Restoring Methodism: What is our scriptural and theological base?

This is a continuation of a series began this past summer reviewing the book “Restoring Methodism: 10 Decisions for United Methodist Churches in America” by James B. Scott and Molly Davis Scott.

I knew that I would have problems with “Decision 8” in Restoring Methodism when I realized that the scriptures passages used by the Scotts in the introduction to the chapter drew from the King James version. They were very specific in using that KJV, for this is one of the few English translations that chooses to translate the Greek word didache to mean “doctrine” instead of the more general “teaching” or “instruction.” It was clear that the issue of proper doctrine (orthodoxy) would be the focus of the chapter, and that they were willing to massage the scripture a bit to demonstrate their concerns.

Of course, some will say that the difference between “doctrine” and “teaching” is insignificant. After all, doctrine in its most traditional sense means teaching. However more often than not to talk about doctrine today is to instead begin to think about dogma, and especially dogmatic thinking and teaching. Dogma, a group of teachings or doctrines authoritatively proclaimed by the church, rarely allows for room for conversation on the nature of God, God’s call upon the church. For most postmodern people (of which I count myself), dogma represents the church saying “Believe this, or shut up.” Dogmatism is generally seen as a barrier to true relationship and conversation, and I believe that what the Scotts desire when they talk about returning to our scriptural and theological base is to establish a clear Methodist dogma upon which there can be no discussion.

The Scott’s begin this chapter with the belief (made without substantiation) that there is a lack of doctrinal consensus today in the United Methodist Church. They suggest that the development of a doctrinal consensus needs to be built on their own version of the quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, “Wesleyan roots” and “Wesleyan essentials.”

They begin their argument by considering the role of scripture, quoting from John Wesley about his views of scripture, and noting that the early Methodists were known as “people of the Word.” However, their entire treatise on the use of scripture in developing a doctrinal consensus is only four paragraphs long, and ducks many questions. They write in their conclusion to the section:

Is there anything more to be said than that the unfolding of God’s Word needs to be the primary focus of renewal? How can any renewal be accomplished with the Scriptures being a part of that foundation?”
p. 42

Actually, there is much more to be said and asked. One primary question for me is to ask if there is really any person who is suggesting that The United Methodist Church in our current incarnation is wanting to, and advocating for, the rejection of scripture in forming our life and ministry together? The problems that we run into in our differences are not due to the lack of interest in scripture, but rather radical difference in how scripture is interpreted. This question of interpretive method is completely ignored by the Scott’s, which is troubling for it is how we interpret that creates difficulties in our communion.

One could easily argue that perhaps our doctrinal consensus must involve developing a unitary approach to the interpretation of scripture, although the Scott’s never explicitly make that claim. I would argue that this would fly directly in the face of Albert Outler’s teaching on the Wesleyan method of theological inquiry, involving the conversation between scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. There has always been room for difference in interpretation within the Wesleyan tradition, as long as one maintained a belief in the Wesleyan essentials. The Scott’s choose to ignore the hard and difficult questions of interpretive frameworks, making a flippant comment that scripture has to be at the center of all (which I think everyone would agree with).

Their next section focuses on the history and tradition of the church, calling us to remain firmly planted in the story that has come before us. Again, this section (three paragraphs long) is very simplistic and again avoids difficult questions. The Scott’s rightly note that the United Methodist Book of Discipline contains materials that help United Methodists understand the teachings of our church, which reflects our historical tradition. However, we can’t avoid the reality that there are many things not contained in the Book of Discipline which likewise form the basis for United Methodist theology, things such as Wesley’s sermons (commended in the BOD as part and parcel of our doctrines), Wesley’s journals, Asbury’s journal, and the combined history which includes high points, as well as many low points (our involvement in slavery and segregation comes to mind in regards to the low times). At the level of their conversation, I have no argument that the history and tradition of our church must inform our theological conversation (always in conversation with scripture). However, we also have to understand that this tradition falls prey to the same issues of interpretive frameworks we find in scripture, which is why certain segments of our church lean toward Wesley’s sermons on unity, charity, and things like “A Letter to a Roman Catholic,” while others focus on sermons on sin and salvation.

