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South Carolina Bishop Defends Colleague's Heresy As Faithful "theological exploration"



Bishop’s School of Ministry

South Carolina Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church

October 15, 2002 - Myrtle Beach, SC

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey


 I am grateful for the opportunity to speak again at this opening session of the School of Ministry.  I look forward to this occasion each year.  I must admit this year, however, that I approach my topic with some fear and trembling.  I want to speak to the issue of doctrinal affirmation and theological exploration in United Methodism, and I will do so with reference to a couple of recent papers:  1) an article by Rhett Jackson, member of Trenholm Road United Methodist Church in Columbia, in the SOUTH CAROLINA UNITED METHODIST ADVOCATE[1], and 2) an unpublished speech by Joseph Sprague, Bishop of the Chicago Area of The United Methodist Church, delivered earlier this year at Iliff School of Theology.[2] These two friends have raised some significant theological and doctrinal concerns which call for further reflection.  Though I have seen some thoughtful response to both statements, much of the response which I have seen has been ugly, mean-spirited, and virtually devoid of responsible theological content.  That, of course, is a statement which reflects my judgment, and not everyone will agree with me.

It is because of the angry nature of much of the response to these articles, however, that I say I approach my task this evening with fear and trembling.  It is not that I am afraid to enter the fray.  If that were the case, I would have chosen to speak on a different topic.  My concern is that I am aware, because I have seen it in the mail and e-mail that has crossed my desk, that it is possible, perhaps even probable, that in attempting to speak to these issues one will be misrepresented, misquoted, and misinterpreted.  I have decided to take that risk because I believe the matter to be vitally important.

I will approach the topic in this fashion:

First I will identify the principal issue I want to address.

Then I will illustrate the issue with reference to Sprague’s and Jackson’s


Third, I will discuss what I believe to be some common impediments to dialogue.

And finally, I will lift up a central Wesleyan concept which can help our church

            find a way forward.

I need to say at the outset, however, where I stand with regard to one suggestion made by some people.  Numerous persons across the church have suggested that Bishop Sprague should resign, that Mr. Jackson should never again represent his local church or this conference at annual, jurisdictional, or general conferences, and that persons who agree with or think like Sprague or Jackson should resign from any leadership roles which they hold in the church.  I unequivocally reject that point of view!  What Bishop Sprague and Mr. Jackson are engaged in is the ongoing theological task sanctioned and encouraged by our BOOK OF DISCIPLINE in the section titled “Our Theological Task,”  and the suggestion that either of these committed United Methodist Christians should resign his position or leave the church is contrary to the catholic spirit of our founder himself.  I hope that what I have to say will make clear why I have taken this position.

I am not simply defending Bishop Sprague or Rhett Jackson.  Neither needs my defense.  Rather I am using the ferment around their articles as an occasion to address a concern that is troubling our denomination on several fronts - in the General Church as groups and individuals level attacks on other groups and individuals, in boards and agencies and the General and Jurisdictional Conferences as competing factions vie for representation and power, and within congregations in this annual conference as pastors and lay people are put to the test to see if they hold “correct” beliefs.

One more prefatory word:  This is not a typical “after dinner speech.”  I am plowing deep furrows in rocky, but fertile, soil.  You will have to work hard truly to hear what I am saying.  But I have worked hard in preparing it, so we’re even!  Now, to the principal issue.


What is involved in determining the difference between essential doctrine and theological exploration in The United Methodist Church?

For John Wesley, to use his words, the distinction was between “essential doctrines” which are at the heart of the faith and matters of “opinion” about which there may be differences of interpretation.  Dr. Scott Jones, Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, has written an excellent new book with a fascinating title:  UNITED METHODIST DOCTRINE: THE EXTREME CENTER.[3]  Noting that the theological spectrum of Christendom as a whole is very broad, he makes this important observation:  “On the theological spectrum Wesley occupies the extreme center.”[4]  Dr. Jones discusses the established doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church, which include, among other documents, The Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, Wesley’s EXPLANATORY NOTES UPON THE NEW TESTAMENT, and the General Rules of The Methodist Church.  He then discusses Wesley’s distinction, contained within his own documents here mentioned, between essential doctrines and theological opinions.  The difficulty, however, is that though Wesley employed this distinction between essential doctrines and opinions, he gave in his writings a variety of listings of “essential” doctrines, and the lists varied from one another significantly.  Jones observes, “The doctrines that appear most frequently in such summaries are three:  original sin, justification by faith, and holiness of heart and life….For Wesley all the doctrines he mentions as essential or ‘fundamental’ relate to the way of salvation or the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation….The crucial distinction is between those teachings that are essential to being a Christian, and those on which good Christian persons can disagree.  The latter are opinions, and a catholic spirit requires that while one is fixed in her or his own judgment about the truth of them, one must be aware that one might be wrong and thus should honor and respect those of his or her brothers and sisters who disagree on that point.  For United Methodist doctrine the loving spirit that is the goal of Christian doctrine ought to inform all of the practices related to it.”[5]

