Unmasking Methodist Theology
This symposium, authored by 23 contributors, seeks to throw light on developments in Methodist theological thinking in Britain since Methodist Union in 1932. It is divided into three parts. In Part I there are eight historical studies which survey the relevant evidence available from a variety sources, such as Conference reports and memorials, the Methodist Recorder, CPD, the Methodist Hymn Book, Hymns and Psalms, the Methodist Worship Book, Methodist Missionary Society/Overseas Division publications, Sunday School materials, and training materials for members, local preachers, and ministers. In Part II we have six thematic studies, in which the authors share their reflections on particular aspects of theology from a Methodist point of view, in particular the use of narrative in theology, revelation, experience, the concept of interdependence, providence, and holiness. Finally, in Part III, we are given eight responses to the articles presented in Parts I and II from a variety of contributors of different backgrounds: a black British Methodist, a member of the United Methodist Church in America, a British Methodist laywoman, ecumenical representatives (URC, Catholic and Anglican), an African minister currently serving in Britain, and a British Methodist probationer.
From this brief summary of the contents, it will already be apparent that the book is fairly
restricted in scope and delivers less than its title may seem at first sight to promise. Firstly, it is not so much about Methodist Theology as about British Methodist Theology, and, as the book itself implicitly acknowledges (p.169), the membership of the British Methodist Church accounts now for less than 1% of Methodist membership worldwide. A book on Methodist Theology worldwide would have a very different character. Secondly, the book, by its own admission, does not present a Methodist systematic theology, even of a 'potted' kind (p.97), but just certain aspects of British Methodist theological thinking in the period 1932-2000, which leave many great doctrines, including many dear to the hearts of evangelicals, virtually untouched. And thirdly, again by its own admission, the book concentrates on written sources, mostly official, and does not attempt to give an account of the oral theology of grassroots Methodism (p.xii). To be precise then, what is 'unmasked' in this book is not 'Methodist Theology' in any kind of comprehensive sense, but rather certain facets of British Methodist theological thinking as found in post-1932 publications, which are, in varying degrees, described and evaluated by the contributors.
Written in an academic, rather than a popular, style, this book appeals more to the head than the heart, and will make heavy demands on the readers' concentration. It will not, I suspect, be easy reading for the average British Methodist. Nevertheless, those who feel able to tackle such a book will find much to interest them. The articles are on the whole well written, and the subjects selected for treatment competently handled. Themes which regularly recur throughout the book include: the renewed stress on the doctrine of the Trinity; the roles of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (the 'Methodist Quadrilateral') in the theological task; prevenient grace; growth in holiness (the 'optimism' of grace); inclusiveness as expressed especially in fellowship, the 'priesthood of all believers', connexionalism, ecumenism, and global interdependence; and the practical outworking of faith in social action. There is little here that might surprise anyone who is at all familiar with our Church, but it is helpful to have these distinctive emphases documented and discussed as they are in this volume.
Otherwise, what might be said from an evangelical perspective about the trends to which the book testifies? Here our appraisal will probably be more ambivalent. Let me take three examples:
Firstly, as regards the Methodist Quadrilateral, while welcoming a fair representation of the view of the supremacy of scripture, particularly in the article on 'Revelation in Methodist Practice and Belief', we are also reminded of competing views within British Methodism which in practice undermine the Bible's authority. One needs only to think of the way in which the Conference of 2001, in responding to the Faith and Order Committee report on the nature of authority, allowed to stand unchallenged low views of scripture which can hardly be described as compatible with the Deed of Union.
Secondly, as regards the renewed stress on the doctrine of the Trinity, while welcoming this positive development, one still wonders how seriously the doctrine of the deity of God the Son in particular is being taken among those who declare a newfound faith in God as Trinity. Even within Unmasking Methodist Theology, for example, one finds a contributor implying that Wesley's teaching that Christ 'could think no evil thoughts' (p.88) has no further place in modern Methodism. We are not told how this denial of Christ's impeccability may be reconciled with an assertion of his deity.
Thirdly, as regards the doctrine of salvation, while many of the theological emphases highlighted in this book are fully compatible with evangelical belief, evangelical readers will still be concerned to read, especially in the article on the Hymn Books and Liturgies of British Methodism, of a shift away from matters such as the gospel call, the need for repentance and personal salvation from sin, the possibility of assurance, the fact of final judgment, and the future state, and of a corresponding shift towards universalism. There is an important difference between saying 'all can be saved' and saying 'all will be saved'. The former is emphatically part of our Wesleyan evangelical heritage, the latter, equally emphatically, is not.
While, therefore, this book is certainly to be welcomed as a guide to some of the main theological trends within post-1932 British Methodism, not all the trends it highlights will be equally welcome from an evangelical perspective. As always, we are called to 'test all things' and 'hold fast what is good' (1Thess. 5.21).