Reflections of a Kuyperian Wesleyan

I was recently invited to write a Foreword to a new book of Portuguese essays on a Christian worldview. The book is aimed at Brazilian Christians interested in how the Christian faith can impact all of culture to God’s glory.

This is a unique book. First of all, it is a work of contextualization, written by and for Brazilian Christians. Beyond that, the authors address various topics relevant to a Christian worldview specifically from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. This is unusual, since those who emphasize the importance of a Christian worldview are typically located in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition.

I was invited to write the Foreword since I am someone who bridges this divide in my own work, doing biblical interpretation as a Wesleyan theologian informed by a Christian worldview. And it didn’t hurt that the book I wrote with Brian Walsh on a Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview [IVP, 1984]) has been translated into Portuguese (A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã [Cultura Cristã, 2010]).

So I took the opportunity to explore in this Foreword (more fully than I’ve done elsewhere) the extent to which the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions overlap and are compatible (especially as they relate to a Christian worldview), drawing on my experience of these two traditions.

The book is entitled: Cosmovisão Cristã: Reflexões éticas contemporâneas a partir da Teologia Arminio-Wesleyana, which translates into English as: Christian Worldview: Contemporary Ethical Reflections from Arminian-Wesleyan Theology. It contains twenty essays, edited by Vinicius Couto, and will be published by Reflexão Editora in Sao Paulo.

The essays cover topics such as:

  • the nature of worldviews
  • the biblical vision of creation, fall, redemption
  • the mission of the church
  • the nature of Brazilian society
  • ecology
  • wealth and poverty
  • human sexuality
  • feminism
  • the arts
  • citizenship in a democracy
  • abortion
  • tolerance in a pluralistic society
  • education in schools, universities, and churches
  • Marxism
  • the nature of work
  • communication in the twenty-first century.

Each essay is written by an author who works either as an academic or a practitioner in the area addressed.

My thanks to Vinicius Couto for translating my Foreword below into Portuguese.


I am delighted by the invitation to write a Foreword to this book on Christian worldview from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective in the Brazilian context. Like the editor and the authors of the various chapters, I am a Wesleyan Christian, who works in the area of worldviews.

A Cultural and Ecclesial Journey

I started my journey of Christian discipleship in a holiness church in the Wesleyan tradition in Jamaica (the Missionary Church) and earned my BTh at Jamaica Theological Seminary (a theological school founded by this denomination).

After Seminary I immigrated to Canada, where I completed Masters and Doctoral degrees, and then later immigrated to the United States to take up a teaching position. Along the way, I attended churches in various Reformed, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations, but I found my way back, some twenty years ago, to the Wesleyan tradition (the Free Methodist Church). A few years after that (in 2002) I began teaching at Roberts Wesleyan College and since 2011 I have taught at Northeastern Seminary (both founded by the Free Methodists).

Although I am a Wesleyan, the Reformed theological tradition has been important to me—specifically, that branch of the Reformed tradition associated with the Dutch statesman and thinker Abraham Kuyper. While in Canada I studied at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, a graduate school shaped by Kuyper’s vision, which claims that all human life and culture—indeed all creation—belongs to God.

It was Kuyper who first introduced the importance of a Christian worldview (he called it a “world-and-life view”) to North American Christians in his Stone Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton University in 1898–99.1 Ever since then, the idea of a Christian worldview has usually been thought of as a Calvinist or Reformed theological emphasis.

On Being a Kuyperian Wesleyan

However, I have been teaching biblical theology (with a specialization in Old Testament) for many years in a manner that integrates a Kuyperian understanding of worldviews with a Wesleyan theological perspective.2 Just as my experience of living in three different nations has led me to describe my hybrid cultural identity as “Jamericadian,” so I have come to identify myself theologically as a Kuyperian Wesleyan.

What does that mean? What relationship is there between the Kuyperian branch of the Reformed tradition and Wesleyan theology?

John Wesley said that his theology differed by only a hair’s breadth from that of Calvin.3 That may have been an overstatement, especially given their differences on the question of sanctification.4 However, when it comes to the Kuyperian version of Calvinism and the Wesleyan tradition, there is significant overlap that bears on the topic of this volume.

