The call from a close friend came out of the blue last month. “Bishop, I’ve got some bad news. Billy has died.” Stunned, it took a moment to register.
On this, the week we celebrate All Saints Day (Nov.1), I pause to recognize a theological giant who joined the church triumphant in glory on Oct. 7 – William J. “Billy” Abraham. In the best sense of the phrase, he merits the title “a sainted one in glory.”
Billy was the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology (SMU) for decades (1995-2021). More recently, after retiring from Perkins, he had a central role in establishing the new Wesley House at Truett Theological Seminary (Baylor). While Dr. Abraham is often associated with helping launch the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church and being a consistent champion of a deeply orthodox theology, there was (and is!) much more to this great man of God.
Dr. Abraham once wrote: “Wesley’s theology is an intellectual oasis lodged within the traditional faith of the church enshrined in the creeds.” His intellectual impact on the greater world-wide church movement extends far beyond the simple debate in The United Methodist Church about human sexuality. His greatest contribution is in the field of philosophical theology and nurturing a new generation of theologians and biblical scholars. Against the naked caterwauling of regenerated atheism, Dr. Abraham played a critical role in shoring up the foundations of divine revelation as they relate to modern philosophy.
His book, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, is a gift to the deep theological and philosophical underpinnings of the Christian faith in our time. Professor Abraham’s piecing reflections on the theology of the United Methodist Church brilliantly laid out in Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church are still (26 years later) deeply applicable to our time. With others, I am convinced that perhaps his greatest work is Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. In the project, called “Canonical Theism,” he (along with others) has shored up the foundations of belief amid the intellectual anarchy of our age. Like Nehemiah before him, he has helped rebuild the wall of faith in the larger Christian movement.
More personally I have been immeasurably blessed by Billy’s expansive friendship. We first served together in 1996 on the General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegation of the then Southwest Texas Conference (now Rio Texas). At the 2008 Jurisdictional Conference in Dallas, the year I was elected bishop, Billy took my seat in the delegation as first alternate. In recent times, I was with him at the establishment of the Wesley House at Truett and the New Room Conference in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Billy’s infectious joy and exquisite inquiry lit up my life. I have come to believe that, in his presence, I was privileged to share with a true saint of the Lord.
Many of us associate the word saint with, as one of my seminary professors wryly commented, “a maiden lady with the vapors.” When we reflect on the saints more thoughtfully, people like St. Patrick or the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa or Billy Graham come immediately to mind. These are indeed saints of the Lord. Someone steeped in history (like yours truly) thinks of people like
- Ambrose (Bishop of Milan, 340 - 397 A. D.),
- Anthony (the father of Monasticism, born around 251 A. D.),
- Augustine (Bishop of Hippo and arguably the greatest post-biblical theologian in church history – 354-430 A.D.),
- Teresa of Avila (leader of spiritual renewal, 1515 -1582 A.D.),
- John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople, 347-407 A. D.),
- Hild (often referred to as Hilda, the great leader of the early Christian movement in today’s Great Britain, circa 664 A. D.),
- Cuthbert (Celtic evangelistic leader and Bishop from Lindisfarne – Holy Isle -- 634 – 687 A.D.),
- Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) & Clare of Assisi (1194 – 1252 A.D.; together they were great champions of the poor!)
and the like; my list goes on and on.
There is nothing wrong – and much very right - with remembering the saints down this history. Collectively they inspire all who call Jesus Lord in holy living. The words of the great hymn “For All the Saints” echoes through the life of the church.
“For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
(No. 711 in The United Methodist Hymnal)
In a step deeper, as we pause to remember All Saints Day, we ought to carefully recall that the biblical understanding of the saints is far more expansive than our common reference. Paul opens his letter to the beloved church at Philippi, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” (Philippians 1:1)
“Saints” was the term Paul used to describe the Christ followers in Philippi. He repeatedly used such a reference. (Romans 1:7 - “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints;” 1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:2; etc.) I think it was Karl Barth who once described saints as “disturbed sinners.” In The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way, Phil Tallon and Justus Hunter write,
“To be sanctified is to be holy like God. The saints are people who show us God, who lived like Christ, who lived like God. Sanctification is the twofold process of dying to sin and growing in grace.”
(The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way, p. 51)
Such a description surely fits this saint of God, William J. “Billy” Abraham. About a year & an a half ago, Billy wrote an article about the future of the Methodist movement entitled “A Happy Death and a Hopeful Future.” Wherever you are on the theological spectrum, it is worth your careful reading. (click here to read A Happy Death and a Hopeful Future) Though sad for us and a great loss for the cause of Christ in today’s world, may those words be applied to his life and witness of faithfulness – a happy death and a hopeful future.
“Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’” (Revelation 14:13)
As one who is part Irish himself, I lift my glass in thanksgiving and celebration for this Irish saint who has so blessed my life and the life of so many. I close by sharing on his behalf the great “Irish” song “Parting Glass.” (Click here or the player below)