Is the United Methodist Church a Creedal Church?
G.  Richard Jansen
Colorado State University
Fort Collins CO, 80523
February 24, 2005
 
 

Introduction

     The United Methodist Church is at a defining moment in theology today.  The 2004 General Conference opened with a serious concern about schism and ended with one thousand delegates joining hands and singing Blest Be the Tie that Binds.   However, if the potential schism was exaggerated so certainly is the unity.  By large convincing votes the delegates upheld the bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals and removed any ambiguity on these issues from the Book of Discipline. In addition, a report on Communion that defined this ancient rite central to Christianity in a very traditional sense was accepted. However, advocates of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals have lost none of their opposition to established church policy on these matters and surely will be back in force in 2008.  However, the dividing issues in the church are theological not sociological in nature, and much more serious than issues of human sexuality.  As will be explored in this essay another issue, less emotional but more significant is the question as to whether or not the Methodist Church is a creedal church as are all other branches of Christianity.  This essay will answer the question in the affirmative.
    We will begin with Jesus’ life and its meaning, and will proceed with a discussion of the development of Christianity through the centuries. Central to this discussion is the role of Christian Creeds in defining and clarifying Christian doctrine.  Finally Christian  beliefs in Methodism today will be considered as will be  the role of the historic and ancient Christian creeds in the United Methodist Church of today.

The Life of Christ and Its Meaning.

 What is known in a factual sense of the life and death of Jesus was summarized by E. P. Sanders in his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus as follows:”
 1. Jesus was born about 4 B.C., approximately the time of the death of Herod the Great.
 2. He lived in Nazareth in Galilee during his childhood and early adult life.
 3. He was baptized by John the Baptist.
 4. He developed a band of followers referred to as his disciples.
 5. With his disciples he preached in the villages, towns and countryside of Galilee.
 6. Among many things he said he also preached the coming Kingdom of God.
 7. About 30 A.D. he went to Jerusalem for the Passover.
 8. He shared a final Passover meal with his disciples.
 9. He was arrested  and interrogated by Jewish authorities including the High Priest.
 10. He was crucified on the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
 11. His disciples fled in fear and disarray.
 12. He was seen, in some sense by his followers after his death.
 13.His followers came to believe he would return and found his Kingdom.

    N. T. Wright, in his seminal book “The Resurrection of the Son of God” expands from these known facts and explains  how and why Christianity developed from a small beginning in this rather isolated region of the Roman Empire to became the world wide religion it is today.  Wright states that two events, factual in his analysis, led to the early belief that Jesus was indeed the Christ, , the anointed one and coming Messiah of Jewish tradition.  These were the empty tomb and the sightings of Jesus after his death by his followers.  The empty tomb was impressive,  but In Wright’s view this by itself would not have moved the disciples to such a strong belief in the resurrection. The sightings were impressive but by themselves could have been dismissed as hallucinations as indeed in some quarters even today they still are.  However these two events together along with the teachings and prophesy of Jesus in Wright’s view led to a strong belief among his  followers in his resurrection.
    The power of this strong belief among this small group of shaken followers of Jesus is demonstrated by the indisputable fact that within 20-25 years after the resurrection, Christian beliefs had spread throughout much of Africa, Asia Minor and to Rome itself so that Paul’s letters written to Corinth and other Greek cities and to Rome itself  at that time were to already established Christian churches.

Development of Early Christianity

     It is truly remarkable and noteworthy that Christianity spread so widely and so quickly by word of mouth and not by arms.  What was the Greco-Roman world like at that time? It was a world where metaphysical ideas were swirling around and impinging on Jerusalem from every direction. Jerusalem was situated between mighty ancient empires and civilizations and on the invasion routes of Egypt from the west and Babylon and Assyria from the east. It had once been part of Alexander’s Empire and the Persian Empire, and was now part of the mighty Roman Empire.  As a result metaphysical ideas about the meaning of life and death and all other aspects of human behavior flooded in from all these ancient civilizations along with other religions and mystery cults.  In addition, of course, the early Christians were heirs to the millennia old and written Jewish history, faith and traditions.  As a result the Christian message about Christ’s life and his resurrection had to compete with all these ideas including those from Roman civilization, its culture and its gods. A statement of Christian beliefs, i.e. a creed,  was necessary from the earliest days of the Church to define Christian beliefs and to distinguish these beliefs from alternate belief systems and heresies that threatened to fracture the early Church.
    Some of these ancient heresies are as follows.  Information presented is taken from the book “Early Christian Heresies” by Joan O’Grady and the Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/)

