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Methodist Theologian Explains United Methodism's Decline

Addressing the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism in Nashville on January 6, Irish Methodist Billy Abraham of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas warned against the anti-supernaturalism that undermined evangelism and the church in the late 20th century.

Although Abraham fills the Albert Outler chair at Perkins, he "painfully" pointed to mistakes by United Methodism's most influential theologian for much of the 20th century.

According to Abraham, Outler was a brilliant scholar and committed churchman whose "vision of Providence" rejected divine intervention in the world even while Outler upheld an orthodox view of Jesus and the Trinity. "The Incarnation and Resurrection involve divine intervention," Abraham insisted with a chuckle. "Suck it up or get over it!"

Abraham called Outler the "founding Father" of modern United Methodism and praised his "historical learning, extraordinary rhetorical skill, boundless energy, deep desire to face the truth, and an uncanny eye for humbug." But Abraham said Outler, in trying to preserve parts of orthodoxy, accommodated too much of secular, modern culture. The result was a "kaleidoscope of theological options" and "pluralism" for United Methodism and the church's steep decline.

Lacking a theological consensus, Abraham said United Methodism came to rely on the language of "organizational structure" and the business world. Meanwhile, evangelism has been reduced to "communication" and anything that points to Christ's lordship. This modern perspective "did not begin to fathom the native hostility in the human heart [to the Gospel] due to sin."

"I'm worried when we `improve' on Jesus," Abraham said. Modern United Methodism tried to speak in the language of the "university common room, the couch, and the country club," guided by "process philosophy and psychotherapy," Abraham regretted. The church became an "endless seminar in search of elusive and ultimately unattainable truth, rather than the carrier of the rich and salutary faith once delivered to the saints."

"God did not come into the world to hold an endless seminar on who He is," Abraham declared. United Methodist theologians too often have given up on any "intellectual defense of the faith," he worried, instead "marrying the intellectual fads of the day." Without a common faith in the church, Abraham said Jesus would become a "cipher for our own passions and desires." And the Gospel becomes a "game of smoke and mirrors," with God's Kingdom reduced to television slogans like, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," Abraham complained, citing United Methodism's advertising theme.

In his later years, Outler had "significant second thoughts about his early aversion to orthodoxy" and "serious reservations" about his propositions of the 1960's and 1970's, Abraham noted. Before his death in 1989, Outler surmised that the church needed a new Pentecost and new reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Action: For more information, read Albert C. Outler: The Gifted Dilettante by Bob Parrott, available at Bristol House: 1-800-451-7323; website: www.bristolhouseltd.com.

Source: UMAction Briefing, Winter 2009

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