Darius L. Salter grew up in a Pilgrim Holiness church in North Carolina, earned degrees from Kentucky Mountain Bible College, Asbury College, Asbury Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Drew University. He pastored, taught at seminaries, including Nazarene Theological Seminary, and served as Executive Director of the Christian Holiness Association. Few contemporary scholars have his experience and perspective, so much may be learned from his recent publication, The Demise of the American Holiness Movement: A Historical, Theological, Biblical, Cultural Exploration (Wilmore, KY: First Fruits Press, c. 2020). He argues “that the American Holiness Movement has lost its identity primarily because it has been unable to negotiate modernity” (p. 3). He concurs with and extends the observations made in earlier articles by Keith Drury (a Wesleyan, in “The Holiness Movement is Dead”) and Richard Taylor (a Nazarene, in “Why the Holiness Movement Died.”) Neither the movement’s distinctive theological commitment to “entire sanctification as a second work of grace subsequent to regeneration,” nor the rules and regulations that once defined “holiness” people, nor the revivals and camp meetings that energized the faithful have endured. “Holiness” churches survive but the movement has died.
Rather than develop a systematic treatise analyzing the “demise of the holiness movement,” Salter devotes much of his treatise to significant persons who have shaped it, beginning with John Wesley. He was obviously a gifted evangelist, his commitment to holy living most admirable, his influence certainly momentous. But Salter believes “that in his doctrine of Christian perfection, Wesley passed down to his spiritual children a paradigm that has major deficiencies, if not massive contradictions” (p. 20). By asserting that “nothing is sin, strictly speaking, but a voluntary transgression of a known law of God,” Wesley minimized its power and persistence, leaving his followers with manifold problems. This was, quite frankly, evident in his personal life. While preaching “Christian perfection” Wesley was less than perfect, as Salter shows by detailing his troubled relationships with women. Nor did Wesley give a final statement concerning what he actually believed regarding “entire sanctification.” Indeed, John once wrote his brother Charles: “‘I am at my wit’s end with regard to two things—the church and Christian perfection. Unless you and I stand in the gap, in good earnest, the Methodists will drop them both.’ John was prescient for both English Methodism and eventually American Methodism. The ideal was too difficult to explain and defend, much less experience” (p. 50).
As Methodism expanded in America in the 19th century the doctrine of holiness was simultaneously neglected by the hierarchy and popularized, especially by Phoebe Palmer, though Salter devotes little attention to those years. Instead he jumps from Wesley to two 20th century Nazarene theologians whom he regards as personifications of options ultimately dividing the holiness movement. Richard Taylor—“the patron saint of the holiness movement” in Salter’s view—“insisted that a second work of grace was the only adequate remedy for inbred sin” (p. 87). He upheld the positions of the first generation of Nazarenes and “was the most influential person within the conservative holiness movement” (p. 118). Though Salter knew and admired Taylor, he finds his views of sin and sanctification inadequate. So too did others, and as he aged he found himself disregarded by younger theologians and preachers and the Nazarene Publishing House no longer published his books.
Leading the opposition to Taylor was Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, who rejected his position on holiness and charted a new way to understand and teach it, claiming she was bringing the church back to John Wesley. Importantly, as a youngster Wynkoop had tried to fully embrace foundational Nazarene theology. In revivals and camp meetings she heard how “entire sanctification” could be instantly obtained at an altar. She sought the “experience” some 40 times and tried to testify to its efficacy. But somehow the promised “blessing” never came. Finally, she said, “‘the whole unsavory farce broke around my head, leaving me a full-fledged skeptic, cold-blooded and adrift. The divine formula upon which I had pinned my faith, didn’t work’” (p. 124). Rather than leave her church, however, she worked to redefine its theology, ultimately publishing the highly influential Theology of Love, seeking to erase the “credibility gap” she and others had experienced. The “relational paradigm” she set forth clearly differed from “the holiness formula which until that time, had defined the Church of the Nazarene” (p. 157). Her treatise was, however, endorsed by the Nazarene Theological Seminary’s official publication, thereby “knowingly or unwittingly” approving a work markedly different from the historic position of the denomination. Salter provides “insider” information regarding the struggles that transpired in the seminary and denomination in the ‘70s and ‘80s, showing why two versions of “second blessing holiness” competed for dominance, with the Wynkoop faction winning the struggle. Her theology, Salter contends, is deeply flawed in significant ways, especially in its Pelagian tendencies, but she did in fact became the guru for younger thinkers who would shift the teaching of holiness from an instantaneous experience to a progressive, and basically moralistic, position.
