Unstable Origins in #UMC Doctrine, and a New Series of Posts

There are many people who labor under the mistaken impression that United Methodism is a non-doctrinal tradition. United Methodist identity, the argument goes, is constituted by a theological method rooted in a commitment to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, but not in any particular claims about God, Christ, or salvation. This understanding of United Methodism has its formal beginning in the 1972 Book of Discipline, which is itself a fascinating study in the establishment Protestant ethos of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Consider, for example, that this version of the Discipline much more commonly refers to “Doctrinal Statements” than “Doctrinal Standards.” Within the section on “Doctrinal Statements,” moreover, there is actually a section called, “The Fading Force of Doctrinal Discipline,” in which we read, “By the end of the nineteenth century, and thereafter increasingly in the twentieth, Methodist theology had become decidedly eclectic, with less and less specific attention paid to its Wesleyan sources as such. Despite continued and quite variegated theological development, there has been no significant project in formal doctrinal re-formulation in Methodism since 1808” (¶68, p. 44).

Consider also that the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are referred to in the 1972 Discipline as “Landmark Documents,” an ingeniously ambiguous term. Some of this ambiguity, however, is cleared up in the statement called “Doctrinal Guidelines in The United Methodist Church,” under “Our Theological Task”:

Since “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” cited in the first two Restrictive Rules of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church are not to be construed literally and juridically, then by what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling? The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. These four are interdependent; none can be defined unambiguously. They allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility and self-discipline, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in The United Methodist Church (¶ 70, p. 75).

There are a few things to notice here. First, the doctrinal standards are “not to be construed literally and juridically.” This might cause one to wonder in what sense they function as standards. Despite the fact that they are protected by the first Restrictive Rule, they have no real force. One has to be impressed with the ingenuity involved in this undermining of the very standards the first Restrictive Rule was trying to protect, even while leaving the rule itself intact.

Second, rather than allowing for literal and juridical doctrinal standards, we are to engage in” free inquiry within the boundaries defined by” scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet these “boundaries” cannot be “defined unambiguously” and should be interpreted with appropriate “flexibility.” By this point, we might ask why we would wish to use the term “boundaries” at all.

Third, there is no sense here that the material content of our doctrinal standards is very important. What is important, by contrast, is the process of “theologizing.” It seems that the set of claims we make about God is less important than the resources we use in developing those claims. This is akin to saying that the food I eat for dinner is less important than the ingredients that I use in cooking. If this seems to be an inversion of our common priorities when we cook, it is no less an inversion of priorities for Christian theology.

United Methodism, then, adopted an inherently ambiguous and unstable doctrinal position in 1972, four years after the merger that gave birth to our denomination. Yes, there were Doctrinal Standards, including the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, and, yes, they were protected by the first Restrictive Rule. Nevertheless, the Articles and Confession were gutted of any real meaning by this first iteration of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

Since then, some people have identified United Methodism as essentially a liberal tradition that has been threatened by an evangelical presence from its beginning. Others have suggested that United Methodism is basically an evangelical tradition that has been corrupted by liberalism. Still others have argued that the UMC is and always has been a “centrist” tradition that could accommodate a broad variety of positions. The fact of the matter, though, is that in 1972 United Methodism became an internally incoherent tradition. While we affirmed the significance of our doctrines, we simultaneously undercut them. This incoherence is at the root of many of our conflicts today.

In 1988, “Our Theological Task” was changed, specifying, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” It goes on to state, “Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation” (¶ 69, p. 80). This is a more precise and useful formulation than we find in 1972. It would be even more helpful, however, were the subsequent discussion of tradition to mention the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith as identifying at least some broad parameters for the “certain strands of tradition” that “have special importance as the historic foundation of our doctrinal heritage and distinctive expressions of our communal existence” (¶ 69, p. 83, cf. 2012 Discipline ¶ 105, p. 84). The 1988 version of “Our Theological Task” remains essentially the same in our current Discipline.

While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what we believe as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Like the Eucharist and baptism, like the reading of Scripture and practices of prayer, belief in the historic faith of the Church is a means of grace. It is a way by which we come to know God more fully. It prevents us from worshipping false gods and demonstrates for us the self-emptying love of God given for our salvation. It provides for us a model of self-giving love and leads us into lives of gratitude. It forms our prayer life and, in fact, changes the way in which we view everything around us. Insofar as we have misunderstood or neglected the role of doctrine in our life together, we have impoverished ourselves spiritually.

Because we believe in the importance of these basic Christian beliefs, the website of United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy is beginning a new series of blog posts on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. The first of these, by Hal Knight, will take as its topic the Holy Trinity. I hope you enjoy these posts and find them edifying. May God bless your reading.

13 thoughts on “Unstable Origins in #UMC Doctrine, and a New Series of Posts

  1. We have got so caught up in the world, we can’t here God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. We have gotten to the situation that John Wesley has become irrelevant. This is so sad for such a great body that now only listens to politics.

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  2. Could you please provide transparency concerning individuals, institutions (if any) and/or caucus groups behind this website? Is it intended as a forum for all views of UM Orthodoxy or only curated like-minded views (and, if the later, who does the curating? Is this intended perhaps as a new membership organization? Who are the financial backers.

    As you are claiming the mantle of scholarship, it seems fair to expect a high level transparency. As you are in early days, I hope you will institute a comment policy that expects real names and rejects anonymous posters.

