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An Open Letter to Readers of "A Critical Challenge to the 'Confessing Movement'"

Thomas C. Oden

The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church is most happy to join crucial issues using the same criteria that our partners in dialogue have already affirmed and utilized. They have stated that they wish their views to be assessed in the light of biblical faith, the early church, the Wesleyan heritage, cross-cultural and intergenerational diversity, and the global mission of the proclamation of the gospel. These are all criteria to which we gladly consent. Hence it should be possible to have a serious and fruitful dialogue.

We pray, as we join these issues, for the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide us in patience and forbearance so that we may have the courage to speak the truth in love.

The statement on "A Critical Challenge to the ‘Confessing Movement’" (hereafter Challenge) has inaccurately charged The Confessing Movement with making misleading statements, but this charge is unfortunately accompanied itself by misleading statements that cannot be left unanswered.

We intend here to clarify our intent in anything that might have been viewed as misleading, aware that there is a tendentiousness in the critique that appears intentionally to look for skewed and unintended ways of viewing our language and mission. There are thirty-three paragraphs in the critique. We see at least that many statements in these paragraphs that are either themselves misleading or need to be corrected or challenged in some way, so we will proceed paragraph by paragraph. When I say ‘we’, I do not presume to speak for The Confessing Movement, but to speak as a voice within its leadership, inviting others to join me for further clarification.

1. The Confessing Movement is not a caucus. A caucus is a political dynamic and description. Our literature and essays repeatedly insist that our focus is not on political action or policy formation within the United Methodist Church, but on theological integrity.

Please note that our correct name, of course, is The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church. This is not just a generalized confessing movement, but a movement within and accountable to a particular community of faith, the UMC. We are neither a caucus nor are we a movement of withdrawal but a movement within the United Methodist Church, and we intend to stay within. We have an enduring intention to remaining in the church that baptized us, despite any erroneous talk that we are trying to secede. What disturbs our critics more than that we should leave is that we should stay.

The ecclesiological reform models for many of us are the evangelical Anglicans who were a minority in the early 20th century but now by diligence and persistence have a substantial leadership voice, including many Anglican bishops. We seek to have the same long term time frame and patience with the UMC that the evangelical Anglicans have had with the Church of England, and to flourish in due time.

2. The total number of people in our network of friends and literature distribution is now well over one half million. The Confessing Movement is a grass roots network of mostly lay persons determined to pray and work for the renewal of the UMC.

Since the Confessing Statement is a statement that has been signed by over a thousand churches, and many thousands of individuals, it is incommensurable to set it side by side with a statement of a single church. We have already answered that one church thoroughly, and welcome other critiques from other churches.

3. We welcome the criticism through a "variety of lenses" through which our partners in dialogue wish to examine the confession. The lenses they themselves look through must thereby become, by their choice, the subject of further critical assessment. We will show how these lenses are to some extent distorted and myopic as presented.

4. It does not serve the purposes of civil discourse to demean or diminish language intended to be confession one is ready to die for.

As a case in point, our critics have a right to know that it is demeaning from our point of view to put the term "confessional statement" in quotation marks so as to seem to imply rhetorically that it is only a supposed confession. Whether it is a full confession from the heart we leave it to God to judge.

We welcome the five modes of speaking of the diversity of Christological interpretations in the Challenge. That they have not passed my attention is clear from my Systematic Theology vol. 2 in which all five of these motifs are discussed in detail. As for others in the Confessing Movement I doubt that they would disagree with the five motifs.

5. The genre of a confession does not allow for discussing all subjects, nor does any genre. So to argue that silence speaks either consent or dissent is to argue unconvincingly.

If we were to apply the same criterion to criticism to the Challenge as it applies to us, then anything they failed to mention in their paper would be regarded as an overt negation. This is their constant habit. It is of course a logical fallacy, and we do not intend to commit it in our response, but it recurs in this paper dozens of times.

We are by no means "in effect repudiating" those metaphors of the NT that we do not specifically mention in the confessing statement, nor does their paper "in effect repudiate" items on which they have chosen to be silent. They know that the argument from silence is empty and can always be turned against its assertor. The rhetoric and logic of alleged repudiation is hostile and inconsistent. If silence implies repudiation, then their document repudiates all that it does not explicitly address. That is obviously absurd.

