Testing the spirits: How much unity in diversity?

May 2nd, 2017

“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)

John Wesley's personal seal

“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 U.S. 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, is that United Methodists 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 simply 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 U.S. 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.

This article was first published at Wesleyan Way.

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