by Bob Phillips
“When your dogmatism chases my catechism, that’s fanaticism.” (anon)
Recently print and social media have been alive with passionate protests on the orthodoxy of the United Methodist Church. Adam Hamilton, whom I have no doubt personally believes such as the literal nature of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, has been the point man for the offense, together with Tom Berlin of Virginia. Orthodoxy is what the church teaches. Orthodoxy is what the United Methodist Church believes. Suggestions that the church is wobbly about such convictions crosses the border into false witness and slander. The Discipline is marinated in biblical truth and drips orthodoxy!
The discussion is a misfire. Folks on the right need to know that official teaching on such as the deity of Christ, virgin birth, and resurrection will not be stripped from official church teaching. That would be way too obvious and enough traditional types will remain with the legacy church to ensure the technical language remains pure. Folks on the left need to know that the spin about taking such teachings seriously but not literally has a long pedigree in mellow Methodist history. After the departure of a lot of evangelicals, such spins will increase and widen with fresh understandings (or misunderstandings) of the gospel for a new age.
“Seriously but not literally” is the magic phrase, with “interpretation” as the magic word. Jesus said if our eye or hand offend us, pluck it out and cut it off. That is the stuff of ‘serious but not literal.’ On the other hand, a husband who tells his wife that he takes his promise of faithfulness in marriage seriously but not literally had better have excellent life insurance and a good lawyer, and he still would be in the wrong.
American Methodist history is clear that those who reject a literal understanding of the virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus are not professionally harmed or subject to conviction at a heresy trial. The old Boston University School of Theology Methodist personalism trinity of Bowne, Brightman and Knudsen (all grateful products of conservative pious homes) dismissed and/or devalued such insistence on literal belief as the stuff of fundamentalists and reactionary types with no future in evolving Methodism. After grumbling about Bowne in the early 1900’s, the denomination shrugged off “heresy” as a cuss word used as a cudgel by conservatives afraid of the future, bound by rigid ‘interpretation.’
Ernest Fremont Tittle, renowned pastor of Evanston First in the 1920’s until his death in 1949, took all of such teachings about Jesus seriously but none of it literally, and preached to 1,500 a week. A sincere pacifist and strong critic of greedy capitalism, he led the nearly-successful effort to have General Conference 1944 reject church support for the US in taking arms against the Axis powers. Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, father of Wesley Seminary and renowned for standing up to Red-baiting politicians in the 1950’s, pointedly dismissed insistence on such as the literal virgin birth, inspiration, miracles, atonement and resurrection of Jesus, typically couching even raising the subject as an excursion into bigotry and fundamentalism. His book, a Testament of Faith, published 5 years before his death, summarized his beliefs about God, Jesus and prayer. He never used the word “resurrection,” for Jesus or anyone else, and dismissed mention of an actual virgin birth or substitutionary atonement or a doctrine of Hell with sophisticated ridicule.
So the decision of the North Central Jurisdiction in 2003 to dismiss complaints against Northern Illinois Bishop Joe Sprague, who clearly rejected a literal virgin birth or resurrection or miracles or thought of a Second Coming, simply continued a pattern of freedom of interpretation. Historic and biblical words, unzipped and shaken free of content, can be filled like a Thanksgiving turkey with bread stuffing of original meaning or with dominos, marbles, or used underwear. All theological chefs use the same sacred word, ‘turkey,’ but what actually is served up can cause joy or indigestion, or worse depending on the meaning stuffed into or imposed upon the words.
This public spat kindled in me memories not visited for decades, perhaps a form of spiritual PTSD. I was a freshman at the University of Illinois in the raucous Fall of 1968. Ten percent of my entering class rioted and was jailed in their first week on campus, protesting racial injustice, the war, the cafeteria menu and the tyranny of the system. I was a fresh convert to Jesus, having just joined an old church that was part of a brand-new denomination called “United Methodist.” I knew Jesus, believed my sins had been forgiven at the cross, knew that Jesus wanted me to follow him, and knew very little else, not having been raised in any church.
To make myself wise I enrolled in the most popular philosophy course at the university, Introduction to Comparative Religion, Philosophy 110. Roughly 120-150 students crammed the lecture hall to hear Professor Harry Tiebout, a politically liberal, balding, gregarious, opinionated mainstay for the campus political left…and one of the finest professors I would ever have in my 14 years of post-high school education.
At the opening lecture he made clear he considered himself what today would be called a progressive Christian, that the stories about Jesus (especially anything supernatural) were pious myths. He warned against the temptation to compare the glistening ideal of one’s own religion (or lack of religion) with the muddy realities held by “others.” Thus, by the end of the term I had an insightful, fact-filled, and honest introduction to Islam, various shades of Hindu and Buddhist, Judaism, and lesser-known groups such as Bahai. I was confident I could express the core views of each group in such a way that practitioners of those various faiths would nod that I had described them fairly. It was a vision, by the way, that would enable and enrich future ministry of over three decades as a Navy chaplain in ministry among a truly interfaith-no faith-ecumenical collection of shipmates and colleagues.
The course concluded with a section on Christianity. Tiebout invited representatives of various faith perspectives to sit with him on the stage individually and dialogue about their beliefs as the class listened. The Protestant representative was a mainstay clergy leader of the campus presence for the United Methodist Church. After some general banter the United Methodist clergy leader was asked about Jesus, specifically the resurrection. The UM clergy leader responded that he affirmed the symbolic value of the idea but was clear to add that belief in the literal notion of the resurrection of Christ was unnecessary and possibly counterproductive, given that “the body of Jesus of Nazareth long ago decayed in an unknown Judean tomb.” That is a virtual quote burned in my brain that day. Over 50 years later it still hisses in my memory.
