A Tribute to Dr. William “Billy” J. Abraham
By Keith Boyette, President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
It was with heavy hearts that we learned this past Friday afternoon of the sudden passing of Dr. William “Billy” J. Abraham.
Billy was a world-renowned theologian, a passionate teacher, a gifted writer, and a wonderfully witty and inspiring speaker; above all, he was a warm-hearted, devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. His impact and influence on thousands of students, pastors, and lay people will live on for years to come.
We were honored to have Billy speak at our 2019 Global Gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His address was entitled, “In Accordance with the Scriptures: the Bible and the Creeds.”
As always, he made us think hard, he inspired us, and filled our hearts with joy and holy laughter. In short, his presentation was vintage Billy (below is an excerpt from his address).
Recently, Billy was named the Inaugural Director of the Wesley House at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. Although a historical Baptist institution, the campus was thrilled to welcome into its midst a great Wesleyan theologian.
A proud Northern Irishman, Billy was born on December 19, 1947. He attended Methodist College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and then completed his undergraduate studies at Queen’s University in Belfast in 1970. From there, he went to Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky), where he received a Master of Divinity Degree in 1973. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University in 1977.
While Billy taught classes at educational institutions all around the world, he was a fixture at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas) where he served as the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies. Shortly before his retirement from Perkins he received the Faculty Achievement Award.
Billy has left us with a rich and expansive reservoir of resources upon which the church will draw for years. Among the many books he wrote, Billy is most widely known for his scholarly Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) and his popular works for lay and clergy like Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) and Wesley for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
God graced Billy with an insightful mind, a keen wit, and uncommon judgment and discernment. Members and friends of the Wesleyan Covenant Association will always remember Billy’s wise counsel, his deep passion for Scripture, his love for the great confessions of the Christian faith, and his faithful witness to Jesus Christ, his Lord and his Savior. In recent years, as he dreamed with so many of us of a new Methodist movement, Billy was a trusted advisor and confidant.
As we give God thanks for the life and witness of His good and faithful servant, William J. Abraham, we also keep in our thoughts and prayers his family and his many friends all around the world.
An Excerpt from “In Accordance with the Scriptures: the Bible and the Creeds” by Dr. William J. Abraham The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 2019 Global Gathering Asbury Methodist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma
We are unapologetically intending a fresh start for the people called Methodist across the world. This is not simply a parochial North American matter. We are a global church and we are interested in a fresh start for a global version of Methodism that’s built on Scripture and on the creeds.
What’s the primary task of Scripture? According to 2 Timothy 2:16, it is to make us wise unto salvation and to enable us to come and be all God wants us to be in the life of the church. It’s there to form us, to change us, to transform us. And that’s why there’s such magnificent diversity in Scripture.
Living a life of obedience will be a life of health and success in the appropriate way. And we need the book of Job when our children die and we face insoluble and difficult problems. In our everyday lives, we need Paul. And we need James. We need the synoptic material and the Gospel of John. We read it every week and preach it every Sunday because it makes us wise unto salvation. But one of the ways it makes us wise unto salvation is precisely that it gives us indispensable information about God and about ourselves, about how to come to God, and what the future is going to be like. That is absolutely crucial information that comes from God and is mediated through the scriptures.
Now, Wesley considered this in terms of a form of revelation. Revelation given solely in our conscience can be very, very wobbly. And there’s revelation given in law and prophets. That helps direct our misdirected consciences. And the full magnificent revelation is given in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ risen from the dead and coming again in glory to clean up the mess which we occupy.
When people talk about Scripture and divine revelation, it’s all about interpretation: You’ve got your interpretation. I’ve got my interpretation. And then you develop a set of buckets or whatever set of images you’ve got.
Here is where we must stand firm. When God speaks to us in Scripture, God is not incompetent. When he says, yes, we understand it. When he says no, we can understand it. And otherwise we’ve got a totally incompetent deity. We have a God who didn’t make us in such a way we can hear him and understand him, and when he speaks to us in his word, he can’t get through to us. That’s not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s why we’re not intimidated by claims about relativism of interpretation.
God is not incompetent. He’s spoken to us and we’re going to stand by the revelation that’s given in Scripture. And we’ll be immersed in Scripture to be all God wants us to be.
Now, the place of the creeds has been more controversial. Why do the creeds exist? Why did the great shapers and framers of the creeds bring them into existence? Just as they developed a list of books, they developed a canon or list of doctrines. And those doctrines were straightforward. “I believe in God the Father.” “I believe in God the Son.” Add bells and whistles, and you got that in your head and you’ll not be fooled. You’ll not be fooled by television. You’ll not be fooled by heretics. The creeds were developed in relationship to baptism.
Read the gospels first. Read about Jesus first. Start thinking about what the good and life-giving Holy Spirit will do in your life first, then you’ll be ready for the meaty summary of the tradition. The goal was to provide crucial basic teaching for the Church as a whole. It was our forebearers in the North African Church that developed this material and we are indebted to them.
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