All the World Belongs to God

Central to the Kuyperian tradition is Christ’s cosmic lordship over all things, which results in an emphasis on the cultural mandate—the call to develop culture to God’s glory (Gen 1:26–26; Gen 2:15). These themes are summarized in a famous quote from Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”5

It is well known that John Wesley said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”Although the context of that quote was his willingness to be a pastor or evangelist to all people, Wesley himself had a vision of the entire world—including culture, the sciences, and human reason—as belonging to God. He demonstrated his interest in the natural sciences by collecting the best writing of his day on the topic, which was published in a multi-volume work entitled A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.7

The range of topics related to a Christian worldview addressed by the Wesleyan-Arminian authors in this volume is entirely in harmony both with Kuyper’s vision and with the breadth of Wesley’s interests.

A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the last decade of his life Wesley came to disavow the unbiblical idea of an immaterial heaven as the final destiny of the believer. By contrast, he affirmed the biblical teaching (Rom 8:19–21; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20) of God’s desire to redeem all things in heaven and earth (including human culture and the natural world) through Christ.8 This emphasis on cosmic redemption (“a new heaven and a new earth”; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) is also central to the Kuyperian tradition. In both traditions God’s saving work through Christ is understood to be as wide as creation.9

Since this redemption of “all things” is rooted in God’s love for his good but fallen creation—a love that does not diminish even after the fall—the authors in this volume are motivated by their desire to love what God loves. So they are willing to explore what leads to human flourishing in various realms of cultural life.

The Need for Human Effort

Some branches of the Reformed theological tradition have tended to emphasize the sovereignty and glory of God to the exclusion (or even denigration) of human “works” (as if it were opposed to faith). Yet the apostle Paul, who was the chief proponent of justification by faith, saw no contradiction between faith and good works. Paul affirmed that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and he enjoined the church in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

Within the Reformed tradition, Kuyperians stand out in positively valuing human participation with God in developing culture in ways that contribute to earthly flourishing. This valuation of human subjectivity (the contributions humans can make to God’s world), along with a radical critique of subjectivism (the absolutization of the human subject), was central to my studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, including my doctoral work on the image of God (imago Dei).10 This Kuyperian approach is eminently congruent with the Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis on the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.11

The Role of the Church

But there are some differences of emphasis between the Kuyperian and Wesleyan traditions. The Kuyperian tradition has been very helpful in distinguishing between 1) the church as an institution (denomination or local church) and 2) the church as the body of Christ or God’s people, who may organize themselves in denominations and gather for worship, teaching, and fellowship; but who are still God’s people when they simply live their lives in the world, as parents, spouses, citizens, politicians, engineers, students, teachers, farmers, workers; and also when they organize themselves into non-ecclesial institutions, such as schools, labor unions, etc. So the church in the first (narrower) sense is only one manifestation of the church in the second (wider) sense.

Kuyper thus calls on Christians wherever they are and whatever they do (whether individually or collectively) to represent the Lord Christ (and his kingdom) in their lives. It is the mission of the church (in the broader sense as God’s people / the body of Christ) to conform their lives to the standards and values of the King of all creation.

But the distinctive contribution of the Wesleyan tradition is its emphasis on the crucial role of the gathered (institutional) church for the life of faith and the importance of ecclesial witness. The worship of the gathered church (along with discipleship groups) should be spiritually formative, grounding the life of the people of God for faithful living in the wider world (which is still God’s world). I found this ecclesial emphasis to be underdeveloped in my exposure to the Kuyperian tradition.

But I don’t want to give up on the Kuyperian distinction between the two senses of church. In fact, if we read the Pauline epistles with the broader sense of “church” in mind, they have much more far-reaching implications, addressing what Wesleyans have called “social holiness.”12

The World as God’s Cosmic Temple

There is also a sacramentalism in Wesley, which he learned from the Greek Fathers (who influenced him greatly). While this is sometimes limited to the idea of sanctification as participation in Christ (equivalent to the Greek term theosis), Wesley’s sacramentalism has far-reaching implications for a Christian worldview. I have had to go beyond the Kuyperian understanding of the world as God’s kingdom to view the cosmos as God’s temple. Human beings are the designated image in the cosmic sanctuary of creation, called to channel God’s presence from heaven (pictured in the Bible as God’s throne room, the cosmic Holy of Holies) to earth. The cultural mandate is, therefore, both a royal and a sacred calling.

Earth is not strictly speaking “secular” or “profane,” but is equivalent to the holy place in the cosmic temple, such that ordinary earthly life is constituted as priestly service to the Creator. Of course, the earth, as God’s intended holy place, may be desecrated; but earthly life is never simply “secular.”

