Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 14th, 2015 by Joel Watts

In the #UMC, the Creed supercedes John Wesley

umc logoAndrew Thompson has a post on the recent stories on Wesley and the Creed(s). I want to take this one step further and suggest that the Creed does actually matter to The United Methodist Church, superseding our doctrinal standards. While we are under a “big tent” philosophy of doctrine and theology, the Apostles’ Creed is the top of the tent pole, something even our Book of Discipline supports.

What is the Big Tent? Oddly enough, it is not an “anything goes” approach to theology. Albert Outler, one of the progenitors of this philosophy (and at the heart, it is a good one), writes,

But if we are to accept our responsibility for seeking intellecta for our faith, in any other fashion than a “theological system” or, alternatively, a juridical statement of “doctrinal standards,” then this method of a conjoint recourse to the fourfold guidelines of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, may hold more promise for an evangelical and ecumenical future than we have realized as yet—by comparison, for example, with biblicism, or traditionalism, or, rationalism, or empiricism. It is far more valid than the reduction of Christian authority to the dyad of “Scripture” and “experience” (so common in Methodist ranks today). The “quadrilateral” requires of a theologian no more than what he or she might reasonably be held accountable for: which is to say, a familiarity with Scripture that is both critical and faithful; plus, an acquaintance with the wisdom of the Christian past; plus, a taste for logical analysis as something more than a debater’s weapon; plus, a vital, inward faith that is upheld by the assurance of grace and its prospective triumphs, in this life. (The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley, 16–17)

This philosophy has suffered severe corruption since Outler and 1968. The “Big Tent” view is not in of itself wrong, only it has become corrupt because latitudinarians are in control. In other words, make no mistake about this post: I am for the “Big Tent” philosophy only if that Big Tent is anchored on the Apostles’ Creed as the Book of Discipline demands, not to mention Wesley himself.

In what way does the Book of Discipline demand it? Let me start first by putting the “doctrinal standards” in their place.1 There are four.

  • Articles of Religion
  • Confessions of Faith
  • Wesley’s Standard Sermons
  • Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament

What are “standards?” In paragraph 103, we read of the formulation of these “standards” and their original intent. First, Wesley never taught anything different than the Church of England’s standards, and he insisted on this numerous times. Yet, when it came to his societies, he felt the need to insure their distinctiveness, meaning he made sure that those who preached on Society property did so according to the Wesleyan view. Note, he did not do away with any other trappings of Christianity, only insured it was understood in a Wesleyan way. The Sermons and Notes “function as the traditional standard exposition of distinctive Methodist teaching” according to the Book of Discipline.2 Thus, we have to understand the “doctrinal standards” as “models of doctrinal exposition.”

Doctrinal exposition is  doctrine is defined, presented, and used as an evangelical tool (i.e., the spreading of the Gospel). The “doctrinal standards” make up our Methodist doctrinal constitution and as such cannot be altered in how they appear, but does not limit the United Methodist Church to them.3 For instance, we cannot allow Calvinism in the “Big Tent” (and indeed, it should fall under chargeable offenses); however, we cannot prevent the teaching of the “descent into hell/hades” found in the Apostles’ Creed, even though nothing in our “doctrinal standards” calls for it.

Many will cheer the fact that the “doctrinal standards” are creed-less, or missing the creeds – although there is considerable weight of thought behind the fact that the Sermons reference the Apostles’ Creed not to mention that the first several articles presupposed a Chalcedonian (and thus Nicene) understanding of the Trinity. What is lacking in the official “doctrinal standards” (paragraph 104 of the Book of Discipline) is Scripture itself.

Yet, while Scripture is not in the “doctrinal standards,”  it is the supposed basis of The United Methodist Church.4 Scripture figures heavily into the previous sections on doctrinal heritage, but in Paragraph 105, “Our Theological Task,” it finally gets its place. This place, by the way, can be edited to conceivably could have Scripture completely removed, officially.

I would maintain that the Creed, by its very nature, cannot be a doctrinal standard because it does not necessarily serve to exposit anything. Rather, it is the summation of the basic doctrines of Christianity. The Creed is not a boundary of exposition for unique doctrine, but is the doctrine itself.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Amen.

This, like Scripture, is what we exposit and we do so via the standards. We look to Wesley to see what it means as Methodists to say that Jesus is “Our Lord.” We look to Wesley to see what it means that Jesus will “come to judge the living and the dead.” We look to Wesley to see what it means to “believe…in the forgiveness of sins.” We look to him and not to Calvin or Luther, but to Wesley to understand the historic Christian doctrines. Indeed, Wesley looked to the Creed to read Scripture. As cited previously, Wesley once wrote to one inquiring of Christianity, “In order to be well acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity you need but one book besides the New Testament—Bishop [John] Pearson On the Creed.

