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1972 New York Times Article on Theological Pluralism in the United Methodist Church


The Problem of Theological Pluralism

In the course of my research for these projects, I spent some time thinking about the theological pluralism that was adopted by the UMC in 1972, and I came across an interesting article from the New York Times reporting on the affirmation of pluralism at General Conference that year. In my view, the commitment to theological pluralism was one of the major reasons the UMC ultimately came apart. Here's an excerpt from the article. You'll notice Albert Outler is quoted extensively.

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted today what were described as landmark doctrinal guide lines, designed to help people understand their religion in, contemporary society.
The guidelines, which endorse “theological pluralism,” do not replace any doctrines or offer a new creed that would be binding on the 10.5 million members of the denomination. But they put the present doctrines in historical perspective and they suggest that Methodists measure their beliefs against four criteria: scripture, church tradition, personal experience and reason.
Scriptural texts are to be interpreted “in the light of their place in the Bible as a whole, as this is illumined by scholarly inquiry and personal insight,” the statement said.
Approved overwhelmingly on the sixth day of the conference, the statement encourages varying theological positions within the framework of basic Christian doctrine —a principle referred to as “theological pluralism.”
For example, it affirms belief in the Trinity and recognizes baptism and holy communion as sacraments. But it declares “United Methodism in doctrinal lock step is unthinkable.”
“We do not want a Methodist party line,” explained the Rev. Dr. Albert C. Outler of Dallas, head of the commission that drafted the document. But he said the guidelines could clear up some of the theological “bedlam in the church.”

Theology Matters

The decision to embrace pluralism out of a concern for doctrinal lockstep ultimately led to a denomination marked by deep conflict which would inevitably come apart. This highlights the importance of rigorous theological reflection for any denomination and especially a new one.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly (Ph.D., Gloucestershire) is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at and follow @mporeilly.

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"Approved overwhelmingly on the sixth day of the conference, the statement encourages varying theological positions."

So, a humanist perspective was affirmed on the sixth day. Ironic, given that it was on the sixth day that, "God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female."


Regrettably, the remnants of theological pluralism survives in the Global Methodist Church in the form of "Early Creeds Only Minimalist" orthodoxy. As if the high christology of the Nicene Creed constitutes the totality of orthodoxy!

Nicene Christology is necessary for orthodoxy but by itself it is not sufficient for orthodoxy. Thus Bishop George Bull was one of the leading defenders of Holy Trinity during his day, yet he was a Pelagian who affirmed justification by faith "and works"

Will the GMC truly rid itself of Theological Pluralism? Only time will tell.....

Andrew V. Sullivan

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