Did the Resurrection Actually Happen?

Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place Church, the East Dallas campus of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX.

Article III (Articles of Religion) — Of the Resurrection of Christ
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.

Article II (Confession of Faith)— Jesus Christ
We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged.

Did the Resurrection actually happen?  The Apostle Paul, writing in sometime in the 50’s A.D., had this to say: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).  In other words, Christianity rises and falls with the Resurrection of Jesus.  But, the issue for many modern people is that though the Resurrection seems like a nice story, we know that dead people stay dead and that it couldn’t possibly have happened.  So, did the Resurrection happen, or not?  I think it did, and here are three reasons why.

Rosenthal

(By the Way: It Wasn’t a Spiritual or Emotional Resurrection)

As a way around the difficulty of the Resurrection, some people say that what the Gospels report is some kind of spiritual or emotional sense that Jesus was still with his disciples after his death.  This view does not at all match what the Gospels themselves say, namely that after the Resurrection:

The Gospels are very clear: the Resurrection was a bodily resurrection, and not a vague spiritual sense that Jesus was still alive.

So, what reasons do we have to believe that the Resurrection happened?

Reason 1: The Women Witnesses
All the canonical Gospels agree that the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the Resurrection of Jesus were women.  In our world, that detail doesn’t surprise us, but in the ancient world this would have been a shocking detail because women weren’t considered reliable witnesses in the ancient world.

If you were making up a resurrection hoax in the 1st century Mediterranean world, you would never say that women were the first witnesses of your story.  So, why do all the gospels insist that women were the first witnesses?

The simplest reason for the inclusion of the women witnesses: because the Gospels are merely reporting what actually happened.  The inconvenient truth of the women witnesses is a detail that argues for the plausibility of the Resurrection.

Reason 2: The Deaths of All Involved
Many people have died for lies that they believed were true, but groups of people do not die for what they know is a lie.

Virtually all the disciples of Jesus were martyred for their faith in him.  If they were making up the Resurrection, then they would have recanted their stories at the point of death.  But they didn’t.

Colson

Chuck Colson [image credit: http://goo.gl/iDpjun%5D

 Chuck Colson, one of the Nixon men involved in the Watergate break-in, had this to say:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Chuck Colson

The martyrdom of the early Christians is a strong argument in favor of the truth of their claims.

Reason 3: It Was Testimony, Not Legend
Modern people will say that the Resurrection is a legend, a folktale that took shape over generations and that consequently grew in the telling, like George Washington and the Cherry Tree.

The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t fit the facts: the letters of Paul began to be circulated around 20 years after the death of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark within 40 years, and the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John within 60 years (at the latest).  In other words, Christians were publicly talking about the Resurrection within the lifetime of its witnesses.  Anyone who wanted to investigate the truth of the Resurrection merely had to talk to its witnesses.

A legend takes generations to develop, but the Gospels (and other New Testament materials) were written down and circulated within a generation or two of the events of that first Easter Sunday, i.e., way too soon a time for a legend to develop.

Rather than being a legend, the Resurrection was testimony.

Auschwitz

Miriam Ziegler, 79, Paula Lebovics, 81, Gabor Hirsch, 85, and Eva Kor, 80, point themselves out on a photo taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation. [image credit: http://goo.gl/80LkhW%5D

 Testimony is a valid form of historical memory.  People who experienced the events say, “I was there.  I saw it.”  January was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and there are thousands of people who lived through the Nazi concentration camps who can still testify today to their experience, 70 years later.  One of the reasons Holocaust deniers have a hard time gaining a hearing is because there are people who can point to their blue tattoos and say, “No, it did happen: I was there.”

Rosenthal

US survivor Jack Rosenthal shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm as he visits the former Auschwitz concentration camp. [image credit: http://goo.gl/80LkhW%5D

 Just as the remaining Holocaust survivors’ testimony is available to anyone wanting to investigate the Holocaust today, so the Resurrection witnesses’ testimony was available to anyone wanting to investigate the Resurrection at the time that the New Testament was taking shape.