Docetae
     “A sect dating back to Apostolic times. Their name is derived from dokesis, "appearance" or "semblance", because they taught that Christ only "appeared" or "seemed to be a man, to have been born, to have lived and suffered. Some denied the reality of Christ’s human nature altogether, some only the reality of His human body or of His birth or death.  The word docetae has the sense of the word illusionists.  Docetism derived in part at least from attempting to merge Gnosticism with Christianity starting from the Gnostic principle of antagonism between matter and spirit.”

Gnosticism
 “In the Gnostic view, there is a true, ultimate and transcendent God, who is beyond all created universes and who never created anything in the sense in which the word “create” is ordinarily understood. While this True God did not fashion or create anything, He (or, It) “emanated” or brought forth from within Himself the substance of all there is in all the worlds, visible and invisible. In a certain sense, it may therefore be true to say that all is God, for all consists of the substance of God. By the same token, it must also be recognized that many portions of the original divine essence have been projected so far from their source that they underwent unwholesome changes in the process. To worship the cosmos, or nature, or embodied creatures is thus tantamount to worshiping alienated and corrupt portions of the emanated divine essence.
 The basic Gnostic myth has many variations, but all of these refer to Aeons, intermediate deific beings who exist between the ultimate, True God and ourselves. They, together with the True God, comprise the realm of Fullness  wherein the potency of divinity operates fully. The Fullness stands in contrast to our existential state, which in comparison may be called emptiness.”
 “In the greater number of Gnostic systems an important role is played by the ÆÆon Wisdom -- Sophia or Achamoth. In some sense she seems to represent the supreme female principle, as for instance in the Ptolemaic system, in which the mother of the seven heavens is called Achamoth, in the Valentinian system, in which he ano Sophia, the Wisdom above, is distinguished from he kato Sophia, or Achamoth, the former being the female principle of the noumenal world, and in the Archotian system, where we find a "Lightsome Mother" (he meter he photeine), and in which beyond the heavens of the Archons is he meter ton panton and likewise in the Barbelognosis, where the female Barbelos is but the counterpart of the Unknown Father, which also occurs amongst the Ophites described by Irenaeus (Adv. Haeres., III, vii, 4). Moreover, the Eucharistic prayer in the Acts of Thomas (ch. 1) seems addressed to this supreme female principle. W. Bousset's suggestion, that the Gnostic Sophia is nothing else than a disguise for the Dea Syra, the great goddess Istar, or Astarte, seems worthy of consideration. On the other hand, the ÆÆon Sophia usually plays another role; she is he Prouneikos or "the Lustful One", once a virginal goddess, who by her fall from original purity is the cause of this sinful material world. One of the earliest forms of this myth is found in Simonian Gnosis, in which Simon, the Great Power, finds Helena, who during ten years had been a prostitute in Tyre, but who is Simon's ennoia, or understanding, and whom his followers worshipped under the form of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. According to Valentinus's system, as described by Hippolytus (Book VI, xxv-xxvi), Sophia is the youngest of the twenty-eight ææons. Observing the multitude of ææons and the power of begetting them, she hurries back into the depth of the Father, and seeks to emulate him by producing offspring without conjugal intercourse, but only projects an abortion, a formless substance. Upon this she is cast out of Pleroma. According to the Valentinian system as described by Irenaeus and Tertullian   Sophia conceives a passion for the First Father himself, or rather, under pretext of love she seeks to know him, the Unknowable, and to comprehend his greatness. She should have suffered the consequence of her audacity by ultimate dissolution into the immensity of the Father, but for the Boundary Spirit. According to the Pistis Sophia (ch. xxix) Sophia, daughter of Barbelos, originally dwelt in the highest, or thirteenth heaven, but she is seduced by the demon Authades by means of a ray of light, which she mistook as an emanation from the First Father. Authades thus enticed her into Chaos below the twelve ÆÆons, where she was imprisoned by evil powers. According to these ideas, matter is the fruit of the sin of Sophia; this, however, was but a Valentinian development; in the older speculations the existence of matter is tacitly presupposed as eternal with the Pleroma, and through her sin Sophia falls from the realm of light into Chaos or realm of darkness. This original dualism, however, was overcome by the predominant spirit of Gnosticism, pantheistic emanationism. The Sophia myth is completely absent from the Basilidian and kindred systems. It is suggested, with great verisimilitude, that the Egyptian myth of Isis was the original source of the Gnostic "lower wisdom". In many systems this Kato Sophia is sharply distinguished from the Higher Wisdom mentioned above; as, for instance, in the magic formula for the dead mentioned by Irenaeus, in which the departed has to address the hostile archons thus: "I am a vessel more precious than the female who made you. If your mother ignores the source whence she is, I know myself, and I known whence I am and invoke the incorruptible Sophia, whois in the Father, the mother of your mother, who has neither father nor husband. A man-woman, born from a woman, has made you, not knowing her mother, but thinking herself alone. But I invoke her mother." This agrees with the system minutely described by Irenaeus (op. cit., I, iv-v), where Sophia Achamoth, or Lower Wisdom, the daughter of Higher Wisdom, becomes the mother of the Demiurge; she being the Ogdoad, her son the Hebdomad, they form a counterpart of the heavenly Ogdoad in the Pleromata. This is evidently a clumsy attempt to fuse into one two systems radically different, the Basilidian and the Valentinian; the ignorance of the Great Archon, which is the central idea of Basilides, is here transferred to Sophia, and the hybrid system ends in bewildering confusion.”
(Quite a story. Is that clear?)