Jones does not give a definitive listing of Wesley’s essential doctrines other than to say, as already observed, that the ones most frequently mentioned by Wesley are original sin, justification by faith, and holiness of heart and life, with the further observation that the essential doctrines have a strong relationship to salvation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation.  The implication is that the task of discerning the essential doctrines of the faith is an ongoing one, although Wesley has given some guidance in the matter.  The further implication is that there is bound to be considerable “opinion,” to use Wesley’s word, in the interpretation of doctrine.

A helpful source for us United Methodists trying to discern essential doctrine in 2002 is the statement on “Our Doctrinal Heritage” in THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE.[6]  We read there that we hold, with other Christians, a common belief in the triune God, in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ, in God’s redemptive love in human life through the activity of the Holy Spirit, in the universal church, in the present and future reign of God, in the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, in justification by grace, and in the church’s continual need for reformation and renewal.  And though some interpretative comments follow all these affirmations, it is clear from the ensuing statements of basic Wesleyan emphases and of the church’s theological task that the matter of interpreting these commonly held Christian affirmations will result in a wide variety of perspectives and experiences.

It is clear, therefore, that United Methodism is committed to doctrinal affirmations which are essentially those of all Christian churches.  But it is equally clear that there is much room for interpretation of these central affirmations, both among the various denominational traditions and within our own particular tradition.  We, along with all mainline theological traditions, have always had a view to both essentials and opinions.


Now let me illustrate this issue with reference to the reflections of Bishop Sprague and Rhett Jackson, particularly those which drew the angriest responses.  I will focus on only two theological issues, which were addressed by both Sprague and Jackson.  This is not to deny the importance of their other reflections.  It is simply that these two will suffice to make the point.  The strongest response to both Sprague and Jackson was in regard to their comments on the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Jackson says that in seeking a Christian religion of reason he and others who share his perspective “do not believe in the virgin birth.”[7]  One of the difficulties in responding to this comment is its lack of further explication.  I believe that what Mr. Jackson means is that he cannot accept the virgin birth of Jesus as a biological fact.  I draw this inference from Mr. Jackson’s comments that he favors “a religion of reason,” which he differentiates from literalism.

Bishop Sprague gives more interpretation in his comments.  He says,  “I affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.”  In that statement he grounds  his interpretation of Jesus firmly in traditional orthodoxy.  He then goes on to refer to the virgin birth as myth, stating, “A theological myth…is not false presentation but a valid and quite persuasive literary device employed to point to ultimate truth that can only be insinuated symbolically and never depicted exhaustively.”[8]  Then he discusses his concept of how Jesus became the Christ through the “confluence” of God’s grace and Jesus’ response.  Suffice it to say here that what Bishop Sprague seems to have done, simply put, is this:  He has affirmed the orthodox position of Jesus as fully human and fully divine; he has denied the virgin birth as a biological fact but affirmed that the concept is used to express the deeper theological truth of the special nature of Jesus; and he has offered his own interpretation of how Jesus is both human and divine.

Now let me move briefly to what Mr. Jackson and Bishop Sprague say with regard to the resurrection of Christ.  Again, Mr. Jackson’s remarks are more cryptic.  He says simply that in seeking “a Christian religion of reason” he and others who share his perspective “do not believe in the…physical resurrection.”[9]  He clearly holds the traditional view of Christianity that Jesus initiated a kingdom of love and justice, and that Christian discipleship involves a life committed to practicing love and justice in the world.  But he makes that faith commitment without being bound to an interpretation of resurrection that says Jesus’ physical body was resuscitated.

