FAQ: Beliefs

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  • What are the Methodist doctrinal statements?    Answer
  • What is the place of the Bible in The Methodist Church?    Answer
  • How should I read the Bible?   Answer
  • How do Methodists understand tradition?   Answer
  • What is the Christian role of reason?    Answer
  • What is the role of experience for the Christian life?    Answer
  • How do Methodists understand the grace of God?   Answer
  • How do Methodists understand baptism?   Answer
  • What is the Methodist view on communion?   Answer

Q: What are the Methodist doctrinal statements?
A: The Book of Discipline contains two historic documents which are the core of the Church's official doctrine: The Articles of Religion and The General Rules. “The Articles of Religion, like the General Rules, have remained intact in every Methodist Book of Discipline since 1808, by constitutional restriction. The language and style is largely that of the Book of Common Prayer with which John Wesley was familiar in the 18th century. He extracted 24 articles from the original 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England and sent them, along with his Sunday Service, to the American Methodists in 1784. In addition to the original, two later articles by legislative enactment are included: ‘Of Sanctification’ and ‘Of the Duty of Christians to the Civil Authority’”.
The People Called Methodists, p 94

Like other Christians, Methodists have historically affirmed the great creeds of the early church, such as the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds. See Methodist Doctrines for detail statements.

Q: What is the place of the Bible in The Methodist Church?
A: The following information comes from the book, The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of The Methodist Church in Singapore, which identifies John Wesley's high regard for Scripture.

Methodists share with other Christians the affirmation that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine and theology. It is normative – our rule. Our doctrinal standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion). We recognise the whole Bible, 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.
John Wesley continues to be our guide in many ways. He referred to himself as a man of one book, (homo unius libri), Holy Scripture. In total agreement with the sixteenth century Reformers, he maintained that Scripture is the source and standard of Christian doctrine and conduct, whose authority is final, and can never be superseded.

For Wesley, Scripture is the infallible revelation of God. He affirmed that the biblical writers were inspired, as were the words that they wrote, so that these words are the very words of God, through which God continues to speak. He linked infallibility to authority because he firmly believed that Scripture is the Word of God: true, perfect and consistent.

Nevertheless, Wesley was not an “inerrantist” in the contemporary sense of the term, with its preoccupation with details. An 18th century man, he lived at a time when the scepticism of enlightenment, anti-authoritarianism and critical methods of study, were sweeping Europe. Yet Wesley upheld the divine authority of Scripture, the source and norm of Christian doctrine.

Wesley not only embraced the Reformers' principle of “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura), but also embraced their belief that the Bible must be studied as a whole. Adopting a “canonical” approach to interpreting scripture as the Reformers did, he believed that one should interpret Scripture with Scripture. Because Scripture is a whole, the parts can be harmonised with one another, and the Bible can interpret itself.

Through Scripture we know of God's wonderful grace and the history of God's saving acts. We can read of God's sovereignty and love in the unfolding acts of creation, of the tragic sinfulness of humanity, of God's yearning to redeem his fallen creation through covenants and finally through a changed heart. It is in Scripture that we meet the living Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour, crucified and risen – the way of salvation. Through Scripture the Holy Spirit is able to lead each individual to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Our reading of Scripture tells us not only the way of salvation but also how we ought to live in the world. Scripture must be read and interpreted within the community of believers, informed by the tradition of that community, aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, and guided by the Holy Spirit. Interpretation always involves an understanding of our Christian tradition, a living Christian experience, and reason. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they can become creative instruments to open our eyes, enliven our faith and give understanding.
The People Called Methodists, p 64

Q: How should I read the Bible?
A: Wesley (in his Notes on the Old Testament) suggested a way of reading the Bible in such a way that it contributed both to nurturing one's relationship to God as well as to one's right use of Scripture:
1. Set apart some time, every morning and evening to read the Scripture.
2. Read a chapter each from Old Testament and New Testament.
3. Read the Bible with the clear purpose of knowing the whole will of God, and a sure determination to do it.
4. Read it with the framework of the pattern of faith in mind (analogy of faith) – ie. Fundamental doctrines of original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness. A holistic reading.
5. Pray earnestly before reading the Bible so that the Spirit, without whom you cannot understand Scripture, will illuminate what had been written through inspiration. End Bible reading with prayer so that its truth can be written in your hearts by the Spirit.
6. Scrutinise your heart and life as you read Scripture (self-examination) and take whatever action immediately.
The People Called Methodists, p 72

Q: How do Methodists understand tradition?
A: The following helpful information comes from the book, The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

The 21st century prizes innovation above tradition. Everything from internet browsing, to marketing techniques and contemporary music discounts the time-tested and the traditional. Unfortunately, even in the church the traditional is sometimes pitted against the contemporary, as in whether to choose a traditional or “praise and prayer” worship service, or whether to sing a 200-year-old hymn or the latest Christian hit song.

