Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Methodism as Protest
I have been rereading parts of William J. Abraham's Canon and Criterion and found a section in the last chapter on the "Canonical Heritage and Epistemology" helpful with respect to the breakdown of the Protestant tradition in general and the United Methodist Church in particular. Abraham notes how Anglicans and United Methodists sought to develop an epistemology which combined an appeal to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience and how this epistemology constituted a kind of "scissors-and-paste" epistemology which tends to displace the canonical heritage of the church. Unity is now thus sought in the church through commitments to particular kinds of epistemologies, which means that the consequences to doctrinal commitments are predictable: our respective traditions are now a constellation of doctrinal parties at odds with each other. Abraham notes how combining ecclesial canons and epistemic concepts has not been helpful or successful. It has ultimately been damaging of a spiritual point of view (p. 474).
In addition, it has been damaging of other Western forms of Christianity, most notably Protestantism: focusing on Scripture as a criterion rather than a means of grace has meant that the deep and rich canonical heritage of the church has been displaced. This is why Pietism, early Methodism, and Pentecostalism may represent an "underworld of protest" which has sought to return to a soteriological view of Scriptures (p. 474), thus getting beyond a purely "cognitive approach" to the Christian faith, thereby providing wisdom unto salvation and insights into life in the Spirit (p. 474).
There is more to Abraham's thesis, of course. But as I reflect on the soteriological importance of Scripture as a means of grace I am reminded of the importance of the Holy Spirit in leading us into the life of God. Simply developing one more theory of knowing how we know to gain certainty seems to take the life of the Spirit right out of us, putting us at odds with where that same Spirit is leading us to serve and proclaim Christ. Maybe we can begin to see Methodism as a protest against those attempts to suffocate the life-giving love of God. Maybe this is what Wesley was practicing and proclaiming.