043 Dunning and Grider: Holiness Theologians

Two of the finest theologians in the Church of the Nazarene have recently published works which distill a lifetime of reading and thinking and teaching, giving us slightly different versions of the “scriptural holiness” espoused by the denomination which has nurtured them. Last summer I read J. Kenneth Grider’s recently-released A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 1994) and decided to re-read it while re-reading H. Ray Dunning’s Grace, Faith & Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 1988), which I’d read shortly after its publication.

By moving from one to the other, comparing their presentation of different subjects, I was able to make some comparisons–as well as learn from both of them! By and large, the two men have much in common. Were I so inclined, I could simply show how they jointly support the central dogmas of the Christian faith. They both believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They both assert Jesus was God’s Son, fully God and fully man, who was crucified and rose again. However, there are some important differences between the two, so I’ll focus on a few of them.

First of all, on a simple stylistic level, I find Grider’s work the more readable of the two, even though it’s more clearly based on his class lectures and lacks some of the tightly-reasoned discussions and scholarly quotations which mark the Dunning treatise. Grider has a sense of literary style, uses illustrations, cites biblical texts, and presents his material more simply than Dunning, who is admittedly more thorough, more analytical, more carefully organized, persistently dialoguing with assorted theologians of his generation. Consequently, Dunning’s language often grows ponderous and overly-abstract, making it more accessible to professors than students of theology.

Grider, furthermore, seems more attuned to the methodology and theology of the Early Church than Dunning, who more diligently explores the works of John Wesley and contemporary thinkers such as Paul Tillich. Grider, for example, looks to St Athanasius for guidance, unabashed by his antiquity, whereas Dunning tends to treat him as an admirable architect of an antiquated culture. Grider tends to find Augustine’s insights as nourishing today as when first written, whereas Dunning treats him more as an interesting reflection of his era–as, for example, when he responded as he did (in The City of God) to Rome’s collapse. Dunning seems concerned to root himself in the Enlightenment’s worldview, staying attuned to “modernity.” Grider, more like Tom Oden, who writes a complimentary foreword for him, espouses a “pre-modern” approach which may well be better suited to the “post-modern” world we now, perhaps, inhabit.

The differences between the two men is further evident their modus operandi. Grider’s methodology, which he labels “biblical realism,” proposes that we can know truth about God as Reality; he thus aligns itself with the realist tradition in philosophy. By contrast, Dunning’s “relational model of ontology” (GFH, p. 14) seems (to me) best described as a “relational existentialism” which is rooted in a Kantian idealism.

“By biblical realism,” Grider says, “is meant a perspective, supported surely by Scripture, in which we do not deny physicality as largely unreal but instead celebrate it as constituting even a residency of grace. This view owns the world as God’s creation and affirms it as the milieu in which God’s grace is mediated to us” (WHT, p. 42). So “All creation, including our bodily nature, is to be celebrated” (ibid.). We’re real persons, living in a real world, and we can know it as our thoughts are true as they correspond with reality.

Identifying himself as a “realist,” Grider embraces an ancient stance, shared by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, which insists we discover truth in objective Reality–we don’t devise it in our own minds. This allows Grider to consider creation as knowable and worthy of our attention and respect. While he would disavow much that flies the flag of “natural theology,” he contends that “the Christian doctrine of redemption is as broad as the Christian doctrine of creation. It means that the world itself is Christic, that it is sacramental, that we are to view it eucharistically. It means that in the thingliness of things there is a residency of grace” (WHT, p. 44).

In concert with scores of “orthodox” theologians, Grider’s biblical realism enables him, for example, to “look to a Christ who really was virgin born and who really was raised from the dead” (WHT, p. 56). The world–and human history–is real and we can really know it. Scripture tells us about actual historical events and persons, realities which exist in their own right, not symbols of some transcendent ideal or mystical truth. Dunning, conversely, repeatedly reflects (to a degree, in my judgment) the implicit epistemological agnosticism of Kant and his successors who contend we cannot know truth about any ontological reality, arguing we develop (in relationships) adequate “models” of truth which enable us to deal with reality.

