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By Ted A. Campbell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
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Doctrines About Religious Authority
Christians often need to be clear about the grounds, or basis, of their teachings, but significant differences over the basis, or authority, for Christian teachings have long divided the churches. Eastern Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church have historically taught that the basis of all religious teaching is the unbroken unity of scripture and later church traditions. The Protestant Reformation questioned the purity of later church traditions and insisted on the authority of the Bible above all traditions. Since the time of the Reformation, the use of reason and reflection on common human experience (in addition to or beyond the use of scripture and traditions) has deeply influenced Christian understandings of the grounds of religious teachings. Very often, differing understandings about the grounds of religious authority lie at the basis of other differences in Christian teaching.
Sufficiency and Primacy of Scripture
Article 5; UM Confession 4
UM "Theological Task"
The Twenty-five Articles of Religion shared by the AME, AME Zion, CME, and UM Churches affirm that the Bible "containeth all things necessary to salvation" (Article 5), that is, that the scriptures teach everything that human beings need to know for their salvation. The title of this Article uses the term "sufficiency of the scriptures" to describe this belief. Implied in the Articles and the UM Confession of Faith is the belief that the Bible is the primary source and authority for our faith, that is, no other authority can override the authority of God revealed in the scriptures. This teaching on the primacy of the scriptures is made explicit in the UM statement of "Our Theological Task." The Methodist teaching on the sufficiency and primacy of the Bible concords with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on the use of scripture to reform the church. Methodists have not historically defined their understanding of the Bible's authority as involving "inerrancy" or "infallibility" of the Bible as Fundamentalist churches typically do, except that we have historically insisted that the Bible does not fail in teaching the way of salvation. Our emphasis on the sufficiency and primacy of the scriptures does not rule out the use of Christian tradition or reflection on broader human experience (see below), but it clarifies that all other claims to authority must be judged by the primary authority of the Bible.
Unity of the Bible
Article 6; cf. UM Confession 4
The Articles of Religion state that the Old Testament stands in continuity with the New Testament, since the one God offers salvation through Christ in both Testaments (Article 6). Underlying this teaching as well as the teaching of the sufficiency and primacy of scripture is a belief in the unity of the Bible, that is, the belief that the Bible tells a single story that focuses on the salvation offered through Christ. Susanna and John Wesley spoke of "the analogy of faith" that is the core message of the whole Bible, telling the story of salvation.
Our historic teaching about the unity of the Bible may appear to be contradicted by more recent biblical scholarship that emphasizes the diversity of voices and perspectives in biblical literature. Methodist scholars have generally embraced this biblical scholarship, but Methodist doctrine insists that underlying the diversity of voices in the Bible is a divinely given message, at the center of which is our Savior. The UM statement of "Our Theological Task" (1988) acknowledges explicitly "a variety of diverse traditions, some of which reflect tensions in interpretation within the early Judeo-Christian heritage." But it goes on to claim that "these traditions are woven together in the Bible in a manner that expresses the fundamental unity of God's revelation."
UM "Theological Task"
The God revealed in the Bible has continued to act, even after the age of the apostles. Tradition does not mean everything that happened in the past, but the past that we value, or treasure. In affirming and valuing the past, we affirm that God's presence did not retreat after the time of the New Testament. We affirm that God has been active through the history of the Christian community. We value in the past those times when we can perceive most clearly God's presence. Methodist doctrine does share the Reformation's suspicion that much in the Christian past amounted to a corruption of God's plan: our fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth Articles of Religion condemn teachings and practices that the Reformation judged to be corrupt. Similarly, the AME statement on "Apostolic Succession and Religious Formalism" rejects as later corruptions the teaching that all bishops must stand in an unbroken succession from the apostles, and the "formalism" that often accompanies traditional worship.
Articles 14-16; cf. AME "Apostolic Succession and Religious Formalism"
But Methodists do rejoice in God's presence in the long history of the Christian tradition that went before us: in affirming ancient creeds such as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, we unite our voices with the voices of our Christian forebears. Our worship bears the marks of ancient and medieval Christian liturgy. Methodist hymnals now include a variety of voices from the Christian past, including texts and tunes from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as well as from a variety of Protestant traditions. At a special called General Conference in 1970, the UMC adopted a resolution clarifying that the anti-Catholic statements in our Articles are not directed toward contemporary Catholicism or the whole of the Catholic inheritance of faith but rather against medieval corruptions of Christian tradition, some of which were misunderstood by the Reformers. The UM Statement of "Our Theological Task" affirms the critical use of Christian traditions as a source and criterion of Christian teaching.
Reason and Experience
UM "Theological Task"
The same UM statement of "Our Theological Task" affirms the use of reason and experience as sources and criteria of Christian teaching. Reason refers to the many ways in which human beings reflect on the world, both as individuals and as communities. John Wesley believed that reason guided by the grace available to all persons could discern the existence of God and the need for moral responsibility; it could even illuminate the meaning of the Bible. Wesley valued experience, especially, as human contact with God, and he believed that our experience of the divine also illumined our own spiritual quest and (combined with reason) could clarify the meaning of the Bible. Wesley also believed that our experience of the material universe could teach us much, even about spiritual matters, but in every case he insisted that reason and experience could not stand by themselves but had to be guided by scripture. Reason and experience may be particularly helpful guides in relating biblical and traditional teachings to our own times, cultures, and situations.
The "Wesleyan Quadrilateral"
UM "Theological Task"
In affirming the use of tradition, experience, and reason along with scripture, the 1972 UM statement of "Our Theological Task" offered a lucid and insightful account of "Doctrinal Guidelines in The United Methodist Church." Although the statement did not attribute these four criteria as a system to John Wesley, they came very quickly to be called the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral." It has become clear since that time that although John Wesley did use scripture, experience, reason, and the Christian past (he disliked the term "tradition"), he did not himself advocate the use of these four criteria as a method for reflection. The 1988 revision of "Our Theological Task" had to clarify that scripture has primary authority over tradition, experience, and reason. But the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" has proven to be a helpful way to call Methodists (especially United Methodists) to be clear about the grounds of their teaching, and it has proven useful as a method for ethical and practical reflection on contemporary issues that are not directly addressed by the scriptures.
God's Authority and the Christian Life
Underlying scripture, tradition, experience, and reason is the belief that God should be the guide of our lives, as communities and as individuals. We need to ask, though, whether we really value God's authority. It is one thing to speculate on the meaning of biblical passages; it is quite another thing to ask, "Do we (do I) expect to be changed by the Bible?" If we do not expect to be changed by God's revelation—in scripture, in Christian tradition, or in reflection on our experience—then in fact we do not really own the authority of scripture or of God known in other ways. To own the authority of God is to expect that God will challenge us, comfort us, lead us, and empower us as we discern God's message today.CHAPTER 2
Doctrines About God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit
Teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit
Historic Christianity is distinguished from other religious traditions by its worship of Jesus Christ as God. The World Council of Churches expresses this basic Christian identity when its "Basis" states that the WCC is "a fellowship of churches which confess Jesus Christ to be God and Savior." In the first centuries of its life, the Christian community had to clarify this basic issue of identity, and the church's historic creeds, preeminently the Nicene Creed, reflect the church's consensus on this critical issue. The doctrine of the Trinity was the church's way of accounting for its distinctive worship of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Doctrine of the Trinity
Methodist congregations regularly sing "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the question of whether it was appropriate to worship Christ as God. The Arian teachers of the 300s AD claimed that Christ was divine in a sense but was a "creature" (a created being) not to be accorded the same worship as the uncreated Father. In response to the Arians, councils of Christian bishops in AD 325 and AD 381 gave us the creed that is historically called the Nicene Creed. This creed clarified that Christ is "of one substance with the Father, begotten, not created" and that the Holy Spirit is "together worshipped and glorified" with the Father and the Son. Although the councils did not use the word "Trinity," they defined the trinitarian teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally, eternally God, together the subject of the church's adoration. The first Methodist Article of Religion and the first article of the UM Confession of Faith assert the teaching of the Trinity utilizing the language of the ancient councils, and our churches have included the Nicene Creed in Methodist hymnals since the middle of the 1900s.
Article 1; UM Confession 1
The doctrine of the Trinity does not really attempt to say who God is, for the mystery of God surpasses our language and abilities of expression. The doctrine of the Trinity did set some practical limits on teaching about God. On the one hand, this doctrine maintains that we cannot so emphasize the oneness of God as to deny the personal relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, this doctrine also maintains that we cannot so emphasize the relationships between the three divine Persons as to deny the belief that God is one.
