For its first half-century the Church of the Nazarene’s theology was significantly shaped and masterfully explained by H. Orton Wiley, a close friend and associate of the denomination’s founder, Phineas F. Bresee. Wiley’s three-volume Systematic Theology was published in the early ‘40s and defined the church’s teaching. He relied on 19th century Methodist theologians, as well as the holiness prescriptions of Pheobe Palmer to set forth the church’s “cardinal doctrine,” the call to “Christian perfection.” Wiley frequently cited Methodists who endorsed Palmer’s insistence on a “crisis experience” wherein believers consecrate themselves completely to God, “place their all upon the altar,” and take God at His Word by believing that the “altar sanctifies the gift.” Wiley especially emphasized the instantaneous nature of the “second work of grace” and tried to make sure that Nazarenes (unlike 19th century Methodists) would tenaciously proclaim it. In 1928 he helped draft and fully endorsed the article on entire sanctification as set forth (in 1928) in the “Articles of Faith” specifying it to be an “act of God subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.” This language still stands in the church’s most recent Manual.
Wiley died in 1961, and within a decade younger Nazarene theologians began to overhaul the church’s “cardinal doctrine.” In 1973 Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s treatise, A Theology of Love, sparked a turning point in the denomination’s history, if not in its official declarations. Nazarene Theological Seminary professor Paul Orjala labeled it “one of the most important books ever published” by the denomination, tagging it “the first modern theology of holiness.” Wynkoop emphasized the “credibility gap” between what preachers said and people experienced and demanded a comprehensive “restructuring of the conceptual framework within which holiness theologians had worked.” Quietly turning aside from Wiley and the American holiness tradition, she cited John Wesley to craft a “Wesleyan hermeneutic” with a different definition of human nature and sin. A person is not, she suggested, by nature sinful, so sin is not a thing to be removed. Rather, sin results from a fractured, dysfunctional relationship with God. Restoring that relationship, therefore, solves the sin problem. Nothing essential within one’s soul is changed, bringing about a “state of grace,” but a healthy relationship with God develops. Holiness is interpersonal love—nothing more, nothing less. So she minimized the need for a second, instantaneous work of grace.
Wynkoop’s position clearly informs Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 2005) by Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, two of the denomination’s best and brightest theologians—who are winsome both in person and as authors. Though written for the general public rather than the academy, it is endorsed by some of the church’s most distinguished theologians (H. Ray Dunning) and influential leaders (Charles Zink; Ron Benefiel; William Greathouse). It thus may be taken to represent the current position of the Church of the Nazarene.
Oord and Lodahl assert the church, in its presentation of holiness, faces more than the “credibility gap” noted by Wynkoop 40 years ago. Indeed, unless it is explained in ways plausible to 21st century worldviews, the “doctrine” will simply vanish as an artifact of an ancient religious subculture. To recast the doctrine in relational terms, however, will suit our “postmodern” world, with its sensitivity to environmental realities and to “individuals-in-relation” or “community-created-persons.” Within this postmodern consciousness, God may be seen as the One who “acts as an ever-present, divine influence—a necessary cause—in everyone’s relational environment. Just as people affect others through relations, God as the Maker and Sustainer of all things also affects all things, all people, all the time, everywhere. There is no environment in which God is not related to others as a present, active, and loving agent” (Kindle #332). God too “is open to and affected by others, because the Creator and the creatures enjoy mutual relations” (#359). Interacting with the God Who Is Love, we engage in loving relationships with Him and His world, and consequently are, moment-by-moment, more-or-less holy.
Amidst the variety of views regarding holiness set forth both in scripture and theological traditions Oord and Lodahl seek to find identify one absolutely essential “core” position. While various alternatives, have value, only love can be the “core” of holiness. In the authors’ words: “To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote well-being. To say the same thing in other words, to love is to respond to the inspiration of others—especially God—and by that response effect genuine flourishing” (#862). Embracing this understanding, life can become an adventure, following Jesus as Guide, responding rightly to the challenges and opportunities we encounter in life’s journey. Doing so enables us to actively participate in the loving fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit—the Divine Trinity. “The Spirit is the Breath in whose life and presence we actually share in the mutual life and love of the Father and Son.” Still more: “Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that because the Father and the Son ‘make room’ for us in their common life of the Spirit, our common life together really makes a difference in God’s own life and experience of the world” (#1149). By “our common life together” they mean mainly the “visible, touchable, experiential” activities that ought to characterize “any and every congregation” (#1360). Working within a loving relationship with God we rightly interact with others. “God’s love, then, is perceptible to our senses: visible, touchable—or at least ought to be—in church communions where the word which you have heard from the beginning is heard and acted upon faithfully, boldly, and bodily” (#1366).