Marcionites
     “Heretical sect  founded in A.D. 144 at Rome by Marcion and continuing in the West for 300 years, but in the East some centuries longer, especially outside the Byzantine Empire. They rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Christ was not the Son of the God of the Jews  but the Son of the good God, who was different from the God of the Ancient Covenant. They anticipated the more consistent dualism of Manichaeism and were finally absorbed by it. As they arose in the very infancy of Christianity and adopted from the beginning a strong ecclesiastical organization, parallel to that of the Christian  Church, they were perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity  has ever known”.

Manichaeism
     “Manichææism is a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It purported to be the true synthesis of all the religious systems then known, and actually consisted of Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some small and superficial, additions of Christian elements. As the theory of two eternal principles, good and evil, is predominant in this fusion of ideas and gives color to the whole, Manichææism is classified as a form of religious Dualism. It spread with extraordinary rapidity in both East and West and maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the West (Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, but it flourished mainly in the land of its birth, (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Turkestan) and even further East in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet, where, c. A.D. 1000, the bulk of the population professed its tenets and where it died out at an uncertain date.”

Donatists
    "Their primary disagreement of the Donatists in the 4th and 5th centuries with the rest of the Church was over the treatment of those who forsook their faith during the Persecutions  of Diocletian in 303-305 A.D . The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. They refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority from the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone as far as turning in Christians to the Roman authorities and had publicly burned sacred religious texts. These men had returned to positions of authority under Constantine, and the Donatists proclaimed any sacraments done by these priests/bishops were invalid.  As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. The sect had particularly developed and grew in North Africa”.

Arianism
    “Arianism derives frm the  doctrine of Bishop Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God. He is not consubstantial (homoousios)  with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity. The Logos which St. John exalts is an attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine nature, not a person distinct from another, and therefore is a Son merely in figure of speech. These consequences follow upon the principle which Arius maintains in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia.,  that the Son "is no part of God.”  The dispute over Arianism led the Emperor Constantine to call the first Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. , and the first elaboration of the Creed of Nicea.”

Pelagianism
    “Pelagianism received its name from Pelagius and designates a belief system of the fifth century, which denied original sin as well as Christian grace.  The doctrine was explained by Caelestius, one of the followers of Pellagius in six theses as follows:
 1)Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died. 2)Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race. 3)Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall. 4)The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the Resurrection of  Christ. 5)The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel. 5)Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.
 Pellagius is believed to have been a native of Britain. At first glance the ideas of Pellagius and Caelestius may not appear especially dangerous to Christian understanding but they were.  St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa saw the problem and fought the ideas of Pellagius and Caelestius vigorously. The difficulty is that Pellagianism denies any role for Christ’s life, death and resurrection in saving mankind from its sins.”