Pre-modern views, holding that ontologically real persons indwell and actually know truths about an objectively real world, Dunning apparently finds untenable. In apparent agreement he quotes W.T. Jones’ declaration that modern philosophers have discarded the notion of a real “self” negotiating a “real” world: “‘Self and object are not distinct, unchanging entities that face each other across a metaphysical and epistemological chasm; self and object are structures that arise within experience. There is not object without self, and there is no self without object'” (GFH, pp. 14-15).

For Dunning, then, truth apparently becomes true for us as it is actualized in our own experience, as it enables us to make sense of our experience. One cannot know, as realists contend, durable truth about independent, enduring realities, whether they be God, nature, or man. Rather, we carve out truth for ourselves as we live in “relationships” with various “others” which are, it seems to me, no more objectively real than ourselves. So the ultimate authority for things theological is the testimonium internum Spiritus sanctu–the internal witness of the Holy Spirit–or the subjectivity which determines truth for existential thinkers. From Martin Luther and John Calvin to H. Orton Wiley and Paul Tillich, Dunning insists, Protestants (shunning the authority of Church or the reasoned consensus of councils and creeds) have relied on this inner witness, individually apprehended, to establish truth.

As one would expect, Grider’s “realism” leads him to appreciate nature more than Dunning, who joins those existential thinkers whose focus on the inner self allows little concern for the natural world. Discussing “the Christian doctrine of creation,” Grider assembles poetic biblical texts which declare the glory of God stands revealed in the marvels of creation; he then grants some credibility to the cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence as long as we acknowledge that nature reveals little about His nature.

Dunning deals not with creation itself but with “God the Creator.” The creation accounts in the Bible are less concerned, he says, with creation in se than with directing our minds to the One God, the Creator who made, ex nihilo, a good world. God freely created all things and is not limited by His creation, so though we can formulate some creation-rooted analogies to think of Him, there’s no way to discover, in nature itself, any “purpose of God in creation” (GFH, p. 247). Indeed, he asserts, “from the biblical perspective, nature was never a source of knowledge of the character of God, although certain expressions of nature have validly served as illustrations of God’s power and wisdom” (GFH, pp. 55-56).

Unlike realists, who hold there is a clear correspondence between our ideas and the realities they grasp, Dunning thinks we don’t really “know” truth about Reality–instead, “one either is or is not in essential relation to the Truth” (GF&H, p. 141). We don’t understand truth about Reality; we become aware of Truth as we indwell relationships. Thanks to the power of prevenient grace, operating in what remains of the imago dei in us, Dunning declares “one’s experience of the world raises the question of God because one is already aware of an impinging presence” (GFH, p. 163). We are, he argues, in relationship with God, and we have a certain intimations of Him, just as we are in relationships with and thus aware of friends in our presence. To this degree, Dunning allows for a “general revelation” of God in human experience.

Though creation in itself, Grider says, tells us little about God’s nature, Scripture rationally reveals Him. True to their tradition as Nazarene scholars, both theologians take seriously the plenary inspiration of Scripture, embracing the “dynamic” theory of inspiration espoused by most Wesleyans. They distance themselves from the “dictation” or “verbal” inspiration stance of those who espouse “inerrancy” as an article of faith.

“God only,” says Grider, “and not Scripture, is absolutely authoritative. Yet, as a written-down revelation of what the absolutely authoritative God has done and offers to do, and of what God’s will is, Scripture is the primary written authority” (WHT, p. 84). As a “biblical realist,” of course, Grider contends–if I interpret him rightly–that words rightly refer to realities, that knowing the real meaning of words enables one to know the essence of their referents. Here, of course, Grider’s realism enables him to simply assume there’s a real world which we can know, taking it for granted that we can politely brick up Kant’s epistemological dead-ends and take biblical texts as meaningful descriptions of Reality.

