The Role and Importance of Doctrine for American Methodists

Methodism at the turn of the 20th century placed little emphasis on the importance of theological inquiry. But it was not always so. S. Paul Schilling wrote that in the opinion of many, Methodists have only a marginal interest in doctrine and theology.1 Many even claim that Methodism is non-theological, insisting that the main emphases have always been practical and evangelical. Such a claim was often made at the turn of the century. It found growing acceptance and enabled Methodists to give more attention to the new disciplines of sociology, psychology, and the philosophy of religion. It also helped them focus on addressing the overwhelming social challenges they faced in the festering urban areas. Furthermore, new scientific methodology and the historical-critical approach to Scripture left traditional doctrinal formulations appearing archaic. This was, of course, consistent with the mood of America as we saw earlier, which was away from the traditional, orthodox, and accepted, toward a discovery of the new, which was believed to be evolving.

Clearly, this was not Methodism’s finest hour in terms of her doctrinal history. For that matter, neither was it for the rest of the nation’s Protestant churches. It was probably with these trends in mind that historian Henry Steele Commager said, “During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, religion prospered while theology went slowly bankrupt.”2

It is remarkable that in their diminution of theological interest and doctrinal study, Methodists would often refer to Wesley as the ground for their indifference. This claim, however, simply cannot be justified, though many at the time voiced it and perhaps wanted it to be true. Robert Chiles rightly noted:

There is now little inclination in scholarly circles to dispute that Wesley was theologically informed and deeply concerned to maintain a sound foundation for the Methodist movement. Though his catholicity of spirit and his stress on the experiential aspects of Christianity made it easier for later Methodism to relegate theology to a secondary role, such a devaluation is widely recognized to be untrue both to Wesley’s intention and to his practice.3

Unfortunately, many modern-day United Methodists have bought into the idea of a non-doctrinal, non-creedal denomination that has never been seriously interested in doctrine but always focused primarily on the centrality of Christian experience. This claim has provided a handy justification for our denomination’s neglect of attention to doctrine and theology to the present day.

S. Paul Schilling wrote, “There are important and convincing indications that the major beliefs of ecumenical Christianity are normative for Methodists.”4 The truth is that Methodism in America has always had certain definite theological distinctives, though these have not always been expressed identically or consistently by theologians.

Gerald McCulloh, for example, defined these distinctives as the universality of sin, free salvation for all, the witness of the spirit, and the call to Christian perfection.5 Leland Scott included in his list of essentially Wesleyan doctrines the following: radical conversion, the spirit’s witness, the moment of entire sanctification, and the eschatological urgency of salvation.6

Citing Colin Williams, Robert Chiles listed as the doctrines that Wesley insisted on at various times in his ministry: original sin, the deity of Christ, the atonement, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit (including new birth and holiness), and the Trinity.7

An important key to understanding Wesley’s views about theology is the distinction he made, though perhaps not always with precision and consistency, between “opinions” and “essential doctrines” or between “grand, fundamental doctrines” and mere “opinions.”8 His idea of opinions dealt with forms of church government, modes of worship, and some doctrinal positions that may have been intellectually objectionable, yet held by people with definite Christian experience. It was regarding such views as did not “strike at the root of Christianity” that Wesley declared “we think and let think.”

For years we have heard the revisionist claim made by United Methodists that there was great theological latitude in John Wesley as he graciously allowed his Methodists to “think and let think.” However, that is a classic misquote. What usually gets omitted is the qualification at the beginning of the statement, from his tract “The Character of a Methodist,” in which he said, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” (emphasis mine). There is a world of difference between the partial quotation and the full statement.

Another famously misquoted statement from Wesley is the statement from his sermon on “Catholic Spirit,” which is based on Jehu’s question to Jehonadab, from 2 Kings 10:15, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? . . . If it be, give me thine hand.”9 Of all of Wesley’s sermons, this may be the one most notoriously abused. In this sermon, Wesley reflected his gracious and nondogmatic view toward opinion, which would include, again, such things as modes of worship, forms of church government, and forms of baptism and prayer, for example. Wesley was not expressing this graciousness and openness of heart about basic, core doctrines of the faith. In fact, he went on to explain what he meant by the question, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?” He spent some seven lengthy paragraphs asking, “Do you believe . . . Do you believe . . . Have you the divine evidence . . . ?” For Wesley, right doctrine was a vital ingredient for a right heart. Your heart could scarcely be “right” in Wesley’s terms if you denied, for example, the deity of Jesus Christ or His bodily resurrection.

United Methodist theologian Thomas C. Oden, in his Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, addressed the issue of taking Wesley’s sermon on “Catholic Spirit” as a justification for doctrinal latitudinarianism or indifferentism. He pointed out that Wesley stated his doctrinal core right in the sermon, not in “propositional statements” but rather, “in candid, simple questions asked from the heart.” And Oden noted, insightfully, that they are organized in a Trinitarian frame in paragraphs 12–18.10

The doctrines addressed in Wesley’s questions focus on God’s existence and attributes, Christ, justification by grace through faith, and the Holy Spirit and the Christian life. Oden saw each question “as a window to a major point of systematic theological reasoning addressed to the heart.”11

Wesley insisted in his sermon that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism (emphasis his). Latitudinarianism is a position of being liberal in one’s views, permitting free thought, especially in religious matters; one who cares little about particular creeds and forms.12 After decrying an “unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,’” he went on to make his great clarion charge that remains relevant for United Methodists today: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.” (“Catholic Spirit“)13 Clearly, one cannot go to John Wesley to find corroboration for mushy, vapid, and unorthodox theology, or for that matter, even for inattention to doctrine. He would have none of it.

