Archive: Wesleyan Doctrines Under Question

By Thomas C. Oden

Good News
March/April 1988

The issue of doctrinal standards is of such wide-ranging consequence that it cannot be swept away or politely ignored. From 1763 (and from 1773 on in America) it has been generally assumed by preachers throughout the Methodist connection that to preach contrary to “our doctrines” would be to preach counter to Wesley’s teachings as defined in the Sermons and Notes (and after 1784, the Articles of Religion).

However, this is currently under serious challenge. The report of the Committee on Our Theological Task (COTT) has proposed to change Paragraph 67 in our Book of Discipline by eliminating every reference to the fact that Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions and Notes Upon the New Testament are included under the First Restrictive Rule as “our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”

Omitting Sermons and Notes Would be Unprecedented Change

At least three passages in Paragraph 67 of our current Discipline make it quite clear the Sermons and Notes have been normative as our doctrinal standards. I believe it is imperative that these passages be written back into the COTT proposal. If they are, it will reassure United Methodists that the Sermons and Notes are not being abandoned as doctrinal standards under our present Constitution. If they are not written back in, it would be the most drastic change of doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church (and its predecessors) in two centuries. And it would undoubtedly require serious, lengthy judicial challenges.

A number of United Methodists have been dissatisfied with our present doctrinal statement. That is why the 1984 General Conference authorized a task force to prepare a new doctrinal statement for our Discipline. However, to omit the references to the Sermons and Notes as included in “our present existing and established standards of doctrine” would be a startling omission for United Methodists. It would undoubtedly become a stumbling block, weakening an otherwise acceptable COTT proposal.

To avert such a problem, I propose three specific statements from Paragraph 67 of our current Discipline be retained in the proposed new statement. To do this would assure United Methodists that we are not now, after two centuries, choosing to reject Wesley’s own as well as our historic definition of doctrinal standards. For surely, whatever the committee is proposing, it is not an improvement upon Wesley’s Sermons and Notes.

The first statement that should be retained says:

“The Discipline seems to assume that for the determination of otherwise irreconcilable doctrinal disputes, the Annual and General Conferences are the appropriate courts of appeal, under the guidance of the first two Restrictive Rules” (which is to say, the Articles and Confession, the Sermons and the Notes)(Discipline, 1984, Par. 67, p. 49).

This sentence clearly implies that the Sermons and Notes are protected under the First Restrictive Rule of the Constitution. The new doctrinal proposal regrettably has eliminated this sentence.

The second statement that should be retained says:

“The original distinction between the intended functions of the Articles on the one hand, and of the Sermons and Notes on the other, may be inferred from the double reference to them in the First Restrictive Rule” (adopted in 1808 and unchanged ever since)(Discipline, 1984, Par. 67, p. 45).

This sentence shows that it has long been the official interpretation of the First Restrictive Rule that the Rule has two distinguishable clauses. In the  first, the Constitution protects the Articles of Religion and in the second it protects the Sermons and Notes. Unfortunately, the new doctrinal proposal has eliminated this sentence.

The third statement that should be retained has to do with the Plan of Union:

“The Plan of Union for the United Methodist Church, the Preface to the Methodist Articles of Religion and the Evangelical United Brethren Confession of Faith, explains that both had been accepted as doctrinal standards for the new church. It was declared that ‘they are deemed congruent if not identical in their doctrinal perspectives, and not in conflict.’ Additionally, it was stipulated that, although the language of the First Restrictive Rule has never been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were specifically included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine by plain historical inference (Discipline, 1984, Par. 67, p. 49).

This paragraph is a crucial, straightforward, factual report describing accurately the premise of the Plan of Union and its reasoning about doctrinal standards. All Disciplines since the Plan of Union have contained this simple, descriptive paragraph which cannot easily be circumvented by subsequent General Conference action. It belongs to the Plan of Union which cannot be legislatively refashioned by a General Conference. The Plan of Union was itself a significant constitutional act which brought two bodies together to form a new church. Even if this phrase of Paragraph 67 were omitted by the upcoming General Conference or one later, that would not (and presumably could not) revise the terms of Union. And it would undoubtedly bring about a complex series of judicial challenges.

Unfortunately, the new doctrinal proposal has eliminated the important paragraph cited above.

If any one of these three passages mentioned above are preserved in our Book of Discipline, we will have sufficiently preserved the protection of the Sermons and Notes as doctrinal standards. And I believe it is imperative that the delegates to the 1988 General Conference take such action.

Sermons and Notes Give us Our Wesleyan Distinctives

Agreement with Methodist doctrine is both presupposed and required of those seeking to minister within the United Methodist Church. It is of utmost importance that we are clear about what that doctrine is. In a view that fairly and concisely reflects the post-Plan of Union situation, Nolan B. Harmon has written: “United Methodist standards of doctrine are more definitely stated in Twenty-five Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, Fifty-Two Sermons of John Wesley, and Notes on the New Testament by John Wesley” (Understanding the United Methodist Church, p. 23, 24).

If one possessed only the Articles of Religion without Sermons or Notes, one would have general Protestant teaching without specific Methodist teaching. The Articles of Religion affirmed what is commonly held in Protestant religion, which Wesley also clearly affirmed, such as the sufficiency of Scripture, the triune God, justification by faith, etc.

When Wesley amended the Thirty Nine Articles in 1784, he made them align more closely to distinctive Methodist teaching. Still, these Articles are not the best place to discover doctrine that is distinctively Methodist, for Methodists share them with Protestantism generally.

Significantly, Wesley did not characteristically use the term “our doctrines” to refer to the Thirty-nine Articles, although he affirmed them (with certain preferred revisions). Rather “our doctrines” was for Wesley and is today a reference to those teachings that have characterized the distinctively defined group of people called Methodists.

The 1988 General Conference should keep the Sermons and Notes as  doctrinal standards.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas C. Oden is professor of theology and ethics at the Theologica School and the Graduate School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is a clergy member of the Oklahoma Annual Conference. Photo: InterVarsity Press.


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