Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 25th, 2016 by Joel Watts

is there room for truth in the #UMC?

Dalton Rushing, a UMC pastor in Northern Georgia, has written a blog post lambasting Dr. Bill Arnold, Rev. Beth Ann Cook, and myself for legislation we have independently submitted to the General Conference.

truthWell, not exactly. Rather, he has written a piece that attempts to poorly render our legislation into sound bites, knowing (I suspect) his readers will not read the actual petitions.

Rushing’s first attack is against Dr. Bill Arnold’s remodeling of the Theological Task. Ironically, this treasured piece of the Book of Discipline is not old. I mean, if you look at previous Books of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church(es) you’ll note the distinct absence of a Task.

Dr. Arnold has, in part, suggested we amend the Theological Task to move us towards Wesley and away from Outler (at least, that is my conception of his move). He urges the General Conference to amend the Theological Task to read,

must be brought to bear in faithful, serious, theological consideration upon the living core of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, our primary authority. We turn to these three in the process of interpreting Scripture (a process known as hermeneutics), but not as independent sources of truth. (as quoted by Rushing)

Oddly enough, in Rushing’s rather profane rantings against the suggestion, he continually misunderstands the use of the word “independent.” Rushing suggests, somehow, that Dr. Arnold wants to insure Scripture is interpreted with Reason, Tradition, and by the experience of salvation and that we are truly a prima scriptura denomination. At no point does the malformed fear exhibited in Rushing’s post actually hold water when compared to what both are saying.

Arnold is suggesting that we better understand the Quad as Wesley would have, following Hooker…like a three-legged stool. We interpret Scripture by Scripture, by Tradition, and by Reason with the added assurance that Jesus is mine. Exactly what is wrong with suggesting that Scripture is the basis of our theology, rather than anything independent?

Indeed, if we expand the quote Rushing used, this is what we see:

in practice, theological reflection may also find its point of departure in tradition, experience, or rational analysis. Yet these three guidelines must be brought to bear in faithful theological consideration upon the living core of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, our primary authority. We turn to these three in the process of interpreting Scripture (a process known as hermeneutics), but not as independent sources of truth. (italics representing what Rushing did not quote)

I suspect Rushing doesn’t really understand what Arnold is saying. Indeed, in the same petition, Arnold writes,

The developing communities of faith judged them, therefore, to be an authoritative witness to that revelation. Thus, while we recognize the interrelationship of the four basic resources for theological reflection, we emphasize that tradition, experience, and reason—taken singly or in combination cannot be interpreted to contravene Scripture as the primary source and criterion for doctrine.

Note, that this (rather than Rushing’s attempt at manipulation) is what Arnold is after, that Scripture remains primary and that all must be used to bring out the truth in Scripture. At no point does Arnold suggest Scripture alone is the source of truth, only that Scripture along with utilizing the other sources is the primary source for Christian teaching and theology.

Arnold’s rationale is,

These changes clarify our roots in Mr. Wesley’s understanding of Scripture, and the confirmatory roles of reason, tradition, and experience, in order to make clear that tradition and especially experience are untrustworthy whenever they deviate from Scripture, which is always trustworthy.

Rushing then turns to my petition, one of several I have made. He quotes, as he is apt to do, only a portion of it.

This is all he quotes:

sign a statement affirming their personal agreement with and commitment to the basic, ecumenical Christian doctrine of Articles I, II, and IV of the Methodist Articles of Religion and/or of Articles I, II, and III of the Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church (¶104).

He then trots out an example of a Jewish scholar who is working at a United Methodist Seminary, suggesting that I want them fired (or worse?). The problem is, is that if anyone takes the time to go and read the actual petition, they get a different view.

The actual submitted text is:

All full-time faculty hired by any United Methodist school of theology in the U.S.A. must, before they can begin their responsibilities at the school, sign a statement affirming their personal agreement with and commitment to the basic, ecumenical Christian doctrine of Articles I, II, and IV of the Methodist Articles of Religion and/or of Articles I, II, and III of the Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church (¶104). Exceptions may be made for faculty members from Eastern Christian traditions who can affirm their agreement with and commitment to the aforementioned doctrine other than disputed language pertaining to the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Son as well as the Father. United Methodist schools of theology may waive this requirement for select faculty hires, provided that no more than three of its full-time faculty at any given time will have been hired under such a waiver. Beyond these two exceptions, a United Methodist school of theology may choose to exercise the option to not comply with this provision, in which case it must notify the University Senate and forfeit 25 percent of its Ministerial Education funding. In such cases, the forfeited funds shall be redistributed among the remaining eligible schools of theology on a basis proportional to how other Ministerial Education funding was allocated between these schools. The University Senate shall monitor compliance. (To provide ample time for preparation and compliance, this legislation shall take not take effect until two years from the closing date of the 2016 General Conference.)