In using language about God the "Father" and the "Son," it was not the intention of the early Councils to say that we must address God in exclusively masculine terms (that was not the issue). In fact, our first Article of Religion states that God is "without body or parts," and for this reason gender-specific language about God causes real problems. Some Methodists have experimented with alternative expressions for the worship of the three divine Persons, but our churches have not yet come to a consensus as to what language may faithfully express our adoration of the "three-one God" (John Wesley's favored expression).
Christ as Divine and Human
Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
Council of Chalcedon (AD 451)
Article 2; UM Confession 2
The doctrine of the Trinity made it clear that Christ was "of one being" with the Father, that Christ was fully divine. It was also important in the early Christian communities to make it clear that Christ became a true human being and that, in Christ, the divine and human were perfectly united. In the words of an ancient African bishop, "Christ became human in order that humans might become divine." In the 400s AD, a council of bishops expressed the consensus that Christ unites together a fully divine "nature" and a fully human "nature." Our Methodist Articles of Religion and the UM Confession of Faith affirm this same teaching about the "two natures" (divine and human) united in the "one person" of Christ.
Methodist Alteration of the Apostles' Creed
Apostles' Creed 1 Peter 3:19
1989 UM Hymnal, no. 882
One historic expression of the teaching that Christ was truly human is the statement in the Apostles' Creed that Christ "descended into hell," or "descended to the dead." This meant that Christ experienced death as fully as humans do. First Peter even states that in death Christ "went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison," apparently a reference to the belief in the early church that Christ proclaimed the Good News to those who had died before the coming of the Savior. John Wesley omitted from the Methodist Articles of Religion an Anglican Article asserting Christ's descent into hell, although this probably did not indicate his disapproval. When Methodists began to include the Apostles' Creed in their hymnals in the 1800s, many did not understand the meaning of this expression. They thought that to say that Christ "descended into hell" meant that Christ went to the place of judgment ("hell," in the sense of the place of eternal punishment, see chapter 6), and so removed the expression from the Creed. Growing understanding of the meaning of this expression has led some Methodist churches to include the "ecumenical" version of the Apostles' Creed as well as the form in which Methodists have customarily said the creed.
The Holy Spirit
UM Confession 3; 1989 UM Hymnal, nos. 337-536
In defining their central teachings about Christ, early Christians had a great deal to say. They had considerably less to say about the Holy Spirit, although by AD 381 the Nicene Creed had been revised to make it clear that the Spirit is to be accorded equal reverence with the Father and the Son. Our fourth Article of Religion and the UM Confession of Faith affirm this teaching. These statements, however, also state that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." The expression "and the Son" had been added to the Nicene Creed in the Western church in the middle ages, and the addition of these words to the Creed is one of the issues that has divided Eastern and Western Christians since then. Eastern Christians do not believe that the bishops of Rome who authorized this change have the authority to alter the Creed. Many Protestant groups, responding to ecumenical concerns about the alteration of the Creed, have elected to omit these words, and Methodist churches will need to face this issue in the future.
Article 4; UM Confession 3
Methodist piety, expressed in the UM Confession of Faith, has referred consistently to the work of the Holy Spirit in pouring out divine grace to human beings and leading us through the "way of salvation." For this reason, the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal places its entire section on the Christian life under the heading of the Holy Spirit. This stress on the present activity of the Holy Spirit not only characterized historic Methodist piety but flowed from Methodism into the Holiness and Pentecostal movements.
UM Confession 3; 1989 UM Hymnal, nos. 337-536
But although Methodist piety speaks of the Spirit as the one who guides us through the way of the Christian life, we should be clear that salvation is the work of all of the Persons of the Trinity. The mystery of God is such that we cannot really divide out the works of God. So although we may speak of the First Person as the "Creator," we also recognize that "all things came into being through" Christ the Word (John 1:3), and in our ordination services we pray "Come, Creator Spirit." Similarly, in the work of salvation each of the three Persons of the Godhead works together on our behalf (cf. Romans 8:12-17). The Persons of the Godhead cannot be reduced to functions.
Excerpted from Methodist Doctrine by Ted A. Campbell. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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