Reviewed by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., pastor of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC
United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center by Scott C. Jones
Why read a book on doctrine? There is almost always a task that seems more urgent, a need that appears to be unmet, an appointment that must be scheduled. A measure of the strength of Scott Jones' interpretation of Methodist doctrine is that he understands this question as one that a pastor might pose. His response: we do participate in a culture (ecclesiastical and beyond) that questions authority and official statements about doctrine, and yet we also live in a diverse marketplace of ideas that pushes the question of belief to the center stage. There is a resulting need for clarity about Christian belief, and the pastor, for good or ill, is the primary interpreter for the community that she or he leads.
Jones situates the promise of United Methodist doctrine as a corrective to the Protestant Christian division between concern for souls (individual salvation) and attention to the public order (social justice). He articulates an "extreme center" shaped by the union of belief and practice, displayed in sermons, disciplinary statements and Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. While our doctrine has always been shaped in formal ways through practice, particularly the practice of making disciples, the content has primarily been the discussion of the meaning of salvation through grace. Most pastors would admit that there are a number of soteriologies operative within their congregations. The neglect of teaching and preaching "the extreme center" of the faith has placed us at the mercy of a marketplace of religious ideas, not all of them orthodox or helpful.
A reading of United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center will reacquaint many with key issues (the relation of scripture to tradition, reason and experience, the order of salvation) while also engaging more current topics (names for God, issues such as alcoholism and environmental justice). One of the work's strengths is the author's attention to Wesley's interpretation of important New Testament texts, and he is also helpful in summarizing important theological distinctions. For example, his reflection on the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints) and the Wesleyan alternative would be helpful to pastors and leaders of congregations who discover individuals coming into the churches with differing viewpoints. His discussion of the sacraments is illuminating (what do we mean when we talk about an "open table"?), and his theology is practical in that it is in dialogue with congregational and denominational concerns.
While we are the heirs of a rich theological tradition, at times United Methodists have ignored this birthright in our inclination to action. Yet authentic Christian action is always grounded in assumptions about human nature and divine grace. Jones is correct in his insistence that "the vitality of the Church's witness depends on the clarity of the Church's teaching". United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center is a model of this kind of clarity, and my hope and prayer is that it will serve to revitalize the Church's witness in the world.