On Thursday, October 7, United Methodism lost an outstanding scholar who wittily and precisely applied his theological and spiritual gifts. Dr. William J. Abraham was one of the theological pillars of the church – not only in Methodism, but also in wider ecumenical circles. He was a Herculean force for traditional Wesleyan theology from his branch office at Perkins Theological School in Dallas. Abraham’s death was unexpected. He was 73 years old.
Like many others within United Methodism, we were stunned and saddened by the news of the death of a man we simply called Billy. Those of us in the Good News considered him a friend and collaborator in the reconstruction work within our denomination — even in those times when it was difficult for us to fully interpret his expressive and sympathetic Irish accent.
Twenty-five years ago, Billy’s address at the Confessing Movement in Atlanta was a prominent cover story for Good news. He just published a book called Awakening from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church. “We have simply forgotten our doctrinal heritage and have therefore neglected its rich treasures and reserves,” he told the Atlanta congregation.
We took another picture for the magazine that he discussed. The title of the title was “Treating Our Doctrinal Dyslexia.” Abraham believed that the theological crisis of unified Methodism was that the children of Wesley – decades later – watched the same material (our theological heritage) and saw and published different messages.
“As everyone who suffers from dyslexia knows, the key problem is that the relevant tags are seen on the page, but they are entered distorted,” he said. “In the case of doctrinal dyslexia, what happens is analogous to this condition. In our case it happened that we turned upside down and upside down the key material about the doctrine in Book of disciplines. We have suppressed the actual standards of doctrine set out in the Constitution by concentrating on the highly speculative material set forth in the section on our theological task. ”
After converting through the ministry of the Methodist Church in Ireland in his teens, Billy began his theological training. “In the early stages of my own intellectual and spiritual journey, Wesley was crucial to me,” he writes in his fascinating book, Wesley for armchair theologians. Mysteriously, after beginning his theological training, “Wesley suddenly fell on me. I found it not so much archaic as surreal. ”
Ironically, Billy’s interest in Wesley’s theology increased while he was on a sickbed. “Fortunately, listening to some stolen audiocassettes on Wesley from Albert Outler during a severe dose of flu caught this trip away from Wesley.” He found himself as a great proponent of the basic message. “Wesley’s theology is an intellectual oasis located within the traditional church faith contained in the beliefs,” he wrote.
Abraham will become Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at the Perkins Theological Seminary. He would often speak cordially about his respect for others. Outler, his learning and love for Christ and the Church. Nevertheless, Abraham unwaveringly criticized Outler’s proposed “quadrangle.” He felt that it gave too much room for the mistaken belief that Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience were of equal value in interpreting divine revelation.
“The consequence is that our identity is now shaped by an interesting but dubious exercise in religious theory of knowledge. Pained by the denial of our tradition, we are forced to admit that we adhere to a piece of clever epistemology [how do we know] which was elaborated in the 1960s and which is contrary to both Wesley and the clear content of the constitutional standards of the doctrine, ”he argued. “In these circumstances, the great classical doctrines of faith, which Wesley wholeheartedly adhered to, are treated as electoral alternatives that are willingly accepted, rejected, revised, or reconsidered. We have idolized part of the philosophical speculation and are now reaping the consequences. It is not surprising that we find ourselves torn by conflicting doctrinal proposals. ”
Professor Abraham continued: “As a pedagogical device, the quadrangle really has merits. Anyone who is a teacher can testify to that. However, as a formal proposal in the field of religious knowledge, the quadrangle is an absurd endeavor, for only an omniscient agent could seriously engage in implementing our proposals through the range of the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience. Only God could use a quadrangle and God, fortunately, does not need it. “Vintage Billy.
