PERFECTION: TOWARD A NEW PARADIGM
is generally recognized by insightful analysts of the Holiness tradition that
this movement is in the midst of a serious identity crisis. Such an observation
was raised in a dramatic fashion by Keith Drury’s recent presidential address
to the Christian Holiness Association. He spoke of the demise of the movement,
suggesting that, even though there is continuing talk and action among its
adherents as though it were still alive, the corpse is upstairs in the bed
without life. My own analysis of Drury’s address and personal conversation
with him, however, have yielded some interesting alternative insights. While he
made some valid points, highlighting certain factors that would tend to divert
the church (any church) from being the church today, what he chiefly declared to
be dead was only a culturally and historically conditioned form of spiritual
experience. The flow of history virtually makes it inevitable that such would be
order to understand the significance of this point, we note that a number of
“paradigm shifts” have taken place in holiness theology as the Wesleyan
message first moved to America and then within the history of the American
concept of a “paradigm shift” was made popular by the work of Thomas Kuhn in
describing what has occurred in the field of natural science. The history of
science, he pointed out, is a history of paradigm shifts. One of the simplest
and easily accessible examples was the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric
understanding of our universe credited to the work of Copernicus and Kepler. A
paradigm is a model in terms of which we interpret all of reality. It has become
a popular idiom for discussing changes in theological models that have taken
place over time.
of the important paradigm shifts that has taken place in the Holiness movement
hundred years ago our spiritual ancestors who led the American holiness movement
saw the world they inherited crash in pieces at their feet.
they had always believed about the Bible crumbled before the onslaught of
European biblical criticism.
they had always believed about their nation had just a generation before been
shattered by the Civil War.
they had always believed about the Christian faith withered before the attacks
of what was then called “theological modernism.”
our spiritual ancestors had always believed about the origin and destiny of
humankind was washed away like a sand castle at high tide in the eyes of many
when Charles Darwin popularized and seemed to legitimize evolution.
they had always believed about the nature of truth, reality, and value was
punctured by the new pragmatic philosophy of the father of progressive
education, John Dewey. Dewey, just after the turn of the century, surveyed the
wreckage of the way the world had been and philosophized that perhaps there were
after all no absolutes. Truth, right, and reality are whatever works, he
even as those early Nazarenes were gathering at Pilot Point, Texas, the thought
of Sigmund Freud was festering in Europe and would soon challenge second
generation Nazarenes about what they had always been taught about who and what
they were as human beings. In popular thought man would become id, ego, and
superego rather than body, soul, and spirit. The way was already paved for this
by 1900 by men such as George Albert Coe, who had already nearly reduced
Protestant Christian education to mental hygiene.
the ruins of this multiple paradigm shift there arose a breed of men and women
who were not ready to give in to the popular trends of the day. They believed in
traditional Christianity, the Bible, social justice, and holiness of heart and
life. They were passionate and compassionate, conservative and tough, innovative
and courageous, energetic and shrewd. They believed that what persons and
nations needed was the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification. Like
John Wesley they believed that sanctifying grace was God’s cure for the
private and corporate life of the race.
group spread revival, organized churches, established orphanages, and planted
holiness colleges all over the landscape. They proclaimed timeless truths.
They did a lot of things gloriously right.
had, predictably, a natural built-in resistance to intellectuals. After all, it
was the intellectuals—the scientists, theologians, philosophers and scholars
who could read Greek and Hebrew Bibles—who had destroyed the world they had
inherited from their parents.
an almost instinctive survival move they, more or less, cut themselves off from
the biblical scholarship, the theological reflection, and the philosophical
hypothesizing then taking place. Avoiding such things, it is not surprising that
the good people of this movement came early to rely heavily on testimony and
religious experience. They developed a way of being that was long on personal
experience and short on in-depth understanding of the Scriptures and open-minded
theological reflection. Such an imbalance was almost bound to appear.
intellectualism and relying heavily upon testimony and experience produced a
phenomenon of all but codifying the experiences of the influential and gifted
people. As they powerfully testified about how God broke through to them in
sanctifying grace, the methods themselves became the rule and practice of many
movement became largely internally sufficient, with no need for outside counsel.
As the movement gained strength and momentum it became more and more
self-validating. In time it all but cut itself off even from its own roots
this powerful statement points out, the authority for the preaching of the
doctrine and experience of entire sanctification came to be experience itself.
