By Dr. Kenneth Loyer, Senior Pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church of Spry, York, PA
Article II — Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man (Articles of Religion)
Article II — Jesus Christ (Confession of Faith)
At the very center of Christian faith and practice stands Jesus Christ. Christians throughout history and around the world today, regardless of their ecclesial traditions, hold that basic claim in common. For those of us in the United Methodist tradition, and for other interested parties, several questions then emerge. What specifically does United Methodist doctrine teach about Jesus Christ? To what extent does United Methodist Christology represent the teaching of Scripture and early Christian creeds, and why does that matter? Guided by such questions, this post will explore, albeit initially, the biblical and creedal basis of United Methodist Christology as set forth in the Articles of Religion (abbreviated as AR followed by the article number) and the Confession of Faith (CF).
I will focus on two articles in particular, AR 2 and CF 2, which can be found here: http://umorthodoxy.org/documents/. These articles present a number of key themes that not only express the essence of Christology in United Methodist doctrine but also illuminate the biblical and creedal basis for confessing Jesus Christ in the United Methodist tradition. Some of the most prominent themes include the following.
Son and Word. Both articles name Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father and the Word of God, titles that find ample support both in the Bible and in early Christian creeds. Scripturally, for example, one thinks of Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) and the prologue of John’s Gospel, telling of the Word made flesh (John 1:1-4; cf. “the eternal Word made flesh” [CF 2]). These same Christological titles appear in Christian creeds such as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which describe Jesus as God’s “only Son,” and the Definition of Chalcedon (“one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ”).
Why do these titles matter? For Jesus Christ to be named uniquely as God’s Word is an indication that this particular person is God incarnate. The Word of the Lord came upon various prophets, but Jesus Christ is the Word of God. His status as the Son of God is crucial for us as well, and it makes possible our adoption into God’s family; by grace through faith we become daughters and sons of God in Jesus the Son.
Full divinity and humanity. The two articles cited above also affirm the two natures of Christ, fully divine and fully human. The unity of these two natures in one person is described in ways similar to the Definition of Chalcedon and its balanced statement of the two natures of Christ united without confusion, change, division, or separation: the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are “never to be divided” (AR 2) and are “perfectly and inseparably united” (CF 2). Furthermore, both articles mention the Virgin Birth (cf. Matthew 1:20-25) as part of the explanation of the hypostatic union.
Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.
Atonement. Without presenting a developed doctrine of atonement, and without endorsing only one atonement theory, AR2 and CF 2 teach that Jesus atones for our sins. Through his life, suffering, and death, Jesus reconciles us to God (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). “As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross” (CF 2). He offered himself as a “sacrifice” both for our guilt and our actual sins (AR 2). In this sense, these articles are similar, for example, to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which link Jesus’ death to the forgiveness of sins but stop short of a detailed explanation of precisely how that is the case. The result is a set of parameters or broad outline within which various atonement theories can be developed and situated, all based on the foundational point that Jesus has died for our salvation.
Of what significance is the atoning work of Christ for us today? Here again, the stakes are high. If Christ has not atoned for us, then we would not be reconciled to God, but rather alienated from the Source of life. Positively, because of the sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus—even to the point of death on a cross—we can be forgiven, set free from bondage to sin, and renewed in God’s image to bear witness to this ministry of reconciliation in the world.
Resurrection and Judgment. While AR 2 focuses on the person of Christ (especially the perfect unity of Christ’s divine and human natures) and his atoning suffering and death, CF 2 refers also to the resurrection and judgment. However, that is not to suggest that the themes of resurrection and judgment are absent from the Articles of Religion as a whole. In fact, those two themes are covered in AR 3 (“Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day”). So both the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith explicitly affirm the resurrection of Christ from the dead and his role as judge of all humankind, two concepts that, along with the others mentioned above, figure prominently in scriptural and creedal accounts of the person and work of Christ.
What is the relevance of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming judgment for us here and now? These matters are also vital to the message of salvation. As Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). But the gospel proclaims that Christ is alive, that he is Lord over even death itself, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead. We can live each day in the confidence that come what may, Jesus Christ is God with us and God for us.
There is obviously much more that could be said about United Methodist Christology. For a fuller account, see, for example, D. Stephen Long with Andrew Kinsey, Keeping Faith: An Ecumenical Commentary on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Wesleyan Tradition, especially chapter three. Yet even simply the initial analysis provided here is enough to point to and support the conclusion that AR 2 and CF 2 have a clear basis in the Bible and early Christian creeds, and speak to issues that matter still today. The stubbornly widespread myth that United Methodism is a non-doctrinal tradition might persist, to our own detriment, but there is no denying that The United Methodist Church does indeed have doctrine. When it comes to the subject of Jesus Christ, the central and decisive figure of the Christian faith and life, United Methodist doctrine stands on solid ground—rooted in scriptural and creedal sources, and thus capable, through the Spirit’s ongoing work and our faithful response, of bearing good fruit in this and every age, for the cause of Christ the Lord.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, ultimately these teachings about Jesus Christ are either true or not true. If they are true, then given their magnitude and depth, they are of utmost importance. If they are not true, then they are of no importance. What they cannot be—and this is what I believe a denomination that prides itself on its moderation must hear clearly—is of moderate importance.
I believe that these teachings are true. Our United Methodist heritage tells us, unequivocally, that they are true. The Scriptures and creeds tell us, also unequivocally, that they are true. May our hearts be open to receive them as such, in the name of the One who is the truth, and the way, and the life, Jesus Christ.