The Next Methodism: Doctrine or Death

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The following is an excerpt from the late William Abraham in a freshly released book, The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism. This collection represents an unprecedented collection of leaders and scholars in orthodox Methodism. These 35 essays address a broad spectrum of topics and issues that will be faced in the formation of a new denominational expression of Methodism. The book betrays a refreshing optimism—even excitement—about the possibilities of a renewed, global church and its potential to once again become a leading voice addressing the struggles of contemporary culture with the good news of Jesus Christ. Get it from our store here.

Crises cause choices, and choices create opportunities. This can happen on a host of fronts. In this essay I shall limit the discussion to issues related to Methodist doctrine and to the formation of the Global Methodist Church. In doing so, I shall make several assumptions that cannot be pursued here. First, I assume that the relevant range of doctrine is what we call canonical doctrine, that is, those doctrines that are officially adopted by a church. For us, this means those officially adopted through the action of a General Conference. This means we reject any effort to play off doctrinal confession against conciliar actions; we agree together on our doctrines precisely by conciliar action.

Second, I shall assume that we look to the Holy Spirit to provide relevant assistance as we adopt canonical doctrine. In this we follow the practice of the Council of Jerusalem as depicted in Acts 15. This does not mean we claim any kind of infallibility, but it does mean we arrive at our decisions by prayer and spiritual discernment rather than by mere human argument and deliberation.

Third, I shall assume that attention to doctrine is but one desideratum (something needed or wanted) as we seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in making our way into a better future. Thus, we absolutely want to commit to, say, authentic spiritual development, realistic holiness, and effective missionary work across the world.

Fourth, I shall assume that our agreement on doctrine transcends our various political endeavors as we seek to be salt and light in the culture (Matthew 5:13–16). We can and should expect significant differences of opinion on how to tackle the many issues that arise out of the current crises in our political contexts.

As we lean into the topic of canonical doctrine there are obvious distinctions that need to be observed. To begin, we are not limited to a single genre, but we can readily express our doctrinal commitments in the register of creeds, articles of religion, hymns, liturgies, sermons, and the like. Thus, we can provide a wide range of materials that will form the bedrock of our identity and of our work together in ministry. Furthermore, we need a range of material which will be sufficiently limited to provide our core commitments but sufficiently rich to work not just intellectually, but emotionally and morally. On the one hand, our doctrines provide means of evaluation of leaders; there are real boundaries to be observed. On the other hand, our doctrines provide crucial corporate means of formation and spiritual nourishment. Thus, economy and simplicity need to be balanced with depth and richness.

In addition, we need a balance between first-order doctrinal commitments and second-order proposals about their grounding in Scripture. Our first task is to speak directly of God, salvation, the church, holiness, and the like. However, we also need to make clear that our doctrine is not just informed by divine revelation as mediated in Scripture but grounded in revelation. So, we boldly declare who God is and all he has done for us through the Son in the working of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we also make clear that this is no mere human philosophy; it is warranted by and nourished from the whole sweep of Holy Scripture. Finally, it is crucial that we maintain a balance between continuity, criticism, and course correction. There is a faith once delivered to the saints; there is also material that needs to be looked at afresh in the light of new knowledge. Without the former, we lose our bearings and the deep truths of the gospel; without the latter, we fail to make relevant adjustments in the light of new circumstances. It is small wonder that we must depend on the assistance of the Holy Spirit if we are to succeed in this endeavor.

The most striking feature of the proposed doctrinal commitments of the Global Methodist Church is the addition of the great creeds of the church. This is not the place to rehearse the standard objections that have been lodged against this move across the history of the church. What we need is a brief, constructive defense. The best point of entry is to have a quick look at our history.

Methodism was initially a work of the Holy Spirit centered on the transformation of human beings from sinners to saints. Its deepest aspiration was conspicuous sanctity as spelled out in a vision of the Christian life informed from first to last by divine grace. No longer simply a movement led by John Wesley, Methodism became in time, with Wesley’s blessing, a full-orbed church in the United States. To this end, it adopted a set of Articles of Religion together with other materials and practices. Thus, it lodged its own distinctive concerns about the Christian life within the classical faith of the Fathers and the Reformation.

British Methodism adopted Wesley’s forty-four canonical sermons as its official doctrines. The debate about the number and status of these remains a matter for research among scholars. The adoption of the Articles of Religion and, later, the Evangelical United Brethren Confession of Faith, meant that the deep, generous orthodoxy of the church was essential to the very identity of United Methodism. Thus, there was really no need to add the great creeds of the church. The polemic against orthodoxy was not a rejection of orthodoxy; it was a rejection of dead orthodoxy shorn of experience of God and the genuine victory over evil that was at the heart of the commitment to entire sanctification. Thus ended Act One.

