United Methodism: Liberal? Conservative? What?

Donald W. Haynes is doing a series in the United Methodist Reporter responding to questions described as responding to concerns of “conservative readers.” The first piece is “Is Methodism ‘Too Liberal’ for Conservatives?” the second, “Is Bible Literally the Word of God?” [sic]. I know these issues are frequently handled in blogs and other informal conversations. It’s nice to see a discussion closer to the bowels of the institution.

He recounts a correspondent, new to both Christianity and Methodism, who asks has doubts whether her Christian experience can fit in the UMC.

For one thing, she thinks I am Pollyanna-ish about human nature, believing it to be inherently good rather than inherently evil. Fair enough. I am sure millions of former Methodists and uncomfortable Methodists would agree with her.

Weak on sin?

The question is whether we United Methodists are weak on sin, and therefore failing people who need to experience God’s forgiving, saving, justifying grace. Part of Methodism’s failure to bring people to Christ is because in the late 19th century our denominational leadership and Sunday school literature began to reflect the social sciences, none of which took sin seriously.

Believing “As a twig is bent, so grows the tree,” we abandoned evangelism for education. The weakness of that shift was unnoticed until the 1960s, by which time parents themselves had little sense of saving grace. We taught loyalty to the church more than being discipled by Jesus. The keystone was the Christian home. When it fractured, our Sunday school, youth ministry and finally membership began their long — and so far unchanged — decline.

My reader instinctively knew the truth of her need to “let go and let God have God’s grace-saving way.” If we do not take sin seriously, we are looking at human nature through rose-colored glasses, and deserve to lose members to fundamentalists!

But sin is secondary; the result of what Christian doctrine has called “the Fall,” as reflected in the biblical story of Eden itself. Let’s take a look at what Wesley said.

The No. 1 point in most “plan of salvation” tracts is that we are to admit, “I am a sinner.” We have become focused on sin by evangelical Protestantism — a long period of which featured revivals and “hellfire and damnation” sermons — and the Catholic church’s Augustinian theology. Wesley focused on grace.

Haynes sure compresses a lot here. It is certainly true that grace was central to John Wesley’s message. But it’s also true that he regularly urged hearers to “flee the wrath that was to come.” This idea was so central to early Methodism that it was one of the key defining points of a Methodist. You didn’t have to know much of anything, you didn’t have to believe – or even be acquainted with the doctrines of the church, you didn’t have to get your life in order. But did have to have – and then exhibit – a desire to flee coming wrath. It is certainly true – at least in my experience – that UM preachers rarely mention any coming wrath these days, let alone that we ourselves might need to be prepared. But if we think our practice is true of Wesley, we’re projecting our own views on to him.

For Wesley, the essence of God’s image was human will, and inherent to will is freedom of choice, or liberty. “Abusing the liberty wherewith he had been endowed, he rebelled against his Creator, and willfully exchanged the image of the incorruptible God into sin, misery and corruption. Yet God would not forsake the work of his own hands . . . and offered him a means of being ‘renewed after the image of him that created him'” (Col. 3:10).

This, dear reader, is an important departure in Methodist doctrine from the stock-in-trade doctrine of total depravity. We have a higher view of humanity. Like blackened brass in an antique shop, no sin can destroy the innate “imago Dei” in which we were created. Wesley spoke of restoration as one might speak of restoring a neglected and abused piece of furniture whose original design was exquisite and whose workmanship was perfect.

The reality of the image of God in humans is surely a part of Christian doctrine. Even those who explicitly hold to Total Depravity usually admit its continuance, though perhaps in a different formulation than those eschewing Total Depravity. But I’m afraid Haynes is again compressing – or over simplifying. Wesley preached the reality of Prevenient Grace. We can describe this as the grace that comes before salvation. For Wesley it is precisely Prevenient Grace that restores us – overcoming the damage of our Original Sin and its result in Total Depravity – to a place where we can respond to God. Short of Prevenient Grace, we simply don’t have the capacity to respond to Justifying Grace – to God’s love.

That’s the first article. The second, dealing with the bible, seems more accurate in its account. In this Haynes recounts his early commitment to the doctrine of inerrancy. He was converted away from it by the preaching of E. Stanley Jones and the teaching of William Brownlee at Duke. Though Hayne’s take on “Higher Criticism” isn’t very nuanced, it isn’t the center of his article. He goes on to quote not only John Wesley, but also Huston Smith, N.T. Wright, and Rob Bell, on various ways of interacting with the living word of God in Scripture. So while Haynes appears to have repudiated the doctrine of inerrancy, as far as I can tell he still believes the Bible to be the word of God. (Yes, I know there are multiple ways to understand the phrase “word of God,” but there are even more ways of denying it. I’m content with Haynes’ words for the moment.)

If we can combine the two for a moment…

In my own encounter with inerrancy, Methodism & “higher criticism” I’d suggest that we need to watch the role of Total Depravity in handling the bible. Many adherents of “higher criticism” seem to think there is such a thing as Reason unfettered by sin. Nope. No such thing. Even if we go with the lazy inerrantists and take the bible as a book of infallible, inerrant propositions, we still have to deal with the depth of sin as we interpret & apply those propositions.

One of the sins to which we moderns are especially  prone is excessive individualism. We easily think the text of scripture as it comes to us (in whatever translation we’ve claimed as our own) is perfectly clear on its own. “Higher criticism” – or better and more generally, “scholarship” – can help us contextualize scripture. The bible is old literature. It gives us God’s words and actions from long ago. The more we can understand that long ago context, the better off we are.

At the same time, Haynes’ concluding point is essential. Whatever tools we claim – whether “liberal” or “conservative” scholarship – or whatever God’s relation to the creation of the text, we need the current activity of God in our lives to access it properly.

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