151 Powell & Lodahl: PLNU Theologians






Two of Point Loma Nazarene University’s accomplished theology professors, Samuel M. Powell and Michael Lodahl, share nearly identical career paths: both attended Nazarene colleges and graduated from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 1981, received graduate degrees (Powell from Claremont Graduate School, Lodahl from Emory University) in 1988, and have recently published scholarly books on the doctrine of creation. Earlier the two co-edited Embodied Holiness (IVP), and they are clearly two of the brightest and most prolific scholars in the Church of the Nazarene. Both seek to engage contemporary thought and address it from a committed Wesleyan stance. Professor Powell tends to deal with things as a systematic theologian, carefully consulting historic thinkers and logically building his case. Professor Lodahl tends to think speculatively, weaving together theological notions in accord with his commitment to process thought. Powell stresses the Logos of God in creation, whereas Lodahl celebrates His Love.  Though I differ at points with my colleagues–as some of my illustrations reveal–I’ll try to sum up rather than critique their books, encouraging all interested in current Nazarene thought and teaching to read and evaluate them.

Professor Powell’s Participating in God: Creation and Trinity (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, c. 2003) is “an exercise in systematic theology” that endeavors “to think about the world in a way that is scientifically responsible and also faithfully Christian” (p. xi).  He assumes the Christian faith and the contemporary scientific worldview are both (in their appropriate spheres) truthful, and he seeks to blend them.  Modern science, however, trumps certain traditional beliefs concerning God’s activity in the world, so “we may, for theological reasons, affirm that God operates in the universe through the laws and may wish to hold that God can operate directly and apart from the laws, [but] the Bible’s affirmation that all, or nearly all, events are the direct and immediate result of God’s action is best regarded as part of an ancient and (for us) incredible world-view” (p. 115).

Powell particularly stresses that the inner essence of the Trinity–one nature in three persons–provides a key to understanding the natural world.  To argue his case, he follows “the regulative, the hermeneutical, and the ethical dimensions” of the Christian faith (p. 4).  “Faith designates the regulative dimension of doctrine.  Understanding denotes the interpretative or hermeneutical dimension.  These two, together with the ethical dimension, constitute the substance of Christian doctrine” (p. 26).  The Bible and its interpretation in the Christian Tradition provide the regulative aspects of theology.  Tracing the development of Christian thinking from Irenaeus to Athanasius, Basil, and Aquinas, one finds a growing understanding of God’s involvement in His creation.  As they plumbed the depths of biblical revelation, they grasped this truth:  “We participate in the trinitarian life of God” (p. 42).

This was particularly evident in the Logos focus of St. Athanasius, the great architect of the Nicene Creed, who stressed the importance of what was called “deification.”  The Eternal Word–God of God, Light of Light–certainly became man.  But our salvation, our “deification does not occur simply by virtue of the incarnation. The grace that brings this about is received by participating in the Word ‘through the Spirit.’  It is by our participation in the Spirit that we are deified” (p. 47).  St. Thomas Aquinas embraced this truth and clarified the critical difference between the infinite Being of God and the opportunity He gives finite beings to have communion with Him.  “This distinction allowed Thomas to assert that a trace of the Trinity is found in all creatures, since they are all effects of God’s causality, but only rational creatures bear the image of the Trinity, since only rational creatures have mind, the structure of which is analogous to the Trinity” (p. 49).  Surpassing Aquinas, however, is Paul Tillich, whose views undergird Powell’s.  Tillich equated salvation with attaining a “new being” through participating with the Spirit in the “Ground of Being,” God Himself.  Tillich’s “presentation is more solidly trinitarian than is Thomas’s,” says Powell, “especially with regard to the Spirit.  Indeed, God as Spirit is the fulcrum on which Tillich’s analysis rests” (p. 54).

Having rooted his presentation in trinitarian theology, Powell then seeks to understand the universe “in a trinitarian way.”  In successive steps, he shows how the inorganic, organic, and human worlds illustrate certain trinitarian truths.  There is, for example, “persistence and change in time.”  Some things, like atoms, persist without development, simply appearing and disappearing.  Other things, like molecules, combine atoms and develop.  We, like molecules, constantly change, so “human nature is also something not yet accomplished; it is underway” (p. 70). Especially as we enter into the kingdom of God, where freedom flourishes, significant personal growth occurs and “the distorting effects of sin are being overcome” (p. 82).  

