Those in the United Methodist traditions – and in some other Christian religious traditions as well – are united within the frame of history. This is because of an important theological assumption about the Christian life: that God is both imminent and transcendent; that God is a participant in the historical narrative(s) of Creation. In this sense, God (in Christian understanding) is not distant. God is intimately engaged in the life of part of that which God creates – including every human being. This is an important thing to note when trying to understand how Methodists of various kinds have conceived of their ecclesiologies.
God has a life-story; and so do all those whom God gives life. We meet one another, as God’s creatures, in the overlapping narratives of our lives. We, likewise, engage with God in the narrative of the Divine life. We are all making history together. We all participate with God in creating that history moment by moment. Our mutual experience of each other is the living of that history.
For some Christians, the Christian life – living life in relationship with God and one another as modeled and shaped by Jesus – is a central theological pursuit. It is theological reflection through practical action. The doing of one’s theology through the embodiment of Jesus’s teachings is a necessary component of Christian discipleship.
Among the types of Christians who have placed strong emphasis upon the embodiment of the Christian life are included the pre- and post-Reformations Pietists of the European Continent and the British Isles and Evangelicals with roots in 18th century revivalism. United Methodism, and the traditions prior to the 1968 union that make up the present denomination, all have roots in both Pietism and Evangelicalism.
For Pietists and Evangelicals at the time of the ministries of the Wesley brothers, one did what one believed. Abstract theological reflection was fine; but only to the extent that it bore fruit in one’s life. It was always the doing of what Jesus taught that was most important, however. Talking and not doing was sinful. When some people say that United Methodists have been weak in their contributions to theology (as even many United Methodists have said), the truth is that they either are unaware – or ignore – the fact that the ‘text’ in which Methodist theological understanding has most often been written was in the lives of individuals and communities that worked to enact their beliefs and understandings.
In John and Charles Wesley’s own lives, they were influenced by Puritan pietism, principally through the example and teachings of their mother, Susanna (though their father, Samuel, had Puritan roots as well). Added to this, early on in their ministries, was the further pietistic influence of the Moravians. In teachings of both the Puritans and the Moravians was an emphasis upon situating the understanding of our lives within the larger story of God. The small groups that were a part of both religious movements were settings in which participants gave accounts of God’s working in their lives and in the world around them – and of their giving account of their own lives in the larger story of God’s creation. While the Puritan influence shaped the Wesleys during their childhood years, it is likely that the Moravian example added much to their sense of how this historical awareness plays out in the life of faith.
The model for both Puritans and Moravians – and, by extension, the Wesleys – was that of scripture. The Bible is a compilation of testimonies of faith through which one sees accounts of God’s doings and the doings of those who either co-operate with the Divine will or rebel against it – or, sometimes, both (as with David, for instance). The accounts are of individuals and of communities. They are accounts of relationships between God and humans and between humans with other humans.
Evangelicals and Pietists made it a part of their lives together to tell stories of faith – formulated historical narratives – in order to build their lives and their faith in a way that followed the pattern of scripture. And, chief among the narratives of scripture were the accounts of Jesus and his disciples and how they lived.
As a religious leader who took story (and history) as important to faithful enactment of the Christian life, John Wesley early on explained the Methodist movement in terms of a short historical account.1 That story formed a cornerstone of Methodist self-understanding. Methodist history began with his conceptualizing of that history. The history of all Methodists, therefore, was an extension of that story built up from that foundation.
If we look at how the Bible itself was formulated, we see that at important times of revival of faith (the story of the Exodus, the return from Babylon, and the life of Jesus as major examples) many of the same elements of the history of God and God’s people are repeated, reframed, and given new life by new interpretation. History, then, is not simply a linear progression of facts listed; rather, it is a ‘conversation’ in which individuals meet God and one another across time as well as within a specific moment. When Jesus engages texts from Isaiah, for instance, he shows that history is not a dead thing. History is the container in which all life is held and in which we participate in God’s kairos as well as the world’s kronos.
To be connected in history is to be united with one another in a shared story that we are constantly engaging, expanding, and reinterpreting. It is to be involved with God’s faithful from many lands and many times. It is to know one another as alive; whether temporally so now or not.
Many Methodist traditions have consciously, or unconsciously, maintained this sense of connection to one another within the frame of history. United Methodism has continued the practice of beginning the text of the Discipline with a brief account of the history of United Methodists. Likewise, many expressions of Wesleyan small group ministry have continued practices of telling the story of God’s working in and around the lives of group members, and, of group members giving accounts of their own triumphs and failures in working to enact a life modeled upon Jesus the Christ. United Methodists continue to live in their connexion in history.
1 Please see, John Wesley. 1748. A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, . . . London: G. Paramore.