Hey UMC: How do you see it?
Like many folks in the United Methodist Church I’ve been processing the divisions in our church. I’ve wondered ‘where did this come from?’ “How did this develop?” “What really are the differences?” After all, we share the same the heritage from Roman Catholic to Anglican to the Wesley brothers and Francis Asbury. The reformers and the pietists and a host of others have influenced us. And through it all we eventually became the UMC of today. How then are we so divided? We clearly see and understand things very differently. In an attempt to understand our differences I’ve been reading blogs and articles from across the theological spectrum of our denomination and I may have stumbled upon something that describes our divide in a fairly clear way.
Often what I’ve been reading is from perspectives I don’t share. Usually this is informative to me, stretches me, and helps me to think through what I believe about the issues that challenge the church today. Not long ago I read a blog post at the RMNblog (Reconciling Ministries Network) by Rev. Sanford “Sandy” Brown. It is an older post from December 4, 2012 and was listed under the category “Asbury Theological Seminary.” As an Alumni of ATS I was curious about what might be in this category on the RMNblog. Rev. Brown is responding to a post from the president of Asbury Seminary, Dr. Timothy Tennent. Tennent had written a blog post supporting the current stance of the UMC regarding homosexuality. Rev. Brown deeply disagreed with Dr. Tennent. (you can read Brown’s full post here)
The disagreement regarding homosexuality is not what caught my attention. In Rev. Brown’s attempt to refute Dr. Tennent he made a statement I found rather startling:
I’m sure Dr. Tennent knows that in our United Methodist denomination we pride ourselves on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which helps us interpret scripture in the light of tradition, reason and experience. The timeless beauty of this theological process is that it carefully connects our scriptural roots with our brains and with an openness to learning from the daily lives of actual human beings.
Here is a clear statement on what divides the United Methodist Church. In Rev. Brown’s estimation the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (a term coined by Dr. Albert Outler and not Wesley and which is cemented in our Book of Discipline under ‘Our Theological Task’) “helps us interpret scripture in the light of tradition, reason and experience.” This is the dividing line. This is the real issue. This is where our unity is most threatened. In Brown’s process experience, reason, and tradition are criterions for interpreting scripture. This is highly inappropriate. The 2012 Book of Discipline states:
“Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.
Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’ Therefore our theological task, in both its critical and constructive aspects, focuses on disciplined study of the Bible. (2012 Book of Discipline pg. 80)
I propose that a more appropriate way than Rev. Brown’s to think about the Quadrilateral, and therefore our theological process, is to use the idea of lenses. The human eye is made up of a series of lenses through which we see and understand the world around us. In the same way the Quadrilateral can be understood as a series of lenses. We can see implied in Rev. Brown’s description that human experience is the primary lens, followed by reason and tradition, through which we then look at and understand scripture. This perspective inevitably distorts our theology into a human-centered religion with an ever-changing experiential criterion of truth. On the other hand, if we shift the lenses a bit into the order that Wesley and the Book of Discipline intend, Scripture becomes the primary lens, informed by reason and tradition, we then come to rightly see, understand, and appropriately live out the human experience. When the lens of Scripture is primary then we are engaged in a God-centered theology of foundational truth. We are divided because we choose to see through different lenses.
If we are to ever have unity in our practices then we must have unity in our theological processes. Our collective denominational conversation must move from the presenting issues to the foundational issues. It’s time to take a new look at our theological task in a serious way. We have discord in what we believe about homosexuality and other issues because we have not done the truly hard work of theology. Or perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Dr. William Abraham, we have a bit of doctrinal and theological amnesia. Perhaps many of us have picked an outcome we desire and then changed our theology to match our preferred perspective; by doing so many have abandoned our Wesleyan, Methodist, theological task. We have switched our lenses and attempted to call it good. And that’s the problem before us… What do you think?
Grace and Peace, Rich
PS. As I finished up this post I read a related piece by Dr. Bill Arnold on Seedbed posted yesterday. read it HERE