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.