These are the very first words of the introduction to Key United Methodist Beliefs by William J. Abraham and David F. Watson. In light of my recent thinking and writing about the connection between right belief and right practice, I can’t think of a better way to begin a Wesleyan catechism.
If you have been following my recent writing, you will also have noticed the discussion about the invisibility of the Wesleyan message in online and print media compared to other parts of the church catholic. One of my hypotheses is that a major reason that the Wesleyan message is not getting a broader hearing today is because there are so many different voices claiming to represent the Wesleyan or Methodist tradition.
All of this has led to the belief that renewal will come to Methodism in America through a renewal of both Wesleyan doctrine and practice.
The challenge, though, is that in some parts of American Methodism there is a persistent mistrust of the value of doctrine. The concern generally seems to be that a church with clear doctrinal commitments will use them to bludgeon other people or exclude them.
While I appreciate the concern, I continue to be convinced that a deep retrieval of the significance of doctrine will be a part of any coming renewal of American Methodism. Along these lines, William J. Abraham and David F. Watson (no relation) have given a gift to the church in their new book Key United Methodist Beliefs.
After the simple affirmation that belief matters, they continue:
What we believe about God, about God’s saving work within creation, about human wrongdoing, about the goal of our lives and our eternal destiny all matter. They make a difference with regard to how we think about ourselves and other people, about life and death, what we should value in life, and what kind of person we should hope to become. It is common to hear people talk about beliefs as if one is simply as good as another. For some, the one great sin is to insist on a clear difference between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, but this perspective cannot coexist with Christianity. For that matter, it cannot coexist with Judaism or Islam, either, but that is not our topic here. The claims that we Christians make about what God has done for us – for all creation – in and through Jesus Christ really do matter. (ix)
Someone might concede that beliefs matter, but point out that belief itself is insufficient. Indeed, there have been many periods in the history of Christianity where movements have arisen in opposition to a fierce and rigid dogmatism that at times led to violence. It is not enough for those who take on the name of Jesus, calling themselves Christians, to have right thoughts or ideas about Jesus. Belief must lead to action. One of the beauties of Key United Methodist Beliefs is that Abraham and Watson anticipate this objection and address it head on at the beginning of the book. Here is how they conclude the introduction.
Right belief, by itself, of course, is not enough. As Wesley put it, a person may be “as orthodox as the devil… and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” Right belief does matter, though, because it helps us know God more fully, and it is by knowing and loving God, and by God’s knowing and loving us, that we become the people God wants us to be. We read in the Roman Catholic catechism, “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.” The goal is love, and God is love. We should do all we can, therefore, to know God. (xii)
This book is helpful because it is a strong articulation of the importance of beliefs for United Methodism that also demonstrates that those who argue for the necessity of doctrine for the life of the church make the argument for both doctrinal and practical reasons. In other words, right doctrine is always connected to right practice. From start to finish, it is clear that the authors of this book are convinced not only that orthodoxy (right belief) matters but also that orthopraxy (right practice) matters.
Abraham and Watson’s consistent connection of belief to practice has the potential to advance the conversation about the role of doctrine in the church beyond the strawman argument that those who care about right belief do not care about practice, or Christian living.
To cite one of many examples. In the chapter “Who Is God the Father?” Abraham and Watson affirm a key belief: “To think of God as God the Father is to believe that God loves all people and wishes to save us from sin and death” (6) They then conclude: “The nature of God the Father is one of self-giving, and in like kind, we should give of ourselves to God and our neighbors as well” (7).
The title of the book is a bit misleading, as the book is about much more than “United Methodist” beliefs. To me, it is really a Wesleyan catechism. Unfortunately, the title of the book will likely narrow the potential audience, when many Wesleyan communities would have been likely to use the book if the title were “Wesleyan Beliefs” or “A Wesleyan Catechism.”
Each chapter is oriented around a central question and is divided into five sections: A Wesleyan Faith, A Lived Faith, A Deeper Faith, The Catechism, and In Your Own Words. The first three parts are narrative, as you would expect in a typical book. The fourth part, in true catechetical format, is a question and answer format, which often includes Scripture passages that amplify the answer. The fifth chapter is basically questions for discussion, which could help an individual reader reflect more on the impact of a particular belief for their own life or it could be used as a basis for discussion in small groups.
And just in case I was on the fence for the first nine chapters, chapter ten, “How Should Wesleyans Live?” is largely an engagement with the “General Rules”: do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God.
Key United Methodist Beliefs is an exceptional resource that has the potential to be useful in a variety of contexts. If I were a local church pastor, this would be a resource I would use in preparing people for confirmation or membership. I highly recommend this book. At a minimum, it should be in every Wesleyan/Methodist pastor’s personal library.