In fact, Christian communities in every age have sought to interpret the truth of the gospel for their time, partly by reading the Scriptures afresh, but also by hearing again what past Christians had to say. Tradition is both the content of what has been said as well as the process of passing it on from one generation to the next. Over the centuries, a kind of consensus has developed, upholding the legacy of experience and affirming earlier Christians. Especially profound is the tradition found in the ecumenical creeds, the prayers and worship liturgies. We may see doctrinal differences within church history; but taken as a whole, the ongoing story of the church always comes back to the standard of the Scriptures.

If Scripture is the standard for Christian doctrine, tradition is the interpretation and transmission of that standard. Tradition plays an important role in Christian doctrine. John Wesley stood squarely within the Anglican tradition and drew from the theological insights of the great 16th century Reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. But, he held the view that the tradition of the church is unbroken and continuous, rooted and shaped by the Gospel. He thus re-acquired the theological wealth of the Patristic tradition represented by the early church fathers such as Polycarp, Origen and other writers of the 2nd to the 4th centuries.

In fact, Wesley's knowledge of the Patristic tradition probably surpassed that of most of his peers. He regarded these early writings as a guide to understanding the Scriptures, especially the more difficult and obscure passages. These early writers received from the apostles, just as the apostles received from Christ. But Wesley was, of course, aware of problems even in the Patristic writings, and warned his readers that they must always be weighed against the plain teaching of Scripture. Thus, he did not accept tradition uncritically, since he believed that all tradition must be assessed in the light of the teaching of Scripture.

Wesley was certainly indebted to the Anglican tradition. He used and supported the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and his Sunday Service of the Methodist in North America (1784), was based on the Prayer Book.

In line with the Protestant Reformers, Wesley emphasised the primacy of scripture (sola scriptura), as well as the priority of grace and faith (sola gratia, sola fidei). But, in his desire to be faithful to Scripture, he was known to criticise some aspects of the tradition. For example, when Wesley spoke of the importance of repentance prior to justification, he was accused of turning justification into a human initiative, contrary to the Reformers. For Wesley, however, repentance itself is a gift of God, in the sense that it is only by God's prevenient (preventing) grace awakening the individual, that repentance is possible. The point is that, while affirming the insights of the Reformers, he did not embrace their theology uncritically.

One other tradition that influenced Wesley was Pietism. He saw it as part of the larger tradition of Christian spirituality, first encountering the Moravian variety when, in 1736, he and his brother Charles were sailing to Georgia as missionaries. When a storm broke out, everyone on board the vessel feared for their lives. However, a group of German Moravians remained calm and unmoved by the raging storm as they sang the psalms “without intermission”.

Wesley was profoundly and permanently impressed by the Moravians' unperturbed calmness in the face of death. His subsequent theological engagements with leading Moravians, like Peter Böhler and Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, helped him to form his doctrine of justification and the Christian life.
The People Called Methodists, p. 67

Q: What is the Christian role of reason?
A: The following helpful information comes from the book, The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

To understand the role of reason, one must understand the powerful cultural and intellectual movement of the 18th century in Europe called the Enlightenment that Wesley faced. It was a mindset that celebrated human reason and gave birth to “the Age of Reason.”

Human reason was seen as the sole basis for knowledge about truth and morals. The dogmas of the church, and even the Bible itself, were scrutinised by reason which alone would determine whether they were admissible. Influenced by this ethos, Christian thinkers sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity that it was soon presented as a rational religion. What the church had received through revelation could also be attained through rational investigation, independent of revelation. However, this approach brought about serious revisions to the teachings of the faith, while the very nature of Christianity was differently understood.