6. We are glad to be reminded by our partners in dialogue of the words of our Lord and "not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven". But for our critics this seems to be used as a generalize argument to counter confession of the Lordship of Christ altogether. Otherwise, the context does not reveal any other interpretation.

We agree exactly that "Whoever does right is acceptable to him", remembering that there is no right doing, as Paul makes clear in Romans 1-3, without faith in the only Son of God.

7. It is not we who have arbitrarily "selected creeds" out of some obscure private motivation, as if in the last ten minutes. They have been selected by an extensive consenting process that has reconfirmed apostolic teaching for almost twenty centuries, and done so in the prototypical form of early baptismal creeds. The western tradition has especially honored these three confessions (Apostles, Nicene, and ‘Athanasian’) long before the Anglican and Methodist traditions confirmed them as scriptural.

Orthodoxy has spent many centuries defining parameters, but for the purpose of showing how those parameters are scripturally grounded, and commendable to the communio sanctorum. They help us not to be blown by every wind of doctrine.

It is an odd idea that orthodoxy is not concerned with unity of faith. That is its central intention, and it defines boundaries only in order to insure the unity of faith in the apostolic witness.

We are indeed free "for faithful theological exploration" within these boundaries, but not apart from them, which appears to be the consistent intention of our critics. If not, they need to inform us where the boundaries lie.

8. The orthodox teachings of the early Christian writers are seldom of one mind in cultural assumptions, but they are of one mind in consent to apostolic teaching and in rejection of counter-apostolic teachings. All say no with one voice to Arianism, Macion, Donatism, Pelagianism, etc. We have a documentary history of these ecumenical negations. They are of one mind when they confess the apostolic faith in their baptismal confession.

There are many ways obviously of articulating the apostolic faith, and that is the purpose of the world wide mission of Christian preaching after Pentecost, but any way of articulating that tends to erase or distort or fail to guard the apostolic tradition as conveyed in Christian canonical Scripture is rejected. These varieties of affirmation and consensual rejections have a documentary history into which anyone can inquire.

There is no small vibration of hatred and disdain in the long list of unpleasant terms intended to dismiss classical Christian teaching, as if it were best described as: "patriarchal, classist, pre-Copernican, pre-scientific", and "imperialistic". Classic Christianity deserves a better hearing than that. It has not received a fair hearing from those who are uncritically committed to the assumptions of the Zeitigeist of modernity as the final judge and arbiter of Christian scripture.

It is an insult to women who died for the ancient ecumenical faith defined by the ancient ecumenical councils, and there were many women who died, to assume that they had no level of consent to these teachings. That would make their martyrdom disingenuous. Some forms of feminist advocacy insult the integrity of the women martyrs who died on behalf of their triune baptismal confession. The seventh ecumenical council in particular shows the decisive role that women have played in ecumenical consent to apostolic teaching. Christian women have a profound history of fiercely resisting all attempts to dilute conciliar teaching. Such attempts are at stake today in some hyper-feminist attacks on the atonement, Sonship of Christ, the servant or submission ethic for men and women, and the protection of life.

It is an error of historical judgement to say that there were no ordinary folk, no general lay consent, that shaped and influenced the decisions of the ecumenical councils. Read the decrees of the councils and you will see that they appeal frequently and seriously to the general consent of the whole intergenerational loas. Where the laity in fact did not eventually confirm the councils, even though they were thought to be "ecumenical", they were not received as truly ecumenical. Ecumenicity in its ancient sense requires general lay consent, and the laity made up of more than half women, and mostly of "ordinary folk".

9. The Wesleyan doctrinal standards condemn only those ideas that are asserted as scriptural teaching but which are demonstrably inimical to scripture.

There is no intent to discredit faithful theology since Wesley or since the patristic writers. Our call is precisely for faithful theology under the instruction of the revealed Word, as known in the written Word through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Feminist and liberation theologies that remain faithful to that Word are to be received and lauded, and some do.

10. It is obvious that the confessing statement does not say, as asserted, that "God has ceased to work in the lives and understanding of faithful persons now struggling to be in ministry in the world" --- that is precisely what we are calling for. This makes us wonder whether the critics have even bothered to read the confessing statement carefully or with any shred of empathy.