In 2004 the doctrinal uncertainties plaguing the Church of the Nazarene were effectively explained by Mark Quanstrom in A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: From Extravagant Hope to Limited Expectation. The church had come into being at the dawn of the 20th century and shared much of that era’s optimism. (More that simple optimism, however, Salter thinks “one could argue that the entire Holiness Movement was rooted in a utopian view of life” (p. 159). After detailing the 20th century’s theological developments, Quanstrom concluded (in a statement not included in the published edition!) that signifiant changes “‘challenge the mission of the denomination which at one time anyway, understood its sole reason for being to consist in the proclamation of the possibility of freedom from sin resulting in a gloriously transformed human nature’” (p. 184). In Salter’s view, that “sole reason” has dissipated, leaving the denomination rudderless.
Apart from the Church of the Nazarene, Salter devotes considerable attention to Methodists associated with Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Henry Clay Morrison dominated the scene in the first half of the 20th century, as did Dennis Kinlaw in the second. “For many of us,” Salter says, “Dennis Kinlaw had the most capacious mind, the most charismatic personality, the most gracious and appealing platform style, and was the greatest preacher of anyone we had ever known or heard” (p. 227). He also presided over “the holiness paradigm shift” inasmuch as nothing he said “could not have been said at a Keswick convention, a Southern Baptist conference or a Roman Catholic renewal convocation” (p. 228). Kinlaw had a deeply biblical understanding of holiness that Salter fully supports. It was not, however, the traditional position of the holiness movement.
In the final section of the book Salter addresses five areas he thinks holiness folks should face: the world; the self; the other; the animate; and the mind. But the book’s value lies in its analysis of what has happened rather than prescriptions for what should come to be. And what’s happened is the death of the holiness movement—which is not to say holiness churches cannot adjust and survive under other flags.
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A young professor at Trevecca Nazarene University, Timothy R. Gaines, has recently published Christian Ethics (Kansas City: The Foundry Publishing, c. 2021; Kindle Ed,). He begins with the crucial observation that: “Every day, a dizzying array of moral challenges presses in. Every day, we make choices between this instead of that. We face imperfect options because we live in an imperfect world. Moment by moment, we engage in the work of ethics. The only question is whether we realize it. You and I will never avoid ethics” (#70). To wisely “engage” in this work Gaines embraces the Wesleyan tradition with its “bold optimism” rooted in the confidence that God-in-Christ is at work “making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5). Jesus came to invite us to join him in living rightly, not by following “moralistic” rules but by allowing Him to make us holy and good. “The grand hope of the Wesleyan tradition is not that we become ethical people but that we become holy people whose ethics can do no other than reflect the image of God” #779). Indeed: “One of the distinctive affirmations of the Wesleyan tradition is the belief in orthokardia—the idea that we must be people of right hearts alongside our right practices and right beliefs” (#262).
Comparing the work of building an ethical edifice with the work of a carpenter, Gaines says “we need plans drawn up so we know what we are working toward. That vision is what ethicists refer to as a vision of goodness, or ‘the good life’” (#336). To attain that end: “The most common tools in the workshop of ethics in the Western tradition are the duty tool, the results tool, the God tool, and the virtue tool” (#360). But these tools are inadequate for the task! In more traditional philosophical terms, he rejects the deontological (do your duty) position most notably set forth by Kant, the utilitarianism (what’s best for the most people) of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the divine command (follow biblical commands) position of many Christian thinkers such as Robert Adams, and the virtue (develop your character) ethical traditions best developed by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Rather than build a “system” of some sort, Gaines thinks we should join Jesus in “the more excellent way,” entering into His new creation and working out its implications. “‘We cannot create the new creation,’ Néstor Míguez helpfully reminds us. ‘It comes from God as a new earth and a new heaven, which is beyond any human possibility to achieve.’ At the same time, ‘New creation is also an invitation to the hope that becomes an impelling force to join in God’s labor of giving birth to the new creation, a labor conceived, for our side, as a creative participation in the life of God that manifests the liberty of God’s children’” (#502). Though philosophy has its proper place, its roots are in Athens, where Greek thinkers tried to reason their way to moral certainties. Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, “is the place where Israel encounters a holy and living God, and comes away from that encounter faced with the question of how they ought to live in response” (#929). God spoke, calling for a holy people to serve a holy God.
