By Christopher P. Momany, Special Contributor…
Before the United States entered World War II, preacher and social critic Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered a sermon titled “Winning the War of Ideas.” It was no celebration of conflict but a reminder that opposing ideas contend for our souls.
Fosdick quoted a Nazi propagandist who bragged that the future belonged to a “racial-national” ideology. This culture was to eclipse one in which the individual and (by extension) all were considered important. Well before Pearl Harbor, Harry Emerson Fosdick defended the perspective that each and all are of inestimable worth.
Wesleyans might note that Fosdick’s compelling response was grounded in Hebrews 2:9 and the understanding that Jesus tasted death “for everyone.” This conviction that Jesus died for all is known as a belief in “unlimited” atonement. It was a cornerstone of John Wesley’s theology and a major distinction between his position and that of John Calvin. Calvin taught a “limited” atonement, a companion to the notion that some are chosen for redemption and some not. This limited conception was formalized in 1618/19 among the “Canons of Dort.” These days our eyes glaze over when someone probes such distinctions, but theology matters. My goodness, does it ever matter!
Regard for all
Among United Methodism we are so obsessed with the societal paradigms of liberalism and conservatism that we often fail to grasp the implications of our theology. Those who ponder the meaning of unlimited atonement might be dismissed as irrelevant or out of touch. Those who underscore the value of all might be dismissed as social activists with an agenda.
It is time to recognize that our Wesleyan theology of atonement demands a regard for all, and it is time to back up our prophetic witness with a carefully articulated theology.
Traditional Wesleyan reflection calls us to the most comprehensive love imaginable. However, a movement that has lost its way often retreats into divided amnesia. On the one hand, many attempt to push ahead by buying every fad the culture has for sale. On the other hand, many seek to defend the heritage by making exclusionary claims that never defined the tradition. We often end up with the worst possible combination of energies.
I know an annual conference that used to meet on the campus of a United Methodist-related college. Now that annual conference meets on the campus of a staunchly Reformed (Calvinist) institution. The location is more convenient, and the new host seems decent enough. After all, it is a moneymaking opportunity for them. Yet there is still something wrong with this picture. Annual conferences like to talk inclusion and affirmation, but doing so in an environment that openly teaches a limited atonement strikes me as disingenuous.
This is perhaps a minor observation, but it does point out a major problem. We have yet to embrace our true identity, which was and is one of inclusion—theologically speaking and practically speaking!
The founding president of Adrian College, Asa Mahan, turned from an upbringing steeped in ideas of limited atonement to embrace the Wesleyan position of unlimited love. Mahan also became a champion among the antislavery cause and struggle for women’s rights. The link between his mature theology and his social witness was no accident. He came to teach that each and every human being possesses “intrinsic worth,” and much of this conviction was grounded in his belief that God sent Christ for all people.
I spend a lot of time with college students and find them attracted to such consistent, comprehensive and unconditional love. They tell me that new church initiatives are fine, flashy outreach to them is appreciated, but most of all they want to join a movement that invades our punitive and manipulative culture with authentic grace.
It is time to be who we are. God has called us to be who we are. The world needs us to be who we are! We can debate other points related to the atonement, but let’s, at least, stand on the principle that Jesus came for all. Embracing our identity and heritage on this issue is no self-absorption. It is a reception of the call to be for others—ALL others.
The Rev. Momany is chaplain and part-time professor of philosophy/religion at United Methodist-affiliated Adrian (Mich.) College and an ordained UM elder who served as pastor of several churches in New Jersey and western Michigan. He is the author of Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness (Abingdon Press).