That response left me dazed and confused. This guy was a religious leader on campus and in the conference. The following week Father Barry McDermont (of blessed memory) came, priest at the Newman Center and St. John’s Catholic church on campus and sat in the chair for a similar dialogue. When asked the identical question, Father Barry paused and said thoughtfully, “I do believe it. I can’t explain it but I do believe it.” I know of a number of students from all religious viewpoints whose respect for Father Barry increased after his appearance. He had come to campus ministry recently, having spent several years working among the destitute and excluded in a South American rural setting. His strong Christian social passion also was reflected in the class conversation, but not at the price of surrendering core Christian teaching.
I quit attending the Wesley Foundation and began worshipping at St. John’s at Saturday midnight mass, with Father Barry as officiant. I wrote a letter to my bishop, who sent a personal and kind reply expressing confidence that Jesus was real to the clergy leader…in some way (like maybe “John Brown’s body”?). Another United Methodist clergyperson, part of the faculty and a fine instructor in the new Department of Religious Studies, and a gracious person, likewise avoided mentioning the bodily resurrection of Jesus in relevant classes, since he also didn’t think it did or could happen. Thus, the two most significant United Methodist clergy academic and pastoral persons in this formative period of my life were clear. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, if understood in any bodily or literal sense, was a myth. The historical Jesus, conceived like anyone else, literally did no “miracles,” died for nobody’s sin except in a metaphorical sense, was buried and decayed, and is not coming again in any literal or transcendent meaning of that term. As Sonny Corleone might say in response, ‘Bada boom, bada bing.’
Adam Hamilton mentions in his defense of institutional orthodoxy that his undergraduate work was at Oral Roberts University, where one assumes their ‘narrow’ approach to such subjects would preclude teaching or pastoral roles to those who allegorize or symbolically interpret core and creedal Christian truth. I have spoken of an example, by no means an isolated example, reaching literally to the date of the 1968 start of the United Methodist Church, where taking such truths ‘seriously but not literally’ have eroded the foundation of confidence in the biblical integrity of the church.
See what happens if a physician is asked if she believes in viruses and cancer and she replies, “I fully believe but take such concepts seriously, not literally.” Go for a drive in an area where speed laws are taken seriously, not literally, and see what happens to your insurance rates. Come to think of it, as an Italian, I do know at least one country where this seems to be the case!
Consider the essence and impact of the Jesus Seminar, filled with United Methodist and other mainline scholars largely dismissive of viewing any miraculous dimension of the Gospel as true, except in a symbolic sense. The era of Joe McCarthy and ‘naming names’ happily is over and must not return, but the numbers of those with positions of leadership in the denomination who dismiss such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus are real, numerous and influential, both in the denomination and in local conferences. And holding a theology of the resurrection of Christ that comfortably could fit in a Unitarian Church or Humanist Society coffee klatch doesn’t count.
“John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on” was fine for John Brown but is not a New Testament understanding of the resurrection of Christ. Dismissing the bodily resurrection of Christ as ‘the resuscitation of a corpse,’ as did Bishop Joe Sprague, wildly misses the point. Also, a theology of the atonement through the cross of Christ is not simply a noble martyr being true to his convictions, or as a god who murders his kid to splash blood on a warped sense of justice. The theme of the blood of Christ as central to our redemption is a recurring theme in Wesleyan hymns and preaching.
So why did I stay United Methodist? The local pastor of the church I joined, Rev. Leroy Dude, was a faithful witness, not a polished speaker but a pastor through whom the risen Christ became real. I knew some women in my larger family who had become clergy, sensed their clear calling as pastors, and was not interested in joining a conservative church that rejected such roles for women. I cherished intellectual pursuits, “knowledge and vital piety” in the Wesleyan sense, and wanted a church not consumed in fighting over evolution or that treated my university education as compromise with the godless. I embraced the clear need for the prophetic and social dimensions of the biblical life of discipleship and was not attracted to churches that simply ignored this central aspect of Christian living and believing.
That was then. Now I see a denomination in steep and accelerating decline in the US, riddled with trust deficits at all levels, with leaders drenched in an almost supernatural denial of deep challenges, an aging and increasingly dysfunctional and irrelevant organization…and theological dysphoria undercutting foundational beliefs without which there can be no revival, reformation or renewal. Whatever else, and there is much to that ‘whatever,’ a church that refuses to let its ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and its ‘no’ be ‘no’ in core convictions of faith cannot meet modern needs. Healthy tolerance is not at stake. The gospel of Christ (W.E. Sangster once said) is more than ‘being nice to grandmother and the cat.’ Clemenceau of France once growled about Marshall Petain, “The man is immortal. He has no heart, no brains and no guts. How can he die?” A church that, in the name of inclusion and tolerance, has no guts, draws no lines and refuses to define its convictions regarding Christ in a decisive and unified manner, may string out its days but has no future.
The good Lord knows better than any of us the challenges facing the new Global Methodist Church. The threat of dead orthodoxy has been real since Christ’s indictment of the Pharisees, James’ shellacking of the technically orthodox (James 2:19) and Wesley’s warning of Methodist transition to a dead sect, a warning with application to evangelicals as well as progressives. Repressing tolerance of differing views or setting up a system where we say, “If we cannot all think alike…then get out”…is not what Wesley said about biblical fellowship amid diversity. The UM problem has been the failure to state, affirm and enforce its core beliefs and boundaries. “Have it your way” was a slogan to sell hamburgers, not Jesus. Whatever its current or future faults and flaws, the GMC gives every indication it is getting this one right. Christ is risen, indeed!
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.