Albigensians
    “Albegenses  was a neo-Manichææan sect that flourished in southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The name Albigenses, given them by the Council of Tours (1163) prevailed towards the end of the twelfth century.
 The Albigenses asserted the co-existence of two mutually opposed principles, one good, the other evil. The former is the creator of the spiritual, the latter of the material world. The bad principle is the source of all evil; natural phenomena, either ordinary like the growth of plants, or extraordinary as earthquakes, likewise moral disorders (war), must be attributed to him. He created the human body and is the author of sin, which springs from matter and not from the spirit. The Old Testament must be either partly or entirely ascribed to him; whereas the New Testament is the revelation of the beneficent God.  The latter is the creator of human souls, which the bad principle imprisoned in material bodies after he had deceived them into leaving the kingdom of light. This earth is a place of punishment, the only hell  that exists for the human soul. Punishment, however, is not everlasting; for all souls, being Divine in nature, must eventually be liberated. To accomplish this deliverance God sent upon earth Jesus Christ, who, although very perfect, like the Holy Ghost is still a mere creature. The Redeemer could not take on a genuine human body, because he would thereby have come under the control of the evil principle. His body was, therefore, of celestial essence, and with it He penetrated the ear of Mary. It was only apparently that He was born from her and only apparently that He suffered. His redemption was not operative, but solely instructive. To enjoy its benefits, one must become a member of the Church of Christ (the Albigenses). It is not the Catholic sacraments but the peculiar ceremony of the Albigenses known as the consolamentum, or "consolation," that purifies the soul from all sin and ensures its immediate return to heaven The resurrection of the body will not take place, since by its nature all flesh is evil.”

Antecedents of the Christian Creeds

    Christian Creeds were and are based on understandings of Christian beliefs found in Scripture, the Gospels and especially the letters of Paul.  Paul’s letters were written 20-25 years after the resurrection.  Several examples from Paul’s letters and the Gospels follow:

Romans 1: 1-4
 "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord."
Romans 10: 9
 "That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
1 Corinthians 1: 23-24
 "But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
1 Corinthians 12: 3
 "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit."
1 Corinthians 15: 3-5
 " For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve".
2 Corinthians 4: 5
 "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake."
Philippians 2: 10-11
"that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Other important statements of Christian beliefs are found in the Gospels which were written from about 70-100 A.D.

Matthew 16; 13-16
 “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
Matthew 28: 16-19
 “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’”
Mark 10: 32-33
 “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles’”
Mark 14: 22-23
 “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. ‘I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.’”
John 3: 16-18
 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son”.

The Ancient Ecumenical Christian Creeds

The Apostles Creed Origin in  2nd Century, Canonized in 8th Century
 “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

The Nicene Creed 381 AD
 “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, both seen and unseen.
 We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation  he came down from heaven: By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
 We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father
( and the Son)* With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.
 We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
*The Filioque   (n.) The Latin for, "and from the Son," equivalent to et filio, inserted by the third council of Toledo (a. d. 589) in the clause qui ex Patre procedit (who proceedeth from the Father) of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (a. d. 381), which makes a creed state that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. Hence, the entire doctrine is not admitted by the Eastern Church).

Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD)
 “Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul <meaning human soul> and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness. We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten -- in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality . They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word <Logos> of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers <the Nicene Creed> has handed down to us.”

Athanasian Creed(Fifth Century AD)
 “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.
 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
 As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
 So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
 So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three lords, but one Lord. For as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge each Person by Himself to be both God and Lord, so we are also forbidden by the catholic religion to say that there are three gods or three lords.
 The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits.
 And in the Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another, but all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved is must think thus of the Trinity.
 Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching His godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood; who, although He is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether; not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ; who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, He sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the quick and the dead. At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
 This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