So you’ll note that there are a range of exceptions made for faculty hired who cannot accept the doctrine of the Trinity. Note, Article III of the Articles of Religion is missing. So are the rest of the articles. This is about the Trinity. Imagine that… asking professors teaching our clergy to believe an essential Christian doctrine.

I note that Wesley considered the Trinity an essential to the Christian faith.

In regards to Beth Ann Cook’s proposal, you can read the rationale here.

Yet, none of this matters to Rushing who is quick to hide most of the petition behind his interpretation which includes theories of anti-Semitism, mind-control, and power grabs. For some reason, Rushing seems to have no theological reasoning behind standing against these petitions, only unfounded fear of power hungry United Methodists. This unfounded fear causes him to hide the rationale of the petitions as well as parts of the whole petitions, create conspiracy theories, and to accuse others of things he simply has no proof regarding.

As Rich Jones has pointed out on Twitter and Facebook, this warning is itself an attempt at controlling the conversation:

In the end, I cannot fully know Rushing’s motivations or his actual understanding of Wesleyan theology, but I am worried that he has channeled nothing more than a bed of lies.

Update (25 April): 

Twice Dalton has backed down from some of the points he has raised. As of today (2 May) Dalton has removed his retractions. I do, however, have the cached images of his previous retractions. Once by admitting he made a mistake in reading mine and once in saying that Rev. Cook wasn’t lying about her intentions. And as more simply noted in the comments section (below), Rushing actually supports Arnold’s position on the Theological Task.

So I ask, what are the motivations of the post, and why is he now hiding his retractions?

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

6 Responses to “is there room for truth in the #UMC?”
  1. Normative doctrinal pluralism was the de facto “theological task” before the 1988 revision. It was our position long enough that many still take it for granted. It doesn’t help that it is essentially enshrined in our most public official doctrinal statement, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” I’ve never understood how such a position can define and maintain an institution for any serious length of time.

    Thanks for the clarification of the quest for (at least minimal) clarity, Joel!

  2. Joel I want to agree with you but some of your points here are not entirely clear. I agree when you say that Rushing misunderstands Arnold’s use of the term “independent.” Your distinction of “alone” vs. “along with” could be helpful, but it seems hastily composed.Also, I am not sure what the phrase “bring about the truths of Scripture” is supposed to mean in relation to T, R, and E. But the most confusing part is when you say: “Rushing suggests, somehow, that Dr. Arnold wants to insure Scripture is interpreted with Reason, Tradition, and by the experience of salvation and that we are truly a prima scriptura denomination. At no point does the malformed fear exhibited in Rushing’s post actually hold water when compared to what both are saying.”

    I am not following you there. It seems like you begin to describe Rushing’s misunderstanding of Arnold (like “there is no truth apart from Scripture”) but what you actually describe there is in fact a good summary of Arnold: that he wants to insure Scripture is interpreted with Reason, Tradition, and Experience and that we are explicitly or more consistently prima scriptura. I don’t see how that is a mischaracterization; it actually seems like a good description.

    Then on the subject of your legislation… my only beef with it is that it doesn’t include Article III of the Articles of Religion on the Resurrection. But obviously that wasn’t Rushing’s complaint! Seriously though, what gives? The Resurrection is as important as the Trinity. If we’re going to have some Christian minimum for theological faculty it should be included.

    • James,

      If you look closely at what Rushing is saying, how much different than Arnold’s statement is it? That’s my point. The mischaracterization comes in when Rushing applies conspiracy to it!

      And as far as Article III… yeah… I agree and we can talk about that later!

  3. Morgan Guyton says

    What I want to know is how scripture becomes something that gets into our hearts instead of just our heads. An entirely rationalistic religion results in people who can articulate excellent theology while being complete jerks in their interactions with other people. I realize this can’t be settled by a General Conference resolution. But the disembodiment of our theology is the primary obstacle to having any semblance of covenantal union between us.

    • Morgan,

      The Eastern Orthodox and the Western Mystics are great at this. Rationalism is tempered by the Mysteries of the faith, such as the Eucharist and the Trinity. Of course, there will be lines that one cannot cross, which even the kindest of hermit-mystics would react against. My concern is that correction is often seen as “jerkish” behavior, which is why Scripture commands, and commends, us to correction and to be ready to receive it when necessary.

      But in our very Western society, we have individualized everything, so that correction looks like oppression, harm, or other misapplied concept.

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