I am grateful to have been profoundly shaped by these differing traditions rooted in God’s creation, which have been unfolded and refolded over time by communities of faithful Christ-followers, in ways that engender blessing and shalom in God’s world.

It is my hope that this volume of essays on the Christian worldview, undergirded by the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition and offered to the Brazilian church, may challenge us both intellectually and practically to be more faithful disciples of our Lord in a complex and hurting world.

J. Richard Middleton
Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College
Rochester, NY, USA


NOTES AND REFERENCES

The lectures were published by Eerdmans, originally in 1931 under the title Calvinism, later in different editions as Lectures on Calvinism. On Kuyper’s legacy, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

This integration of Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives goes back even before my formal teaching career to two books I co-authored with Brian Walsh in Canada: The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), Portuguese edition: A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã, translated by Valdeci Santos (São Paulo: Cultura Cristã, 2010); and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1995). The former was written when I was a campus minister with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the latter when I was a doctoral student at the Institute for Christian Studies.

In Minutes of Some Late Conversations (1745), Wesley was asked how close the gospel came to Calvinism; he replied “within a hair’s breadth” (Friday, August 2, questions 22–23). In a 1765 letter to John Newton, when discussing Calvin’s understanding of justification, Wesley stated: “I do not differ from him an hair’s breadth” (my emphasis).

The differences between Wesley (both John and Charles) and Calvin are most evident (though not limited to) the role of human freedom in relation to divine action (especially predestination) in relation to the Christian’s experience of sanctification.

Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488 (from a speech on October 20, 1880 in Amsterdam).

John Wesley, Journal, June 11, 1739.

John Wesley, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, 3 vols., ed. Robert Mudie (London, UK: Thomas Tegg and Sons, 1836).

See Wesley’s sermons, “The General Deliverance,” sermon 60 (on Rom 8:19–22) and “The New Creation,” sermon 64 (on Rev 21:5), in The Sermons of John Wesley (1872 ed.), ed Thomas Jackson. Also Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1754) on Rom 8:21.

The Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives on cosmic redemption come together in Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

10 This valuation of the human contribution led me to explore the way Scripture was written to address actual historical situations, specifically how the doctrine of the imago Dei constituted a critique of Mesopotamian ideology; see Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

11 The emphasis on the importance of human effort shows up in my exploration of the role of human actors in Scripture, such as my discussion of how the prophet Samuel contributed to the fall of King Saul in 1 Samuel. When I taught this material during a 2009 sabbatical in Jamaica, my students immediately recognized this as an Arminian approach to the text. Some of that material is published as Middleton, “Samuel Agonistes: A Conflicted Prophet’s Resistance to God and Contribution to the Failure of Israel’s First King.,” chap. 4 in Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography, ed. by Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 69–91.

12 Wesley himself noted (in contrast to the approach of the desert mystics): “The gospel of Christ knows no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” John Wesley, “Preface,” to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), viii (paragraph 5), in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 14 (3rd ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 321.

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Fair Payment for Speakers—A Re-Post from John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

I initially posted this blog by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (with his blessing) nearly four years ago.

I think it is time to re-post it, not just for myself, but for the many Christian speakers I know who simply are not reimbursed fairly for their work.

When John Stackhouse wrote this blog he was on the faculty of Regent College, Vancouver, BC. Since 2015 he has been Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies & Dean of Faculty Development, at Crandall University, in Moncton, NB.

Stackhouse’s comments are true to my own experience.

Although I sometimes do speaking engagements without an honorarium (or with a less than adequate honorarium), one of my rules is that if the organization really cannot afford to pay me, they should state this up front. And they do need, at a minimum, to cover all my out-of-pocket costs.

Anything less is disrespectful.

Accepting a speaking engagement without an honorarium (or with a less than adequate honorarium) should be the exception, not the rule. And it needs to be a decision made without any pressure from the inviting organization.


By their Honoraria Ye Shall Know Them

The way some Christian churches and other organizations pay their speakers, it makes me embarrassed to be a member of the same faith.

A friend of mine is a gifted staff worker with a well-known Christian organization on a university campus. He is married, with three young children, and works hard and long at his job. Frequently he is asked to speak at churches’ youth retreats or special events sponsored by other groups. Rarely is he paid well for what is in fact overtime work—for audiences other than the one that pays his regular salary.