But, what does the Book of Discipline say? I believe it says simply, that we are Christian because of our assent to the Creed. The Discipline states the importance of the Canon and the Creed is to “preserve the integrity of the church’s witness, set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine, and proclaim the basic elements of the enduring Christian message.)5 Following this, under the heading of “Basic Christian Affirmations” the Discipline maintains “our unity is affirmed in the historic creeds as we confess one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” In Paragraph 203 it is affirmed that we are part of the “church universal” exactly because of our affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed. It reads,

The local church is a connectional society of persons who have been baptized, have professed their faith in Christ, and have assumed the vows of membership in The United Methodist Church. They gather in fellowship to hear the Word of God, receive the Sacraments, praise and worship the triune God, and carry forward the work which Christ has committed to his Church. Such a society of believers, being within The United Methodist Church and subject to its Discipline, is also an inherent part of the church universal, which is composed of all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and which in the Apostles’ Creed we declare to be the holy catholic church.

Paragraph 214 goes further in declaring that our eligibility in The United Methodist Church is based on the confession of the Apostles’ Creed. How can one be a part of a church, take the vows of supporting that church, and yet deny the authority and power of the Creed when it is that Creed which The United Methodist Church says makes us part of the church universal? Paragraph 431 allows the Council of Bishops to enter into “full communion” if we can recognize in the other body “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith as expressed in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the church’s historic creeds.” In other words, we could not enter into full communion with the Unitarian Universalist Association or the United Pentecostal Church exactly because they deny the historic creeds!

To sum,

  • The doctrinal standards are models of exposition
  • Neither Scripture nor the Creed is in the doctrinal standards, of which there are four
  • Scripture is presupposed as our authority, a presupposition supported by the Theological Task, the Articles of Religion, and the Confession of Faith.
  • The Book of Disciplines maintains the Creed as that singular institution that enjoins us to the Church universal, and is itself the confession that makes us eligible for membership. The Creed is then presupposed not as a doctrinal standard, which is nothing more than a model of exposition, but as an authority superseding even our doctrinal standards.

It is clear Wesley would affirm this understanding of the Creed. The Creed makes The United Methodist Church Christian; the standards makes us Wesleyan. We are a “Big Tent” denomination, but as we spread our doctrinal wings, that which holds up the tent is the Creed.

 

  1. I note the preamble found on the UMC.org webpage, “Just as creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed summarize the belief of all Christians, the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church form a foundation of doctrine for United Methodists. They, along with Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, are “standards” of doctrine for United Methodists.”
  2. Wesley’s model of using Sermons as standards goes back to the Church of England and their Book of Homilies. Note, the Book of Homilies is an exposition of the reformed doctrines of the Church of England.
  3. We are prevented from altering them by Article I, the First Restrive Rule.
  4. Scripture is not specifically a “doctrinal standard” unless we count the places our standards mention it, such as in Article V of the Articles and Article IV of the Confession. If that is the case, then I must continue to argue that the Creed, because it is mentioned by Wesley as a needful tool via the sermons and presupposed by the Articles and the Confession, is likewise a “standard.”
  5. Paragraph 102.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

7 Responses to “In the #UMC, the Creed supercedes John Wesley”
  1. “He descended into Hell”
    “He ascended into Heaven”…
    Now what exactly were the GPS coordinates?
    From my perspective, a lot can be said for going to church because you like what the minister says, and you like the people. And they don’t do any “very strange stuff”. And they keep out of politics. Doctrines and creeds are fine for discussion, but not for a “ground sort”. If you are not familiar with the term “ground sort”, it is common in military air defense. You determine friend from foe in a “ground sort”. Shoot them down first, and sort friend from foe from the pieces on the ground. I don’t think you want to do a ground sort of UMC based upon creeds and doctrine.

    • Gary, I don’t disagree with you, really. I think the Creeds actually serve another purpose than deciding who to kill! It equalizes us in ways we have forgotten since “every man has a bible.” Maybe that is for a follow-up post.

  2. Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) says

    Joel,

    First, again thanks for continuing to bring these issues before us for further conversation and deliberation.

    Four kinds of thoughts.

    1. I think you may be misreading the usage of references to the “historic Creeds” in the paragraphs you cite. The Creeds have no actual regulatory function for us at all, and these paragraphs do not assert they do.In Paragraph 102 (p. 46), the reference to the creeds is merely historical, not normative. And what that reference states about the creeds does point to them, and most particularly the Nicene Creed (which is the only actual ecumenical creed) functioning precisely as a doctrinal standard. This is what is meant by describing their function to “set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine.”

      Noting as the end of that paragraph does that “[t]hese statements of faith, along with the Apostles’ [sic] Creed, contain the most prominent features of our ecumenical heritage” again is just a kind of generic historical footnote. Our doctrinal standards themselves do not authoritatively bind us to any creed. Mr Wesley’s omission of the Article on the Creeds from the CoE Articles sealed that long ago.

      As a point of historical clarification, there was no official canon of Scripture established at the time of the ecumenical councils Paragraph 102 seems to be referencing. We don’t really get canons of Scripture established in the West in any official way until some Protestant groups began creating their own for their adherents and Rome and nearly concurrently England followed suit with the Council of Trent and the Articles of Religion in the 16th century. Maybe paragraph 102 needs some editing for historical accuracy at some point.

