A Fund for ‘Evangelical’ Scholars

by Albert C. Outler

Albert C. Outler was a United Methodist Minister and a professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. He is an authority on Augustine.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 6-13, 1980, pp. 138-140. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


All too often, John Wesley’s warmed heart is celebrated by those who ignore the import of that richly stored head of his and that superb set of scholarly tools that he kept burnished throughout his career.

"A Foundation for Theological Education" (AFTE) is a small private fund, based largely in Texas, with a predominantly United Methodist constituency and a special interest in the renewal and transvaluation of the Wesleyan tradition -- not "for Methodists only" but for the Christian community at large. Its board, which includes bishops, theological professors, pastors and laypersons, reflects a wide range, of viewpoints and interests. Board chairman is Edmund Robb, Jr., of the Ed Robb Evangelistic Association of Marshall, Texas. AFTE’s program is three-tiered:

1. The support of graduate theological study for Methodists in first-rate universities, with a view to the enlargement of the talent pool of well-trained "evangelicals" for service in both academy and church.

2. The promotion of continuing theological education on various levels, with a twin emphasis on scriptural Christianity on the one hand and intensive interaction among diverse Christian traditions on the other.

3. The undergirding of the cause of theological learning with endowed chairs and programs, whose chief behest will be an honest respect for the normative character of "the Wesleyan quadrilateral": Scripture, tradition, reason and "Christian experience."

AFTE is obviously, therefore, another voluntary religious association that understands itself as having been raised up to serve a special need. Our aims, we believe, are consonant with Methodism’s best traditions, but we have no official mandate and have not tarried for any. Our ambience is denominational; our outlook and spirit are ecumenical. Such associations, are as American as apple pie; why, then, a comment on yet another? The answer is that AFTE may be at least slightly "different" and that these differences may be important in the future of theological education (again, in United Methodism but also within the whole Christian community). In the first place, it is a conscious experiment in bridge-building, across an ugly chasm that has been dug for at least a half-century, between self-styled "Methodist evangelicals" and those of us who are not often labeled thus. It was born out of what seemed, for all the world, to be still another unedifying controversy.

Attacks on the Seminaries

Even the one-eyed know by now that the rise of "the evangelical movement" -- in numbers, strength and self-confidence -- is one of the major developments in American Protestantism, and has been for at least the past two decades. It is also common knowledge (usually explained away) that this development has not yet been registered, in any significant proportions within the liberal theological establishment. During these decades, of course, the evangelicals have done very well for themselves with their own seminaries, from which it has also been argued that this division makes for a comfortable and mutually acceptable arrangement (the old "separate but equal" slogan in a different context).

On the other side, it has long seemed to many of us in the "establishment" that the standard "evangelical" denunciations of our seminaries, toto genere, have been both unfair and unhelpful. In the United Methodist Church, for example, one of the evangelicals’ favorite targets since 1972 has been our denominational statement on "Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards" -- largely because of its open avowal of pluralism as a theological principle. The irony here is that one of the conscious aims of that statement had been to make welcome room for the evangelicals within the inclusive Methodist theological enterprise -- even while it was also trying to wall off the extreme dogmatists from the "right" and the barn-burners from the "left."

Thus, in 1975 when Dr. Robb (then president of the "Good News" movement) leveled a blast at all the United Methodist seminaries, claiming that in none of them could an evangelical student hope for a decent exposure to the Wesleyan heritage, there were not many of us in an other-cheek-turning mood. My own indignation was especially "righteous" since I was deeply involved, with others, in a protracted, earnest crusade to recover and re-present John Wesley (not only to Methodists but to other Christians as well) as a significant theologian and as a fruitful resource for contemporary ecumenical theology. My response was less than conciliatory; after all, what was there to expect but another salvo in reply?

It was, therefore, downright disconcerting to have Dr. Robb and some of his friends show up in my study one day with an openhearted challenge to help them do something more constructive than cry havoc. Needless to say, I’ve always believed in the surprises of the Spirit; it’s just that they continue to surprise me whenever they occur!

