In Capetown, a tradition begun in 1903 continues to this day, namely the firing of the ‘Noon Gun’ from the top of Signal Hill. The story goes that at one time the officer charged with firing the cannon would make his way to the hill via a certain clock-maker's shop in whose window stood a ship’s chronometer. He would carefully adjust his watch to the same time as the chronometer and then later fire the cannon at exactly midday according to his watch.
As time passed, there began to be complaints that the cannon was not being fired at the correct time, in fact it seemed to be getting later with each passing day. When this was brought to the attention of the aforementioned officer he thought best to check with the clock-maker how he assured the accuracy of his chronometer.
“O yes it’s dead accurate,” he said, “I always set it according to the gun fired from Signal Hill.”
Well it’s easy to see what had happened: Because sound travels at a finite speed, the clock-maker would have heard the sound of the cannon some seconds after it had been fired, resulting in a steadily increasing departure from the Greenwich Meantime standard.
What was needed was to find a ship that had sailed from England and whose chronometer had been regulated to reflect GMT.
Now the same kind of drift can occur with a church’s doctrine, if it is not referred back to some Apostolic Standard, a kind of ‘Doctrinal GMT’.
In this regard, the Methodist Church is particularly vulnerable, as it requires of its ministers, preachers and teachers, only that we believe in ‘Our Doctrine’ without defining too closely what this means. If this doctrine is defined within the confines of the denominational ecosystem but without any external reference, then a distinct danger looms. Take The Jehovah’s Witnesses for example: they certainly believe in their doctrine.
Unless there is an acknowledged mooring of the term ‘our doctrine’ to sound Apostolic Doctrine, over a period of time this can easily result in a drift from the Apostolic Faith.
Clearly the historic creeds such as the Nicene, Apostles’ and Chalcedonion creeds, are important confessions which keep us anchored to the Core Doctrines of our Faith.
These cannot properly be considered ‘Our Doctrines’ in the sense that we may not be proprietary about them, for they are public Truth. They constitute the very guts of our faith, the Gospel, which we both embrace and proclaim.
Yet it seems that there is a certain amount of gnawing at the anchor ropes in our time.
Some of the strands which appear to be fraying are the following:
1. The doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
There is a feeling amongst certain of our ministers that to only conceive of and address God as Father is excessively patriarchal and sexist, and that addressing Him (her) as ‘mother’ should also be legitimized.
Thus the Trinitarian doctrine would become Father-Mother, Son and Holy Spirit or perhaps Father-Mother, Son-daughter and Holy Spirit.
2. The Virgin Birth.
This is called in question as being altogether too fantastic to have been literally true. Various alternatives are postulated: Mary was raped by a member of the Roman occupying force or perhaps she was pregnant by Zechariah, her cousin Elizabeth’s husband. These speculations apart from being clearly contrary to the Biblical record have profound implications for our Christology, namely that Jesus was and is Truly God and Truly Man – both the Son of God and the Son of Man.
3. The Substitutionary Atonement
It is called in question that Jesus by His death on the Cross has taken the penalty of our sin upon Himself. This new Soteriology is anchored merely in Jesus’ pacific response to extreme provocation culminating in the crucifixion. Jesus’ shedding of His blood is deemed an irrelevant corollary to Jesus’ conduct on the way to the Cross, something which The Father never intended to happen and which has no particular significance in regard to our salvation.
Should these theological trends continue, there is the distinct possibility that the Methodist Church will become separated from “The Faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and will float free, to drift wherever it may be borne by every ‘wind of doctrine.’
Then will John Wesley’s fears for the church of which he is considered the founder, be realised, for he said: