Whither Methodist Theology Now?

The Collapse of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral



THE ANNUAL MSF METHODIST CONFERENCE LECTURE 2010

Given at Portsmouth by

Revd Daniel Morris Chapman




In the year of his conversion to Rome (1845) John Henry Newman reflected on the Methodist tradition:

Wesleyanism represents an idea, a doctrine, system, and polity; no one but will connect it with the well-known divine and preacher whose name it bears. Yet, when we look back upon its course during the … years since it commenced, how many are the changes and vicissitudes through which the man is connected with his work! So much so that it is a most difficult task, and one which perhaps must be reserved for a later age, duly to review its history, to say what really belongs and what is foreign to it, to find a key for the whole and a clue for the succession of its parts. The event alone still future, which will bring its completion, will also bring its interpretation.1

Albert Outler’s ‘Wesleyan’ Quadrilateral was perhaps unconsciously designed to provide what Newman refers to as a key unlocking the meaning of Methodist theology, I want to examine whether the Quadrilateral provides an accurate representation of John Wesley’s theological method.  But like Outler, we will try to identify an approach to theology that is continuous with Wesley.



So first - Is the Outler’s ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ an accurate portrayal of Wesley’s theological method?  In 1985 Outler argued that:

...Wesley [has a] distinctive theological method, with Scripture as its pre-eminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason and Christian experience as dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.

Outler’s contention is that Wesley developed the ‘Anglican’ theological method, which appealed only to Scripture, reason and tradition. Outler contends that ‘It was Wesley’s special genius that he conceived of adding “experience” to the traditional Anglican Triad’  My contention is that Outler’s understanding of the theological context in which Wesley operated is heavily skewed.


The ‘Anglican Triad’ is a nineteenth century invention.

It was in fact Francis Paget, the nineteenth century editor of Richard Hooker’s works, who contended that Hooker made a threefold appeal to Scripture, reason and tradition. 

Paget believed Hooker, and indeed the Anglican Church, gave an ‘equal loyalty’ to Scripture, reason and tradition. This is not the case.


Hooker does not assert that Scripture, reason and tradition are equal. Had he done so he would have contradicted the Thirty Nine Articles (something he wasn’t so keen on doing). Article 6 states that the Scriptures contain all things necessary to Salvation. Contrary to Paget’s interpretation, Hooker rarely discusses Scripture, reason and tradition in relation to each other. The nearest that he gets to any sort of triad is where he asserts that:

[N]ext [to Scripture] is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. 

Hooker argues that Scripture is the most important source of revelation, reason the next and tradition the last.

This clearly differentiates Hooker’s position, from that of Paget’s ‘Anglican Triad.’  Unfortunately, Outler considers that Paget is Hooker’s best interpreter.


Outler’s belief, that the Quadrilateral is an innovative theological method formulated on the basis of the Anglican triad, is based entirely upon Paget’s mistake.

As a result of this, Outler misinterprets Hooker and fails to examine the different kinds of Anglican influences upon the churchmanship of John Wesley.


Although Hooker is clearly one of the first and foremost of Anglican divines, one should not take him to be the sole representative of Anglican theological method, something Outler and many others do.


It is clear that other Anglican divines of this period differ quite significantly from each other.  Hooker’s teacher, John Jewel gives far more weight to tradition than to reason.  Hooker’s Puritan opponent, Thomas Cartwright, argues that Scripture is the ‘only rule of all things which in this life may be done by men.’


While these writers appeal to Scripture, reason and tradition as resources for theological reflection, they emphasise the different sources of revelation in different ways.


This difference of emphasis would develop, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, into three distinctive approaches to Anglican theology: that of the Caroline Divines, the Puritans, and the latitudinarians. It is within this ecclesial mélange, and not Paget’s crass nineteenth century triadic conception of Anglicanism, that John Wesley’s theological method and ecclesiology were forged.



I.A. We need to note the Puritan influence on John Wesley.

It is important to emphasise that Puritanism began as a renewal movement within the Church of England. Several Anglican bishops were Puritans, including Edward Reynolds and James Ussher and the most influential of all Puritan theologians was William Perkins who was a member of the Church of England. 


The Puritans held Scripture, above tradition, as the complete ‘rule of faith and life,’ the final authority in the Church.

