Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection as Doctrinal Essentials

Previously, I wrote about the relative importance of identifying heresy where it exists. This turned into a discussion about the idea of heresy, the impact of it, and how it can be defined. Jason Woolever brought up the subject over at MethoBlog as well.

Many of my readers are United Methodist, so I'd like to bring up this passage from the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which are permanently and forever protected from change by the First Restrictive Rule:

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 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 sittith until he return to judge all men at the last
day.

Therefore one cannot deny the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ and be faithful to the core doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.

UPDATE: I would like to add that I find these doctrinal standards very reassuring. Other denominations might struggle with theological unity, but thanks to these clearly-written statements in The Book of Discipline, that just isn't a problem in the United Methodist Church.

SECOND UPDATE: Handy links on the Virgin Birth by Dale Tedder.

[cross-posted]

42 comments:

Jason Woolever said...

You would think that this would eliminate some needless controversy. The Restrictive Rule seems to have been put in play to protect the Methodist Church from people who deny these doctrines. How in this fallen world United Methodist clergy would deny these doctrines, or become UM clergy if they didn't believe these doctrines, or would say they believed these doctrines to become UM clergy when they really didn't, is beyond me.

Richard H said...

You realize, don't you, that the mere presence of a doctrinal statement like this in the Articles of Religion doesn't persuade people who want to be ordained leaders in the UMC that they need to believe them? Especially those raised on the old theological statement look at the Articles as "Landmarks," "not to be taken literally or juridically" - i.e., don't take them to be saying what they appear to be saying, and don't use them to develop any boundaries of an orthodoxy.

Jason Woolever said...
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Jason Woolever said...

Especially those raised on the old theological statement look at the Articles as "Landmarks," "not to be taken literally or juridically" - i.e., don't take them to be saying what they appear to be saying, and don't use them to develop any boundaries of an orthodoxy.
Rich, I've seen you explain divergence on doctrinal issues in words like this before. It helps me understand where they're coming from, but I just do not get it. How else could they interpret "truly suffered... for actual sins of men... truly rise again from the dead"? Its just beyond my comprehension.

What more could have been done than use the word "truly" and then add the Restrictive Rule to say, "We're serious about this," which would have helped folks understand that these doctrines are to be taken "literally"?

Keith Taylor said...

John,

It also would seem to me

Article II covers the Blood Atonement of Christ to reconcile us to God.

Article IV says that He shall return to judge all men.

The whole issue of the Bible that so many folks had so much trouble with is also covered by Articles V and VI of the M.E. Church and IV of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, IMHO.

John, I also am very glad that our church has this stuff written down. However, to say this isn't a problem, I'm not so sure. Especially by some the comments that I've seen posted the last year by our "profession clergy". But I digress.

Thanks for putting this up.

Keith Taylor - Fidei defensor

(That was a joke!!!)

Jonathan said...

You are exactly right about this. The Articles of Religion of the ME Church and the Confession of Faith of the EUB Church are doctrinal standards, and it is a chargeable offense for anyone (lay or clergy) to disseminate any doctrines contrary thereto.

Also, remember that the Confession of Faith of the EUB states that "War and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ." This is not just a statement from the Social Principles (which can change every four years and are not binding). This is a quote from a doctrinal standard, and as such, it is binding on all UM clergy and laity.

I am serious. We need to be more vigorous in upholding all of our doctrinal standards.

Dan Trabue said...

Having grown up Baptist, I'm generally familiar with Methodism and Wesley, but not up on all the specifics. In Baptist life, we believed in the Priesthood of the Believer - that individuals were responsible to God for rightly divining the Word of God themselves. We, therefore, weren't bound by any creed or spelled out doctrine.

If a local church believed something different than the State Association, the association may not like it, but it would be okay. The local church had their own autonomy.

What's the Methodist take on this?

JD said...

I appreciate that these things are written, but the traditions of the Catholic Church are written down as well and look at all the Catholics that don't believe all the tradtions and practices of Catholicism.

It really hurts me that individuals in our denomination, and Christians as a whole, continue to twist scripture and tradition in a way that allows them to feel better that the way they live their lives is justified becasue "Christ forgives." It is my understanding that to know the truth, to have an understanding through the Holy Spirit of the truth, and to deny it an live contrary to that is the unforgivable sin.

Jason, I know I brought this up a few months ago in one of your posts. Blasphening the spirit is very real and I do not think that it happened just in Jesus' time. Wouldn't heretical teachings fall under this category?

Just a few more things to bring up.

PAX
JD

Richard H said...