    2. Your assertion that creeds are not doctrinal standards unless they are explications of the faith rather than simple carriers of it seems to be at least somewhat contradicted four paragraphs later on the same page where it says, “Various doctrinal statements in the form of creeds, confessions of belief, and articles of faith were officially adopted by churches as standards of Christian teaching.” And language such as “true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father” is itself explanatory, and on purpose– to combat Arianism and other “monarchical” and “modal” versions of the nature of the Triune God.

      In other words, creeds have, historically, been understood to be part and parcel of doctrinal standards. We go on to say nothing about why or how it came to be that United Methodist doctrinal standards include no creeds. And with good reason. Mr Wesley never told us why he omitted the Article on the Creeds or the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds entirely from the edited BCP he sent over for Methodist use. I don’t think one can reasonably argue from these silences (ours and Wesley’s) that this means we or Mr Wesley decided somehow that creeds can’t be doctrinal standards, when we’ve just said they actually have had precisely that function.

    3. The reference to the Apostles Creed in Paragraph 203 does not establish that creed as a standard, much less the kind of “super-standard” or “meta-authority” I think you are trying to suggest or maybe even impose on these words. Instead, in context, the Apostles Creed is referred to as as the literary source of the phrase “holy catholic church.” And Paragraph 214 simply repeats that same line from paragraph 203. Neither anywhere requires us to confess the Apostles Creed, nor even implies that we must.

      Instead, these paragraphs treat the Apostles Creed like the rest of the Discipline and our ritual do, as an optional “affirmation of faith,” a worship resource, one among several from which a pastor or planning team may choose, or choose not to use at all in worship, ever. Nothing in our ritual or in the Discipline mandates the wholesale use of any creed in Lord’s Day or daily worship under any circumstances. The closest we get to that is the baptismal ritual, in which just the barest quotes from the beginnings of the three articles of the Apostles Creed are mandated (see opening of Paragraph 217). That is why so much of the Apostles Creed as presented in the baptismal ritual appears in brackets. One can omit all that appears in brackets and still be a professing member in good standing, provided one does not attempt to teach (literally, “disseminate doctrines”) contrary to our established doctrinal standards (paragraph 2702.1e).

    4. The Apostles Creed, of itself, is an insufficient confession of the Trinitarian faith. It is also not ecumenical, in the sense that no ecumenical body met to develop or approve it, and in the sense that it appears nowhere in the liturgy of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. If we are to lash ourselves to just one creed that is both sufficiently Trinitarian and that is ecumenical, as well as the very creed Paragraph 103 actually talks about as fundamentally underlying Christian doctrine, it would be the Nicene, not the Apostles.

    All that said, do I think we need the creeds, at least Apostles and Nicene? Absolutely. We need them. And I believe for our own doctrinal good and the fullest possible ecumenical outreach, we need at least the Nicene Creed as an explicit doctrinal standard.

    • Taylor,

      I appreciate the thoughts that you think I may be misreading — and I fully expect to see this comment replicated on future blog posts of those who think we are indeed creedless.

      However…,

      I would suggest that when we see Creeds as “merely historical, not normative” we are missing the points of the Creeds in history and in now. I do not think anyone, except for postmoderns, would suggest the historical creeds are now not normative. To suggest that “historic” does not mean normative is to do damage to the opening line — and reasoning — of 102.

      What you call a “historic footnote” others, including myself, call Christian Tradition. Indeed, the entire lead up to the doctrinal standards, is not mere history, but a proper setting of the UMC within the Christian Tradition.

      The creeds developed as tests of baptismal faith. Yes, they are themselves expositions of faith, but of a faith previously delivered via a previous Creed. They are not a doctrinal standard unique to a sect of Protestantism. This was not the intent of the Ecumenical Councils nor what is commonly held by those who rightly follow the Creeds.

      Further, and I have to note this, you aren’t offering a definition of “standard.” If you are willing to lock everything down to three or four things, then you must likewise exclude Tradition and Scripture.

      The reference to the Apostles Creed in Paragraph 203 does not establish that creed as a standard

      Oh, I agree. Rather than a literary source, because a literary source is meaningless, the confession is part of the Apostles’ Creed which gives it the necessary theological and ecclesiastical weight for it to mean anything.

      If the Apostles’ Creed is insufficient, we can always turn to the Articles which exposits rightly the Apostles’ Creed.

      At least we agree on the Nicene Creed.

  3. Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) says

    Joel– I had actually numbered the “four kinds of thoughts” — but the numbering disappeared when posted.

    To help out, point 1 begins with the paragraph immediately after “Four kinds of thoughts”

    Point 2 begins with the paragraph “Your assertion that”

    Point 3 begins with the paragraph “The reference to the Apostles Creed in paragraph 203”

    And point 4 begins with “The Apostles Creed, of itself…”

    I hope this may make what I’ve posted above a bit clearer.

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