Theology as Basis for United Methodist Unity

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"Experimental Divinity"

David Scott is right. The term used in early Methodism to define Methodist doctrine was "consensus fidelium" or the "consensus of faith" that we see reflected in what was called "The Larger Minutes" from the early conferences in England.

Dr. Robert Cushman's book, "Experimental Divinity," is an excellent and scholarly account of Wesley's term. Cushman identified Wesley's "first principle" as "the present and immediate working of the Holy Spirit." Then, the Duke scholar identified as Wesley's cardinal emphases, "scriptural holiness," "original righteousness," "original sin," "penitence that precedes forgiveness,""saving faith," "witness of the spirit," "biblical authority," "prevenient grace that enables faith and therefore forgiveness," and "perfect love." It is these emphases and accents that Cushman extracted from the "Large Minutes," as the "consensus fidelium." They were what Albert Outler called the "core doctrines" of "Old Methodism."

Scott is also correct in pointing out the difficulty of defining us by Arminianism and sanctification. By the end of the 19th century, our seminary faculties, our most widely read books on theology, and our preaching no longer reflected the cumulative articles in Wesley's "Arminian" magazine or John Fletcher's "Checks to Antinomianism." Indeed, in the Episcopal Address of 1894, the voice of the MEC Council of Bishops invited those who emphasized instantaneous sanctification to leave--a collective voice that resulted in the formation of the Church of the Nazarene. There was no further Article of Religion to mention sanctification until 1939 and, then, it came from the Methodist Protestant Church at unification.

We could go on, but the point is that Dr. David Scott is correct; we are not a credal church as much as we are an "experiential" church. We basically ignored Edwin Lewis' "Christian Manifesto" in 1934 when he called Methodism to embrace the neo-orthodoxy of Barth,

Wesley insisted on linkage between doctrine and personal discipline. By "social holiness," Dr. Richard Heitzenrater reminds us all that Wesley did not mean "social justice" but personal holiness in a social context--deeds of mercy, acts of kindness. Social justice is now at the forefront of much UMC theologizing, but we must take care that just as conservatives can be rigid in their definition of what the Wesleyan Covenant Association has called "orthodoxy," per se, progressives can be just as rigid in their definition of social justice, or the term coined by some as "orthopraxy."

Yes, we have long lived with some ambiguity under the umbrella of Wesley's "catholic spirit." God grant that we can continue to "go on to perfection," not just in our personal morality, ethics, and piety, but also in our remembering that our Lord named "love your neighbor as yourself" as the second commandment that had equal impact and authority with the first.

Dr. Donald W. Haynes
retired clergy
Western North Carolina Conference

Donald W. Haynes more than 4 years ago

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