Powell especially emphasizes–in accord with “theologians of hope” like Jurgen Moltmann–man’s openness to the future and the importance of hope as a theological virtue.  In the Christian tradition, hope has primarily been rooted in the prospect of a specific person’s victory over death.  But, Powell insists:  “God’s response to the phenomenon of death” takes shape in the “metaphor” of “eternal life,” which “is not the unending continuation of human existence but must be thought of as a present reality, much as the future is to be thought of as that which presses on the present as the domain of the possible.  Eternal life is a life conducted in the face of the future of God’s kingdom and in the power of that future” (p. 84).  Precisely what this means, Powell cannot say:  “Does it mean the survival of the individual person as an individual?  A re-creation of the universe?  Or something else?  It is impossible to know” (p. 84).  In part this is because “persons” have no specific, given metaphysical “essence.”   Aquinas helpfully portrayed the Trinity as three divine persons’ “subsistent relations” within the unity of the Godhead.  Consequently “personhood,” Powell insists, “is essentially a social phenomenon” (p. 139).  We become persons as we interact with other persons.  We have no essential “self” per se, for selfhood develops through time.  This takes place much the same as “one becomes a scientist,” which involves “learning to think and practice in certain ways and . . . see some things as more important than other things.  This teaming is an intensely interpersonal process.  So it is with becoming a person.  Our entry into the social order is an entry into the realm of persons and we do so by means of interpersonal interactions” (p. 142).

As we become persons we embrace the moral standards of our social world.  To be fully human is to be morally responsible.  Our foremost ethical challenge, Powell says, is to interact rightly with the world around us.  Historically, some Christians have withdrawn for the world, trying to transcend it in otherworldly, often ascetic ways.  Others have sought to embrace it, fully participating in all its endeavors, jettisoning Christian distinctives.  Powell suggests we follow a via media, taking some clues from Albert RitschI, who called Christians to both transcend and participate in the world. To a degree, this follows Aquinas’ emphasis on the Natural Law–discerning and following the divine principles evident in the natural world.  It also fits the Protestant Reformers’ call to discover and live out one’s vocation, making the world a better place through creative work.  Participating in God means sharing His concern for His world.

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Professor Powell’s most recent publication is Holiness in the 21st Century: Call, Consecration, Obedience Perfected in Love (San Diego:  Point Loma Press, c. 2004).  He declares that “the doctrine of holiness is not just one important doctrine among others but that it is the center of the Christian faith.  It is the center of our faith because God is love and because there is no higher calling for human beings than to share in the nature of the God who is love” (p. 21).  Consequently, he seeks to “contribute to the discussion about holiness that has been taking place in the Church of the Nazarene since its beginning” (p. 7).

During her first 75 years the Church of the Nazarene cohesively affirmed her “cardinal” doctrine of entire sanctification.  “According to this consensus,” Powell explains, “holiness was achieved by an act of consecration, in which, in a decisive moment, one gave oneself utterly to God in an act of devotion.  The results were threefold:  first, one received the Holy Spirit in full (usually referred to as ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit); second, many of the effects of original sin were overcome (or ‘eradicated’); third, one began to experience perfect love for God and neighbor” (p. 8). This consensus began to unravel during the 1970s as a “relational” understanding of holiness (rooted in the thought of Martin Buber and propounded by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and Rob Staples, former Nazarene Theological Seminary professors) challenged it.  Though the Wynkoop-Staples view has exerted considerable influence in many circles, the denomination has not fully embraced it.  Consequently, unless a better approach is found, Powell thinks the doctrine of holiness may very quickly become an interesting “fossil” without much currency in the church.

To provide a solution (fully understandable in light of his Participating in God), Professor Powell urges us to rethink our theology, to understand holiness as a mystical “participation in the trinitarian life of God and [acknowledge] that the perfection of holiness means the full actualization of this participation” (p. 17).  To join in the loving communion of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit is to enter into the depths of divine holiness.  This means more than following some rules, more than asking what would Jesus do.  “We do not merely become like God,” says Powell.  “Instead, we abide in God and God abides in us.  Or, to use the language of 2 Peter, we become participants in the divine nature” (p. 18).  Participating in God, we should live differently, so Powell suggests some practical ramifications of this transformation.  We should deal responsibly with our wealth.  We should be pro-life, opposing abortion as a means of birth control. However, he cautions, there are no absolutes in such areas–loving God and our neighbor leads to various particular, prudential, Spirit-led decisions.  In all these areas, we cannot escape struggles, doubts, and imperfections, because “the fact is that the holy life is lived under the condition of sin” (p. 25).

The older (and to Powell no longer plausible) approach to holiness, with “its emphasis on the instantaneous character of becoming holy ignores the dynamic character of human existence” (p. 28), whereas holiness understood as participating in God, led by the Spirit, allows for constant growth with little need for defining moments of crisis experience.  Such spiritual growth requires participating in the life of the Church as well.  To Powell, the nation of Israel was holy, and so is the Church.  Within the social web of relationships, one becomes a person and learns how to live a holy life.  Indeed, “the Church, as an ensemble of relationships and mutual influencing, has a sacramental function” (p. 33).  In the Church we’re taught truthful doctrines, especially concerning Jesus.  In the Church we interact with others who illustrate the ways God works within our lives.  And in the Church we are held accountable for our decisions and development sharing life with fellow believers makes one holy.