For instance, the supernatural aspects of Christian belief like the doctrine of the Trinity became a minor and unimportant aspect of Christianity which became perceived as a moral religion whose objective was to achieve moral goodness – but devoid of sound theology.

With his commitment to Biblical authority, Wesley was clearly critical of placing such undue confidence in human reason, although he did not deny the role of human reason, as those who reacted angrily to the Enlightenment tended to. He was concerned to establish the proper role for reason in the church and in its theological task.

He rejected reason as an independent source of human knowledge, as well as the theory that the knowledge of God is stamped on the human soul. Rather, he held that universal knowledge of God comes from experience with which reason interacts. Reason cannot be considered the source of theology: it is an instrument to understand the source of theology.

As an empiricist, Wesley believed that experience is the basis of all human knowledge, that is, everything that we can naturally know comes from the senses, and therefore reason has an important, but secondary, role in human understanding.
How then, does reason work in the process of human understanding? Wesley saw three basic functions:

  • Apprehension: “the first and most simple act of understanding”, reason simply takes note of the object or the data before it;
  • Judgement: reason processes the data by sorting and categorising it, and by establishing its relationship with other data;
  • Discourse: reason thinks with the data by forming ideas and comparing them with other ideas.

In theological thinking, these three functions work together as reason is instrumental in examining and integrating the data of Scripture.
Wesley's understanding of human rationality and the role of reason in human knowledge is an important contribution to philosophical reflection on the subject.

He believed that to be rational is to be objective – to “think according to” the object. It is the object that determines and shapes human thought because human reason itself is not the basis of human knowledge. In theology, this means that the human mind cannot create an idea of God on its own and then impose this on the Bible. Rather, it is the Bible that should shape our thinking of God, supplying the data with which we can form an idea of God. According to Wesley, rational thinking is faithful thinking. Examples of unfaithful thinking, or thinking that is not objective, include the heresies which propound the ideas of God that do not correspond with biblical data.

Wesley defended a kind of natural theology, maintaining that reason can glean from the creation truths about God even without special revelation. This is because nature is God's artwork, and it is possible to deduce from it some of his attributes – his wisdom, goodness, sovereignty.

However, Wesley distinguished between nature and revelation by saying that our observations of nature can cause us to know about God, but they cannot lead us to know God. Our natural knowledge about God fails to bring us to salvation because, only with special revelation, can we know the specifics about God's character and about his saving activity in Jesus Christ. The knowledge of God through reason must be supplemented by faith because it is only by faith that we can know God in a personal and saving way.
The People Called Methodists, p 68

Q: What is the role of experience for the Christian life?
A: We have answered this question from the book, The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of The Methodist Church in Singapore. It reflects a Methodist understanding of experience, in relation to Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

Thinking Christians have sometimes debated on the value of experience, or feelings as a separate criterion for knowing God's will. However, John Wesley was clear that the mysteries of God could not be appreciated by those who had not actually experienced God. He wrote that the great practical religious truths could not be understood except by those who had experienced the same things in their own souls. To know the “mysteries of the inward kingdom of God” people must experience it, live the life of Christ and allow God's rule in their hearts. Such experience enriches theological reflection.

Wesley's writings suggest two important functions of experience. The first is about religious experience as evidence that God is at work in the Christian. Wesley's emphasis of this has invited allegations that he was an “enthusiast”, and that this was a subjective religion. But these allegations ignore the thoroughly biblical basis of Wesley's understanding of the function of experience. The Bible is the witness of the Spirit. Wesley was not interested in unqualified religious experience as such, but in the witness of the Holy Spirit through which God's love becomes a conscious reality in the believer, and the motivation for Christ-like living.

The Christian's subjective experience must always be firmly established in the objective truth of God communicated in the Scriptures. Wesley carefully avoided the subjectivism that he sometimes found in the mystics which tended to make the individual person's religious experience become the standard of truth. Consequently, for Wesley, religious experience should not be reduced to the perspective of the individual, since this could also produce the outcome that he wished to avoid. He therefore placed great emphasis on the need for Christians to counsel each other, and encouraged such sessions where mutual exchange or sharing could take place.