11. It is truly misleading to argue or even suggest that we are covert Calvinists, whereas the liberal defenders of the status quo in the UMC are the true Wesleyans.

It displays exceeding ignorance of the Anglican tradition to argue that the XXXIX Articles of Religion were never intended as a confession. That demeans those who died for that confession.

The mode of conference is truly Wesley’s mode, but read the Conferences minutes and see how constantly he makes judgements on the basis of scripture, and how Wesley himself does not follow a consensus if it is in discord with scripture.

If there is no confessing tradition Methodism, as they claim, why did Wesley amend the 39 articles into 25? Why were these articles guarded as "our doctrines" by the earliest Conferences? Why were they explicitly cited in the conference minutes as our doctrinal standards? We have a clear documentary history of this. And why would the 1988 General Conference confirm them once again formally as our doctrinal standards? The writers of this critique appear to be still chafing over the defining of our doctrinal standards in the 1988 discipline. They then opposed, and apparently still oppose these confessional standards, but they are written into our constitution. We urge them to try to change the constitution if they disagree with it, and see how far they will get. They know there is no feasible way to do this.

We are first confessing Christians, then confessing United Methodists. We are deeply committed to the Wesleyan tradition because it is committed to scripture and classic Christian teaching. It is disingenuous to try to revise classic Christian teaching and claim to do so under what pretends to be a Wesleyan flag, but which is little more than the latidudinarianism he deplored.

12. Wesley’s sermon on the Catholic Spirit, which they quote tendentiously, specifies twelve detailed paragraphs which, by way of penetrating doctrinal questions, set forth key parameters of classic Christian teaching. Only on this thoroughly orthodox basis does Wesley plead in this sermon to "stretch out your hand." The Catholic Spirit is not latidudinarianism.

Absolute tolerance is not an argument for tolerance, but an undermining precisely of those criteria by which tolerance can be honored and pursed in the pursuit of truth.

13. The view that sola scriptura is "no part of the Wesleyan tradition" is easily corrected by reading Wesley’s moving sermon "On Corrupting the Word of God", and his letter to John Dickens: "I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scripture". "The Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture". (WJW X:142).

It is a gross distortion of the 1988 General Conference and all subsequent Disciplines to imply that sola scriptura was "rejected"! Far from rejecting it, that Conference made ever more clear than the 1968-88 disciplines the primacy of scripture. To assert the sufficiency of scripture alone for salvation, as do our doctrinal standards, is not to deny or delimit the importance of tradition (which is a history of exegesis), or reason, or experience which is formed by scripture.

14. It is absurd to argue that there can be only one acceptable interpretation of the XXV Articles. We invite all critics who would wish seriously to join in various interpretations of the XXV Articles to do so. It is just this dialogue that we are calling for, and asking the leadership of bishops to develop.

We join with any serious attempts to "maintain fidelity to the apostolic faith" in a spirit of "openness to emerging forms of Christian identity". But that cannot imply any emerging form of identity that, by the way, rejects the Incarnation and Resurrection and the authority of Scriptures. We thus agree fully with the Disc. Par 68, p. 80.

We respectfully ask our critics to be more specific about how they understand that the Methodist tradition has "from the beginning operated within the accepted boundaries of doctrinal affirmation". We agree and wish to hear more detail about precisely what these boundaries are. If some argue that there are no boundaries whatever to doctrinal inquiry, both our critics and we ourselves seem to agree that this is to be rejected.

15. We could not agree more that "the existing doctrinal standards identified in the Book of Discipline are sufficient guides to Christian thinking". But this makes us wonder whether they may have forgotten that we are the ones who are most urgently calling the UMC back to these very existing doctrinal standards? Do they somehow imply that we seek some revision of UM doctrine? How could they, if they have read our literature? And yet that seems to be the obvious implication of paragraph 15. We are not doctrinal revisionists but oppose doctrinal revisionism if it is contrary to apostolic faith.

16. "Right living" must not be treated as if somehow unconnected with "right doctrine"? They are right to affirm holy living as the test of the Christian life, but not so as to diminish the importance of the apostolic teaching informing it.

17. Our chief executive officer is a woman. We have a larger proportion of women on our executive board than they do signatories of their critique. How hypocritical it is, then, for them to say falsely that we "do not want theology to be affected by the perspective of women"!