One weekend, he left his family to speak at a retreat for more than 100 young people, each of whom paid to go away to a well-furnished camp for three days. My friend gave four talks and participated in a question-and-answer session—a typical, and demanding, schedule. But his work didn’t end there, of course. Retreat speakers are “on call” all weekend: for impromptu counseling, offering advice over mealtimes, and modeling what they preach on the volleyball court or around the campfire. Make no mistake: There is very little relaxing in that role, however restful the retreat might be for everyone else.

So at the end of this tiring weekend, at the close of the Sunday luncheon, the leader of the group thanked him profusely at the front of the dining hall (he had gone over very well). Then he tossed the speaker a T-shirt emblazoned with the group’s logo while everyone clapped. It took my friend several minutes to realize that this shirt was his total payment for the weekend’s work. He got in his car, without even a check for gasoline, and headed back to his waiting family.

An isolated and extreme example? Not at all. Every professional Christian speaker has stories like these.

A widely-respected author was asked to headline a fundraising banquet for a women’s organization. She prepared a talk on the subject requested, left her husband and children at home, drove herself in the family car across the city to the site of the meal, chatted with her tablemates, and then delivered her speech. Again, it was apparent from the applause and the warm remarks that greeted her when she took her seat that she had done her job well.

The evening ended, and the speaker was saying her goodbyes. The convenor then appeared in a gush of appreciation. “Your talk was just excellent,” she said. “Exactly what we wanted. Thank you so much for coming!” Then, by way of payment, she grandly swept her arm over the room and said, “Just help yourself to one of the table centerpieces.”

We Christians have two problems in this regard. One might be remedied by an article such as this one. The other can be fixed only by the Holy Spirit.

The Problem of Ignorance

The former problem is that most people who invite speakers are not themselves professional speakers and so honestly don’t know how much is involved in doing this work well. So let’s price it out straightforwardly, and consider whether we pay people properly in the light of this analysis.

A speaker first has to receive the invitation, work with the inviter to clarify and agree upon terms (usually this takes correspondence back and forth), and confirm the date. Then the speaker has to prepare the talk. Sometimes a speaker can pull a prepared text out of a file, but usually at least some fresh preparation is necessary to fit the talk to this particular group and its context. (And let’s remember that the speaker at some time did indeed have to prepare this talk from scratch, so the inviting group does have a share in the responsibility for that preparation since they will be benefiting from it.) The speaker concludes her preparation by printing out her notes, and perhaps also prepares a photocopied outline, or overhead slides, or PowerPoint presentation for the benefit of the group.

Next, the speaker must make her travel arrangements and then actually travel. Most of this time is not productive: Airports and airplanes are not designed to aid serious work (unless the inviting group springs for first-class seats and airport lounges—an uncommon practice), and driving one’s car is almost entirely useless time.

The speaker arrives, and then has to wait for her particular slot. She finally gives her presentation, waits for everything to conclude, and returns home. If she is out of town, normally she will have to spend at least one night in a hotel room, probably sleeping badly in a strange bed and, again, spending time in transit that is largely unproductive.

Count up all of those hours. Not just the forty minutes she actually spoke at the banquet, or the four hours she was actually in front of the microphone during a weekend conference, but the many, many hours spent in the service of the inviting group from start to finish. Divide those hours into the honorarium, assuming her costs are covered (as they sometimes aren’t–for shame!), and you have the true wage the group paid her.

One speaker I know was asked to speak at a weekend conference requiring of her three plenary talks plus a couple of panel sessions. She would have to travel by plane for several hours and leave her family behind. The honorarium she was offered? Expenses plus $300. Her husband heard of it and replied with a rueful smile, “I’ll pay you three hundred bucks to stay home with us.”

Here’s yet another way to look at it. A speaker was asked to give the four major speeches at the annual meeting of a national Christian organization. He was also asked to come two days earlier than the staff meeting in order to address the national board twice. In return, he was offered travel expenses and accommodation for himself and his wife at the group’s posh conference center—of which they were extremely proud.

So the speaker asked for an honorarium of $2000: for the five days he would be away plus all of the time he would spend in preparation for this large responsibility. The group’s president immediately withdrew the invitation, saying he was charging too much.

