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§ 110. Methodist Creeds.
The American Methodists have three classes of doctrinal standards.
1. The Twenty-five Articles of Religion.16921692 See Vol. III. pp. 766 sqq. Comp. also Emory, History of the Discipline, ch. i. § 2; Comfort, Exposition of the Articles (New York, 1847); Jimeson, Notes on the Twenty-five Articles (Cincinnati, 1853). They were prepared by John Wesley, from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (together with an abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer), for the American Methodists, and were adopted by the Conference in Baltimore, 1784, with the exception of Article XXIII., which recognizes the United States as 'a sovereign and independent nation,' and which was adopted in 1804. These articles are now unalterably fixed, and can neither be revoked nor changed.16931693 'The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion, nor establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.' This article can not be amended (Discipline, p. 51). The General Conference is the highest of the five judicatories, and the only legislative body of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
2. John Wesley's Sermons and Notes on the New Testament. They are legally binding only on the British Wesleyans, but they are in fact as highly esteemed and as much used by American Methodists, and constitute the life of the denomination. When eighty-one years of age (Feb. 28, 1784), Wesley, in his famous Deed of Declaration, which is called the Magna Charta of Methodism, bequeathed the property and government of all his chapels in the United Kingdom (then 359 in number) to the 'Legal Hundred,' i.e., a conference of one hundred of his traveling preachers and their successors, on condition that they should accept as their basis of doctrine his Notes on the New Testament and the four volumes of Sermons which had been published by him or in his name in or before 1771.16941694 Tyerman, Vol. III. pp. 417 sqq. These sermons are fifty-eight in number, and cover the common faith and duties of Christians,16951695 Thirteen discourses are on the Sermon on the Mount, chiefly ethical; two are funeral discourses (on the death of Whitefield and Fletcher); one on the cause and cure of earth-quakes; one on the use of money. but contain at the same time the doctrines which constitute the distinctive creed of Methodism.16961696 On Salvation by Faith; Scriptural Christianity; Original Sin; Justification by Faith; Free Grace; the Witness of the Spirit (three sermons); on Christian Perfection. It is singular there is not one sermon on the Freedom of the Will. The Notes on the New Testament are for the most part a popular version of Bengel's Gnomon.891
3. The Book of Discipline and several Catechisms, one published in 1852, another in 1868 (by Dr. Nast), are at least secondary standards for the American Methodists.
The distinctive features of the Methodist creed are not logically formulated, like those of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. It allows a liberal margin for further theological development. John Wesley, though himself an able logician and dialectician, sought Christianity more in practical principles and sanctified affections than in orthodox formulas, and laid greater stress on the œcumenical consensus which unites than on the sectarian dissensus which divides the Christians. The General Rules, or recognized terms of membership, for the origina1 Methodist 'societies' (not churches), are ethical and practical, and contain not a single article of doctrine. They require 'a desire to flee the wrath to come and be saved from sin,' and to avoid certain specific vices.
Nevertheless Methodists claim to have more doctrinal harmony than many denominations which impose a minute creed. There is a Methodist system of doctrine and a Methodist theology, however elastic they may be. But there is a difference of opinion among their standard writers as to the degree of originality and completeness of this system and its relation to other confessions. We may distinguish an American and an English view on the subject.
An ingenious attempt has recently been made to raise the Methodist creed to the importance and dignity of a fourth confession or symbolical system alongside of the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Calvinistic, and far above them. According to Dr. Warren, Catholicism makes salvation dependent upon a meritorious co-operation of man with God, and is essentially pagan; Calvinism makes salvation depend exclusively on the eternal decree and free grace of God, and views Christianity from the stand-point of the Old Testament; Lutheranism derives salvation from the personal relation of man to the means of grace (the Word and Sacraments), and views Christianity from the stand-point of justification by faith alone; Methodism makes salvation exclusively dependent upon man's own free relation to the illuminating, renewing, and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit, and represents 892the stand-point of Christian perfection. Calvin retains the Christians under the dispensation of the Father, Luther under the dispensation of the Son, Wesley leads them into the dispensation of the Spirit. The first confines salvation to the favorite number of the elect; the second binds it to the baptismal font, the altar, and the pulpit; the third offers it freely to all. Calvin's ideal Christian is a servant of God, Luther's a child of God, Wesley's a perfect man in the full stature of Christ.16971697 Syst. Theol. Vol. I. pp. 90, 99, 119, 140, 149, 166. Dr. Warren (who is now President of the Methodist University in Boston) wrote this able book (which is as yet, 1876, unfinished) while in Germany, and under the stimulus of the generalizing theories of some German divines. Zinzendorf had made a somewhat similar distinction between the Lutheran, Reformed, and Moravian types of doctrine (Lehrtropen), but comprehended them all in his brotherhood. James Martineau, from the Unitarian point of view, represents Luther, Calvin, and Wesley as the representatives of the orthodox gospel in three dialects (Studies of Christianity, London, 1873, pp. 399 sq.).
