As Christians in the United Methodist denomination/tradition, we share with the Universal Church (i.e. the Body of Christ in all times and in all places) the common and standard beliefs as set forth in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Church, particularly, The Apostle’s Creed and The Nicene Creed.
The Apostle’s Creed
We believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal (catholic, in Latin) Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy universal (catholic, in Latin) and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
In addition, we stand within the Reformation Tradition of the Church of England, from which Methodism was born. Our theology was steeped in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church, which were distilled to twenty-five articles by the founder of the Methodist Movement, John Wesley (with two more being added in 1939, to make twenty-seven, in all).
There are also distinct features of Methodist belief and practice that, in addition to these common features, allow Methodism to contribute to the whole Church’s dialogue of faith seeking understanding. Those distinctions include an emphasis on the preemptive, prevenient Grace of God to act upon us before we can respond to God through our faith (i.e., God is always pursuing human beings as God’s own beloved). Also, Methodists have historically taught that one can have assurance of one’s salvation, not because of our own works, but because of the dependability and faithfulness of God’s promises. We believe that our proper response to God’s Grace is a holy and complete life of discipleship (Sanctification) and that this can be appropriated through faith and evidenced by our faithfulness to God and one another (good works). It has also been a hallmark of Methodism to engage the whole world with the message of God’s love, mercy, and salvation through our mission and service. Methodism has always been able to adapt to the fresh winds of God’s Spirit by assimilating those Spirit movements within the Church that have occurred. The movement, itself, was framed as a confluence of the very best of Christian tradition that came before it.
In the 1960s, Dr. Albert Outler, a noted Methodist theologian and churchman, formulated what has come to be called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This quadrilateral captured the view that the all-encompassing standard of authority is Scripture, but within that field of authority—and the means and lenses by which we interpret Scripture—lies three other operative principles: Tradition, Reason, and Experience. These represent the streams or Spirit-movements within Christian history of Catholicism/Orthodoxy (Tradition), Reason (Christian Humanism and Enlightenment), and Experience (Christian Pietism and Revivalism).
United Methodist Scholarship
The scholar, Richard Foster, in his foundational work, Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith described six living streams of Christian Tradition which form the basis of an authentic expression of the church Universal. He identifies them as:
Prayer-Filled Life: The Contemplative Tradition
Virtuous Life: The Holiness Tradition
Spirit-Empowered Life: The Charismatic Tradition
Compassionate Life: The Social Justice Tradition
Word-Centered Life: The Evangelical Tradition
Sacramental Life: The Incarnational Tradition
This understanding expands the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to also include those movements that either sprang out of the Wesleyan contribution to Christianity or was subsequent to it. In all cases, the Wesleyan/Methodist Tradition has had the capacity to incorporate the very best of these movements, while mitigating their excesses (captured in the old Appalachian church adage, “Eat the meat, but spit out the bones”). In a very real way, all of them have found a confluence in the Methodist Tradition and continue to shape our identity today. This is equally true for more recent movements which will leave their mark in time.
United Methodists have doctrine, but we are not doctrinaire. We stand within historic Christianity, but we understand that we assert this faith while continuing to seek understanding of its application. We cherish the Bible, without turning it into a weapon with which to assault those who may disagree with us. We witness to the Truth, without confusing the Truth with our own idiosyncrasies and experiences. We recognize God is complete, but our understanding of God is not. We will always err on the side of Love and Grace and we will examine our own lives before we take up the examination of the lives of our neighbors.
This way of being the Church is messier and fosters less conformity than other systems with more rigid theological structures and boundaries; yet, we believe this approach is truer to human experience and engenders a humility before God that is necessary for our growth, well-being, and availability to the Holy Spirit. This posture does foster broad theological and spiritual diversity within The United Methodist Church. Some find this refreshing, and some find this troubling. Somehow, though, United Methodists have found a way to hold this center of unity with one another and with the whole, universal Church. So, the irony is that we, at once, stand before the mystery of God in humility, refusing to assert a false certainty; and, at the same time, witness to the truth that God can be experienced and known through Jesus Christ in a way that is real and can transform people, societies, and the world. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, adhered to an ancient understanding of faith and doctrine which asserted: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." This is what and how we believe. This is our faith.