Now, let’s think about this. Transportation to this remote facility entailed the speaker and his wife driving their car part of the way, then taking a ferry, and then perhaps a float plane. The group clearly had no trouble covering considerable traveling expenses. The group also was covering similar expenses for two dozen board members and well over a hundred staff. The conference center was advertised in its glossy brochures as deluxe, and it looked that way in the photos.

So what would be the total budget for a weekend like this? Figure on, conservatively, 150 people with travelling expenses of an average of $600 each (allowing for airfare across the country for most) plus accommodation expenses of at least $200 each for the long weekend. This comes out to a total budget of at least $120,000. Let’s assume that the group would offer the speaker some sort of honorarium—surely at least $500. This means that on a total budget of $120,500, this group disinvited its speaker because of a difference of $1500—slightly more than one percent of its conference budget. Is this good stewardship by a Christian nonprofit corporation? Or is it something else?

One wonders about the “something else” when one looks closer to home and examines the typical honoraria given to preachers who fill pulpits when pastors are on vacation. Most churches now pay $100 or so, although I know of many, including both mainline and smaller evangelical congregations, who still pay less.

Let us ask ourselves, before God, how we can justify paying a guest preacher a mere hundred bucks. He has to accept the invitation and get clear on his various duties from the person who invites him. He has to prepare the sermon—again, even if he is going to preach one he has preached before, he still has to decide upon which one to preach and then prepare to preach it well on this occasion. He has to travel to our church and take his place with the other worship leaders. He has to preach the sermon, and greet people afterwards. Then he has to drive home.

Time it out, and it’s likely ten hours or more that he has invested in our church. We offer him a hundred dollars, and that works out to ten bucks an hour—a little more than minimum wage. He has to pay all of the taxes on that, so now he’s taking home between fifty and sixty dollars. Is that what we think our preachers are worth?

Let’s look at this from another angle. The average congregation isn’t large, so let’s suppose that about 200 people are to hear that sermon. By offering the preacher even $150 (which is more than most churches pay), we’re saying that his sermon is worth less than a dollar for each person who hears it.

Those who would invite speakers to their events should do this simple bit of division: Take the proposed honorarium and divide it by the number of talks, then divide it again by the number of people in the audience. The result is the price per talk per person. So ask yourself: Is the talk you want your speaker to give worth less than an ice cream cone? Much less than a Starbucks coffee?

The Problem of Undervaluing “Spiritual” Work

Let’s look at it still another way. Many Christian speakers have expertise that is in demand from secular agencies as well. Invariably those agencies pay better, and sometimes a lot better. A Christian psychologist I know has told me that he is paid at least a thousand dollars per full day of consulting with government agencies. He counts himself blessed if he is offered even half that much by a Christian group. Flip it around, and we observe that even we cheap Christians routinely pay high wages to our physicians, lawyers, plumbers, airline pilots, and other skilled people whose work we want done for us in an excellent fashion. Why don’t we pay Christian speakers accordingly?

Some of us even self-righteously think that we shouldn’t pay such people at all because they’re doing “Christian” work or “spiritual” work and therefore shouldn’t charge for it. (I was once asked to speak to a national convention of Christian lawyers whose president inquired as to what was my fee–”if any.” In reply, I was sorely tempted to ask him to draw up my will, arrange for the sale of my house, and defend me on my next parking ticket, and then ask him what his fee would be–”if any.”)

The notion, however, that spiritual, or theological, or other “Christian” expertise should not be paid for is utterly foreign to the Bible. From the Old Testament requirements that generous provision be made for the priests to Paul’s commands in the New Testament that pastoral workers are worthy of their wages and should be paid such (I Corinthians 9), the Bible believes that people in such occupations are worthy of both esteem and financial support. Indeed, we show our esteem precisely in the financial support we give them. We think our physical health matters, so we pay good money for good physicians. How much does our spiritual health matter? Well, let’s see what we typically pay for it. We are, in fact, putting our money where our mouth is.

One speaker put it this way: “I’m not in this line of work for the money, but for the ministry. All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”

Thus we encounter the latter problem, the one that only the Holy Spirit of God can address. It might be that we pay Christian speakers badly because we were unaware of all that is involved in preparing and delivering an excellent speech. Okay. But now that we know better, we should pay better. The latter problem of simply undervaluing such Christian service, however, is a problem in our hearts, not our heads. And the Bible is plain: We undervalue our spiritual teachers at the peril of undervaluing the divine truth they bring us. God frowns on such parsimony.

