Several years ago, United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio fell under the influence of evangelical United Methodist leadership. Earlier, the school had been financially floundering. Revisionist professors abandoned the sinking ship, leaving orthodox theologians—usually a minority—at the helm. Soon, they righted the school, making it perhaps one of only a couple official United Methodist seminaries not dominated by theological liberalism. It has been called one of America’s fastest growing seminaries, no doubt due in part to its financial recovery.
As a result of these developments, United has become known as a hotbed for discussion on church renewal. The new school year starts in a few days. Last year’s Fall semester began with a convocational address by Academic Dean David F. Watson. His noticeably kinder treatment of evangelical sentiments (a rare phenomenon in United Methodist seminaries) represents a significant academic shift for United. Although Watson remained quite critical of evangelicalism—indeed, Protestantism at large—his intellectual charity and theological focus speaks volumes. Citing Methodism’s “tenuous position” with discipleship and evangelism, he asserted, “‘Mainline’ Protestantism could more accurately be called ‘Thin Line’ Protestantism.” “I will accept that our current trajectory is a negative one, but I do not accept that we are powerless in this regard,” he confessed, “In fact, we have at our fingertips the greatest power that has ever been, the only one true power in the universe, the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Watson encouraged his audience with a historical perspective. “Struggles from within and without—they inhered within the early church just as they do today,” he admitted. “And yet,” he declared, “within these struggling and imperfect communities, God has been at work to renew and to renew again.” Watson also warned, “Modernity has provided us with a tenacious and pernicious myth: the myth of the sufficiency of individualism.” He clarified,
Evangelicals and progressives (people who make up a large portion of the North American religious scene) share this belief in common: that faith is primarily personal, individualistic. It is between God and me. For the evangelical, the crux of the faith is having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For the progressive, it is to know God in my own way, a God who is intellectually satisfying to me, a God who makes sense within my own canons of reason and standards of ethics.
Then, Watson attacked the concept of sola Scriptura as manifested in both John Calvin and John Wesley. He added, “Nevertheless as the renowned historian Jaroslav Pelikan has put it, ‘As a matter of historical fact … the Christian Scriptura has never been sola.’ In support of this point, we might ask how many Protestant groups have broken off from one another precisely over the interpretation of scripture, and even on core matters of salvation.” It seems quite ironic that this statement sounded throughout the convocational assembly of a Protestant institution. No doubt many evangelical Methodists gasp in horror at this assertion.
[As a traditionalist Anglican, however, I concur. I don’t have a dog in this fight of denominational distinctives here, but I actually quoted this exact Pelikan passage earlier in the week on Facebook. It generated a lengthy discussion.]
Watson realized his statements would generate controversy:
Now I know that some people in the congregation today will be disgruntled by this assertion. They may see this as undermining the truth of the faith, or the sure foundation upon which we base our belief. But hear me out, because my intention is that we preserve, rather than erode, the historic faith of the church.
The second-century Christian Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, said that the Bible is like a mosaic that depicts a king. The heretics whom he criticizes, however, come along and rearrange the pieces of the mosaic so that, rather than a king, it depicts a fox. In other words, they cause the writings of scripture to testify to something other than that which God has done for our salvation.
The New Testament professor and dean then discussed the Rule of Faith as it functioned within the patristic era of the church. He concluded, “When scripture is removed from the guiding interpretation of the apostolic witness, it is subject to interpretations of many sorts other than the ones that Christians have come to see as useful for salvation.” Likewise he surmised, “The very list of works that make up the canon comes from the corporate discernment of Jews and Christians over a number of centuries. The canon is the product of a community, and the canon properly functions within community.” It seems United Methodists have rediscovered the “churchliness” of God’s Word: that the Scriptures are in a significant sense the Church’s book.
Nevertheless, Watson’s intellectual habits remain predominately Protestant as he offered a caveat: “I am not suggesting that we allow the creed to control the meaning of the text. We can take the text on its own terms, but still read in dialogue with the faith of the church. Creed and scripture are not identical.” He then discussed the importance of good Scriptural interpretation to understand the Gospel message of the Bible. Watson even mentioned sin (another rare thing for UMC academia), saying “the prescription to this spiritual sickness is handed over to us in the faith of the church, a faith that is illuminated as we read the Bible.”
The entire lecture is worth a full perusal. Traditional United Methodists—pulling on their Wesleyan revivalist heritage—will no doubt find themselves somewhat perturbed. However, it is worth contrasting United with a UMC academy of similar size: Iliff School of Theology in Denver. In 2011, Iliff had 400 students,160 of which were United Methodists and 105 pursuing ordination within the UMC. United had 440 pupils with 229 United Methodists and 111 tracked for the pastorate. The former received $890,214.41 in official UMC funding while the latter was granted $930,965.95.
So what does Iliff spend its time, money, and other resources doing? Well, they can bring in censured pastor and LGBT activist Amy DeLong whose behavior and statements exhibit a clear disdain for official United Methodist teaching and two thousand year old teachings of Christian ethics. No doubt many congregants in their pews would be saddened—if not outraged—over the prospect of their offering funds providing a platform for someone who childishly compared the UMC to Brer Fox and herself Brer Rabbit. It seems unusual that a nearly-defrocked pastor should be invited to the training ground for preachers until we look at Iliff’s other campus activities. The campus FLAME chapter hosted a “Shower of Stoles” exhibition to “end religious discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.” Seminarians even hit the road to man a booth at “PrideFest” in Colorado Springs.
In a choice between the two schools, I think the decision will be obvious for orthodox United Methodists. Due to their commitment to liberal Social Gospel and penchant for contemporary progressive causes, Iliff will probably continue in the narrative of American Mainline decline. On the other hand, I predict that United—with its renewed historical perspective and revitalized piety—is positioned for continued growth in the years ahead.