All of us who knew Billy (William J.) Abraham (1947-2021) were stunned last week when we received the grievous news of his death. Since then, I have read several moving remembrances. Some of Billy’s seminary and graduate students have written eloquently. I was not one of his students, but nonetheless want to add my little contribution to what no doubt will be a massive body of such offerings. I learned so much from him.
My first encounter with Billy was an embarrassing one. I am pretty good at sticking my foot in my mouth and I did so on this occasion. (I’m sure Billy is glad he does not have to hear me tell this story one more time.) It was 1988 and I was moving from pastoral ministry into a graduate program that involved a role as Teaching Fellow in United Methodist Studies. This task sent me to a workshop at Duke Divinity School, with other teachers of United Methodist studies. As I recall, there were maybe 20 or so of us, along with a handful of professors from Duke and elsewhere.
I was absolutely as green as grass, not long out of seminary, and my exposure to scholars in Wesleyan and Methodist studies at that point had been limited to taking, as a seminary student, the very courses I was about to start teaching. During this workshop, I kept hearing people refer to Billy Abraham. I finally asked, with complete, open-faced naivete, “Is this Billy Abraham published?” “Oh, my, yes,” responded Professor Tom Langford, who was leading that particular session. “This Billy Abraham” was sitting in the very room where I had uttered the question.
I, of course, apologized profusely to him at my first opportunity. He was entirely gracious, no offense taken. He probably got a chuckle out of the moment. I determined then and there that I was going to read everything of Billy Abraham’s that I could get my hands on.
It started with Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism and his just earlier The Inspiration of Holy Scripture. Divine Revelation urged me down a lifelong path of thinking about the philosophical questions related to historiography (thinking about how we think about history) and its relationship to theology. My reading continued with The Logic of Evangelism, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia, and Aldersgate and Athens: John Wesley and the Foundations of Christian Belief. And others.
Billy wrote too voluminously for me to keep up with him. I have read some of his first volume on divine action. By God’s grace, I will get to all four volumes. His Canon and Criterion, as others have said, may be his most prodigious of many prodigious works. I have read it, but only half-digested it. His opening and closing chapters in Canonical Theism have fed my imagination. One book I have read several times is his Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. I recommend it to any who has questions or doubts about the intellectual legitimacy of believing in divine speech and disclosure. These books of Billy’s have made me think. Hard. And think well, I hope, but certainly better than I would have thought otherwise.
It wasn’t only what Billy wrote. It was what he mentioned that he had read, sometimes the works of professors that he had had. I would not have read Basil Mitchell – and I’m so thankful I have done – without Billy’s testimony. Mitchell’s book on the justification of religious belief I highly recommend.
A few personal experiences with Billy: again, I defer to those of his students who are giving us such shining testimonies of his commitment to his students. I really got to know Billy more personally through academic conferences (and after hours with a gaggle of Billy’s friends over a pint at an Oxford pub) and then, once I had gone to SMU as university chaplain, through conversations in his other office at La Madaleine just off campus.
One memory that reinforces the testimony to Billy’s gentleness and generosity, even though he brooked no fools in intellectual debate, I’ll add to the list. At one of those scholarly gatherings, we had just listened to a florid presentation by a well-known scholar who was “hot” at the moment. Billy and I wound up at the coffee station at the same time. We started chatting. He turned to the lecture just given and said, “Brilliant! That lecture was brilliant. It was rubbish, of course, but brilliant.” All of this was said without a hint of malice. He meant every word. Simultaneously, he could honor the intricacies of a carefully crafted argument, yet, if incoherence lurked, cut to the heart to find it.
Once, I was presenting a paper in one of the small group paper sessions of the Wesleyan Theological Society’s annual gatherings. These settings are often the place where scholars offer a new theory for scrutiny and where graduate students learn the practices of the guild. On this occasion, there were maybe 15-20 people in the room. As I went to the podium, I turned to see Billy Abraham sitting toward the back and off to one side. Yes, my pulse quickened. Afterward, his comments were both gracious and instructive. I kept thinking about what he said. Eventually, I decided that my main point in the paper stood solid, though I could have done a much better job of explaining it. That short conversation with Billy, once again, made me a better thinker.
Finally, as many others have shared, I have watched Billy deliver talks, some scholarly and some more sermonic, given to large gatherings of Christians. Life few people could do, he combined rock-ribbed realism with Spirit-inspired confidence. Here we see his Wesleyan Christian heart right down to the core. Billy knew in whom he believed and he had committed everything to follow him.
Rest in peace, Brother Billy. Enjoy our Lord’s commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”