Conclusion: the Resurrection is Plausible
The Resurrection cannot be proved in a laboratory.  But, we can examine the facts and decide that it is more plausible that the Resurrection happened than that it did not happen.

Now, some people will accept the above and yet still insist: “We know that dead people stay dead, and therefore the Resurrection could not have happened.”  The problem with that position is that history is full of events that seemed impossible and that actually happened.  I admit that the Resurrection is unique as an historical event, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarilyimpossible.  In any historical inquiry, we have to look at the evidence and see where it takes us.  In this case, I believe the evidence argues in favor of the Resurrection.

The reason discussions like this are important are not because they can bring anyone across the threshold of faith (only God can do that), but because I’ve found that some people won’t even approach the door of faith if they believe that the claims of the faith cannot possibly be true; arguments can’t cause someone to believe, but they can knock down bad reasons for not believing.

Here’s hoping this little post might help someone somewhere come a bit closer.

On the Resurrection of Christ

By David F. Watson, United Theological Seminary 

Article III – Of the Resurrection of Christ (Articles of Religion)  

The following post on the resurrection is a repost of http://davidfwatson.me/2015/03/29/if-christ-is-not-raised/

If Christ is not raised, our faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. This is what Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 15:17. Our entire salvation depends upon the resurrection of Christ.

As we enter into Holy Week, there will be a number of posts in social media about how the resurrection of Christ is a metaphor for liberation, anti-imperialism, compassion, or something else, along with the claim that this metaphor, rather than the raising up of Jesus’ body, is what truly matters. You will read people who say that they do not understand the resurrection to be the “resuscitation of a corpse,” or vaguely reference other ancient Mediterranean myths in which venerated figures rose from the dead. There will be articles in the various newsweeklies with headlines like, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” There will be “documentaries” on the History Channel purporting to investigate the reality of this claim.

ResurrectionOf course, no orthodox Christian believes that the resurrection was the resuscitation of a corpse. Rather, those who read the Bible and have taken the time to learn and understand the doctrine of the resurrection will know that it refers to the transformation of Jesus’ body into something that is continuous with, but still different from, the body he had before his death. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, there are both heavenly and earthly bodies. He is clear that the heavenly body is in some way similar to, but in important ways different from, our earthly bodies. In the way that various types of bodies on earth differ from one another (say, bodies for birds, fish, and people), so the heavenly body will be different from the earthly one.

Resurrection is about bodies: no body, no resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the raising and transformation of a body, the “first fruits” of what is to come (1 Cor 15:20). “First fruits” is an agricultural metaphor. At the time of the harvest, one would gather a small portion of the crops on the first day and gather the rest subsequently. That, says Paul, is what the resurrection of Jesus is like. Christ has been gathered in first, but we will also participate in the same kind of transformation. Our eternal life with God will be embodied, but differently from the way we experience embodiment now.

There is, of course, much that we cannot know about the resurrection body. Like other great doctrines of the faith, the resurrection is a mystery. To be clear, to call something a “mystery” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing of it. It means that there will be much we don’t understand. Understanding incompletely is different from a total lack of understanding. We can know certain things about God and make certain truth claims about God because we have received these through divine revelation, and even though God’s being vastly surpasses our ability to understand, we can still hold as true that which has been revealed.

We do know this much, though: if Christ is not raised, then our faith is futile. Why is this? It is because the resurrection of Christ shows us the telos of our salvation. Like other Wesleyans, I believe that salvation is a process. It involves transformation of our lives in the here and now and eternal life in the age to come. In the resurrection of Christ, we get a glimpse of what our eternal life is to be. It is to be embodied. It is to have continuity with our life before death. Yet it is also to be incorruptible. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Cor 15:42).

In fact, our resurrection is part of a much greater work that God is bringing into being. God is making all things new. God has begun to form a new creation. Our salvation in Christ is our participation in that new creation. So as Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:17-19:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

God has a telos in mind not just for people, but for all creation, and our great privilege is to participate in it.

One of the great cruelties of modernity is that it formed generations of people in such a way that they could no longer affirm belief in the great hope of the Christian life. It took away the expectation of divine action, if not belief in God entirely. We came up with a variety of ways to maintain the structures, language, and practices of the Church, while dispensing with belief in the divine actions that gave rise to the Church in the first place.

