Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.
Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God “so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” Therefore, our theological task, in both its critical and constructive aspects, focuses on disciplined study of the Bible.
United Methodists share with other 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. We know that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God in our midst whom we trust in life and death. The biblical authors, illumined by the Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God. The Bible bears authentic testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as in God’s work of creation, in the pilgrimage of Israel, and in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity in human history.
The theological task does not start anew in each age or each person. Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between. For centuries Christians have sought to interpret the truth of the gospel for their time.
In these attempts, tradition, understood both in terms of process and form, has played an important role. The passing on and receiving of the gospel among persons, regions, and generations constitutes a dynamic element of Christian history. The formulations and practices that grew out of specific circumstances constitute the legacy of the corporate experience of earlier Christian communities.
In our theological task, we follow Wesley’s practice of examining experience, both individual and corporate, for confirmations of the realities of God’s grace attested in Scripture.
Our experience interacts with Scripture. We read Scripture in light of the conditions and events that help shape who we are, and we interpret our experience in terms of Scripture.
All religious experience affects all human experience; all human experience affects our understanding of religious experience.
On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian witness as our own.
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 at God’s hand. Such assurance is God’s gracious gift through the witness of the Holy Spirit.
This “new life in Christ” is what we as United Methodists mean when we speak of “Christian experience.” Christian experience gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. It confirms the biblical message for our present. It illumines our understanding of God and creation and motivates us to make sensitive moral judgments.
Although we recognize that God’s revelation and our experiences of God’s grace continually surpass the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason.
By reason we read and interpret Scripture.
By reason we determine whether our Christian witness is clear.
By reason we ask questions of faith and seek to understand God’s action and will.
By reason we organize the understandings that compose our witness and render them internally coherent.
By reason we test the congruence of our witness to the biblical testimony and to the traditions that mediate that testimony to us.
By reason we relate our witness to the full range of human knowledge, experience, and service.
Since all truth is from God, efforts to discern the connections between revelation and reason, faith and science, grace and nature, are useful endeavors in developing credible and communicable doctrine. We seek nothing less than a total view of reality that is decisively informed by the promises and imperatives of the Christian gospel, though we know well that such an attempt will always be marred by the limits and distortions characteristic of human knowledge.
Nevertheless, by our quest for reasoned understandings of Christian faith we seek to grasp, express, and live out the gospel in a way that will commend itself to thoughtful persons who are seeking to know and follow God’s ways.
In theological reflection, the resources of tradition, experience, and reason are integral to our study of Scripture without displacing Scripture’s primacy for faith and practice.
These four sources—each making distinctive contributions, yet all finally working together—guide our quest as United Methodists for a vital and appropriate Christian witness.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."