Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can We Still Talk about... ? Part 1: The Wrath to Come

Luca Signorelli, The Wrath to Come. Public Domain.
This is part 1 of a series of entries that will invite conversation around theological issues critical to Methodism, as least as John Wesley presented it, that seem to be increasingly challenged by a variety of forces and sources in our churches and in wider theological conversation.

Upcoming topics in this series will include Sin, Judgment, Justification, the New Birth, Sanctification, Perfection, Accountability and others our blog authors may choose to add.

And if you'd like to add to the series, but aren't yet a blog author, just contact me (worship at gbod dot org) and I'll be glad to add you.

Can we 21st Century United Methodists still talk about "the wrath to come"?

Early Methodism
John Wesley assumed one both could and must talk about the wrath to come during the Methodist movement he led in the 18th century.

Indeed, believing in and responding to the reality of "the wrath to come" was foundational to being a Methodist in the first place!

This may seem a strange thing to say about Wesley or the Methodists. While their preaching did refer to the wrath to come on many occasions, their primary emphasis was on the grace of God-- prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and both responding to and cooperating with God's grace. 

Where Wesley and the Methodists wanted people to head was precisely in response to and toward that grace.

But responding and moving toward that grace was and is also a matter of moving away from something else.

And included in that "something else" was "the wrath to come." 

So significant was a sincere desire to flee the wrath to come that the Wesleys set it as one of the prerequisites for joining a trial class meeting. The journals of John Wesley and the sermons of the Wesley brothers speak of "fleeing the wrath to come" no less than 39 times. It mattered to them. They and other early Methodists pressed the point with people, on many occasions. As we still have in our Discipline in the section describing the General Rules, "There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: "a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins."(More on sin in part 2!).

This desire was not simply a one-time experience. This wasn't about scaring people about the coming wrath through a preaching service and getting them to say they wanted to flee on that day. There were many so moved, John Wesley reminds in Sermon 9, "The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption,"  but being moved once was not enough.

They feel the burden of sin, and earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come. But not long: They seldom suffer the arrows of conviction to go deep into their souls; but quickly stifle the grace of God, and return to their wallowing in the mire. 

What the Wesleys and the Methodists intended was that people would continue to desire to flee the wrath to come throughout their lives and show it by how they lived-- growing in holiness of heart and life as they lived out the General Rules along with others watching over them, and each other, in love.
In other words, one could not even start to journey to becoming Methodist, much less continue it, unless one both believed the wrath of God was a reality and was ready to act on that reality-- not just once, but for a lifetime.

The Wrath to Come Recedes
Methodism in the what would become the US was known, widely known, for its energetic preaching, including but not limited to its preaching about the wrath to come. 

But, as Scott Kisker has documented in Mainline or Methodist, as Methodists overall began to move more and more in the direction of respectability through the 19th century, their preaching tended to focus less and less on doctrinal matters, and in particular "the wrath to come." By the late 19th century in the US, those who were still teaching or preaching this doctrine with any intensity tended to be "lumped in" with the increasingly negative aspersions that "popular" or "respectable" US culture regularly cast upon the rising fundamentalist and pre-millenialist movements within US evangelicalism. 

Even in the Wesleys' own day, preaching the wrath to come was not associated with respectability or popularity. John commented on this in Sermon 28, "Discourse on the Sermon on the Mount, 8"

O who shall warn this generation of vipers to flee from the wrath to come! Not those who lie at their gate, or cringe at their feet, desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fall from their tables. Not those who court their favour, or fear their frown; none of those who mind earthly things.

But if there be a Christian upon earth, if there be a man who hath overcome the world, who desires nothing but God, and fears none but Him that is able to destroy both body and soul in hell; thou, O man of God, speak, and spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet! Cry aloud, and show these honourable sinners the desperate condition wherein they stand! It may be, one in a thousand may have ears to hear; may arise and shake himself from the dust; may break loose from these chains that bind him to the earth, and at length lay up treasures in heaven.  

The Wrath to Come Loses All Its Loveliness
 If the 19th century saw the beginning of the  recession of the wrath to come from Methodist preaching, by the mid-twentieth century such proclamation was more than absent: It was nearly anathema. We were to focus instead on the infinite value of each person and the love of God for all. To raise the spectre of coming wrath was to damage self-esteem, or do psychological violence to people. In some theological circles, notions of any final end or conflagration generating a new creation were dismissed as primitive mythology, fairy tales at the best and dangerous at the worst, and to be taught as such if at all. 