I once heard a minister speaking to a class of continuing visitors who were interested in learning about United Methodism. One of the participants asked him, “Do United Methodists believe in eternal life?” He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Well, personally, I do not.” I’ve always remembered that moment with sadness. First of all, it’s unlikely that anyone in that class ever came back to the church. Second, I lament the hopelessness of this minister who expected nothing of God beyond the brief moments we have in these mortal bodies. What could one who believed in this way say to the dying? What hope could one offer at funerals? And how painful it must be to envision your own life simply fading into nothingness at the end of your days.

I wonder at times how we have come to expect so little of God. The biblical story and the great doctrines of the faith teach us quite the opposite. What God promises to us is greater than we could ever imagine. So have hope in the resurrection.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Cor 15:54-57).

Jesus Christ in United Methodist Doctrine: Exploring the Biblical and Creedal Basis

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.

Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

By Dr. Hal Knight, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology 

rublev's trinity

Article I: Of Faith in the Holy Trinity (Articles of Religion)

Article I: God (Confession of Faith

If there is one doctrine that is foundational to Christianity it is the doctrine of the Trinity. Both the United Methodist Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith begin with the insistence that God is triune.

Yet if there is one teaching that is a stumbling block to the faithful and a scandal to everyone else the Trinity is the prime candidate. It just doesn’t make sense, people say, that one God can be three persons. They would happily believe it if only we can explain it; they would gladly have faith in a triune God is only they could understand it.

John Wesley argued that asking how three persons could be one God is the wrong question. “I believe… that God is Three in One,” he said in “On the Trinity,” “But the manner I do not comprehend….” The real question was not how God is triune but what difference it makes. Why is it, as Wesley insists, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not “a point of indifference” but “a truth of last importance” that “enters into the very heart of Christianity” and “lies at the root of all vital religion?”

One reason is the Trinity is necessary to rightly understand the revelation of God in scripture. It attests to the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit without falling into tritheism. When Jesus says in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one” yet also says in John 10:36 he was sent by the Father, he is claiming equality and unity with, and distinction from, the Father all at once. Paul in Colossians states that all things were created through Christ (1:16), the fullness of God dwells in him (1:19), and in Christ the fullness of deity dwells bodily ((2:9). Throughout all the gospels Jesus does things only God can do, and claims authority that belongs to God alone, all the time continuing to pray to the Father.

To cite another example, in John 14 Jesus says to see him is to see the Father, yet he is going to the Father; moreover he promises the Father will send another advocate like himself, the Holy Spirit. What are we to make of these claims of divine diversity and oneness? What are we to make of the practice of early Christians to ascribe worship to all three even as they insisted there is one God alone? The doctrine of the Trinity provides the parameters for our faithfully speaking about and to God.

A second contribution of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it says something about the nature of God. To say God is triune is to say God is essentially a relationship of love. We rightly speak of the Trinity as three persons, but only if we do not understand “person” as an autonomous individual. The three persons are constituted by their relationship with one another, and are one God through their mutually indwelling one another.

Thus we do not say the Father, Son, and Spirit are three “parts” of God for that denies their interpersonal relationality. Nor do we speak of three “sides” of God for that denies their distinctiveness. Nor do we call them three “members” of God for that denies their unity.

Frequently I have encountered the language of “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.” This is especially unhelpful as it echoes the Arian heresy that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were the highest of created beings, but different in kind from the God who created them. The Arian assumption is that divinity would be compromised by entering our world of finitude and change, hence God created Christ and the Spirit as non-divine agents to be involved in history. The doctrine of the Trinity denies this aloof deity and instead says God actually enters our history in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This points to the third contribution of the doctrine of the Trinity: only a God who enters our world can love us, save us, and change us. This the Triune God does in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Therefore Charles Wesley can write “O Love Divine, what has Thou done? The immortal God hath died for me.” Therefore we can joyfully proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord. Therefore our hearts and lives can be transformed by the Holy Spirit who dwells within, until we become, in Charles Wesley’s words, “transcripts of the Trinity,” loving God and others as we have been loved by God.

