The Legacy of Albert Cook Outler: Nostalgia, Challenge, Prospect (Part 2)

Leicester R. Longden

[In part 1 of this lecture, I sketched Albert Outler’s significance and legacy.]



“Outler’s three most influential proposals for Wesleyan theology,” according to Jason Vickers, are (1) that John Wesley was a “folk-theologian,” (2) that the quadrilateral may be found in Wesley himself and should be normative for Wesleyan theology, and (3) that Wesley, the man of “Catholic Spirit,” was a kind of ecumenist and, thus, ecumenism is in our DNA as Methodists (“Albert Outler and the Future,” 57).

Related to, and imbedded in these three proposals was Outler’s enthusiasm for and endorsement of “theological pluralism.”

All of these have been challenged in one way or another. A brief summary of these can help us see how they are related to Outler’s legacy and to my basic thesis, that the divided mind of United Methodism can be traced to Albert Outler himself.

What I’m trying to tease out in this lecture is that Outler’s “legacy” is really a question about our church. Vickers argues something similar when he writes: “If Wesleyan theology is to have a future, it must move beyond Outler’s three most influential proposals” (“Albert Outler and the Future,” 57).

With regard to Outler’s portrayal of Wesley as a “folk theologian,” perhaps the most sustained analysis has come from William Abraham. In his Denman Lectures on Evangelism and in an essay entitled “The End of Wesleyan Theology,” Abraham makes the case that, alongside Outler’s “prodigious” and “fastidious” editorial work and brilliant essays, there is also an ideological exercise at work in his historical labors. That is, Outler’s “historiography of Wesley” gives us a “constructed” picture of Wesley that “fill[s] a network of needs.” This picture of Wesley functioned to help “legitimize Methodism as a player on the world ecumenical stage,” providing United Methodism with its own unique theologian alongside Luther and Calvin (“The End of Wesleyan Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 40, no. 1 [2005]: 7-25).

One need not agree with all of Abraham’s conclusions to see that he has refused to settle for any platitudes about Wesley, or Outler, as theologian, and he has taken seriously the Outlerian historical agenda. Taking a clue from Ernst Troeltsch, who taught us that the very historical data we select for study is not independent of our other interests, Abraham has shown how Outler’s historical theology has made use of John Wesley “as a platform for current theological commitment” (“The End of Wesleyan Theology”).

The legacy of Outler the historical theologian is being tested by Abraham the philosophical and systematic theologian. Abraham, too, has an agenda: to see Wesley more clearly from the sources, not as “our theologian” but as a great evangelist and saint and “spiritual Father” in our tradition. Which of these visions will engender a more united and Spirit-renewed church in the 21st century remains to be seen.

A second challenge to Outler’s work has been made to his introduction of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” as a theological method that can be traced to Wesley’s thought. The controversy that has arisen over the Quadrilateral can give us a picture of the further testing of Outler’s legacy. (For purposes of brevity, let’s speak of “Q.”)

The full history of Q, its sources, and its various interpretations, has yet to be written, but a young Wesley scholar, Andrew Thompson, has helpfully traced many of the critical discussions of Q in his essay: “Outler’s Quadrilateral, Moral Psychology, and Theological Reflection in the Wesleyan Tradition” (in American Denominational History: Perspectives on the Past, Prospects for the Future, ed. Keith Harper [University of Alabama Press, 2008], 49-72).

Here are some key angles of vision in the controversy. Some critics quarrel with how Q is framed, taking issue with what actually counts historically as “tradition” in Wesley’s thought versus Outler’s use of the term. Ted Campbell’s famous essay, “The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’: The Story of a Methodist Myth” (Methodist History 29, no. 2 [1991]: 87-95) and Scott Jones’s book, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture (Abingdon, 1995) are both instructive on this point.

Many critics find the ordering of the four elements problematic, raising questions about the primacy of Scripture. This actually led to corrective adjustments in the 1988 Book of Discipline.

The most sustained philosophical critique has come, not surprisingly, from William Abraham, who has developed a series of arguments that Q fails epistemologically as a coherent method for theological reflection.

A number of theologians have made criticisms based on the subjectivity of applying Q. As Thompson puts it in his summary of the various authors, “Depending on the person employing it … the Quadrilateral can lead to diametrically opposed conclusions on a single theological question … [thus suggesting] that the criteria by which the four sources are used depends less on guiding Wesleyan standards than it does on contemporary hermeneutical commitments” (“Outler’s Quadrilateral,” 57).

