Four corners offense

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has provided the church with an example of theological argumentation using the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. He is a potentially instructive example of how to use the Quad since he helped write the portion of our Book of Discipline that discusses our theological task in the United Methodist Church.

As one who is trying to understand what it means to be a United Methodist, I thought I would follow along with his argument to try to learn his method. (I wrote about the less logic/argument aspects of this issue in a post published yesterday.)

He begins with a nod to John Wesley while making reference to the section of the Book of Discipline that Ogletree helped write.

Drawing upon John Wesley’s teachings, this section emphasizes the priority of biblical authority, and it underscores as well the indispensable roles of tradition, reason, and experience in informing our efforts to comprehend and appropriate the biblical witness.  These principles are clearly incompatible with attempts to settle complex theological and ethical issues by “proof texting,” i.e., the citation of carefully selected biblical texts that allegedly provide definitive resolutions of particular issues. he self-conscious inclusion of tradition, reason, and experience in our critical engagements with biblical resources actually deepens our discernment of the profound, life-transforming promises of the gospel message.

Here we see all four parts of the Quad: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Sadly, though, despite his mention of the priority of the biblical witness, he provides no further biblical references in developing his argument. He warns of the hazards of proof-texting and then moves on to tradition. This is a curious way to make something a priority.

In tradition, he finds positive and negative materials. On the negative side, he finds a “tradition” of unjust practices in the Methodist and United Methodist churches.

I am deeply grateful, moreover, for the opening section of The Book of Discipline, which reminds us of serious flaws and shortcomings manifest in the larger history of Methodism.  Shortcomings specifically listed include our previous accommodation of racial segregation by establishing a race-based Central Jurisdiction, and our extended denial of ordination rights and prominent leadership roles for women.   These unjust practices were by no means easily addressed or overcome.  Indeed, the struggles to eliminate them generated serious conflicts within the church, conflicts that were only resolved by persistent efforts to press for more just and inclusive church practices.

On the positive side, he finds statements in the church’s Social Principles that he feels endorse the position he is arguing on behalf of.

Equally important is the Disciplinary discussion of human rights as central to the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church (Part IV).  This text strongly endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with emphasis on respect for the inherent dignity of all persons.  Explicitly cited are the full rights of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; and the rights of children, young people, the aging, women, men, immigrants, and persons with disabilities.  The list concludes by declaring the full human rights of all persons without regard to their sexual orientations, a reference that suggests rational and experiential grounds for endorsing the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

From what I can gather by reading this argument, “tradition” for Ogletree is a form of history. This seems to comport with the discussion of “Tradition” in the Book of Discipline, which says in part:

The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life. Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christians live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.

So, a user of the Quad should be on the look out for stories and histories from the church that have some bearing on the issue at hand. Unfortunately, Olgetree’s goal in the example under consideration is polemical rather than constructive, so he appears not to look for or take into consideration stories or examples from Christian history that do not support his line of argument.

With tradition mined for its resources, he moves on to reason.

Reason dictates that we take account of the evolution of scientific and legal understandings, which now recognize that variations in sexual orientation are a natural feature of human life.  The denial of civil rights, including marriage rights, to gays and lesbians is, therefore, a violation of our Constitution.  While we await the Supreme Court’s ruling on these rights, we should acknowledge as United Methodists that unprecedented numbers of leaders from other religious communities, along with significant portions of our major political parties, and virtually all of the nation’s largest corporations now embrace marriage equality.

I must confess I find his use of secular politics and legal issues confusing in the midst of an argument that is framed as theological. I was not aware that “our Constitution” was a theological resource. Perhaps the mention of the United States Constitution in Article XXIII of our Articles of Religion grants it a place in theological reflection that I had missed before. Neither was it clear to me before that the practices of America’s largest corporations were useful tools in deciphering the meaning of Scripture.

That is an interesting thought. I wonder how widely that move will be invoked by other United Methodists seeking to apply reason to tricky theological issues: General Motors and Wal-Mart as theological guides.

Having given reason its day, Ogletree turns to experience — the most distinctly Wesleyan contribution to the Quad that bears his name.

Experience teachers us, moreover, that people with gay and lesbian orientations are as fully capable of living mature and socially responsible human lives as heterosexuals.

And here we come to the most disarming of all of Ogletree’s moves. If I read him properly, he is equating being a mature and socially responsible person with being a good Christian. So, to extrapolate, are we saying that any behavior that coincides with mature and socially responsible lives must be compatible with Christianity?

What about mature and socially responsible Muslims? Are they good Christians because they are mature and socially responsible? What about atheists who do good works?

Ogletree seems to miss the obvious point that there are millions of nice, decent, responsible people in the world who are not one bit Christian. Ogletree seems to be confusing “being a good person” with “being a Christian,” a mistake that is common among the laity, but surprising in an academic of Ogletree’s stature. His use of experience does not appear terribly subtle or sensitive to the theological issues at play in this case.

In the end, I was disappointed to discover that I did not get a lot of guidance on the proper use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral from Ogletree’s argument. What I come away with is the impression that it is little more than a tool to help you dig up arguments that support positions you already hold, rather than a tool for serious theological inquiry.

