Andrew 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 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.) 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!
- 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.