By Sam Hodges
Oct. 12, 2021 | UM News
The Rev. William J. “Billy” Abraham, a longtime professor at Perkins School of Theology, is shown here at Perkins Chapel in Dallas in 2014. Abraham died Oct. 7 at 73. File photo by Hillsman Stuart Jackson, © Southern Methodist University.
Key points: • The Rev. William J. “Billy” Abraham helped shape the traditionalist movement that is now working toward forming a new Methodist denom-ination.
• The longtime Perkins School of Theology professor never shied from a debate but maintained friendships across the theological divide.
• He died suddenly at age 73.
The Rev. William J. “Billy” Abraham brought a formidable intellect and vast scholarship to bear in helping to shape the traditionalist renewal movement within United Methodism.
The Perkins School of Theology professor also was an arresting figure — speaking with the lilt of his native Northern Ireland and sporting a long white-and-gray beard in his senior years.
Along the way, Abraham found plenty of theological sparring partners, and most emerged grateful for the experience.
“He was so graceful in his ability to disagree, but also to make us think critically about all kinds of issues,” said the Rev. Ted Campbell, a Perkins colleague.
Abraham collapsed and died suddenly in Dallas on Oct. 7, his daughter, Siobhan Abraham, said. He was 73.
A Perkins faculty member from 1985 until his retirement in May, Abraham had lately been leading the new Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Many within The United Methodist Church have in recent days been sharing memories of Abraham. They include Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones, who was a student member of the search committee that brought him to Perkins.
“I found Billy winsome, faithful, friendly and very articulate in defending his views,” Jones said. “I will miss him deeply.”
Perkins’ dean, the Rev. Craig Hill, reflected on Abraham’s long tenure the school.
“He was a Christ-bearer, both in the academy and in the local church — to which he was profoundly committed — and his death is a tremendous loss to Perkins and to the wider community,” Hill said.
Abraham grew up in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and became a Christian in a Methodist church there. He was a young man at the onset of “The Troubles,” the deadly Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, and would much later write a book called “Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology.”
After graduating with honors from The Queen’s University of Belfast, Abraham came to the U.S. in 1970 to study at Asbury Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree and served as student body president. He went on to the University of Oxford, where he got his doctorate in philosophy.
“He had this razor-sharp mind, and it was honed by his philosophical study,” Campbell said.
Abraham had two stints as a minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland, and would become an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. But he was mainly a professor, teaching at Seattle Pacific University before joining Perkins, part of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, as an associate professor of evangelism.
Later he would be Perkins’ Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies.
Outler, a legendary Perkins professor, had devised the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, drawing on the writings of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, to emphasize the importance of Scripture, Christian tradition, reason and Christian experience in settling theological disputes.
But Abraham was a critic of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, once describing it as “akin to flat-earth theory.” He felt it wasn’t really Wesleyan and undermined reliance on Scripture.
“He never gave up trying to talk about scriptural authority in the life of the church,” Jones said.
Abraham was an early critic of what he saw as the doctrinal drift of The United Methodist Church, and he offered a different vision in the influential book “Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church.”
He also was active early in The Confessing Movement, which challenged The United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations to maintain doctrinal standards and traditional positions on theology, including the understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Abraham wrote on a range of subjects — book titles included “The Logic of Evangelism,” “Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology,” “Celtic Fire: Evangelism in the Wisdom and Power of the Spirit” and “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation” — while also winning a top teaching award at SMU and serving as a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.
For many years, he taught Sunday school at Highland Park United Methodist Church, right by SMU.
“Whenever I saw someone walking into a worship service from one of Billy’s Sunday school classes, I just assumed I would be playing for second place,” said the Rev. Paul Rasmussen, the church’s senior minister. “He was such a remarkable Bible teacher, and he taught with such wisdom and warmth. His influence on our congregation is impossible to quantify.”
Within the traditionalist wing of United Methodism, Abraham was revered as a top scholar who articulated the view that The United Methodist Church had lost its way. In recent years, he wrote that he looked forward to the creation of a Methodist denomination that would stress evangelism and teach “an industrial-strength version of Christianity.”
Abraham was a featured speaker at meetings of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has endorsed a proposed split of The United Methodist Church and taken steps to create a new traditionalist denomination to be called the Global Methodist Church.
“Billy’s legacy will continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus for generations to come,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, WCA president. “He has left us with a deep and expansive reservoir of resources upon which the church will draw for years.”
Abraham’s views, particularly on human sexuality, put him at odds with many at Perkins. But Perkins Perspective, a seminary publication, did an article titled “Worthy Opponents” about how he and Susanne Scholz, a fellow professor, team-taught a course in postmodern biblical historiography and remained friends despite thinking differently on nearly everything.
The Rev. Natalya Cherry was another who sharply disagreed with Abraham but regarded him with affection and gratitude. Abraham was her dissertation adviser, and he and his wife, Muriel, were among those Perkins/SMU community members who rallied to help her and her family when a tornado destroyed their home in late 2015. The Abrahams brought a table and chairs for their temporary place.
Cherry said Abraham, as an adviser, never sought to impose his ideas, but worked to draw out the best version of hers and cheered her on.
“The word I can think of for him is ‘generous,’” said Cherry, who teaches at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, and whose dissertation has evolved into the new book “Believing Into Christ: Relational Faith and Human Flourishing.” “He relished the opportunity to be in relationship with people regardless of whether they agreed with him.”
Discussions about Abraham almost inevitably touch on La Madeleine, a French bakery and cafe near SMU where he commandeered a corner table and would bring books to read, papers to grade and visit with students and faculty.
“He was there almost every morning,” Campbell said. “We wonder if La Madeleine will simply fail now that they don’t have Billy.”
In addition to his daughter, Abraham is survived by his wife and a son, Shaun. Another son, Timothy, died in 2012.
A service for Abraham is still being planned.
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