Points of Consensus

Here, obviously, was a heaven-sent opportunity not only for a reconciliation but also for a productive alliance in place of what had been an unproductive joust. Moreover, as we explored our problems, some unexpected items of agreement began to emerge. For example, there was the recognition, first off, that too many evangelicals (especially in the Methodist tradition) had made it all too easy for the liberal establishment to freeze them out on the grounds that they had not paid the going price for full academic respectability. All too often, John Wesley’s warmed heart is celebrated by those who ignore the import of that richly stored head of his and that superb set of scholarly tools that he kept burnished throughout his long career.

We also discovered a second agreement, variously expressed: that theology in the Wesleyan spirit must be truly ecumenical, or it is not truly Wesleyan. The evidence for this assertion is scattered throughout the Wesley corpus but is best summed up in his sermon on "Catholic Spirit" and in his open "Letter to a Roman Catholic." On a third crucial point we also found ourselves in genuine consensus: "evangelism," in the Wesleyan spirit, must speak of justice as earnestly as of justification, of Christian nurture and discipline as emphatically as of conversion, of Christian social action as boldly as of personal salvation.

It was these agreements that became the working charter for AFTE. For here were men and women willing to put their money and time where their convictions lay -- and so they have. Since 1976, 15 Wesley Fellowships have been awarded for doctoral programs in England and America. This means that soon there will be a larger "talent pool" of fully credentialed scholars than we have ever had before -- with more in the pipeline behind them.

Other aspects of the program are in various stages of development. On one point, however -- this business of "undergirding the cause of theological learning" -- the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC has already stolen a march on us and on everybody else. It has undertaken to endow a broadly conceived program in Wesley studies at Southern Methodist University.

A Lively Experiment

Our first "public event" that served to exhibit AFTE’s basic concerns and interests was held this past November at Notre Dame. A week-long "Colloquy on the Loss and Recovery of the Sacred," it had been designed as a small working conference of church leaders gathered from a broad spectrum of the various Christian traditions. These men and women were invited to grapple with a massive, urgent issue currently confronting the whole Christian community and contemporary culture -- in an ecumenical spirit of worship and dialogue, within an atmosphere of the warm hospitality of a great Christian university.

We knew that our design was promising when people like Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens, Martin E. Marty, Carl F. H, Henry and Richard Lovelace agreed to join us. Eighty invitations, to a wonderful array of men and women from many traditions, produced 58 acceptances from 11 denominations. It was as lively an experiment in continuing theological education as I have seen during half a century of such events.

The working group in which I participated had a brilliant Roman Catholic church historian for its moderator. Her stand-in was a Methodist pastor; the "rapporteur" was a Southern Baptist professor of theology. We also had two highly competent and articulate Reformed theologians (from two different denominations) to call us back to "orthodoxy" and a Mennonite scholar to remind us of the social imperatives of Christian simplicity. At the end of the first day’s session, I was in despair; at the rate we had started (or so it seemed), it would take at least a month for us to hammer out anything like a meaningful consensus. And yet that same group, by week’s end, had produced the prototext of one of the colloquy’s concluding statements.

A Sign of Hope

What heartened me most about the whole affair was how little formal talk there was about Christian unity and how much direct experience of it. The results were almost all that we had hoped for and are eager to promote -- with the fuller harvest yet to be reaped.

There is no way of knowing how far this little leaven of ours will go in our big church, now in conspicuous confusion, or in a Christian community in the throes of world revolution. But our work together thus far has already established several points that may have an important bearing on the future of theological education in America: (1) the party-strife between "evangelicals" and "charismatics" and "ecumenicals" is not divinely preordained and need not last forever; (2) the Wesleyan tradition has a place of its own in the theological forum along with all the others; (3) "pluralism" need not signify "indifferentism"; (4) "evangelism" and "social gospel" are aspects of the same evangel; (5) in terms of any sort of cost-benefit analysis, a partnership like AFTE represents a high-yield investment in Christian mission; and (6) the Holy Spirit has still more surprises in store for the openhearted.

Given so much, we may be justified in believing that such a venture may honestly be reckoned as a grace-full sign of hope, even in these raddled times.