Creeds +3

Some of the true lovers of unity in the United Methodist Church have written and advocated for a standard of orthodoxy that centers narrowly on the acceptance of the Nicene Creed. If we can all agree on that, the argument appears to go, then we should relegate all other disagreements to the lesser realms of ethics and practice.

I wonder if such advocates might allow a slight expansion on their definition of what is essential and right teaching within the church. Would they grant the following as the benchmark? Would they grant John Fletcher and John Wesley a vote in the debate?

Fletcher was one of Wesley’s greatest advocates and friends. He was for a time tagged to take over the movement after Wesley’s death, but he died before Wesley. While defending Wesley’s preaching and theology, Fletcher in his Five Checks to Antinomianism lists the following as the essential doctrines of Christianity:

  • the fall of humanity
  • justification by the merits of Christ
  • sanctification by the agency of the Holy Spirit
  • the worship of “the one true God in the mysterious distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

By describing these as essential and orthodox doctrines, I take Fletcher — and by proxy Wesley who endorsed Fletcher’s writings — to be arguing that the essential teachings of Christianity much include not only the creeds but also these three doctrines that relate so closely to our salvation — why it is needed and how it is accomplished.

The creeds, for all their glory, do not explicitly speak to the need for and means of salvation. Questions of salvation strike me as essential aspects of Methodism, indeed all Christianity. If a person can affirm the Nicene Creed but argue that we save ourselves by our own good works and merit, then I would argue they are not teaching right doctrine. I don’t think, however, there is anything in the creed that would make such an argument incoherent on its face. Therefore, as a minimal statement of what unites us a Christians, I’d argue we can’t point to the creeds and be done with it.



10 thoughts on “Creeds +3

    1. He said his ministry and our movement began when he started preaching justification by faith, so while he did not think doctrine alone was enough make a person a Christian and he did not desire to get caught up in doctrinal squabbles, he spent a great deal of energy teaching and preaching doctrine and made discussion of doctrine the heart of the annual conference of his preachers.

  1. You are right on target, John. Recently I was startled when I read the newsletter from my Mother’s UCC church. The pastor (who is retiring) stated that he does not believe that people are born bad, and that what we DO is more important than what we believe. He was using very simple, easy to understand language, but essentially he was saying that the doctrine of original sin is wrong’ and he was endorsing Pelagianism.

    As I reflected on this, I thought about Wesley’s statement, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”. Even though he is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology (a Methodist seminary), his theology is so foreign to protestant orthodoxy that I honestly don’t think he could be called a Christian. I now wonder if the church I grew up in is Christian. It pains me to say this.

    Sadly, I also see some preachers in the United Methodist Church denying these doctrines that I consider to be essential. The creeds are not enough.

    1. Thanks, Holly. I remember when I first read Wesley’s argument that without original sin the rest makes no sense. Since I had been under the strong influence of twentieth century Protestant liberalism, it was a struggle for me to see that he was correct.

      1. I am beginning to think that modern preachers have been overly concerned with the science v religion controversy, that we have neglected preaching the deeper truths of Genesis 1-3. Evil IS deeply embedded into this world, and our tendency is to ignore it.

        We cry “peace peace” when there is no peace. We tolerate sin and close our eyes to it. We abandon scriptural definitions of sin, and form new ones that suit us better.

        In addition, we lose the urgency necessary for evangelism. Christ’s death is trivialized.

        Original sin is a vital doctrine in need of renewed emphasis.

  2. So Holly asked that I expound a little here on the blog so here it goes:
    You and Jeremy Smith are both correct, John Wesley took the creeds out of the stuff he sent to the American Methodists. He may not have felt it important at the time that the church have the Creeds as part of our official doctrine. What we do have as part of our official doctrine is the Articles of Religion and the Confessions of Faith. (Which by the way contain the creedal elements in them). My fear is that the restrictive rule has encased our doctrine in a glass display case. We can walk by it every now and then and say, “yep, there is our doctrine.” However, this display case actually keeps us from ever accessing or using our doctrine in any real and meaningful way. So it is all there, it is all important, and it is never actually used.

    Which I have a theory leaves us with situations in the church like we have today. We have social justice activists who proclaim the most important thing for the church to do is to be radically inclusive at whatever costs. We have holiness people who proclaim that the church needs to get back to saving souls. And we have AngloMethodist wannabes (I am probably here) who think we need to focus on reclaiming catechism and rich orthodox belief.

    Here is the kicker, ALL of these things are present in John Wesley’s movement. He reached out to the marginalized and the disadvantaged. He was very concerned with saving souls (class meetings were developed to help combat sin). He also was a high church Anglican (constant communion, daily prayer).

    So what are we the UMC to do today?

    1. You might say, “All of it,” but I’m persuaded that we suffer badly from a lack of shared purpose and shared understanding of who we are, which is why I ask these kinds of questions.

      Your point about the Articles and Confession has me wondering if you think that removing the restrictive rules (probably not going to happen) would make the standards more influential?

      1. It might. I would wager more of our laity and clergy know about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral than our Articles and Confession.

        What have we developed confirmation curriculum around? Even though the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are our agreed upon doctrines sealed by the restrictive rule they are mentioned only as snippets in our confirmation curriculum. We spend far more time learning about the quadrilateral. Today if you asked many of our laity and clergy to tell you something unique about the Methodist Church they would talk about the quadrilateral.

  3. And the ‘quadrilateral’ never existed until the 1960’s.

    I disagree regarding the Creed. The problem is in catechesis. Spend a couple years praying the Jesus Prayer and considering Baptism and the Eucharist.

    Jim Lung

  4. A view from the pew: I spent a lifetime saying the Apostle’s Creed. I reached a point that I began wondering what it meant that I was stating this is what I believed. Ultimately, I engaged the Heidelberg Catechism. A large part of the Heidelberg took the Apostle’s Creed and gave me a whole new and expanded understanding about what was behind those succinct statements. Three modern books about the Heidelberg expanded my understanding even more. The creeds were never intended to sum it all up; neither can a catechism. But a Creed combined with a well-written catechism can sure be an amazing starting point. Overall, Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable. For example, in expanding the teaching on the phrase “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born on the virgin Mary”, the Heidelberg helped me to realize that we have a God who chose to become human; the Creator actually chose to become the created–how absolutely amazing is that; and that is only the beginning of what God did through Jesus! The Apostle’s Creed took on a whole new meaning.

    I now have a whole new perspective of The United Methodist Church: basic orthodox Christianity has not been clearly or consistently taught for a very long time. No wonder it is in such a mess with people yelling at each other. There are conflicting and competing understandings of who God is and who we are and what is required of us in this life. Add to that no consensus when it comes how church interacts/relates to society as well as the role of General Conference and the Discipline in the life of the church and there should be no surprise everybody is yelling at each other. Strange thing is, “on paper” at our beliefs are very much rooted in basic orthodox Christianity. Unfortunately, as you noted in a couple of other posts, our disconnected “silos of leadership” make it next to impossible to bring what is on paper into any consistent practice. The UMC is reaping the “benefits” of having open doors, open hearts and open minds rather than a consistently taught doctrine of who God is, who we are and what is required of us in this life.

    One more important point: basic orthodox Christianity as handed down by the saints is most definitely NOT related to modern fundamentalism.

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