In giving the Ten Commandments—or as Gaines prefers the “Ten Words”—God revealed the right way to live by responding to His holiness. “The words are spoken as the description of lives lived in dedication to God . . . . The moral point is that rigid and willful adherence to the ten sayings of God is not the moral vision that shapes holiness ethics. Rather, a people’s living encounter with a holy God will shape them into and empower them to be a kind of people who won’t murder, commit adultery, or steal—all because they will have no other gods before the living, holy God. Other gods can’t possibly shape that kind of people because any other god is not holy” (#968). This means we rightly turn to Scripture, which must be “authoritative. Looking to Scripture as a source for the formation of Christian ethics is the act of placing ourselves under the authority of the way our ancestors saw God act” (#565). And God preeminently acted in Jesus. Reading Scripture in a Wesleyan way means adjusting “our interpretive frequencies to new creation’s wavelength, and we may then be able to work with Scripture in a way that allows us to evaluate how a particular moral command in Scripture intersects with a contemporary moment.” Thus “we appeal to Scripture in an attempt to find our place within its new creation story and let it speak to us alignment of our life toward new creation’s ends. It is a dynamic of reading the texts, taking account of ourselves, and being formed by what we find in the biblical story. We can measure ourselves against those texts, asking, ‘Do we reflect a new creation people well?’” (#662). Reading Scripture in the light of the new creation requires careful, prayerful deliberation as we do ethics, trying to “become holy people whose ethics can do no other than reflect the image of God. Discernment, therefore, is not the quest to become more ethical but is the work of responding to the grace God pours out, and allowing our motivations, character, and imaginations to be transformed by and aligned toward God. The shape of the moral life in the Wesleyan tradition is a heart filled with the love of God that spills out into the work of love for our neighbor” (#779). Such discernment, Gaines thinks, comes primarily in a social rather than a solitary milieu. So forming small groups to discuss and pray about things is crucial.
The things we need to think and pray about are highlighted by Gaines in a series of “discernment dialogues” beginning with bioethics, which he reduces to end-of-life decisions. (Sadly missing in this “dialogue is the question of abortion, certainly one of the most important issues of our times.). End-of-life decisions are complicated by the incredible technologies now available in treating diseases, so the second “discernment dialogue” focuses on the many issues embedded in our technological society, which “perhaps more than any other force . . . shapes our moral lives” (#1866). We’re easily tempted to wrongly think that anything “quicker, cheaper, and easier” is “automatically better” (#1881). Technological advances have certainly impacted economics, the focus of the third “discernment dialogue.” We need to envision a good economy as one whereby an exchange “flows from God and brings flourishing and healing to the whole creation. Rather than think “‘I earned this, and I’m going to do whatever I want with it’” we should rejoice and say ‘This is a gift from God, and I’d like to use it in a way that helps the world.’ In short, we move from being possessors to being stewards” (#1979). Political ethics, creation care, racial concerns, sexual and family ethics, are all treated in short, thoughtful dialogues.
Designed to be used as a study guide for thoughtful laymen, Christian Ethics provides a well-written application of Wesleyan theology (as expounded by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and H. Ray Dunning) to our world. Thus there is an underlying existential philosophy that can easily slide into the kind of “situation ethics” set forth by Joseph Fletcher decades ago. Relying on orthokardia—a good heart—may very will be important in making decisions, but without something like the Natural Law to give guidance one may very well founder in the process.
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For many years Thomas Jay Oord has been publishing books (some 25) urging Christians to make love the centerpiece of their theology. In Pluriform Love: An Open and Relational Theology of Well-Being (SacraSage Press, Kindle Edition, c. 2020)he updates (and frequently repeats) positions earlier advanced in Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (co-written with Michael Lodahl), Defining Love: Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Investigations and The Nature of Love: A Theology. Love is pluriform, he says, because it “has multiple dimensions and expressions. Love cannot be understood well nor experienced fully if confined to only one or a few forms” (p. 6). And he insists it be understood within the context of “an open and relational theology.”
