This Was Written By Theologians
The beliefs that the church has handed on to us, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the power of sin, the atoning work of Christ, and the resurrection of the body, are simply sensitive instruments and effective prescriptions in God’s medical kit, just as the Eucharist, baptism and the Bible are. When we engage one another with these canonical means of grace, we are acting as the nurses in God’s hospital, going about the work of our divine physician. – David F. Watson and William J. Abraham, “Creedal Faith”, Ministrymatters.com, November 30, 2014
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood. – Tom Waits, “Come On Up To The House”
I saw the above-quoted article earlier today on Facebook, and seeing who one of the authors was, I knew I had to go read it. I cannot speak to what is in his heart, but the constant beating of the drum around Doctrine in the United Methodist Church smacks just a bit too much both of trying to steer the conversation away from where it needs to be as well as on what he thinks is safer ground but is in fact where he slips and falls far too often. For instance, that two United Methodist clergy-scholars, one in New Testament studies the other in Evangelism and Theology, could publish just the above-cited bit and consider it theologically sound makes me wonder just how seriously I should consider their work. To place Doctrine of any sort on the same plane as the means of grace; to suppose that an individual’s salvation is determined by getting particular words and phrases just so, rather than Doctrine being the collective expression of the faith of the gathered people of God; to offer the ridiculous “analogy” with which the authors begin this article and pretend is has anything to do with anything the church does . . . I don’t know. I just . . .
Let’s start with that “analogy”, shall we? I mean, like all straw arguments, it seems impressive, until some big bad wolf comes along and blows the house down:
Imagine you went to the doctor and the doctor walked into your room and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad
news.”“Okay,” you respond. “Let’s have the bad news.”
“The bad news is that you have an illness that will eventually kill you if left untreated.”
“Wow . . .” you respond. “That is bad news. What’s the good news?”
“The good news is there’s a cure.”
“Great! Let’s have it.”
The shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk.”
“Doc!” you shout. “I’m dying!”
“Indeed you are,” says the. “But I do have this large stack of medical books that I’ll loan you. The cure to your illness is somewhere in these volumes. You are going to have to read carefully, synthesize ideas, and learn information that I could give to you much more quickly, but if you do find the cure before you die, you’ll be a better person for it.”
Now, we would never accept this kind of answer from a doctor, but too often this is exactly the kind of “medicine” that we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.
I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin with the more-than-a-tad-snarky bit – No, I’m afraid that if I were simply to give you the cure, I would infringe upon your personhood. You are an individual. You should be able to decide which cures are right for you, which you like, and which you don’t. In trying to heal you, I might unintentionally or carelessly impose some treatment upon you that you find offensive. I’m afraid I just can’t take that risk – because this reads like a parody of some conservative’s understanding of “liberal” approaches to ministry, doctrine, and the Christian life. I say “reads like a parody” because there is no way any of this bears any resemblance to any church of which I’ve been a part; any teaching of any pastor, teacher, or church leader; certainly not the United Methodist Church and its approach to doctrine, our theological task, and our expression of faith as the people called Methodist. The authors say “this is exactly the kind of ‘medicine’ we have practiced in mainline Protestantism.” I would ask: One example, please. Just cite a denominational statement, a theological work, a statement from any mainline Protestant body that says anything like this.
Of course, they won’t because they can’t. Let me back up just a moment and say that much of the problem I have with this piece is that it’s unspoken assumption – that any individual’s adherence to any particular doctrine is determinant and necessary both for their salvation as well as their being considered a part of the church – is blatantly, laughably, ahistorically false. Doctrine is teaching, the understanding of the church’s encounter through Christ in the Spirit with the Father. Both the body we call doctrine and our understanding of it are a wholly human creation; unlike the Sacraments, which we declare in faith were instituted by Jesus Christ to be means of grace for the uplifting of believers, their salvation, and their connection together in the Body of Christ, Doctrine is an ever-evolving understanding of our understanding of who God is, what God is doing, and what we, in the Church, are to be about. Unlike the Scriptures, which we profess in our teaching to be wholly sufficient guides for faith and action, doctrine is not inspired. It is, alas, as broken and liable to error any other solely human creation (like individual attempts at living the Christian faith apart from the Body of Christ, say). That’s why we Protestants no longer have a Doctrine of Purgatory. We do not have a Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Up through the 17th Century, many bodies, Catholic and Protestant, had a Doctrine of Death. None do now, at least of which I’m aware.
Doctrine is our collective profession of faith. When people say, “What do United Methodists believe?”, we point to our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and our Theological Task. That is why they exist. Individuals can and do vary in their understanding, adherence, and acceptance of various teachings; that’s a given in a Church body of 9 million adherents across the world, in a variety of countries, languages, socio-economic contexts, political and legal contexts, and other factors that create human diversity and difference. What any particular individual expresses about doctrine is neither interesting nor important, certainly not for their salvation. That is wholly the act of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit; it is the supreme expression of the Divine Life, freedom in love expressed in gratuitous acts of mercy. When we understand ourselves grasped by this Love that never gives up on us, that is always behind, around, and before us, we begin the real journey of the Christian Life – moving on to perfection in love in this lifetime. This Doctrine, uniquely that of the followers of John Wesley, is an expression of our collective experience of the efficacy and workings of grace in our life as the Body of Christ. Some move along this path; some do not. Some move further along than other. Some get stuck, while others dedicate their lives to this life of entire sanctification. This is an experience; the Doctrine merely puts in words – contingent, time-and-history bound lines on a page or computer screen that represent sounds we make, sounds that change over time – our understanding of the experience, which is primary.
