Thursday, December 12, 2013

Luther Oconer on Grace Upon Grace: Our Missional Heritage

Today's post is the fifth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Luther J. Oconer, Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies and Director of the Center for Evangelical United Brethren Heritage at United Theological Seminary.  Dr. Oconer is writing the initial comment on the third section of the document, "Our Missional Heritage."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section “Our Missional Heritage” traces the development of United Methodism on its journey as “Grace Upon Grace” through significant periods in its early history beginning from 1784 to a century afterwards.  It begins by highlighting the actions of the “God of grace” in mission, and the early Methodist people as recipients of God’s grace through mission as illustrated in the opening statement: “We, as United Methodists, were born in mission.” The statement highlights the important place of mission in early United Methodist history. As suggested in Paragraphs 11 and 12, early Methodists, and their United Brethren and Evangelical Association associates, were a missionary people. They saw themselves as missionaries, and their respective denominations as missionary enterprises, as implied in the mission statements of the Methodist Episcopal Church (in 1784) and the United Brethren in Christ (in 1812) noted in the same paragraphs and in Langford’s commentary.[1] For example, in the case of the Methodist Episcopal Church, nineteenth century Methodist historian Abel Stevens wrote:

"Though American Methodism was many years without a distinct missionary organization, it was owing to the fact that its whole Church organization was essentially a missionary scheme. It was, in fine, the great Home Mission enterprise of the north American continent, and its domestic work demanded all its resources of men and money."[2]

Early United Methodists were not mere recipients of God’s mission, they were also active co-participants in God’s mission. This is more faithful to the Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace, of divine and human cooperation, which, unfortunately, was not pointed out in the section, even though it is supposed to be a narrative about “grace upon grace.” The beginning paragraphs overlooked the implication of God’s prevenient grace, that God’s grace enables human response. This oversight has adversely affected the framing of other of paragraphs in this section, which I will point out later.

Now something needs to be said about the names meant to represent the major pioneers of early United Methodism, which are listed in the beginning paragraph. While this is obviously a commendable attempt at inclusivity, the addition of Barbara Heck and Harry Hosier, unfortunately, not only do little to represent the diversity in early United Methodism, but also raises questions about other pioneers who were left out of the list. Probably, it would have been better if the framers of the document simply added to the commonly acknowledged pioneers Asbury, Otterbein, and Albright the words, “including a number of pioneering women, men, freed African-American slaves, and immigrants from the British Isles and Europe, helped evoke spiritual awakening in North America.”

Paragraph 13 then moves to discuss the theological content of early United Methodist participation in God’s mission. It is correct to highlight free grace since the emphasis on the universality of the Gospel has easily been a distinguishing mark of early Methodist preaching in the British Isles and North America.[3] Nonetheless, the way it is summarized here as “God’s grace free in all, free to all, free for all” is an unnecessary attempt to update Wesley’s language on the subject. It would have been much appropriate had the framers did not add “free to all,” and simply followed Wesley’s description in his sermon on “Free Grace”:  “the grace or love of God… free in all, and free for all.”[4]

After this, the statement proceeds to highlight the different manifestations of the same free grace through the mention of prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. However, I think the focus given to these three manifestations does not faithfully account for the theological content of early United Methodist preaching. While preachers did presuppose the different manifestations of grace in their preaching, they were much more interested on the end results brought about by these manifestations, namely: awakening, repentance, justification, new birth and entire sanctification. They preached the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, who awakens us to repentance, justifies us, gives us new birth, and enables us to be perfected in love. Representing the theological content in this manner brings to the fore the God’s action-human response dynamic in Wesleyan soteriology, which is connected to the point I previously made above regarding the synergistic nature of God’s grace.[5]

After theological content, the section continues with Paragraph 14, which succinctly summarizes the phenomenal advance of early United Methodism and acknowledging its role as a revival movement, thereby making it the largest Christian denomination in the 1840s. Schisms and divisions, nevertheless, marred this growth, as shown in Paragraph 15. Paragraph 16 then moves with thanksgiving to God, joining Charles Wesley and a thousand tongues in singing, “The triumphs of his grace” for the victories and even setbacks noted in the narrative. The paragraph further adds another twist by mentioning the shift among early United Methodists in their “dependence upon God” to “human independence” by capitulating to “dubious cultural values.” This then reinforces my point about the need for the document to have made clear in its earlier paragraphs the human response element in grace since that can help the reader make more sense of this very important twist in the narrative. It is our “human independence” moments or times of resistance to God grace that led us to failures in our history.

These moments of “human independence,” furthermore, do not connect well with the conclusion in Paragraph 17, which closes the entire section with the beginning statement: “Grace creates mission; grace corrects mission.” Indeed, mission originates from God’s grace since mission is missio Dei. Accordingly, if we allow that mission is mission Dei or the mission of God, therefore it should not be subject to correction. What is really subject to correction is us.  When we yield to episodes of “human independence” as we participate in God’s mission, God’s grace moves to convict or correct us. Probably, the sentence would have been enhanced if it were worded differently: “Grace creates mission; we participate in this grace through mission; grace corrects us.”  Again, as I have suggested previously, this narrative would have been much faithful to our early United Methodist missional heritage had it explicitly highlighted this Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace.

[1] For Langford’s commentary, See Thomas A. Langford “Study Companion,” Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of the United Methodist Church, John O. Gooch, ed. (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990), 12.
[2] Abel Stevens, The Centenary of American Methodism: A Sketch of its History, Theology, Practical System, and Success (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1866), 187; also quoted in Russell E. Richey, “Organizing for Missions: A Methodist Case Study,” in Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, eds., Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 75.
[3] See, for example, Jason Vickers, “American Methodism: A Theological Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, ed. Jason Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 15.
[4] See John Wesley, Sermon 110, “Free Grace,” § 2, in Sermons III, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 3 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, CD-ROM edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976–).
[5] For an extensive treatment on Wesley’s soteriology, see, for example, Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 49-307.

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