Perspective: The Confessing Movement Debate - SMU
There was an excellent debate about the Confessing Movement in this month's "Perspective," a newsletter from Perking School of Theology. The debate was between Leicester Longden a pastor from Michigan and John Swomley a professor from St. Paul School of Theology. Swomley's responses are all too similar to what I heard in seminary and serve as a perfect example of why we are in need of a Confessing Movement.
First, Swomley has the mistaken idea that the real agenda of the Confessing Movement is to gain acceptance of the Confessing Document at General Conference and at Annual Conferences around the Church. Speaking of the documents he writes, "It concludes that if it succeeds in getting the Confessional Statement adopted, 'We will vigorously challenge and hold accountable those that undermine this confession.'" It would be nice to get as many as possible to sign onto this Confession, however, even if only a handful do we will continue to advocate for the centrality of Christ in this denomination. That, as I understand it is the agenda of the Confessing Movement.
Swomley then goes on to challenge the Confessing Movement. Not surprisingly, he utilizes the concept of the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. He makes five points; Wesleyans are defined by action not doctrine, establishing doctrine upon scripture is inadequate, traditional creedal statements are limited, new experiences are vital to faith, and many conservatives are not concerned with larger social issues. I will take these five issues point by point.
He writes, "Never in the Wesleyan tradition is the identity of Methodists defined by right doctrine; it is defined by right living." Wesley in his, "Character of a Methodist" wonderfully refutes this notion . It is here he writes his famous phrase, "But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist." Wesley lays out the root of Christianity in this same paragraph. His two roots are inspired scripture and Christ as eternal and supreme God. The Confessing Movement was formed because of this challenge to the root. We believe that the central doctrine of Christ as Lord is being undermined. The Document states, "The United Methodist Church is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith, particularly Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of history and the Church."
On Scripture, Swomley highlights the need for interpretation and reason. He gives, as an illustration of the Bible's limited trustworthiness, the acceptance of slavery found in Scripture. We do not as United Methodist claim that Scripture is inerrant. However, to quote Wesley again in his Character of a Methodist, "We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice." Swomley seems to suggest that because of such problems with Scripture and because of its ambiguity we must rely more heavily on human reason. Wesleyan Christianity on the other hand has always looked to Scripture as our primary rule of life. Scripture is remarkable not in its inaccuracy but its accurate portrayal of the human condition and the means achieving salvation and abundant life through Jesus Christ.
He then turns to the inadequacy of the Apostle's Creed. He writes, "The Apostle's Creed does not summarize the original Christian Gospel. It is an attempt at a doctrinal creed that accents a God of might and power, and omits references to a God of love, to the kingdom of God, repentance, faith, salvation through Christ, or the nature of the Christian life." No one is claiming that the Apostle's Creed is complete. What we do claim is that what IS written in it is the truth. As with scripture, Swomley's distrust for creeds is another indication of his mistrust for truth claims. Like so many contemporary scholars he spends far more of his time disproving Christian truth claims than he does defending them.
If you are suspicious of scripture and creeds, what is left? We find Swomley's own agenda when he writes, "Finally, we come to experience. As a young man in law school, I was unmoved by the Apostles' Creed, regular participation in Holy Communion, and attendance at church. It was at a National Council of Methodist Youth meeting in 1937 that I was converted by participating in a group that was integrated on a higher lever than I imagined possible." It was the experience of social activism that engaged Swomley's faith. I find it quite plausible that he might find Christ in social activism. However, to make experience, especially the experience of oppression the basis of Christian faith leads to the distortions of the Gospel that are so rampant in liberation theology.
This finally leads to a very revealing passage about Swomley's view of evangelical churches, "I came to understand that people in the churches that recited the Apostles' Creed and those who believed they were saved by their beliefs actually were concentrating on the sins of sex or drunkenness. They did not concern themselves with the larger sins of militarism, imperialism, war, racism, and forced unemployment." Just because evangelicals do not have the same agenda as Dr. Swomley does not mean they are not socially involved. Evangelicals put most of their activism into issues such as the break down of families, addiction, abortion, and personal evangelism of the poor. However, to say that evangelicals are not concerned with social issues is arrogant and condescending. Get ten pastors who are active in the Confessing Movement look at where they spend their time and their money. Get ten progressive pastors and see where they spend their time and money. There would be a difference in were these twenty pastors served but no difference in their level of commitment to the need of the "least of these."
Swomley's ambivalence towards the truth claims of scripture and the creeds of the church, and the substitution of his own truth claims from the cultural left sound like the same tired rhetoric of our educational elite. Ironically, Swomley, like so many others who challenge the Confessing Movement, completely misses the real thrust of the Confessing Document. Rightly or wrongly, the Confessing Movement believes there is a crisis in the church concerning the nature and purpose of Christ. Swomley never addresses that issue. Why not?
Your Brother in Christ,
Another article by John Miles: The Need for a Confessing Movement
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