There should be few things more offensive to Methodists with regard to their tradition than the oft-repeated and vacuous claim that it is “not doctrinal.”
This ill-informed opinion (often spoken by other Methodists) is flatly wrong. And given that we are on the verge of a General Conference—where doctrinal decisions are made in abundance—it’s helpful for us to look at just how central a role doctrine plays in our church.
My guess is that the resistance to the idea of doctrine is rooted in a misunderstanding of what the word means.
Many people seem to think of doctrine in negative terms, as an oppressive and boundary setting notion that limits freedom of thought and action. That is an unfortunate misunderstanding that fails to see doctrine’s true meaning.
The term doctrine comes from the Latin cognate doctrina, which means refers to teaching, instruction or training in a certain area of knowledge or practice. The Christian understanding of doctrine was given classical expression by the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas. In the opening of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas refers to “sacra doctrina” or “holy teaching” to describe the truths about God that pertain to humanity’s intended end in God.
Doctrine in this sense is about providing the framework for the whole Christian life. It is not limiting but rather life-giving. Embracing doctrine means embracing the good news that we don’t have to make up the Christian faith on our own.
American Methodists tend to balk at a full embrace of doctrine because they’ve always tended to be more American than Methodist. In popular American culture, anything that gets in the way of unlimited freedom of individual action or opinion is seen as, well, un-American. Thus Christian discipleship must always conform to what good, consumer-oriented and radically democratic Americans think it should.
That idea would strike John Wesley as bizarre. After all, his agenda at the first annual conference in 1744 was centered on considering the questions, What should we teach? How should we teach it? And what should we be doing, practically?
He explained in the conference minutes that these were questions about doctrine, discipline and practice. And doctrine took pride of place amongst the three.
The proceedings of that first conference bear out the importance with which Wesley viewed doctrine as the center that held the movement together. Those who gathered discussed the doctrinal issues of justification and sanctification for two days before moving on to practical matters.
What they believed counted, the early Methodists thought, because what they believed determined what they were going to proclaim. And what they proclaimed was going to be the formative teaching for the movement as a whole.
At other times, Wesley also claimed that the strength of Methodism rested on “three grand scriptural doctrines—original sin, justification by faith, and holiness consequent thereon.” He sometimes stated these more simply as repentance, faith, and holiness. They were a shorthand way of talking about the very meaning of salvation—for Wesley, the driving force of his ministry.
This commitment to doctrine never wavered in Wesley’s thought. Near the end of his life, he penned an essay for the Arminian Magazine which begins, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (“Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).
The General Rules
Wesley’s desire to write “practical divinity” for Methodist folk meant that he was always aiming at making the Scriptures and the historic teaching of the Christian church understandable for believing Christians. Practical divinity is what we might call practical theology today—writings on the Christian faith for the purposes of discipleship and ministry.
Wesley’s desire for practical divinity was the motivation behind the “General Rules,” which have become re-emphasized in Methodism in recent years. The best book by a contemporary Methodist on the General Rules is Kevin M. Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship (Discipleship Resources, 2009). In it he outlines Wesley’s injunctions to “do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend upon the ordinances of God.”
Mr. Watson’s topic is the same as Bishop Rueben Job’s popular Three Simple Rules, though he writes in a less devotional style than Bishop Job and resists the temptation to reduce the third rule to the overly sentimental counsel to “stay in love with God.” He does reframe the third rule to make it more understandable to contemporary ears, but his alternative is the more rigorously Wesleyan phrase, “practice the spiritual disciplines.” In this he recognizes that, for Wesley, loving God always involves responding to God’s grace in concrete, measurable ways.
Wesley’s rules—and Mr. Watson’s excellent adaptation of them for contemporary use—are at root about doctrine. They are about holy teaching for the life of Christian discipleship.
And doctrine understood in this way is not ultimately about oppressive rule setting. Instead it is about grasping that the Christian life must take a discernible form that points us to the life that God desires for his people.
The wider culture in which we live gives us all the resources we need to be a people adrift, meandering from false promise to false promise about what it means to be truly happy.
What the wider culture does not give us is the true means for life. For this, we need faithful doctrine that interprets the Scriptures and the broad tradition of the Christian church. Doctrine is therefore a form of mediation, interpreting the eternal decrees of God in such a way that we don’t have to figure out the whole of discipleship on our own.
We should therefore embrace it and thus take the first step to reclaiming the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which we first set out.
The Rev. Andrew C. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com.