His message from twenty-five years ago still resonates. “The quadrangle is similar to a kaleidoscope. “Every time you shake the Bible, tradition, reason and experience, a different configuration appears,” he said at the time. “The result is doctrinal chaos and incoherence. Even Albert Outler, the great architect of the Methodist quadrangle, was disturbed by its abuse, and late in life he expressed reservations about its logic. ”
In forward towards The rise of theological liberalism and the fall of American Methodism James V. Heidinger II, Billy expresses his curiosity about Outler’s perspective from the point of view of eternity. “It would be great to sit in on a seminar with Outler and Wesley and other great heroes and heroines of our tradition,” he wrote. “Workers are dying, but work continues, as Wesley once said. There are eighty-two million descendants of John Wesley around the world so Methodism will not disappear soon. The big question is what place the United Methodism will have in that future. ”
Looking ahead. Billy Abraham was not an early proponent of the division of a unified Methodism. His opinion changed, though. I would believe this is the most logical and peaceful option available. Speaking to the leaders of the 2014 reconstruction, his message is worth recalling today.
“If we are brought to separation, we should raise our heads high and not be drawn into a parochial reaction against the current networks that would lead us into moral and theological heresy, if not apostasy. We should be as wise as snakes and as innocent as pigeons, ”he said at the Methodist Crossroads gathering. “Outside the current crisis, we should imagine a completely new repetition of our Methodist and evangelical identity and the heritage of the united brothers. I imagine creating a new form of global methodism. Let’s call it the Global Methodist Church. This would bring together most people who have stood firm for years and around the world, and then turn to other Methodist and Wesleyan bodies if time and energy allow. “
Abraham continued, “We need not rush, but we need to be urgent in seeking the guidance of the Spirit in order to become an industrial version of the Methodology that will spread throughout the world in the next few generations. We would also look to a whole new ecumenical future with former and new partners who are willing to re-enter the mission and witness. ”
In conclusion, Billy said, “To achieve this, we will need a lot of patience with each other. Even where we are completely together, chemistry can be difficult to endure. This task is too big for any person or group. We must resolutely stand together and work to continue the life of the United Methodology beyond its current incarnation. We can and should have a vision of a global method that is meaningful, courageous, generous, and irresistible. ”
Writing in Firm Foundation 2017 Billy has released an exciting challenge for those looking to experience a new chapter in rowing. “We know that we have reached a crossroads in a unified Methodism, and we have rightly taken a stand on the moral faith of Scripture and the Church through the ages,” he wrote. “It is time to move on and work on a fully faithful commitment to Christ and to find fresh expressions for the tradition in which we live. We leave to providence those who disagree with us. ”
As a churchman, he knew that the road ahead would be filled with challenges. “We need a combination of strength and flexibility; impatience and patience; fear and self-confidence; and divine wisdom and human genius. Above all, we need to work together in mission and evangelization. … The road ahead will sometimes be extremely difficult and even insidious; the destination will, however, open a new day for a new expression of classical Methodism and the tradition of the evangelical united brethren. ”
Legacy to his ministry is his wholehearted commitment to sharing his work with believers outside the United States. He knew that the historic Wesleyan message was traveling far beyond North American borders. He called for a new configuration of Methodism that would be “mission-oriented, open to the full action of the Holy Spirit, unjustifiably orthodox, sacramentally robust and committed to the justice and care of the needy,” he wrote in Firm Foundation. “In the short term, we may be a minority in the United States; around the world, we will probably be the global majority. ”
There have been many fond memories of Billy since his death. They are all touching and deserving. We convey our sincere condolences to his family. We are grateful for his intellectual and spiritual testimony. His departure left us in mourning, but his life was lived with such force that his legacy will be remembered with great celebration. We pay homage to Billy’s memory by serving the Christ he preached and living the gospel revealed in the Bible that Billy loved.
After retiring from Perkins Theological Seminary, he also announced that he would launch the Wesley House of Studies at the Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We asked his longtime friend and colleague Dr. David Watson of the United Theological Seminary to interview Billy for good news readers last year. We leave you with Billy’s parting advice.
“Be anchored in a discipline that requires strict standards of excellence; for me it was an analytical philosophy. Stay true to the truth and work on it until it becomes relevant to your identity, ”Billy said. “Never, ever be for sale, as far as the revelation of God mediated in the Scriptures is concerned. Stay grounded in regular church service. Take institutional policy seriously; be smart on the street. Know your critics better than they do themselves. Fast and pray the best you can! ”
We will miss him. In his memory, we recall a passage from the Book of Revelation: “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ “Yea,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their work, for their works will follow them” (14:13).