United Methodists are part of the larger Christian faith and affirm all of the historic beliefs of the faith as articulated in the historic creeds of the church. We affirm the God of Israel who has been decisively revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and continues to be present and at work in our lives in the form of the Holy Spirit. This understanding of God is known as the Trinity. We believe that God has been revealed through the Bible, and especially through the witness of the New Testament.
These core Christian beliefs were laid out in the Articles of Religion and in an alternate form of the Articles known as the Confession of Faith. Both of these are contained in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and are accepted as doctrinal standards.
There are no additional beliefs that are needed in order to be Methodist. However, Methodists have a proud and unique heritage within the larger Christian family. And there are some things we tend to emphasize. These emphases arise out of our origins historically, the unique personality of John Wesley, and later historic developments.
Methodism was born in England and the heritage of the English Reformation. Part of this heritage was an emphases upon the Via Media or middle path. The Via Media sought to steer a third way distinct from either Catholicism and Protestantism, while embracing aspects of both. In the United States this church has been known as the Episcopal Church.
The Via Media embraced a certain moderation or latitude in matters of belief. In a historical period in which many fought and died for their beliefs, Anglicanism sought to take the middle path and to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
Two hundred years after the English Reformation, John Wesley, an Anglican priest, added his own affirmation of the Via Media to the people called Methodist. What the Church of England called the Via Media he called the ‘Catholic Spirit’. By this Wesley meant a spirit that sought to embrace diverse aspects of the universal (or catholic) church. As Wesley himself said, he sought a church that was ‘truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed.’
Wesley also had a unique understanding of how we approach belief. While all belief is grounded in scripture, and scripture is primary in matters of belief, scripture is mediated and interpreted through two thousand years of Christian tradition, the God-given gift of human reason and our ongoing experience. These four, scripture, tradition, reason and experience are known as our doctrinal standards, though we clearly affirm that scripture is primary.
For Wesley, even though we affirm all the traditional beliefs of Christianity, it is not agreeing on the details of belief that formed the basis of our unity. Rather it is what he called the ‘religion of the heart’. Therefore he could say, ‘not that your mind be with my mind, but if your heart be with my heart, then give me your hand.’
Wesley also believed experience was critical. This showed up in such key Methodist emphases as ‘vital piety’, which was another term for ‘religion of the heart’ and affirmed the importance of the direct experience of God as distinct from the dry, intellectual belief in God. It also showed up in Welsey’s emphasis on ‘Christian assurance’, that we can know and experience the love of God.
Wesley’s affirmation of the Catholic Spirit results in a balanced approach to the faith that tends to be more ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. Methodists have tended to affirm both experience and the intellect, both the heart and the mind, both personal piety and social expression of that piety.
One of the most unique aspects of Methodism was Wesley’s distinctive understanding of salvation. This approach to salvation is grounded in the early church, especially the Eastern fathers. This understanding shows up in Wesley’s emphasis upon ‘going on to perfection’ or ‘scriptural holiness’. By this he understood that salvation is an on-going process, one that begins before we are even aware of it in God’s prevenient grace, the grace that ‘goes before’ and is there even before we are aware of it. It also embraces both justification (coming into a right relationship with God) as well as sanctification (growing in our faith so that we become more like what God would have us to be).
The key to this understanding of salvation is a strong emphasis upon God’s grace. Following the lead of the Apostle Paul, Wesley believed that salvation is ‘by grace’ but also ‘through faith’. Our ability to respond to God’s grace is based on an affirmation of free will. This has been a hallmark of Methodism.