The early 21st century has brought its own challenges. There is the post modern and "emergent" pushback against theologies that include hell or any punitive understandings of atonement, particularly within some of the more rigorously Calvinist and fundamentalist groups that made up the New Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s. The pushback against talk of any wrath to come extends beyond the church as well, as Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman showed in their book, unChristian, documenting the profoundly negative attitudes of non-Christian young adults and even many evangelical Christian young adults toward such notions. Love Wins, the clever, captivating and controversial 2011 release from Rob Bell, perhaps placed the grave marker for any further talk of wrath to come as a definitively final outcome for anyone for a whole generation of younger evangelicals in the US. 

How do we United Methodists in the US, whose doctrinal standards affirm "the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation" (Confession of Faith, Article XII) as well as repeatedly warn of "the wrath to come" (Sermons 3, 4, 9,16, and 28,  all part of our doctrinal standards as well), reconcile our teaching with the disfavor and even outright opposition to this doctrine?

Can we even still talk about "the wrath to come" in this environment?

If so, how?



John Meunier said...

Great question. I'm not so certain that we should cede the field here. Yes, lots of people don't want to hear about the wrath to come, but how can we hold to the basic creeds of Christianity or any eschatology rooted in the Bible if we toss out wrath or its less dramatic sounding twin, judgement?

Is it possible that all those closed ears - whether emerging, post-modern or whatever - are signs of spiritual slumber or immaturity? Is it possible that the resistance is not a sign of living in a more enlightened age, but rather a sign that the oldest resistance of humankind toward God remains firmly in our hearts? The serpent still whispers in our ear that God can't possibly mean what God said.

The fact is that there are those in the younger generation who do hear talk of wrath and stick around to listen more. Perhaps we are speaking to the wrong people rather than speaking in the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

we probably have to reinterpret wrath and endless condemnation. neither square with a loving God if they are taken literally.

John Meunier said...

@Anon - What if we reverse the flow of ideas here? You appear to start with a definition of "loving God" that rules out wrath.

What if the definition of "loving God" is based on the Scriptural witness that very clearly includes the concept of wrath? What if a loving God is and can be a wrathful one? How does that change our definition of loving?

Tsedaqah said...

I think we need to see that we are living in a "wrath" to come, with environmental degradation, gyres of plastic taking up our oceans and infiltrating our plankton. Is it wrong to preach it as the manmade hell that we are creating even as we speak, the bountiful creation ruined by greed, cynicism, ego. That's the direction I would want to go. There is a wrath to come and it is here while we putter around in space and on the moon, and continue to build arsenals, all the while polluting the very source of our life, the earth. (Saw a cartoon that showed two astronauts on the moon---one said to another---"well we can go home now, there is nothing here to kill.")
If, as I believe, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection are cosmic events, creating a cosmic kenosis of God into creation, then everything is holy, and the coming wrath, the coming judgment,is at least connected with our selfish annihilation of the earth that God gave and gives.

journeyman37 said...

I had to remove John's post for copyright reasons-- sorry, John. CEB requires more citation than that each time it is used online (putting it on a blog counts as publishing, not covered under the 500 verse limit with simple citation of CEB that applies to local church or presentation use of non-saleable items), except for those it gave specific permission to quote from it during the promotional blog tour they were doing earlier.

Dang copyrights!

But here is the same text in a public domain version we can use online (World English Bible):

3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 3:8 Therefore bring forth fruit worthy of repentance! 3:9 Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

3:10 “Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. 3:11 I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.* 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”

John Meunier said...

CEB passage

Try again. Here's the link.

journeyman37 said...

Most folks don't know the copyright issues with Bibles. Bible Gateway and other onlines sites pay the publishers royalties to host the entire text.

That's just not something I personally or GBOD corporately can afford to do.

Listing the link, as you have done, is fine.

Mike Mather said...

Of course we can still talk about this. I'm not at all sure about what age groups that this appeals to or doesn't appeal to...but I do know that it is the language of many (but not all) of the people I hang out with...we know and see the wrath to come all around us - but that just gives us the eyes to see the grace and wonder and joy all around us, even more. In fact without seeing the wrath, it is harder to see the other. Or so it seems to me. Naming the wrath isn't naming something that isn't known - it's naming what is already known. I remember talking with some friends of mine in South Africa years ago, who fled the wrath to come and right into the arms of freedom. Beautiful. And then the really hard work began