Tragically, in the nineteenth century the focus on experience and transformation lost its moorings in the wider faith of the church. To put the issue sharply, some influential Methodist scholars and leaders readily became the pioneers in North America of the Liberal Protestant theological experiment initiated with brilliance and fanfare in Germany. Many looked to religious experience as the warrant for our first-order doctrines and, in time, the wider faith of the church was either marginalized, or jettisoned, or replaced in reality by philosophical materials. In turn, this led both to reactionary forms of conservatism and to the adoption of virtually every theological option in the theological landscape. By the 1960s, itself a time of intense turmoil, Albert Outler valiantly tried to resolve the ensuing chaos by orchestrating the adoption of the quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. He believed sincerely that we were set for the next century and a half. Thus ended Act Two.

Ironically, we were asked to accept a badly formed theory of warrant or justification, all the while baptizing a ragged version of theological pluralism. This was doomed to failure from the outset. It was incoherent because it excluded the classical faith of the church as normative; because it was a mere stopgap held together by the personality and reputation of Outler; because the quadrilateral is not built for purpose as a theological method or as a theory of knowledge in theology; and because it was only a matter of time before a passionately committed network would seek to impose their particular vision of the faith on the church as a whole. Add to these problems the fact that the quadrilateral made it impossible to achieve genuine consensus on mission and practice, and we arrive at the crisis that is now upon us. The presenting issue may be sexuality but the deeper issues are the marrow of Christian teaching and its grounding in divine revelation mediated in Scripture. Despite valiant efforts at reform and renewal, these have failed. Yet the incubation these efforts embodied have paved the way for a whole new vision of Methodism to emerge. So begins Act Three.

The significance of these developments explains, in part, the adoption of the great creeds of the church. We cannot go into the future without a course correction that makes it crystal clear that we are on board with the classical faith of the church. We dare not commit the same mistake as we move into the future as happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

However, there are at least two intrinsically important reasons for supporting this development. First, the creeds provide not just a meaty summary of the faith once delivered to the saints, they protect the rational sheep of Christ from the follies of the intellectuals and theologians in our midst. Donald MacKinnon captured this office of the creeds admirably:

The whole exterior framework of the Christian Church is the poor man’s protection against the tyranny of the wise who would rob him of the heritage of the Gospel. In a sense one might say, too, that her visible structure, her articulate doctrinal standards, her ordered sacramental life, represents the very lashing of the Church herself to her historical moorings. The whole Church is an organ of the Gospel . . . those aspects of her life that most perplex hankerers after “spiritual religion” are due to the fact that she proclaims, not a possibility of spiritual achievement but a work of redemption wrought by the Son of God in human flesh and blood.1

MacKinnon added that we are also protected from the demands to transform the faith into a human philosophy and from the idiosyncrasies of church members. We might also add that they protect us from intellectual bullies and charlatans at every level of the church’s life. After all, the human mind can be a factory for the making of idols.

Given this argument, some will wonder why we should retain the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The answer is simple. First, they reiterate our commitment to the classical faith of the church and, second, they identify those elements of the Reformation and the evangelical awakenings that are pivotal for our intellectual and spiritual welfare. We need, of course, to excise the relevant anti-Catholic material but, otherwise, the case for the Articles and Confession is secure. As to the adoption of Wesley’s canonical sermons, there are also good arguments to include them. First, it cleans up the ambiguity of their status in recent debates and, second, used as a standard and handbook of spiritual direction, they secure the pivotal material for spiritual direction.

Let me dwell a bit longer on what is at issue here and on a temptation that we should avoid as best we can. Experience of God is an extremely delicate affair. Wesley wrestled with this in his treatment of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Over time, he had to readjust the place of doubt and the place of sin in the Christian life. Later generations wrestled with the nature and place of entire sanctification in the Christian life. Mapping what we say conceptually on the journey of our encounter with God in our quest for holiness is both demanding and dangerous. It is demanding because we are dealing with the sovereign action of God and with the uniqueness of ourselves as made, not just in the general image of God, but in the particularity of that image given to each of us as persons. It is dangerous because there is enormous temptation to provide shortcuts by insisting on some particular model of divine action and of our experience of God. This, in fact, proved to be disastrous for both liberals and conservatives in the Methodist fold. Liberals opted for an abstraction that was to be used to justify fresh expressions of Christian doctrine. Holiness leaders opted for the adoption of precisionist doctrines and external signs of holiness that shielded them from scrutiny until their children rebelled against the confusion, hypocrisy, and lack of spiritual realism. There were relevant consequences of ethical commitments that made the matter even messier. The fundamental mistake was to limit and oversimplify the resources that Wesley himself made available.