A final critique we should note, which is the burden of Thompson’s essay, is that Q as formulated by Outler overlooks a key element in Wesley’s thought. “What Outler fails to develop in his accounts of the Quadrilateral,” writes Thompson, are “the skills necessary for the kind of theologizing the Quadrilateral is supposed to facilitate. Yet, in Wesley’s own theology, it is clear that ongoing formation (in the sense of practical discipleship) and progress in sanctification (in the sense of a soteriological reality) are requisite conditions for mature theological reflection and/or moral reasoning” (“Outler’s Quadrilateral,” 58). Thompson, I believe, has opened a fruitful avenue of exploration for moving the conversation about Q beyond mere questions of theologizing and methodology (see also Mark L. Horst, “Experimenting with Christian Wholeness: Method in Wesley’s Theology,” Quarterly Review 7, no. 2 (1987): 11-23).

This summary should not be to taken to suggest that the Quadrilateral has been largely rejected. For many clergy and Boards of Ordained Ministry, Q is still hardly questioned and taken as an “essential” of Methodist theologizing. In a more nuanced way, Wesley scholars Stephen Gunter, Scott Jones, Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles, and Randy Maddox, who collaborated in Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Reviewing the Conversation (Abingdon, 1997), pronounced that, when properly defined the Quadrilateral is still “a viable way of theologizing for United Methodism … in harmony with the teachings of John Wesley (quoted in Bob Parrott, Albert C. Outler: The Gifted Dilettante [Bristol, 1999], 285). Nor should we forget that various forms of Q have been formulated and appealed to in ecclesial circles outside of Methodism.

When the more complete history and interpretation of Q is written, those monographs and books will certainly be part of Outler’s legacy, at least as a consummate history teacher who continually left his students assignments and problems to pursue!

What a mistake it would be if we dropped these questions, or made it merely an argument about Outler himself, in order to make him either a hero who cannot be questioned or a relic who must be set on a shelf — as we did with John Wesley for so long.

Here, too, alongside the historical and theological analyses of Q, we need a full biographical account of Outler’s formulation of the concept and his second thoughts toward the end of his life. Not only essays but letters and remembered conversations and interviews will be a necessary element in a full picture of this part of his legacy for the church.

A third challenge to Outler’s proposals has to do with the whole question of ecumenism and theological pluralism. This is where controversy is often most deeply felt and engaged. Indeed, the 1988 General Conference was a major battle over both the proper ordering of Q and the “muting” of theological pluralism by omitting substantial sections of the Discipline that had affirmed it (the omitted passages are cited in Parrott, Albert Outler, 275-77). Many thought that Outler had an overly optimistic view of theological pluralism, and coupled with the disputed character of Q, there was fear that doctrinal substance was being confused with theological method and diversity.

Theological pluralism had become an issue as early as the 1972 General Conference, when Outler, the Chair of the Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards, presented its Report which became Part II of the 1972 Book of Discipline (it first appeared in the Daily Christian Advocate [19 April 1972]: 218-22, then it was published as “Introduction to the Report of the 1968-72 Theological Study Commission,” in Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, ed. Thomas A. Langford [Abingdon, 1991], 20-25; Langford identifies Outler “as the chief author of the 1972 theological statement” [247n1]). (All quotations in the next three paragraphs are from Doctrine and Theology.)

A surprising innovation was launched in this document. It claims that the “old Articles, and Confession and Rules have [now] been set in a new context of interpretation, and this means a decisive change in their role in the theological enterprise in the United Methodist Church.”

Alluding to the “bewildering spectrum of doctrinal diversity within The UMC” the Report also states how the Study Commission was “deeply impressed by the vitality and the relevance of the various new Protestant theologies … [and] emergent theological viewpoints.” But, rather than “official[ly] sponsor any one of these theologies,” the Report appealed to Methodism’s long “commitment to the larger cause of Christian unity.”

Then, appealing to “pluralism as a positive theological virtue” and the realization of “our emerging historical consciousness” over against any “static view of dogma” and the “juridical mindset [as was] typical of ‘classical Protestantism’ [and] Roman Catholicism up till Vatican II,” the Report boldly announces that “we have proposed a genuinely new principle for doctrinal self-understanding in The United Methodist Church.”

I’m not sure I can convey to you in this short summary the radical character of this innovation, so I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Even if you find it totally convincing, I think its new departure in terms of doctrine is strikingly clear.

This is where my exploratory thesis comes to bear, that the divided mind of United Methodism can be connected to Albert Outler. The “legacy” question to ask is whether Outler’s role in the Theological Study Commission was a matter, on the one hand, of helping to initiate the first steps in a new denomination’s doctrinal and theological clarity; or, on the other hand, was he simply providing some historical breadth with an assist from the principle of pluralism to somehow cover or hold together the “bewildering diversity” and divided minds of the merging Methodists? At a time when our church is in crisis over threats of schism and division, the question of Outler’s legacy is how his work leads us to clarity and/or confusion.