English Methodists claim for their system a humbler
position, and represent it, in accordance with the intention of the founders, as
a liberal evangelical modification of the Anglican creed, with some original doctrines
to which they attach great importance.16981698
Professor William B. Pope,
of Didsbury College, Manchester, one of the leading Wesleyan divines, makes the
following statement concerning the creed of the English Methodists (in the Introduction
to his translation of Winer's Comparative View of the Doctrines and Confessions
of the various Communities of Christendom, Edinb. 1873, pp. lxxvi.–lxxviii.):
'It may be said that English Methodism has no distinct articles of faith. At the
same time it is undoubtedly true that no community in Christendom is more effectually
hedged about by confessional obligations and restraints. Reference has been made
to the distinction of creeds, confessions, and standards. Methodism combines the
three in its doctrinal constitution after a manner on the whole peculiar to itself.
Materially if not formally, virtually if not actually, implicitly if not avowedly,
its theology is bound by the ancient œcumenical Creeds, by the Articles of the
English Church, and by comprehensive standards of its own, the peculiarity of
its maintenance of these respectively having been determined by the specific circumstances
of its origin and consolidation—circumstances with which it is not our business
here to enter. In common with most Christian Churches it holds fast the Catholic
Symbols; the Apostolical and Nicene are extensively used in the Liturgy, and the
Athanasian, not so used, is accepted so far as concerns its doctrinal type. The
doctrine of the Articles of the Church of England is the doctrine of Methodism.
This assertion must, of course, be taken broadly, as subject to many qualifications.
For instance, the Connection has never avowed the Articles as its Confession of
Faith; some of those Articles have no meaning for it in its present constitution;
others of them are tolerated in their vague and doubtful bearing, rather than
accepted as definitions; and, finally, many Methodists would prefer to disown
any relation to them of any kind. Still the verdict of the historical theologian,
who takes a comprehensive view of the estate of Christendom, in regard to the
history and development of Christian truth, would locate the Methodist community
under the Thirty-nine Articles. He would draw his inference from the posture towards
them of the early founders of the system; and he would not fail to mark that the
American branch of the family, which has spread simultaneously with its European
branch, has retained the Articles of the English Church, with some necessary modifications,
as the basis of its Confession of Faith. Setting aside the Articles that have
to do with discipline rather than doctrine, the Methodists universally hold the
remainder as tenaciously as any of those who sign them, and with as much consistency
as the great mass of English divines who have given them an Arminian interpretation.
That is to say, where they diverge in doctrine from the Westminster Confession,
Methodism holds to them; while this Confession rather expresses their views on
Presbyterian Church government. It may suffice to say generally on this subject,
that so far as concerns the present volume [of Winer], every quotation from the
English Articles may stand, if justly interpreted, as a representative of the
'Finally, we have the Methodist Standards, belonging to
it as a society within a Church, which entirely regulate the faith of the community,
but are binding only upon its ministers. Those Standards are to be found in certain
rather extensive theological writings which have none of the features of a Confession
of Faith, and are never subscribed or accepted as such. More particularly, they
are some Sermons and Expository Notes of John Wesley; more generally, these and
other writings, catechisms, and early precedents of doctrinal definition; taken
as a whole, they indicate a standard of experimental and practical theology to
which the teaching and preaching of its ministers are universally conformed. What that standard prescribes
in detail it would be impossible to define here. . . . Suffice that the Methodist doctrine is what is
generally termed Arminian, as it regards the relation of the human race to redemption; that it lays great
stress upon the personal assurance which seals the personal religion of the believer;
and that it includes a strong testimony to the office of the Holy Spirit in the
entire renewal of the soul in holiness, as one of the provisions of the covenant
of grace upon earth. It may be added, though only as an historical fact, that
a rigorous maintenance of this common standard of evangelical doctrine has been
attended by the preservation of a remarkable unity of doctrine throughout this
Dr. Whedon, the editor of the 'Methodist Quarterly Review,' in a notice of Pope's Winer (October No., 1873, pp. 680 sqq.), enters 'his firm, fraternal protest against being recorded before the eyes of the world as training under the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England,' and says, 'The entire body of Methodists of the United States no more hold the Thirty-nine Articles, doctrinally, than they do the Westminster Confession. They reject a large share of both for the same reason, namely, that they are, in their proper interpretation, Calvinistic. Nor does this Confession express their views on Presbyterian Church government: for the Confession affirms the divine obligation of Presbyterianism, and the large body of American Methodists believe in the right of a voluntary episcopacy.'
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