Yesterday I wrote a brief update on the Vital Piety Page on Facebook sharing a thought I had about Outler’s understanding of experience while reading his essay “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley.” After reading Outler on the quadrilateral, I then read the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. For years I’ve been struck by the ways in which the 1972 statement’s influence persists, despite its being intentionally replaced with a thorough rewrite that was adopted in 1988 and is still the version in the current BOD. Here are a few quick thoughts:
It is interesting to note the ideas from the 1972 statement that were rejected in the 1988 rewrite that are very much alive and well in popular United Methodist consciousness. The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”
The statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”
The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.”
One way of understanding the creation of the quadrilateral in United Methodism, then, is to see it as a strategy for pitching a big tent and working to ensure that the tent would be big enough for anyone who might come under its cover. To that end, the quadrilateral appeared to be designed to ensure that the method would lead to a variety of conclusions or theological perspectives, not to bring doctrinal unity within a particular faith community. Some United Methodists today would see this as one of the primary virtues of United Methodism, one of the reasons we can agree to disagree and love each other in the midst of disagreement. Others would see this as one of the primary vices of United Methodism, one of the reasons we are not able to find consensus on basic theology or ethics. Regardless of whether you personally love or hate the 1972 statement’s endorsement of theological pluralism, it was intentionally removed from the current statement.
In reading the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” in connection with the 1988 statement, one has the impression that the 1988 statement was a significant rejection of much of what was in the earlier statement. Theological pluralism is no longer in the statement at all. The arbitrary assertion that our doctrinal standards cannot function as standards in any meaningful way is also removed. While “serious reflection across the theological spectrum” is encouraged, the statement makes clear that “the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process.” The statement goes on to affirm that, “We are a Church with a distinctive theological heritage.” It continues: “In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance.” The impatience with systems of doctrine in order to get to ethical living is also much less present in the current statement of “Our Theological Task,” which seems to have a more clear recognition that theological reflection is an essential precondition for ethical Christian living.
The main place where the current statement is worse than the 1972 statement, in my view, is in its understanding of experience. I’ve previously written on Albert Outler’s understanding of John Wesley’s understanding of experience. The 1972 statement says the following about experience:
Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the Church as a whole: the personal appropriation of God’s unmeasured mercy in life and interpersonal relations. There is a radical distinction between intellectual assent to the message of the Bible and doctrinal propositions set forth in the creeds, and the personal experience of God’s pardoning and healing love… This ‘new life in Christ’ is what is meant by the phrase ‘Christian experience.’
This definition bears the clear mark of Outler’s hand. The 1988 statement generally keeps this understanding, but adds to it. Wesley “looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the ‘common sense’ knowledge of everyday experience.” In the specific section on experience, much of the material cited above from the 1972 statement is kept, but it is also added to in ways that are in tension with Outler’s understanding of what Wesley meant by experience as a source for theological reflection. The current statement, for example, says “We interpret experience in the light of scriptural norms, just as our experience informs our reading of the biblical message.” On my reading of Outler, he would have serious concerns about the second half of both of the previous quotes.
In rereading both statements of “Our Theological Task,” I am struck by the persistent influence of a statement that is obsolete. It is difficult to change understandings of doctrine overnight. It also seems problematic when a discarded understanding of the theological task is still influencing and informing the current popular United Methodist understanding of theology. Even worse, the 1972 statement at times seems more influential than our actual doctrinal standards, particularly when neither statement of “Our Theological Task” has ever been understood as a standard for United Methodist doctrine.
United Methodist doctrine exists. But whether it is owned by rank and file United Methodists is, regrettably, an open question.
For much more information on the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” see Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, edited by Thomas A. Langford.