In the book’s final chapter, Oord and Lodahl call us to be “dancers, not dinosaurs.” All of the Bible’s definitions of holiness—e.g. following the commandments, being pure, committed, set apart, Christlike and perfect—can be subsumed to and expressed by the “core” value of love. Led by the “Master Dancer,” Christ Jesus, we can dance beautifully as long as we keep step with Him. And so, they conclude: “Let the dance begin!” (#1649).
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Thomas J. Oord, a professor at Northwest Nazarene University, has long pondered and written about the importance of love. In The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, c. 2010)—a book dedicated to three Nazarene theologians (H. Ray Dunning, William Greathouse, and Mildred Wynkoop)—he explores the ultimate, greatest virtue of the Christian life. With John Wesley, he thinks “‘Love is the end of the commandments of God. Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things’” (#204). In light of the fact that the Bible repeatedly celebrates the importance of love and the best of Christian theologians for 20 centuries have stressed its import, it should certainly “be the orienting concern and continual focus for speaking systematically about theology. We should discard ideas or theories that undermine love” (Kindle #191).
Unfortunately, secondary concerns have often distracted Christians from their main message. Hugely influential 20th century thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth failed to give love its due. In the past, thinkers such as Martin Luther five centuries ago (and R.C. Sproul today) elevated faith alone to the pride of place. Calvin in the 16th century (and Millard Erickson in the 20th) developed an intensely logical system celebrating the sovereignty of God. As Oord explores various theologians’ failures to rightly stress love’s importance, he admits that the word is notoriously hard to define. So he offers this definition: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being” (#489). Carefully spelling out this definition, he grants that there are many valuable aspects to other (e.g. romantic or friendly) loves. But when thinking theologically, he insists we abide by this definition.
Consequently he devotes appreciative sections to—and respectfully rejects the positions of—Anders Nygren, Augustine, and Clark Pinnock. Anders Nygren wrote Agape and Eros and was “the most influential love theologian in the twentieth century” (#758). To him only God’s agape qualifies as Christian love. Following Luther, Nygren “rejected every idea of human merit” and located agape solely in God. Totally depraved, we bask in God’s love but contribute nothing to our relationship with Him. Augustine focused on love as desiring (benevolence), but not necessarily doing (benefaction) what is good. Inasmuch as he insisted on God’s impassibility and timelessness, Augustine did not think He would interact with us in a give-and-take relationship. Oord lauds Clark Pinnock’s “Open Theism,” which portrays God as a relational Being and grants the importance of love and of the freedom of both human and other kinds of beings to freely respond to Him. Though sharing many of Pinnock’s positions, Oord faults him for failing to resolve the tension between love and power, especially when explaining the actuality of evil. A major reason for this is Pinnock’s affirmation, in accord with the vast majority of Christian thinkers, of creatio ex nihilo—creation actually came to be without material antecedents. Oord argues this notion is neither biblical nor suitable for a theology of love. Rather than ex nihilo, he thinks God created by transforming the eternal “primordial chaos” into the world that now exists. Neither time nor matter came into being—they were transformed by the creative act described in Genesis. Thus evil may be attributed to a residue of the “primordial chaos” that ever abides alongside (and beyond the control of) the God who is absolutely loving. Since “creatio ex nihilo undermines a coherent doctrine of divine love” we “should reject this nonbiblical idea to affirm consistently the biblical claim ‘God is love’” (#2232).
