Although I’ve heard comments to the extent for years now, I find that I am growing more sensitive to statements that equate Methodist faith with a lack of theological thought or doctrine.
There is, in reality, a rich depth of theological teachings in our Methodist tradition. What is perhaps at the root of notions that Methodist theology is “wishy washy” or avoids taking “firm stands” is the fact that Methodists don’t advocate a specific dogma that all are expected to accept, we do not maintain a catechism that all are expected to give intellectual or theological assent to. Rather, in the Methodist tradition, a person’s theology requires work!
Theology is generally defined as “the study of God,” just as biology is defined as “the study of life.” The original Greek roots refer to God (theou or theos) and to word or reasoning (logos). As a Christian, I believe that the best foundation for theos-logos – the best foundation for understanding of God – is found in Jesus Christ. Indeed, when the Gospel of John first introduces Jesus, it uses the term logos; we generally read it translated as “Word.”
Now, our understanding of Jesus is somewhat mitigated by the experiences and theologies of the Gospel authors, as well as by those who established the church’s traditions related to Scripture and it’s interpretation. Much of the resources we use to understand God through Jesus come to us second-hand. Even our doctrinal standards, as they are outlined in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, are recognized as being a resource to assist us in our life-long work of knowing and loving God.
The love of God and neighbor – which is the heart of all Christian faith, regardless of denomination – is not something that can be given or told to us. It is something we learn, experience, experiment with, and grow into in our unique situations and settings. To grow in love for God, we seek to better understand God. This is our theological task, and as such it is ongoing. Our Book of Discipline shares:
The theological task, though related to the Church’s doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspectives in carrying out our calling “to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.”
…Theology serves the Church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the gospel to the world. (¶104)
As one formed within the Methodist tradition, I maintain that all people are, by virtue of our nature as thinking beings, theologians. At our best, we are given the opportunity by God in this life to grow in love for God and neighbor by seeking clearer understanding that is “grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in experience, and tested by reason” (¶101). (These four are often referred to as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”)
Since the time John Wesley first began the Methodist movement, we have not been afraid to reason, articulate, experiment, and even renew or amend public statements about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ:
- Wesley, who was often criticized and vilified by people unfamiliar with the movement, often responded publicly, such as when he published the pamphlet “The Character of a Methodist” in response to angry and false characterizations of the movement.
- Our Book of Discipline includes not only our doctrinal standards but also the “Social Principles,” a lengthy application of how our Christian faith should impact our lives in this world. These Principles have been adjusted over the years as the Church at large has discerned more appropriate Christian responses to emerging cultural issues, e.g. the removal of allowances for slavery or prohibitions against divorcees remarrying.
- Every four years, our General Conference updates and re-publishes the extensive but little read Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, which collects hundreds of resolutions adopted by our quadrennial gathering of leaders related to the intersection of faith and life. Again, these are not binding, but are drafted by a majority of our gathered representational leadership as the official position of the Church.
Ultimately, if the Methodist Church is seen as “wishy washy” it is because we encourage personal responsibility for one’s faith and theology, and then give room for people to explore, discern, and make their commitments. Perhaps this is increasingly counter-cultural in a time when everyone from political pundits to religious fundamentalists to opinionated neighbors seek to tell us “what is what,” but the Church, and our leaders, give us the space and guidance to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling”(Philippians 2:12b)…
One last thought: In many ways, Methodist theology is rightly considered a “via media,” a middle way between various streams of theological thought, eg. liturgical and charismatic, evangelical or sacramental. Rev. Adam Hamilton, in a 2005 series on the various branches of our Christian family tree, gives a good summary of this in his sermon “Methodism: Grace, Holiness and the Via Media.”