# Next Methodism as a Theology of Retrieval

There have been quite a few articles written recently concerning Next Methodism and what it might look like. As I have read through these articles and reflected on them the burning conviction I bring to the table is that Next Methodism must be defined by a theology of retrieval. According to Gavin Ortlund, theological retrieval is defined as “the effort to draw on the church’s historical theology and practice for contemporary constructive purposes” [1]. In Next Methodism the historical theology of the Wesleyan movement must be resurrected. If not, I fear that next Methodism will be like the last Methodism. According to Keith Stanglin retrieval theology “is not a slavish replication of the past, whether of the first, fourth, sixteenth, or any other century.  It is rather to learn from history.  It is to take the best of the past and allow it to inform our faith and practice today.  It means to value historical perspective” [2]. Essentially, the purpose of retrieval theology is to look back in order to look forward. I believe the Wesleyan movement in general and the United Methodist Church in particular are at a critical point in their history. In order to move forward to a brighter day it must return back to the historic theology of the Wesleyan tradition.

The only way that Next Methodism could be truly Wesleyan is for it to recover its lost theological tradition. Historically, Methodists have not been strong defenders or advocates of their own theological heritage. It is doubtful that many who identify as Wesleyan today have read much of John Wesley or have ever heard of Jacob Arminius, John Fletcher, Adam Clarke, Joseph Benson, Richard Watson, W.B. Pope, or Thomas O. Summers. Fred Sanders observes in an interview with the Gospel Coalition, “it’s just not all that obvious that there is any such thing as Wesleyan theology. I say that as somebody who loves systematic theology, who really enjoys reading treatises on doctrine. The Wesleyan tradition just isn’t famous for its systematic theologians” [3].

Fred Sanders brings up a good point that is worth serious consideration. Many people don’t even know there is such a thing as Wesleyan theology. My question is whether the Wesleyan tradition is not famous for its systematic theologians because of the theologians themselves or because those who have been entrusted to promote Wesleyan theology have not been faithful to their calling. I would argue it is the latter. The largest Methodist publishing houses, Abingdon and Cokesbury, don’t even publish any of the great Methodist theologians. If you search for their names on their websites no results even appear. Instead if you currently visit their sites you will see how they are promoting a book containing the daily devotions of Hillary Clinton and The Shack. Neither publishing houses promotes much of anything in regards to Wesleyan theology. I long to see a day that the Theological Institutes of Richard Watson are published again along with the Theological Compendium of William Burt Pope and The Commentaries of Joseph Benson. It is so easy to buy Calvin, Hodge, Bavinck, Van Til, or Berkhof. No such publishing of any Methodist theological works are even available. Wesleyans who are serious about studying the works of their historic theologians are forced to find scanned copies of old books available for free on the Internet. It is discouraging and sad that Wesleyans have no publishing companies that are faithful to their theological heritage such as Crossway and Banner of Truth are to the Reformed tradition.

It is Reformed thinkers that dominate the theologians list. This is because they have been promoted over and over again by generations of Reformed Christians whereas generations of Wesleyans have largely forgotten their theologians. The domination of Reformed theologians is especially seen today in the New Calvinist movement. Publishing giants such as Crossway and Banner of Truth exist because Calvinists enjoy reading about Calvinist theology. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of those within Wesleyan tradition at large. Those within the New Calvinist movement read Calvinist theologians, they talk about Calvinist theologians, they podcast about Calvinist theologians, and they wear t-shirts with Calvinist theologians on them. If young Wesleyans want to read the theology of Methodist theologians they are not even available to purchase.

New Calvinists have successfully cornered the market in theology over the last decade. No other Protestant tradition even comes close. Their theology has spread through podcasts (Reformed Pubcast, Theocast, Doctrine and Devotion, etc.), clothing companies (Missional Wear), publishing houses (Crossway, Banner of Truth, etc.), blogs, collectives (the Reformed Pub), conferences; Para church ministries (TGC, Desiring God, etc.), Church planting networks (Acts 29), documentaries (Calvinist is coming out this year), music (particularly rap), and social networking sites. Wesleyans have been mostly silent in the face of this creative explosion of theological activity. For example, Calvinist theology courses abound on iTunes University; you won’t find any Wesleyan theology courses available. Search in the iTunes app store. If you search for Jonathan Edwards you could find an app that contains his complete works for free and a Jonathan Edwards theological studies app. You wont find anything like that available for John Wesley. It is also difficult to find podcasts from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, although some have arisen recently. The message this communicates is that if you are actually interested in theology than you should consider becoming a Calvinist because Wesleyan theology is rare if it even exists at all. For people like Fred Sanders, who professes to love systematic theology and who really enjoys reading treatises on doctrine, the Wesleyan theological tradition is a tough sell.

Another point Sanders makes in the interview is that the Wesleyan theological traditions has not done a good job of resisting the liberal impulse [3]. The quickest way to fall into theological liberalism is to forget the theology your tradition was founded on. This is another factor that has led to the sharp decline of Wesleyan denominations (particularly, the United Methodist Church). The quickest way to kill a denomination is a liberalization of both its seminaries and pulpits. According to a recent article by the Washington Post liberal churches continue to die and conservative churches thrive. The article states, “Mainline Protestant churches are in trouble: A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that these congregations, once a mainstay of American religion, are now shrinking by about 1 million members annually” [4].