Oord’s own position, deeply influenced, in my judgment, by process philosophy, is termed “Essential Kenosis.” Oord calls it a “biblical theology of love” and believes it overcomes the problem of evil by depicting God as essentially—almost exclusively—love. It affirms “miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, hope for a final victory at the end of history, and a biblically supported doctrine of creation” (#2098). And it finds its final illustration on the Cross, where Jesus shows us the true nature of God—“one who experiences pain and joy, sorrow and happiness, life and death” (#2242). Rightly understood, God does not voluntarily limit himself—He was (and is) involuntarily limited by the nature of His relationship with both the primordial chaos and creaturely freedom. God loves because He cannot help loving; that is what He is. He cannot destroy evil because a loving being cannot coerce anything. But this loving God can court and woo His creatures and draw them into an ever-more holy relationship with Himself.
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Thomas A. Noble, a distinguished professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, recently delivered the Didsbury Lectures in Manchester, England. The lectures, in print, are titled Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, c. 2013). Targeting a scholarly audience, Noble endeavors to rightly follow his calling as a theologian, “not to perpetuate a Wesleyan ‘distinctive” . . . but to persuade all Christians that this is the heritage of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (#188). “Holiness,” he says, “is one of the core concepts of the Christian faith” and deserves the serious, sustained reflection that only comes when one scours the Scripture and consults the long tradition of the Christian Church as well as those “holiness” churches that have more specifically stressed it. His thoughtful, discriminating discussions of both Catholic and Protestant thinkers, rooting his presentation in the long conversation of great exegetes and theologians, makes this work persuasive and helpful, one of the best expositions I’ve read.
Importantly, Noble insists, holiness is a perfecting process, not a perfect state of being. Thus his subtitle urges a perfecting rather than a perfection of the soul. None of the Church’s greatest theologians “ever taught ‘sinless perfection’—the idea that within this life, Christians could reach that final, absolute state of perfection where they were sinless and perfectly holy” (#804). They taught, instead, a perfecting process whereby, above all, Christians more fully love as they ought. At this point St Augustine, one of greatest theologians of love,” famously said, in The City of God: “Two loves built two cities. Love of self to the contempt of God built the earthly city: love of God to the contempt of self, the heavenly.” We cannot but love, said Augustine—the question is what we will love! The love of self (concupiscentia) must be tethered while love of God and others (caritas) needs stirring up! In his wake, great thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley repeated and refined Augustine’s insight.
Wesley, of course, gave considerable attention to holy living—“faith working by love.” Indeed, “as Mildred Bangs Wynkoop saw clearly,” bona fide “Christian holiness was a ‘theology of love’” (2411). In the 18th century renewal movement he led within the Church of England Wesley urged believers (initially sanctified at their new birth) to seek ever-deeper experiential realities available through the gracious workings of God: the “‘gradual work’ of sanctification that follows regeneration” (#2361). Though at times he may have erroneously slipped into perfectionistic language, he typically acknowledged “the paradox of this ‘imperfect perfection’” and would even have given guarded assent to Luther’s dictum that the Christian is simul justus et pecccator, at once a sinner and justified” (#2563). “As in Clement, Origen, the later Greek Fathers, and in Bernard and Aquinas (to name only some of those we selected from the great tradition), there is no thought here of easy, instant holiness. Rather there is a concept of different levels of stages or ‘degrees’ of perfection’—rungs on the ladder” (#2608).
After devoting considerable attention to an account of past developments, Noble turns to the task of “reformulating Wesley’s doctrine today.” Simply repeating an 18th century evangelist will not suffice! But by carefully considering motivation and relationship we can construct a viable understanding of Christian holiness as “an inner revolution in our motivation as a consequence of a new relationship” (#3013). Freedom from the bondage of sin—consistently defined as “the self-centered mindset”—is possible insofar as we maintain a sanctifying relationship with the Loving Lord who enables us to consistently “will one thing.” This means the real focus of our attention should be on the Holy Trinity and the provisions made for our salvation through the atoning work of the Second Person, Jesus Christ.
Following Eusebius and a long line of thinkers, Noble emphasizes the Atonement as the key for us to understand Christian perfecting. Ultimately, on the Cross, Christ, by dying to sin, opened the way for us to likewise die to sin and become all we’re designed to be. “Only by meditating on the doctrine of the cross can we be captivated by the love of God in such a way as to love him with that full and whole-hearted love of mind, soul, and strength, which is the essence of ‘entire’ sanctification” (#3723). It’s all about Him, not us! Too often holiness has been discussed almost exclusively in terms of us—our sins, our needs, our potential, our fundamentally human ways of attaining sanctity—whereas it must be primarily rooted in the Person of God, Christ Himself! “‘Entire sanctification’ is not a human possibility, nor is it activated by my total consecration as an individual. It is God’s gracious activity in the life of each believer, within the contest of the Body of Christ, the church, made possible by God’s once-for-all act of grace in the crucifixion of the old sinful humanity on the cross” (#4144).