In addition, Wesley also used experience to defend his doctrinal claims. For example, he defended the doctrine of original sin by appealing to universal experience. In so doing, he demonstrated not only that daily experience confirms the scriptural account, but also that “experience” is subordinate to Scripture. He also used the universal experience of human freedom to defend it against the claims of determinism. In both cases, Wesley's thesis is not that a doctrine is true because we experience it, but rather that we experience it because it is true.
  The People Called Methodists, p 70

Q: How do Methodists understand the grace of God?
A: The following information reflects a Methodist understanding of grace, from The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

One of the distinctive insights which the Methodist Church inherited from its founder, John Wesley, is a comprehensive view of the grace of God. Pervasive in all of creation, grace reveals God's purpose to heal and restore humanity from the disorder of sin.
John Wesley defined grace as that free and undeserved love and mercy which reconciles the sinner to God, through the merits of Christ. By grace, estranged sinners are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, enabling the pardoned and reconciled sinner to do what would otherwise be impossible.
But grace also transforms, and for Wesley, this expresses the essence of the Gospel of salvation that was the heartbeat of his preaching ministry. The God of grace is love and the grace of God is the demonstration of that indescribable love freely showered upon all humanity.
While the grace of God is essentially undivided, the saving activity of grace can be seen in these five phases of the work of the Holy Spirit:

  • Prevenient Grace – that comes even before the sinner has full knowledge of God, drawing him to repentance and healing;
  • Justifying Grace – initiating the first stage of salvation, in which God pardons the sinner who trusts in Christ and begins a healing process;
  • Sanctifying Grace – whereby the pardoned sinner is restored to the image of God;
  • Perfecting Grace – initiating a further stage of salvation, by which Christians are so enabled to love God that they are free from accidental sins; and
  • Triumphant grace – the power of God to glorify believers who, by faith, receive the Kingdom of God.

 The People Called Methodists, p. 71

Q: How do Methodists understand baptism?
A: In the Methodist family of churches, the meaning of Holy Baptism enjoys a variety of beliefs which give a richness to this practice. It is understood
1) as a sign of initiation into the Christian faith and fellowship
2) as a distinguishing mark in a plural society
3) as an act of repentance and cleansing
4) as an indication of union with Christ especially in His death and His resurrection
5) as a seal of the Holy Spirit
6) as an act of admission to the Church of Christ and
7) as an occasion when Christ is confessed and proclaimed

Holy Baptism is a means by which God's grace of salvation is channelled. It is the grace of God which even enables the believer to repent and receive God's grace. It is the grace that enables the believer to grow in faith and ain doing God's will. That he should continue to confess Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord becomes a natural duty and outcome. Baptism is the beginning of a growing responsibility of the disciple and witness of Jesus Christ. Methodists allow any form of baptism using water, baptising in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with laying on of the minister's hand. Baptism can be by sprinkling, pouring or immersion.

Baptism is done only once and is generally recognized by all denominations. An ordained minister baptises an adult or infant, usually during a church service, as it involves the whole Body of Christ. However, in exceptional cases, as in emergencies, baptism is carried out by a baptised person and, if possible, where two or three are gathered together in the Name of Christ. Pamphlet: A Methodist View of the Sacraments and Observances

Q: What is the Methodist view of Communion?
A: The Holy Communion is the central and ultimate observance of the church. It is so rich in meaning that new depths of understanding are reached according to the faith and sincerity of the worshipper, who is expected to participate ‘in sprit and in truth’. However, we do not teach that the bread and the unfermented wine actually change to the body and blood of Christ, as some might do. There are steps in the understanding of this Sacrament:
Firstly some think of it as an act of remembrance of the death and resurrection of our Lord, almost like a memorial service after the person has departed from this life.
The second step gives more content to remembrance and includes the reality of Christ as a living Presence, imparting His love and grace.
The third step is the experience of renewal, and of forgiveness of sins and being strengthened to lead a new life. We have tasted his grace and have been nourished. The new covenant is mentioned in the gospels; therefore God through Christ's life offers salvation, while we receive it in faith and live in obedience.
The fourth step is the proclamation or the showing forth that Jesus Christ is Saviour and Lord.
The fifth step is the anticipation of Christ's coming again, a promise that is often forgotten. Jesus has come, he comes to us in the Sacraments and He will come to consummate His pan of salvation for all people. --Pamphlet: A Methodist View of the Sacraments and Observances.

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