Indeed, God has threatened one day to mete out to each of us our appropriate wages for such behavior. And those wages will make even a T-shirt or a table centerpiece look pretty good.

This article was published in the Canadian journal ChristianWeek and is posted at: http://www.johnstackhouse.com/fair-payment-for-speakers/. An earlier version appears in the book Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It (reprint edition available from Regent College Publishing). This article may be forwarded or otherwise distributed as long as these credits are duly included. Copyright John G. Stackhouse, Jr., 2005.

Serious Contextual Theology in Jamaica

Last September I traveled to Jamaica, where I attended what may well be the first in a series of theology conferences held at Jamaica Theological Seminary (my alma mater). The conference topic was “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal” and I was one of the organizers.

The event began with the Zenas Gerig Memorial Lecture on Friday, September 8, 2017, and continued the next day (Saturday, September 9) with a series of papers given by professors, students, and alumni of the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST), including some overseas presenters (such as myself).

The Friday keynote lecture was delivered by Steed Davidson, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, with a response by Garnett Roper, the president of JTS. Since this conference was in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Davidson addressed “The Hazards and Opportunities of Sola Scriptura for Caribbean Biblical Interpretation.”

Sola Scriptura as a Positive Value

Davidson emphasized the value of Luther’s protest against a corrupt and authoritarian papal church, and how Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) functioned to ground his protest. Beyond Luther’s appeal to what the Bible teaches (in contrast to the accretions of tradition), was the importance of the Bible being translated into the various European vernaculars (including Luther’s German and the later King James Version).

Davidson further noted that the positive effect of having the Bible in the vernacular of one’s own culture (instead of Latin, which had been understood only by a small elite) was that each culture was able to hear God’s word in their own language.

But no changes are purely innocent.

The Reformation’s Unintended Consequences?

Although translating the Bible into the vernacular may have been intended to open up the Bible to the ordinary believer, most people were not literate enough to read it even in their own language. So while power did shift from the Pope, instead of being transferred to the ordinary people, it was Protestant pastors who became the authoritative interpreters of the Bible; and secular princes filled the vacuum of papal authority (and both were often just as elitist and authoritarian as the Catholic hierarchy had been).

Further, one of the effects of hearing God word in the cadences of one’s language is that when the various European Protestant nations began to exercise colonial power in the “New World,” they understood God as underwriting their colonizing campaigns. Thus “Christianization” and colonization went hand-in-hand.

So it was never really Sola Scriptura in Reformation times. But rather the Bible and its authoritative interpreters, and (even more problematically) the Bible as part of a package of empire, colonization, and oppression.

Neither is it (or should it be) Sola Scriptura today. Rather, we all interpret the Bible through our cultural lenses. Paradoxically, many Christians in the Caribbean downplay their own experience and treat the Bible as a magical book in which to find guidance for making ordinary decisions (this is itself a cultural lens). But since oral tradition and experience are an integral part of Caribbean culture, many Caribbean Christians end up denying part of their identity and heritage in the way they treat the Bible.

Davidson therefore encouraged Caribbean people to consciously and intentionally read Scripture in light of their Caribbean culture and experience, both their historical heritage and their contemporary experience of the world. This involves not only bringing their culture and experience to Scripture, but allowing Scripture to speak to their culture and experience.

(There was more to Davidson’s lecture that this brief summary; but it suffices to highlight some of his emphases.)

After Davidson’s stimulating presentation, Garnett Roper (the president of JTS) gave a response. Roper agreed with much of Davidson’s argument, but raised the question of whether the imperial and colonial use of the Bible was as integrally related to the Reformers’ actions as Davidson portrayed, or was more in the vein of unintended consequences. The presentation by Davidson (originally from Tobago) and Roper (a Jamaican) generated a great deal of stimulating discussion from the audience.

A Variety of Papers on Scripture, Theology, Identity, and Culture in the Caribbean

Although we had nine papers lined up during the day on Saturday, one presenter who was coming from Philadelphia could not make his flight connection from Florida because of Hurricane Irma (and had to return home).

The paper topics varied quite widely; they included analysis of the Bible (both in whole and in part, addressing both familiar/comforting and troubling texts from the Old and New Testaments); priorities for biblical interpretation in the Caribbean church; the use of systems theory to understand a case study in Jamaican church conflict; the sort of “productive hermeneutics” of the Bible exemplified by Rastafarian discourse; a psychological / anthropological analysis of possession in Haitian voodoo; and how Caribbean people who have been shaped by the experience of slavery might grapple with God’s sovereignty in the process of history.

