Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling "to spread scriptural holiness over these lands." While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum.I was reminded last night that we United Methodists have certain standards that are to guide theological reflection within our unique heritage. These standards include our 25 Articles of Religion, Wesley's Sermons, and his Notes On The New Testament.
Reading through the Articles, what stands out is they are little more than standard, banal doctrinal statements. They beg the questions that theological discussion and dialogue seek to expound. The very first article, affirming the the Church's belief in the Trinity, is all well and good. Do we make that affirmation in the metaphysical language of neo-Platonism, as the Church Fathers who first expounded it? Do we affirm it in the modalist vocabulary of mid-20th century dogmaticians? Do we, perhaps, affirm the Trinity as a speculative summation without granting it any necessity, as Christian thinkers have done throughout history, perhaps noting with Emil Brunner and others that, not being a doctrine testified in Scripture, it serves a heuristic function rather than dogmatic one?
I would take a step back, however, and wonder why it is some find it necessary to offer warnings such as this. When I wrote the other day that
we need to do is stop trying to be something other than the bearers of the Gospel in Wesley's particular idiom. We need to stop trying to be proper. We need to stop trying to be doctrinally upright, theologically correct, socially acceptableI thought it should be clear that we needed to remember that ours is a tradition rooted in what one author has called Practical Divinity. I felt no need to state adherence to any particular set of dogma or doctrine precisely because I took them for granted. Some, however, of my interlocutors seemed to assume I was setting theological dialogue to one side. Rather, I was trying to make clear that theology is little more than church-talk about God, and does not have primacy over holy living.
That reaction, more than anything, demonstrated for me the tremendous lack of trust abroad in our denomination. Any suggestion that we might, perhaps, need to think in new ways was greeted with stern warnings that we cannot water down the Gospel, that we must stand firm on our confession, that I was arguing in some way that we need to be more culturally relevant in our practice of church. This last I find most interesting. It should go without saying that the Christian churches have always lived with the tension between relevance and difference. Why should it be necessary to state that obvious reality of our existence? Immediately upon making a suggestion that the United Methodist Church might be dying because a whole generation is not so much hostile as apathetic about our message, meaning we might need to find new ways of speaking and living out who we are, and I was told that I was hinting at certain accommodations some commentators make that include watering down the offense and foolishness of our confession of the Gospel.
I'm still stunned anyone would think such a thing. Nothing I wrote, or have ever written, would suggest such a thing. The only conclusion I have come to is that we are so afraid, we cannot bear the thought that we might need to change. We have grown far too comfortable over previous decades of social acceptability and cultural relevance.
We are in a curious position now, however, where the traditional sources by which we Wesleyan Christians have done our theological reflection have become completely open. Rather than cringe in fear that the world, or our human experience, or the traditions of the churches through the ages might lead us astray, it is more necessary than ever to reaffirm our belief in the prevenient grace of God by seeing the Providential working out of the Kingdom in all sorts of places. Again, why should I have to state such a thing explicitly? It was my understanding we Wesleyan Christians held that as part of our theological legacy, a legacy that gave Wesley the courage to preach his gospel of personal and social holiness in places and to people the "official" Church ignored. We have lost that fearlessness as we have spent far too much time mourning losses that might well be rooted in an institutional amnesia more than anything else.
The river is wide and deep. I suggest, if we are going to be serious about being United Methodist Christians, we not think about the dangers but plunge headlong in to the current, trusting that God will buoy us up, guide us through the rapids ahead, seeing us safely to the other side. Nothing less will demonstrate our commitment to our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.