Creeds as a litmus test

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism
“Honestly, Joel, don’t you think they get it? “John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1788, John Wesley wrote in his journal,

“There is no other religious society under Heaven which requires nothing of men in order to assure their admission into it but a desire to save their souls. Look all around you; you cannot be admitted into the Church, or Society of the Presbyterian, Anabaptists, Quakers, or any other unless you hold the same opinion with them, and adhere to the same mode of worship.

The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion; but they think and let think. Neither do they impose any particular mode of worship; but you may continue to worship to your former manner; be it what it may.

Now, I do not know any other religious society, either ancient or modern, wherein such liberty of conscience is now allowed, or has been allowed, since the age of the Apostles. Here is our glorying; and a glorying peculiar to us. What Society shares it with us?”

But… this is the same Wesley and the same Journals that declare the Methodists right in their calling, the Creeds vital, orthodoxy essential, and holiness of life a must. This is the same Wesley who lauded the Church of England, with her Creeds, her doctrines, and her doctrinal standards. This is the same John Wesley who fought against various heresies — yes, he was a heresy hunter. How can this be the same Wesley?

Was Wesley bi-polar? Was he otherwise a person who changed dramatically from day to day?

He didn’t. He was consistent. He sought to remove the dead religion of intellectual legalism and move it to a religion alive in word and deed. He would not refuse admission to anyone who sought to love God and do good. For Wesley, Creeds were not the litmus test of admission to his society (note, society, not a church). Further, he did not make them, or seem to make them, a requirement of continued membership in the United Societies. You did not have to think a certain way, but you did have to work and work towards perfection. And, in the end, Wesley would use the Creeds and the Anglican doctrinal standards to fight against the vile theologies infecting Anglo-Catholic Protestantism — Socinianism and Calvinism.

However, the sum total of his work, we see the creeds do something else — something they were meant to do. The Creeds provide a “beautiful summary” of the Christian faith and unite us in a common work. This is why, besides Scripture, Wesley would require one to read Bishop Pearson’s book on the Apostles’ Creed.

Dr. Kevin Watson (the other, other Dr. Watson) has a post up on the essentialness of shared doctrine. You should read it.

I have recounted this a few times, but it bears repeating. When I came from fundamentalism (]]), I timidly came to the United Methodist Church. In discussing certain things with my soon-to-be pastor, I told him what I thought about a few things, including the Trinity. He simply said that the UMC does not require us to think a certain way, only to think. I think Wesley would agree with that. At no point should we require intellectual legalism as a litmus test.

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One Reply to “Creeds as a litmus test”

  1. The problem seems to be fourfold.

    First, every man (or woman) is his (or her) own theologian. That is, unless they have been reduced to mindless minions, they have a unique perspective on divinity and humankind’s relation thereto.

    Second, like-minded individuals tend to cluster, forming factions to the exclusion of others. For want of a better definition at this point, the organization becomes the ingroup.

    Third, those excluded from the original ingroup, likewise tend to form competing and even antagonistic associations.

    Fourth, in time, the alternative belief system also becomes an ingroup — causing formation of yet another alternative, ad infinitum.

    It is quite likely that John Wesley, recognizing the foregoing all too human tendencies, attempted to devise a third way around the problem.

    In a Venn diagram, it might be illustrated by showing the overlap of two circles as a common core of belief with the non-overlapping areas being considered as irrelevant. That commonality might be, for purposes if illustration, labeled Methodism.

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