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The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism by James V. Heidinger. Seedbed, 2017. Available HERE.

I’ve only been in the United Methodist Church about 6 years, and if you’d told me years ago that I’d one day be in a mainline church – I likely would have cried that I would become a liberal and lose my faith. Yet, here I am, and I am most definitely not a liberal and quite evangelical still. While the UMC is, as a whole, liberal (at least institutionally) there are individual congregations  that are evangelical. As I’ve experienced personally, and as this book points out: there is a great gulf between liberal clergy and more orthodox, traditional pastors (yes, the later exist!) -and- between seminary classrooms and the laity in the pews. Indeed, I encounter traditional evangelical folks as well as very liberal folks that qualify as heretics. It is more disconcerting to me that the UMC tolerates outright heresy (for example aberrant views about Christ), than its failure to enforce the BOD (Book of Discipline) sexuality standards – although the later is very concerning to me too.

This book is more academic but accessible to the interested lay person. Concepts are explained and history is reviewed so that you can follow along, understanding the arguments. The main content of the book is 203 pages, but with an additional 80 pages of appendices, notes, etc. My only criticism of the book is that it lacked end of chapter summaries. It is not that the chapters end abruptly, but some books have helpful summaries at the end of each chapter that can help the reader confirm that they grasped the key points intended by the author.

One could easily think that the decline of the mainline denominations happened only in the last 50 years, but the seeds go back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to the emergence of theological liberalism and the social gospel. Much of the book delves into this history because of its profound importance – it laid the groundwork for what would happen over the next 100 years.

Also, things have just repeated ad nauseam since that time! At times I wanted to hurl the book across the room (really!) – NOT because I was upset at the author – but I was disgusted that some of the same things have just kept happening. Things that have disturbed me over my last 6 years in the UMC, were happening throughout the entire 20th century! For example: bishops refusing to take a stand for doctrinal truth, renewal movements ignored, petitions at general conferences not given consideration, standards not enforced, etc.

On the positive side, it is heartening to know that many have tried to address the problems, and shift the direction of the church back to both the orthodox, historic Christian faith as well as to its Wesleyan roots. Chapter 9 shares that there is more of an evangelical presence than is normally thought. While the “upper currents” (theologians, bishops, seminary professors, denominational staff, etc) may be theologically liberal, the “great deep” (folks in the pew and some pastors) maintain a largely evangelical, traditional faith.

The opening chapters of the book are perhaps more broad, sharing some details/history of what has happened, while later chapters go deeper. For example, if talk of theological liberalism and the social gospel were a bit fuzzy to you, chapter 6 is entitled “Just what was theological liberalism?” and chapter 7 is entitled “Methodism and the social gospel.”  In other words, as you read the book, if some things are not initially clear to you – they should become clearer as the book progresses.

To share some examples from the book, chapter 5 highlights the diminished place for doctrine and creeds. In 1904 and 1905 there were two heresy trials for professors. The charges against one professor (Bowne) included denying the atonement, the Trinity, and the existence of miracles. Bowne was completely vindicated by a unanimous vote! A reflection on this stated:

“If Bowne could not be convicted of denying the doctrines of the church, then no one could be convicted. After Bowne, there was nothing that could be taught or denied by seminary professors that would make them unacceptable as teachers in Methodist seminaries. Heresy trials would cease to exist not because of an absence of heresy, but because of the lack of will to take doctrine seriously.” (page 55, bold added)

Doctrine was trivialized in the Methodist church, and many of those graduating from Methodist seminaries became clergy that were nothing more than “agnostic social workers” – as one spot in the book describes it. Sick seminaries lead to sick churches. Indeed, only about 5,000 of 30,000 congregations in the UMC today are considered highly vital. The saving power of Christ was denied. Essential truths that make Christianity to be Christianity were stripped away, leaving in its place a religion that is in a different category altogether.

Various parts of the book emphasize that doctrine matters, and the final chapter is entitled: “Getting the gospel right.”  Yet the institutional leadership of the UMC still won’t acknowledge the problem. They will not ask the hard question: Are we getting the gospel right? From 2009-2012 there was a major UMC assessment about the decline of the church. And the church inexplicably chose not to consider that matters of doctrine and theology as possible factors in recovering the church’s vitality! As I said, the same problem repeating over and over again for the last 100 years!!!

Alas, this is a bit of a discouraging and frustrating book BUT it needs to be read by more people! The book does offer hope, as there IS hope in the gospel! But avoiding the hard truths of what happened in the past (and keeps happening today), will not make the problems go away.

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