Jason says: "How else could they interpret "truly suffered... for actual sins of men... truly rise again from the dead"? Its just beyond my comprehension."

It seems a challenge, doesn't it? But they were utterly convinced that doctrine is non-propositional in function (though it is obviously propositional in form). They knew from their science that "dead men stay dead," so surely Jesus couldn't have LITERALLY come alive again. So the text - of scripture and the Articles of Religion - MUST be saying something else. Now if they hadn't taken themselves to be Christians, they would have been free to join the non-Christian critics and just call it all poppycock.

(side note: Have you read George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine yet? He's the one that came up with the idealized options of propositionalist and experiential expressive theories of doctrine in modernity. Of course in my opinion (which I explain in my book) I think Lindbeck's alternative to the two - what he calls the Cultural Linguistic - doesn't measure up either.

JD said...

Jonathan,

What is your take on Just War Theory and its relationship to Methodism?

JD

Jonathan said...

JD,

I think Just War is a noble (although mistaken) part of the Christian theological tradition. Just war theory is certainly not part of the United Methodist doctrinal standards, whereas pacifism is. I believe it may be possible to formulate a theory of just war that does not contradict the United Methodist doctrinal standards, but it would be extremely tedious work, and I have never seen anyone take the time to do it.

Mitch said...

Also, remember that the Confession of Faith of the EUB states that "War and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ." ... This is a quote from a doctrinal standard, and as such, it is binding on all UM clergy and laity.

Yes, I confess. War is bad.

Of course the same EUB Article XVI also says that governments derive their just powers from God and provide protection for their citizens. And Methodist Article XXIII explicitly recognizes the authority of the US Constitution (which provides for the common defense through armies and navies) and establishes the principle that the US "ought not be subject to any foreign jurisdiction."

When Christ appears at the parousia (Articles of Religion III, Confession of Faith XII), the need for armed force will cease. That is an aspect of the gospel hope. And while we live in this world, we should do our best to get along with our neighbors. That's an aspect of the spirit of Christ.

But pacifism is not an aspect of Methodist Articles of Religion or the EUB Confession of Faith.

Jonathan said...

Mitch,

I never said pacifism was part of the ME Articles of Religon, but it is indeed part of the EUB Confession of Faith -- like it or not, it's there in black and white. And the EUB Confession of faith is a doctrinal standard for the United Methodist Church. To say that pacifism is not in the EUB Confession of faith is analogous to saying, "sure, the virgin birth is in the articles of religion, but it's only there as a poetic metaphor," or some such other nonsense.

Article 16 of the EUB confession of Faith does not contain any contradictions. One does not have to deny the sentence that I am highlighting in order to agree to the sentence that you are highlighting.

Besides, I have already said that it may be possible to reconcile Just War with our doctrinal standards; it would just take a whole lot more effort than I have ever seen demonstrated.

JD said...
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JD said...

Jonathan and Mitch,

Thanks for the quick response to my question. I can see it multiple ways.

I look at Mitch for instance. If the Methodist Church were a "Pacifist" church, Mitch being a Chaplin in the armed forces would have to be re-evaluated.

At the same time, Christ calls us to peace, but he also called us to challenge for our faith, and protect the innocent. Sure, we, as Methodists, should start here in our own country, but we should also address issues in other parts of the world. Following the discipline as stated by Jonathan seems to convince me that we should also be isolationists and focus just on our own issues in our own countries.

When we are able to separate our Faith from our Political views, we can then have a completely theological debate on War. Until then, it becomes futile to discuss issues such as this if one party or the other is not willing to throw out political influence.

Interesting topic, off the mark of the rest of the post, but an interesting topic none the less.

PAX
JD

Jonathan said...

Goodness gracious, my reading of the Discipline certainly does not endorse isolationism or focussing only on the issues of our own country. As a matter of fact, it arises from a high ecclesiology which recognizes that our primary allegiance is to the church which transcends all "nations, ages, and races." Nothing could be broader or more international than the ecclesiology demanded by the EUB's confession of Faith.

John said...

Jonathan, you have an interesting point. I'll try to research it this Saturday at the seminary library.

Does anyone know, offhand, if Wesley was a pacifist?

John said...

Dan Trabue wrote:

Having grown up Baptist, I'm generally familiar with Methodism and Wesley, but not up on all the specifics. In Baptist life, we believed in the Priesthood of the Believer - that individuals were responsible to God for rightly divining the Word of God themselves. We, therefore, weren't bound by any creed or spelled out doctrine.

