Our Problem Isn’t Doctrine Or Theology, Either
The teachers of the faith who handed on to us our doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection knew that without a clear sense of who God is and how God has acted for our salvation, we would not have the raw material necessary to order our life together in service to this same God. Even as early as Irenaeus, the core of the faith was expressed as a set of teachings about God’s work through Christ and our salvation. In fact the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is a doctrinal statement. Of course, how we lived has always been very important. The Christian life is an ordered life, and while we have had outcroppings of antinomianism at times, for the most part our communities of faith have taken the moral life seriously. This moral life, however, was rooted in a set of doctrinal convictions about the nature and identity of the Christian God and the nature of salvation. At times, Christians have rightly adopted more specific theological affirmations about matters such as the nature of human beings which in turn fueled further ethical discernment. The core of our life together, in other words, was doctrinal, and matters of ethics were negotiated in light of these doctrinal claims.(emphasis added) – David F. Watson, “Getting The Horse Back In Front Of The Cart”, United Methodist Insight, June 13, 2014
If ever four words did heavy lifting in a paragraph, it’s “without a clear sense”. I mean, really, with all due respect to Dr. Watson, can he really be serious? At what point in Christian history has the Church (here understood in the broadest sense) had “a clear sense” of any of our doctrines? This is not to say that doctrine isn’t important. It is not to say that doctrine is not the summary affirmation of our beliefs. One of the things I like about being a United Methodist, however, is that we are not a creedal denomination; there is no “United Methodist Creed” we all need to affirm to secure our identity as United Methodists. We have our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Standards, to be sure, but they are general enough and broad enough to be as inclusive as possible without limiting our theological task.
Are UMC pastors allowed to reject the doctrine of the Trinity? Are we allowed to preach in our churches that Jesus was a good teacher, but not in the incarnate God? Are we allowed to teach some form of biblical inerrancy? May we adopt in our teaching and preaching the neo-Calvinistic teachings of people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll?
As to the first, I doubt a majority of clergy could give a solid definition of the Trinity that didn’t wander in to some classic “heretical” formula. As to the second, we have a retired Bishop who confessed in a book that he did not believe either in the deity of Jesus or the Bodily Resurrection. Yet, I doubt you could find a more faithful, more Christ-Centered church leader than Bishop C. Joseph Sprague. Far too many both clergy and lay find not just Mark Driscoll but Rick Warren’s Calvinist doodlings attractive; how many United Methodist Churches studied The Purpose-Driven Life? Is Dr. Watson suggesting we not open ourselves to all sorts of possibilities, including those that are outside our traditions and history? In what way does either confusion about or denial of the Trinity set one outside the Christian communion? Considering the hundreds of years it took just to figure out the first part of the Trinitarian formula; considering the blood spilled insisting its correctness; considering the Eastern and Western churches excommunicated one another in the 11th century over the matter of the procession of the Holy Spirit (that filioque clause); considering all that and more, just on the question of the Trinity – do we really want to become so doctrinally hard-headed as well as hard-hearted that we set up confessional standards for United Methodist clergy and lay? Maybe we should institute excommunication rules for clergy who don’t get the words of our doctrines just so!
The churches may have concerned themselves overmuch over the millennia with how we set down our words just so in our doctrines. Yet, our call is to service in the name of God – and yes, I agree, the particular God incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, granting us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that our work is, indeed, God’s work – and to worry about getting our wording about God as we go. That, too, is a hallmark of Christian history. Justin Martyr wrote much on Christian doctrine, letters he mailed out as he was being led to Rome for execution. He even managed to convert one or two of his guards on the way. Yet, there is much in Justin’s letters that would not pass muster in a class on Christian doctrine today. Worrying overmuch about the words of our doctrines can make us forget that we need to be people of the Good News. Justin could do this while being escorted to his death. Could any of us?
Looking back over two thousand years of Christian history, our collective hands are dripping with the blood of Trinitarians murdered by Arian Goths; Arians murdered by Trinitarians; the Orthodox of the East raped and murdered by the invading Crusaders; Anabaptists drowned for their faith; the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants that killed as much as one-third of the population of central Europe; even we in the United States aren’t clean, with our murder and persecution of Mormons, pushing them out of their native Palmyra, NY to the dead lands of Utah, forcing them to forego their teaching on polygamy before accepting them as part of the Union. We are far too ready to write Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, even Quakers out of the Christian family because their doctrines differ from ours (a Third Testament; denial of the deity of Christ; non-Trinitarian faithfulness, with an emphasis on works of peace and justice).
I would argue that, despite the affirmations of our Articles of Religion and doctrinal standards, we United Methodists no more “have a clear sense” of our faith than any other group of Christians in our history. Indeed, that is why we have, immediately following our Doctrinal Standards, a theological task, boiled down to making the words of our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Standards make some kind of sense in our 21st century world that is so different than the world in which the words contained in those previous parts of our Discipline were written (not to mention languages; cultural milieu; social structure; political structure). While never denying we must needs affirm our faith, and make clear those affirmations have meaning for us, we should always remember Hegel’s dictum that the finite cannot ever contain the infinite. Our words no more sum up who God is and what God has done, than our actions reflect what God would have us do. Because our language is mortal and contingent; because we are mortal and contingent; because our words and our lives are, in a famous phrase, between the times, they are caught up in the reality of being both sinful and justified, trusting in God’s grace to cover the multitude of sins they contain.
The argument that we need to get our doctrinal and theological house in order before worrying about how we relate and minister to sexual minorities also ignores the other mainline churches – Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC – that have done so successfully without altering a word of their confessions. How is that possible? It’s possible because our first commandment is to love God; our second is to love our neighbor. These groups have lived that our, accepting in their fold those we United Methodist say are “incompatible with Christian teaching”. If ever a bit of teaching needed to be rethought; if ever a “doctrinal standard” needed to be reconsidered in light of our traditions, contemporary understandings of the realities of human sexuality, or the experience of our churches with those within their numbers who are faithful Christians even while not being heteronormative, it is this noxious group of words.
We should carry out our doctrinal and theological discussions with all the humility and tentativeness that the tone police insist we should discuss how we relate to LGBTQ persons. We should do so because we will never, in this life, get our doctrine right. Our theology, as much as it helps define us as United Methodist, is an on-going, living thing. Our doctrinal standards are not the end of any discussion, but the beginning of a fruitful, life-giving and life-sustaining discussion, with all the recognition that difference is not error and we are not the bearers of all wisdom and knowledge. We United Methodists do no confess faith in words; we, like St. Paul, have faith and preach Christ, and Christ crucified. Therein lies our faith. Not in words, but in the living first fruits of the New Creation, who granted us the Holy Spirit to go to all the world and make disciples to transform this world. In the meantime, let’s have our theological and doctrinal discussions, to be sure. But let us never forget these happen “on the road”, whether the road to Emmaus, the “Christ Of The India Road”, or the road to the next appointment.