    (BTW, I was attracted to the site by a post by David Watson who is one of your contributors. I support UM Orthodoxy in spirit although I gather my sense of that tends to a more broad or “generous” definition that what is envisioned here. I respect Dr Watson’s writing, so am hopeful this new endeavor will be constructive towards building up the UMC).

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    • Dave, there is no caucus group behind this site or organization. In fact, we’re really only an organization in a very loose sense. It’s more of a fellowship. We don’t really have “members.” We have a Facebook page that you may join if you would like. Steve Rankin and I curate the blog, with some help from a few others.

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  3. It sounds like the progressive/liberal branch has used lack of strong doctrine to drive the wedge deep between themselves and orthodox evangelicals. I am frustrated that we read the Apostles’ Creed which is straightforward orthodox doctrine but many bishops and pastors don’t abide by it. Wesley would not have allowed this. Why do we? It looks like the UMC needs a reformation to trim the dying parts of the grapevine which produce only inedible fruit. Over 40 years of weak doctrine and 125 years of weak doctrine in the ME Church must be cleared away so that good ground can be sewn with strong plants. Creed up, be pruned, or be uprooted to make way for a stronger church. Social concerns and political stances do not make for sound doctrine. Revival is needed desperately, but I don’t know where to go from here. I have been educated in Christian Apologetics, but what can I do to save our denomination?

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  4. My formal education is from Biola University and the related Talbot seminary classes. Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola) teaches orthodoxy and evangelical Christianity which unfortunately aren’t priorities at most of the UMC supported Seminaries. If you have Progressive professors you will wind up with liberal progressive pastors in the majority of cases. Just wanted you all to know that orthodoxy still exists in the western jurisdiction.

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  5. “I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two.”

    Agreed.

    The New Testament and the early Church did not separate belief and doing as we do. Belief was not just a mental acknowledgement of facts about Jesus Christ. It was what I like to call be-living.

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  6. Excellent article. The history (and content) of our doctrinal standards is too little known, and I pray this discussion is seen far and wide. Strange as it is, many in the UMC view that brief 16 years between 1972 and 1988 as some sort of golden age which was ruined by crusading fundamentalists. Just as this article alluded to, evangelical renewal movements have often been portrayed as some sort of outside attack, as if the world of “mainline” or “mainstream” Methodist theology began in ’68 or ’72 quadrennium, as if we didn’t have 250+ years of broader Methodist/Wesleyan tradition to draw upon, a movement which has actually, demonstrably, changed the world, and which has actual, definable, stable, doctrine (expressed well in the “Documents” section of this website). Thank you, thank you, for the work you all have begun to do here.

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  7. We are all, as Methodist, pledged to follow “One Book”. Their are no babies baptized in the Bible and Baptists are closer to “Our One Book” literally than we are. Baptism by immersion in a building or pool and not in a river is just as inventive as sprinkling or wetting a baby a baby is inventive or “progressive”. A great deal has changed over 2000 years. Our Book has not changed but our knowledge of the Book and our ability to read and evaluate Scripture based on the cultures of the times should give us an understanding much deeper and more theologically accurate than other times in history.

    Unstable has a negative implication and is not what I would call the Methodist denomination. Methodists are simply bound by one book as interpreted by every individual reader with a clear set of guidelines carefully hidden away.

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    • It can easily be inferred that babies were part of the two families in Acts who had all of their families baptized. There are no prohibitions against baptizing babies and Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” There is very early record of baptisms by immersion, pouring and sprinkling and even with oil. This is found in the Didache from 50 AD even before the Scriptures were canonized. Or hey, let’s be literalists here. Go and baptize, teaching them all that I have commanded. It’s God’s gift offered without a price.

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      • I am sure Christians were quick to make the Baptism rite or sanction as easily done as possible. Especially in arid climates like in the OPEC nations.
        For those not aware of the Didache, section 7 follows:
        7 Concerning Baptism
        7:1 Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way: After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water.
        7:2 But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, then in warm.
        7:3 If you have very little, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
        7:4 Before the baptism, both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.
        —————————————————
        Yes; it appears Baptist are not closer to the first church/

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  8. David Watson has offered an excellent review of the history and evolution of United Methodist “doctrinal standards” in the last third of the 20th century. The 1972 statement on doctrinal standards in the UM Discipline both reflected the mainline Protestant theological spirit of the age and fueled greater theological confusion within the United Methodist Church. The 1988 revisions were a significant improvement while still leaving too much ambiguity. The practice of placing theological method over theological content became so deeply ingrained in our seminaries and in the church that the impact has been far-reaching and does indeed lie at the heart of much of the division and struggle we are experiencing yet today in the UMC. John Wesley, in his sermon on “Catholic Spirit,” noted that Methodists “did not yet have their faith to find.” He offered Methodists in America not just a theological method, but a version of the Articles of Religion suited to the new land. I look forward to the series on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Hopefully they were contribute to much needed discussion and renewed clarity about the faith handed down from the apostles.

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  9. When I got to the last sentence of your quote from the 1972 Book of Discipline I was reminded of a line from a paper by William Abraham (United Methodists at the End of the Mainline, 1998): “The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends.”

    In a general way he covers some of the same territory you have written about here, but not from the perspective of The Book of Discipline. I appreciate your writing about this and look forward to the following series of blog posts.

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