In honor of the passing of our friend Dr. William J. Abraham, we are republishing an address he presented at the 1995 national gathering of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
By William J. Abraham –
One of the most heartening features of life in the United Methodist Church is the deep yearning for renewal that can be detected at almost all levels of the church. In the patchwork of renewal movements within the United Methodist Church, the Confessing Movement focuses quite deliberately on the need for our denomination as a whole to be faithful to the deep doctrinal treasures of the church across the ages which are spelled out so clearly in the Articles of Religion, The Confession of Faith, and in Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Equally, it calls the church to lift high these doctrinal treasures for the whole life of the church in evangelism, liturgy, mission, pastoral care, social action, and every aspect of the work of the church. Implicit in this call to fidelity, reform, and renewal is the judgment that we have neglected these doctrinal treasures or, more seriously, that we have replaced these treasures with alien doctrinal material, which distorts our tradition, which separates us from each other and from the classical faith of the church, and which undermines crucial aspects of our life and mission together.
Why do we need a confessing movement? There are at least four very substantial reasons.
1. The substance and content of the faith have been called into question in our culture and more conspicuously within the church at large.
We are aware that our culture has become radically more and more pluralistic during the last generation. This is something we neither condemn nor applaud. In the providence of God we are called to serve the gospel at a time of momentous changes. God has sent us forth into a free marketplace of religions, ideas, fads, philosophies, and ideologies. In these circumstances, it is patently clear that we can no longer depend on the culture to transmit Christian faith in the public institutions of the land, such as the law, the news media, the academy, and the public education system. On the contrary, we can expect vigorous engagement in the public arena, if not downright hostile attack. We are not surprised, then, when we find the essentials of the faith called into question by intellectual leaders and scholars.
It is another matter entirely, however, when the faith of the church expressed in our doctrinal standards is called into question by those who want to remake or reimagine the faith in ways which repudiate the great classical doctrines of the church universal. There are those who want to displace the revelation enshrined in the Scriptures by attempting to replace it with an appeal to various forms of reason and experience. There are those who want to reject or set aside the Scriptures because they have invented their own canon. There are those who openly repudiate the Trinity because it is believed to be linguistically oppressive. There are those who reject the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ because they think it is supernaturalistic or incoherent. There are those who repudiate the atonement wrought by Christ because they think it is a case of divine child abuse. There are those who reject the universal saving work of Jesus Christ because they think they can save themselves with their own religion. There are those who repudiate the evangelistic and missionary activity of the church because they find it too offensive and intolerant in a pluralistic world. There are those who want to set aside the quest for righteousness and holiness because it does not fit with the mores of a new generation.
In these circumstances it is imperative that the church be clear about its core doctrines concerning the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and the complete sufficiency of God’s saving action in Christ. In these circumstances silence is a form of collusion. There is at this moment in history a clear need for the church to confess boldly and clearly the faith by which it lives and dies.
2. As a church we have in reality been committed to a form of practical, doctrinal incoherence for a generation or more.
Throughout the last generation the UM Church has been suffering from an acute case of doctrinal amnesia and of doctrinal dyslexia. I have chosen these images very carefully. In the case of amnesia the analogy is self-explanatory. We have simply forgotten our doctrinal heritage and hence have ignored its rich treasures and reserves. In some respects, however, the analogy with dyslexia is more compelling. As anyone suffering from dyslexia knows, the crucial problem is that one sees the relevant marks on the page but the marks are ingested in a distorted fashion. In the case of doctrinal dyslexia, what happens is analogous to this condition. In our case what has happened is that we have turned inside out and upside down the crucial material on doctrine in the Book of Discipline. We have displaced the actual standards of doctrine laid out in the Constitution by concentrating on the highly speculative material laid out in the section on our theological task.
At a crude and popular level we have replaced the great doctrinal verities of the faith, which are laid out so carefully in the Articles of Religion, The Confession of Faith, and in Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, with the famous Methodist “quadrilateral.” We have replaced commitment to the great doctrines of the church with a commitment to a speculative theory of religious knowledge. We have replaced content with process, sacrificing the possibility of a publicly agreed common mind to the actuality of a partisan, conjectural theological method.
The consequence is that our identity is now shaped by an interesting but dubious exercise in religious theory of knowledge. On pain of denying our tradition, we are forced to confess adherence to a piece of clever epistemology which was worked out in the 1960s and which is at odds both with Wesley and with the clear content of the constitutional standards of doctrine. In these circumstances the great classical doctrines of the faith, to which Wesley wholeheartedly adhered, are treated as optional alternatives to be received, rejected, remade, or reimagined at will. We have idolized a piece of philosophical speculation and are now reaping the consequences. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves torn asunder by conflicting doctrinal proposals. The quadrilateral effectively fosters this situation. It invites us to evaluate our beliefs and doctrinal suggestions by running them through Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. As a pedagogical device, the quadrilateral indeed has merit. Anyone who is a teacher can testify to this. However, as a formal proposal in the field of religious knowledge, the quadrilateral is an absurd undertaking, for only an omniscient agent could seriously undertake to run our proposals through the gamut of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Only God could use the quadrilateral and, thankfully, God does not need it. What actually happens, of course, is that folk make a good faith effort to meet this grandiose standard, but the considerations are so diverse and complicated that the result is a wild array of alternatives. The quadrilateral is much like a kaleidoscope. Each time you shake Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, a different configuration emerges. The result is doctrinal chaos and incoherence. Even Albert Outler, the great architect of the Methodist quadrilateral, was disturbed by its misuse, and late in life expressed reservations about its logic.
