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Public Theology: Liberation Theology in the Wesleyan and Holiness Tradition
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Liberation Theology in the Wesleyan and Holiness Tradition
The preferential option for the poor is discussed here in reference to John Wesley and the holiness movement which emerged from Methodism.

By Donald W. Dayton

The following is an address appearing at the Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University.

"'To the poor the gospel is preached' - Which is the greatest mercy, and the greatest miracle of all." - John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, commenting on the last phrase of Luke 7:22

Tonight, I would like to explore the theology of the Wesleyan tradition-in both its eighteenth and nineteenth century manifestations-in light of several questions posed by contemporary theological reflection.

I have become increasingly convinced that one of the most important themes of contemporary theology is the growing claim that God's mercy contains an ele­ment of "divine partiality," and that this element of "divine partiality" is an inte­gral dimension of the Biblical witness which must find expression in the life of the church. To speak specifically, this claim is that God's impartiality and univer­sal grace are qualified by a "preferential option for the poor."

It is "liberation theology" that has most forcibly brought this theme to our attention in the last couple of decades. And it was the 1979 Latin American Bish­ops' Conference (CELAM) in Puebla (Mexico) that issued its most controversial document under the title "A Preferential Option for the Poor." But such concerns have also been advocated in more "evangelical" circles by, for example, Ronald J. Sider of the Brethren in Christ in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Bibli­cal Study under the rubric of the "Biblical bias of God toward the poor." Such themes also play an important part in one of the most influential recent interpreta­tions of Biblical ethics: The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

The Biblical basis of this claim is perhaps seen most clearly in the Gospel of Luke. In recent years Luke 4:18-19 has come to play the clichéd role that John 3:16 plays in some circles as a summary of the gospel. But the Nazareth Sermon of Jesus with its quotation from Isaiah is clearly intended to signal the organizing motif of the book of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

These themes are anticipated in the Magnificat of Mary (chapter one) and are explicitly reaffirmed in the answer of Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist sent to ask whether He is the Messiah (chapter seven). They find expression in Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount or the Plain (chapter six), where the woes against the rich prevent us from a too easy spiritualization of the key text. Once this theme is brought into focus it is seen to be not only organizing for the gospel of Luke but pervasive throughout the gospels, present especially in the Epistle of James, the prophets, and the Psalms; and it is also to be discerned in the writings of Paul and elsewhere. This understanding of the texts has revolutionized our reading of the scriptures in the twentieth century and pushed the church toward new expressions of political and social engagement.

Tonight, however, I would like to bracket the complex questions about the political implications of this reading of the Scripture and concentrate more funda­mentally on the theological grounding of this claim of divine partiality. Many have noticed this "Biblical preferential option for the poor" and have attempted to find a praxis reflective of it, but fewer have articulated the theological grounding of this theme. One of the clearest of such theological articulations is to be found in various writings of Karl Barth beginning with the second decade of this cen­tury. Barth's Christology is deeply rooted in the "kenotic" text of the second chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians-and one of its most remarkable features is the careful integration of synoptic themes of the teachings of Jesus into the Pauline Christological motifs-thus bridging a gap that has bedeviled Protestant theology since the conflicts between the magisterial and radical wings of the Reformation. In Barth the gratuity of grace is grounded in the downward motion of the incarnation in a form of "condescension" that lies at the heart of the gospel. It is in the incarnation and especially in the movement of Jesus toward the poor that we see clearly the character and mercy of God:

. . . almost to the point of prejudice-He [Jesus] ignored all those who are high and mighty and wealthy in the world in favor of the weak and meek and lowly. He did this even in the moral sphere, ignoring the just for sinners, and in the spiritual sphere, fmally ignor­ing Israel for the Gentiles. It was to the latter group and not the for­mer that He found Himself called. It was among the latter and not the former that He expected to find the eyes and ears that God had opened, and therefore the men of good-pleasure of Luke 2:14. It was in the latter and not the former that He saw His brethren. It was with the latter and not the former that His disciples were to range them­selves according to His urgent counsel and command. Throughout the New Testament the kingdom of God, the Gospel and the man Jesus have a remarkable affinity, which is no mere egalitarianism, to all those who are in the shadows as far as concerns what men esti­mate to be fortune and possessions and success and even fellowship with God.2