Ogletree’s purpose appears to be polemical, though, so it is probably unfair of me to seek careful theological inquiry. Given Ogletree’s standing in the church, I hope it is not wrong to hope for that.

A traditional complaint about the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is people who use it are too prone to use it to dismiss materials and resources that do not support the conclusions they want to reach. Critics say that instead of using the Quad to help interpret, apply, and extend the revelation of Scripture, people use it to confirm their own theology.

This case certainly appears to confirm that criticism.

30 thoughts on “Four corners offense

  1. The board passed me in spite of my clear statement that I would not uphold that part of the Discipline. Do you think I should not have chosen to be ordained? Tis is a serious question. Wha do you think?

    Dean, I am honored that you want my opinion on such an important question. I do not know enough about that era to have a fully informed response. If I truly believed the denomination was engaging in sinful conduct as a matter of polity, I would have a hard time taking a vow to uphold that polity — although I don’t know the exact wording of the ordination questions and vows of your day.

    Perhaps I am overly scrupulous about such things. I just find it hard to image taking vows I did not intend to support. It feels like going to the wedding altar with crossed fingers. This is a personal position, of course, I don’t expect anyone else to follow it.

    As for Wesley and the Native Americans, I do not have a specific recollection of anything that could be interpreted as “secret Christian” talk, but I would not take that as a certainty that he never said such a thing. Here is a post I wrote a few years ago with two Wesley quotes that deal with his take on non-Christians:

    1. John, Our church has been guilty of racism, sexism, anti-German prejudice and homophobia. Perhaps those of us who have been part of targeted groups believe in the ultimate good will of Methodism more than those who are part of the privileged group. It would be great for the privileged to say that they will be United Methodists but always act on behalf of the excluded rather than to choose legalistic private purity. I don’t think John Wesley chose legalistic purity but I am absolutely sure Jesus didn’t. What if folk protect their personal conscience but violate the weightier matters of justice and righteousnes? I would find that worrisome. Peace.

      1. You lost me here. Who in this conversation is advocating “legalistic private purity”?

        I am arguing that a person should not stand up before God and vow to do something he or she has no intention of doing. For me the rule applies whether we are talking about weddings or baptisms or ordinations.

        I believe at ordination I am asked to vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the UMC. I do not see a clear vow to endorse or “defend” the existence of a Central Conference, but you might interpret that differently. The current wording of the relevant vows is found here:

        I do not see how wanting to take those vows without any sense of evasion makes a person someone who is only interested in legalistic private purity.

        My wife certainly expected my wedding vows to be entered into with a full intention of honoring them. I believe Jesus Christ expected me to make my baptismal vows with an honest and sincere desire to follow them.

        If a person believed deeply in infant baptism and the UMC changed its doctrine on baptism to believers baptism, I would expect that change would cause the person a great deal of trouble and might force them to reconsider their connection with United Methodism. If they found they could no longer preach the doctrine of the church, they might find they need to seek a new community to serve.

        I am not seeing why saying such things is considered controversial or a sign of legalism. Not everyone is called to be a preacher. Not everyone is called to be a United Methodist preacher. I feel I am called to be, but if I find I cannot take those vows without crossing my fingers, then my conclusion will be that I misunderstood my call. I hope the Board of Ordained Ministry would agree.

        1. John, I was suggesting our social status might affect the way we think about some of these things. Francis Asbury did not permit my ancestors to be Methodists because we spoke German. That is why we ended up EUBs. You should do what you consider right as I will. Best wishes on your ministry.

  2. John, as you know, I am a bit jaded about the UMC. I DO agree with our current position on most things that people think matter, and I did so when I was ordained in 1979. However, over time, I have come to disagree with some of the “unwritten” rules of the church—especially the way we reflect the capitalistic values of our society, and by the way we make decisions in the church by voting. I do not believe that popular opinion should always rule in a church that claims to be faithful to the Gospel; and I do not believe that pastors who please their congregations should receive more compensation than pastors who challenge and disturb their congregations (which are generally full of “almost Christians”). I am bothered by the subtle way money controls our church on every level.

    I did not recognize these flaws in our church when I was ordained, and I took my ordination vows in good faith, and with integrity. I was blessedly naive. It took many years for me to recognize the issues which have become key for me.

    As you wrestle with whether you will take ordination vows in the UMC, I suggest that you might want to pray seriously about these aspects of our polity which disturb me. Can you work in a church that will certainly alter its Book of Discipline every four years? Can you work in a church where some pastors earn much more than others because they have been appointed to serve a large church in a wealthy community? Can you work in a church where the rich ARE more powerful than the poor? I ultimately came to the conclusion that I cannot; and I retired with a sense of both relief and extreme sadness. For me, following Jesus with integrity has meant stepping out of leadership in a church, and it may eventually mean stepping out of The United Methodist Church completely.

    1. Holly, thank you for your comment and story. I am aware of these tensions to a limited degree, and I do wrestle with them. The role of money in our congregations and polity does disturb me a great deal as someone who believes Wesley reads Jesus pretty close to right on money and related matters.

      Again, thank you for your counsel.

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