A further indication of Wesley’s insistence on faithfulness to sound and scriptural doctrine is seen in his provisions governing the purchase of “preaching houses.” In 1763, Wesley drafted a Model Deed, which stipulated that the pulpits of the Methodist chapels were to be used by those individuals who preached only those doctrines contained in Wesley’s New Testament notes and his four volumes of sermons.14 The provision stated that if a majority of the trustees felt that any preacher was not conforming to these standards in either doctrine or practice, then another preacher was to be brought in within three months.15

American Methodism, in 1808, gave further prominence and importance to doctrinal standards. At the General Conference of that year, the first “Restrictive Rule” adopted provided that “the general conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our articles of religion, nor establishing any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”16

Unfortunately, the Methodist Church at the beginning of the twentieth century was not as emphatic as Wesley about the importance of doctrine and clarity of belief. As Methodism in America was growing rapidly throughout the nineteenth century, more attention was given to problems of church growth and an expanding American frontier. Precision in theological formulation and doctrine was not a major focus during that period of activism and growth. The significance of this did not become apparent until the last quarter of the century and the beginning of the twentieth, as Methodism encountered the flood of secular thought and the intellectual challenge of German philosophy. It was simply not prepared for those challenges.

Methodism learned at the turn of the century that there are real dangers that accompany theological uncertainty. Paul Schilling wrote candidly about these dangers, reflecting specifically about the Methodist Church and its legacy of uncertainty:

Its doctrinal indefiniteness has sometimes encouraged shallowness. Critical and constructive thinking is hard work, and any suggestion that it is less important than Christian living is readily taken by some as an excuse for avoiding it. Too frequently Methodists, content to let theology remain obscure to them, do not know what they really believe, and quality of life as well as thought has been impaired. Or they unwittingly embrace a “theology” very different from that represented officially by their church.17

These words are an apt description of how Methodism has handled its theological heritage, both at the beginning of the twentieth century and later throughout that century. We began back in the early 1900s, as we shall see later, the disturbing trend of relegating matters of theological substance to a subordinate role in the life of our church. The result was that Methodism became vulnerable to serious doctrinal revisionism and error.

Amazingly, Robert Chiles wrote that “by the turn of the century, the references to John Wesley in Methodist theological literature were infrequent. When they did appear, more often than not their purpose was to correct rather than to find corroboration in Wesley.”18 I was stunned when I first read that. Here the people called Methodists were, at the beginning of the twentieth century, referring only infrequently to the writings of their founder, and when they did, it was usually to disagree or correct him. How could that be? Chiles added that a new set of determinative and widely accepted views had appeared, which were drawn “chiefly from the surrounding culture.” What were these new intellectual forces? They were “science and its evolutionary world view, the critical study of the Bible, and philosophy as set forth by Ritschl, Lotze, and Schleiermacher.”19

With the rise of these new forces, Methodism began to experience serious theological convulsions. Alarm was expressed in theological journals and books, between ministers as well as theological professors, that serious modifications or worse were taking place within Methodism. Some hailed the new emphases as a great improvement over the dated traditionalism and orthodoxy of the day. However, for others, it was seen as nothing less than the abandonment of historic Christian doctrine and Methodism’s Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives.

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[READ] James Heidinger writes up “5 Factors Leading to Protestant Theological Liberalism“; [READ] Beth Felker Jones reminds the church “Why Deeds and Creeds Matter“; [WATCH] Andrew C. Thompson offers 3 reasons why Christian creeds matter in this Seven Minute Seminary video; [WATCH] Charles Gutenson offers an introduction to four of the church’s great historical creeds in these Seven Minute Seminary videos; [PURCHASE] Timothy Tennent wrote a short commentary on the Apostles’ Creed with This We Believe, taking it line by line.

1. S. Paul Schilling, Methodism and Society in Theological Perspective, Methodism and Society series, 4 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1961), 3:24.
2. Quoted in Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 55.
3. Robert E. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism: 1790–1935 (New York: Abingdon, 1965), 23.
4. Schilling, Methodism and Society in Theological Perspective, 29.
5. McCulloh, “The Theology and Practices of Methodism, 1876–1919,” 600–6.
6. Scott, “Methodist Theology in America in the Nineteenth Century,” 94.
7. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism, 27; citing Colin Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon,
1960), 16–17.
8. Schilling, Methodism and Society in Theological Perspective, 32.
9. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, eds. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 300–9.
10. Thomas C. Oden, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 112–14.
11. Ibid., 112.
12. Latitudinarianism is a position of being liberal in one’s views, permitting free thought, especially in religious matters; one who cares little about particular creeds and forms. (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language [Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1959], 826.)
13. John Wesley’s Sermons, 307.
14. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism, 23.
15. Schilling, Methodism and Society in Theological Perspective, 33.
16. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House), sec. 3, “Restrictive Rules,” par. 17, art. 1.
17. Schilling, Methodist and Society in Theological Perspective, 41.
18. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism, 61.
19. Ibid.