If a local church believed something different than the State Association, the association may not like it, but it would be okay. The local church had their own autonomy.

What's the Methodist take on this?


My understanding of Methodist ecclesiology is that all local churches are missional outposts of the bishop, who appoints preachers and priests as s/he thinks best.

Local churches technically own their property, but only in the trust for the Annual Conference and the general connection. Almost all UMC property can be sold by the Annual Conference.

So local churches, when push comes to shove, do not have autonomy. But in day to day operations, they are autonomous.

Jonathan said...

Wesley was not a pacifist. He did cite war as the primary example of original sin, in his essay "The Doctrine of Original Sin."

I have a feeling that the pacifism I am alluding to snuck in the back door of the EUB's through the influence of Mennonites like Martin Boehm, who is one of the spiritual ancestors of the EUB's and thus United Methodists as well. It may have snuck in the back door, but it's in the house now, and we should deal with it.

If you are doing research, one book to consult would be D. Stephen Long's book, Living the Discipline: United Methodist Theological Reflections on War, Civiliation and Holiness. The book is available for the low, low price of $1 on Amazon!

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks for the answer, John.

Another question: What does the comment, "the Confession of Faith of the EUB states that "War and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ."" represent official Methodist thinking on war? Do Methodists consider war to be a sin?

If Methodist churches are not autonomous and if they think war in general is sin and disagree with this Iraq Invasion specifically, was there any censure or removal of fellowship of Bush's church?

Jason Woolever said...

good points jonathan about the war and bloodshed issue, so we don't just defend out pet doctrines.

Jonathan said...

Hi Dan,

The statement that "war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ" is official doctrine of the United Methodist Church, as I have stated. (It is also one of the most ignored parts of our doctrinal standards!)

At the very least, I think this statement rules out pre-emptive war. There was a movement and a petition to bring up charges against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (both United Methodists) and remove them from the membership of the United Methodist Church because they were in clear violation of the church's doctrinal standards. (please note, everyone, I am talking about doctrinal standards, not merely 'social principles'). The movement to remove Bush and Cheney from the membership of the UMC never gained much momentum, and I don't think anything ever happened concerning it. How refreshing it would be, however, to put someone on trial for violating the teachings of the church on the issue of war, rather than the issue of homosexuality.

I made a pact several months ago with John not to argue for pacifism on his blog any more. I have not tried to mount any theological arguments for pacifism here, only to recognize the facts of what our doctrinal standards include. If I have crossed the line, John, let me know, and I'll shut up.

Jason Woolever said...

hey jonathan, i just checked out the john calvin presbyterian church link on your blogsite. that's cool that they offer dating services and car accessories. those presbyterians never cease to amaze me!

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

Why would we not make a biblical argument for pacifism on a website devoted to Christian discussion, John? Especially if it seems fairly central to the doctrine of your faith tradition?

Also, while I fully agree that "war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ," is there more to the Methodist doctrine besides just that one line to better define their/your position?

John said...

Dan:

I haven't looked into the pacifism issue yet. I recall that the Book of Discipline social principles (or some part that I read this semester) stated that the UMC regarded war as horrible and can never be a national policy, but is acceptable as a last resort. From memory, my understanding is that the UMC regards war as a necessary evil, strong emphasis on evil.

Jonathan and I called off pacifism before because we were...well, getting close to blows. If such a thing can occur through the Internet series of tubes. But, hey, have fun with the topic. Run with it.

I'm not at all convinced that pacifism is a core part of my faith tradition, as Wesley was not a pacifist. I just haven't had time to explore the topic properly. Very, very busy. I'll start out by looking at Wesley's Notes on the major Just War Bible verses. But I haven't time now.

Jonathan said...

John is correct (sort of) that pacifism is not a core part of the Methodist tradition. However, it entered the UNITED METHODIST tradition in 1968 when the GC accepted the EUB Confession of Faith on equal footing with the ME Articles of Religion. Pacifism snuck into United Methodism, via the EUB's. It snuck into the EUB's by the UB's. It snuck into the UB's by way of the Mennonites. That's how it got here. But it's here now.

I have very specifically and intentionally limited my comments on pacifism in this thread to the "doctrinal standards," which are the only part of the Discipline that, if violated by lay or clergy, can result in a church trial.

The doctrinal standards always trump the social principles. If the social principles are in contradition to the doctrinal standards (as they are in the case of war), they should be thrown out by the Judicial Council as unconstitutional. This is what should happen now: the Judicial Council should rule that our social principles are out of order because they violate our doctrinal standards on the issue of war. But alas, the Judicial Council is too pre-occupied with homosexuality to do their jobs properly right now.

