripture? Green laments (p. 128): “…there is no necessary path from claims about the trustworthiness of the Bible to living lives oriented toward the Scriptures.” Yet John Wesley taught that the “written word of God” is the “sufficient rule of both Christian faith and practice” [see Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist,” cited by Green, p. 131). Practically speaking, this means adopting “habits of reading and prayer that lead to the conformity of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors to God’s will revealed in Scripture” (Green, p. 134). In short, it is the life-transforming nature of our engagement with Scripture that validates Holy Writ as inspired by God. In the wording of the old saying : “The proof is in the pudding.”

Square Peg, though valuable, could have been better. The introduction gives no explanation of the “Why it Matters” responses to each chapter nor how they work. Some responders mention the focus group format, even naming the participants. Others write as if they alone are responding, making no mention of having processed the material with others. This is confusing, and makes for a disjointed format. Also, there are no discussion questions included, diminishing the value of the book as a tool for Bible studies, adult Sunday School, or small groups.

Though not perfect, Square Peg opens up a conversation that is long overdue among us. Wesleyan-Holiness pastors would do well to put it in the hands of every new member, particularly those coming from other ecclesiastical backgrounds. To remain true to our Wesleyan theological heritage, we will need to be more intentional than we have been. To that end, Al Truesdale and company have rendered all denominations in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit a service.

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Image credit: Amazon.com

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‘The Language of Science and Faith’ – a review

We love either/or thinking. Problems are solved either in one way, or in another. When someone comes along and offers a third possibility, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. Karl W. Giberson’s and Francis S. Collins’ The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (InterVarsity, 2011) is one such book.

Giberson (a physicist) and Collins (a geneticist) organize their discussion around responses to frequently asked questions. These include:

Can we really know the earth is billions of years old?

– How does God fine-tune the universe?

– Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?

Concluding that the term “theistic evolution” now carries too much baggage, the authors substitute BioLogos, but the meaning is the same: God created all that is, and when it comes to life on earth, the means by which God did so was evolution.

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‘Summer for the Gods’

Like a stubborn weed refusing to be uprooted, the debate between creationism and evolution sprouts up periodically and demands attention. Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion(Harvard University Press, 1997) revisits the 1925 “trial of the century,” carefully reconstructing the players and issues at-stake in an iconic clash between the forces of fundamentalism and agnosticism.

Williams Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) and Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) squared off in the town of Dayton, Tennessee. The former had been Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and came to defend a statute outlawing the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. The latter was a brilliant trial lawyer, determined to embarrass those who favored a literal interpretation of the Bible’s view of the cosmos. What Edward Larson does masterfully is to tease out nuances in the Scopes trial that the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, either ignored or purposely misrepresented. For example, the film makes Bryan out to be a young earth, six day creationist. In reality, he accepted that the “days” mentioned in Genesis likely were long, indefinite periods of time corresponding to geological ages. Further, the townspeople of Dayton, Tennessee are presented as raving lunatics, whereas in real life they were welcoming to both sides in the Scopes trial. Finally, the defense team in Dayton included those who accepted a theistic view of evolution, namely, that evolution could have been the means that God used to create humans. Unfortunately, by focusing on the agnostic Darrow, Hollywood’s version set up an either/or understanding, a battle of science vs. religion, an antagonistic view of the question that lingers to this day.

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