Bishop Sprague’s perspective is similar, though more fully explicated.  He states, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I cannot believe that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body.”  And he follows this statement with a powerful personal word:  “While the innocent, fragile body of our infant son, Mark, was not resuscitated when he died unfairly and far too early from Spinal Meningitis, I believe nevertheless that he and the risen Christ abide together.  The essence of God, the eternal spirit of life that flowed completely in and through Jesus and abides from everlasting to everlasting, holds Mark and all the little children of every age and every generation.  This is the same resurrected Jesus power or Christ essence that infused the disciples and apostles, called the church into being, makes the wounded whole, forgives sin, reconciles and renews, guides history toward justice, drives creation’s evolution, and is the foundation of the new age that both is and is to come.”[10]  Those are hardly the words of someone described in one of the letters to him that came across my desk as “an ambassador of Satan himself.”[11]

What we have in both Rhett Jackson’s article and Bishop Sprague’s speech is a combination of traditional Christian affirmation coupled with theological reflection and exploration.  That is the stuff theological and doctrinal dialogue is made of!  But there are impediments to that dialogue, and they deserve some comment.


One of the difficulties of speaking of varying theological perspectives is that words are often inadequate to capture the essence of a point of view.  Acknowledging that difficulty, I will nevertheless use labels to describe two widely divergent theological perspectives.  I recognize that this is an oversimplification, but there is enough truth in it to be instructive.

On one end of the theological spectrum is literalism.  This viewpoint would interpret scripture, creeds, and official doctrinal statements literally.  Everything in Scripture is literally true.  The same is true of creeds and doctrinal statements.  Thus, the world was created in seven twenty-four hour days and evolution is a fiction; the virgin birth of Jesus was a biological fact; and the resurrection of Jesus means that his physical body was resuscitated in the same form as before his crucifixion.

At the other end of the spectrum is rationalism.  This viewpoint interprets scripture, creeds, and official doctrinal statements from the standpoint of reason, the workings of the human mind.  Therefore, if an affirmation is not “reasonable,” not “rational,” does not make sense scientifically, contradicts known truth from biology and physical science, it is not true.

These two perspectives often fall into the same trap.  Literalism says that the virgin birth is biologically true and that the resurrection of Jesus means his physical body was resuscitated.  Extreme commitment to such literalism says that those who do not affirm these perspectives are unfaithful and should get out of the church.  By the same token, rationalism says that it cannot accept the biological truth of the virgin birth, cannot accept that the resurrection means the body of Jesus was physically resuscitated; and because it cannot accept those interpretations, rationalism says it cannot affirm the virgin birth or the resurrection since they must be affirmed literally or not at all.  The resulting difficulty is that both views, when held to such extremes, are caught in the trap of literalism.  In the extreme view both are trapped in an understanding of the faith that demands that matters of faith be totally grasped by our finite minds or not held at all.  Both have closed the door to symbol and to mystery and put more stock in an understanding of “fact” than in faith.

Then there is another impediment to dialogue.  These extreme views fail to understand the nature of theological and creedal language, and they thus close the door on genuine exploration of the difference between essential doctrine and theological opinion.

Earlier I reminded us of Scott Jones’ observation that for Wesley all the doctrines he mentions as essential are related to “the way of salvation or the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.”[12]  In talking about virgin birth we are talking about a concept related to the doctrine of the Incarnation.  All too simply but basically put, the doctrine of the Incarnation has to do with the affirmation that in Jesus Christ the Almighty God took on human form.  This affirmation was developed in the midst of theological controversy in early Christendom, and it affirms that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine.  The Apostles’ Creed, which took over 500 years to be developed from its earliest to its present form, used some particular language to make these claims of divinity and humanity.  There is the phrase “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” which was intended from the beginning to symbolize the divine nature of our Lord.  And there is the phrase “born of the virgin Mary,” which, contrary to today’s popular belief in many circles, was intended from the beginning to symbolize the human nature of our Lord.  He originated with God.  He was born to a human mother.  That is the essential!  Human and Divine!  They were never intended to be biological statements.  They were, from the beginning, theological statements, intended to bespeak a mystery that is apprehended through faith and that is at the heart of the church’s understanding of who Jesus is.

