Can we find a common foundation?

Perhaps because he was an evangelical striving to keep other evangelicals within the Church of England, I find John Stott to be one of the contemporary writers who most reminds me of John Wesley in tone and broader concerns. His little book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness is a real gem.

Near the end of the book, he has this summary:

We have been preoccupied through much of this book with the trinitarian shape of the evangelical faith, that is, with the initiative of God in revealing himself, the love of Christ in dying for our sins, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in facilitating every aspect of our Christian discipleship. More simply, we have focused on the Word, the cross and the Spirit as three essential evangelical emphases. To be an evangelical Christian, however, is not just to subscribe to an orthodox trinitarian formula. The evangelical faith reaches beyond belief to behavior; it brings with it a multifaceted challenge to live accordingly.

Nothing Stott writes here is novel, which I imagine was his intention. His effort in the book was to identify the core essentials that can be the foundation for unity among the sometimes warring tribes of evangelicalism. Wesleyan Methodist, for instance, can agree with everything he writes even as we continue to hold some particular beliefs about entire sanctification.

It is not at all a new observation that liberals and evangelicals within United Methodism often have more in common with liberals and evangelicals in other denominations than they have with each other. As I was reading Stott’s book, it struck me that the things that liberal and evangelical United Methodists have most in common are mostly in the areas that Stott considers secondary.

Outside the core evangelicals emphases (summarized in the paragraph above), Stott describes things that good evangelicals can disagree about and still regard each other as good evangelicals. His list includes things such as: sacramental theology, polity, the role of women in ministry, liturgy, and the meaning of mission.

My hypothesis is that most of the things that hold us together as United Methodists come from Stott’s list of secondary or indifferent issues. While liberals and evangelicals would agree on the Trinity as crucial and share some language about behavior being an important outgrowth of belief, we are often deeply divided on issues regarding the inspiration and authority of scripture and centrality of the cross — things that Stott argues are essential to evangelical Christianity. At the same time, we find common identity in things like our form of polity and a set of vocabulary words that come from Wesley, although we often differ on the meaning of these words.

Is it possible for United Methodists to find common ground on the core trinitarian affirmations of our faith, or are we doomed to ground our unity on the less certain ground of bishops and infant baptism and the hymns of Charles Wesley?

6 thoughts on “Can we find a common foundation?

  1. I would say that the primacy of Prevenient grace and the understanding of our holiness in terms of love of God and neighbor are essentials which it seems like evangelical Methodists are ready to dispense with. American evangelicalism has a crush on Calvinism because its austerity feels “conservative.” If Prevenient grace is now only a secondary point of unity for Methodism then God help us.

    1. I’m not aware of evangelical Methodists ignoring prevenient grace. In Stott’s terms, it would be secondary — meaning not essential to wider evangelicalism — but Methodists would still insist on it as a mark of Methodism. My post is drawing a couple sets of rings that do not entirely overlap, which is poor writing on my part.

      1. I think your description of overlapping, not concentric rings is an accurate description of Methodist and Evangelical positions. We have similar perspectives, but different foci.

    2. I too am not aware of evangelical Methodists jettisoning those doctrines.

      As a student at Asbury and a former student of Ken Collins (the primary teacher of John Wesley’s theology, a required class for all M.Div students) that would be quite a surprise to me.

      I would ask what you mean by “the primacy of prevenient grace” though.

  2. At the very least I think we would be on much sturdier ground if we clearly agreed on what we meant by Trinity and the necessity of the cross.

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