Moving on, the next section titled “Wesleyan Roots” is two paragraphs in length, suggesting that we have lost our Wesleyan roots while “other denominations . . . report effectiveness . . . due to following the models of John Wesley.” Okay, fine, but what are those roots? The Scott’s never say, continuing with a pattern of making pronouncements without supporting information. One could easily argue that the movement back toward small group, cell based structures is part of our roots that we have lost, however the 1950’s brand on United Methodist that the Scott’s have appealed to in earlier chapters eschews those types of gatherings in favor of larger structures. If we want to get back to our true Wesleyan roots, we would dismantle the denominational structures, rejoin the Anglican communion, and focus on class meetings of 12 to 20 persons. That’s not considered a particularly “successful” strategy in today’s megachurch world, but it is closer to the Wesleyan model than anything they have proposed in this book.

Finally, the Scott’s move on to Wesleyan essentials. For Wesley, these essentials were a few core beliefs that were non-negotiable in the schema of faith. Everything else moved into the realm of opinions. Wesley was certainly strong in his belief and advocacy on these opinions (just as the Calvinists) but as the letter to a Roman Catholic demonstrates, there was still room for unity at some level when on shared the same essentials.

As the Scott’s note, Wesley only spoke of three essentials — repentance, justification by faith, and the movement toward holiness of heart and mind. They then go on to write:

The rest [of the Wesleyan essentials], derived from those three, number seven to eleven, depending on who you read {emphasis added}. They are: original sin, atonement of Christ, resurrection of Jesus, justification, Holy Spirit, new birth, Christian assurance, sanctification, sacraments, stewardship, and the Church.
p. 43

The phrase “depending on who you read” was interesting to me for I wasn’t sure that I would derive all of the items on that list as Wesleyan essentials, although most would fall under characteristics of Wesleyan theology. Who then were the Scott’s reading so as to come up with this list? Apparently themselves, for the endnote reference points to an earlier book written by the Scotts. Thus, if you read the Scotts that might be the list you get, but who knows what other Wesleyan theologians might think, folks like Randy Maddox or even Albert Outler. Thus, the Scott’s make another blanket claim without any indication that they are drawing on the work of Wesleyan theologians in the guild.

It is also interesting to think about what has been left out of the list. I think most in our communion would agree that Wesleyanism has been built upon a methodical practices of spiritual practices, which include acts of personal piety, acts of public worship, acts of compassion and service, and acts of justice and advocacy. The very name “Methodist” arose from the methodical practices engaged in by Mr. Wesley and the other members of the Holy Club in Oxford. Yet the Scotts fail to include this focus on discipline in their listing of Wesleyan essentials, missing perhaps one of the greatest resources that United Methodism has in reaching a postmodern world.

Likewise, any participant in an Emmaus experience would tell you that a key component of Wesleyan theology and practice is the emphasis on God’s grace. In fact, many of the items in the Scott’s list above are directly connected to our belief in the all encompassing grace of God, expressed preveniently (before we are aware of it), and the point of justification, and throughout our entire journey toward holiness (sanctification). Again, the Emmaus community is one of the success stories in United Methodism, but the Scott’s ignore a Wesleyan distinctive that any Emmaus participant would know.

What worries me more is the Scott’s willingness to ignore Outler’s Wesleyan Quadrilateral that has been a part of our United Methodist understanding for many years now in favor of their own four-part system. In doing so, the Scott’s clearly seem to want to relegate religious experience and human reason to the trash heap of 1960’s liberalism. Of course, Outler believed that this schema describe Wesley’s own process in theological decision making, and that it provides a guideline for our theological decision making as well. By removing these two categories, replacing them with the nebulous descriptors of Wesleyan Roots and Wesleyan Essentials, it moves one from a system of theological reflection and conversation to dogma . . . “…here is what we believe and that settles it.” It is a system that has no trust in the ability of faithful people to search the scriptures and traditions and come to a common consensus of belief and understanding. 

The Scott’s end with the apocryphal statement that has probably been said far too many times: “I love being a Methodist because you can believe anything you want.” Here in the Bible Belt, it usually gets put in the form of a statement saying that all it takes to get to heaven if you are a Methodist is a covered dish. 

I have heard the statement before, and frankly it isn’t true. We most definitely have a heritage that we draw on, and a series of theological distinctives that I believe are well suited to speaking in a world in the midst of transition. However, the Scott’s seemed determined to “prove” that the United Methodist Church is going to hell in a hand-basket, and they never fully identify our scriptural and theological base. 

It’s a pity, for I think we have a great resource to draw on. 

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