One of the most incisive critiques of what became Part II of the Discipline was offered by Robert Cushman, then Dean of Duke Divinity School. In an essay entitled “Church Doctrinal Standards Today” (first published in Religion in Life 44 (1975): 401-11, this article became ch. 5 in Doctrine and Theology), he offered an early, and still not fully answered criticism of the application of “theological pluralism” to the newly formed United Methodist Church.

In a close reading of Part II, Cushman analyzed what he called a “misused analogy” between Methodism and ecumenical diversity: “With what right is factual doctrinal diversity among a plurality of separate churches taken to be a standard model in assessing the role and status of doctrinal standards in any one denomination? … The factual diversity without (as among denominations inter alia) is affirmed to obtain within Methodism as a fact but also as a norm. That is, I think, misuse of analogy” (“Church Doctrinal Standards Today,” in Doctrine and Theology, 70).

Cushman also highlighted the way doctrine and dogma tended to be replaced with “an unlimited process of [collective] ‘theologizing’ … as a permanent substitute for doctrine.” He saw the whole question of the “core of doctrine” appealed to by the document as having been left in a state of “ambiguity.” Such ambiguity, said Cushman, presented the doctrinal core as “a norm claiming our respect, but evidently not our adherence” (pp. 68, 71).

All of this is to say that Outler’s legacy as one of the key architects of the doctrinal and theological “mind” of United Methodism is yet to be fully understood. His role as the chair of the Theological Study Commission is still in need of deep historical analysis. As I look at some of the minutes of their meetings, and the documents and letters in the Archives, I am convinced that a lot of our current confusion about the divided mind of Methodism can be traced to the struggles and conclusions of this commission. And I am grateful that the Bridwell Outler Papers will make that task easier now.

This part of Outler’s legacy must also be studied in light of the larger ecumenical issues of that time. You will recall that Outler appealed to “Methodism’s long ‘commitment to the larger cause of Christian unity’” when making a case for theological pluralism within the newly created United Methodist Church. Whether this was a misused analogy, as Cushman put it, we cannot understand his appeal to pluralism without understanding Outler as an ecumenist.

Outler was deeply involved, not only in the Ecumenical Movement of the WCC, but also intensely engaged with the Second Vatican Council as an official Observer, and for decades afterwards as a passionate interpreter of its significance for all Christians. Therefore, Outler’s legacy is somehow tied up with the ongoing interpretation of Vatican II.

For example, in what sense could we say that the formation of The United Methodist Church as a denomination was a Protestant example of Methodists trying to “open up to the world,” to use a phrase often applied to Vatican II? Outler himself often talked about theological struggles within Methodism in terms reminiscent of the struggles at Vatican II between the “progressives” and the “immobilisti,” the brave new emergent theologies open to the new frontiers of the modern world versus the static, dogmatic, juridical parties of the past. And interestingly, Outler often presented himself as encouraging a dialogical middle way, both for Catholics and Methodists.

The United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church have both claimed a “conciliar” breakthrough; and both have experienced losses, disarray, theological confusion, but also signs of a “new Evangelization.” The interpretation of Vatican II, 50 years along now, is still a contested field, but Outler’s role in it may have some explanatory power for delineating and clarifying his legacy for United Methodism.

At this point in my lecture, after all of these challenges and critiques, what remains in the way of a “legacy”?

As Vickers has put it: “is there anything left to plunder in Outler?” (“Albert Outler,” 63). I’m not entirely comfortable with that way of putting it. It suggests that there is nothing more to learn from Outler on Wesley, or Q, or ecumenical vision. We may have detected flaws and weaknesses in his interpretations, and we may have to accept, as Abraham puts it, that “he really was a dilettante when it came to crucial sectors of work in theology” (“The End of Wesleyan Theology”).

But, a legacy involves a serious accounting – not only of the weaknesses of our predecessors, and their failed efforts – as well as a realistic account of the debts we owe them. A true and lasting legacy can only emerge when we explore what, so far, can only be seen as seeds and sprouts that promise further fruit yet be born from Outler’s work. Thus, we must not bury the man with his failures, nor entomb him in nostalgia and Methodist hagiography, but, affirming the gospel confidence that what the Lord has begun in us will be brought to completion, we may reflect on how Outler still points us forward.

[Part 3]

Posted Mar 23, 2015