This, of course, is what we get when we use the quadrilateral at its best. At its worst, our use of the quadrilateral is like a lateral in football; if you cannot support your position by one element in the quadrilateral then use a lateral pass to tradition, reason, or experience until you get the support you need. In this instance the quadrilateral is simply a camouflage for any and every doctrinal proposal. It is clearly at odds with the much more modest and nuanced appeal to Scripture carefully stated in the Articles of Religion and The Confession of Faith.
It is in this whole arena that we need very significant reform. Currently, the self-image of United Methodists reflects non-commitment to any specific doctrines. At best it adheres to a version of the Methodist quadrilateral. Against this I want to suggest that the UM Church is a confessional church. We have a clear body of Christian doctrine spelled out in our doctrinal standards. Broadly speaking, these standards commit us to the classical faith of the church developed during the patristic period and the Reformation and laid out in the Articles of Religion and The Confession of Faith. Equally, they commit us to the Wesleyan distinctives laid out in Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Where we are currently required in practice to accept a speculative theory of religious knowledge, the UM Church in its Constitution invites us to accept and explore the rich treasures embodied in the classical and Wesleyan traditions. It is high time that we enter into a new doctrinal reformation which comes to terms with this historical reality.
3. Doctrinal considerations are foundational to virtually every aspect of our life and faith, and nothing short of this will challenge the internal secularization of the church as a whole.
The Methodist movement, which sprang up in the eighteenth century, was part of a profound spiritual awakening which cannot be understood apart from the deep gospel truths which animated its leaders and workers. Methodists laid hold of the faith of the church, opened themselves to the active presence of the Holy Spirit, found themselves gloriously converted, and were then propelled into a spiraling movement of evangelism and social action. This was clearly a mighty work of providence which depended on very specific doctrinal commitments such as we find in the doctrines of creation, redemption, grace, justification, and sanctification. Take away these doctrines and Methodism is unintelligible and unworkable. Doctrinal commitments inform and enter into our work in evangelism, worship, social action, pastoral care, ecumenism, and administration.
Increasingly, with the rise of various secular disciplines that reject or ignore theological considerations, there has been a marked tendency to envisage our work in entirely naturalistic, secular, or procedural categories. Worship is reduced to entertainment or to purely aesthetic dimensions; administration is reduced to the logic of management; social action is cast entirely in humanitarian categories; evangelism is interpreted primarily in terms of nominal church membership; pastoral care is cast in terms of therapy; the election of bishops is turned into political campaigning; preaching is reduced to moralism; prayer becomes a form of comfort and auto-suggestion; the Scriptures are reduced to a set of sacred texts; Christian theology becomes an exercise in philosophical or ideological speculation.
The issue of course is a delicate one, for all truth is God’s truth, and we are free, therefore, to baptize all sorts of material for use in the church. Only a fool would refuse to plunder the secular “Egyptians” of our day and generation. However, our first and primary identity in the church is that we are the Body of Jesus Christ, equipped with a whole tapestry of insight expressed in the great doctrines of the faith and overshadowed by the mystery of the living God. Hence, as United Methodists, we live in and for the kingdom of God, not some secular substitute. In our worship we are committed to the great sacraments of baptism and eucharist, where we look to the Holy Spirit to wash us from our sins and feed us with the bread of heaven. We read the Scriptures not as an exercise in sacred archaeology but as the living Word of God. In evangelism, rather than simply adding members to the church, we seek to let the Holy Spirit deliver us from the bondage of original sin. In social action, rather than pursue the ideals of this or that political party, we seek to let God’s rule enter every nook and cranny of our social existence. In pastoral care, we are committed to the cure of souls; in administration we are looking to the Holy Spirit to give the whole church all the gifts that are needed to be agents of the kingdom; in the election of bishops we are seeking to find the charismatic gift of oversight in the church as a whole; in prayer we are entering the very courts of heaven itself; in preaching we are proclaiming and expounding the Word of God; in Christian theology we are in faith seeking understanding.
Conceived in this fashion, our work in the church is encoded by doctrinal themes and convictions. It is not that we somehow conjure up a set of doctrines and then apply them to this or that element in the life of the church. Doctrine is built into the very conception and execution of our work together. In the face of the widespread secularization of our culture and the strong temptation to mimic the ways of the world, it is vital that we remain steeped in the doctrinal riches of the faith. In this way our life and work together can truly represent the action of the Body of Christ and be filled with the direction of the Holy Spirit. Hence we can by grace be a city set on a hill, an outpost of the kingdom of God, and a vineyard truly built of the Lord, rather than one more social club, or our favored political party at prayer, or an insipid nursemaid to the secular state.