The United Methodist Church is perhaps declining the fastest out of all the mainline Protestant churches. According to Collin Hansen in a recent article from The Gospel Coalition, “When our parents were growing up the United Methodist Church had 11 million members in the United States alone. That number is now 7.2 million, and the rate of decline is picking up. In the last five years alone membership has dropped 6 percent” [5]. If nothing changes in the United Methodist Church it may not exist much longer. One may wonder how long it will take for people to realize there must be a serious reformation in the United Methodist Church. Only time will tell. I also pray that other Wesleyan denominations such as the Wesleyan Church and the Nazarene Church do not follow the example of the United Methodist Church. Once again, only time will tell.

Hansen goes on to describe where these former United Methodists are going. “Every evangelical group I’ve known since 2000 has been stocked with former United Methodists. And every story is the same. To find their Aldersgate experience of love for God who justifies sinners, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To hear preaching that stirs the mind and affections with unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To find theology that would steel them to stand with Jesus and not be swept away by theological fads, they had to leave the United Methodist Church” [5]. They are going to churches that preach the gospel, believe in the authority of the Word of God, and hold to a robust, historic theology. The tragedy is that these factors defined historic Methodism! Historic Methodism preached the gospel of love for God who justifies sinners, believed in the authority of the Word of God, and held to a robust, historic theology. But sadly those days are mostly confined to the past.

Even after considering all of this I still have hope for Next Methodism, but I believe it must begin with looking back in order to look forward. Retrieval theology has brought much revitalization and resurgence to the New Calvinist movement and it would be foolish for Wesleyans to continue overlooking this phenomena. The New Calvinist movement fascinates evangelical Millennials like myself. If Wesleyan groups ignore its successes and strategies then it is clear that they have no vision for the future, are not interested in reaching younger people, and would rather settle for what they have left of older generations that occupy their pews.

Another source of hope for me is a small resurgence of scholarship and enthusiasm for Wesleyan theology. When Thomas C. Oden published his four volume John Wesley’s Teachings back in 2014 it was a dream come true for those interested in Wesleyan theology. In terms of works of Wesleyan theology nothing rivals it. Interestingly enough, Zondervan published it and not Abingdon. Also, the works of Kenneth J. Collins, such as The Theology of John Wesley along with his earlier works, are excellent. It was also pretty incredible that Crossway allowed a volume of the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series to be about John Wesley authored by Fred Sanders. It is called Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. I suppose if most Methodists are not interested in publishing books about the theology of John Wesley it is encouraging to know that at least some Calvinists are willing to do so. Other lesser-known publishers are also coming out with works on Wesleyan Theology such as Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers, Pickwick Publications, and Cascade Books. Both Pickwick Publications and Cascade books are part of WIPF and STOCK publishers. Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers recently published Vic Reasoner’s magisterial A Wesleyan Theology of Holy Living for the 21st Century. Pickwick publications recently came out with an excellent book titled From Faith to Faith: John Wesley’s Covenant Theology and the Way of Salvation by Stanley J. Rodes and Cascade books published Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals by Henry H. Knight III. It is exciting to see that these lesser-known publishing companies are willing to publish serious works of Wesleyan theology. I long to see a day that there would be a publishing company of the caliber of Crossway devoted entirely to publishing works of Wesleyan theology. It is clear that Abingdon and Cokesbury as they continue to move further and further to the theological left will never be this publisher. There is an opportunity for another publishing company to step into this vacuum, but even this would be impossible if there is not a widespread embracing of a theology of retrieval by Wesleyans. We also can’t forget Seedbed. Their John Wesley Collection publishing effort is exciting and they recently published an excellent book titled, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism by James V. Heidinger II. Seedbed does publish some material on Wesleyan theology, although I would like to see them become more devoted to publishing works specifically focused on historic Wesleyan theology in the coming years.

In the articles and discussions taking place regarding Next Methodism we should seriously consider the importance of a theology of retrieval for the Wesleyan tradition. If this is not done then the next Methodism will end up like the last Methodism. A return to the theology of the founders of Methodism is critical for any renewal movement within Wesleyan denominations or groups. If this does not take place, the theological tradition that Wesleyans have been called to preserve and promote will be lost forever. We must look back in order to look forward.

-Vin @ Remonstrance

Sources:

[1] Gavin Ortlund, “Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church” 

[2] Keith Stanglin, “Retrieval Theology and the Restoration Movement”

[3] John Starke, “You’re a Calvinist, Right?”

[4] David Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving”

[5] Colin Hansen, “Why I’m No Longer A United Methodist”

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One thought on “# Next Methodism as a Theology of Retrieval

  1. Russell Veldman says:

    It is correct that the major publishing houses connected with Methodism do not publish the classic systematic works of Watson, Pope, Summers, and Thomas Ralston. I have purchased Watson and Pope through quality reprinters (Pope cost me $50 for each volume!) and they have been worth it. These writers support a strong view of biblical inspiration, penal atonement theory, sacramental theology, and more.

    Like

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