The bedrock of United Methodist doctrine

Scott Jones in his book United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center argues that the beating heart of UM doctrine is salvation. Our doctrine has as its purpose the salvation of the world.

But what is salvation?

John Wesley put it this way:

What is salvation? The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.

That consummation in glory also goes by the name perfection in Wesleyan theology.

It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, –from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks.”

This Wesleyan understanding of salvation is much more personal and individual than much of our doctrine — as Jones describes it — would have you believe. Wesley’s saw the transformation of the world — which he termed spreading scriptural holiness — as arising out of the conversion of individual sinners.

United Methodist doctrine reflects Wesley’s views in much of what Jones calls the Constitutional Standards of doctrine. The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes reflect very much Wesley’s view of salvation as the conversion and sanctification of individual sinners, which gives rise to the reformation of society.

It is in our Contemporary Statements of doctrine that United Methodist doctrine becomes more oriented toward social and political reformation. It is here that we find statements about tobacco, gambling, labor laws, energy policy, racism, environmentalism, sexual ethics, and many other topics. Our Social Principles and Book of Resolutions are the exemplars of this kind of doctrine, which is marked by the fact that any General Conference can change or rewrite it, although much of it has remained fairly consistent over time. The Constitutional Standards are not so easily changed.

So, the bedrock of United Methodist doctrine is the Wesleyan conception of and focus on the salvation of individuals. The purpose of doctrine is to help people move on to perfection in love, as described above. It is also, but secondarily, about the contemporary concerns with social and political issues that we might call the salvation of the world.

There is certainly tension between these two expressions of doctrine  in the way Christians have historically envisioned the meaning of salvation and the work of the church. You can describe some of the divides in our church based on where they put their most focus — the Constitutional Standards or the Contemporary Statements, at least a subset of them.

For me, it is difficult to conceive of United Methodist doctrine that is not grounded first and foremost on those bedrock Constitutional Standards. I know my views on this are not shared universally, but it would be good for us to talk more carefully and explicitly about what we teach and the sources of those teachings.

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9 thoughts on “The bedrock of United Methodist doctrine

  1. It’s an account of salvation that’s utterly therapeutic and absent of juridical abstraction.

  2. A social justice only gospel suffers from the same abstraction as the heartless juridical gospel. The point is to be awakened to the love that soaks our world that can only be seen by the pure in heart. No holiness, no love.

  3. Sorry last comment. I keep on wanting to caveat myself. I really think Wesley would say w regard to the penal element of the cross (which is of course there) that the verdict it provides for us is for the sake of the cure and not an end unto itself.

    1. My reading of Wesley certainly was that he saw grace as healing and that the purpose of the cross was our salvation.

  4. Salvation then, sounds very much like ‘enlightenment’. You make the concept of ‘perfection’ more accessible, more tangible, more ‘at hand’.

    I’ve never read a more succinct explanation of what makes a Methodist a special kind of Protestant.

    When I was a young and brash communist I longed for a revolution by any means necessary that would bring justice to the world. I know now that the only revolution that can bring about a ‘new earth’ is a revolution of the heart, a personal yet shared awakening.
    Explained as you do it here, Wesley has Marx beat in every way. Where Marx excels in metrics and numbers, Wesley speaks to the heart.

    The difficulty seems to be that we fallen creatures awaken separately and to various degrees. The temptation is to order our society, and theocracy (however we call it) becomes an attractive option. ‘Social doctrine’.
    Then we are back at square one.
    Apparently the most earth changing thing we can do is simply share the Gospel, in any way we can.
    Such simplicity does not appeal to our pride.

  5. I’m a layperson so I don’t have the theological background that many of you do; I do however enjoy frequently reading your blog. I’ve had a difficult time recently reconciling recent policy positions endorsed by the UMC with my own faith and decidedly libertarian political leanings.

    We’ve been reading the Divine Conspiracy in my small group and Willard notes that neither right-wing theology (forgiveness of individual sins) nor left-wing theology (opposition to society’s structural ills) “lays down a coherent framework of knowledge and practical direction adequate to personal transformation toward the abundance and obedience emphasized in the NT, with a corresponding redemption of ordinary life.” I’m fairly sure Willard wasn’t a Methodist, but that sounds like a criticism Wesley might make based on your description – that personal transformation is the bedrock and social transformation will follow.

    But practically, I’m curious how you approach resolving these kinds of disputes — for instance I know of several people who left the church for its endorsement of Obamacare. If I accept Wesley’s teachings with respect to the way of salvation, but opposed legislation like this, supported by the church hierarchy, because I thought it was a poorly designed, unworkable mess that wouldn’t achieve its goals (already proving to be true) does that make me less of a Methodist?

    How do you handle an issue where we may even agree about the need to “transform the world” but may disagree with the church on the means for doing so? How do we reconcile these conflicts without watering down the call for social sanctification?

    1. I like Willard, too. I think United Methodism is full of these difficult contradictions. I am personally what used to be called a Blue Dog Democrat, but find many of the official social positions of the UMC based too much on politics and not enough on theology. As you say, there is more than one way for a society to achieve a social goal of health care. I’m not impressed that the church has the expertise to prescribe particular solutions to political and social problems.

      I am not entirely sure how to resolve this tension or work through it on an institutional level, though. I think we need to have charity toward each other as we do so.

      Jones writes a bit in his book about the line where a person can no longer stick with the denomination because of doctrinal differences. He argues that differences over the contemporary statements are much less grave to the health of the denomination than differences over the constitutional standards.

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