We regret that our critics view "feminist theology" as a single-minded monolithic reality. There are many feminist theologies, one of which is evangelical. Another with similar interests is better as orthodox. If they do not see the legitimate themes of feminism as combinable with classic Christianity, they have not been reading the growing literature of evangelical feminism or the vital responses of orthodox women to feminism.

We respectfully make a distinction between evangelical feminists and those feminists who advocate abortion and lesbian legitimization. In order to make this distinction we have sometimes used the term "radical feminists", but that is only to distinguish one type of feminism, not all types. It refers specifically to that feminism which is strongly shaped by social location arguments that are largely grounded in a quasi-marxist understanding of oppression, and an interpretation of religion as power, along with very determined lesbian and abortion advocacy. The women of the church are not all "radical feminists". That is a mistake that only a few feminists make nowadays, and it is indeed a fatal mistake to make.

18. Methodist theology existed long before the quadrilateral was formulated, and will continue long after it disappears, if it should disappear as a formal construct. I have defended the quadrilateral in John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity and Billy Abraham has challenged it in his profound writings, and on criteriological and epistemological grounds that are to some degree plausible to me. So there are differing ways of weighing in on the quadrilateral among us.

But it seems a gross exaggeration to say that the confessing statement "threatens the survival" of the quadrilateral formulation. Where is there any possible evidence of this?

Under the rhetoric of inclusion, we know that evangelicals have been excluded in many quarters of the UMC. Anybody can see this. Inclusiveness has become a shibboleth of exclusiveness: no evangelicals need apply. So bureaucracies have been systematically built without courageous evangelical voices that would represent better our laity.

Those who speak up for the apostolic tradition are not divisive; it is rather the objectors to the apostolic witness that are divisive. The most divisive event in recent years is the Reimagining Conference which wrongly linked ecumenical advocacy with abortion advocacy and lesbian advocacy. We are responding to such divisiveness with a search for unity grounded in truth, the truth that is in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Lord, which makes us free.

19. It is misleading to say that the confessing statement "exhibits a strong faith in human power and control." Where can they find that in any of our documents? It is a fantasy.

There is no proposal from the Confessing Movement to excommunicate or exclude from church membership those who disagree with the confessing statement. Nowhere is that implied. That fantasy is concocted out of hysteria and despair, and probably some diffuse hatred of evangelicals.

The apophatic limits of our frail human ability to use language to speak of God is affirmed just as firmly among us as it is in the document.

Within the genre of the short confession the issue of apophaticism was not included, nor were many other important things. Just as within the genre of their critique they do not include every possible qualifier.

20. We would not ordinarily use the term "exclusivist Christology", since that is not a term found easily in either scripture or classic Christianity, but we think we understand what they mean: that no one is saved by any other name in heaven than the name of Jesus. To this we consent.

It seems an exaggeration to think of Jesus as an advocate of their distinctly modern forms of liberation and egalitarian "inclusiveness", which as we have said is a covert strategy for excluding evangelicals. Read Wesley'’ sermon "Of Hell" or "The Great Assize" to correct the assumption that either Jesus or Wesley was an absolute tolerationist. It is difficult to sustain after this the latitudinarian model of Jesus espoused in the critique.

21. Apostolic formulations are not deified only God who is attested as Almighty by the apostolic formulations.

22. Faith has ethical implications, but those implications are enervated if there is no depth of scriptural or doctrinal grounding for them, and no criterion of truth to which they can appeal. While previously the critics have appeared to diminish the importance of the tasks of rigorous doctrinal work, in the later part of their document they seem to appeal to belief as a ground for their ethical imperatives. We fully agree, and we wish to hear more about how they make this connection, especially in the light of their polemic against doctrinal continuity, constancy, reliability, and stability.

23. The gospel of grace is not a new legalistic requirement. Christ is the end of the law as a means of justification. The law’s justification is no longer needed for one whose sins are atoned for in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Our critics seems to assume that we are silent about care for the poor, but this is a continuing concern of the preaching and literature and spiritual formation of the Confessing Movement. In Christian history the most effective and far-reaching initiatives in caring for the poor have been grounded in classical Christian pastoral care and evangelical vitality.

