These are the very first words of the introduction to Key United Methodist Beliefs by William J. Abraham and David F. Watson. In light of my recent thinking and writing about the connection between right belief and right practice, I can’t think of a better way to begin a Wesleyan catechism.
If you have been following my recent writing, you will also have noticed the discussion about the invisibility of the Wesleyan message in online and print media compared to other parts of the church catholic. One of my hypotheses is that a major reason that the Wesleyan message is not getting a broader hearing today is because there are so many different voices claiming to represent the Wesleyan or Methodist tradition.
All of this has led to the belief that renewal will come to Methodism in America through a renewal of both Wesleyan doctrine and practice.
The challenge, though, is that in some parts of American Methodism there is a persistent mistrust of the value of doctrine. The concern generally seems to be that a church with clear doctrinal commitments will use them to bludgeon other people or exclude them.
While I appreciate the concern, I continue to be convinced that a deep retrieval of the significance of doctrine will be a part of any coming renewal of American Methodism. Along these lines, William J. Abraham and David F. Watson (no relation) have given a gift to the church in their new book Key United Methodist Beliefs.
After the simple affirmation that belief matters, they continue:
What we believe about God, about God’s saving work within creation, about human wrongdoing, about the goal of our lives and our eternal destiny all matter. They make a difference with regard to how we think about ourselves and other people, about life and death, what we should value in life, and what kind of person we should hope to become. It is common to hear people talk about beliefs as if one is simply as good as another. For some, the one great sin is to insist on a clear difference between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, but this perspective cannot coexist with Christianity. For that matter, it cannot coexist with Judaism or Islam, either, but that is not our topic here. The claims that we Christians make about what God has done for us – for all creation – in and through Jesus Christ really do matter. (ix)
Someone might concede that beliefs matter, but point out that belief itself is insufficient. Indeed, there have been many periods in the history of Christianity where movements have arisen in opposition to a fierce and rigid dogmatism that at times led to violence. It is not enough for those who take on the name of Jesus, calling themselves Christians, to have right thoughts or ideas about Jesus. Belief must lead to action. One of the beauties of Key United Methodist Beliefs is that Abraham and Watson anticipate this objection and address it head on at the beginning of the book. Here is how they conclude the introduction.
Right belief, by itself, of course, is not enough. As Wesley put it, a person may be “as orthodox as the devil… and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” Right belief does matter, though, because it helps us know God more fully, and it is by knowing and loving God, and by God’s knowing and loving us, that we become the people God wants us to be. We read in the Roman Catholic catechism, “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.” The goal is love, and God is love. We should do all we can, therefore, to know God. (xii)
This book is helpful because it is a strong articulation of the importance of beliefs for United Methodism that also demonstrates that those who argue for the necessity of doctrine for the life of the church make the argument for both doctrinal and practical reasons. In other words, right doctrine is always connected to right practice. From start to finish, it is clear that the authors of this book are convinced not only that orthodoxy (right belief) matters but also that orthopraxy (right practice) matters.
Abraham and Watson’s consistent connection of belief to practice has the potential to advance the conversation about the role of doctrine in the church beyond the strawman argument that those who care about right belief do not care about practice, or Christian living.
To cite one of many examples. In the chapter “Who Is God the Father?” Abraham and Watson affirm a key belief: “To think of God as God the Father is to believe that God loves all people and wishes to save us from sin and death” (6) They then conclude: “The nature of God the Father is one of self-giving, and in like kind, we should give of ourselves to God and our neighbors as well” (7).
The title of the book is a bit misleading, as the book is about much more than “United Methodist” beliefs. To me, it is really a Wesleyan catechism. Unfortunately, the title of the book will likely narrow the potential audience, when many Wesleyan communities would have been likely to use the book if the title were “Wesleyan Beliefs” or “A Wesleyan Catechism.”
Each chapter is oriented around a central question and is divided into five sections: A Wesleyan Faith, A Lived Faith, A Deeper Faith, The Catechism, and In Your Own Words. The first three parts are narrative, as you would expect in a typical book. The fourth part, in true catechetical format, is a question and answer format, which often includes Scripture passages that amplify the answer. The fifth chapter is basically questions for discussion, which could help an individual reader reflect more on the impact of a particular belief for their own life or it could be used as a basis for discussion in small groups.
And just in case I was on the fence for the first nine chapters, chapter ten, “How Should Wesleyans Live?” is largely an engagement with the “General Rules”: do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God.