Barth treats sanctification under the rubric "the direction of the Son," arguing that we must allow our individual lives and the shape of our church life to be deter­mined by this incarnational movement of Jesus. Thus

The church is witness of the fact that the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. And this implies that-casting all false impar­tiality aside-the Church must concentrate first on the lower and lowest levels of human society. The poor, the socially and economi­cally weak and threatened, will always be the object of its primary and particular concern. . . 3

And Barth is willing to draw the negative implication of this position. "We do not really know Jesus (the Jesus of the New Testament) if we do not know Him as this poor man, as this (if we may risk the dangerous word) partisan of the poor. . . ."4

This last strong comment of Barth calls to mind another major theological controversy of recent years within those traditions rooted in the magisterial wing of the continental Reformation. It reminds us of those debates in the confessional traditions about whether ethical issues can ever have a status confessionis-that is, whether failure to take a particular position on a given social issue can ever constitute apostasy. Such conflicts have in recent years focused on the South African situation and the question of whether one might argue that support of the system of "apartheid" constitutes in and of itself "apostasy." The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has been especially bitterly polarized over proposals to expel the South African Dutch Reformed Church for its failure to renounce the system of "apartheid."

For at least two reasons such debates about this status confessionis seem strange to Wesleyan ears. In the first place, the Wesleyan tradition has not been confessional in the same sense. In contrast to the continental Reformation with its emphasis on the theological virtue of "faith" (resulting in both Lutheran and Reformed traditions of "confessions of faith"), the Wesleyan tradition has seen faith as instrumental to love and sanctification. As a result the Wesleyan tradition has been more likely to leave a trail of acts of love than confessions of faith. Sim­ilarly, and in the second place, The Wesleyan tradition is more accustomed to patterns of "boundary maintenance" based on behavioral and ethical criteria. This could be illustrated at a number of points from the general rules to the debates about slavery. Early American Methodism attempted to make liberation of slaves a condition of membership-and it was compromise on this issue that led to the founding of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and played a role in the emergence of the Free Methodist Church. At Oberlin College slaveholders were barred from the Lord's Supper, and the Wesleyans debated, somewhat like the second degree of separation of the Fundamentalists, not whether slaveholders could be admitted to communion (that was not at issue), but whether to admit those who remained in fellowship with slaveholders in churches that were not yet prepared to raise this issue to the level of status confessionis.

But reference to these debates is a useful way to focus the question of whether there are such issues that are so central to the Biblical expression of the gospel that without them we do not have the Biblical gospel. Thus Barth in the quotation above insists that we do not know the real Jesus-the Jesus of the New Testament-if we do not know Him as this partisan of the poor.

It is with reference to these questions that I wish to look at the "Wesleyan preferential option for the poor," asking not only whether there was such a move in the Wesleyan tradition, but how it was grounded theologically and whether it was made constitutive of the gospel. To anticipate my conclusions, I will argue that Wesley clearly moved toward the poor and made such a move a central fea­ture of his Christian praxis, that he did not for the most part ground this move theologically, but that his followers in the nineteenth-century holiness movement more clearly articulated a theological grounding for the Wesleyan option for the poor and made it constitutive of the Gospel.

Anyone who has read at all in the Journals of Wesley will know that Wesley was systematic in cultivation of the poor. He made it a regular practice from his Oxford student days to visit the sick, the poor, and those in prison-and he regu­larly insisted that his followers do likewise. He urged "a member of the society" in 1776 "frequently, nay, constantly to visit the poor, the widow, the sick, the fatherless, in their affliction."5 Wesley's commitment to this practice is made clear in Sermon 98, on "On Visiting the Sick," based on the classic text of Matthew 25. In this sermon Wesley argues that the visiting of the poor is an abso­lute duty of the Christian without which one's "everlasting salvation" is endan­gered. Wesley built into the life of Methodism collections for the poor and on occasion went publicly begging for the poor.