The central figure in the transmission of the Puritan Tradition to John Wesley was his mother Susanna.  Although Susanna was a ‘loyal Anglican’ convert she remained a daughter of dissent.

Therefore, while John Wesley gave his explicit appreciation for the Puritan tradition only after Aldersgate, it is clear that he was suckled on the milk of Nonconformity. 


II.A. It is very important also to emphasise the influence of Samuel Wesley and the Caroline Divines


The writings of the Caroline Divines form a classic expression of the reverence Anglicanism has for the tradition of the undivided Church of Antiquity.


The theological method of the Caroline Divines the via media, centred upon the belief that doctrines unanimously attested by the early Church, whether by consent of Fathers, or Councils, should be received as coming from the Apostles.


It is important to emphasise that these writers interpreted Scripture through the lens of Antiquity.


They thought the universal beliefs of the primitive Church should be held as a standard for doctrinal orthodoxy.

While there was disagreement as to when the early Church divided, the principle governing this theological method is that, prior to schism, the undivided Church of Antiquity was able to distinguish true belief from error.

Thomas Ken declared,  

As for my Religion, I die in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West;     and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation,     and adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.

John Wesley’s exposure to the writings of Ken, and other Caroline Divines, enabled him to understand the importance of the early Christian tradition.  As [HEIGHTS EN RATA] makes clear it is through Anglican writers that primitive Christianity gained a hold on Wesley. 

Samuel Wesley senior encouraged John to read extracts from the Caroline divines, including George Bull and William Beveridge as well as particular fathers – namely  Ambrose, [U-SEE-BEE-US], Athanasius,

[CHRIS –US- TUM], Augustine and Jerome.  


Samuel had been a member of the same college as Bishop Bull, and was clearly influenced by him. Bull placed considerable stress on the importance of tradition.


For example he states that the first authority should be given to the Scriptures, and, after them, the second to the Bishops, Martyrs, and ecclesiastical writers of the first ages.

John’s father encouraged his son to interpret the history of the Primitive Church using the Caroline tradition.

John’s 1733 Essay upon the Stationary Fasts demonstrates the important role the Caroline divines played in his theology.


In his essay Wesley’s cites the little known Bishop Peter Gunning who maintained that we should interpret Scripture as the ‘Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church…received it from [the Apostles] before them.’ Although Gunning’s writing is little known today, his work is representative of the Caroline reliance upon Scripture and tradition. 


While Samuel had hoped that John would use the Primitive Church conservatively, to justify the doctrines and practices of the Anglican Church, his son’s fixation upon the liturgical and devotional practices of the early Christians was clearly influenced by John’s further association with the Non-jurors.


Wesley was directly connected with Thomas Deacon a member of the group favouring Edward the Sixth’s 1549 Prayer Book. They were known as the ‘essentialist’ or ‘usager’ Non-jurors.



The usagers believed that the ‘primitive Tradition provided an avenue from which they could critique contemporary Anglican practice’ and thus used ‘ancient Tradition as a justification to restore primitive practices they believed were binding on all Christians.’ A reference to Wesley, in Deacon’s Compleat Collection of Devotions, demonstrates his affinity with this group.

Hunter argued that the influence of this group on Wesley was ‘wider, deeper, and more lasting than even yet has been recognised.’


However, it is clear that, following the violent reaction of the people of Georgia to Wesley’s Nonjuring practices Wesley concluded that he had given Antiquity too much authority:

I bent the bow too far the other way – Wesley recorded -  1. By making Antiquity a co-ordinate rather than subordinate rule with Scripture. 2. By Admitting several doubtful writings, as undoubted evidences of Antiquity. 3. By extending Antiquity too far, even to the middle or the end of the fourth century. 4. By believing more practices to have been universal in the ancient Church than ever they were so.

From this it is clear that Wesley’s reflection on his experiences in Georgia were the beginning of BOTH a deeper faith and OF a latitudinarian attitude toward ecclesiastical order.



III.A.   


While Wesley’s Aldersgate experience was highly significant to Wesley’s development Gordon Rupp is right to observe that ‘There was always more of the Latitudinarian about John Wesley’ than evangelicals ‘always care to discern.’


From 1738 onwards Wesley was drawn to latitudinarian conceptions of ecclesiology and doctrine.2


The latitudinarians were (a) Arminian in their theological outlook, (b) possessed a liberal attitude toward issues pertaining to Church government, and (c) placed considerable emphasis on religious tolerance.


