“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
John Wesley and the early Methodists were particularly concerned about inviting people to experience God’s grace and to grow in their knowledge and love of God through disciplined Christian living. They placed primary emphasis on Christian living, on putting faith and love into action. This emphasis on what Wesley referred to as “practical divinity” has continued to be a hallmark of United Methodism today.
There are two kinds of believing, and both are essential for Christian life. They’re closely related and influence each other, but they’re different. One is belief and the other, beliefs. One is faith and the other, doctrine or theology.
Faith is the basic orientation and commitment of our whole being—a matter of heart and soul. Christian faith is grounding our lives in the living God as revealed especially in Jesus Christ. It’s both a gift we receive within the Christian community and a choice we make. It’s trusting in God and relying on God as the source and destiny of our lives. Faith is believing in God, giving God our devoted loyalty and allegiance. Faith is following Jesus, answering the call to be his disciples in the world. Faith is hoping for God’s future, leaning into the coming kingdom that God has promised. Faith-as-belief is active; it involves trusting, believing, following, hoping.
Theology or doctrine is more a matter of the head. It’s thinking together in the community of believers about faith and discipleship. It’s reflecting on the gospel. It’s examining the various beliefs we hold as a church. Some may say that theology is only for professional theologians. This is not true. All of us, young and old, lay and clergy, need to work at this theological task so that our beliefs will actually guide our day-by-day actions and so that we can communicate our belief to an unbelieving world.
Our Theological Journey
Theology is thinking together about our faith and discipleship. It’s reflecting with others in the Christian community about the good news of God’s love in Christ. Both laypeople and clergy are needed in “our theological task.” The laypeople bring understandings from their ongoing effort to live as Christians in the complexities of a secular world; clergy bring special tools and experience acquired through intensive biblical and theological study. We need one another. But how shall we go about our theological task so that our beliefs are true to the gospel and helpful in our lives? In John Wesley’s balanced and rigorous ways for thinking through Christian doctrine, we find four major sources or criteria, each interrelated. These we often call our “theological guidelines”: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
In thinking about our faith, we put primary reliance on the Bible. It’s the unique testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life of Israel; in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ; and in the Spirit’s work in the early church. It’s our sacred canon and, thus, the decisive source of our Christian witness and the authoritative measure of the truth in our beliefs. In our theological journey we study the Bible within the believing community. Even when we study it alone, we’re guided and corrected through dialogue with other Christians. We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole. We use concordances, commentaries, and other aids prepared by the scholars. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we try to discern both the original intention of the text and its meaning for our own faith and life.
Between the New Testament age and our own era stand countless witnesses on whom we rely in our theological journey. Through their words in creed, hymn, discourse, and prayer, through their music and art, through their courageous deeds, we discover Christian insight by which our study of the Bible is illuminated. This living tradition comes from many ages and many cultures. Even today Christians living in far different circumstances from our own—in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia—are helping us discover fresh understanding of the Gospel’s power.
A third source and criterion of our theology is our experience. By experience we mean especially the “new life in Christ,” which is ours as a gift of God’s grace; such rebirth and personal assurance gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. But we mean also the broader experience of all the life we live, its joys, its hurts, its yearnings. So we interpret the Bible in light of our cumulative experiences. We interpret our life’s experience in light of the biblical message. We do so not only for our experience individually but also for the experience of the whole human family.
Finally, our own careful use of reason, though not exactly a direct source of Christian belief, is a necessary tool. We use our reason in reading and interpreting the Scripture. We use it in relating the Scripture and tradition to our experience and in organizing our theological witness in a way that’s internally coherent. We use our reason in relating our beliefs to the full range of human knowledge and in expressing our faith to others in clear and appealing ways.
Excerpt from United Methodist Member’s Handbook,
Revised by George Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006), pp. 64-65.