Wesleyan Tradition

I continue some reflections on United Methodist believing as part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist theology that is being led by our lay leaders. This is an excerpt on Wesleyan tradition from my book United Methodist Beliefs (available from Cokesbury).

From our Anglican roots United Methodists got the notion that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, these are four means of theological reflection (sometimes referred to as the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” because John Wesley employed the four in his thinking[1]) and the criticism of our practice of theology. Note that Scripture is the first of the four, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’ By “tradition” we Methodists mean that which was thought and taught by the church at all times and places before we got here, that rich, bubbling inheritance from the teachers of the church, the creeds, hymns, and prayers that guide us and preserve us from having to reinvent the wheel, spiritually speaking, in each generation. Reason is our active, thoughtful, analytical engagement with this biblical and traditional material, that confirmation of revealed truth within our own thought about the world, since this is, in truth, God’s world. Experience is that personal and communal confirmation of the reality and the work of the Triune God in our lives, the way in which God’s creative, transforming, revealing work is demonstrated and made undeniably real in our own lives.

Tradition reminds us that we are not the first to walk with Jesus as disciples, and we walk not alone. The saints guide us. Christianity did not leap from the New Testament into our hands; twenty centuries of witness guide us in our contemporary appropriation of this faith. We meet no great idea in this faith that our forebears did not think before us and, conversely, we struggle with no heretical bad idea in the contemporary church that did not bedevil the church before we got here. We had tradition before we had Scripture, for Scripture is the faithful expression of the experience of those who were Israel and the first church. Yet with other Protestant Christians we regard Scripture as a judge of the fidelity of the church’s tradition and a constant source of cross examination of tradition.

We therefore find that one of the weaknesses of some forms of contemporary spirituality is that they are, well, contemporary. They are little more than with the times, a merely current expression of present ideas. Superficiality is the inevitable result of a failure to think with the saints.

Early Methodist preachers were accused of fostering dangerous innovation. They responded that they preached the historic faith of the Church of England as found in the Articles of Religion (which are still printed toward the beginning of our Discipline), the Anglican Homilies (a collection of authoritative sermons from great Church of England preachers), and the Book of Common Prayer. Wesley’s followers saw themselves, not as creative innovators, but rather as faithful traditionalists who were recalling the Church of England to its historic affirmations.
Not long ago a woman told me that she had a long struggle becoming close to Jesus. She had meditated, prayed, and read. Then she happened upon a history of the Methodist movement in Britain and from that she concluded, “When a Methodist is apart from the poor, a Methodist is just not much of a Methodist.” That insight, derived from an encounter with tradition, led her to commit to a prison ministry that goes into women’s prisons and prays with and for the inmates. “Those women have made a true disciple of Jesus out of me,” she said. So don’t tell us United Methodists that history is about the dead ideas of dead people!

One blessing of thinking as a United Methodist is that our theology is constantly challenged and enriched by a confluence of various historical traditions – most recently, the marriage of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church (1964). And we have the blessing of being a worldwide, global movement. Our earlier world mission efforts are bearing fruit in our present interaction with young, vital Methodist-related churches around the world. So when we gather for General Conference in Fort Worth this year to talk doctrine and program, we gather as believers with a wide array of cultures and histories who speak a dozen different languages.

Thank the Lord, we don’t have to invent this faith for ourselves. Tradition empowers our discipleship in a new time and place.

William H. Willimon

Practicing Faith

This week I continue some reflections on United Methodist believing as part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist theology that is being led by our lay leaders. This is an excerpt from my book United Methodist Beliefs (available from Cokesbury).

We think theologically in order that we might live theologically, putting into practice our claims about the world now that the Word has become flesh and moved in with us. Therefore, Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’ That’s a quote from Wesley for whom this was a thumbnail definition of Methodist purpose: ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’ We think theologically in order to have something faithful to say about Jesus and in order to have a faithful way of living for Jesus that is clear, convincing, and effective . I expect that some other church families would be more concerned that their theology was orthodox, or historically valid. Typical of us pragmatic Wesleyans, we want ours to be “effective.”

To be honest, sometimes our United Methodist pragmatic, practical Christianity slips into mere cultural accommodation, American pragmatism that values what the world thinks now more than what the church has historically taught. In disputes over doctrine or ethics, rather than ask, “Is this faithful to our United Methodist way of thinking?” we settle for, “How will this play in Peoria?”

There once was a time when Methodists had strict stands against divorce, the use and abuse of alcohol, and other issues that we considered to be violations of our call to be a holy people. Did we adjust our thought on these matters because we received new and different revelation or because we decided that our thought was more than the market could bear? Pragmatism, that peculiarly American philosophy, for any of its virtues, tends to begin with the status quo, the world as it is and we as we are, and move from there to make statements about us and the world. Not much transformation and conversionist thinking in that. When “practical” becomes “pragmatic” the faith once delivered to the saints too easily degenerates into “this is about as much of Christian believing as we can take at the moment.”

I don’t know whether or not the next statement in the Discipline is meant as a slam against academic, speculative theologians of the sort who burrow in a college Department of Religion, but the Discipline says, Our theological task is essentially practical. It informs the individual’s daily decisions and serves the Church’s life and work. While highly theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance. Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives.

So strong a defense of practicality has sometimes made Methodists seem anti-intellectual. How can a church that was born on the Oxford University campus, a people whose father is no less an intellectual than John Wesley, a church so committed to higher education be called anti-intellectual? Sometimes, we haven’t been faithful to our scholarly roots, to be sure. But sometimes the problem is in the world’s limited definition of “intellectual,” or “theological.” We United Methodists like to think that we are committed to a wider, more responsible rationality that sees our theological ideas as practical commitments whose truth is tied to their embodiment.

Wesley took the idea of small accountability groups from the European Pietists and developed them into the engine that drove the Methodist revival in England. He was no revivalist, blowing through town, blowing off, and then blowing out. He said that he was resolved “not to strike the hammer down in any one place where I could not follow up on the blow.” He formed “societies” large groups of smaller groups (“classes,” from 10 to 20 people) and “bands,” small intimate groups (4-6 people) where there was intense accountability and encouragement for these ordinary everyday Eighteenth Century English people to become nothing less than saints. There are some who believe that Wesley’s greatest theological contribution was not his written theology but rather his institutionalized, organizational embodiment of his ideas in these “classes” where people live d the theology that Wesley proclaimed. Today, in your congregation, that legacy continues as we continue to put our theology into practice.

William H. Willimon