An Interview with Howard Snyder

Your work has spanned renewal movements, Anabaptist history and Methodist history, and you have a special interest in Trinitarian theology and the relationship of structure and Spirit. Some of the large questions we are facing in Canada relate closely to these questions of renewal, structure and Spirit. What have you learned that would be helpful to Canadian churches and church leaders in transition?

The church stands in perennial need of mining Scripture in light of its present realities and challenges. We of course learn from history, particularly the history of doctrine, the history of renewal movements, and the history of the church's interrelationships with culture. But one of the main things we learn from history is the centrality of Scripture and the importance of a return to the biblical story of God, God's people, and God's land, and the work of redemption and new creation through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. A fresh look at the meaning of Jesus Christ and his body, and the promise of the kingdom, as revealed in Scripture, for the contemporary Canadian context remains central, I think.

* What have you learned since the second edition of "Wineksins?" What would you change/add in a new edition?

I would not change much. Probably I would put more accent on the biblical understanding of land/earth, and the meaning of Jesus' resurrection for the future of human experience and the renewal of the earth -- and then the present ethical and missional implications of that. Eschatology shapes ethics; the church in its life and mission should be living now the hope of the New Creation in all areas, including economics and earth stewardship -- but without any diminution in proclaiming the good news of personal redemption through Jesus Christ, and the importance and meaning of Christian community.

I did elaborate some on these themes in Liberating the Church and am now completing a book called Salvation Means Creation Healed that explores these and related themes. Wineskins still remains foundational however in most of the work I'm now doing.

* What specifically can the Methodist movement teach us about renewal and the interplay between structure and Spirit?

The genius of the Methodist movement (initially) was that it was a radical reform movement within the established Church of England. John Wesley had a keen sense of the need for structure, but that structure must serve and nurture life -- and that the New Testament picture of the church as body of Christ and disciplined community of the Spirit was the central model. In Canada, Methodism was a significant revival movement in its early days, but as it moved from "sect" to "church" it largely abandoned the structures of community and discipleship without which one simply does not have authentic Methodism. Still, case studies of Canadian Methodism can be helpful in providing both positive and negative lessons for the church today. In particular, Methodist growth and witness among First Nations communities in Canada is worthy of further exploration -- for both positive and negative learnings.

* What can the Anabaptist movement teach us that we need to remember in these times?

The emphasis on community; the forthright peace witness (initially); the importance of discipleship and the obedient following of Jesus; the willingness to be a countercultural voice and people -- these are still vitally important. John Howard Yoder is still immensely relevant.

* The "spiritual formation" question has been looming large on the plate for some years now. Do you think it has been helpful? Why or why not?

"Spiritual formation" may not be the best term -- in part because too often "spiritual" is understood in a non-biblical way as being opposed to or the opposite of "physical"; also because in some models spiritual formation is too individualistic. We might better speak (and embody) "Christian community formation," "embodied discipleship," etc. Much good has been done by the "spiritual formation" emphasis, but there are various models and some fall prey to these critiques, and some are too psychologically oriented, I think. (I have examined some "spiritual formation" material and found nothing at all regarding earth stewardship, living sustainably with the earth.)

* Recently there has been an interest in recovery of ancient practices, engendered in part by a sense of synchronism between our own times and the pre-Enlightenment world. Witness the birth of new prayer movements and the new monasticism. Do you think these explorations are a fad, or might be fruitful?

The two examples you cite are, to my mind, new instances of renewal movements. To that extent they are prophetic. But no movement, new or ancient, provides a perfect model; every movement is somewhat limited due to its particular context and the specific issues it is reacting against.

I rejoice in every genuine sign of renewal, so am thankful for these (and others). There is no virtue in "ancient practices" per se except as they may help the church find more effective expressions of discipleship and witness in its current context. The key is finding the right blend of "new" and "old" in the present life of the church.

* Are you seeing any church communities that are "doing it right?" Asking the right questions, engaging in practices that are keeping them honest, faithful and engaged through these times? If so, what are they thinking about and what are they doing?

The "new monastic" and similar communities are on the right track, I think. Also some communities that are modeling or embodying "resilience" and sustainability. I am hesitant to point to particular examples, because no model is perfect, or perfectly replicable. Church communities that most "do it right" today, I think, are those that visibly model reconciliation with God, with one another, and with the land, living a life that is sensitive to being both locally rooted and globally connected and responsible, lifting up the good news of Jesus Christ in all its dimensions.

* How does a Trinitarian framework impact our practices in terms of biblical faithfulness - community and mission?

The Trinity shows that we are created for community, and that through Jesus Christ we are offered a life in communion with God, with our sisters and brothers in Christ, and ultimately with all creation. Trinitarian "mission of God" theology helps us see that the church is in mission because God is first of all in mission; that (as others have said), it is more accurate to say that God's mission has a church than that the church has a mission. But the church is important as body of Christ -- for what it is, as well as what it does -- and that is based on the Trinitarian life of God. This is what Jesus pointed to in John 17 (for example).

But we need to remain biblically grounded here, and avoid superficial conclusions about the relevance of the Trinity for church and mission. We are dealing with a mystery we can't fully understand.

* How does a Trinitarian framework impact our thinking and practices in terms of leadership?

Primarily through undercutting a hierarchical understanding and giving us a more collaborative, relational, mutually-submissive understanding of leadership. The biblical doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit however helps us see that this does not mean a total mixing or confusion of particular roles and ministries; as we affirm distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so we affirm distinctions of gifts of leadership -- and also that all Christians are ministers, though with diversities of gifts.

* What questions are you asking relative to the gospel and culture at this moment, questions that we all need to learn from?

The nature of culture itself; the groundedness of culture in the physical environment and in economics; issues of worldview and worldstory; the senses in which the church itself is a "culture" and a creator, shaper, or influencer (or reformer) of culture; the dynamics of cultural change over time.

Howard A. Snyder has served as Distinguished Professor, Chair of Wesley Studies, at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, since 2007. Previously he was Professor of the History and Theology of Mission in the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, 1996-2006. He has taught also at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio, and North Park Theological Seminary, and has pastored in Chicago and Detroit.

Howard is an ordained elder in the Ohio Conference of the Free Methodist Church. He and Janice, have four married children and thirteen grandchildren.


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