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.

Incarnation, Salvation, and Hope

David F. Watson, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament, United Theological Seminary

Christmas is about many things to many people. For some people, it is about shopping and presents. For others, it is about spending time with family. For the orthodox believer, however, Christmas is about the Incarnation. At a particular point in history, in a particular place, among particular people, Christ was born—fully divine and fully human. God took on the realities of human existence.

I love to sing Christmas hymns. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are among my favorites. I imagine a peaceful scene of Christ in a manger, a moment of calm before the storm. I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, prayed at the traditional site of Christ’s birth in a grotto under theChurch of the Nativity Grotto church, and marveled at the droves of people who stand in line to take in this venerated site. People from many nations, of many different races, and all different stripes of Christianity come to stand and pray where we believe that God was born into this world as a human child. This is where salvation came into the world, where God’s decisive act against sin and death took place.

For the orthodox believer, Christmas is about the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is about salvation. As we read in Ephesians 2:1-10,

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

We who were once far off from God have been brought near. This is not our own doing. It is God’s gift to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God came to us as a savior and offered us life where we once there was only death.

We have a savior because we so desperately need one. Even as Christmas approaches, the reminders of the brokenness of this world are all around us. Open up your browser to the CNN homepage. What do you see?

Apart from Christ, there is simply no hope, but in Christ there is limitless hope. There is hope for today and hope for a future that extends into eternity. Christ is a wellspring of hope–abundant, overflowing, ever-present hope, the signs of which are right before us, if we have eyes to see. Through Christ, broken relationships can be mended.  People can overcome addiction, fear, guilt, and shame. Through Christ, people of different races can work together for the common good. The social order can change.  Through Christ, we can have eternal life, life that begins with new birth in the here and now.

For the orthodox believer, Christmas is about the Incarnation, the Incarnation is about salvation, and salvation means hope.

The human condition is that we are broken, but even in our brokenness, even with all of our repeated betrayals of the One who called us into being, God has loved us enough to come in person. There is nothing more important than this, no more profound truth than this. We need a savior. Thank God, we have one.

Rotting from the Body

Scott T. Kisker, Professor of Church History, Associate Dean for Residential Programs, United Theological Seminary 

The saying goes that a fish rots from the head. That may be true of fish. It is not true of the people called Methodist. I hear a lot of complaints that the United Methodist bishops have lost the ability to hold themselves accountable to the vows they made. The bishops are not where lack of discipline began. The reality is that Methodism, with regard to discipline, in our time and historically, began rotting from the body.

This was true in our split with regard to slavery. We first stopped holding ordinary lay Christians accountable to the Discipline. The rule that Methodists could not own or trade human beings was on the books, but as we began to grow and reach into higher echelons of society we started to relax that standard to be culturally relevant.

For a while we held on to the standard that clergy needed to be movable and acceptable to any part of the connection. Clericalism crept in. A gap in discipline and expected holiness (not in vows and office) opened between clergy and ordinary Christians. Then that began to relax, and although technically on the books, the church began to look the other way, even when ordained itinerant preachers might own a slave.

The church then resorted to a kind of regionalism, where certain parts of the discipline that spoke about slavery were left out of the printed Book of Discipline in certain parts of the church. South Carolina’s Annual Conference declared that slavery was a civil issue, not a moral one, and the church did not have anything to say about the matter.

All this was leading to a split, but the church did not finally split until the lack of discipline reached the level of bishops. Slaveholding by a bishop finally split the church. The head was rotten. We seem to be repeating history.

I write this as a person who needs to be held accountable to discipline for my own behavior with regard to avarice (the deep issue at play in the practice of slavery), lust, wrath, sloth, and the rest of the seven deadly sins as well. Recognizing the need to hold ourselves to discipline is not to become Pharisees. It is actually an acknowledgement in humility that none of us can stand on our own.