Oord says most theologians have minimized the importance of love. For example, Richard Hays, in his “influential book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament “does not regard love as the focus of Jesus or the New Testament. His relegation of love to the margins is explicit” (p. 11). So too, Millard Erickson, a Reformed theologian espousing a “moderate” brand of Calvinism, says much about God’s omnipotence and predestination that Oord believes “are at odds with the meaning of love in most scripture and everyday experience.” In his Christian Theology, “Erickson chooses the magnificence of God, instead of love, as his overarching theme” (p. 16). Conversely, Oord thinks, theologians who have dealt extensively with love have failed to rightly define and explain it. Thus Anders Nygren, in Agape and Eros (“the most influential book on agape in the 20th century”) sought to set forth a biblical theology shaped by is understanding of agape, the only kind of Christian love since it comes down from God, whereas eros moves up from man. Thoroughly Lutheran, Nygren believes only God truly loves—because of man’s utter sinfulness he cannot love God or others. “God’s agape, Nygren asserts, ‘seeks to make its way out into the world through the Christian as its channel.’ Christians are like tubes through which love from above passes to neighbors below. The Christian contributes nothing. When we see humans loving others, we really see God using humans as instruments” (p. 63). After citing and analyzing a multitude of texts, Oord explains why he finds Nygren’s understanding of agape flawed and rejects it.
He also rejects St Augustine’s position on love as eros or desire, which can be either proper (caritas) or improper (cupiditas). “Charity (caritas) desires something or someone for God’s sake. Cupidity (cupiditas) desires for the sake of something other than God” (p. 107). So we should love neither ourselves for our own sake nor our neighbor not for his own sake but purely for God’s sake. Though Oord rejects Augustine’s understanding of eros, he does believe there is a rightful way to understand it, for properly defined it seeks the well-being of others. Whereas agape is an “in spite of” love, eros is a “because of” kind of love. “Eros appreciates value and promotes overall well-being because of the value it encounters. Because of value present in others, creation, and God, lovers can express eros” (p. 147). But Augustine not only misunderstood eros, he negatively impacted the Christian tradition, shaping its “classical theism,” His ideas about God’s attributes, such as timelessness, immutability, impassability, etc., negate (Oord thinks) His ability to truly love. Consequently: “The theology of love I propose affirms philosophical ideas that lie in stark contrast to ideas Augustine and other classical theists embrace” (p. 142). So “classical theism” must be significantly revised, if not repudiated, to rightly understand the nature and activity of God.
Instead of “classical theism” Oord wants to construct a theology that is “open and relational,” rooted in the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartrshorne he has long championed. “‘Open’ indicates an open future. Open and relational thinkers believe God and creation move through time moment by moment into an undetermined future. Neither creatures nor the Creator predetermine what will occur. Neither Creator nor creatures foreknow with certainty everything that will happen. The future does not exist as a set of actual occurrences; it’s a realm of possibilities. While creatures are born into time’s flow, God experiences time everlastingly. Love involves actions, and a consistently acting God loves moment by moment. ‘Relational’ stands for the idea God and creatures influence others and others influence them. Creatures affect God’s experience, and the divine experience changes in response. God and other creatures affect creatures, and their experiences change in response. God’s nature is eternally unchanging, but as an experiential agent, God gives and receives in relations with creatures and creation. Love is inherently relational, and an omni-relational God relates with all others” (pp. 157-158).
This omni-relational God is, importantly, “uncontrolling” or amipotent. Oord “coined this word using the Latin prefix for love we find in positive words like ‘amity,’ ‘amigo,’ ‘amicable,’ and ‘amiable. ‘Potent’ is the Latin root word of ‘potency’ and ‘potential.’ God is amipotent in the sense that divine love preconditions and governs divine power. God always exerts power lovingly. Because love comes logically before power in God’s nature and this love is essentially uncontrolling, divine amipotence never controls. God’s almighty power is uncontrolling love: amipotence” (p. 180). As an important part of his process theology, Oord says God is everlasting (i.e. forever embedded in time) rather than eternal (standing apart from time). Consequently creation is continually taking place and the traditional notion that God created all things out of nothing (ex nihilo) must be rejected. “Rather than creating the universe from nothing, God everlastingly, in love, creates in relation to what God previously created” (p. 177). So, it seems, the material world, as well as God, forever co-exist and are forever evolving.
Reading Pluriform Love reminds us of the multitude of references to various forms of love (agape, eros, philia) in Scripture. How manifold are God’s ways! Unfortunately, by repudiating “classical theism,” Oord discards much that is basic to the Christian Tradition and must be read quite cautiously.