     Christianity had rapidly spread throughout the entire Roman Empire from Britain, Gaul and Spain in the west, to Egypt and North Africa in the south and to Asia Minor and as far as  Persia and Armenia in the east.  Christians were persecuted from the time of the apostles until 313 A.D. when, with the Edict of Milan, Constantine legalized Christianity. In 395 A.D. Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire. However by the middle of the 5th century the western branch of the Empire centered in Rome fell to Visigoths  and other invaders from the north.  The eastern branch of the Empire held out until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Islamic Ottoman Turks.  The Christian Church evolved into six patriarchies; Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and also Armenia which had not been part of the Roman Empire. Rome was the only patriarchy that derived from the western Empire and all the others were from the eastern branch of the Roman Empire. The patriarchies of Rome, Constantinople and Jerusalem held in accordance with the Nicene and Chalcedon  diophysite understandings of the nature of Christ, that Christ was and is fully human and fully divine. Eventually Rome and Constantinople, in the great schism of 1054 A.D. divided into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches mainly over the filioque.  This understanding by the Church at Rome  of course also holds true for all the Protestant Churches.   The Armenia and Alexandria patriarchies have  monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature in that they believed that Christ indeed was fully divine, but could not be fully human, even though he had taken on a human body and a human life cycle, because of the sinful nature of man.  In contrast, the Antioch patriarchy and the church in Persia followed the views of Bishop Nestorius on the nature of Christ.  In this view Christ was considered to be fully human but not fully divine in his nature, i.e. he was not the only begotten son of God.  The divine nature of Christ was merged with his human nature through his will.

Modern Day Deviations

    The word heresy is no longer  much in vogue in the Christian world.  However at the periphery of the Christian faith there are views that are perhaps best described as heterodox, i.e. “contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion.”
     One of the most disturbing of these heterodox views concerns the very nature of God, and this is the development of process theology and its panentheistic concept of God. In panentheism  God is not omnipotent. The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Free will characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God can not force anything to happen, but rather only influences the exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism).
Because God contains a changing universe, God is changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that take place in the universe) over the course of time.  People do not experience a subjective (or personal) immortality, but they do have an objective immortality in that their experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that was.
     In contrast, Christianity is a monotheistic religion and thus has a theistic concept of the nature of God.  Theism is the belief in a Supreme Being that highlights divine transcendence, yet believes in his immanence and his care for those who are in this world. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in theism. He is perfect, even though evil exists in the world. He is a personal God and often intervenes in the affairs of men. The life of creation is a gift from God, but is not a manifestation of God.  Process theology and panentheism cannot be considered to be, indeed are not, Christian views of God or Christ.
 Other heterodox views of the nature of God, the nature of Christ and the validity of the New Testament itself are the views of the much publicized and favorite of the agnostic main stream media is the Jesus Seminar. The heterodox nature of the Jesus Seminar can best be illustrated by the 21 Theses for a Radical Reformation written by its founder and leader, Robert Funk.  Those specifically related to God and to Christ are:

“Related to Theology
 The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose.   The doctrine of special creation of the species died with the advent of Darwinism and the new understanding of the age of the earth and magnitude of the physical universe. Special creation goes together with the notion that the earth and human beings are at the center of the galaxy (the galaxy is anthropocentric). The demise of a geocentric universe took the doctrine of special creation with it.
 The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural. And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male sperm, as suggested by Augustine.
 The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.
 Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not interfere with the laws of nature. Prayer as praise is a remnant of the age of kingship in the ancient Near East and is beneath the dignity of deity. Prayer should be understood principally as meditation——as listening rather than talking——and as attention to the needs of neighbor.
Related to Christology
 We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.
 The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.
 The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.
 The doctrine of the atonement——the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction——is sub-rational and sub-ethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.
 The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense. The meaning of the resurrection is that a few of his followers——probably no more than two or three——finally came to understand what he was all about. When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement than to claim that they had seen him alive.
 The expectation that Jesus will return and sit in cosmic judgment is part and parcel of the mythological worldview that is now defunct. Furthermore, it undergirds human lust for the punishment of enemies and evildoers and the corresponding hope for rewards for the pious and righteous. All apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda.”

     The Jesus Seminar has achieved fame, or infamy, depending on one’s point of view  by analyzing the sayings  of Jesus in the four Gospels and publishing  judgments on which were said by Jesus and which definitely were not said by Jesus.  In this hubristic exercise all the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John in addition to many others in the other three Gospels were discarded as not having been said by Jesus.  This includes all the well known I am sayings. in John not to mention perhaps the much quoted John 3:16. The Jesus Seminar puts as much authenticity on the Gospel of Thomas as the four gospels in the New Testament in spite of the fact that the Gospel of Thomas, found in a gnostic library in Egypt in 1945 is indeed a gnostic not a Christian document.