Two considerations, then, are crucial for good perspective.
Biblical Interpretation. Biblical texts
were often treated out of context and what biblical exegesis that was employed
depended largely on “types” and allegory, along with an ill-advised appeal
to the aorist tense of the Greek. The latter has been authoritatively called
into question by contemporary holiness scholars of the original language.
Stephen Lennox, in his doctrinal dissertation on the exegesis of the early
holiness movement, pointed out that the defense for such a use of scripture was
a so-called “spiritual hermeneutic.” The point was that, if one were
“filled with the Spirit,” one could see entire sanctification in these
passages, whereas the unsanctified were blind to the biblical truth.
in the absence of good exegetical work that could have provided a strong
foundation if properly employed, experience itself became the source of
understanding about experience. If one reads the numerous periodicals of the
early Holiness movement, one would find a plethora of testimonies and
biographies of spiritual journeys, all designed to enforce the idea of a second
great experience in the life of the person. These became the paradigms that were
preached as normative for all believers.
is significant here is that the form of experience that came to be widely
claimed as normative was derived from frontier revivalism. In the late 19th
century the holiness proponents adopted the methods of the campmeeting and
frontier revivals as means for the promotion of holiness. This type of
experience was generally very emotional and traumatic and both conversions and
sanctifications reflected this characteristic. This is not to say that this type
of experience was inauthentic, but simply that it was a natural expression of a
particular cultural ethos, as many studies have demonstrated.
needs to be emphasized that scriptural support is not lacking for the authentic
holiness message. But the deep suspicion about scholarly biblical work (see
Tracy’s comment above) resulted in not being exposed to the best of biblical
studies that could have provided solid underpinning for the essence of the truth
of sanctification in the Christian life. With the passing of time and
significant cultural changes, the way people make meaning also changes and the
nature of experience shifts. One can almost identify precisely the time of such
a shift within the history of the American Holiness Movement. It came with World
War II when, among other things,
Theological Work. A second consideration
concerns the nature of theology. Contrary to some perceptions, theology,
especially theology of Christian experience, is not reality but simply a model
of reality. Quite frequently such models take on a life of their own and
come to function like Francis Bacon’s “Idols of the Mind,” particularly
what he called the “Idol of the Theater.” They come to stand in the way of
simple analogy might throw more light on this point. A theological structure may
be viewed either as a blueprint or a hypothesis. These are essentially
different. A blueprint functions to determine the size, shape, and structure of
a house. What is built is required to conform to the previously drawn pattern.
By contrast, a hypothesis (as an important component of the modern scientific
method) has the nature of tentativeness. On the basis of preliminary experience
a hypothesis is formed and then it undergoes intensive testing to determine its
adequacy in relation to reality. In fact, scientists have told me that the very
nature of the scientific community is to challenge proposed hypotheses by
repeated experimentation. When experience does not support the hypothesis, then
it is changed to conform more closely to reality, not vice versa.
who know John Wesley’s work would recognize that his theology of experience
did not function as a blueprint, but as a hypothesis. Unfortunately, that
approach was reversed among many of his successors, notably with such
influential figures as Adam Clarke who insisted that experience must conform to
these two preliminary observations together, we can see the significance of what
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop referred to as a “credibility gap.” As she said: “Of
all the credibility gaps in contemporary life, none is more real and serious
than that which exists between [certain forms of] Christian, and particularly
Wesleyan, doctrine and everyday human life. . . . We seem to proceed from a
different world of thought when preaching doctrine than when we preach
is easy enough to construct theological houses in which each part fits neatly
together, complete consistency between words and ideas may be made to exist, yet
few if anyone actually lives in that house. Many pastors have ceased to invite
people to live in that house because so few seem to feel “at home” there. Of
such, one may say, as has been said of the grand system of philosophy of Hegel
by the end of the 19th century, “nothing has been disproved, everything has
observations move us from analysis to this simple prognosis: We can either
mummify the blueprint or modify the hypothesis. Is there a way forward,
theologically, for today’s Holiness movement? I believe there is and I want to
hypothetically suggest that it may be found in certain themes in Wesley that
have not been centrally cultivated in the modern Holiness movement, but
nonetheless have come to expression in a contemporary model that has been used
by certain Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas, Bruce Birch, Larry
Rasmussen and others, namely that Christian ethics should be viewed in terms of virtue
two themes in Wesley that come into place here are, first, what Hauerwas has
referred to as “Wesley’s insistence on the empirical character of Christian
convictions,” by which he means that “Christianity, for Wesley, is about
changed lives and any belief that does not serve that end held little interest
It should be recognized that Wesley’s very definition of sanctification as
“a real change” indicated the truth of this observation. He always
understood sanctification in ethical ways. Change was understood empirically.