The theology of the earliest latitudinarians was influenced significantly by the proceedings of the Council of Dordt (whih took place in sixteen eighteen). Here Dutch Calvinists sentenced Arminian Christians, such as Hugo Grotius, to life imprisonment and even death. The Council, which defined five point Calvinism, is a paradigmatic example of religious intolerance. This religious bigotry had a profound effect on the (seventeenth century) latitudinarian John Hales who, after attending this Council, returned to England imbibed with ideas of toleration and principles of religious freedom.

Grotius, who was imprisoned for his Arminian stance, had attempted to determine the essential and inessential elements of Christian Doctrine and had advocated tolerance concerning the inessential.


Like Grotius, latitudinarians such as John Hales and Henry Hammond attempted to identify the fundamentals of Christianity on which all Christians could agree. Another latitudinarian, William Chillingworth, thought it ridiculous to condemn others for not sharing the same interpretation of obscure passages of Scripture.


It is clear that this latitudinarian emphasis on tolerance, with regard to controversial doctrinal issues, bears considerable resemblance to Wesley’s Sermon on The Catholic Spirit (1755). Here Wesley’s resolve to work with all Christians, even if he differed from them in some doctrinal matters, is most certainly influenced by seventeenth century latitudinarianism.3


While Wesley explicitly denies that The Catholic Spirit is ‘speculative latitudinarianism,’ Rupp’s contention that ‘there was always more of the latitudinarian about John Wesley … than we always care to discern’ suggests that Wesley ‘doth protest too much.’ Several of Wesley’s statements reinforce this interpretation. In his Character of a Methodist (§1) he states that: ‘As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.’ In his A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists (§2) he writes that: ‘Orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best but a slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part at all.’ Furthermore, Wesley’s attempts to secure unity on essentials with other evangelicals, and his ‘Caution against Bigotry’ are clear indications of a latitudinarian spirit.


It is demonstrable from his writings that Wesley’s ecclesiological practice was influenced considerably by latitudinarian Anglicanism. Wesley had read Edward Stillingfleet’s Irenicum (1662), which he said convinced him that, originally, ‘Bishops and Presbyters were of the same “order” and therefore as a presbyter he had the right to ordain.’ From reading Stillingfleet, Wesley concluded that while episcopacy had some justification in the New Testament, no form of Church government was prescribed ‘as of divine ordinance.’


It is also possible that seventeenth century latitudinarians were the predominant source of John Wesley’s Arminianism. Samuel Wesley often quoted the works of Grotius and encouraged John to read the works of Henry Henry Hammond. From this it is clear that the Arminianism of John Wesley has more to do with the latitudinarians than with the academic writings of Jacob Arminius.’ This is amply demonstrated in the latitudinarian materials selected for inclusion in the Arminian Magazine.


It was noted earlier that Outler considers that the originality of Wesley’s theological method is that he ‘conceived of adding “experience” to the traditional Anglican triad.’ The notion that Wesley was the first Anglican to incorporate experience into his theological method is erroneous. The latitudinarian John Locke did this half a century before Wesley. In fact, Locke’s attempt to establish knowledge upon experience was designed to prevent the mayhem that was caused in the seventeenth century by conflicting interpretations of Scripture.


In a manner similar to other latitudinarians, Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) tried to simplify the gospel by reducing it to essentials upon which all Christians could agree. Therefore, while it is clear that Wesley was influenced most considerably by his experience at Aldersgate, Richard Brantley is correct when he argues that it was the ‘Lockean language of experience ...’ which enabled Wesley to ‘raise his ineffable experience of grace to graceful and cogent expressions of methodology.’ From this it would appear that John Wesley’s exposure to the writings of seven




teenth century latitudinarian thinkers considerably influenced his conception of ecclesiology, tolerance, religious experience and Arminianism.