(Did not Dunning so repeatedly cite Hume, Kant, Tillich, et al. I’d not push this point, but a species of Kantian idealism seems to underlie his entire “relational ontology” and consequently shape his understanding of holiness. He seems oblivious to the recent work of Stanley Jaki, for instance. Jaki, who holds doctorates in both theology and physics, served as Gifford Lecturer and received the prestigious Templeton Prize, has demonstrated how Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity effectively demolishes Kant’s critiques.)

In a sense Grider is more “old-fashioned” and “dated” than Dunning, for he devotes little time to thinkers such as Tillich and Niebuhr, but since his realism reflects a perennial philosophy it seems somewhat less “dated” than Dunning, whose designedly modern, “relational” perspectives seem curiously opaque in our “post-modern” era.

Thus Grider spends many pages discussing “theology’s written authority,” allowing that the “canonical texts” are as fully inspired as the autographs, “protected from significant error, preserved in their basic integrity” (p. 71). They demand various levels of interpretation–even the allegorical method has worth–but the sacred words do in fact truthfully reveal the Reality of God.

Dunning too takes Scripture as God’s Word. Its words, however, do not align our minds with any external reality. Rather, they enlighten us concerning experiential realities within which He is graciously present. In Dunning’s judgment, “Scripture, like the policeman, does not bear its authority within itself but roots in a prior source. Likewise, the acceptance of the authority of Scripture is not the result of coercion but is personal in nature” (p. 59). The existential testimonium internum Spiritus Sanctu suffices. Other than claiming the Scripture is fully inspired, however, Dunning tends to suggest that the “truth” we apprehend is elicited by God’s Spirit within us rather than embedded in the text itself.

“Revelation,” then, for Dunning, is less “general” (i.e. found in creation) or “special” (i.e. found in Scripture) than existential (i.e. found in relational realities). Given God’s transcendent/immanent “paradox”–more precisely understood as a Kantian “antinomy”–He “‘can be known,'” as Donald Baillie said, “only in a direct personal relationship, an “I-and-Thou” intercourse'” with Him. Given His mystery, “‘He eludes all our words and categories. We cannot objectify or conceptualize Him'” (GFH, p. 119). Here Dunning draws on thinkers such as Tillich and Brunner, finding them fellow travelers on a “Wesleyan” route to knowing God on a relational rather than a rational level.

Since Grider thinks we can understand certain truths about God, he deals with His attributes in a somewhat classical fashion. Ultimately, the essence (character) of God is best understand as holy love–or loving holiness–with his attributes (characteristics) derived from reasoning about his nature. Thus Grider summarizes the various views of God espoused by various theologians, then reflects upon His triune nature.

Dunning portrays God as “tripersonal”–in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Utterer, the Uttered, Uttering” (p. 123). We know Him sheerly by faith, aware that analogies and symbols easily collapse under the burden of trying to define Him. The mystery is, however, revealed in Scripture, where we find adequate data to support the great creeds’ affirmations concerning the three-in-one.

In their discussions of the Trinity, the two men’s differences seem to emerge from their epistemologies. Grider’s “biblical realism” enables him to make specific statements regarding God, while Dunning is much more cautious, suggesting we “know” Him in relationship without “knowing” specific data (other than his three-in-one “tripersonal” being) concerning Him. Most of us realize that knowing a person is more non-verbal and supra-rational than knowing a logical proposition or scientific theory. Whether we can know a person without having at hand objective data concerning him or her is another question, however.

Turning from God to man, Grider sets forth “the doctrine of ourselves” (a rather clumsy concession to political correctness, I guess). Here he compares theories concerning human origins, tosses in several pages assailing abortion, and illustrates why Christians should treasure our dignity as persons created in God’s image, free to follow (or not to follow) God’s design. In the process, Grider argues the Arminian-Wesleyan case against predestinarians such as Calvin, forcefully presenting the free-will position.

