Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #5 ©

Embracing of Our Doctrinal Core

A focus of the great historic questions for ordination in the United Methodist Church centers on embracing the doctrinal core of United Methodism.  Consider this brief listing of questions put to candidates for ordination at the clergy executive session (from The Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 336, p. 270):

6.   Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7.   Will you keep them?
8.   Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
9.   After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?

The list brings the thoughtful Methodist Christian up short.  We presume a foundation of common agreement with the basic core doctrines of the United Methodist Church.  Furthermore, John Wesley argued extensively that they formed a common core foundation with other Christians built upon the great creeds of the Church, especially The Nicene Creed (#880, The United Methodist Hymnal) and The Apostles Creed (##881 &#882, The United Methodist Church).  Under “Qualifications for Ordination” (Paragraph 304, The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016), the importance of embracing our doctrinal core is stated even more emphatically:  “Be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.”

In today’s United Methodist Church I do not believe a common doctrinal core can be assumed.  The struggle to embrace a common doctrinal core lies behind the current conflict around biblical interpretation and same gender marriage & ordination.  Our theological core must be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, discussed, argued and finally embraced anew.

As a start, I invite an examination of what we now have in the United Methodist Church.  The Doctrinal Standards and General Rules are listed in Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  They include those adopted from both the predecessor denominations – The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Methodist Church.  They start with a firm foundation:

Article I-Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Article II-Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Article III-Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

Article IV-Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

Similarly the Evangelical United Brethren doctrinal standards, which were also adopted at the time of union, list the first four doctrines as:  Article I-God, Article II-Jesus Christ, Article III-The Holy Spirit.  There are a total of 25 Articles from the Methodist Church and 16 from the Evangelical United Brethren Church.    That all sounds like a lot but they actually boil down to a basic core which John Wesley largely adapted from the Church of England.

All this makes for somewhat dry reading until we pause to reflect that much of our current angst and debate centers on issues of core doctrine.  What do we believe is central and non-negotiable?  And, just has importantly, how do we interpret or understand core doctrines as they relate to salvation, sin, free will, the sacraments, etc.?

I step back into what might well seem an archaic rendition because what we believe matters.  Belief informs, educates and guides our actions.  Likewise, we often act ourselves into a new way of believing.  As one of pastors stated in a recent sermon, “which is more important belief or action?  The answer is yes!”  It is both.  The one informs and helps shape the other.  Neither belief nor action operates on island divorced from the other.

The way forward for Methodists will surely involve rediscovering and embracing anew our doctrinal core.  The term classically used to describe the doctrinal core of the Christian movement is “orthodoxy.”  Professor Wendy Deichman, former President at United Theological Seminary comments:

“What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.”

As I travel across the church I cannot help but note that our theology is weak and appears to be adrift.  We stand in desperate need of recovering our doctrinal core.  But mere knowledge is not enough.  A theological embrace is needed if belief and action are to mutually invigorate each other.  I invite the reader to look through Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  What would be on your list of a core doctrinal belief for Methodists?  How does it match the actual position taken by the United Methodist Church?

All too often today we regard doctrine and orthodoxy in negative terms.  Sometimes “orthodoxy” is claimed as the handmaiden of one group or other.  A friend who is decisively on the progressive side of our current divide recently reminded me that the claim to being orthodox is not the province of one part of the church or another.  Today the make-up of “orthodox” Christianity is contested.  The purpose of this blog is less to argue for a particular position and more to advocate a needed embrace of the historic doctrinal core of the Wesleyan Way.  Professor Deichmann advises us rightly:

“Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.”

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