How crucial this qualification is for a doctrine of holiness may be seen by
noting how the successors of Wesley became preoccupied with cultic language that
obviated the necessity of empirical change.
that speaks of “cleansing” and “purity,” while biblical in origin, is
also cultic in origin and became the dominant idiom among American holiness
theologians. This can be seen clearly by reading H. Orton Wiley’s section on
“entire sanctification” where the near exclusive use of “cleansing”
language appears. The problem here is that the use of this language does not
necessarily retain the empirically ethical element, as was the case with the
normed biblical use and Wesley’s terminology. One can speak of an experience
of “purity of heart” and “cleansing from sin” in such a way as to result
in a divorce between “inner, inaccessible experience” and empirical ethical
transformation. The same thing may be said of the dominant paradigm introduced
into holiness theology by Phoebe Palmer. It too places us squarely in the
context of ceremonial holiness.
second theme from Wesley is directly related to a paradigm shift that he,
himself, effected. He was seeking to provide a conceptual model in order to make
intelligible his teaching about Christian perfection as a present possibility.
In both Catholic and Protestant thought, sanctification had generally been
thought of in terms of the law, and still is in popular evangelicalism.
Particularly in Protestant theology, it is taught that the faith that is the
basis for justification will manifest itself in good works. At least with Calvin
this meant an increasing conformity to the law. But, in all cases, this model
led unerringly to the conclusion that “entire sanctification” was impossible
in this life and Calvin was careful to emphasize this point in the context of
some beautiful descriptions of the life of holiness. Hence, Wesley had to
interpret sanctification according to a different paradigm if his teaching was
apparently first discovered this paradigm in reading four works early in his
Christian pilgrimage: Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and
Dying, Thomas a’Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and William Law’s Christian
Perfection and Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. From the first two in
particular he came to see the importance of “simplicity of intention and
purity of affection.” He shifted the emphasis on sanctification from
law-keeping to intentionality and this came to focus in terms of “love.”
Thus he came to uniformly define “entire sanctification” or “Christian
perfection” as “loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
for and clarification of this paradigm comes from an unexpected source, St.
Thomas Aquinas. Historically, love and knowledge had been understood as
correlatives. Perfect love was possible only on the basis of perfect knowledge.
In this light, Thomas suggests three possibilities for “perfection” in this
Loving God for all He is worth. Perfect love for God would depend upon
perfect knowledge of God. This degree of love is possible for God alone, since
He alone knows or comprehends himself with this degree of completeness.
God for all we are worth. Since our full capacity for knowledge will exist only
in the life to come, this too is excluded from present possibility.
is a third sort of perfection that excludes “everything contrary to the motive
or movement of love for God.” This third sort of perfection is possible in
this life in two modes: “in the exclusion from the will of anything
contradictory to love, that is, mortal sin, and in the will’s rejection of
anything that prevents the disposition of the soul toward God from being
this makes clear that “perfection” does not mean that less than perfect
feelings, motives, or dispositions may not rise up within one. It certainly does
not mean, as E. Stanley Jones uncharacteristically taught, that in entire
sanctification the subconscious is cleansed. It does mean that when the
less-than-perfect motives and dispositions present themselves to us from within,
we are aware of the fact that they fall short of the “mind that was in
Christ” and will that they not be present.
might note incidentally that some holiness teachers have recognized the presence
of these, but have attempted to avoid the implications involved by seeking to
make a distinction between matters that arise from within and those suggestions
that come to us from without. This is usually described in terms of temptation.
