- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

United Methodist bishops are taking sides over a Chicago bishop's questioning of traditional doctrines on Jesus, such as the virgin birth and a physical resurrection.

After Chicago Bishop Joseph Sprague read a chapter on Christology from his book to be published soon at Iliff School of Theology in Denver in January, the bishops of Florida and North Carolina publicly challenged him, while the South Carolina bishop endorsed his beliefs.

"I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions," North Carolina Bishop Marion M. Edwards, a friend of Bishop Sprague, told 450 United Methodist clergy on Monday.

"This is not a time for angry diatribe and bitter finger-pointing," Bishop Edwards said of a dispute fanned by conservatives upset at the Sprague lecture. "It is a time for correction and accountability."

He said that the Chicago bishop describes Christ with "the attraction of any great hero, but falls short of the eternal fullness of the second person of the Trinity."

Bishop Sprague, a well-known liberal who heads one of the most diverse United Methodist regions, said yesterday that his colleagues have been scholarly and respectful in their reactions to his book, "Affirmations of a Dissenter," but added that "by focusing on part of one chapter, much criticism is out of context."

He said that his critics prefer ancient church interpreters while he prefers modern historical study and liberation theology, which he calls more demanding on Christians in the book. Abingdon Press, the denomination's publishing house, will publish the book in December.

"The middle-class church is looking for an escapist Christianity," he said, arguing that a more human Jesus demands earthly sacrifices. "A more dumbed-down theology is selling today, and it's marketed for consumer happiness."

Though his lecture was delivered in January, criticism did not erupt until conservative groups in the United Methodist Church distributed the talk posted on the seminary's Web site.

The first response came last month when Florida Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker wrote to his clergy and the bishops contesting Bishop Sprague's "personal theological opinion" as watering down classic doctrines.

That approach has "contributed to the church's loss of confidence and an enervation of its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ," Bishop Whitaker said. Today's public is "more open" than ever, he said, to "traditional Christian affirmations of divine revelation, mystery and miracle."

The debate has raged for a century in modern Protestantism, which has tried to teach that Jesus as evidenced by His miraculous life is the only way to salvation in the face of modern science and other religions.

"I believe that the stronger and clearer teaching of the New Testament is the Christian hope for the resurrection of the body," Bishop Edwards said Monday.

He questioned Bishop Sprague's symbolic interpretations of the virgin birth or resurrection but agreed that even conservative Methodist thinkers have said that Christ could save people through other religions.

Still, "in his zeal to make the faith understandable to modern ears, the [Chicago] bishop seems to have accommodated too much to the culture," Bishop Edwards said.

Mark Tooley, a conservative United Methodist who has circulated the Sprague document, said that the public criticism is a response "not normally seen among bishops, for whom collegiality is usually the highest rule."

In defense of the Chicago cleric, Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey of South Carolina told 200 of his 1,000 clergy two weeks ago that Bishop Sprague was orthodox enough in professing the divinity and humanity of Christ.

"The essentials are the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the eventual and eternal triumph of God's rule over creation," Bishop McCleskey said. He said doctrines such as the Trinity, virgin birth and bodily resurrection can be taken too literally.

"In the Wesleyan tradition" of Methodism founder John Wesley, Bishop McCleksey said, "it has never been the purpose of doctrine to provide a litmus test to determine who are the real Christians."

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