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Professor Michael Lodahl sets forth his understanding of creation in God of Nature and of Grace:  Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville: Kingswood Books, c. 2003.)  The book’s title comes from lyrics in a Charles Wesley hymn:  “Author of every work divine / Who dost through both Creations shine: / The God of nature and of grace.”  He finds John Wesley’s “hermeneutic grounded in love and a method attentive to experience” liberating, and he reads Scripture thusly.  Though he admits to “reading Wesley as a champion of a decidedly strong version of the doctrine of divine immanence” (p. 124), Lodahl clearly seeks to accurately apply some of Wesley’s insights to very contemporary concerns.  He also acknowledges his debt to the relational theology of Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, incorporates some threads of feminist thought, and explicitly commits himself to process theology as expounded by John Cobb.  The gerunds he uses to identify the major points of his presentation–Making, Molding, Mending–indicate that everything moves, and in the midst of it “God the Weaver reaches deeply into our mothers, indeed into our great mother Earth, to knit us together with great care” (p. 18).

Lodahl first examines Psalm 104 to demonstrate how God is at work–”Making” all that is.  Neither this psalm nor other biblical passages describing creation should be taken literally:  “This ancient cosmology is beautiful, but it is not science” (p. 35).  Rather, it is poetry, allowing the reader to engage in “what Paul Ricoeur called a ‘second naivete’–a playful and imaginative reading of Scripture that frees me to stand on the Sunset Cliffs of San Diego (as I often do) and breathe deep of ‘the breath of God'” (p. 44).  God’s love-making, revealed in Scripture, Lodahl says, is necessarily non-coercive and is best illustrated by Jesus’ suffering on the Cross.  So God must have created through wooing a pre-existing chaos into creation’s evolving realms.  The creative “Word” celebrated in St John’s Prologue “is not a coercive omnipotence unilaterally forcing the world to conform to its demands; it is, to the contrary, a vulnerable, sacrificial, and ostensibly ‘weak’ Word that invites and allures through the wooings of love” (p. 66).  This Word (Jesus Christ), “This one whom Christians confess to be the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, did not (and I believe does not and shall not) fit the description of the world-conquering, apocalyptic lord” (p. 181).  He imposes no predetermined qualities, not even goodness, on His creatures.  Creatures are not called “good” in Genesis because a good God designed them to be such.  Quite the contrary, “God does not ‘already know from eternity’ that the creatures are good; God sees (experiences?) their goodness, their fittedness to God’s creative purposes.  God, in other words, responds with approval to the world’s own response to the divine invitation to let there be” (p. 65).

Professor Lodahl’s position also entails revising the ex nihilo doctrine of creation as generally understood in the Christian tradition, which has generally pointed to a definite beginning point–much like the “big bang” of modem physics–where time and space and matter dramatically appeared.  To Lodahl, creation ex nihilo is better understood as a declaration that everything is radically dependent upon God, that nothing could be apart from Being itself. Perhaps, he says (with John Cobb), the material world and its Creator are co-eternal.  The Eternal God is thus eternally loving and shaping the world in a self-surrendering way; He influences rather than demands.  His “influence is, then, an empowering of the creature to ‘move itself,’ to exercise the agency appropriate to its capacities.  God does not ‘move’ the creature, but graciously and humbly gifts and graces the creature with the power of its own agency and integrity as a creature” (p. 98).  He is, as described in the book’s second part, gently “Molding” a material world which is, as Sally McFague says, the “body of God.”  We must, whether thinking about God or man, reject any rigid metaphysical dualism, for a fully immanent God cannot be severed from the physical world, just as a person’s “soul” cannot be separated from his body.  Still more:  God’s engaged in saving all creation, not simply human beings within it.  Thus God surely laments animal suffering, eating meat, global poverty, capitalistic consumerism, etc.

And God’s also engaged (as we discover in the book’s third section) in “Mending” this not-yet-perfect world.  God “saves” us by transforming (mending) us here-and-now as we enter into a loving relationship with Him.  We should move beyond the “all-too-traditional Christian understanding of redemption, essentially gnostic in nature, that even today tends to envision salvation as the individual soul’s postmortem ascent to heaven” (pp. 222-223).  God alone is eternal, “but apparently the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not above sharing the divine life or gifting the creature with the Creator’s own Spirit, in such a way that God does not possess but instead passes on God’s own life to the creaturely, the finite, the mortal” (p. 229).  As Lodahl reflects upon broader eschatological themes, he rejects both premillenialism and postmillenialism (and amillenialism as well, I assume), for they envision a terminal  “end” of history.  Rather than “simplistically” taking the Apostles’ Creed’s assertion that Jesus shall dramatically “come again to judge the living and the dead” to mean that He will split the heavens in a dramatic “second coming” moment, Lodahl asks, “what if the real ‘end’ of history, God’s most fundamental telos or purpose for our world, is the gracious (re)creation of human beings to become, in this life, creatures made, molded, and mended by divine love?  What if God’s ‘end’ for the world is that love might flourish–that we might become lovers of God and all of our neighbors? Might this provide a more adequate Wesleyan reading of eschatology?” (p. 172).  Rather than an “end” of time, the “end” will be God’s eternal mending of a world forever in process.