Summary

Thus far it is clear that Wesley’s theology is not a development of Paget’s make believe ‘Anglican triad.’ Whilst it is true that Wesley’s theology gave value to Scripture, tradition, experience and reason, the emphasis he gave to these four sources of revelation varied according to the different Anglican parties. The Puritan influence on Wesley would emphasise the canon of Scripture and the importance of holiness. The influence of the Caroline Divines and the Non-jurors would lead Wesley to give considerable attention to the doctrines and devotional practices of the early Church. Finally, a latitudinarian emphasis on tolerance provided Wesley with a ‘Catholic Spirit’ and a liberal view of ecclesiastical orders. Locke provided Wesley with the conceptual tools needed to explore the methodological significance of Aldersgate for theological enquiry. Stillingfleet liberated Wesley from traditional conceptions of ecclesiology and enabled him to pursue irregular forms of Church government. The way in which Wesley utilised the different sources of revelation was influenced by the different parties within Anglicanism.



I.B


Having questioned the historical validity of the Quadrilateral it is necessary for us to examine whether this theological method is capable of securing a doctrinal consensus among Wesley’s followers.


According to Prof. William Abraham, the crucial question is ‘whether the Quadrilateral is the best way to articulate the insights about religious knowledge which lie buried in the bosom of the Tradition.’ Abraham’s answer is clear:

The Quadrilateral…is practically unworkable. What it suggests is that we should work out every theological problem by working through all the relevant evidence to be culled from the sources of Scripture, Tradition, reason, and experience. This is an impossible feat for any finite mind to carry out with any degree of seriousness…In the end probably only God could use it; thankfully God does not need it.

Therefore, Abraham believes that this fourfold structure makes it difficult for the quadrilateral to identify Christian doctrine.


If each and every Christian doctrine is to be supported by a plurality of sources then it will be difficult to justify belief in the Trinity. If tradition is placed in the same category as reason then it is quite possible that reason will produce a set of theological alternatives to those that have previously been set out in tradition.


Even on its most conservative of interpretations the Quadrilateral is considerably unstable. On this view, the Scriptures are given primacy: ‘Reason, experience and Tradition should be judged in the light of the Bible, not the other way round.’ However, if reason and Tradition are to be held in tandem, the Nicene Formula will come under considerable pressure. From this alone it would seem that the Quadrilateral is ‘inadequate as a proposal in itself,’ irrespective of its inadequacy as a summary of Wesley’s theological method.

Having illustrated that the Quadrilateral is practically unusable as a theological method it is time to look at some of the theological proposals on offer in British Methodism.



II.B.


Some writers have suggested that the Methodist Conference has a ‘magisterial’ role in defining Christian doctrine.


Stephen Dawes rightly considers that the main problem with the Quadrilateral has concerned the relative weight which should be given to its four constituents.  He argues that the Quadrilateral is suspect because it fails to reckon with the realities of interpretation. ‘The Bible is a text which is read;’ it ‘does not interpret itself.’ He contends that this is the ‘real weakness of the primacy of Scripture.’ No matter how ‘venerated by its users’ it has to be opened. It is the reader who selects to which passage he or she will give most weight. ‘Every reader is an interpreter and every reading an interpretation.’

Dawes is correct to point out that a literal interpretation of Scripture does not always lead to doctrinal clarity. After surveying a variety of paradoxes in the Scriptures he contends that:

The Bible is not a magic book where every word, dot and comma has been put where it is by God. It contradicts itself at times ... [We] must be prepared to live with a lot of variations in the ancient manuscripts and the knowledge that sometimes we do not know the meaning… 

In demonstrating that the Scriptures do not teach in an explicit manner what Christians should believe, Dawes is reaching a conclusion that the latitudinarians came to in the seventeenth century. After the Reformers rejected the Catholic Church’s supremacy there were years of bloodshed over the correct interpretation of the Bible. Sick and tired of the violence unleashed by misunderstandings of obscure scriptural passages, latitudinarians like Chillingworth and (Henry) Hammond accepted the ambiguity of many passages of Scripture. They argued that Christians should not wage warfare over scanty texts and pretexts, but ought to love one another and, in doing so, allow one another the right of private judgment. This emphasis on tolerance formed the foundation of Western democracy. This kind of tolerance finds a parallel in Wesley’s sermon on The Catholic Spirit.