There are at least two ways of looking at Christian orthodoxy. On the one hand, orthodoxy could involve a set of claims that can be used as a litmus test to see who is in and who is out. Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. A much healthier way of thinking about the orthodox claims of the church is as life-giving resources. These claims are critical not because we need some minimal set of admission requirements, and not simply because these claims delineate our tribe from other tribes, but because knowing the truth about God can lead us more fully into the life of God, and it is within the life of God that true life is to be found.
So much of the game is given up in this paragraph, I have to wonder why they bothered writing anything else. Consider the whole bit here: Orthodoxy then describes a gateway requirement for admission into the life of the church. Unfortunately, orthodoxy has been used in this way many times, but this is actually a secondary use, if not a misuse, of its intended function. Is it a secondary use or a misuse of doctrine to use it in such a way? A secondary use would imply it is still legitimate. To then add, “if not a misuse” seems more than little disingenuous. The truth of the matter is the authors do believe it to be a legitimate use, doctrine as definer of who’s in and who’s out. This is so because the rest of the paragraph, for all intents and purposes, accepts this as a given. Indeed, the notion that Doctrine is “the truth about God” – which I cannot find in Scripture, which actually insists that Jesus Christ is the Truth of God – is contradicted by Biblical teaching itself. Ours is not a faith in human words, or human understanding of our experience. Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All doctrine does is make clear the Church’s collective understanding of this living faith. Whether or not we get the words right or wrong, well, that’s a project that keeps the Church going, because how would it be possible to have the Truth about God, whose Eternal Life is the fullness of gratuitous love and interpenetrating mutuality that is most fully expressed in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus? While it is true enough that life within God is our true life, we do not find this through adherence to Doctrine. We find this through our collective life of confession and profession and living out our Living Faith in our Living God. It is never that we know the Truth of God. Rather, it is that the Truth of God known and takes hold of us and never lets us go.
Wesley knew what so many of us have forgotten today: The set of claims that we make about God will shape the ways in which we view the world around us and will come to bear significantly upon the way we live. We all have a way of looking at the world, but not all ways of looking at the world are equally virtuous or healthy. Not all ways of looking at the world are equally true. The witness of the church through the centuries is that the most virtuous and truest way of looking at the world is through the lens of our creedal faith.
The final sentence is missing a key feature of the the church’s witness: That these claims of virtue and truth are claims of faith, to be considered even while confessed, to know how they hold us rather than being held by us, and are at best an expression of what the Church could be if it lived wholly in the Spirit of the Risen Christ to the glory of the Father. All the same, they are part of our profession of faith – profession being distinct from confession – which is precisely that: a profession of faith, not a witness to any human Truth. It can only be understood, even dimly, when we grasp that we are in the hand of our loving God. As for the rest of the paragraph, I’m not even sure who has forgotten that our claims about God shape how we live. After all, even atheists insist their denial of God shapes their lives. Those who profess other religious faiths certainly understand their lives shaped by their beliefs about God, Allah, the pantheon, or the dream that is life from which we need to awaken. It’s silly to pretend that folks have “forgotten” this; it’s even sillier to insist that such forgetting is, or could be, relevant to a discussion of Doctrine, in particular a discussion of Doctrine that somehow insists it is no less a means of grace than Baptism of the Lord’s Supper. If Doctrine really were a means of grace, such a forgetting on the part of the Church would be impossible; as it is, no one of whom I’m aware has “forgotten” such a thing, i.e., that our beliefs shape how we live.
For United Methodists, these are given in the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confessions of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Holy Trinity brought all things into being, created humankind, mourned our rebellion, became incarnate in Jesus Christ, taught us how to live, bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose bodily from the dead and will come again in glory. That narrative—if you internalize it—will shape the way you view everything. And so, as we say at the very beginning of “Key United Methodist Beliefs,” “Belief matters.” It matters a great deal.
Let’s consider “The Holy Trinity brought all things into being,” etc. This “shorthand” is as unorthodox as the too-often-heard claim, “Jesus is God”. An understanding of the Trinity includes understanding that the Three work as One, and the One works as Three. Thus, for example, Creation is the work of the Father with the Son through the Spirit. “The Trinity” didn’t bring all things into being; Creation, which is an ongoing, love-and-grace-filled act of God, is a specific action of the Persons in specific ways. The Trinity did not “become incarnate” in Jesus of Nazareth. The fullness of God in the Person of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father, was Jesus of Nazareth. To say that “Belief matters”, without recognizing the errors of doctrine expressed in their defense of doctrine; without admitting their adherence to an individualistic understanding of the role of Doctrine rather than its existence as the historical expression of the teaching of the Church about its encounter with the Living God, in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father; well, to do these things is to demonstrate precisely why any individual’s understanding of “belief”, while certainly a matter of importance, is neither here nor there.
Finally, I just have to wonder who in the United Methodist Church would deny the importance of Creedal Faith as an expression of our collective faith. Considering the number of creeds in our United Methodist Hymnal, their similarities and differences, their differences in emphases, and how they are used in various ways by congregations, the collective profession of our confession of faith is certainly important in the life of the Church. What this has to do with doctors denying treatment, or Doctrine erroneously treated as a means of grace, or whatever the point of this article was, I don’t know. Which leaves me, as always, wondering how it is possible pastor-scholars could write this and present it to readers.
Unless the matter isn’t doctrine at all, of course. Which has been my contention all along. This is yet another part of the sideshow, the attempt to drag the Church away from our conversation about living the Gospel with integrity by insisting that other things are both more primary and more important. Naming what the game is all about, especially when theologically educated professionals write such doctrinally suspect things as this apologia for doctrine, is important.