Throughout its short history, The United Methodist Church has worked ingeniously to sideline its own doctrinal commitments to a third-order theory of knowledge (a.k.a., “the Quadrilateral”). We have forgotten what binds us to other Christian bodies, not to mention wider Wesleyan families. The result is that we now have a doctrinally and morally incoherent tradition, and we stand on the brink of collapse.
In 2010, trying to figure out how to educate my own congregation in Christian basics, I attained a small commentary by D. Stephen Long on the Doctrines of The United Methodist Church. Steve provided this information to his seminary students and was intentional about putting it in a catechetical format, which was useful. Indeed, as we conversed more, we began to wonder how this small commentary could supply future guidance to the church with respect to the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. We thought it could at least assist in fruitful discussion on theological leadership and spiritual formation regarding the key themes in the Christian life. We would invite scholars in the broader Wesleyan family tree to write on particular doctrines and practices, thereby focusing on the ecumenical nature of our theological heritage, while also on the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan tradition. A new book series, published by Wipf and Stock, would provide this means and put the proverbial theological oil where the ecclesial squeak was.
From the beginning, the designed purpose of the Wesleyan Doctrine Series was to address the ways we as Christians speak of God in communion with the church catholic through the ages. Our goal was not to create anything new or original but to depend on that great cloud of witnesses or saints that come before us, on what G.K. Chesterton called the “great democracy of the dead” (Heb 12:1). We sought some format to communicate what we hold in union with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ over space and time, and to speaking to the illiteracy on doctrine that we felt permeated the church, even in seminaries.
The opening book in the series, Keeping Faith (by D. Stephen Long ), raises up this challenge of doctrinal ignorance in the church, showing how the Articles and the Confession provide the foundations Christians use to worship God well and thereby love God and God’s creation well too. The other printed volumes in the series lead readers deeper into important terrain – e.g., Daniel Castelo’s Confessing the Triune God (2014), Beth Felker Jones on God the Spirit (2014), Debra Dean Murphy’s Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms (2015), and Paul W. Chilcote’s A Faith That Sings: Biblical Themes in the Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley (2016). All of these resources put forth the common ecumenical ground and distinctive Wesleyan features of the wider Methodist tradition, assisting in the ways we articulate what we believe and why. In addition, volumes on ecclesiology, the sacraments, eschatology, and the nature of Scripture will soon appear, fostering further discussion in the church in a highly accessible manner, whether in small groups in local congregations, seminary classrooms, or leadership seminars. The editorial team’s questions at the end of the chapters supply helpful focus. Our hope is that members of the Wesleyan family of churches, not simply United Methodists, will utilize the series, or parts thereof.
To say that we live in anxious times is undoubtedly an understatement. To say we live in confusing times is also blatantly obvious. To say that we now focus more on psychology and sociology than theology is telling, as we have lost the capacity to frame what we know and what we don’t know. Our inability to speak a common language affects not only how we talk or not, but also how or whether we can walk – together.
Such an observation is hopefully a recognition that we have reached a point where doctrines matter and why they are worthy of our commitment. While other options appear on the table across the church at the moment, the Wesleyan Doctrine Series is a modest gesture toward understanding the faith we seek to live, confess, and pass on.