There are many people who labor under the mistaken impression that United Methodism is a non-doctrinal tradition. United Methodist identity, the argument goes, is constituted by a theological method rooted in a commitment to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, but not in any particular claims about God, Christ, or salvation. This understanding of United Methodism has its formal beginning in the 1972 Book of Discipline, which is itself a fascinating study in the establishment Protestant ethos of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Consider, for example, that this version of the Discipline much more commonly refers to “Doctrinal Statements” than “Doctrinal Standards.” Within the section on “Doctrinal Statements,” moreover, there is actually a section called, “The Fading Force of Doctrinal Discipline,” in which we read, “By the end of the nineteenth century, and thereafter increasingly in the twentieth, Methodist theology had become decidedly eclectic, with less and less specific attention paid to its Wesleyan sources as such. Despite continued and quite variegated theological development, there has been no significant project in formal doctrinal re-formulation in Methodism since 1808” (¶68, p. 44).
Consider also that the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are referred to in the 1972 Discipline as “Landmark Documents,” an ingeniously ambiguous term. Some of this ambiguity, however, is cleared up in the statement called “Doctrinal Guidelines in The United Methodist Church,” under “Our Theological Task”:
Since “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” cited in the first two Restrictive Rules of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church are not to be construed literally and juridically, then by what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling? The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. These four are interdependent; none can be defined unambiguously. They allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility and self-discipline, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in The United Methodist Church (¶ 70, p. 75).
There are a few things to notice here. First, the doctrinal standards are “not to be construed literally and juridically.” This might cause one to wonder in what sense they function as standards. Despite the fact that they are protected by the first Restrictive Rule, they have no real force. One has to be impressed with the ingenuity involved in this undermining of the very standards the first Restrictive Rule was trying to protect, even while leaving the rule itself intact.
Second, rather than allowing for literal and juridical doctrinal standards, we are to engage in” free inquiry within the boundaries defined by” scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet these “boundaries” cannot be “defined unambiguously” and should be interpreted with appropriate “flexibility.” By this point, we might ask why we would wish to use the term “boundaries” at all.
Third, there is no sense here that the material content of our doctrinal standards is very important. What is important, by contrast, is the process of “theologizing.” It seems that the set of claims we make about God is less important than the resources we use in developing those claims. This is akin to saying that the food I eat for dinner is less important than the ingredients that I use in cooking. If this seems to be an inversion of our common priorities when we cook, it is no less an inversion of priorities for Christian theology.
United Methodism, then, adopted an inherently ambiguous and unstable doctrinal position in 1972, four years after the merger that gave birth to our denomination. Yes, there were Doctrinal Standards, including the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, and, yes, they were protected by the first Restrictive Rule. Nevertheless, the Articles and Confession were gutted of any real meaning by this first iteration of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”
Since then, some people have identified United Methodism as essentially a liberal tradition that has been threatened by an evangelical presence from its beginning. Others have suggested that United Methodism is basically an evangelical tradition that has been corrupted by liberalism. Still others have argued that the UMC is and always has been a “centrist” tradition that could accommodate a broad variety of positions. The fact of the matter, though, is that in 1972 United Methodism became an internally incoherent tradition. While we affirmed the significance of our doctrines, we simultaneously undercut them. This incoherence is at the root of many of our conflicts today.
In 1988, “Our Theological Task” was changed, specifying, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” It goes on to state, “Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation” (¶ 69, p. 80). This is a more precise and useful formulation than we find in 1972. It would be even more helpful, however, were the subsequent discussion of tradition to mention the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith as identifying at least some broad parameters for the “certain strands of tradition” that “have special importance as the historic foundation of our doctrinal heritage and distinctive expressions of our communal existence” (¶ 69, p. 83, cf. 2012 Discipline ¶ 105, p. 84). The 1988 version of “Our Theological Task” remains essentially the same in our current Discipline.
While we made significant improvements in 1988, there is still much work to do in terms of United Methodist doctrine. We not only need to continue to clarify the role of our doctrinal standards and the four resources that we identify with the “Quadrilateral,” but we also need to integrate our doctrine into the common life of the church. Unlike, say, Free Methodists or Wesleyans, many United Methodists are reticent to talk about our core beliefs. On the whole, we are much more comfortable talking about what we do as Christians than what we believe as Christians. I would simply suggest that both doing and believing are essential dimensions of Christian discipleship. We will be better “doers” if we know clearly what we believe about God, humankind, and the relationship between the two. Doing good is clearly important. It is, in fact, the second of Wesley’s General Rules. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
Like the Eucharist and baptism, like the reading of Scripture and practices of prayer, belief in the historic faith of the Church is a means of grace. It is a way by which we come to know God more fully. It prevents us from worshipping false gods and demonstrates for us the self-emptying love of God given for our salvation. It provides for us a model of self-giving love and leads us into lives of gratitude. It forms our prayer life and, in fact, changes the way in which we view everything around us. Insofar as we have misunderstood or neglected the role of doctrine in our life together, we have impoverished ourselves spiritually.
Because we believe in the importance of these basic Christian beliefs, the website of United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy is beginning a new series of blog posts on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. The first of these, by Hal Knight, will take as its topic the Holy Trinity. I hope you enjoy these posts and find them edifying. May God bless your reading.