Can we have Unity without Doctrinal clarity?

One of the things I've noticed as I've read more of John Wesley over the years is that he frequently makes lists of the "fundamental" or "basic" beliefs that go down "to the root" of Christian faith and Christian living.  Not all of his lists of the 'basic' teachings are exactly the same, but they all cover the same great themes of Creation by God, the Fall of Mankind into Sin, and the Redemption through Christ.  This is the heart of Wesleyan (and all Christian) faith.

Unlike some traditions (such those stemming from Medieval Scholasticism), Methodism has never attempted to have an official answer to every possible theological question that every good Methodist is expected to believe; there has always been a degree of diversity, but beginning with Wesley it has been recognized that we must have unity on the basics if we are to live and work together.

Over the last several generations, while we increasingly do give lip service to the Wesleys and the other major lights of our theological tradition, we United Methodists have very often attempted to embrace doctrinal pluralism in the name of "inclusivity."  We (rightly) want to include as many people as possible within our church, but rather than trying (like the early Methodists) to teach all of these diverse people the same basic beliefs, we have downplayed the importance of beliefs or doctrine altogether, embracing (with a shrug) a sort of "anything goes" attitude, saying things like "it is not what you believe that matters, but how you live."

Ultimately, however, I believe this approach is self-destructive, especially to church unity.  How we live is necessarily related to what we believe.  How we live together is necessarily related to the beliefs we hold in common.

How can we indeed walk together if we are walking in different directions, following different guiding lights?

This is the major point of an excellent new post by Dr. David F. Watson.
Dr. Watson was my Greek teacher in seminary at SMU, and is now dean of United Seminary in Ohio.  I encourage you to read it in full at the link above; below are some highlights from his piece (in bold), with my own comments.

Watson argues that if we are to think, feel, and finally live as Christians, we simply cannot get away from "doctrine" (that is, official teachings).  Dr. Watson writes:

The Christian mind is necessarily doctrinal. Without an understanding of proper teaching about God and what this God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to talk about a Christian mind at all. We may claim to love God, but who is this God whom we love? Why do we love God? Why should other people do so? How do we know any of these things? The answers to these questions don’t just shape what we believe, but how we live.

The attempts to neglect or reinvent Christian doctrine - particularly, I would argue, in the seminaries and ivory towers of academia - are largely responsible for the massive degree of division that now exists within the Historic (often called "Mainline") Protestant churches, almost all of which have seen major schisms in recent years.  The "publish or perish" approach to scholarship that now dominates the Academia of the Western World, by its very nature, rewards innovation rather than the passing down of the time-tested faith that has been received.
Dr. Watson expresses well why this constant need to innovate and revise has led to dis-unity in the church:

We build upon the beliefs of those who came before us. We honor their work, their lives, and sometimes their martyrdom. Though many have succumbed to the temptation to try to reinvent the Church’s faith based upon foundations more palatable to the modern or postmodern mind, these attempts have been unable to sustain the Church. They have neglected the wisdom of the ages.
The end of such revisionism can only be division. If each culture, each era, each philosophical movement reinvents the faith on its own terms, Christian unity is impossible. True Christian unity can only come about when we share common beliefs about the nature of God, human life, and salvation. If we continue to de-emphasize doctrine in our faith communities, we will continue on the painful road of denominational fragmentation. 

Dr. Watson goes on to lament the lack of serious attention to doctrine in the Historic Protestant churches, noting the contradiction that necessarily results from this neglect:

The Christian mind requires doctrinal formation, and in mainline Protestantism, we have most often avoided this. We have chosen to focus on forming our congregations into socially just people who will live in socially just ways, but without teaching them how we might reach conclusions as to what constitutes just behavior. We are supposed simply to know right and wrong intuitively. If the 20th century shows us anything, however, it is that right and wrong are not things that human beings know intuitively... Our thoughts are disordered, and we need guidance. Teaching the faith once and for all handed on to the saints is a step toward the proper ordering of our minds.

We all call ourselves "Methodists", and we do have a standard liturgy and a standard set of doctrinal commitments.  As I see it, this is a bit like all the restaurants in a chain sharing the same recipes for their meals: You know what you are going to get based on the name of the restaurant.  Otherwise there would not really be any point in branding them all the same, would there?  If one KFC served fried chicken and the next served Italian food, what would be the point in calling all of them KFC and giving all of them the same logo?  It would be a meaningless moniker that would only confuse people.  The same happens to Methodism (or any denomination) when we neglect the official teachings (and the basic liturgical praxis) of our church.

Because of this neglect, United Methodism has now come to the very brink.  There are serious discussions about how to divide up the denomination.  The next 5 years will be decisive in the history of our denomination (and whether that denomination continues to exist in its recognizable form).

I fully agree with Dr. Watson that there is really only one way to Christian unity: to recover, embrace, hold-fast, celebrate, and actively teach "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), the faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic church that she has learned from listening to the Spirit speaking through the Bible over 2000 years, the faith that is focused upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This Classic faith, this classic way of understanding the Bible, is in fact already clearly expressed in our doctrinal standards (including the writings of J. Wesley), our liturgy, in the creeds and the lectionary, in our hymnody, and so on.  The question is whether we will trust these grand resources of the Great Tradition to help us rightly receive and live the Biblical faith (as I have tried throughout my ministry to do, in keeping with my ordination vows), or whether we will continue to neglect them and hope that goodwill is enough to hold together a body of people with disparate beliefs.

As William Abraham, another great United Methodist theologian (and teacher of mine at SMU) puts it, we need to "wake from our doctrinal amnesia" if we are to move forward in faith together.

