The team that produced the doctrinal section of the Transitional Book of Doctrine and Discipline (TDD) gave us an excellent work. They began with existing doctrinal statements of the 1968 uniting conference of the UMC (such as they were) so that we might have continuity and common reference points. They are forthright in their affirmations, and they restrained themselves from innovations. They did not assume an authority that rightly belongs to the conciliar processes of the church. If we read sections that we wish were worded differently—so do the authors. If we find things missing that we wish were there—so do the authors. The TDD presents the integrity of our doctrinal heritage, identifies some weaknesses, and uncovers some controversies that must be resolved. They did their job well. We should expect the work which they left for us to do will take a few years to finalize. It is not something that can be accomplished by sending a dozen people on a weekend retreat.
We will do well if every pastor, teacher, and as many of the laity as possible start thinking doctrinally. How do we take the fundamental truths of our faith, which are made plain in various places in Scripture, and set them into plain speech that any Christian could understand? We dare not treat the doctrinal statements with the triviality that the uniting conference did because, unlike some other denominations, in the GMC it is our doctrine which is the instrument of our unity–not a trust clause. Our doctrine is functional. It is intended to guide the life of faith, evaluate the church’s ministries, and oversee the education and the work of our clergy. Our doctrine is taken from the plain sense of Scripture, and it is intended to be the plumb line set in our midst.
This essay addresses only that portion of our doctrinal heritage known as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. I suggest a radical starting point for recovering sound doctrine: that we discard everything in the Book of Discipline of the UMC because it is too much of a mess to sort out. Yet, we do not need to start from scratch as though no Christian has ever asked these questions before.
When something is missing, you begin your search for it in the last place you saw it. The best starting place for an examination of our doctrinal standards is not in the Twenty-Five Articles and Confession of Faith. Those standards of the UMC obviously failed that institution. The failure is only partly due to the episcopal malfeasance which supersedes Chaucer’s Canterbury with its bureaucracy of sinecures and its institutional corruption. The UMC’s predictable slide into religious pluralism is largely due to a set of doctrinal standards that are incomplete and are often ambiguous. When in 1968 the UMC accepted both the Articles of Religion from the Methodist Church and the Confession of Faith form the EUB Church, they took documents from two different faith traditions and dumped them into one bucket. Each of these documents were abridgements and adulterations of earlier doctrinal standards of predecessor churches. Not only was there no attempt to reconcile them, but the UMC added to the mixture a fluidity of interpretation called the Quadrilateral. The current doctrinal standards of the UMC are the concrete used to pour their theological foundation, but they are like concrete only in the sense that they are thoroughly mixed up and permanently set. This is not a good place to start a search for doctrinal integrity. There is no need to sort through this muddied amalgam of doctrinal incoherence in search of the jewels within. Creating a harmonized version of two independently formed confessions from two different traditions is more mentally taxing than is necessary, and the result would likely be less valuable than the effort expended. We can find a better starting point than the UMC.
Neither is John Wesley’s Sunday Service a useful tool. This is where the Thirty—Nine Articles were reduced to Twenty-Five. Wesley was great at a lot of things. He is a Christian preacher, apologist, evangelist, and high churchman that history rarely presents to us. But he was inadequate at abridging the Book of Common Prayer, which is what he did with the Sunday Service. Some authors refer to the Sunday Service as a revision of the Book of Common Prayer, but there is no evidence that he considered it a revision. He was producing an abridgement with minor editorial changes to match the operational reality of the new church in America. An abridgement is different from a revision.
It was John Wesley’s practice in his sermons and tracts to present a reasoned argument for every proposition. He would make a proposition, present a series of reasoned arguments, answer objections, and offer an application. He never did that for his abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer. He never did that because he was not introducing new propositions or making doctrinal revisions. Wesley offered one paragraph of general guidelines he used in the abridgement process, but many of the changes do not seem to meet the criteria. People have been scratching their heads ever since wondering what he meant by this work. Some of the Articles he omitted were ones he had always defended. Surely, he did not make a theological statement in omitting two Sundays from the lectionary calendar. He did not intend to prescribe two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer for use on different occasions. It is possible this is just a sloppy work. He never expected it to be used for anything more than its original intent which was a hurriedly produced temporary resource for a church in an historically unprecedented situation.
Many scholars have guessed at the reasons behind the redactions. They have lots of maybe, could have been, probably, possibly, likely, perhaps. An often-overlooked guiding principle for Wesley in this abridgement was his stewardship principle—save all you can. The thinner he could make the book the more copies he could afford to print, ship, and place in the hands of more people. Like his abridgements of numerous other works, the Sunday Service is nothing more nor less than an affordable, easy to read abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer. The Sunday Service is not a new doctrinal work. Wesley never made any scriptural, theological, or doctrinal arguments for its redactions. It is not a useful tool for a search for doctrinal integrity. We can find a better starting point.
The last place that Methodists saw core doctrinal statements assembled in an accessible and easily understood work was the Thirty-Nine Articles which Wesley taught and defended. I recommend them as the reference work for personal reflection or group discussion of our doctrinal heritage. We will quickly discard a few of them because they are matters of church polity peculiar to a time and place. They never belonged among articles of faith. From there we can begin a review of what might need clarification or deletion. I expect that there would be general appreciation for reclaiming Articles XV and XVIII in some form: On Christ Alone Without Sin, and Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ. We could all be enlightened by a public discussion of what should be said, if anything, about the Article on Predestination and Election and the Article on The Three Creeds.
Once we have recovered a formalized statement of foundational Scriptural truth from the Thirty-Nine Articles, then we can consider those items in the EUB Confession and the additions by the Methodist Church which are not represented in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The 1962 Confession of Faith* of the EUB is a treasure offered to Methodism, but the UMC had not the wisdom to take it seriously. It states plainly several things that the Articles of Religion leave to inference. I expect a strong constituency for the EUB confession on the certainty of the return of Christ. We would likely want an article on entire sanctification. We have nuances on prevenient, justifying, assuring, and sanctifying grace. Do these need to be separate articles or should they be expressed by modifying the existing ones.
Some truths are not suitable for an article of faith. The test would be universality—is it true and helpful for Christians in every place and time. Choose a village at random from anywhere in the world and pick a year out of a hat. Would the statement be a necessary and helpful truth? People in every age are capable of inventing new evil and devising creative perversions of truth. We do not need separate articles of faith for each of them. The church has other means to address contemporary conflicts within diverse cultures. For example, the church may benefit from an article On Marriage which we currently do not possess. Such an article can define what scripture clearly says that marriage is and what relationships fall inside that circle. I do not know that the church can or should write separate articles for every human invention that falls outside that circle. The definition of what is automatically excludes everything that is not.
The next few essays will present some of our lost articles–the missing parts of the Thirty-Nine. Many readers will provide comments for this and the following essays on the website or social media page that referred them here. I do the same thing. It is easier. Replying on this site requires a couple of extra steps, however I encourage you to take that extra time and leave a reply here as well. Comments on this page are available to a wider audience and are preserved for later reference.
* Some may prefer elements of the 1815 Confession of the United Brethren Church over the 1962 Confession of the Evangelical United Brethren. That will be a problem. I do not see how the 1815 Confession can be reconciled with Methodism, but I am willing to have the discussion. If there is a way it can be accommodated, we need to start looking for it now.