By William J. Abraham –
We are at a crucial turning point in our culture, but also in the history of the Wesleyan church. We are at an absolutely crucial turning point in the history of the Methodist tradition. We now face a clear choice. Sometimes things are presented in strict either/or alternatives. The Lord did this when he said there was a “broad way” and a “narrow way.”
The broad way is straightforward. There’s going to be a church that is built on sex and gender. There’s going to be a church built on rebellion against the policies and practices of the church. There’s going to be a church that’s built on non-rational means of persuasion. It’s a church that will be built on individual personalities and even rock star public personas and a church that will be built on the shifting sand of post secular experience and cultural proclivities.
I do not want to be part of a church like that. Here’s an alternative. A church that is built on our Lord’s teaching on marriage – and the vision that informs it. A church that will be built on respect for canon law, for corporate discipline, and for civility towards our critics and our enemies. It’s a church that will be built on rational, respectful means of persuasion. It’s a church that will be built on hard consensus in conferencing and thinking and speaking and arguing together like they did in Acts 15. And it’s a church that will be built on the rock of divine revelation in the scriptures and the reliably annunciated material given in the great creeds of the church, especially the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.
This is a stark and inescapable choice for United Methodists as we move forward.
We are unapologetically intending a fresh start for the people called Methodist across the world. This is not simply a parochial North American matter. We are a global church and we are interested in a fresh start for a global version of Methodism that’s built on Scripture and on the creeds.
What’s the primary task of Scripture? According to 2 Timothy 2:16, it is to make us wise unto salvation and to enable us to come and be all God wants us to be in the life of the church. It’s there to form us, to change us, to transform us. And that’s why there’s such magnificent diversity in Scripture.
Living a life of obedience will be a life of health and success in the appropriate way. And we need the book of Job when our children die and we face insoluble and difficult problems. In our everyday lives, we need Paul. And we need James. We need the synoptic material and the Gospel of John. We read it every week and preach it every Sunday because it makes us wise unto salvation. But one of the ways it makes us wise unto salvation is precisely that it gives us indispensable information about God and about ourselves, about how to come to God, and what the future is going to be like. That is absolutely crucial information that comes from God and is mediated through the scriptures.
Now, Wesley considered this in terms of a form of revelation. Revelation given solely in our conscience can be very, very wobbly. And there’s revelation given in law and prophets. That helps direct our misdirected consciences. And the full magnificent revelation is given in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ risen from the dead and coming again in glory to clean up the mess which we occupy.
When people talk about Scripture and divine revelation, it’s all about interpretation: You’ve got your interpretation. I’ve got my interpretation. And then you develop a set of buckets or whatever set of images you’ve got.
Here is where we must stand firm. When God speaks to us in Scripture, God is not incompetent. When he says “yes,” we understand it. When he says “no,” we can understand it. And otherwise we’ve got a totally incompetent deity. We have a God who didn’t make us in such a way we can hear him and understand him, and when he speaks to us in his word, he can’t get through to us. That’s not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s why we’re not intimidated by claims about relativism of interpretation.
God is not incompetent. He’s spoken to us and we’re going to stand by the revelation that’s given in Scripture. And we’ll be immersed in Scripture to be all God wants us to be.
Now, the place of the creeds has been more controversial. Why do the creeds exist? Why did the great shapers and framers of the creeds bring them into existence? Just as they developed a list of books, they developed a canon or list of doctrines. And those doctrines were straightforward. “I believe in God the Father.” “I believe in God the Son.” Add bells and whistles, and you got that in your head and you’ll not be fooled. You’ll not be fooled by television. You’ll not be fooled by heretics. The creeds were developed in relationship to baptism.
Read the gospels first. Read about Jesus first. Start thinking about what the good and life-giving Holy Spirit will do in your life first, then you’ll be ready for the meaty summary of the tradition. The goal was to provide crucial basic teaching for the Church as a whole. It was our forebearers in the North African Church that developed this material and we are indebted to them.
Here’s what went wrong when we lost the emphasis on the creeds as a part of our doctrines. We became prey to the temptations of what I call Big “L” Liberal Protestantism. In the 19th century we lost our nerve on the deep faith of the church. In the 20th century, it became an open season. We borrowed and we begged and we stole anybody else’s theology out there.
By the time we came along in the 1960s, it was a zoo. And it was an incredibly difficult period and it’s a miracle we have survived this long. The first reason for the importance of the creeds is we have to put those back in formally and clearly so we are absolutely secure in the core doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith and that are shared by Christians across the world, across space and time.
Now, there’s a new objection that’s come against all this material. When I was trained, the objection to the deep truths of the Christian faith was: It’s false, it’s irrational. How can you believe in that and science?
I spent a long time writing many boring books to defend all this stuff. Now, the objection is: It’s not false, it’s poisonous. This is bad for your health. These creeds have been put together by people who are power-hungry and trying to impose their view of God and Christ on the whole of the church. This is a matter of the raw expression of power-hungry church leaders in second, third, and fourth, and fifth centuries.
This is just nonsense. This is appallingly bad history. Our North African hero, Augustine, my favorite theologian out of the early period, was a genius and churchman of the highest caliber. He was run out of his cathedral five times by the government, no less.
The point of the creed is not only to preserve the truth summary that’s meaty and accessible, but also as protection of the church against the elites. Scottish philosopher and theologian Donald MacKinnon has written, “The whole exterior framework of the Christian church is the poor man’s protection against the tyranny of the wise who would rob him of the heritage of the gospel.” That’s why you must have canon law and bishops who can teach and bishops who know the faith and are not trying to abandon the faith. “In one sense, one might say, too, that her visible structure, her articulate doctrinal standards, her ordered sacramental life, represents the very lashing of the Church herself to her historical moorings.”
Let me continue with MacKinnon: “The whole church is an organ of the gospel … Those aspects of her life that most perplex hankerers after ‘spiritual religion’ are due to the fact that she proclaims, not a possibility of spiritual achievement, but a work of redemption wrought by the Son of God through human flesh and blood.”
“Again and again,” MacKinnon says, “we have seen the pressure of external circumstances upon individual members of the Church, who have held high office within her and have usually been endowed with great personal gifts, a pressure with issues in individual demands that the Gospel of God be transformed into a human philosophy. And it’s been the external organization of the church, the character of the gospel, that has preserved its saving truths for Christ’s little ones. It is through the institutions” – practices, doctrines – “of the church that the gospel is preserved from the idiosyncrasies of its members.”
There are two key reasons why I think we have to take the creeds seriously. One, the absence of a formal commitment to the creeds has left us vulnerable to persuasive attacks on the deep elements of the Christian faith and we need to correct that mistake in the history of Methodism.
And the second deep reason for this fabulous material is to protect the sheep from the wolves. Who is going to protect little ones who will be eaten alive by church leaders and phony intellectuals? Who will protect the little ones from all of that?
It is the deep structures, doctrines, sacraments, and life in the church and it’s crucial we be clear about the significance of Scripture and the creeds in the life of the church. We have our work cut out for us. What we need is a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
William J. Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. This article is an adaptation of his presentation to the recent gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association in Tulsa, Oklahoma.