Wesley's struggle with and final acceptance of field preaching must also be related to this theme. It is no accident that his first major experience with this practice was a sermon based on Luke 4:18-19. After a brief experience preaching in Nicolas Street on April 1, 1739, he initiated the practice on the next day (a Monday):

At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture on which I spoke was this, (is it possible any-

one should be ignorant, that it is fulfilled in every true minister of Christ?) "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind: to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."6

It is also possible to argue that Wesley's message was peculiarly adapted to the poor. Robert D. Hughes, III, grounds this in Wesley's theology-in his "Arminian evangelicalism" with its "twin pillars of universalism and insistence on the role of man's free will in salvation."7 These principles meant that all could come and find acceptance in the Gospel and in the societies of Methodism. In his book The Methodist Revolution Bernard Semmel makes the same point through the doctrines of Christian Perfection and Assurance-"an experience more acces­sible to the humble and unsophisticated than to their better situated or better edu­cated fellows."8

However we make the case, it is clear that Wesley's theology and preaching tended toward a profound "gospel egalitarianism" that the poor found attractive. As the Duchess of Buckingham wrote to the countess of Huntingdon:

I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers. Their doctrines are most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetu­ally endeavoring to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the com­mon wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.9

No doubt the poor were also attracted to Wesley because he did not blame them for their poverty. "So wickedly, aevilishly false is that common objection, 'They are poor, only because they are idle.'"10 Wesley's favoritism for the poor was also revealed negatively by his hostility toward the rich-as evidenced in many of his sermons that we tend to neglect because they fall outside the "stand­ard sermons" that we usually consult: "The Danger of Riches" (#87); "On Riches" (#108); "The Rich Man and Lazarus" (#112); "On the Danger of Increas­ing Riches" (#126). If anything Wesley became more cranky on this issue as he grew older and more worried about the departure of Methodism from his princi­ples. In this sense Wesley did not shirk from the "woes" that parallel the "beatitudes."

We could explore other aspects of Wesley's commitment to the poor: the role of his extensive publishing program in the education of the poor; his concern for health; Methodist structures for the relief of the poor and so forth. We can thus understand why Theodore Jennings argues that "every aspect of Methodism was subjected to the criterion, how will this benefit the poor?" I would not wish to dispute this judgment in terms of the life of Methodism, but I am less clear than Jennings that Wesley lifts this to the level of theological principle. His prac­tice seems to make an option for the poor constitutive of the life of the church, but I am less clear how he would argue the theological grounding for this praxis.

I have indicated above how Wesley seems to make visiting the sick and the poor a dimension of discipleship without which one's salvation is endangered. Very occasionally Wesley appeals to the precedent of the life of Jesus and the Apostles.12 Other times Wesley implies an egalitarianism based in the death of Jesus for all without distinction.13 He also hints that the character of grace may be at stake: "Religion must not go from the greatest to the least, or the power would appear to be of men."14 But as I have explored these passages, I do not think that I find a self-consciously theological articulation of the grounds for this preferen­tial option for the poor. For this we must turn to the American experience and especially to the holiness churches that began to emerge in the middle of the next century.

Here we may need to make a parenthetical comment about how we are to understand the relationship between classical Methodism and the "holiness" tra­dition of the nineteenth century. Many of you have heard me argue that we have become "evangelicalized" in our understanding of this relationship-in that we have come to see ourselves as the "conservative" manifestation of the Methodist spirit in the wake of a "liberal" departure from the true tradition. No doubt there is truth in this position-though much less, I am convinced, than is generally assumed. The developments that I am about to sketch on the American scene might better be described as a radicalization of the Methodist trajectory. Simi­larly, the more I have reflected on the nineteenth century fragmentation of Methodism and the emergence of the holiness movement, the more my attention has been drawn to social questions and issues of class. I am convinced that we have neglected the extent to which the common factor in the various aspects of the holiness movement is a shared reaction to the nineteenth century embour­geoisement of Methodism. "Liberalism" may be related to and a product of embourgeoisement but they are not exactly the same phenomenon and we miss a key part of the story by neglecting the social dimension of the struggle.