24. Arguments from silence are unconvincing. It is evident that our critics’ statement itself is totally silent about many important matters. We do not thereby conclude that they are unaware or insensitive to these concerns. Could we not expect the same respect from them?

It seems an amusing literalism that our critics fall into (which they elsewhere bemoan), that if Jesus does literally not mention something, he has no concern for it. They argue that since abortion and homosexuality are not literally mentioned by Jesus, the implication is that he apparently had no concern for such matters. Yet Jesus was accountable to the scripture of the Hebraic tradition. He came to fulfill the law. The law is sufficiently clear on sexuality. The NT is sufficiently clear on the implications of the gospel for monogamous sexual fidelity. With this literalistic "red letter hermeneutic", our critics seem to imply that Jesus had and has no concern whatever for sexual ethics. This we deny.

25. Again more unconvincing arguments for silence: "The statement omits…" So does their statement omit many important affirmations and negations.

We indeed are seeking to relate sin to social structures, and the most evident social structure for which we are immediately accountable is the UMC, and our own churches within the UMC. We oppose privatistic ethics, because we understand the gospel to be proclaimed in a community of faith. The gospel is all about liberation, but it is a liberation from sin that impacts social responsibility, not more simplistically a political or economic liberation from oppressive social structures, as if economic oppression were more fundamental or determinative than the history of sin.

26. In our baptism we confess our sin and our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the core confession to which "all United Methodists subscribe", and which we confess. No one who has been baptized as a United Methodist can claim that there is no confession in Methodism.

Again our critics resort to a misleading charge of legalism. This has been previously answered. It is already countered by the confession’s strong appeal to grace.

Human beings are indeed led by conscience and reason. Even apart from the history of salvation they are valid instructors. But within the history of salvation they are instructed by scripture and especially by that sensitized conscience which is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Far from denying freedom of conscience, we strongly affirm it, and call for it. It is not conscience that threatens the UMC but what Paul calls a "seared conscience" that is so filled with idolatry and self-assertiveness that it cannot hear the truer voice of conscience.

The critics purport to be concerned about "marginalized groups". It is not evident that evangelicals are among the most "marginalized groups" within the UMC? Though we have large numbers, we are spurned by the bureaucracy. We do not claim victimization status, but rather declare our intent to be heard and to remain within the church. WE have the right to be heard. We will be heard. That in fact is what our detractors most fear --- our being fairly heard.

28. No one comes to the Father except by the Son. As long as this is kept in place, dialogue is open to the great world religions, and urgently needed. But dialogue which has no self-identity is not dialogue.

29. We deny that it is an "unWesleyan spirit" to do what Wesley himself constantly did: call the church and the world to scriptural holiness. If that involves conflict with defensive, waning, bureaucratic knowledge elites, we will face it with equanimity and pray for the grace to speak the truth in love.

It is misleading to caste the confessing movement as "unWesleyan" when it is clearly committed to the renewal of Wesleyan teaching, and hence ancient ecumenical teaching, within United Methodism.

30. We stand under the authority of the revealed Word as it meets us in written Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If that is what some mean by authoritarian, we happily confess it. It is the truth that sets us free.

It is misleading to suggest that we are not open to any criticism. We have repeatedly solicited it. We welcome it. We hope it will so continue as to bear some fruit instead of simple enmity and distrust.

31. The critics of the confession plead for "civility" in discourse, yet if this document is an example of civility, with all its false charges and misleading statements and miscontruals and deliberate misreadings, we can only hope for a spirit of repentance in all parties that might lead to greater civility and trust.

32. To be caricatured as "promoters of Reformed theology" instead of Wesleyans is so patently untrue that it does not require a reply. Please read my studies of Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, and John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity and my book on the Transforming Power of Grace, as a beginning corrective of his assumption. And better, read the powerful writings of Wm. Abraham and Geoffrey Wainwright and Maxie Dunnam and above all Albert Outler to correct this misimpression.

33. As I look at the list of signatories I see old and dear friends among them: John Cobb, Charles Baughman, Dale Dunlap, John Swomley, and Jeanne Audrey Powers whom I have known longer than any of the others. I am surprised to see your names on such a reckless and misleading document. I think you should be ashamed. But that is a matter for further conversations.

Thomas C. Oden

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