Every Christian, precisely because we are sinners, needs to be held accountable to the outward manifestations of sin, whether slaveholding, or pornography, or “gaming,” or gossip. Our attempts to justify some outward manifestations of sin, generally those to which we are prone, while looking down at those who struggle with besetting sins to which we are not, is true phariseeism.

There is talk about reform of our Methodist Church that will institute means of accountability to the episcopacy. While that may be necessary, it will not matter unless we retrieve what makes us Methodist, which is that discipline is not something for the bishops, or for the clergy, but for Christians. If the body of Christ is not willing to be held accountable to a standard of holiness they cannot live up to on their own, there is not reason for the church to exist. It is no longer a salvific alternative to the destructive forces in the society around it, and there is no point to reforming its episcopacy.

The true head of the church is not rotten, cannot be rotten, for he is perfect love. But the true head of the church, in perfect love, may dispose of a rotten fish. That is what happened to the Methodist Episcopal Church and it may happen to The United Methodist Church if we do not, all of us, return to the discipline of the Church.

The Creator God Who Redeems

Kimberly D. Reisman, Executive Director, World Methodist Evangelism

This fall I have been teaching Evangelism and Mission to seminarians at The School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. The class meets for three intensive weekends throughout October and November. Early on, my husband, John, joined me for a wonderful long weekend. It was our first attempt at a “working vacation” – I worked, he vacationed. Well, I vacationed a little too, I must admit.

During the day on Friday, before my class time began that evening, John and I hiked up to Rattlesnake Ledge, just outside Seattle. It was an energizing hike and the view at the top was spectacular – a great reward for the effort it took to get there. As we hiked, the beauty of it all pressed in upon me and one thought kept running through my mind: creation is never an afterthought in Christian faith; it is foundational. All else moves outward from there.

That idea isn’t always as obvious as it should be. It’s easy to flip things around and think of God as the Redeemer who also creates, rather than as the Creator who also redeems. But that would be a mistake borne of placing ourselves at the center of the universe, rather than the one who truly belongs there – God.

God creates. God redeems. Christian faith is deepened and enriched when we get the order right. This is especially true in the arena of evangelism, where our focus is often on individuals and our fervent hope that they might come into relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no doubt this is an extremely important focus. Yet something significant is lost when the lens of our spiritual life remains set on zoom rather than wide angle.

The faith we receive when we encounter Jesus Christ is faith in a Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course, the second person of the Trinity is vital; but our creeds remind us of the order: we believe in the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Starting there widens the scope of redemption considerably – it is indeed good news for all creation.

As we reach out to others on behalf of Jesus Christ, we would do well to remember that sin – our need for redemption – is not the reason for God’s grace. God’s grace is part of God’s very nature. It was alive and active within our Triune God and bore creation into existence long before sin entered the picture. And it will abound overwhelmingly, long after sin has been eliminated and God’s new creation is experienced in all its fullness.

As Christians, we worship a creating, redeeming, sustaining God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the God who redeems not only human beings, but the entirety of creation, which Paul tells us is even now groaning, as God continues work within it for God’s redemptive purposes. We worship a creating, redeeming, sustaining God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the God who is working, even now, to eliminate evil and bring to fruition the justice and peace of the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. It is this God who creates. It is this God who redeems.

To the Ends of the Earth

By Felicia Howell Laboy, Assistant Professor of Evangelization in the Heisel Chair, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Acts 1:8 has had a profound impact on how I consider the nature of the work to which I have been called, first as pastor and now as a professor of evangelization. In times past, I have mostly considered this verse in terms of the mandate to evangelize the world beginning with those closest to me. Of late, however, I’ve been considering what this verse might be saying to me personally and to each of us as God calls us to move beyond familiar territory (i.e., our own “Jerusalems” and “Judeas”) and to go to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Specifically, I’ve been pondering what this means in terms of moving beyond my comfort zone to those that I may, and if I am honest, probably do, hold contempt for (i.e., Samaritans and Gentiles).  More importantly, of late this verse has been challenging me to consider what it means not only to invite, but to live in close fellowship with those not of my “group,” especially those not of my socio-economic class and those whom I have considered enemies together as the Body of Christ.

