Creedal faith

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 doctor 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 doctor. “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. The faith of the church passed down to us by the fathers and mothers of the faith is spiritual medicine, meant to cure the “sin-sick soul” that characterizes the human condition. We have a diagnosis of our illness (sin), a remedy for this illness (the atoning work of Jesus Christ), and a means of application (the power and work of the Holy Spirit). 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.

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.

When John Wesley made the claim that “Orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all,” he was making this claim within the context of a confessional state. He lived in a world where the deep truths of the faith hammered out in the early centuries were already in place in the church, the university, and even the state. He simply took for granted that the Christians with whom he lived and worked held a set of beliefs about God that were compatible with the orthodox faith of the church. Yes, there were people who were called “speculative latitudinarians,” who held that one belief about God was essentially as good as any other, but Wesley referred to these people as the “spawn of hell” — not exactly a ringing endorsement.

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.

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.

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