(United Methodist) Theological Thursday: Our Doctrinal Heritage

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In our Sunday School class, we are exploring the Book of Discipline, the covenant which makes us United Methodists… I guess. Anyway, we have just gotten to Part II, which will detail the doctrines of the United Methodist Church. I thought that since today is Thursday and Theology begins with ‘T’ – just like Thursday – then I would post a little bit of the BoD. I am not a cradle Methodist, nor a Methodist theologian, but I am now a United Methodist, albeit, like in most areas, a heterodox United Methodist. I may not agree with all of the doctrinal positions, but I feel strongly that the United Methodist Church is the best place for me.

We begin:

United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and ever at work in human history in the Holy Spirit. Living in a covenant of grace under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we participate in the first fruits of God’s coming reign and pray in hope for its full realization on earth as in heaven.

Our heritage in doctrine and our present theological task focus upon a renewed grasp of the sovereignty of God and of God’s love in Christ amid the continuing crises of human existence.

Our forebears in the faith reaffirmed the ancient Christian message as found in the apostolic witness even as they applied it anew in their own circumstances.

Their preaching and teaching were grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in experience, and tested by reason. Their labors inspire and inform our attempts to convey the saving gospel to our world with its needs and aspirations.

Methodists are sometimes split on Apostolic succession. From what I can gather, some fall into the camp of “apostolic succession through the Spirit” while others trace it back to the apocryphal Erasmus myth, in which an Eastern Orthodox priest was said to have anointed John Wesley, ordaining him a bishop. There is, of course, the connection to the Church of England, with its Bishops ordained by the Catholic Church before the schism, but Wesley was never ordained by the Church of England, so that sorta cuts those ties – unless you count Thomas Coke who was a priest in the Anglican Church. Does it matter that Wesley may not have been ordained through Apostolic Succession? To many, I’d say no. To me, personally, I’ll stick with the hopeful Erasmus myth. (This is not the entire discussion of Wesley and Apostolic Succession, by the way. Just briefly touching on a few points.)

But, beyond the issue of Apostolic Succession is the role of the “historic Christian faith.” What is the historical Christian faith? Simply tying ourselves to it, doesn’t mean that we know what it is or even that we follow it. Of course, I believe that the historic Christian faith is one which has grown over the centuries, assimilating other practices as it did. To be a part of the historic Christian faith is then about confessing the validity of Tradition (I am speaking for me) as well as the validity of change. In the validity of Tradition is the role of Scripture; in the validity of change is the role of biblical criticism which enables us to better understand Scripture. The historic Christian faith is also one which sees God acting in Christ and the Spirit. I note the phrasing of the usual Trinitarian formula. It is not tri-theism, nor a “one of essence” type either. Instead, I see it through the lens of Barth:

“The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. And yet, they are not three gods but God in one. In the same way, the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; and yet there are not three lords, but the Lord is one.”

Barth, also wrote,

Trinity…is the name of a single being, of the one and only Willer and Doer whom the Bible calls God (CD I/1, 348)

By that standard, even modalists could be Trinitarian. One summer, I had a Methodist intern who convinced me that the United Methodists weren’t apostates, much. Later, I met a United Methodist pastor who showed me that Apostolics could fit nicely within the Methodist system. Both showed me the lines above and interpreted them the same. I readily confess that God was incarnate in Christ and that through the power of the Spirit, is active in the world. I’m not sure what that makes me, but I do affirm the doctrine of the Godhead as found here.

The idea that God works in human history? The United Methodist Church affirming God’s sovereignty? Does this mean that Whitfield has had more influence on the Methodist Church than we think? Can I write an entire post filled only with questions? I’m not sure. This is one of those issues which I hope that the rest of this part of the BoD explains. I have no issue with the sovereignty of God in human history, or, it seems, in salvation. Regarding salvation, I do like the idea of the new creation found in this opening stance.

The mythic Wesley Quadrilateral is present as well, although, not really part of the Historical Wesley. Identified by a Wesleyan historian in the 1960’s, this has become very much part of the Wesley-speak. Here, it is given as the means by which the United Methodist Church will continue to evaluate the doctrines and theological tasks of the Church. I cannot disagree with this use, nor with the idea that we look for a renewing of doctrine from time to time.

I cannot disagree with anything here, and as I meditate upon the opening stance, I become more assured of my membership in the United Methodist Church.

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