As such, this affirmation is much more than simply a biological virgin birth.  In the ancient world, the concept of virgin births was not limited to Jesus Christ.  There are many stories of the miraculous births of religious, political, and other leaders.  According to the documents of their faiths, Buddha and Zoroaster were supernaturally born.  Likewise Plato and Augustus Caesar.  Virgin birth in and of itself was never a concept reserved to Jesus.  And in our modern world virgin births are easily generated as the result of in-vitro fertilization.  Are, therefore, children so born considered somehow religiously unique?  If all we have to claim distinctiveness for Jesus is a biological claim, then we really don’t have much.

The significant difference is the difference between the language of science and the language of religious symbol, theology, creed.  The essential doctrine is the two-fold nature of Jesus Christ - fully human and fully divine.  That is the essential thing.  The question of how this is so is a matter of opinion, or of interpretation, or of theological exploration.  For one thing, we don’t know.  If some prefer to hold to a biological interpretation of Christ’s virgin birth, that has certainly been one of the interpretations of his nature through the centuries.  But it must be said, just as honestly, that such has never been the unquestioned, required interpretation.  Belief in the biological miracle of virgin birth has never been required for salvation.  Though Matthew and Luke speak of it, Mark, John, and St. Paul make no mention of it. 

What is essential?  The affirmation of the mysterious and paradoxical wonder of God made human, Word made flesh, Jesus Christ as the revelation of God in God’s fullness and of humanity in its intended character.  That is essential for the Christian.  To be able to explain how it is so is not essential.  It never has been.  And it is certainly not now an issue over which persons should be told to relinquish leadership in or get out of the church.

The same is true where the resurrection is concerned.  I re-read last week a lengthy and detailed exploration of theories of the resurrection in a marvelous book written forty years ago by Dr. Hugh Anderson, my professor of New Testament theology at Duke.[13]  What is clear is that across the centuries there has been a wide variety of ways to interpret what actually happened in the resurrection of Christ.  The resuscitation of his physical body is certainly one of the ways of interpreting Christ’s resurrection, but it is by no means the only one.  The New Testament accounts themselves suggest different interpretations.  For example, in just one of the post-resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ we encounter two different interpretations.  In John 20, when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, there is the suggestion of a very physical presence when Jesus tells Thomas to put his finger in the nail hole in Jesus’ hand, and his hand in the spear wound in Jesus’ side.  But in the very same text there is the suggestion of quite a different form of presence when we are told that Jesus came into the room and stood among the disciples, “although the doors were shut.”  What do you make of a presence that can be touched and felt, but that also can pass through shut doors?  Understand, I am not trying to confound and confuse the faithful!  I am only trying to understand an affirmation that has its own confounding characteristics.  That has been the theological challenge where the resurrection is concerned from the beginning.

What is the essential?  Where resurrection is concerned, the essential is the church’s affirmation that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead God has overcome evil and death, defeated the worst that human cruelty can do, established in Christ an eternal kingdom that finally will result in the victory of goodness, and love, and light, and justice, and peace, and hope, and life - for now and for all eternity.  That is the essential - the affirmation of God’s victory over sin and death.

What is opinion?  What is theological exploration?  The effort to understand and speak theologically about how that has occurred.  For some Christians that understanding has always been in terms of the resuscitation of the physical body.  For others, it has never been and cannot be that.  If resurrection is only the resuscitation of the physical body, then what will distinguish the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the resuscitation of the bodies of those persons who have been put in deep freeze until medical science can find a cure for the diseases that killed them?  Of course, that may never happen.  But if it does, then what is the difference?

Interpret resurrection as resuscitation of the physical body if you choose.  That has certainly been one of the interpretations through the centuries.  But don’t require everyone to interpret it that way.  And never be content with only that.  It is the witness of the New Testament and of the church through the centuries that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sign and seal of the inauguration of the eternal kingdom of God, a kingdom in which love will triumph over hatred, good will be victorious over evil, and mercy and justice will rule over sin and oppression - on earth as in heaven.