Methodism Today

 A good place to start in seeing where the United Methodist Church is today doctrinally and theologically is to look at the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and the Confession of  Faith of the Evangelical Brethren Church.  As taken directly from the 2004 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church the articles most relevant to a discussion of the foundational role of the ancient Christian Creeds in the church today are:

Methodist Church

Article I—Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Article II—Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man
The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man's nature in the womb of the the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.
Article III—Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.
Article IV—Of the Holy Ghost
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
Article V—Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.

United Brethren Church

Article I—God
We believe in the one true, holy and living God, Eternal Spirit, who is Creator, Sovereign and Preserver of all things visible and invisible. He is infinite in power, wisdom, justice, goodness and love, and rules with gracious regard for the well-being and salvation of men, to the glory of his name. We believe the one God reveals himself as the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, distinct but inseparable, eternally one in essence and power.
Article II—Jesus Christ
We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged.
Article III—The Holy Spirit
We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from and is one in being with the Father and the Son. He convinces the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. He leads men through faithful response to the gospel into the fellowship of the Church. He comforts, sustains and empowers the faithful and guides them into all truth.
Article IV—The Holy Bible
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

     There are, of course, other important theological emphases included in the Book of Discipline, but all are consistent with the Articles of Religion cited above. There are a total of 25 Articles of Religion and all came directly from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England from where the Methodist church derived. As stated in the Discipline early Methodists preached and taught the doctrines of the Church of England contained in the Articles of Religion, the Homilies and The Book of Common Prayer.  Methodism is grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition and experience and tested with the use of reason.  John Wesley, in a sermon preached on July 6, 1781 had this to say about the use of reason:
 “The foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It is built upon the Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles! And how is it possible without it to understand the essential truths contained therein? A beautiful summary of which we have in that which is called the Apostles' Creed.”
 The Book of Discipline has this to say about the role in today’s church of the ancient ecumenical creeds of Nicea, and Chalcedon, and the Apostles Creed:
     “The determination of the canon of Christian Scripture and the adoption of ecumenical creeds such as the formulations of Nicaea and Chalcedon were of central importance to this consensual process. Such creeds helped preserve the integrity of the church's witness, set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine, and proclaimed the basic elements of the enduring Christian message. These statements of faith, along with the Apostles' Creed, contain the most prominent features of our ecumenical heritage.”
   For confirmation, reaffirmation of faith and/or reception into the United Methodist Church, the Apostles Creed is used.  The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical Church cited above confirm and re-emphasize the importance of the confession of Christian belief found in the Apostles and Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon in the United Methodist Church today.  Methodism from the time of Wesley and in confirmation of his view does not hold with all of the Athanasian creed.

