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.


Did Charles not know his Wesleyan theology?

Would we argue that Charles Wesley had bad atonement theology?

I take it that many contemporary Christians and theologians resist the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied or turned back the wrath of God. It is not uncommon for this to be represented as something that neo-Calvinists or Baptists might say, but not we grace-oriented Methodists.

If so, have we written Charles Wesley out of our camp? I guess in one sense we have. Here are a couple verses from two of his hymns that are not in our hymnal.

A verse from “And Can It Be” that we don’t sing:

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

A verse from “Depth of Mercy” not in our Hymnal:

Jesus speaks, and pleads His blood!
He disarms the wrath of God;
Now my Father’s mercies move,
Justice lingers into love.

I’ve not done a systematic study of Charles Wesley hymns. These were the first two I looked at when doing something else, and I was struck by the selection, which in both cases, dropped this kind of language. Could it be that Methodists think we reject a satisfaction model of atonement because we have purposely edited out such views from our own sung theology? I understand that there are various ways of comprehending the atonement. When, though, did we decide that Charles Wesley did not understand Wesleyan theology?

At odds with Aquinas at the table

Please pardon me while I do some thinking out loud about United Methodist sacramental theology. My brain started turning while reading the following from Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 6:

Therefore, since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also. In fact, the Greeks think it is; and so they give the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. For this opinion they have in their favor the rite of Denis, who says that the reception of each sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist, which is the culmination of all the sacraments. This is true in the case of adults, but it is not so for infants, because receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion, and those who do not have the use of reason, as infants and the insane, cannot have this. Consequently, it should not be given to them at all.

Is it still Greek Orthodox practice to give the Eucharist to infants and children? Aquinas’ argument that only those who can receive the sacrament with devotion should receive it — and it is not held only by him of course — has often raised questions for me about the sharing of the Lord’s Supper with those who do not understand it or cannot muster a sense of reverence and devotion. My son’s autism certainly is a part of my questioning on this issue, but not all of it.

The statement on Holy Communion approved by the United Methodist General Conference, This Holy Mystery, argues — perhaps with some awareness of the “Greek” practice that Aquinas’ makes reference to — that the logic that applies to infant baptism should apply as well to participation by children in Holy Communion.

The theological basis for baptism of infants and people of varying abilities applies as well to their participation in Holy Communion:

“Through the church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of disabilities or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism” (By Water and the Spirit, in BOR; page 868).

So it is proper to conclude, I believe, that United Methodists do not share Aquinas’ view that reason is required for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is not news that we differ from Aquinas, but I believe we still find aspects of his theology helpful. For instance, the following passage from the same commentary on John 6 is helpful to me in trying to grasp what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, which Aquinas says we do in a spiritual way:

Thus, in reference to Christ as contained and signified, one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself, as we see in Augustine, when he says: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change me into yourself, but you will be transformed into me.” And so this is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.

I like that final phrase in this English translation: inebriating him with divinity. Since so much of Aquinas hangs on his reverence for reason, I’m not sure if passages like the one above clash with our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion. I’m still working that out, but I like this language about the Lord’s Supper by grace making us like the Christ, who gave us his flesh and blood, when we come to him in faith and love.

Can we see ourselves in these?

I apologize for this post’s brevity. True confession: I am writing it mostly so I can hold on to these two links and write another post or two later that references them. Both are about tensions in the Reformed movement known as The Gospel Coalition.

The first is a story about divisions within the movement over the doctrine of sanctification. As a Wesleyan, I think there is fodder here for consideration of where we fall on these issues.

The second is a story about the split within The Gospel Coalition that includes an interesting look back at the split within British evangelicalism in the 1960s. Back then the question was whether to stay within the mainstream Church of England or “come out” and form separate bodies. I think evangelicals within United Methodism have been engaged and will be engaged in the same sort of debate in coming years.

Like I say, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Time does not permit me to delve into it right now. Feel free to share your thoughts, though.

Mods and progs … help me understand

I live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. Soon, I will live in a country where that is the case. As a pastor, the question for me is not what is legal by civil code, but what is righteous in the eyes of God. And so, I have been a part of my denomination’s conversations, debates, prayers, and wrestling with these questions.

If you asked me to define what marriage is, I would go to Genesis 2. I’ve always found this foundation solid. Yes, the Old Testament has many examples of marriage other than the monogamous union of a man and a woman, but I find Jesus’ quotation of the Genesis formula a good basis for concluding that God’s blessing falls upon lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

When questions about other forms of relationship and marriage arise, my reference is back to the first question: What is marriage? Well, the Bible and tradition tell me it is this. If something does not fit that description it might be similar to marriage or like marriage, but it is not marriage.

This is why when people in my denomination suggest we change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, I start asking about polygamy. I don’t do it to engage in a slippery-slope argument. I do it because in discounting what Jesus says and the words of Genesis, you take out the entire basis I have for answering the question: What is marriage? There is no longer any definition to distinguish between marriage and other social arrangements. So, I raise questions about polygamy because I can’t see how to declare it invalid in a theological world in which Genesis and Jesus do not settle the question.

I am in the position that if I accept your argument about same-sex marriage, then I don’t see any way for me to argue biblically against polygamy. Indeed, once you knock out Genesis 2 and Jesus, there is a lot of evidence in support of polygamy. Obviously, people who advocate for same-sex marriage do not have such problems, although I’ve struggled to get them to articulate their theological (as opposed to American Constitutional) reasons for distinguishing the two.

So, I end with a request to my colleagues who advocate for same-sex marriage not as a civil right but as an arrangement blessed by God. What is your definition of marriage? How do you ground it in the Bible? How does it allow you to distinguish between forms of relationship that God blesses and those that God does not?

Body and/or soul?

Irenaeus from “On the Apostolic Preaching”

For the way of all those who see is single and upward, illumined by the heavenly light, but the ways of those who do not see are many, dark and divergent; the one leads to the kingdom of heaven, uniting man to God, while the others lead down to death, separating man from God. Thus it is necessary for you and for all who are concerned about their salvation to make [your] way by faith, without deviation, surely and resolutely, lest, in slacking, you remain in gross desires, or, erring, wander from the right.

That last sentence is a prelude to a more extended discussion by Irenaeus about the importance of keeping holiness of body and of soul. Holiness of the body, he writes, is abstaining from all “shameful and lawless deeds.” Holiness of the soul is to know and keep the whole truth of the faith without adding to it or subtracting from it.

He asks, “For what use is it to know the truth in words, only to defile the body and perform evil deeds? Or what profit indeed can come from holiness of body, if truth is not in the soul? For these rejoice together and join forces to lead man to the presence of God.”

For Irenaeus, at least, orthodoxy without bodily holiness is useless. Bodily holiness without orthodoxy profits us nothing.

Irenaeus, of course, was just man. His teaching could be false. Many Protestants, for instance, might resist what appears to be a form of works righteousness not just here but in the rest of his writings.

But I find his linking of holiness of body and holiness of soul a good reminder that we should not place too much emphasis on one to the neglect of the other.