Methodist constructive theology

December 10th, 2014

When I was a student, one of my professors tried to explain to us what our education was for. He said something like this: “A pedantic person thinks only what other minds have thought. A foolish person pays no attention to what other minds have thought. But an educated person thinks with other minds.” This has deeply informed how I approach the task of theology. Theology should neither simply replicate theological judgments from a previous time, nor should it ignore the history of what theologians have thought. Christian reflection is at its best when it “thinks with” the past, learning from it but drawing its own conclusions that are appropriate for the current context.

The adjectives used to name “Methodist constructive” theology suggest something like my professor’s aphorism does. A “constructive” theology is one that focuses its reflection on constructing concepts to inform practices that are fitting for the time and place in which we now live. A “Methodist” theology acknowledges that we have materials for this construction within our particular tradition, which bequeaths us a valuable inheritance for such reflection. Methodist constructive theology brings the wisdom of the past into dialogue with the needs of the present.

Just how to engage in this dialogue is, of course, an important and ongoing question. The first, most basic thing to say is that we must know our past in order to learn from its wisdom. Certainly, this means knowing our Wesleyan heritage. To be truly Methodist, though, the past we need to know is more than Wesleyan. The Methodist Church of the mid-twentieth century has become through merger The United Methodist Church, gaining with this merger the past of The Evangelical United Brethren as equally important for our thinking. Further, even within our Wesleyan heritage, we learn from John Wesley to draw widely from Christian theological reflection. Where there is wisdom to be gained, we are happy to gain it.

We also learn from John Wesley not to be afraid to adapt the wisdom of the past to a new time. Many of the works he produced were edited versions of what others had written, and he freely modified their words to say what he felt needed to be said. Guided by our lively experiences of God’s grace, we, too, look for the best ways to express in our time a theological understanding of God’s love for the world, which is the claim Christians of every age have wanted to make.

The Book of Discipline contains a section on “Our Theological Task” (¶105, section 4) that provides insight about what Methodist constructive theology might look like. Although what most people pay attention to in this section is the “quadrilateral,” there is more here to inform our thinking. We are reminded that theology is not only constructive but also critical. In fact, it cannot be appropriately constructive if it is not also critical. In theology, “critical” does not mean only negative. Rather, it means making discerning judgments, the way that a film critic tells you whether a movie is worth seeing or not. Of course, sometimes a critical film review may present a negative judgment, advising you to skip this one. But a critical review may also sometimes affirm that yes, you should see this film. It is enjoyable and worth your time. Similarly, critical thinking in theology both points us to expressions of faith that will strengthen and guide us and also warns us of expressions that may lead us to harmful understandings of God and of ourselves before God.

Before theological reflection can begin its constructive work, it must go through the process of critically thinking about its materials in order to discern the wisdom from the past that can speak to our present questions. We use critical thinking to identify how the context of the past shaped the viewpoints from which we are trying to learn. We also compare that context to our own to see whether our time requires some different areas of reflection that were unknown to (or understood differently in) a previous time. Sorting through these differences helps us to identify deep faith claims that may be brought into a new context with new relevance and meaning. Critical thinking must be exercised not only about the past but also about the time in which we live. As much as we value context, we should not let the current context overwhelm what we have to say as Christians. Adap-tation does not mean subsuming the gospel into the culture, but finding a way to proclaim our good news to the culture. Critical thinking about our own context helps to ensure that constructive theology is true to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Discipline reminds us that each of us has a responsibility to do this critical and constructive reflection, but it also claims that individuals need to reflect together in community. Isolated judgments cannot be as informed as communal judgments. We need conversation with each other to discern how God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ should be understood in any particular time and place. Just as God became involved with us through the incarnation in Jesus Christ, we need to be deeply involved with each other in the church and in the world in order to understand what people in our time truly need, as well as what Christian faith has to offer. Methodist constructive theology can only be truly practical when it pays attention to the realities of daily life as well as to its inheritance of faith.

Only after it has made these more general affirmations about the task of theology does The Book of Discipline begin to discuss the “quadrilateral,” which has sadly been distorted by our tendency to set up competition about which “side” has more authority. The “quadrilateral” can give guidance about how to bring past and present into dialogue with each other. It is intended to be a tool to help us “think with” others, both from the past and in the present. Reason and experience help us do critical thinking about the contextual elements of scripture and tradition. Scripture and tradition help us to think critically about how our own understanding and experiences are shaped deeply by our own context and may be in need of being addressed by the gospel. We need all these elements in play so that we neither blindly repeat the past nor acquiesce unthinkingly to the cultural expectations around us.

Only when we learn to “think with” others will we be able to do Methodist constructive theology.

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