I think about this even more as I consider all of the divisions in our church and as I consider Wesley’s insistence that the people called Methodist grow in love of God and love of neighbor – especially when the neighbor is radically different than I am. Simply put, I believe that if my growth in holiness is determined not only by my growth in my relationship to the triune God, but also in my love for my neighbor, then the question is not “What must I do?” but rather “How must I do these things?” First and foremost, I think it means that my neighbor is not meant to be a nameless “project” that I work on/fix to get “brownie points” with God or my colleagues. Unfortunately, this is commonly how we act in our dealings with “the poor” and “the marginalized.” Often we engage with the poor in one-way relationships, never taking the time to make real and lasting friendships with them – friendships that may cause us to question and challenge our own values and beliefs.   Furthermore, from a Wesleyan perspective true friendship with the poor and marginalized is not optional. In his extended correspondence with Miss J.C. March, John Wesley is adamant that she will not grow in holiness by only focusing on works of piety. Rather, he contends that she will only experience lower levels of holiness if she does not engage in friendship with the poor that is beyond mere charity. This is most evidently seen when she finally admits that her unwillingness to befriend the poor is because she is a woman of high stature and because she is sure that they are “unrefined and unkempt.” Wesley responds:

I have found some of the uneducated poor who have exquisite taste and sentiment; and many, very many, of the rich who have scarcely any at all. But I do not speak of this: I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward in their way to heaven. And they have (many of them) faith and the love of God in a larger measure than any persons I know. Creep in among these in spite of dirt and an hundred disgusting circumstances, and thus put off the gentlewoman. Do not confine your conversation to genteel and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do; but I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord or any of His Apostles.[1]

Even more challenging is that the evangelical task may be not only to those for whom (if I am honest) I have contempt, but to those whom I believe to be enemies. As Howard Thurman, in his Jesus and the Disinherited, reminds us, there are varying degrees of enemies. The first are those enemies with whom I have personal contact, and because of whom I have endured some level of offense. Then there are those enemies who, by their very acts, bring shame and humiliation on me and people like me, even though we are thought to be communally connected. Finally, there are enemies who benefit by social structures which oppress others, especially those with whom I share the greatest affiliation.   Hatred of enemies can run deep, especially when enemies are persons with whom I may have close physical contact but no real fellowship. In fact, one could argue that the very reason we are enemies is that I am sure that “I know them” – I know how they act, how they think and given a particular situation what they will do. The problem with this line of thinking is that I create caricatures of people, objectifying them rather than getting to know them and allowing them to know me – not superficially, but authentically.

The challenge and the call to be witnesses even to the “ends of the earth” must extend not only to those who may be the subject of our pity, but also to those who, if I am honest, I call “enemies.” Furthermore, our witness must call for authentic, accountable relationships in which we are seeking to be reconciled into one — the Body of Christ. Our collective witness should be one that displays diversity in unity which does not privilege one cultural norm over the other or that is merely a contractual armistice of individuals who only associate as long as it is beneficial.

The renewal movement begun by John and Charles Wesley to which we are heirs was both highly evangelistic and Eucharistic. The Eucharist leads us into a communion that goes beyond our contempt and our pity. We must therefore move beyond inviting others, especially those we hold in contempt, to assimilate, to “join our side.”   This is to make proselytes and not converts. Nor are we to jettison the core of our faith – Christ and Him crucified. This is to be relativistic. Perhaps, a more excellent way is to begin to see each other as people, created in the image of God and to begin holy conferencing in ways that invite intellectual virtue, not intellectual vice. Let us engage in holy conferencing that calls us to listen first so that we might understand where the other is coming from before formulating our arguments to tear them down. And even if and when we disagree, we can do so without dehumanizing our enemies or ourselves. In this way, we might truly move onto perfection. Nonetheless, we will grow in our love of God and of our neighbor. And in a world where many outside the church want nothing to do with it because they see us as argumentative, judgmental, and dogmatic, with no room for questions or doubts, they might be encouraged to come and wrestle with us through the questions.

[1] Letter to Miss March (7 February 1776), Letters (Telford) 6:206–7.