However, in contrast to the seventeenth century latitudinarians, Dawes believes that the failure of Scripture to act as an unambiguous rule for Christian belief requires a return to the supremacy of the contemporary Church. While one might expect such a position to be necessary for admission to the Orthodox or Roman Catholic fold, Dawes suggests that it is the Methodist Conference which discerns ‘what it is about God that is being revealed now in Jesus Christ.’ He writes:

[The Deed of Union] establishes the Conference as the official interpreter of God’s will and ways for the Methodist Church. It makes the Conference, in effect, Methodism’s corporate Magisterium, though Methodists might bridle at the word ... the Conference’s ability to do this hinges on ‘a trust in the operation of the Holy Spirit to affect the heart and mind of the Conference.’

Dawes’ appeal to the authority of the Methodist Conference is designed to resolve the bewildering variety of interpretations of Scripture that are presently on offer.


The Methodist use of its Conference in theological method illustrates the important connection between ecclesiology and theology. Dawes is not alone in his suggestion that Conference might act as a corporate magisterium. The Conference report, A Lamp to my Feet (1998), which discusses the nature of authority in British Methodism, gives considerable stress to the fact that ‘Conference is the final authority’ in the interpretation of revelation. It even goes so far as to compare the Methodist Conference to ‘all other Church Councils from Acts 15 onwards.’


It states that it is ‘the task of every generation to try to determine, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, how the word of God in Scripture informs our decision-making in the present.’ On this interpretation of the Deed of Union, Conference Statements are seen as ‘defining “our Doctrine”’ and providing definitions which are binding for us.


Rightly or wrongly, the Methodist Conference has defined itself as the final authority for the Connexion’s theological method. Dawes considers that there is ‘much to be said for this methodology.’ He argues that the Methodist Conference ought to preface its rulings with the prologue, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (as in Acts 15.28).’ Shier-Jones seems to be saying that the very same ‘Holy Spirit might, of course, inspire the Church, via a [Methodist] Conference report, to reach a policy or belief which seems to some to be contrary to scripture or tradition.’ Even the Vatican itself does not go this far:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it...All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.

Therefore, while the second Vatican Council declares that the interpretation of the Word of God is entrusted to the ‘teaching office of the Church,’ it explicitly states that ‘this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.’ While the Roman Catholic Church may fail, in practice, its desire is not to contradict the Church of Antiquity but to teach ‘only what has been handed on to it.’ The idea that Conference may act as the final authority in British Methodism is one thing, the suggestion that a Methodist Conference has the authority to act contrary to the Councils of the early Church is quite another.4 Furthermore, if Conference is to be considered like ‘all other Church Councils from Acts 15 onwards,’ it would be quite curious for those ‘conferring’ to possess a certain disdain for ‘tradition.’ To claim continuity with the Apostolic Tradition entails reverence for the Councils and doctrines promulgated therein.


Another difficulty of comparing the Methodist Conference with the Councils of the undivided Church of Antiquity is that the Councils of the early Church did not meet every year. The first seven Ecumenical Councils happened, on average, every fifty years. It was 56 years from the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) to the first Council of Constantinople (381 AD); another fifty years until the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) and another twenty years until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) and so on. If the undivided Church of Antiquity waited at least twenty years before making adjustments to its doctrinal beliefs, why do those arguing that Conference has the ability to revise Christian doctrine think that the Holy Spirit may reveal new teaching to Methodists every twelve months, or that each year the magisterium of the Methodist Church is able to apprehend truths that the rest of Christendom takes centuries to appropriate? This is charismatic in the extreme! Are we suggesting that Methodism is in a more privileged position than the Primitive Church? The very idea would horrify Wesley! 5


Having assessed the viability of ‘Conferring as Theological Method,’ it is necessary for us to examine whether this proposal is a coherent development of Wesley’s approach to theology?


It is ironic that Wesley’s exposure to latitudinarian influences (such as Stillingfleet’s Irenicum) could lead, in the writings of his followers, to the idea that Conference is a magisterium. While the first Methodist Conference, in 1744, occurred before Wesley had read Peter King’s Primitive Church (1745), it is clear that the Conference could never have been instituted as an ecclesiological norm if Wesley had not been exposed to the latitudinarian conceptions of Church government discussed earlier. These writers liberated Wesley’s conscience, enabling him to pursue practices and structures that were irregular in the Church of England of his day.


From reading Stillingfleet, Wesley concluded ‘that neither Christ nor his apostles prescribed any particular form of Church government.’ If Wesley had not come to this conclusion, the Conference would have never been considered as the final authority in British Methodism. Seventeenth century latitudinarianism sought to encourage a spirit of tolerance toward controversial doctrinal issues. ‘Magisterial’ descriptions of Conference are a development that is incompatible with this emphasis.  