All of this is to say that a major part of the dynamic of the emergence of the holiness movement is the effort on the part of the founders of the various churches and institutions to maintain a vital contact with the masses in the face of the embourgeoisement of mainstream Methodism. I have collected much of the evidence for this in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage,15 and do not have the time to develop this in detail. I will instead indicate the sort of evidence that moves me in this direction. It was explicitly acknowledged in the formation of the National Camp Meeting Association that a major motive was to cultivate the masses-the camp meeting was the vehicle designed for this purpose. This dynamic was nowhere more obvious than in the Salvation Army with its polemic against high steeple churches that neglected the poor and the masses. But such issues were at the heart of the battles over "free pews" within Methodism and Presbyterianism. Pew rentals were adopted to support ever more elaborate church buildings leading to a pattern that marginalized the poor in the life of the church-in apparent violation of the guidance of the Epistle of James. Charles Grandison Finney's "Third Presbytery" in New York City consisted of "free churches." The emergence of the Free Methodist Church, as we shall indicate in a moment, was deeply grounded in these conflicts. Similar dynamics were present in the founding of the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Church of the Nazarene- both churches boasted of their commitment to the poor and neglected, especially of the cities. And to return again to the Presbyterian context we cannot under­stand the emergence of the Christian and Missionary Alliance without attention to this theme. A. B. Simpson announced his departure from his eastside Manhattan church to work among poor immigrants in a sermon based on Luke 4:18-19. But let me turn to the Church of the Nazarene and the Free Methodist Church to explore this development in more detail. I will reverse the chronological order to pursue an increasing radicalization of the theme.

The very name of the Church of the Nazarene is an expression of this theme; it was meant to express the commitment of the church to the mission of the "lowly Jesus of Nazareth." The first stationery of the Church quoted Jesus, "Inas­much as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." And the preface to the first Articles of Faith and General Rules of the new church in 1895 clearly alluded to work among the poor.16 Bresee was quite explicit about these commitments:

The first miracle after the baptism of the Holy Ghost was wrought upon a beggar. It means that the first service of a Holy Ghost bap­tized church is to the poor; that its ministry is to those that are lowest down; that its gifts are for those that need them the most. As the Spirit was upon Jesus to preach the gospel to the poor, so His Spirit is upon His servants for the same purpose.17

Bresee developed from this position a polemic against elaborate and expensive church buildings.

But the clearest and most coherent articulation of this theme is probably to be found in the writings of B. T. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church. This concern permeates the writings of Roberts but his thinking on the question is epitomized in the lead article in the first issue of The Earnest Chris­tian (January, 1860)-the heart of which was reprinted as the introduction to early Disciplines of the Church. This article is preceded by a description of the "object and scope" of the magazine, including affirmation that

"The claims of the neglected poor, the class to which Christ and the Apostles belonged, the class for whose special benefit the Gospel was designed, to all the ordinances of Christianity, will be advocated with all the candor and ability we can command."

The key article is entitled "free churches." B. T. Roberts argues that "Free Churches are essential to reach the masses." In making this case Roberts carefully balances both the universality of the gospel and its particular commitment to the poor. "The provisions of the gospel are for all . . . to civilized and savage, black and white, the ignorant and the learned, is freely offered the great salva­tion." But Roberts goes on to ask, "for whose benefit are special efforts to be put forth?" In answering this question Roberts makes an interesting appeal to Luke 7, where he links his answer directly to the messianic office of Jesus:

Jesus settles this question. When John sent to know who He was, Christ charged the messengers to return and show John the things which they had seen and heard. "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up," and if all this would be insufficient to satisfy John of the validity of his claims, he adds, "AND THE POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM." This was the crowning proof that He was the One that should come. It does not appear that after this John ever had any doubts of the Messiahship of Christ. He that cared for the poor must be from God.

But Roberts goes on to make this theme decisive for the church and the disciples of Jesus: "In this respect the Church must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. She must see to it, that the gospel is preached to the poor." This fact is grounded in the plan of God, who "hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise."

But Roberts goes on to make this theme defining of the nature of the church:

There are hot controversies about the true Church. What constitutes it, what is essential to it, what vitiates it? These may be important questions, but there are more important ones. It may be that there cannot be a Church without a bishop, or that there can. There can be none without a gospel, and a gospel for the poor. Does a church preach the gospel to the poor-preach it effectively? Does it convert and sanctify the people? Are its preaching, its forms, its doctrines, adapted specially to these results? If not, we need not take the trou­ble of asking any more questions about it. It has missed the main matter. It does not do what Jesus did, what the Apostles did.18

This strikes me as a very remarkable and radical position. B. T. Roberts seems to be arguing that a "preferential option for the poor" is defining of the true church-that it belongs to its esse rather than to its bene esse. As such Roberts has more than any other in the Wesleyan tradition (at least that I have read) clearly articulated the Wesleyan "preferential option for the poor," grounding it theologically in the messianic office of Jesus and making it defining of the church-thus raising it to the level of the status confessionis of more confessional traditions.