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The "Senses of Scripture"

One of the many things I did not learn much about in seminary was how virtually all Christian clergy were taught to interpret the Bible before about the year 1800.

My seminary education focused upon the approach to Scriptural interpretation called the Historical-Critical method, which attempts to reconstruct the original historical context, the purpose in writing, the original author and audience, and so on to give insight into the meaning of specific books of the Bible.

Historical-Critical method is, in fact, very valuable to understand the original meanings of a Scripture passage, and I still read good Historical-Critical Bible scholarship to this day.

However, this method does have significant shortcomings.  It is (sometimes) great for gaining insight into a single letter, or single book, or single piece of writing, but it does not usually give much attention to the place of these writings within the canon as a whole; and while it is good at treating Gospels as Gospels and Letters as Letters and Poetry as Poetry, it does not always give much attention to treating any of them as Scripture.  The focus is generally on the original purpose of these writings, without attention to their subsequent, canonical use within the life of the church.  The preacher is (hopefully) attuned to scholarship, but also more than a scholar, using the Bible for pastoral purposes.

Another short-coming of Historical-Critical method is that, like so many fields in the humanities, it purports to be a "scientific" endeavor in some respects, but where 2 or 3 Historical-Critical scholars are gathered, you can be sure there are multiple contradictory approaches and conclusions on nearly everything in the field of Scripture study.  There is a great deal of confusion within the field itself at the moment, which lends a degree of uncertainty to almost every assertion about what "modern scholarship has revealed."

I did, however, eventually discover that before the rise of this, distinctively Modern, approach there was another, richer, approach to interpreting Scripture.  Early Church Fathers and Medieval theologians happily spoke of the various different "senses" of Scripture: a single passage could, and did, have more than one meaning.  The most typical approach (but not the only one) spoke of 4 different "senses" of Scripture.

Consider these words of Saint Augustine (pictured):
"In all Sacred Books we should consider eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given." (from De Genesi Ad Litteram 1:1)

The different 'senses' of Scripture have been neglected in Protestant seminaries in part because of the Reformers' reactions to the abuse of non-literal interpretations and in part because of the desire by modern Biblical scholars to present themselves as "scientific" (read: "legitimate") within the modern academic guild.
In fact - despite not being formally taught in Protestant seminaries - these approaches to Bible interpretation have persisted in our churches because they are, for the serious Bible-reader, almost intuitive.  They have now been smuggled back into the seminaries through the Spiritual Formation movement and the rediscovery among Protestants of Lectio Divina.  These other, non-literal, approaches also allow passages of Scripture that would otherwise be obscure or irrelevant to continue to "speak to us" today.

To get a sense of how the different "senses" work, consider the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel.

Historical-Critical exegetes (interpreters) look at the story in historical terms of "the facts that are narrated": an Israelite boy entered into single combat with a Philistine warrior to defend the honor of YHWH.  The Historical-Critical exegete then asks historical questions: what do we know about single-combat in the warfare of the Ancient Near East?  Who were the Philistines and what historical evidence do we have about them or their culture?  What does this story say about the development of kingship in Israel's history?  Is the story we have the original form?  How does the author/editor(s) of this story want us to view David's dynasty, and why (that is, what is the "agenda" behind the text)?
And the always-popular among (modern) Historical-critical exegetes, "did this event actually happen as an historical event?"

In Early Church and Medieval terms, this approach comes closest to what is meant by the "literal" sense of Scripture: as Augustine says above, "the facts as they are narrated."

The literal sense is important, and is the first and most obvious starting point in understanding any passage of Scripture.  But there are other ways to read the story of David and Goliath, other "senses" of the Scripture.  There are, what might loosely be termed, "spiritual readings" of the text.

One is the allegorical sense.  Goliath represents temptation or opposition which we all, in our different ways, face.  David represents faith and reliance upon the God of Israel to bring us victory.  The story is now about "facing the giants" in our own lives.  There are eternal truths here.

Another, closely related, sense is the Typological reading.  Some classify this as a form of allegory, while others treat it separately.  Typology is frequently used and mentioned in the New Testament.  "Type" here is related to our concepts of "prototype" or "archetype."
David is a "type" or a "sign-post" pointing to Christ, who is the "antitype."  David defeats the pagan Goliath and becomes enthroned as king over Israel.  Jesus defeats Satan and Sin in "single combat" and becomes enthroned over Israel and, therefore, over all the world.  As with the allegorical reading above, this is not what the David and Goliath story is "literally and historically" about in the mind of the original audience, but it is one way that this story has been read as the Living and Active Word of God since the days of the Earliest Church (see, for example, 1 Peter 3:20-21 where the flood story of Noah is said to represent Holy Baptism).

Another approach to reading Scripture is the "moral" sense (called the "tropological" sense).  Look at the great virtues exhibited by David who is faithful, courageous, and humble.  Look at the vices of Saul and Goliath and the other characters, and learn from their examples, there is counsel here for how to live a good life, if we pay attention.

Yet another "sense" of Scripture approaches it in eschatological terms: What does this say about the final destiny of the world and humanity?  This approach is classically called the "anagogic sense."  In this reading, David's defeat of Goliath can symbolize and predict the final victory of God's Kingdom over the forces of idolatry that currently enslave so much of his good creation.

These various other "senses" of Scripture, alongside the historical/literal sense, are quite frequently of great importance for the work of a preacher or Bible-teacher as a spiritual shepherd within the living community of the Church, and deserve more attention than they currently get in our seminary training.

HERE is a nice article from a Roman Catholic theologian named Pauline Viviano examining the different "senses" (including the Historical-Critical sense) that have been applied to Bible-interpretation.  It serves as a great introduction to this topic.

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