Key United Methodist Beliefs is an exceptional resource that has the potential to be useful in a variety of contexts. If I were a local church pastor, this would be a resource I would use in preparing people for confirmation or membership. I highly recommend this book. At a minimum, it should be in every Wesleyan/Methodist pastor’s personal library.
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Good post. What I have become painfully aware of the last few years is a lack of understanding of “Why I was doing what I was doing.” I had the practice down to a fare-thee-well, especially when it came to church, but the knoweldge, understanding was not there. I will be checking out this book because, as I have discovered I am Wesleyan to the core, but the knowledge behind what he did is not easy to come by. What I have used as a substitute and has almost overwhwlmed me with its knowledge is a modern translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. It has its roots in the 1500’s; and was written to unite differing Protestant factions on the high points of Christianity. But what stunned me the most, whether or not I agreed with everything that was said, was just the shear volume of knowledge and understanding the rank and file Christian of the 1500’s was exposed to in a very easy to understand format. Being a “good Methodist”, I initially balked at it being a “catechism”, but I am now convinced the practice needs to be claimed by Methodism. I was initially exposed to it on a UMC’s pastor’s blog but this phrase out of a book that helps to further illuminate it pushed me to delve into it:
“In recent years there has been a renewed interest … in the Heidelberg Catechism ….Perhaps that is because we are finally returning to our tradition to gain insights about contemporary life. And maybe it is also because we live in a day when people are searching for a clear and tender presentation on what it means to believe that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”” M. Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism
The catechism and the book are very simple explanations of basic Christian doctrine; and they go way beyond being just “dry theology”. I became painfully aware that my biggest void was in a lack of “my faith”–I was relying on “our faith”. As Barnes points out, salvation is not a group plan, it must work its way into individual lives. The catechism develops both “my faith’ and “our faith”–through one question and answer on The Lord’s Supper, I finally verbalized that Chrst’s death and resurrection were “for me as well as all believers.”–and the effect has been stunning, and after all these years, overwhelming. After Wesley finally understood and experienced “my faith”, then Methodism was off and running. The grand irony is, the importance of the development of an individual “my faith” has been lost by The UMC.
Through the catechism, I have learned more in the last month than I ever came close to learning in more than a few decades of being a “good Methodist”. As Kenneth Collins stated, “Knowledge is the beginning of redemprtion”. Knowledge of doctrine/”what this is about” is way too erratic within the UMC, it depends on what church you land in, what Sunday School class you attend, who is teaching the Bible study you decide to take, and even what pastor walks in the door. And on top of that everybody has their own twist on things; so me, who never had a good solid overview was in perpetual confusion. Not anymore.
Barnes also gives a compelling arguement as to why it is a mistake to abandon our older hymns and liturgy. If nothing else, it reminds us that we are not “inventing the wheel”. We are simply part of something much bigger and greater than any of us; and it has been going on long before us and will continue long after we are gone. People as people are the same and the basic problem between God and us is the same: God is God and we are not! The only time the sharing the gospel was a new endeavor was in the book of Acts–we now have 2000 years of successes and failures to draw on.
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You left out a very important reason doctrine is important– it spells out the love of God for his people and the extent to which he will go to bring them to himself. Without that understanding, there can be no response.
I have read the Intro to “Key Beleifs”, it stopped me dead in my tracks: I could have written it. I have spent decades as a Methodist, doing everything I knew I was supposed to do and never got the complete picture as to “what this is about”. So the claim that people inside the church do not understand is a valid one. One other thing that has been developed for me through the Heidelberg Catechism, is “my faith”–God loves his people (our fatih), including me. As M. Craig Barnes puts it, “Salvation is not a group plan, it has to work its way into individual lives.” Each person has to understand God’s love envelops “me” warts and all. The Heidelberg leaves absolutely no wiggle room in that regards.
It became imperative for me to finally understand the reason I was doing what I was doing. I went looking on my own–I have learned more about “what this is about” in the last month than I have in a lifetime of being a “good Methodist”. The sad part for me–for I have always loved the Methodist Church–is that since last June I have darkened the door twice–at Christmas and Easter.
I have two questions for those that don’t want to nail anything down doctrinally:
How’s that working out?
How well is The United Methodist Church doing with being “all over the map”?
I’ve read Wesley, there were some things he was not absolutely willing to budge on, and that did not stop the success of early methodism. If there are others like me, they will be searching out answers whether the church wants to provide them or not. In one of his books on Wesleyan theology, Kenneth Collins absolutely “nailed it” when he said knowledge of Who God is and Who I am is the beginning of redemption; I can now guarantee the truth of that statement.