Such freedom, however, does not mean we’re born free from sin! If ever any doctrine had ample historical evidence, it’s the dogma of original sin! Born disabled by “adamic depravity,” we are inclined to evil and cannot, in our own strength, escape its tentacles. Grider runs through history, illustrating various explanations, and examines Scripture, analyzing its many terms, to show the various aspects of human sinfulness. Clearly we’re sinners in need of a Savior!

Dunning begins his anthropology with an analysis of “man the sinner.” The imago dei was not so much an essence as a relationship. The “interpersonal ontological structure” which allowed an “openness” and “freedom for” proper relations with others has been forfeited. Revolting from God, taking control of our own destinies, we sin through disbelief, pride, disobedience and sensuality. Whereas Grider takes biblical terms and tries to explicate them, Dunning explores the views of Wesley, Luther, et al. who insist “sin” is not an infectious “thing” but a disordered attitude.

To deal with the sin problem, a Holy God has called us to a life of holiness. The centrality of “holiness” to both Dunning and Grider is evident in the books’ titles. Both insist that God wants to do more than forgive us our sins–he wants to empower us for righteousness. The distinctive doctrine of the holiness movement deserves ample discussion, and both scholars provide it.

Grider takes the “classical” approach of holiness theologians, discussing “the first work of grace” which includes repentance, justification, regeneration, reconciliation, and adoption. In becoming a Christian, one is “saved” by the gracious work of God in one’s soul, a work which imparts grace and makes one a new creature in Christ.

Subsequent to the new birth, Grider continues, there is “the second work of grace: entire sanctification.” To this second work Grider devotes three chapters and 100 pages, indicating how seriously he takes the doctrine. “This second work of grace,” he says, “is obtained by faith, is subsequent to regeneration, is occasioned by the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and constitutes a cleansing away of adamic depravity and an empowerment for witnessing and for the holy life” (WHT, p. 367).

He carefully defines terms, identifies theological nuances, collates biblical texts, and passionately argues for the position espoused by 19th century Methodists and early 20th century Nazarenes (the stance of the American Holiness Movement). While he treats John Wesley with respect, Grider takes him as no more authoritative than Thomas Cook or John Miley, Asa Mahan or A.M. Hills. The truth he pursues, even as a “Wesleyan” theologian, cannot be delimited to the views of John Wesley!

Dunning devotes a similar number of pages to the issue, but, taking a different tack, deals with “the work of the Holy Spirit” rather than “two works of grace.” Here he seeks to discern and follow the positions developed by John Wesley himself. God’s work is understood primarily as one of process, not establishment in states of grace. One is awakened to the need for salvation, enabled to repent, and brought to faith by prevenient grace. Here one experiences regeneration, a real inward transformation, which may be called “initial sanctification.” Since Dunning defines human nature as “man in relation to God,” a transformed relationship with Him brings about a new kind of man.

Initial sanctification leads to “entire sanctification,” a “special stage of being that is seen in continuity with the broader work of sanctification in the believer’s life” (GFH, p. 456). Dunning shows how Wesley skillfully blended threads from Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox thought, articulating a fresh understanding of biblical holiness as a renewal of God’s image in man through expulsive power of love, a love which simply by its power expels sin from the heart.

To Dunning, as Wynkoop said, sin is “‘love locked into a false center the self,'” so holiness is “‘love locked into the true Center, Jesus Christ our Lord'” (p. 484). One is not an independent ontological “self” who is “saved and sanctified”– Dunning and Wynkoop disallow such a being. Rather one is “sanctified” through a process, a sustained relationship of love which makes one holy.

These two books help one understand the sustained, probing theological discussion which has transpired in the Church of the Nazarene during the past 30 years. Grider represents the American holiness movement; Dunning speaks for those who have sought to root it in 18th century Wesleyanism.


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