III.B.


Those wishing to develop the latitudinarian emphasis in John Wesley might do better to attend to the Fresh Expressions of Church movement. This group advocates a flexible approach to doctrine and ecclesiology that is comparable with latitudinarianism. The Emergent Church exhorts traditional Churches to sacrifice canonically approved ecclesiological structures in order to become culturally relevant.


The hope is that by doing so the Church will reach people with the gospel. This rationale is considerably undermined by the fact that Roman Catholicism has managed, in many contexts, to retain its structures and remain culturally relevant. Nevertheless, if there is to be a development of Wesley’s latitudinarian sensibilities in contemporary Methodism, it is the missiological attention given to particular contexts by this elastic conception of ecclesiology. This Fresh Expressions/Emergent Church group possesses an indifference to doctrine comparable to eighteenth century latitudinarianism.6 Among these writers, Brian McLaren argues for a Generous Orthodoxy in which one can be evangelical, liberal, conservative, charismatic, fundamentalist and green simultaneously. This hodgepodge of doctrinal positions illustrates the inherent antinomianism of this model of church government. In reversing what they interpret as the monolithic ecclesiological structures of Christendom, the self-styled Emerging Church leaves itself vulnerable to a plethora of doctrinal positions and ultimately heresy. 


I.C. Thus, having looked at some of the proposals on offer within British Methodism, we find ourselves asking ‘Whither Methodist Theology Now?’

Work recently done in the United Methodist context would suggest that more attention should be given to John Wesley’s High Church period. Such a move would remain continuous with the beliefs and practices of our founder.


Among such writers, William Abraham contends that what is needed is a return to the rich network of Canonical Traditions developed by the Early Church. Abraham believes that theology is the exploration of the ‘God of the Gospel’ as identified in the canons of the Church. Hence, any use of other disciplines, such as philosophy, is secondary to a commitment to the Triune God. Christian theology is thinking about God as ‘God is named and identified in the Church.’


This approach to theology is not an innovation. In his work On the Trinity, Augustine states that:

Faith seeks; understanding finds;

There are echoes of this kind of thinking in Anselm of Canterbury who argues that theology should be approached from within the circle of faith:

I do not seek to understand in order to believe but I believe in order to understand.

Abraham specifically likens his project to Anselm, asserting that ‘Anselm began his thinking about God inside the faith. He was not in search of God or in search of proof of God; he had already come to know God for himself in the life of the Church.’ Therefore, like Anselm, and Augustine before him, Abraham understands the nature of theology as that of thinking about God as God is named and identified in the Canons of the undivided Church of Antiquity.


Abraham describes this vision of God as ‘Canonical Theism.’

[Canonical Theism] is the version of theism embodied in the rich Canonical heritage of the Church. Thus Canonical theism is dispersed in the Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the iconography, the liturgy; it is enacted in the life of the saints; it is summarized and worked through in the work of the Canonical teachers of the Church prior to the great schism; it is implicitly received in baptism; and it is handed over in ordination to the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate from generation to generation. The intellectual core of Canonical theism is a rich vision of God, creation and redemption.

Abraham argues that the Canons of the undivided Church of Antiquity are the treasure of materials that were accepted as means of grace prior to the schism between East and West.


Abraham considers that the Canons of the Church are not limited only to the Christian Scriptures.

[THE CANONS OF ANTIQUITY WERE] diverse in character. Some were sacramental, some institutional and social, some credal and doctrinal, some liturgical, some institutional and social, some iconographic. Some were constituted by certain persons who were given a special status as teachers or spiritual exemplars. Some took the form of a list of books, some the form of spiritual and liturgical practices, and some the form of ecumenical Traditions. Some were identified as Fathers, saints, and teachers, some as epistemic or quasi-epistemic practices, and some as ecclesial regulations; others were identified as rites of initiation, as a body of iconography, and as an accumulation of Doctrine gathered together in a single creed.

The Church was doing theology ‘long before it had any fixed Canon of Scripture.’ In fact:

The Church was far more concerned to secure the content of its Creed, its list of teachings or Doctrines, than it was in fixing the limits of its Canon of Scripture ... Moreover the Church’s rule of faith was critical in deciding the content of the Canon of Scripture, so the relation is the reverse of what we usually claim.

