On being a Methodist

by Richard on December 16, 2008

Dave Warnock has a couple of very useful posts:How I came to be and stay a Methodist and What keeps me in Methodism are both well worth your time.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Kim 12.17.08 at 12:31 pm

Some of my best friends are Methodists (though after this comment, the “are” might become a “were”!). When I became a Christian in my late twenties, I seriously considered becoming a Methodist. When I entered the URC, most of the preachers in my local church in Haslemere were Methodists, and one in particular helped guide me into the ministry. I will be forever grateful for these wonderful fathers-in-God. But here are just three things that kept me out of Methodism.

(1) Methodism began as an evangelistic and social action movement within Anglicanism, i.e. it was a supplement. John Wesley himself was never kicked out of the Church of England, and he always insisted that Methodists were ancillaries to the C of E and should never leave it. “Methodism,” observes Martyn Percy, “is rather like Wales - you can see the point of it, granted. But it is a distinctive principality rather than a full-blown country.” (There go some of my Welsh friends as well!)

(2) Methodism is too tied to the theology of one man, viz. John Wesley himself. Or at least it was until Wesley’s theology seems to have become adiaphora in UK Methodist training colleges themselves! Okay, there is also Charles, the second greatest hymn writer. Two men then. Furthermore, name me a really great Methodist theologian. Of course it may be true, as Elsa Tamez argues, that Wesley did not develop “a doctrinal creed in which ‘orthodox Methodism’ is imprisoned”; rather Methodism gives us “a social creed”. But is this “social creed” really so distinctive as to warrant a separate denomination? Which brings me to …

(3) On the subject of theology, there are no really distinctive doctrines in Methodism that cannot be found in other confessions, with the exception of Wesley’s doctrine of perfection, which, granted that it is usually misunderstood - William J. Abraham observes that perfection, for Wesley, “was neither sinless nor absolute” - is superfluous to the requirements of a robust doctrine of holiness. After all, it is holiness that, for Wesley, is the heart of the matter, but (a) his understanding of holiness adds nothing of substance to understandings of sanctification found in Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformed theologies, and (b), as the Methodist church historian Henry Rack admits, it “remains suspect for underestimating the power and subtlety of sin, and for running the risk of self-delusion”, i.e. it lacks an Augustinian hermeneutics of suspicion. As for Wesley’s Arminianism, driven by fears of antinomianism and quietism, the less said the better. Of course Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination also sucks, but then Reformed theology is not tied to a single theologian, such that Barth’s beautiful doctrine of election could sprout from its rich soil, a doctrine that makes Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace look rather threadbare by comparison.

Of course there are all sorts of contextual and personal reasons why one might choose to become a Methodist, and if you are a Methodist, I would recommend you stay a Methodist. Particularly in the UK. All hands on deck on a sinking ship! ;)

2

Joel 12.31.08 at 6:38 pm

Kim,

I finds it kind of interesting that you would recommend someone stay a Methodist based on your view that the denomination has so little to offer.

Perhaps not in theology, but certainly in practice, the Roman Catholic faith is highly tied to the views of whoever happens to be the current pope.

I also don’t know that Methodism is any more centered on the Wesleys than Lutheran traditions are centered on Luther.

Also, although it is changing, for generations, the term
“reformed” has meant little more than “anti-Catholic” in many quarters

If one is predisposed against Methodism, would one ever be likely to consider any Methodist to be a great theologian?

I’m red-green color blind. I’ve used that as an example in the past to explain that no amount of description of the “truth” of red or green by someone who isn’t red-green color blind would affect the “truth” placed in my own brain about how the two colors relate. I can actually tell red and green apart, but doctors tell me I still don’t see the two colors the way a normally sighted person would. I’ve read Barth’s writings on “election” over and over, but they make little sense to me, even as I gain enough understanding of his theology that on a seminary test I could write an acceptable understanding of his theology. For me, Barth’s writings seem more abstract, whereas Wesley’s seem more concrete. Is such “truth” or just a variant of my red-green colorblindness?

In some ways, Barth seems to advocate for absolute pacifism. But then you can find in his writings times that he seems to defend those who take up arms against oppressors. I can only understand that discrepancy through the light of Wesleyan thinking such that John Wesley was mostly committed to the “crown” but made various exceptions.

With Wesleyan theology, in some ways you have to work backwards from the end of a Wesleyan’s life to the beginning and try to place the whole of their life in “jobber” understanding, rather than applying an abstract theology and then looking for discrepancies.

I doubt that you would sign on to my description of Barth’s theology as “too abstract” but that’s the way I see it.

3

Angela Shier-Jones 01.02.09 at 2:48 pm

I was fascinated and saddened to read Kim’s characature of Methodism. Fascinated because it is so dated and borrowed - and saddened because it suggests that ‘doctrine’ is the measure of theology. For the confessional traditions, which includes of course the reformed, the liberty of DOING theology rather than simply confessing it or being required to sign up to it must seem strange. For us however, theology is an on-going conversation with the Living Word, not something that we think can be passed by parliament or issued ex-cathedra. This is not ‘just pragmatism’ it is practical theology which emerges out of the life of the Christian who is deliberately engaged in the pursuit of holiness. (Or as Jungel would have it – being and becoming)
The doctrine of Christian perfection (better known by most Methodists as the call to growth in grace and holiness) is just ONE of the ways in which Methodists try to explain and explore their faith. Might I be so bold as to suggest that the apparent absence of Methodist theologians is due to nothing more than not knowing where to look.
In a denomination which is ranked in the top five in the world.. I think there are more than one or two..

4

Derek Williams 01.04.09 at 10:31 pm

“For us however, theology is an on-going conversation with the Living Word, not something that we think can be passed by parliament or issued ex-cathedra.”

Fascinating!
No word from him can fruitless fall.
DAW

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