How then shall we live with this tradition? This question is too complex for an easy answer and cannot be handled in the time we have available for us tonight. But let me raise a few questions for our reflection-a few suggestions of issues that we need to pursue:

(1) I consider this articulation by B. T. Roberts one of the most important gifts that we have to share with other Christians. Yet I am struck with the fact that I have no memory of sermons or other expressions of these themes in my own experience within the holiness movement. Why is it that we are busy suppressing within our own movement such themes as this and the ministry of women just when they have begun to achieve wider cultural acceptance?

(2) I have become more and more convinced that we are very ambivalent about our own Wesleyan heritage-both theologically and culturally. There are many reasons for this, but I wonder if there is a sense in which the Wesleyan tra­dition often fails to make sense because we have lost its center-or at least a key dimension. It may be that various pieces of the tradition come together in an inte­gral whole when this center is restored. I remember when I realized that some inherited dress patterns were not just absolutizations of cultural patterns or quaint attempts to preserve "modesty" but that plain dress was required by the central missiological intention of the movement-to welcome the poor. We dressed down to go to church so that the poor would not feel uncomfortable in our midst.

(3) I am also convinced that part of the issue is that historically and cultur­ally we have entered the stage of our own embourgeoisement. In very profound ways we have come full circle and are moving (or have moved!) in the very directions that in Methodism during the last century produced our own movement as a reaction. How do we move from here?

(4) I am also convinced that B. T. Roberts and others in the Wesleyan tradi­tion were basically right. The more I read the Scriptures with such questions in mind, the more I become convinced that they had a grasp on a truth that we neglect to our own peril. If indeed, a "preferential option for the poor" is a gen­uine feature of "scriptural Christianity," Wesley's oft-quoted words of warning to the Methodists gain a new poignancy:

Does it not seem (and yet this cannot be) that Christianity, true Scriptural Christianity, has a tendency, in process of time; to under­mine and destroy itself? For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! and riches naturally beget pride, love of this world and every tempex that is destructive of Christianity.19


1These documents are analyzed by the pioneer of liberation theology in Latin America, Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.

2Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), pp. 168-9. The German original was published in 1955

3Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946-52 (Lon­don: SCM Press, 1954), p. 36. This passage is paragraph 17 of Barth's famous essay on "The Christian Community and the Civil Community."

4Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, p. 180.

5"Letter to a member of the society, February 26, 1776," Works (Jackson), Vol. XII, p. 302

6Journal, April 1, 1739, Works (Jackson), Vol. 1, p. 185.

7"Wesleyan Roots of Christian Socialism," The Ecumenist 13 (May-June, 1975), p. 50.

8(New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 17.

9See Aaron C. H. Seymour, The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Hunt­ingdon (1844), I, 27, as cited by Oscar Sherwin, John Wesley: Friend of the Peo­ple (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961), pp. 40-1.

10Journal, February 9-10, 1753, Works (Jackson), Vol. II, pp. 280.

11Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., "Wesley's Preferential Option for the Poor," Quarterly Review 9 (1989), p. 16. I assume that this argument will be expanded in Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), due to be published the month this address was given.

12"Letter to a member of the society" #270 dated February 7, 1776, Works (Jackson) Vol. XII, p. 301.

13"Letter to a member of the society" #271 dated February 26, 1776, Works (Jackson), Vol XII, p. 302.

14Journal, May 21, 1764, Works (Jackson), Vol. III, p. 178.

15Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976, reprinted by Hendrickson Publishers), chapter 9.

16These developments are described in Timothy Lee Smith, Called Unto Holiness (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1962), pp. 110-15 and in Donald P. Brickley, Man of the Morning: The Life and Work of Phineas F. Bre­see (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1960), pp. 135-164.

17This is taken from the Messenger, September 12, 1901, as quoted in Harold Ivan Smith, The Quotable Bresee (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1983), 167.

18B. T. Roberts, "Free Churches," The Earnest Christian 1 (January, 1860), pp. 6-10.

19John Wesley, "Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity," Sermon #116, Works (Jackson), Vol VII, p. 290.

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Date Added: 4/23/1992 Date Revised: 4/23/2009

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