Thursday, May 1, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission

Today's post is the latest 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the first of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I would like to thank Dr. Robert Hunt for his perceptive and constructive comments on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today” (paragraphs 40 and 41) of the Mission Statement of the United Church: Grace Upon Grace. His response is deeply beneficial in understanding the mission of the United Methodist Church. I will primarily respond to Hunt’s observation that there is a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years. Upon addressing this concern, I will conclude with some of my own thoughts on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today.”

Hunt points out that there is a rather peculiar leap in the Statement from Jesus to Wesley and the Methodist missional heritage which sidelines the two-thirds of the New Testament related to the mission of the apostles and sixteen hundred years of Christian missionary history. With regards to the former, I presume here he specifically has in mind the section “Our Unifying Vision” (paragraphs 1-9) where it would make most sense to include it. This is a keen and astute observation worth exploring. To better appreciate his observation here, it is necessary to return to the previous parts of the Statement and see the progression of thought in the document. The first section “Introduction” is followed by the paragraph “Our Unifying Vision,” which offers an overarching picture of the UMC’s mission informed by scriptural and theological reflections, in particular its Christological commitments. Then the Statement moves from the section “Our Unifying Vision” to the section “Our Missional Heritage” (paragraphs 10-17). This next section begins by stating “We, as United Methodists, were born in mission,” and then goes on to recount the foundational work of John and Charles Wesley during the revival movements in eighteenth-century England and the subsequent evangelical work of Barbara Heck, William Otterbein, Francis Asbury, Martin Boehm, Harry Hosier, and Jacob Albright in North America. As such, on Hunt’s account, the Statement leaves out two-thirds of the New Testament following the gospels.

He regards them important because in order to fully come to terms with the person and mission of Jesus and what that means for our mission today, we need to take the necessary detour through the mission of the apostles as recorded in the scripture through which we come to appreciate the work of Jesus Christ. In other words, Hunt is suggesting, in agreement with modern biblical scholarship, that since the New Testament writings are as much about the person and work of Jesus as the embodiment or interpretation of his mission in the early churches, we need to wrestle with it in its entirety. Since it is the case that “Jesus sets the ground for and the course of mission” (See paragraphs 6 and 7), and it is the case that Scripture is authoritative for us, then it is by examining all of the New Testament writings we gain important clues about how Jesus did so for the early church. For instance, through Paul’s writings to the church at Corinth or Galatia, we see something about their personal and collective lives informed by Jesus’ teachings and this would make a difference in our understanding and practice of mission today.

Hence, Hunt’s criticism that the move from Jesus to the era of the rise and development of the Methodist movement is problematic needs to be taken seriously and followed up with fully adequate explorations of what it might mean for the mission of the United Methodist Church attend to the intervening years. To be sure, the Statement does in fact mention the mission of the New Testament churches in paragraph 4. It states, “The New Testament churches are communities in mission. The book of Acts describes the work of the Holy Spirit extending the movement. Paul becomes an apostle to the Gentiles. Other Christians travel to spread the good news.” Is that enough? Some might argue that the Statement as a mission statement adopted by the 1988 General Conference, rather than an academic treatise, and, as such, it may be enough. But given the Statement’s Christological commitments, which is given in no uncertain terms, such as “To this end we look nowhere else but to Christ…” (Introduction), it would be worthwhile to explore the early church’s embodiment of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ and what it means for us today.

Pursing further Hunt’s observation towards a constructive end, we raise the question “what difference does it make to attend to the two-thirds of the New Testament or even the New Testament period?”[1] When we attend to them we will not only hear their words and envision their practices, but more importantly the depth grammar of their linguistic world or the norms and patterns that governed their life together as missional communities. Here I have in mind the rule of faith that guided the early Christians to engage in practices of radical inclusion of love so that the hazardous and risky border crossings involving race, class, gender, and so forth were undertaken with theological conviction and commitment. This may speak to our own border crossings today in a global world where, as Donald Davidson suggests, charity is forced upon us.

[1] The difference can be made explicit by those with expertise in biblical studies, especially social scientific approaches to excavate the missional significance of the New Testament communities and their writings. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here because of the plethora of research already available on the New Testament and its churches as they relate to mission. They are helpful as guides in understanding the early church’s embodiment of the Spirit of Christ in their Christian beliefs and practices in the world. For introductory texts on this topic, see David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011); Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983).

No comments:

Post a Comment