Testing the Spirits: How Much Unity in Diversity?

John Wesley’s personal seal.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 1:3, NRSV)

“How, then, did Methodism fall into the indifferentism which has increasingly marked its later history?” Geoffrey Wainwright

How do we, the people called United Methodists, determine the acceptable range of theological diversity? Can a Methodist, speaking historically or from our current configuration as a global denomination, simply affirm anything? In a recent piece attempting to sum up “How We Got Where We Are,” Bishop Ken Carter approvingly notes the “theological diversity” that has always marked US Methodism:

There have always been multiple streams of theological diversity in American Methodism: revivalism, the social gospel, personalism, neo-Wesleyanism, process theology and theologies of liberation. We have been able to live together with theological differences, while affirming a doctrinal core. This is the distinction made in the Book of Discipline between our doctrinal standards and our theological task…My simple point here is that we have always been a church with differing theological perspectives; yet, we are united by a rich and deep understanding of the grace of God that leads to sanctification — which is itself God’s gift — and the means of grace that form us as disciples.

It is chiefly Bishop Carter’s claim that there is a “doctrinal core” that all these perspectives share — that we are, for all of these various expressions, “united by a rich and deep understanding of the grace of God that leads to sanctification” — which bears examination.  I believe there is a something of precedent for this discussion as well.  The 1972 Book of Discipline contained a notoriously murky doctrinal statement, which, among other things, endorsed theological pluralism, muddied the lines between doctrine and theology, opened Pandora’s Box with a highly imprecise vision of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  Candler’s Dr. Kevin Watson sums up some of the major issues thus:

It is interesting to note the ideas from the 1972 statement that were rejected in the 1988 rewrite that are very much alive and well in popular United Methodist consciousness. The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”

This notion of wide, if unspecified, theological diversity — reflected in Bishop Carter’s analysis — is similar to the attitudes Watson describes from the 1972 statement that were rejected in 1988.  Dr. Watson goes on to argue that the infamous quadrilateral was an attempt to create a very large tent which could hold all kinds of Methodist expressions.  But this only raises the question: how large can a tent really be?

One way of understanding the creation of the quadrilateral in United Methodism, then, is to see it as a strategy for pitching a big tent and working to ensure that the tent would be big enough for anyone who might come under its cover. To that end, the quadrilateral appeared to be designed to ensure that the method would lead to a variety of conclusions or theological perspectives, not to bring doctrinal unity within a particular faith community.

We are currently pinning our hopes to a body formed by the Council of Bishops called the Commission on the Way Forward.  It is not without reason that this Commission is discussing chiefly structural solutions rather than, say, hermeneutics, Christian anthropology, or the nature of marriage as it relates to a Wesleyan vision of sanctification.  To be frank, we just aren’t good at arguing theology, and this is at least in part because we initially chose to put more energy into finding a method than hammering out a distinct body of doctrine for the new church formed in 1968.  Further evidence that the Bishop’s Commission continues in this tradition of avoiding doctrinal dispute, in that UM were given their separate event,  a colloquy, and left out of the “way forward.”

An example from the previous commission-to-save-us-from-ourselves will prove helpful. The 1988 General Conference called for a “Committee to Study Homosexuality,” a group that initially included one of my teachers, Stanley Hauerwas. He later wrote that he left the committee half way through its deliberations when it became clear that everyone came to the table, not to explore or form arguments, but simple to say why they were right and the others were wrong.  Hauerwas thus begins his piece, titled, “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality,” with this warning:

I write this article only because I am a United Methodist and I feel duty bound to say why we United Methodists cannot even get up a good argument about homosexuality.

Neither our interest in nor our ability to have coherent doctrinal reflection has improved since 1992, which is why we are currently debating structure.  (If there’s one thing that unites all sorts of Methodists, it’s our desire to retain our property!)  This is only the most obvious example of what is, in truth, a sad fact of American Methodism: though Wesley was doctrinal and creedal, his heirs in the US simply don’t like getting into the mire of doctrinal debates.  This is one reason why there are so many ways of being Wesleyan on offer in the big increasingly stretched tent of United Methodism.