For this reason, it is crucial that we take not just this or that slogan, nor even this or that favored sermon of Wesley, as our way ahead in providing spiritual direction. We need the brilliant network of complex proposals in the forty-four canonical sermons that Wesley himself earmarked as late as 1787. Thus, we are presented with a first set of sermons on how to become a Christian, a second set that interprets the Sermon on the Mount which delineates what it is to be a Christian, and a third set that deals with a rag-bag of characteristic problems (from rejection of law to the right use of money) that enable one to stay a Christian. These are not the last word, but the crucial first word. They provide a platform from which we can explore, like Wesley himself, the full riches of ascetic theology all the way back to the Scriptures and onward into our grandchildren in the Pentecostal traditions. There will be no authentic future Methodism without this material and without immersion in its proposals about the Christian life. If we make mistakes of reductionism, we will simply repeat the mistakes of our ancestors in the nineteenth century. Failure to handle properly our doctrinal materials will simply kill us over time.

Notice here the intimate connection between doctrine and life. This applies conspicuously in the case of Wesley’s sermons, but it applies right across the board. Thus, failure to attend to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit will lead to failure in our spiritual lives, just as failure to attend to our spiritual lives will lead to failure to take seriously the person and fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit. Cheap views of the Lord’s Supper will lead to lax and casual practices related to its mediation of the very life of Christ within the believer. Failure to immerse ourselves in Holy Scripture will lead to pathetic efforts at moralistic therapy and partisan politicking in the pulpit. Superficial views of the person of Christ will pave the way for thin forms of obedience. And so on. What is at issue here is the pastoral function of doctrine. The ultimate goal is to bring us all to deeper love for God and neighbor. In the end, we are to lose ourselves in wonder, love, and praise. However, this will only happen if we are helped to cultivate the deep understanding of God that is mediated by the various genres of doctrine.

Let’s pursue what this means for future practice.

First, developing deep understanding requires that our canonical doctrines be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested. This begins with the training of clergy and lay leaders and extends as far as is possible through the rank and file of the church. Otherwise, we simply have a dead letter in our hands.

Second, developing deep understanding requires that we intentionally foster appropriate forms of learning and scholarship. In my judgment, we need something like a standing Faith and Order Commission. Within this we can take up new challenges and address them in the form of occasional papers. The conquest of the present by the past is not an unmixed blessing; the present needs, at times, to conquer the past. There is no need to make such materials canonical; they serve to enrich our doctrinal commitments and can prepare the way for patient course correction as needed in the future. Happily, we have already among us those who can provide the relevant resources with flair and sensitivity to the intellectual needs of the church.

Third, developing such deep understanding also alerts us to the fact that our doctrinal standards will never be perfect. It is enough that they be reliable and serviceable in worship, preaching, and mission. Thus, it is utopian to think that everyone, whether clergy or lay, will be 100-percent satisfied with what is formally adopted by a General Conference. This in no way means we are indifferent to the details. It simply calls for appropriate patience and tolerance in the reception of canonical doctrine.

There are two dangers lurking in the wings. One danger is a hyper-­scrupulous doctrinal conscience that can undercut our spiritual lives and harm our neighbors in the church. We become obsessed with this or that issue that irks us rather than relax and allow time to bind up the wounds of the church. We set out to have the mind of Christ and end up with the mind of the fanatic and the spirituality of the neophyte. We are given a full meal to digest and complain about the potatoes being a tad overcooked, or we draw attention to the absence of our favorite dressing on the salad. If wedded to a disputatious outlook, the outcome is not pretty. The other danger is that of the tender conscience which needs time to work through the doctrinal commitments of the church. In this case, we become quiet, nervous souls who may find it difficult to sign on initially but are happy to let things stand as they are. They simply ask for tolerance and space to seek further light on the relevant challenges.

There are several ways to guard against these temptations beyond keeping our nerve and abandoning some sort of perfect cure for our anxieties and insecurities. Our goal is to love and serve God rather than the doctrines that help us understand the deep faith of the church. Our aim is to come to know God rather than to lust after some experience of God that we can depend upon as a labor-saving device. Beyond that, we are called to evangelize the nations and spread scriptural holiness across the world. We are also called to costly discipleship in serving the poor and impoverished of the earth. Works of ministry and mercy are means of grace that keep us from collapsing into intellectual obsessions of one kind or another. There is more to life than the life of the mind.

Crises cause choices, and choices create opportunities. I am quietly confident that the new global expression of Methodism can handle these opportunities with tenacity and flair.

This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.

Perfect for:

  • Church leaders
  • Groups exploring church commitments
  • Sunday school classes
  • Individual study

This work will help you:

  • Encounter a movement whose gospel of Jesus has wide-ranging, powerful effects on people and societies
  • Discover the riches of an unapologetically orthodox, Scriptural tradition
  • Renew your confidence in the intellectual foundation of a Methodism that will meet the needs of the day

Order your copy from our store here.

Notes:

1. D. M. MacKinnon, The Church (London: Dacre Press, 1940), 54. Emphasis added.

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Dr. William "Billy" Abraham was the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and more recently founder of the Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. A leading authority in philosophical theology, philosophy of religion, and epistemology, and evangelism, he authored numerous books and journal articles.

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