4. There is a need to heal the deep alienation and the sense of intellectual exclusion which exists in significant segments of the church at large.
What is at stake here is far from easy to describe. Let me try as best I can. I will do so by providing a tendentious narrative which will deliberately exaggerate in order to make the crucial point at issue. Ostensibly, United Methodism is an open, inclusivist denomination. We have prided ourselves on welcoming the stranger, on providing a spiritual home for those who have felt they were oppressed in other traditions, and on being a community where people are free to think for themselves. Moreover, we have worked exceedingly hard to empower women and ethnic minorities. These are virtues which very few, if any, in United Methodism would want to forfeit.
Yet this is not the whole story. At the end of the last century, the leadership of the forbearers of modern United Methodism made a strategic decision that has never been adequately faced and worked through. At a time of enormous intellectual and social crisis, we opted to become the leaders of the liberal Protestant movement in North America. Believing that the classical Methodist tradition could not really be defended in the modern world, we adopted a revisionist pose which dismantled the classical faith of Methodism. Like the leaders in most mainline churches we lost our intellectual nerve and elected for massive accommodation to the intellectual elites of the culture.
This was an understandable decision, for liberal Protestants insisted that there was no other way to face the intellectual and social challenges of the day. Hence they felt that they could quietly ignore or dismantle vast tracks of the Christian heritage without shedding any theological tear. This shift – developed quite brilliantly, for example, at Boston School of Theology (which became a kind of Vatican of the tradition as a whole) – was taken as a given by much of the intellectual leadership of our tradition in the twentieth century. Any alternative seemed a perpetuation of a doctrinal dark ages which needed to be enlightened by all that was best in the modern world.
As a consequence, Methodism became theologically schizophrenic. Our roots, our hymnody, our founding documents were wholehearted steeped in the classical Christian tradition, but many of our leaders have been deeply alienated from this whole heritage, even though they had to work overtime to provide a semblance of intellectual coherence for themselves. Over time the fortunes of liberal Protestantism have waxed and waned. Liberal Protestantism was deeply challenged by the rise of Neoorthodoxy before and after the Second World War, but this was relatively easily contained by arguing that the work of Barth and the Niebuhrs was really a moment of self-correction in the development of liberal Protestantism. It was, for a time, given bad press with the arrival of the “God is dead” movement of the 1960s, but this was more of a media event than it was a serious threat to the standing orders of the great liberal Protestant experiment. Overall, during this period the intellectual institutions of United Methodism were a closed shop. It was the exception rather than the rule when someone who was committed to the classical faith of the church was permitted entrance. Too often they were dismissed doctrinally as intellectual illiterates.
As a consequence, many faithful United Methodists were shut out of crucial centers of the church’s life. They did what any group will do under such circumstances: they became frustrated, angry, fidgety, and alienated. Being what all United Methodists are, namely, inveterate, pragmatic activists, they also went to work. Over time they funded and built their own institutions, set up their own parachurch organizations and caucuses, got themselves educated, printed their own literature, held their revival meetings at the grass roots, set up an alternative mission society, and above all, poured themselves into evangelism and church growth. At the same time they worked as best they could within the system, being as loyal as they knew how to the church whose faith they treasured.
Liberal Protestantism is again in serious trouble within the academy. It is challenged on one side by the development of various forms of radical Protestantism and on the other side by a resurgent recovery of evangelical and patristic sensibilities in theology. Some academic institutions have even opened their doors, albeit in fear and trembling, to those who do not share the revisionist agenda. The ethos of liberal Protestantism, however lingers on in the tradition as a whole. Almost all have been preoccupied by a multicultural agenda that focuses on a form of diversity which masks deep opposition to the classical faith of the church on the grounds that it is incredible and oppressive. The inevitable consequence has been that many conservative and traditional United Methodists remain deeply alienated within the tradition as a whole.
We need a vigorous confessing movement at this moment in our history in order to give voice to those who have been systematically excluded from the central life of the church. Members who are committed to the classical doctrines of the faith need to know that they are not alone, that there are others who share their exclusion, that they can be fully Christian within the United Methodist tradition, and that they can learn and relearn the classical faith of the church. In short, there are many within United Methodism who need a space where they can be healed and intellectually renewed to serve the present age. They need a movement in which they can own their own tradition with integrity and deepen their hold on the doctrinal treasures of the church.
Our concern is with doctrine. Without adequate attention to this crucial dimension of our life together we will become antinomians, pharisees, and intellectual anarchists. Worse still, we will become emotionalists, frenetic activists, and even apostates from the faith once delivered to the saints. With proper attention to doctrine we will continue to be part of that great succession of evangelists, saints, and martyrs who, in the church catholic across the ages, have borne a faithful testimony to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
This essay was published in the January/February 1996 issue of Good News.