Occasionally I will see someone argue passionately that United Methodism is not a creedal church. The energy behind this argument has always surprised me, as I’ve tended to see the Creeds as unifying, not just among Methodists but even more broadly among much broader sections of the Body of Christ. The argument that United Methodism is not a creedal church is usually based on John Wesley’s omission of Article VIII “Of the Three Creeds” in his revision of the Anglican Articles of Religion for the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.
I have been heartened to see in the past week a number of posts discussing the positive role of the Creeds for United Methodism. David Watson started by asking whether John Wesley’s faith was a creedal faith? Joel L. Watts then wrote a post on the Wesleys living by the Creeds, and added to it here and here. Andrew Thompson discussed Wesley’s view of the Creeds in conversation with his understanding of the Trinity. Drew McIntyre suggests that it is good news that Christians do not have to work out everything we believe for ourselves. And Steve Rankin argued that the Pietist concern for a lived faith was not in contrast to a concern for orthodoxy, rather it was a concern that orthodox faith be experienced and lived.
The conversation online has prompted me to spend a bit more time looking into what has been said about Wesley’s omission of Article VIII.
The first thing to be said is that there seems to be consensus among Wesleyan/Methodist scholars that Wesley would have affirmed the doctrinal core of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. At a basic level, Wesley was creedal because he was a Christian. And, more specifically, he was creedal because he was Anglican.
So why did he omit Article VIII? In United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center, Scott Jones (now a bishop in The UMC) pointed to three possible explanations for the various Articles Wesley omitted. 1) He may have disagreed with part of the Article. 2) He may have thought the statement was important but could have been better stated. 3) He may have thought the content was unnecessarily repetitive, and so did not need to be included – though he agreed with the content. Jones argued that “Wesley’s removal of the article ‘Of the Creeds’ could indicate any of these three reasons. Without clear evidence, it is impossible to say why he removed the articles he did or made the changes he made” (48).
While there is not a clear answer as to why Wesley removed the Article on the Creeds from the Anglican Articles of Religion, it is equally clear that Wesley did not entirely reject the Creeds, or their use in worship. He included the Apostles’ Creed in the Sunday Service and in the liturgy for baptism, which were sent to American Methodists at the same time that he sent the newly revised Articles of Religion.
The best piece I have seen to date on Methodism and its relationship with the Creeds is a piece written by Geoffrey Wainwright, who is now emeritus professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, titled “Methodism and the Apostolic Faith.” The chapter is in Methodists in Dialog. Wainwright considered the World Council of Churches and its study on the Apostolic Faith. He argued that the Apostolic Faith study is “marked by four characteristics that need to be restamped on contemporary Methodism. The study is: (a) creedal; (b) Trinitarian; (c) ecumenical; (d) homological, that is, in the service of confessing the faith.” (189)
Regarding the creeds and Methodism, Wainwright argues:
As Methodists, we need to recover our creedal inheritance… It is true that Wesley omitted Article VIII (“Of the Three Creeds”) in his selection of the Anglican Articles for American Methodism (we know that he particularly disliked the damnatory clauses of the so-called Athanasian Creed), and that he removed NC [the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] in his abridgement of the Prayer Book communion order in The Sunday Service. He had, however, no quarrel with the substance of the NC, as we shall see; and he retained the Apostles’ Creed in his American service book. The ‘inheritance of the apostolic faith’ and ‘the fundamental principles of the historic creeds’ are part of the constitutional basis of the British Methodist Church. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds figure in the current liturgical books of Methodism on both sides of the Atlantic and in many other parts of the world. We should make better use of them, both in the recitation of them, as a ‘performative act’ of our faith, and in the evangelistic and catechetical tasks of explicating the faith. (191)
Later in the essay Wainwright counters the assertion that orthodoxy was unimportant to Wesley:
Apart from a few ill-formulated sentences scattered in his writings, Wesley did not minimize orthodoxy of belief. When he writes, for instance, that ‘orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best a slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part at all,’ it must be remembered, first, that Wesley was prepared to ‘think and let think’ only in those matters of theological ‘opinion’ that did not ‘strike at the root of Christianity’; and second, that orthodoxy in the stricter sense of doctrine was, for Wesley, not so much unnecessary as insufficient – if it was not believed, experienced, and lived. (195)
I have to admit that as a scholar, it is a bit discouraging to see that someone of Geoffrey Wainwright’s expertise and renown addressed one of the persistent myths among some Methodists so carefully and with such precision – and yet, the myth has continued. Wesley did believe that orthodoxy was essential. He just did not believe that it was sufficient.
If we were somehow able to interview John Wesley and he understood the temporary theological context of United Methodism, I think he would eagerly identify himself as a creedal Christian. Wesley gave authority to the earliest centuries of Christianity in a way he did not give to later centuries. He would not have intentionally rejected the very statements that would most clearly connect him to the early Church and its faith.
I am committed to basic orthodoxy, as expressed with particular precision in the Creeds, because it is unifying and because beliefs inform actions. I care about orthodoxy because it is necessary for orthopraxy.