My recent post from the new book Key United Methodist Beliefs raised a couple of questions about how the authors, William J. Abraham and David Watson, discuss the issue of sin. So, here is a follow-up that I hope does justice to their chapter in the book.
Each chapter in the book is broken down into five sections.
- A Wesleyan Faith – A presentation of John Wesley’s teaching and the roots of it in Christian tradition.
- A Living Faith – A engagement with how the particular issue might affect the way we live our faith.
- A Deeper Faith – A place to tackle tough questions or complicated issues raised by the topic of the chapter.
- Catechism – Questions and Answers with Scriptural support where possible.
- In Your Own Words – Questions designed to help the reader or small group formulate their own responses and understandings based on the chapter.
Chapter 5 “What Is Sin?” begins with the observation that John Wesley viewed all people as sinful. It then asks the obvious question: “What is sin?” The answer: “It is any violation of God’s will.”
From this definition, the chapter moves immediately to a discussion of original sin as understood by Wesley and based on the writing of Paul and interpretation of Augustine. The authors discuss original sin as a distortion of our desires and also as inherited guilt. (Wesley, to my reading, did not share this emphasis on inherited guilt, but the authors may have in mind Augustine here more than Wesley.)
They note the nature of sin as personal (which they term small scale) and social (which they term “on a grand scale”) and argue that sin is not simply something people do but is a spiritual agent. Their discussion on this topic, as much of the book, attempts to describe what many people believe without being entirely prescriptive.
The chapter moves on to discuss living faith by writing about situations in which we know what we should do but do not want to do it.
It is simply a part of the human condition that at times we will want to think, speak, and do things that God does not wish. We should expect this to happen, and when it does, God allows us to choose the right way or the wrong way to live. When we choose the wrong way, however, we should not expect to find lasting happiness. Only in God can we find lasting happiness and true fulfillment.
The rest of the “Living Faith” section of the chapter is a discussion of the last line above, including reference to Augustine’s famous observation that our heart is always restless until if finds rest in God. Our tendency to seek fulfillment in things other than God leads us to idolatry and misuse of things and people.
In the “Deeper Faith” section of the chapter, as I discussed in my earlier post, the authors explore the reasons behind the rules as an interpretation on Mark 2:27 where Jesus says the Sabbath was made for humankind.
The chapter closes with the catechism and the questions to answer. Both include focus on the person and work of Satan, which is highlighted in the “Living Faith” section of the chapter. The catechism quotes Psalm 51:5 as it discusses original sin, which highlights the idea of original guilt, which as I wrote above I do not think was an emphasis on John Wesley.
I’ll close with just a couple of general comments about the book. First, it is well done, although with a few typographical issues. It is well organized and written in a way that does not assume a seminary degree. I don’t think it would work well for a class of new Christians, but would be good for Christians who are trying to understand their faith more deeply. In many ways, the book tries to do the impossible — describe what United Methodists believe — but it does it well.
You will, however, notice some particular interests of the authors peaking through the curtains as you read. As part of what once was a theological construction project called Canonial Theism, they have particular views about Scripture and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit provided to the church to help form people in the way of Christ. So, for instance, their chapter on Scripture is about the Bible and the creeds. In another place, the catechism over the Trinity uses Eastern Orthodox answers, which remove the filoque clause, although the authors do retain the clause in the version of the Nicene Creed reproduced from the United Methodist Hymnal.
These are minor, but to me interesting, observations. All in all, the book is well done, engaging, and certainly a useful one for any church wanting to delve more deeply into the meaning of the faith.