For each human there is a belief 'system' that seeks to find meaning, purpose and significance in life. Experience and reason are the common foundations for human understanding and personal meaning as we seek to find a 'balance' in the midst of life's anxieties, aspirations, assaults and affirmations. History and perception are two essential aspects of human consideration that we use to chart 'our personal path' through life's journey. These common elements of human life, Experience, Reason, History and Perception are paramount in the life of each human who seriously reflects upon the meaning, purpose and significance of life. Any or all of these components of life are part of one's 'Belief System' that is the matrix of one's choices, decisions and commitments in life.
Theology is "our effort to reflect upon God's gracious action in our lives". (UM Book of Discipline, pg. 74ff) "Our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God's presence, peace and power in the world." Our 'theology' is our attempt 'to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine/human encounter' and thereby, more fully prepare ourselves 'to participate in God's work in the world'. As United Methodists, we are called to identify the needs both of individuals and of society and to address those needs out of the resources of Christian faith in a way that is clear, convincing and covenantal. Theology serves Christ's Church by interpreting the world's needs and challenges to the 'community of Faith' (Church) and by interpreting the gospel (good news of hope and love) to the world.
Our theological task is both reflective and resourceful. Reflective in that we consider seriously the wisdom of the past, the vital needs of the present and a vision for a future that will offer genuine personal, social and spiritual benefit to all peoples. Resourceful in that we apply all our God-given resources of mind, heart, spirit and community to implement and secure freedom, justice, equality and wholeness for all peoples who Christ's Church affirms as 'children of God'.
Our theological task is both individual and covenantal. Each person is affirmed as worthy and valued in the human experience of life. Individual gifts, talents, resources and commitments are vital to the hope and well being of others. Covenantal in that our lives are lived in community and the experiences we have, the expressions we share and the expectations we project will affect the lives of many others. Jesus' 'golden rule' reflects the dynamic that can make a vital impact upon life within us and life around us:
'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. (Matthew 7: 12)
Our theological task is practical and incarnational. Our human nature measures 'truth' by the realities, values and relationships we experience and express. Our faith interest is to incorporate the promises of the 'gospel' into the practical realities of society in order to provide the blessings for each life that we believe God intends for each person. Incarnational is the term that clarifies our full identity as Christ's Church with humanity and confirms the manifestation and experience of our faith in the ministry, mystery and mission of Jesus of Nazareth as proclaimed in the witness of The Old and New Covenants of Holy Scripture. Our theology informs us that God's Will, Wisdom and Work is wholly reflected in the person of Jesus, who becomes 'The Word of God' for our expressions and expectations in life. What affects the world informs our faith and our faith invests God's grace in the world to evidence God's Will on earth.
As United Methodist Christians we have a clear call to bear a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, the living truth and reality at the center of the Church's life and mission. As all individuals develop their own 'belief systems', United Methodists focus on two central considerations that design and determine our belief system or church doctrine: (1) 'the sources from which we derive our theological reflections and affirmations' and (2) 'the criteria by which we assess the credibility and adequacy of our understanding and witness of faith'. Our historical faith developments 'believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience and confirmed by reason'.(UM Book of Discipline, pg. 77) These foundational beliefs provide the bedrock of our doctrinal affirmations about God's grace in the world, the human/divine encounter of faith, the common witness of the community of faith and the essential values of Jesus Christ to clarify our doctrinal beliefs.
'United Methodists share with all Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine. Through Scripture the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace.' The biblical authors, illumined by God's Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God. Our beliefs affirm the Bible as the 'source of all that is 'necessary' and 'sufficient' unto salvation and "is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice". We interpret individual scriptural texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole. Aided by scholarly inquiry, insight and instruction, under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, we listen to each text, take into account the original context and intention of that text and seek understanding of it through careful historical, literary and textual studies to gain enlightenment and illumination of the text's meaning and truth for our lives today. Through careful and faithful reading of Scripture we seek the biblical and spiritual truths available to us through our personal experience of faith, the realities of the world as God has created it, the common witness of Christ's Church and through the spiritual guidance of God's Holy Spirit. Where different interpretations are acknowledged from similar texts United Methodists seek to remain open to the fuller revelation of God's truth, a deeper understanding of God's will and a more illumined insight through God's Holy Spirit for spiritual guidance in Holy Scripture and in our journey of faith..
United Methodists know that Christianity did not leap from the first century of the New Testament times to the present as though there was no learning or spiritual revelations from 'that great cloud of witnesses' in between. In each age there have been significant Christian leaders, writers, prophets, priests and laity who have expressed their faith in the culture, community and country of origin as their unique faithful witness to the living Christ reflected in their commitment to the hopes, visions, truths and will of Christ's Church. Those traditions have maintained their biblical witness, their prophetic challenge and their vital faithfulness in the culture and community of their servanthood in Christ. Such traditions of Christian commitment invite each and every age and affirmation of Christian community to be examined in light of Scripture and in serious reflection upon the expression of faithful dedication to the living Christ. Through such understanding, study and examination of other Christian traditions our present Christian witness gains new insight, new revelation and new confidence in our fidelity to the truth of the gospel for our age.
United Methodists follow the practice of John Wesley's faith of 'examining experience, both individual and communal, for confirmations of the realities of God's grace affirmed in scripture. Our personal and communal experience of faith interacts with Scripture and the traditions of faith of other affirmations and ages to help us shape who we are becoming through our experience of faith in Christ. Wesley described faith and its assurance as 'a sure trust and confidence' in the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and a steadfast hope of all good things to be received through God's will. When United Methodists speak of 'Christian experience' we mean 'new life in Christ".
The biblical message for our present, the illumination of our understanding for God's truth, the motivation for a moral and just society and the personal confidence of our trust in Christ for salvation are all evidences of our Christian experience. A new awareness and affirmation of life within us and around us compel us to share this good news of the living Christ with community and culture for the benefits of God's will to be experienced and expressed in human society.
United Methodists recognize that God's revelation of truth, our experience of faith and the Christian community's witness of grace are all confirmed through the acts and deeds of rational resolve to care for one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. Through reason we interpret, organize, develop and witness to our Christian experience.
We confirm that all truth comes from God and seek to verify God's truth in the all the evidences and experiences of our human knowledge. Our quest to understand God's truth, revelations, nature and will is our attempt to more fully participate in and proclaim God's will for human society.
United Methodists express our doctrine through these four resources and revelations of Scripture, tradition, experience and reason in order to live a vital, meaningful, purposeful and faithful life of grace, love and service to the living Christ through Christ's Church.