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A Confessional Response
to a Confessional Statement

by James E. Will


As a United Methodist who affirms the primacy of Scripture and the apostolic interpretation of our faith in Jesus Christ, I feel called to respond to the Confession of "The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church."

They are, of course, correct in their judgment, but I think wrong in their fear, that the United Methodist Church is incapable of confessing "with one voice" the orthodox Trinitarian faith. The gift of God's Holy Spirit to the millions who express our faith in Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church is a much richer form of community than can be reduced to any one voice. The pentecostal gift witnessed to in Scripture required no such reduction, as people were enabled to understand the apostolic witness to God's saving deed in the many languages of their Mediterranean world (cf. Acts 2:4-11). And those languages undoubtedly reflected the diversity of the cultures within which they were formed. The apostolic church neither sought nor received any abstract unity, but rejoiced in the Spirit's gift of unity within diversity, as the "dividing walls of hostility" that had separated their cultures and languages were broken down (cf. Ephesians 2:14). Genuine communication across honest differences in diverse communities was the apostolic form of the Holy Spirit's work in the early church. I think there is no higher gift for the United Methodist Church today.

The diversity of the early church comprehended many forms of Christian confession, including the docetic and monophysite forms of Christology that this Confession represents. There were those in the apostolic church who branded this form of confession "heretical" and sought to exclude its adherents from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches centered in Rome and Constantinople. I do not think the United Methodist Church can, or should, respond in this way; but neither may we allow them to represent it as the only form of the apostolic tradition, nor impose it on our whole church. We should rather invite them to a better informed theological dialogue. Our dialogues should seek a more comprehensive use of Scripture, and a more complete interpretation of the apostolic tradition than this Confession Movement yet provides. I find their confession both inadequate scripturally and incomplete in its "orthodoxy."

To be sure, Peter's confession of Jesus as God's "anointed one" (Messiah, Christ), to which this Confession appeals, is a crucial form of expressing the meaning of Jesus for Christians (cf. Matthew 16:15-17). But it is a problematic term, as the rest of Matthew 16, omitted by this Confession, shows. Peter's Jewish notion of the Mashiach as God's son could not incorporate the meaning of Jesus as God's suffering servant going to the cross. Thus, the same Peter, commended in the verse the Confession cites, is also condemned as a "stumbling block" (16:21-23); and Jesus ordered the disciples "not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah" (16:20). All of which indicates that the early church had to use many terms fully to grasp the meaning of Jesus for them, for none--including Messiah/Christ--were adequate to grasp and express his reality when absolutized and unconditioned by other terms. Not even the Wisdom tradition's notion of Logos/Word (to which the Confession also appeals) is adequate, as important as it became for the later Christological discussions. The church has always needed a rich dialogue with the interaction of many terms to reach for the full meaning of Jesus, safeguarding itself all the while from any kind of terminological idolatry of the kind the Confessing Movement seeks to impose.

Many Christians accept the guidance of the ecumenical councils, especially the Nicene and the Chalcedonian creeds, for the church's ongoing dialogue. But this Confession appeals to the ecumenical creeds in a surprisingly truncated way. To cite only the clause that Jesus is "true God from true God," as the Confession does, is to ignore the equally important affirmation of these ecumenical creeds that Jesus is "truly man . . . of one substance with us as regards his manhood." The parameters that these ecumenical creeds provide for our ongoing dialogue affirm that Jesus' full humanity is as crucial for our faith as is his true deity. To affirm the divine without the human is what these early church councils condemned as "docetism" (Jesus only "appeared" to be fully human) and "monophysitism" (Jesus had only "one nature"--the divine).

The dialogue the early church sought to resolve in these early councils was between the theology dominant in Antioch, which emphasized Jesus' humanity, and the dominant teaching in Alexandria, which focused on Jesus' deity. The concern of Antioch was included in the ecumenical creeds because they did not want to lose or slight the ethical meanings taught by Jesus the Jewish Rabbi and Prophet about the coming of God's reign in our human history. And the theological insights of Alexandria were equally affirmed, because they were convinced that Jesus incarnated as God's Son the very relationality of God's trinitarian being as he revealed God's liberating and reconciling presence.

The justice, grace and truth the Jewish Jesus expressed in his saving relations on earth were understood in the apostolic tradition as expressing the very relations within God's trinitarian being. That is, the relation of Jesus to the One he called "Abba" expressed the eternal relations of the Logos to the Creator, or in other terms, of the eternal Son to the Father. This Confession, however, tends to reduce orthodox Trinitarian theology to a Christomonism--almost a "unitarianism of the second person." This reduction allows the possibility of their overlooking the creative and redemptive relation the trinitarian God always has had with the whole creation: The universal relation that Genesis teaches in God's covenant with Noah (cf. Gen. 9:8-17), the prophet Amos preached to Israel (cf. Amos 9:7-8), St. Paul affirmed in his sermon to the Athenians (cf. Acts 17:26-28), and Charles Wesley has enabled Methodists to celebrate for centuries as we sing of God in his words, "pure universal love Thou art."

From this scriptural standpoint, the grace of the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus is too great to be limited only to the church. We do not need to diminish or eliminate our testimony to the saving work of Jesus Christ "to make dialogue with others more agreeable," as this Confession petulantly puts it. We need only to be as humbly gracious as our Lord was with the Syrophoenecian woman (cf. Mark 7:24-30) in order to relate more graciously with the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims our God is now giving us as neighbors in our emerging "global village." We do not need any more Nazi holocausts or Bosnian horrors before we learn to witness to our faith in a more open and dialogical way.

To paraphrase the Confession's own conclusion, we cannot allow any new Confession to be imposed on the church by social pressures, which reduces the richness of the Scripture's witness, truncates the apostolic tradition, supports heretical tendencies as though they were the whole truth of the gospel, and may destroy the gracious interreligious relations the Holy Spirit is leading us toward in our contemporary experience. We must "hold accountable" any who would make so inadequate, and perhaps even dangerous, a confession in our "congregations, boards, divisions, agencies, seminaries, and conferences of our denomination." Perhaps such an accountable dialogue may help us all to become not only better United Methodists but, more importantly, better witnesses to the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.


 

James E. Will is:

  • Pfeiffer Professor of Systematic Theology
    Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary


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