Abraham is adamant that ‘we need to abandon the Biblicism that was so tempting to Wesley’ and ‘recover the patristic faith that was nominally but not always fully operational within Wesley’s theology.’ On this view, the Bible does not function as a ‘superstructure’ upon which doctrine is established, but as a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit ‘to be used delicately [in] spiritual formation within a wider network of practices, persons, and materials.’


Abraham makes clear that Christian initiation and theology are inseparable. The task of systematic theology begins with catechesis. He says:

Contrary to contemporary prejudices, a robust creed does not close off inquiry ... Receiving the creed of the Church and then exploring its content is like taking a subject to a deeper and higher level ... Hence the work of catechesis naturally led into the serious task of systematic theology.

Abraham contends that systematic theology ‘is a robust, rigorous form of university-level catechesis.’


He emphasises that

(1) theology should begin with Christian Faith.

(2) The central subject of systematic theology is ‘the God identified in the rich Canonical heritage of the Church,’ that theology is about the ‘Triune God.’

(3) While theology is a form of faith seeking understanding,

(4) theology should be pursued at ‘the highest intellectual levels.’

5) Theology is true and that this truth was rejected by the world does not and should not inhibit theologians.

(6) He warns us that the temptation for theologians is, ‘because Christians want to hold on to their ... privileged position as chaplains to the culture,’ theologians are tempted ‘to go wherever the culture goes.’



It may be objected that this conception of theology takes us back ‘into captivity to authority and Tradition’ - a captivity from which the enlightenment has released us.’ In response to this charge Abraham makes clear that ‘the game of intellectual intimidation in the name of [the] enlightenment is over.’ The ‘enlightenment is itself a tradition’ and cannot claim objectivity or neutrality.


But what, I hear you say, about doctrinal development and the continuing demands of the present? It is rash to revise doctrines and garish to declare that the Methodist Conference has the power to do it!  Although the Holy Spirit has not left the Church we are all in a state of schism. Since the division between East and West we have forfeited the claim of infallibility. While Apostolic branches of the Church Catholic continue to remain ‘indefectible’, none of us can claim infallibility for our respective magisteria. It would be ecumenically perilous for Methodists, as a denomination, to see themselves as promulgating new, or even revised, doctrines at their annual Conference. The decisions they make could, for instance, cause irreparable damage to full organic unity. Those seeking doctrinal development should put all their efforts into achieving the visible unity of all Christians. If the Church desires the ultimate gift of infallibility it first needs to be one.


In conclusion, it is clear that, while Abraham is critical of Wesley’s Biblicism, his proposal is congruent with Wesley’s High Church period, that is, his desire to reinstate ancient customs universally observed in Antiquity. Wesley’s fascination with the devotional behaviour of the early Christians resonates with Abraham’s contention that the contemporary Church needs to make full use of the Canonical heritage. Unfortunately the popularity of ‘fresh expressions’ of Church, and other ad hoc approaches to ecclesiology, has distracted Methodism from embracing the fullness of the Church Catholic. While mission is a ‘crucial dimension of the essence and life of the Church, it is not the only dimension.’ The consequence of a purely functional ecclesiology is that it can disconnect theology from episcopal oversight.



This only serves to divorce these ‘emergent’ communities from the very resources that ‘fund’ mission - the treasures of the Primitive Church. The question we need to ask ourselves is this:

What is the reality that grounds the mission of the Church? If we grant that it is ultimately God who calls, equips, and empowers believers to fulfil their distinct mission, we still must ask: is there a reality pertaining to the Church Catholic that transcends – and through which God sustains – the mission of the Church? If this is the case, then we would expect significant consequences to result from … functional [conceptions of] ecclesiology and their detachment from a broader ecclesial context.

Here, Koskela is right to point out that  movements such as ‘Mission-Shaped’ Church are in danger of marginalising the abundant supplies offered to us by the Holy Spirit. A hysterical concern for relevance leads new Churches to take ‘what is needed (or what one thinks is needed) from this wide range of Canons.’


The challenge of mainline Methodism ‘to find its doctrinal bearings’ can be understood largely in light of the failure to embrace the Church’s full Canonical heritage.


Thus the answer to the question, Whither Methodist Theology Now? is Canonical Theism!





 

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