John, you will be able to find plenty of support for war in the wider Methodist tradition, including in John Wesley. But I am focussing my comments specifically on the doctrinal standards, which are the highest form of magisterium in United Methodism. The doctrinal standards trump any other parts of our tradition.

John said...

I won't disagree with that, Jonathan. But the collected sermons and Notes are part of the doctrinal standards, as well.

Jonathan said...

The status of the Notes and Sermons is a matter of dispute among Wesleyan scholars. Richard Heitzenrater says that the Notes and Sermons are not doctrinal standards; Thomas Oden says that they are. They had a famous exchange a few years ago in Quarterly Review. Their argument/dispute can now be read in Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, edited by Thomas A. Langford.

For one thing, Heitzenrater says that if we accept the Sermons and Notes as doctrinal standards, then we must accept the following as doctrinal standards:

some anti-Catholicism
some anti-Semitism
some anti- women in leadershipism

Instead, Heitzenrater considers the Notes and Sermons as valuable and irreplaceable commentary on our core United Methodist beliefs, which are found in the highest form of authority in the doctrinal standards of the Articles of Religion and EUB Confession of Faith.

The dispute over the status of Sermons and Notes as doctrinal standards is key, and both Heitenrater and Oden have argued persuasively for their respective points of view.

Jason Woolever said...

Jonathan, thanks for the info about Heitz and Oden. What is Heitz's ground for saying that they aren't other than there might be some offensive stuff included?

Jonathan said...

I should say from the beginning that I have great respect for Heitzenrater and Oden.

Heitzenrater goes back to the minutes of the 1808 General Conference (when the First Restrictive Rule was adopted); a motion was made by Francis Ward to establish the Articles of Religion, Wesley's Notes and Sermons and Fletcher's Checks against Antinomianism as the established doctrinal standards. This motion failed. Heitzenrater writes,

"The General Conference was not willing to go on record defining its standards of doctrine in terms of documents other than the Articles, not even Wesley's Sermons and Notes .... In light of those actions of the 1808 General Conference, it is by no means strange that for two successive generations no one ever seems to have raised the question as to what the 'present existing and established standards of doctrine' were. The Articles of Religion were the only standards of doctrine that had been 'established' by the Methodist Episcopal Church, that is adopted between 1785 and 1808 with provisions for enforcement as a measure of Methodist doctrine in America."

By the way, it seems I have to update my link to John Calvin Presbyterian Church on my blog! My blog, The Ivy Bush, was founded by my very good friend who happens to be a Presbyterian minister here in town. Don't hold it against me though; I am not a Calvinist :)

rev-ed said...

John is correct (sort of) that pacifism is not a core part of the Methodist tradition. However, it entered the UNITED METHODIST tradition in 1968 when the GC accepted the EUB Confession of Faith on equal footing with the ME Articles of Religion. Pacifism snuck into United Methodism, via the EUB's. It snuck into the EUB's by the UB's. It snuck into the UB's by way of the Mennonites. That's how it got here.

Jonathan, I don't know where you're getting your information, but it's just plain inaccurate. I am a United Brethren. We have had the same Confession of Faith since 1815. There is no mention of war -- just or otherwise -- included in it. Our doctrinal standards have similarly remained unchanged:
We positively record our disapproval of engaging in voluntary, national, aggressive warfare; yet we recognize the rightful authority of the civil government and hold it responsible for the preservation and defense of our national compact against treason or invasion by any belligerent force.

We affirm the right of our members to serve and bear arms in the national armed forces. We also support the right of the honest conscientious objector to refuse to bear arms in military service, and to instead choose humanitarian service to his/her nation.


We wish to go on record as a church as being much in favor of national and international peace; and we urge our leaders to always pursue peace.


I fail to see how you come to the conclusion that this makes the United Brethren a "pacifist" church. You seem to assume that since Boehm was a Mennonite, that his beliefs would win out of that of the Reformed Otterbein. That's a poor assumption. The United Brethren Church, as you can see from the quote above, allows both pacifism and military service. Your seeming contempt in saying that pacifism "snuck in" to the UBs or the EUBs only compounds your error.

As to your interpretation of the EUB standards, I fail to see where the statement you provide is a blanket condemnation of every type of war or bloodshed. It is a general statement, not a specific stand against, for example, defending one's country.

I trust you will correct your "snuck in" statements accordingly.

Thanks.