To join God in mending things we should address “ecology in a Wesleyan Way.”  All around us it’s evident that “human selfishness, greed, and violence–especially in tandem with industrial and technological developments of the past several centuries–have done perhaps irreparable damage to our planetary home” (p. 209).  Along with John Wesley, in his sermon “General Deliverance,” Lodahl decries the sufferings endured by the good earth and animal world.  All this is, basically, an unfortunate aspect of a world not sufficiently evolved, not yet persuaded to live in perfect harmony.  But we’re called, Lodahl says, to be “the vanguard of God’s ongoing labors to create a world of which it might be said, ‘It is very good'”(p. 198).  Shelving Wesley’s notion that man’s sin destroyed the Garden of Eden’s perfect harmony, he says:  “Whatever might be entailed in the Christian affirmation that God’s creation is good, it cannot mean that there once was a pristine, painless perfection from which he world has fallen due to human disobedience” (p. 208).  Creation always groans, as Paul says in Ro 8:26, and we may join with him, praying, working and hoping that in time God’s perfect plan will be realized and groaning cease.

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Professor Lodahl’s latest work is titled:  “All Things Necessary to Our Salvation”:  The Hermeneutical and Theological Implications of the Article on the Holy Scriptures in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (soon to be published by PLNU’s Point Loma Press, so I cannot provide precise page citations).  Therein he explains why the Church of the Nazarene came to her position on biblical inspiration and suggests how it applies to a proper understanding of the doctrine of creation.  The official position of the church affirms “the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures . . . given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.”

This statement largely appropriated the position of the Anglican and Methodist churches, taking its final form as a mediating position between Fundamentalism (espoused by former Methodists such as H.G. Morrison, who became a general superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene) and Modernism (evident in many mainline denominations).  Professor Lodahl’s explanation of developments in the early decades of the church, moving from a simple movement’s commitments to a denomination’s creed, cogently places the Church of the Nazarene in the nation’s ecclelsiastical rainbow.  He deeply appreciates and appropriately cites the “greatest” 20th century Nazarene theologian, H. Orton Wiley, who worked skillfully at the General Assembly in 1928 to steer the church away from affirming an inerrant (i.e. verbally inspired) text while retaining a deep commitment to an authoritative Bible.  The “salient additions” Wiley made in 1928 were “plenary inspiration and inerrantly,” insuring “that the denomination would espouse the conviction that biblical authority is rooted in soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation.”  Doing so he carved out “a little bit of elbow room” for a scholarly hermeneutic that allows for a fully divine-human composition of the sacred writings.

Wiley, Lodahl argues, especially committed Nazarenes to interpreting the written word in accord with the “Living Word,” the Lord Jesus Christ.   God fully revealed Himself in His Son, and all Scripture bears witness to Him.  Thus we must not allow “usurpers” such as the Church, or the Bible, or human Reason, to displace the Living Word.   “To put it simply, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final Word, a Word uttered incarnationally.”  Consequently, “Scripture’s authority rests essentially in its capacity to testify truthfully, and therefore salvifically, to this Living Word in history.”

Given this understanding of biblical inspiration, Professor Lodahl urges us to read Genesis 1 as a declaration that God has created all that is, not a depository of scientific information concerning creation.   As Wiley said, “The Genesis account of creation is primarily a religious document.  It cannot be considered a scientific document, and yet it must not be regarded as contradictory to science.”  More importantly, approaching the text christologically leads one to root one’s doctrine of creation in John 1 rather than Genesis 1.  Consequently, Lodahl thinks “Wiley would have profited by more aggressively incorporating his appreciation for the Johannine theme of Jesus Christ as God’s Living Word into his interpretation of Genesis 1.”

Doing precisely this, Professor Lodahl applies Wesley’s “hermeneutic of love” to Genesis 1.  The great call of the Bible is to love God and neighbor.  “The church of Jesus Christ, then, reads the creation stories of Genesis in Christ, through Christ, and toward Christ–and so within the dynamic, the dynamo, of the age to come.  It is not back to Adam and Eve in a garden that Jesus’ disciples are called.  Rather, they are beckoned forward into God’s unimaginable future, foretasted now in Jesus Christ and his Spirit-breathed fellowship of the local church congregation, where ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female’–and may I dare to add, ‘there is no longer creationist and theistic evolutionist?–’for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).”

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