In His Incarnation, as well as His atoning death, Christ provided for us salvation full and free. The Early Church wrestled long and hard to rightly insist that Jesus was “fully God, fully man.” Consequently, as Athanasius and others said, by assuming our human nature Christ redeemed and sanctified it. Sinless Himself, he bore our sins. Thus “Irenaeus writes of ‘the pure One opening purely that pure womb which regenerates humanity to God, and which he himself made pure.’ As the Symbol of Chalcedon (451) expressed it, he was ‘like us in everything except sin.’ Taking our sinfulness in no way polluted him. Our debt was swallowed up in his riches, our pollution cleansed in his purity, our sin burned up in the fire of his holiness” (#4528). Living among us (as well as dying for us) Christ showed us how to be holy persons.
To be holy, then, is to be rightly rooted in Christ Himself. “In him, ‘the first-born from the dead’ (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), the old humanity has died and the new humanity, the new creation (2 Cor 5:17), has begun. Christian holiness is founded upon—is a participation in—what he has done for us, once for all time in his death and resurrection. It is a participation in him” (#4887). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, believers may enjoy fellowship with God Himself and allow Him to inspire and work through them. Inasmuch as God is Perfect Love, there is a perfecting process engaging believers in the on-going-work of sanctification. At Pentecost, “the final event in the series of the mighty acts of God in Jesus,” this Reality dawned for the infant Church. Now, as then, Christians are “able—not merely by effort or moral energy or discipline alone, but by the grace or gift of God—to make his or her consecration fully actual, and to love God and his perfect will whole-heartedly. While still in the fallen body as part of a fallen human race (‘flesh’) and liable therefore to daily temptation, this mature Christian is no longer a divided mind or heart” (#5207). Rightly understood, then, Christian holiness is “always a prayer, never a claim” (#5256).
“Charles Wesley,” Noble says, “expresses for us the constant daily prayer that Christ, who is Love incarnate, crucified, and ascended, may breathe into us too his own Spirit that we may be filled with his love: ‘Love divine, all loves excelling, / Joy of heaven, to earth come down, / Fix in us thy humble dwelling, / All thy faithful mercies crown! / Jesu, thou art all compassion, / Pure unbounded love thou art; / Visit us with thy salvation! / Enter every trembling heart. / Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving Spirit / Into every troubled breast! / Let us all in thee inherit; / Let us find that second rest: / Take away the bent to sinning, / Alpha and Omega be, / End of faith as its beginning, / Set our hearts at liberty. / Come, almighty to deliver, /Let us all thy grace receive; / Suddenly return, and never, / Never more thy temples leave. / Thee we would be always blessing, / Serve thee as thy hosts above, / Pray and praise thee without ceasing, / Glory in thy perfect love. / Finish then thy new creation, / Pure and spotless let us be; / Let us see thy great salvation / Perfectly restored in thee; / Changed from glory into glory, / Till in heaven we take our place, / ‘ Till we cast dour crowns before thee, / Lost in wonder, love, and praise’” (#5226).
Intent on loving God, we must seek to reflect Him rather than reflect on ourselves and should, with St Paul, seek to “know Christ” rather than worry excessively about personal purity. (A self-centered religion is the worst manifestation of sinful self-centeredness! ) Above all we must discover that at the heart of the Trinity there is a loving fellowship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The “One in whom we live, and move, and have our being” is most deeply Love. To say God is Holy is to say He is Love.
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In light of these recent presentations this is clear: if H. Orton Wiley and his followers were right, the Church of the Nazarene has abandoned its historic position; if, on the other hand, today’s theologians (Oord, Lodahl, Noble) are right, Nazarenes were appreciably (and, everyone admits, sincerely) misled for half-a-century. Then, perhaps, neither Wesley nor any of them are right—as Catholics and Calvinists and Pentecostals et al. insist! Better minds than mine must sort out the answer!