Jason Woolever said...

thanks for the reference jonathan. i'm a bit confused as when they got added then. it does seem that if one reads our doctrinal standards and restrictive rule, then it would seem Oden is right, even with Heitzenrater's appeal to the 1808.

Jonathan said...

Hi Rev-Ed,

I apologize for playing too fast and loose with the language of "snuck in." I really meant no offense or misrepresentation at all. I was using the language of "snuck in" to convey a sense that the general aversion towards war present in Mennonites like Boem worked its way through time in unofficial and unacknowledged ways resulting in the 1968 recognition of the EUB Confession of Faith being accepted as a doctrinal standard for United Methodism. Thank you for your historical information. The path I was trying to sketch certainly is not demonstrably verfiable through imperical evidence. One cannot see it in obvious official documentation - that's kinda what I meant by the language of 'snuck in.' I do once again apologize for using the language of 'snuck in' a bit too playfully, but absolutely no sense of contempt was intended.

My main point, however, remains unchanged. Since 1968, the UMC has had a pacifist statement in its doctrinal standards, and we received this statement from the Confession of Faith of the EUB's.

Jonathan said...

Rev-Ed,

Maybe you can help me understand something. You say that you are (present tense) a United Bretheren. Are we talking about the same United Bretheren Church?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_United_Brethren

The United Bretheren Church I was thinking of no longer exists per se, as it merged in 1946 to form the EUB Church, which then merged in 1968 with the Methodist Church to form the UMC.

My understanding is that there is a separate United Bretheren Church that still exists today, but it is different from the one I was thinking of. Am I correct in my understanding?

John said...

Yes, Ed is UB (Old Constitution). Or at least, that's what I remember.

Ed, is the Confession of Faith the same and unchanged between the EUB and the UB (OC)?

Jonathan said...

After checking a few websites, I now understand better about the United Brethren dual history. Rev-Ed, were the statements you provided direct quotations from a UB Confession of Faith, or were they something sort of like what UM's call the Social Principles? Also, sorry for misspelling 'brethren' earlier.

Jonathan said...
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Jonathan said...

I deleted the previous comment because it had too many typos in it.

After re-checking the book by D. Stephen Long, I can now relate this information. It turns out I was wrong; the pacifist statement is not traced back at all through the UB side of the EUB's, but the E side of the EUB's.

"In 1816, when the Evangelical Association was formed, its members created a Confession of Faith patterened after the Methodist Articles of Relgion. In 1839, they added a statement to Article 16 of their Confession that read, 'We believe that wars and bloodshed are not agreeable to the Gospel and Spirit of Christ.' The revised article remained throughout most of the history of the Evangelical Association; however, it was replaced for a brief time during the Civil War by an article that read, 'it is the imperative duty of our Government, to use the sword entrusted to it by God... and it is the holiest duty of every citizen faithfully to support the Government in the important duties devolving upon the same." This change allowed members of the church to participate in warfare without violating the Confession of Faith. After the war, the 1839 edition of Article 16 returned, and it survived through both the 1946 merger with the United Brethren Church to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the 1968 merger of that church with the Methodists to form the United Methodist Church."

-D. Stephen Long, p. 36.

So Ed was correct to call me on the carpet on this. The pacifist statement is not traced back to the United Brethren, but to the EUB's and then back further to the Evangelical Association. Sorry again, Ed.

12:37 PM

Anonymous said...

John - I agree with you 1000% concerning the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. Yay, God! And two good points in the UMC's favor; they are absolutely essential, non-negotiable, Christian doctrines.

Jason Woolever said...

Wow, great research Jonathan, esp. the Stephen Long quote.

see-through faith said...

the week before I was asked to hand in my keys at church, and step down from leadership - we discussed the virgin birth in the international cell group I was leading. No problem -no controversy - people had less difficulty believing this than creation - and we discussed why :)

Also why it was important to our faith.

I think UMC Finland IS more conservative than the USA in general - what IS interesting though is that the international cell group is (still - with a new leader - the lovely Elina) made up of students from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and denonminations - yet it wasn't an issue.

I wonder why it is elsewhere?

John said...

I don't know why. But I do remember writing a paper in college about Eric Soraleinen and the Protestant Reformation in Finland. And I remember that Finland was intractably conservative; slow to take Christianity and then only with pagan elements. And then when the Lutherans arrived, the only significant changes was that the liturgy was now in Finnish and the priests were Finns, which was precisely what the Finns wanted. And that there was no written Finnish language until Michael Agricola created one for the Finnish Bible. So perhaps it can be said that Finns are resistant to change, but you'd be a better judge of that than me.