Recovering Doctrinal Integrity: Nature of the Triune God

The preceding article recommended a path to recovery of doctrinal integrity through the Thirty-Nine Articles which were accepted during the rise of Methodism. The hope is to generate discussion among common laity and clergy ahead of the time when will be asked to ratify our doctrinal standards.  Those of us coming from the UMC have lived in an environment where doctrine was ignored, and anything could be believed and preached. We are products of that environment. Each of us come with preconceptions that may be challenged for the first time. This essay examines what we lost in the abridgement to Twenty-Five Articles from Thirty-Nine and invites consideration for the return of at least some of them.

With each omission the Church lost something of our doctrinal heritage. The loss was not immediately evident in its day. The concepts were still well known, generally accepted, and not seriously challenged. The attendees at the Christmas Conference could not have conceived that Methodist preachers would deny the truth of Christ Alone Without Sin, or that they would openly preach other ways to salvation apart from faith in Christ; yet they deleted the two Articles which expressly protected against those heresies. With each passing generation, critics argued the omissions represented rejections, and the rejections equated to specific denials of core Christian truths.

The first American Methodists were not ignorant, nor were they bad people doing bad things, quite the contrary. The delegates to the founding conferences were knowledgeable and faithful. The changes they wrought in church doctrine were advisable correctives for some of the challenges of their time and place, but they had unforeseen negative effects beyond their time and place. The lesson is, if this august and holy assembly could fall into error through myopia, then we—being in similar circumstances today—ought  to take extraordinary care to prevent the same. Let us not write our doctrine with the principal aim of opposing contemporary heresies, but with goal of passing along eternal Christian truths.

The Articles of Religion of the Global Methodist Church

If the reader lacks either desire nor need for the background, then it is acceptable to scroll directly to the concluding section “The Takeaways and Concluding Questions.”

These essays will follow the Articles as they appear in the Transitional Book of Doctrine and Discipline (TDD). They can be organized into five sections that correspond to the organization of the Thirty-Nine:

I. Nature of the Triune God, articles 1-4

II. The Rule of Faith, articles 5 & 6

III.  The Way of Salvation, articles 7-12

IV. Nature and Ministry of the Church, articles 13-22

V. Relationship Between Church and State, articles 23-25

Then follows an unnumbered late addition to the Articles, On Sanctification, which we will consider in its proper sequence when addressing Section III, The Way of Salvation.

Nature of the Triune God

Parenthetical passages represent redactions from the Thirty-Nine Articles. Underlines are additions. All alterations were present in the document received from the UMC except for one. There is an editorial change in Article II that is the work of the transitional team for the Global Methodist Church.

Article I — Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, (or passions) of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

People are moved by passion. God is not.

God is love. God grows angry. God shows pity. We refer to Christ’s sufferings as The Passion. So, what does it mean to say that God is without passion? The term has a specific meaning in the language of the Church, and if we are not going to learn it then we would do well to find another word which expresses the same truth. To say God is without passion means that there is nothing outside of God nor anything greater than God that can drive him to be moved by disturbing his passions. God cannot be enticed or seduced. When God loves or when God is angry, he does not have a passion that can cause him to act contrary to his will, rather God’s love and anger are expressive of his nature and shaped by his will without being corrupted by passion.

When we lose the truth that God is without passion, then we are open to error. Since God is love, then a God moved by passion would not allow any to go to hell or even permit the existence of such a place. If God shows wrath, then a God moved by passion would demand every offending party to pay the price of their transgression.

We say, God is love, and we know love is common to all people. Therefore, whatever we love must be of God. We miss the step where we need a divine revelation of God’s love to direct and control our natural passions towards objects more worthy of our love. People are motivated by passion. God is not.

Article II — Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, (begotten from everlasting of the Father) the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin (of her substance);  so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile (us to his Father) his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

begotten from everlasting of the Father… We affirm this in the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon which the TDD recovers as doctrinal standards. It makes no sense to affirm the proposition in the creeds and redact it from the Articles. It makes a significant claim about the nature of Trinity and it should be recovered.

We need not ask in regard to Christ if his life began at conception or at birth because he is eternal. There was never a time without Christ and there will never be a time without Christ. He is eternal God. To say that he is begotten of the Father is definitive of the relationships within the triune God. God exists in relationship. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father (Not created by. Not born apart from,) . Whatever else it means to be eternally begotten of the Father, Jesus is that and he is the only one. That’s all I am saying for today. If you want more, then take this mind-boggler over to a corner and play with it awhile—and take the Athanasian Creed with you.

took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin (of her substance) … I have not uncovered any rationale for this redaction other than 1) an attempt to minimize the role of Mary as much as possible, or 2) some obscure ancient heretics that assert Christ assumed part of human nature but not all of it. Maybe someone can inform me on the matter. The affirmation is that Christ is truly human and truly divine. His two natures accomplished through a miraculous conception and a normal birth.

