By Larry Duggins
Thoughts on Our Theological Task #2
Our theological task is both critical and constructive.
It is critical in that we test various expressions of faith by asking: Are they true? Appropriate? Clear? Cogent? Credible? Are they based on love? Do they provide the Church and its members with a witness that is faithful to the gospel as reflected in our living heritage and that is authentic and convincing in the light of human experience and the present state of human knowledge? Our theological task is constructive in that every generation must appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past and seek God in their midst in order to think afresh about God, revelation, sin, redemption, worship, the church, freedom, justice, moral responsibility, and other significant theological concerns. Our summons is to understand and receive the gospel promises in our troubled and uncertain times.
― from "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016"
As Methodist people, this paragraph calls us to question expressions of faith. We are not to assume that the way that expressions of faith were held by the generations before us is the way that we should hold them in the present. We are charged to challenge the validity of our denomination’s expressions of faith in light of our own lived human experience and current understanding of the world. We are to struggle with our doctrines to be certain that they reflect love and that they are both understandable and credible to the people of this day and age.
There is a long tradition in Judeo-Christian practice of struggling with a biblical text to peel away its layers to find multiple levels of meaning. Christian Church Fathers and Mothers and Hebrew scholars discussed four broad layers of biblical interpretation. The categories typically began with the literal meaning— the direct meaning of the words on the page. The next was the allegorical meaning or how the words include a symbolic meaning as the words relate to time, space, and people. The moral meaning is the lesson that the words include as they apply to human interaction and behavior. The mystical meaning is the message of the text at its deepest—the message revealed in the context of the larger communication and interaction between God and humanity. This paragraph charges us with struggling with our doctrines to unpeel the deep layers.
We are also charged with building on that which has come before. Every generation must creatively make the doctrines their own, stretching and molding the doctrines both in the light of the past and in light of the fresh and continually evolving world in which we leave. Methodists must confront and reconsider our assumptions about sin, redemption, justice, and the very nature of God. We are not to simply accept that which has been—we are to consider and wrestle with how the truths we hold apply to the world in which we live.
Through the years, our understanding of the role of women in leadership has changed with the times, as has our understanding of slavery and our attitude toward divorce. Our current struggle with human sexuality is right and good and deeply Methodist. We see changes in the attitudes surrounding human sexuality in many parts of the world, and we see resistance to those changes in attitude in other regions of our planet. The Discipline encourages us to address those differences directly and as a body. The Discipline recognizes that we live in troubled and uncertain times and encourages us to understand and live into the promises of the gospel to be agents of transformation in the world.