An Ancient Creed for the Present and the Future

With this issue of Outlook the Wesleyan Covenant Association begins a 12 part series on the Nicene Creed. Dr. Bill Arnold, Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and WCA Council member, introduces the series by reflecting on the creed’s role in the history of the church in general and the Methodist movement in particular, and why the WCA has adopted it as a doctrinal standard.

by Dr. Bill Arnold

Since its inception in October 2016, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has acknowledged Methodism’s deep roots in the soil of orthodox Christianity. We aim to profess and proclaim nothing other than the ancient Christian faith “that was once for all entrusted to the saints” of the earliest Church (Jude 3; NRSV), which Wesley called “the primitive Church.”

As an association of lay and clergy United Methodists from around the globe, we affirm the four Doctrinal Standards of the UMC: (1) the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, (2) the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, (3) the Standard Sermons of Wesley, and (4) Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament.[1] All of these standards affirm or assume the historic teaching expressed in the Nicene Creed.[2] Thus, the WCA has adopted the Nicene Creed as a Doctrinal Standard upon which these others are based. In launching this twelve-part series, our goal is to clarify the specifics of what we believe, and to serve a teaching role related to our orthodox heritage.

The denomination we love and serve, The United Methodist Church, is occasionally described as a via media expression of Christian faith, a middle way between two extremes. This is sometimes referred to as the Methodist Middle or Methodist Centrism. We agree with this characterization of our history, but only in a particular sense. Too often this middle way centrism is misused, leading to widespread misunderstanding. Here is what we mean by Methodism’s middle way in world Christianity.

John Wesley’s predecessors in the faith, the English Reformers of the 1500s, were like other Protestant Reformers who rejected the Roman Catholicism of their day. On the other hand, they were also not at home in the Calvinism and Lutheranism that was emerging at that time. They therefore became instruments of God in creating a middle course – something entirely different, affirming the best of Catholicism and the best of Protestantism in a new expression of orthodoxy. We believe Wesley’s predecessors two centuries before him, men like Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer, were instruments of God’s grace in creating what eventually emerged as the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Two centuries later, the leaders of the Wesleyan revival of the 1700s were heirs of this Anglican middle way. John Wesley himself has rightly been credited with bringing together East and West, combined with the Pietism of his day, into a third way between Pelagian optimism and Augustinian pessimism. Wesley was a conjunctive theologian. He left us a treasure of theological reflections, in which he developed his “practical divinity” balancing holiness and grace in a way that we believe captures the heart of biblical faith. Standing today in this Wesleyanism, birthed in the anglo-catholic tradition of the middle way, we believe the United Methodist Church’s Doctrinal Standards beautifully articulate “the living core of the Christian faith” as revealed in Scripture (2016 Book of Discipline, page 82, paragraph 105). While we embrace our tradition as finding a middle way, we also affirm that our Doctrinal Standards nevertheless anchor us in traditional, orthodox Christianity. Finding the Methodist sweet spot is not then simply finding a middle compromise between any two conflicting opinions. The true via media is not a polite decision to overlook each other’s disagreements on core ethical and social convictions.

Some have incorrectly said that The United Methodist Church “is not a creedal church.”[3] In response, we ask, what exactly a non-creedal church would be? What kind of ecclesia has no creed? Such a statement is self-contradictory and untenable. Moreover, the Wesley brothers were themselves Anglican clergymen, who certainly presupposed the authority of the Nicene Creed. More importantly, the faith of the ancient Israelites was creedal (Exodus 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 6:4; 26:5-10; Jonah 1:9), and that of the first apostles was also creedal (Philippians 2:6-11; Ephesians 4:4-6). We believe the Nicene Creed and the UMC Doctrinal Standards are more than mere historical relics of our past. They constitute the living core of our faith, rooted firmly, we believe, in the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments.

It seems only natural, therefore, for the early Church to express the core of biblical revelation in such creedal expressions. We believe this faith is revealed in Scripture, properly interpreted and taught by the early Church, and rightly summarized in the ancient ecumenical creeds. These early summary statements of Christian faith are “ecumenical” (or “whole”) and “catholic” (or “universal”) because they express the beliefs of the greatest number of Christians, in the most places, throughout the most time of Church history. This core of our faith was reasserted by the Reformers and affirmed by the Anglican Church, through which and in which John and Charles Wesley launched the revival movement we know as Methodism. We believe the best and most faithful expressions of our Wesleyan tradition for over 200 years have been firmly grounded in the Nicene Creed (see here, here, and UM Hymnal, page 880).

The United Methodist Church finds itself at a crossroads. We in the WCA believe now is the time to reclaim and restore the ancient Nicene Creed in a new expression of classical Wesleyanism. As a bridge to our ecumenical partners in orthodox Christianity around the world, we embrace the Nicene Creed as the foundation of our Doctrinal Standards. We believe this is the Methodist sweet-spot, the true theological centrism that reconnects our movement to our roots in the anglo-catholic stream of Christian orthodoxy found at the heart of classical Wesleyanism. This, we believe, is the taproot of our theology, the living core of ancient Christian faith, which the world so desperately needs today. The WCA affirms as central to our faith this single most important ecumenical creed in the history of the Church Universal, the Nicene Creed.

[1] 2016 Book of Discipline, pages 65-77, paragraph 104.

[2] In particular, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, written at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and clarified at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) essentially defines orthodox Christianity, and combats heretical and false teachings.

[3] J. Richard Peck, here.