To reconcile us to his Father in place of To reconcile his Father to us… This is the only alteration to the Articles that was made by the authors of the TDD. I understand it, and I can yield to it. It places the emphasis on the truth that we are the ones in need of reconciliation, and we are the great beneficiary of the cross. We are reconciled to God. God did not commit any offense to require his reconciliation to us.

Yet, reconciliation requires two parties. Each must be reconciled, and in this case it is God who is initiating and accomplishing the reconciliation. Hence, the concepts of substitutionary, sacrificial, and ransom atonement are implied in the original language, He is reconciled to us. God is on the cross in our place, God paid the price that justice requires, and through an act of God he is reconciling himself to us. Nonetheless, I can support the clarity of this revision because the section on The Way of Salvation will maintain sound atonement theology. The change in the TDD is a gain with no loss.

Article III — Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with (flesh, bones, and) all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

… Flesh and bones is a bodily resurrection. The affirmation is that he is risen bodily and his presence throughout his forty-day post-resurrection ministry were not mere visions while his body was wasting away. He was not a ghost. The Jesus that went into the tomb is the same Jesus who came out, but in a resurrection body with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature.

Article IV — Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

There is no variation from the original Article.

That concludes all four of the TDD Articles on the Nature of the Triune God, but there are five Articles in this section of the Thirty-Nine.  We are missing the original Article III.

The original Article III.

As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also it is to be believed that he went down into hell.

The TDD recovers this language for the Apostles’ Creed, He descended to the dead, but we leave it redacted from the Articles. Consistency necessitates that we recover it in both places or reject it in both.

The Article proclaims something more than Jesus, through his fully human nature, truly experienced death and the grave. That is true, but if that is all it meant then the passage would read, As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed that he died for us and was buried. At a minimum it means that somewhere in that time that we experienced as the three days between his death and resurrection, Jesus was somewhere doing something. He was not asleep, he was not walking among the living, and he had not yet ascended.

Where was he and what was he doing?  There are several interpretations that can be supported by Scripture, but none with such absolute certainty that they can be required as an article of faith. I will not explore them all here. Since the various interpretations are not mutually exclusive (it is possible that any one of them or any combination could coexist) the Article has left the interpretation open. Thus, it affirms both the event and the mystery.

Some interpretations may be excluded by the Article. Much depends on whether we understand 1 Peter to be referring to Sheol or Gehenna.  In the proposed version of the Apostles’ Creed as a foundational standard, the authors seem to have opted in favor of Sheol.  If we use the language adopted for the Creed in the Article—substituting to the dead for into hell—then we close off a teaching of the reformed tradition. Calvin taught that Jesus endured the sufferings of Hell (Gehenna) in our place. If it is not the intent of the Church to close off that interpretation, then we need more clarity.

Two modern interpretations are unambiguously excluded by the Articles. One is that 1 Peter does not really mean Jesus went anywhere, but that he was alive and speaking through Noah in the days before the flood. Those who rejected his words through Noah rejected him. This is contrary to the plain sense of Scripture and also to the plain sense of the Article. The other invention is that 1 Peter is saying there are one or more offers of salvation after death for those who rejected Christ in this life. This also is condemned in the Article, On Purgatory.

Article III affirms that Jesus experienced the reality of death and that after his death, he was not merely asleep, and he was not walking among the living. At a minimum he was somewhere doing something for the salvation of souls. The Article should be returned to its proper place and the Articles renumbered in their original sequence.

The Takeaways and Concluding Questions

A church cannot agree to disagree on the nature of the God they worship. For each contested phrase we should ask, is it true.

If God’s will and design for creation are not changing according to his passions then we ought to recover the language of the truth. If God’s passions may alter his will or change his plans for creation then we ought to continue to neglect the language. Is it true that God is without body or parts or passions.

Is it true that Christ is eternally begotten of the Father--a claim that not cannot be made of any other person. It is a claim that strikes at the root of many heresies of the United Methodist Church which have been most notably advanced by Olivetto, Sprague, and Escobedo. If the claim is warranted by Scripture then it should be recovered.

Is it true to say of the Incarnation that Jesus took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin of her substance. If Jesus is a special creation who is not of the substance of his natural mother, then we should continue to omit the claim. If the Incarnation is the product of a miraculous conception and a natural birth (both fully divine and fully human) then we should recover that truth.

In the choice of to reconcile us to his Father in place of to reconcile his Father to us both are true in a sense. Which one has the greater warrant of Scripture for adding clarity to the substance of the Article? Have we made adequate provision elsewhere in the doctrine to affirm the truth behind the other?

Is it true that in the Resurrection that Christ took again his body, with flesh and bones? Was it a bodily Resurrection? Was the Jesus who came out of the tomb the same one who went in? If so, we should recover the doctrine.

Where was Jesus between the tomb and the Resurrection? Was he asleep? Was he walking around the rainforests of South America?   Is it to be believed that he went down into hell, or that he descended to the dead? The Church has studied the Scriptures and has something to say about it. We should recover that truth.

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