Since I previously gave the titles of papers to be presented (in an earlier blog post about the conference) I won’t repeat the list here. But you can see the full conference schedule at a glance.

Essay Award for Excellence in Bible and Theology

I have been involved with organizing theology conferences for a number of years (since 2012) and at many of these I have offered an essay prize to stimulate the intersection of the Bible and theology. This prize is awarded in honor of my parents, Jack and Phyllis Middleton. Jack Middleton was a Christian who served as a police officer in the Jamaica Constabulary Force from the end of World War II until his retirement in 1973. Beginning as an Inspector, stationed in Sav-la-Mar (in the parish of Westmoreland), he rose through the ranks to become the head of Special Branch and then Commissioner of Police (the first non-expatriate to hold the office).

At this conference, The Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for Excellence in Bible and Theology was given to Erica Campbell ( Head of the Department of Humanities and Lecturer in Humanities, Theology, and Biblical Studies at JTS) for her paper “The Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Political Reading from a Caribbean Perspective.” This paper (like the previous five papers that have received this award) is to be published in the Canadian-American Theological Review, the journal sponsored by the Canadian-American Theological Association (of which I was president from 2011-2014).

The Importance of This Theology Conference

Instead of commenting on specific points of note in particular papers, let me mention a couple of general observations, two things that struck me as important about the conference as a whole.

First, I saw students and recent alums of JTS and CGST (who were often also pastors), as well as current and past professors, articulate their theological claims in papers presented publicly for an academic audience. I don’t think we can underestimate the value of this both for the presenters (whose proposals were taken seriously and engaged) and the model of academic integrity and boldness that they modeled for the attendees. Grounded in faith, we may engage in serious intellectual grappling with important issues; and faith is enlarged, rather than diminished, even when there is honest disagreement.

This is crucial, because in the Caribbean faith is often separated from scholarship, and the latter is denigrated. The appropriate response is not simply to become “intellectual,” as if this is somehow better than simple faith. Rather, what we need (and what this conference showed) is that not only can faith ground serious intellectual grappling with important issues, but that faith is thereby enriched by such grappling.

Second, I was struck by the significant degree of engagement from audience members (composed primarily of pastors and students, with at least half being women). Some of those in the audience boldly jumped right into the discussion at the start of the day, raising questions and voicing their opinions; others only found their voice as the day progressed.

Although discussion was always charitable and respectful, it was also vigorousindeed, so vigorous that I had a hard time (as conference chair) keeping the sessions to the prescribed time limits. But I look at that as a positive feature.

In this cordial, yet vigorous exchange of views between people of deep faith who value theological reflection for the sake of the church, I saw the beginnings of a genuine academic community of Caribbean theologians and practitioners reaching toward the goal of serious scholarly discourse in the service of faith. This bodes well for the intellectual health of the Caribbean churchif such discourse can be further stimulated and extended.

With that in mind, JTS is considering making a theology conference like this an annual (or possibly biennial) event. So stay tuned for an announcement in the near future. As these conferences become more regular we hope to invigorate the conversation about the Bible and theology for the sake of the Caribbean church and wider society.

A Publication Coming from the Conference

Selected papers from the conference have now been published in a theme issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review. These papers join Erica Campbell’s award-winning paper in a special issue of the journal devoted to the conference theme, “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal.” The issue is available both in hard copy and as a PDF file, as are individual articles.

The Canadian-American Theological Review has previously published articles by theologians and scholars from parts of the world beyond Canada and the USA—including Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

A recent issue of the journal (2016) contained two articles by Caribbean authors. One was by Las Newman (president emeritus of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology), entitled “Theology on the Move: Discerning Global Shifts in Theological Thinking in the Global South.” The other was my own paper, entitled “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.”

I am delighted that we now have an entire issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review devoted to Caribbean theology.

Just a reminder: The journal is always open for new submissions of articles and book reviews, and that certainly includes submissions from Caribbean authors. Click here to see the guidelines for articles and book reviews. You are invited to participate in a global theological discussion.

In a follow-up post you can read about what some of us did after the conference, visiting two Rastafarian cultural heritage sites.