What I am trying to say is really rather simple, even if not universally affirmed.  With regard to the two doctrinal issues I have been discussing, the virgin birth and the resurrection, the essentials are the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the eventual and eternal triumph of God’s rule over all creation.  This is put in scriptural language in these words:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through him….What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not over come it….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”[14]  This is symbolic, poetic language.  This is John’s way of affirming the Incarnation and the ultimate victory of God in creation.  This is essential.  John does not worry himself here with the “how.”  He affirms the “what,” and he leaves the “how” for others.  It is the “what” that speaks to the essential.  The essential we affirm by faith.  With regards to the “how,” we truly are free to think and let think.  I appreciate a recent statement by my colleague Bishop Woodie White:  “I am truly sorry for the person who has all of life reduced to absolute surety.  I like to have answers as well as the next person, but there are mysteries galore.  I believe everyone should have a mystery room called ‘I don’t understand.’”[15]


Now it remains to make one brief comment about a Wesleyan concept which I believe can help our church find a way forward in its current turmoil over doctrinal and theological issues.  It is simply this:  We need to get beyond the conflicts that we generate when we argue about who is right and who is wrong, who is faithful and who is not, who is “in” and who is “out.”  And the way to do that is to remember the purpose and function of doctrine in the Wesleyan tradition.

In the Wesleyan tradition it has never been the purpose of doctrine to provide a litmus test to determine who are the real Christians.  It has never been the purpose of doctrine in Methodism to define the real Christians by who believes the “right” things.  Any attempt to include or exclude on the basis of “right belief” violates the purpose of doctrine as it has historically functioned in Methodism.  Scott Jones puts it clearly in his new book on UNITED METHODIST DOCTRINE:  THE EXTREME CENTER:  “Wesley claims that Christian doctrine centers on salvation and that the goal of Christianity is the restoration of the world in general and humanity in particular to the way God intended them to be….United Methodist doctrine is centered on…the practice of the Christian faith.”[16]  In other words, doctrine is intended to shape our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.  It is intended, in Wesley’s terms, to lead us to holy living, both personally and socially.  This perspective suggests that finally doctrine and theology are not matters of making sure that everyone passes some test of doctrinal purity, but of bringing to bear on human life the  grace of God which finally touches the evil and pain and brokenness of the world with goodness and caring and wholeness.

It is time for us United Methodists to lay to rest litmus test doctrine which sets up some theological interpretations as the “right” ones, on the basis of which clergy and laity are judged to be faithful or not.

It is time for us United Methodists to lay to rest theological perspectives which are focused on gaining, keeping, or reclaiming power and control - whether in the local congregation, the annual conference, or the general church.

It is time for us United Methodists to claim in its fullness the Wesleyan concept of personal and social holiness - of perfection (maturity) in love.

It is time for us United Methodists to talk WITH each other, not AT each other.  I encourage - no, I implore - you:  Be in dialogue with one another.  Acknowledge that there is not a single one among us who understands all truth - not a single clergy person, not a single lay person.  We all “see through a glass darkly.”  We are fellow travelers, fellow seekers, fellow pilgrims.  In a world which is torn apart by suspicions, hatreds, greed, fears, and the pride that sets one person/group/nation/religion over against another, the last thing we need is for some Christians to read other Christians out of the fellowship because we have theological differences.  We need each other.  We need each other’s differing perspectives.  We need each other’s differing insights.  We are fellow seekers after truth.  May we long for the day when our quest for truth will lead us to the goal of this prayer from Kenya:

                                    From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,

                                    from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,

                                    from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

                                    Good Lord, deliver me.  Amen.[17]


[1] Rhett Jackson, “Commentary,” SOUTH CAROLINA UNITED METHODIST ADVOCATE (Columbia, September, 2002), p. 2.

[2] Joseph Sprague, “Affirmations of a Dissenter,” unpublished speech delivered at Iliff School of Theology, Denver, January 28, 2002.

[3] Scott J. Jones, UNITED METHODIST DOCTRINE: THE EXTREME CENTER (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002).

[4] Jones, p. 19.

[5] Jones, pp. 90, 91, 93.

[6]THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH 2000 (Nashville:  United Methodist Publishing House, 2000), pp. 41ff.

[7] Jackson,  p. 2.

[8] Sprague, pp. 2 & 3.

[9] Jackson, p. 2.

[10] Sprague, p. 5.

[11] E-mail letter to Bishop Sprague attacking him for his views, and copied to all active United Methodist bishops in the United States.  Author’s name withheld out of courtesy.

[12] Jones, p. 91.

[13] Hugh Anderson, JESUS AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 185-240.

[14] John 1:1, 3, 4, 5, 14, THE HOLY BIBLE, New Revised Standard Version.

[15] Protestant Hour, August 4, 2002, Quoted in NEWSCOPE (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, September 13, 2002), p. 4.

[16] Jones, pp. 75-76.

[17] THE UNITED METHODIST HYMNAL (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), Number 597.



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