Analysis

    The conclusion is inescapable; The United Methodist Church is indeed a creedal church, as has been all of Christianity for nearly 2000 years . The real question is why this issue still needs to be discussed at all since the evidence is so clear on the point.  The Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church makes clear the doctrinal reliance of the Church on the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon :   “The determination of the canon of Christian Scripture and the adoption of ecumenical creeds such as the formulations of Nicaea and Chalcedon were of central importance to this consensual process. Such creeds helped preserve the integrity of the church's witness, set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine, and proclaimed the basic elements of the enduring Christian message. These statements of faith, along with the Apostles' Creed, contain the most prominent features of our ecumenical heritage.”    The Church asks members and prospective members to affirm the Nicene Creed in their affirmation or re-affirmation of faith.  The first three Articles of Religion essentially restate and reaffirm the statement of Christian belief in the Nicene Creed.
    This much is un-mistakenly clear.  The real and underlying question is why, in the face of the evidence are there voices ostensibly speaking within and for the church to the contrary.  For example The Reverend J. Richard Peck, a former Editor of Newscope and The Daily Christian Advocate  wrote definitively , at least in his mind; “The Methodist Church is not a Creedal church”. ( Richard Peck).   The basis for this flimsy contention is 1) The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are only two out of nine  affirmations of faith in the Methodist Church Hymnal , 2) Wesley did not agree with all of the Athanasian Creed and 3) Methodists are not required to believe every word in all the affirmations of faith.  Flimsy indeed and he is wrong.
       Following the deterioration of norms of moral behavior that transpired in the 1960's , in 1972 the Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, in a new section entitled Our Theological Task declared that  “established standards of doctrine are not to be construed literally and juridically” and ‘theological pluralism should be recognized as a principle.”  And so it has with a vengeance leading directly to the turmoil in the church today.  Concurrent with these development has been a pronounced misreading and misunderstanding of the historic Methodist Quadrilateral which is not a quadrilateral in the sense of  four equal sides.  Scripture was primary with Wesley and so it is in the Methodist Church today.  The 2004 Book of Discipline states it this way:  “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.   John Wesley gave a sermon on reason in which he emphasized the use of reason to help us better to understand scripture and the Word of God, not to tear it apart.
     The refusal of some in the Church to acknowledge the validity and value of the ancient Christian creeds in the life of the Church is, in this writers view ,based on a mistaken emphasis on pluralism and a mistaken understanding of the Quadrilateral.  In 1998 Dr. William  J. Abraham the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University wrote a seminal article entitled United Methodists at the end of the Mainline.  The article was published in First Things Magazine.  On pluralism in Methodism Abraham wrote these perceptive words:
 “Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review.  The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology.”
     In this article Dr. Abraham divided Methodists into three categories; conservatives or traditionalists, liberals and revisionists or radicals.  The conservatives are strong on church doctrine and emphasize evangelism, that is  teaching the Gospel, the Good News. Liberals put less emphasis on evangelism and more on the social gospel.  Both conservatives and liberals in this sense have authentic Christian traditions based on the teachings and the life of Christ.
 Abraham described the views of Revisionists this way:
      “More recently, however, a very different attitude to the Church’s tradition has emerged. There is now abroad in theology a form of Radical Protestantism which constitutes a whole new vision of Christian faith and existence. Its proponents claim that the tradition is dominated by patriarchy and exclusion, the product of oppressive forces linked to geographical location, social class, race, and gender. It is not to be tolerated, but stamped out and destroyed. Nobody, at least in public, would be prepared to state the matter that bluntly, but that is the truth of the matter.”
 Abraham also quotes an un-named revisionist as follows:
  “ Now it is our turn to get honest. Although the creeds of our denomination pay lip service to the idea that Scripture is "authoritative" and "sufficient for faith and practice," many of us have moved far beyond that notion in our theological thinking. We are only deceiving ourselves——and lying to our evangelical brothers and sisters——when we deny the shift we have made.  We have moved beyond Luther’’s sola Scriptura for the same reason the Catholic Church moved beyond the canonized Scriptures after the fourth century. We recognize that understandings of situations change. "New occasions teach new duties." We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good! What is bad is that we have tried to con ourselves and others by saying "we haven’’t changed our position.   Furthermore, few of us retain belief in Christ as the sole way of salvation. We trust that God can work under many other names and in many other forms to save people. Our views have changed over the years.”
  There have been two Quadrennial Conferences since Dr. Abraham wrote this article. He had written that most conservatives in the Church are oriented toward renewal rather than schism. Taking account of the loss of membership in the Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches and the growth of Evangelical churches, Abraham suggested that those Methodists potentially  committed to schism had already left.  However events at the recent Quadrennial Conference suggested that the patience of some conservatives is being worn thin by the continuing assaults on Methodist doctrines by radicals.  He refers to the irony that while John Wesley counseled strongly against schism he led the renewal movement within Anglican Church that led to the birth of the Methodist church under his leadership.   As Abraham observes conservatives cannot abandon what they consider to be essential Christianity.  He suggests that we should look to John Wesley for guidance at this critical time in the life of the Church.
 Wesley said this about his relationship to the Church of England.  This words shown below do indeed suggest guidance for the United Methodist Church of today:
   “I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel." If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.”
     What then will the future of the United Methodist Church be?  To this writer there are reasons to be optimistic that the Church will slowly turn away from radicalism and return to its historic evangelical roots  which includes both evangelism and the social gospel.  The last two national conferences demonstrated that the Jurisdictions of the Church most inclined to revisionism, the Northeast and the West are losing members, hence votes,  and the Southeast, Southwest and African Jurisdictions are gaining members and voting strength.  There are reasons for traditional Methodists who believe in the Good News of the Gospel to be optimistic.

References

 Abraham, William, J.  United Methodists at the end of the Mainline   in First Things, 84(June/July) pp28-33 1998

Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2004.  Cokesbury.com  CD-ROM

  Catholic Encyclopedia

O’Grady, Joan.  Early Christian Heresies  Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1994

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus.  Penguin Books, London, 1993

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God.   Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003
 

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