Thus, Bishop Scott Jones lamented in a 2008 lecture:

…the small quantity of discussion once more exhibits the United Methodist trait of avoiding explicit doctrinal discussion. Theologians, both professional and pastoral, prefer doing theology without the constraints of official church teaching. Others prefer action to reflection and thus do not pay attention to either theology or doctrinal development.

This sets up a rather scary scenario: the desire to claim historically and hold onto, at present, a theological pluralism that is never examined.  This “theological indifferentism,” as Wainwright calls it, is in part classic Methodist pragmatism, part cowardice, and part laziness.

This brings us back to our first question. Is the tent really large enough for personalism, process theology, and other theologies that originated outside of the Anglican-Methodist family?  Moreover, should we positively affirm an ever-increasing variety of Methodisms as an ecclesial virtue, as many of our leaders do? In a helpful recent chapter, Kevin Watson examines the history of Methodist theologies in America, and particularly the differences leading to the emergence of Wesleyan and Nazarene denominations, as well as the formation of Asbury. He concludes, ” The history of American Methodism offers little reason for optimism that theological pluralism is the best way forward.” (p. 49)

Indeed, many forms of Methodism, so-called, are simply incoherent within the foundational documents of our church.  Take just the first three of our Articles of Religion, for instance.  These commit us to classic Christian teachings about the nature of God as Trinity (three persons, one substance), the incarnation of Christ (as both fully human and fully divine), the doctrine of sin and Christ’s work of atonement, and the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

In the words of 1 John (one of Wesley’s favorite books of the Bible), I believe United Methodists are paying the price for a continual refusal to “test the spirits.”  Not every spirit, teacher, tradition, or prophet is of God (or compatible within a Wesleyan framework).

To simply affirm theological diversity, when it is widely known that we do not, for a variety of reasons, undertake the hard work of doctrinal examination, is an invitation to madness.  There is nothing open-minded about an indifference to truth.  Instead, it is the very substance of the “speculative latitudinarianism” that Wesley’s condemned in his oft-quoted/oft-misappropriated sermon “Catholic Spirit.”

Claiming theological diversity as a virtue while we have largely sidestepped doctrinal discernment for generations is the theological equivalent of cheap grace. The emperor has no clothes, and it is becoming increasingly apparent.  Any way forward that seeks a perpetually widening tent while avoiding theological argument will simply be courting disaster.

As much as I respect Bishop Carter, the truth is we are not united across our various Wesleyan expressions by either a minimal vision of classic orthodoxy or the via salutis.  We are more like a married couple that has grown apart and does not know it.  For too long, we have refused to examine our differences (in revelation, interpretation, the nature of God, etc.), or even acknowledge them in a meaningful way.  These differences, if not the most obvious points of division in the church at present, have nevertheless metastasized to the point of being irreconcilable, and we thus find ourselves at the brink of divorce.

5 comments

  1. Drew,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post.
    I think one of the issues we face in American Christianity (including United Methodism) is an extreme allergy to doctrine, something I’m afraid goes way back into the early days of the European settlement of the continent. One of my professors, H. Ray Dunning, used to complain frequently about the replacement of doctrinal-theological work by moralism in most preaching and teaching. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay after his last visit to the U.S. calling the American church a “Christianity without a Reformation.” The notes of the essay alone are an incredible indictment (and he does mention Methodism).
    What is ironic, historically-speaking, is that it was precisely the articulation of doctrine by the circuit riders with their collection of the Standard Sermons and Checks Against Antinomianism that was the major power behind early Methodism.

