I’m reading through the essays in Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church (Kingswood, 1991). I have been interested to read several serious critiques of the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” by various theologians at United Methodist seminaries, which show how much they valued the role of solid doctrine in the church, even if they did not always agree on what constituted good doctrine.
I don’t have time at the moment to develop this into a full post. But I did want to take the time to share several powerful quotations from a few essays originally published in 1974 and 1975. Many of the problems identified with the 1972 statement appear to be ongoing issues of concern for United Methodist doctrine.
The first quotation is from Leroy T. Howe, who taught practical theology at Perkins School of Theology, on the way in which the quadrilateral seems to him to be “infinitely permissive”:
Finally, though not indifferentist by intent, in practice the quadrilateral seems to be infinitely permissive. It is difficult to conceive of even a single serious theological proposal which, upon application of the four guidelines, one could exclude unambiguously from consideration as beyond the range of permissible utterance within the Christian community. By arbitrarily defining the degree of force one or another guideline is to have in a particular discussion, one could establish almost any belief as Christian. (56)
The next quotation is from Schubert M. Ogden, who was a theologian at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, on the need for doctrinal standards:
The mission to which the Christian church is called ineluctably implies the obligation of self-discipline in all aspects of its life and witness, including the doctrine disseminated by its preaching and teaching. A sign in the world of God’s universal salvation which is not as clear and transparent as human frailty allows is not the visible church of Jesus Christ – just as salt which has lost its savor is ‘no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men’ (Matt. 5:13). Contrary to what one might assume from the prevalent conception of the church, the point of putting a pinch of salt in a dish is not to turn the whole dish into salt, but so to permeate the dish with its savor as to make the dish itself tasty to eat. But, then, the salt is of no use without its saltiness – any more than the church is of any use to the world it is sent to serve without that sound doctrine which the establishment of doctrinal standards and their responsible enforcement throughout the church alone make possible. ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its savor, how shall its saltiness be restored?’ (51)
The final quotation is from Robert E. Cushman, who taught systematic theology at Duke Divinity School, on whether the “Liturgy and the Creed” have been sufficient for Christian piety:
The fourth postulate functions as the conclusion of the series. It first appeared and offered itself as a judgment of alleged historical fact, viz., that the Methodist fathers ‘declined to adopt the classical forms of the confessional principle.’ It now appears in the succession of scantily supported theological postulates as the conclusion: ‘No creed or doctrinal summary can adequately serve the needs and intentions of United Methodists in confessing their faith or in celebrating their Christian experience’ (p. 79). This is, indeed, far-reaching in import and amply supplies the rationale for the view that our doctrinal standards are merely landmark documents. It also appropriately justifies the exordium, viz. ‘The United Methodist Church expects all its members to accept the challenge of responsible theological reflection.’ If there is no finally reliable past in standards, perhaps hope may yet make a future! So be it, but the concluding postulate, standing as an unsupported ipse dixit, smacks rather more of academic sophistication than of the living piety of generations of Christians who have found in the venerable language of the Liturgy and the Creed more than enough light to illumine their darkness, indeed more than they used. (72)
This collection of essays reminds me of the importance of doctrine for the life of any Christian group. It also reminds me of the ongoing need the church has for women and men who have been called by God to serve the church through scholarship that forms the next generation of pastors and provides thought leadership for the contemporary church. This is not a new book, but it is one that is worth reading (or rereading), as it has ongoing relevance for United Methodism.