The word “doctrine” means “teaching.” It lies at the heart of any serious intellectual endeavor. Any academic discipline, for instance, has a body of doctrine that students are expected to learn in order to become proficient at all in that discipline. There is also social doctrine, in a manner of speaking, that children learn as they are growing up and that teach them the unwritten rules, etiquette, and behavioral norms expected of any adult person in society. Athletes learn doctrine in their chosen sports as well, which comes in the form of both the rules of the game and the discipline required to play it well.
I mention all this because I think the idea of doctrine in Methodism may be in the process of making a real comeback. All the doctrinal settings I cited above have their analogous examples in the Christian faith. The faith does (and must have) an intellectual content in order for it to be viable in the world. Our faith also has behavioral norms, which we would see as anything from the moral instruction we receive biblically to the missional trajectory of the church herself. And disciples also must practice a form of discipline, in their study and their worship and their relational disposition toward one another.
In other words, the Christian faith requires the embrace of doctrine on a number of different levels. And all of them are vitally important.
I write about the idea of a comeback for doctrine in Methodism in my current column in the United Methodist Reporter. Since it is my final Reporter column also, I chose the topic with care. My primary academic work is essentially the historical retrieval of doctrine in Methodism. So yes, this is something about which I care quite a bit.
The reason more and more Methodists tend to be interested in the historic role of doctrine, I think, is because it has become so painfully clear that ministry in the church the way we’ve been doing it is a dead end. A part of this is the monstrous influence of individualist consumerism, which causes us to think of our faith as a product to be used as we see fit and tailor-made for each individual person.
There is a larger theological influence at play as well, though, which has been devastating to Methodism since the late 19th century. It is the framework of liberal Protestant theology, traceable from Schleiermacher and entering Methodism through the Boston personalist movement. This view privileges religious experience as the chief epistemological criterion for truth (and thus sharply diminishes the unique significance of Christ in salvation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and a whole host of other Christian essentials). The Wesleyan tradition places a great deal of value on experience, but it isn’t experience of this kind—which is one main reason why the Quadrilateral is so misunderstood.
I ramble, and some of this points me to essays for another day. But check out the column and see what you think. As always, your comments and questions are welcome.