  2. Great post.
    I’m afraid that there is a major allergy to doctrine within American Christianity in general (not just United Methodism, though Methodists are quite culpable). I can remember Church of the Nazarene theologian H. Ray Dunning frequently complaining that doctrinal-theological reflection and preaching was too often replaced by mere moralism. After his last visit to the U.S. Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicted American Christianity as “Christianity with a Reformation.” He was particularly hard on the large mainline denominations including Methodists.
    All this is incredibly ironic due to the preaching of the circuit riders who sacrificed so much traveling with the Standard Sermons and Checks Against Antinomianism in their saddle bags. Their doctrinal witness was major cause for the spread of Methodism.

    1. I am not promoting Calvinism, but coincidentally I am reading a Spurgeon sermon about the offense of the cross. He speaks of the importance of doctrine proclaimed:

      “But I will tell you what is the favourite plan nowadays; it is not to oppose the cross, but to wind round the cross, and try to get the cross to alter its shape a little. Men who hate the doctrines of the cross, say, “We, too, preach the gospel.” They alter it; they misshape it; they make it “another gospel, which is not another.” Let others say, if they will, that yea and nay can meet together; that fire and water can kiss each other; that Christ and Belial can be twins: the true minister of Jesus Christ cannot do that. Truth is truth; and whatever is the opposite of it cannot be truth. Truth is one, and that which opposes it must certainly be error and falsehood. But it is the fashion to try to blend the two things together. Look at very many of the churches; they say that they hold the truth. Look at their articles; there are all the five points of Calvinism. And if you ask the ministers whether they believe the doctrine of election? “Certainly,” they reply. If you ask them whether they believe all the great cardinal truths of the gospel; they say, “Oh, yes, certainly we believe them; but we do not think they ought to be preached to the common people.” Ah, sirs! you have a fine notion of yourselves, if you do not think that “the common people” are as good as you are, and that they can receive the doctrines of grace as well as you can. “Oh! but those doctrines are dangerous; they drive the people to Antinomianism.” They say this; but when we write to them, they reply, “Oh, we are as sound as you are!” Yes; but it is one thing to be sound, and another thing to preach sound truth. I never will believe a man to be better than what he preaches; if a man does not proclaim “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” we like him none the better, but ten times worse, because he says that he believes it. We would rather he did not believe it at all than that he should conceal his real sentiments. Such men, who hide the truth, prove that they are as much offended with the cross as if they openly tried to refute its doctrines. God send us the day when the pure, unadulterated doctrines of the grace of God, which is in Christ Jesus, shall be proclaimed in every chapel, and heard in every street, and received by every professed Christian!

      Spurgeon, C. H. (1898). The Offence of the Cross. In The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (Vol. 44, pp. 521–522). London: Passmore & Alabaster.

  3. Interesting that you end with the metaphor of divorce. You say, “It is not without reason that this Commission is discussing chiefly structural solutions rather than, say, hermeneutics, Christian anthropology, or the nature of marriage as it relates to a Wesleyan vision of sanctification.” But that confusion on the nature of marriage is tied up in our DNA as Wesleyans:

    “As United Methodists, we often turn to the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, as an authority in many aspects of life. Romantic love, however, should not be one of them.” http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/need-love-advice-dont-ask-john-wesley

    If John Wesley never worked out the meaning of marriage as it relates to sanctification, how are we today so certain that we know the correct application of Christian doctrine to romantic love and marriage? If the JW version of “my way or the highway” was to immediately take to the highway, and leave the Widow Vazeille to sort things out alone, perhaps we moderns could cut some slack on this issue for people who have worked out this issue more responsibly than JW. His earlier efforts were no more enlightened. Even Charles got into the act regarding Grace Murray, deciding that she was, “’a woman who was so inferior to his own wife in social station,’ and therefore not good enough to marry his brother.” So, here we have evidence that the Wesley Brothers saw marriage as a social construct involving social station, unlike the Church with Paul’s guidance where, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Indeed, the seal you display at the top includes these facts as an indelible part of its history.

    Of the Apostles, we know only that Simon Peter had a Mother-In-Law and that Paul asserted celibacy.

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