In fact, this is a distinction without a difference. Who can distinguish
“temptations” in such a fashion? No one since all such motions, without
exception, are felt or experienced “within.”
to the contemporary ethicists named above, the concept of “character”
suggests that the form and structure of our lives express certain configurations
of action, affection, and responsibility. Character is reflected in the tendency
to act, feel, and think in certain definable ways. Generally speaking,
ethical character refers to the sum and range of specifically moral qualities an
individual or community possesses. This means that there are certain normative
dispositions that are characterized as virtues. Virtues may be defined as
dispositions that comprise persistent attitudes or “habits” of the heart and
mind that dispose one to a consistency of certain action and expression. The
cultivation of virtue has traditionally been the aim of character formation.
addition to dispositions or virtues, two other factors have been identified as
basic structural elements that make up character: perception and
intention. We may summarize in this way: “virtue” refers to the
affective aspect of human life; “perception” refers to the cognitive aspect;
and “intentionality” expresses the volitional aspect. In the moral language
of character, perception is more than simple observation. It involves the
selective internalization and integration of events, thereby giving shape to the
way people experience events and render them meaningful. The role of perception
is important because the subject matter of character is in essence the self in
relation to the perceived world, including God, the other person, and the earth.
It might be immediately recognized that this encompasses the parameters of the imago
dei as identified by exegeting the biblical texts, and which Randy Maddox
argues is Wesley’s own conception.
When sanctification is properly perceived as the “renewal of persons in the
image of God” (Wesley) and the paradigm for this ideal is the person of
Christ, the crucial significance of perception is apparent.
is an important consideration in spiritual maturation and is reinforced by the
frequent scriptural references to “knowledge” as a component of growth in
second element of moral character is intention. Intentions consist of
“expressions of character which show aim, direction, purpose; they express the
volitional side of character.”
“Presupposing a degree of self-determination, intention expresses purpose and
gives direction to choice. Intention builds upon free choice and thus provides a
basis for ethical accountability. More than discrete acts of the will,
intentions provide coherence to the decisions and actions of an individual or
community. They are by nature ‘goal-oriented determinations.’ In short,
through intention, the language of character casts the self as having duration
and growth, the self in formation.”
see three major implications of this analysis for the theology of holiness. They
will be summarily stated without extensive elaboration here.
Implication One. The emphasis on
“choice” resists the reduction of the moral to the magical and addresses the
concern expressed in an insightful quote from Mildred Wynkoop in which she is
emphasizing the moral character of a relational vs. a substantival
interpretation of spiritual experience:
God acts toward man apart from his thinking and choice; if salvation is
“applied” to man by a supernatural alteration of his mind, body, psyche,
‘deeper down’ than his conscious life, where he cannot be held responsible;
if man can expect a ‘psychological mutation’ so that he no longer needs to
feel the full force of temptation, then—though God is a personal Being and man
is a person—“personal relationship” is a fiction, biblical salvation is a
statement is made in the context of insisting on a “moral” understanding of
holiness rather than a “magical” one. As she says, “In the Christian way
of thinking, religion without ethical consequences would be sterile and
At the practical level, Wynkoop’s perspective provides a barrier to the
all-too-common claims to inner “cleansing” accompanied by unethical behavior
Implication Two. A viable model is provided
for addressing what has been both an enduring and a plaguing problem through the
history of the Holiness movement, the problem of conceptualizing how
sanctification can be both “crisis” and “process.” The traditional
formulations have had great difficulty in avoiding the collapsing into one or
the other. “Intention” presupposes a “set direction” and at the same
time a continuous pursuit of this direction without needing to claim some sort
of completion in terms of static perfection. Albert Outler has distinguished
between the idea of “perfected perfection,” which he claims has been
advocated by some of Wesley’s followers, and “perfectible perfection,”
which he insists is Wesley’s view. The latter is obviously the only viable
claim and it makes sense in terms of “intentionality.”
people have often quoted Kierkegaard’s famous dictum that “purity of heart
is to will one thing,” but I suspect that we have failed to take seriously the
full implications of this statement. This proposal does so. If “purity” is
interpreted in this “intentional” way, then Outler’s rather severe
criticism of the dictum that distinguishes purity from maturity as a way of
speaking of moment and process can be obviated and the concept has real
“Virtue” or disposition (the affective realm) is the result of the
maturation of character as the outcome of the interplay between perception and
Implication Three. The third implication is
closely related to the second. Certainly it is not unrealistic claim to hold to
the possibility of a focused intentionality which may or may not exclude the
uprising of less than perfect feelings or motives or attitudes as well as
occasional (even repeated) falling short of “perfection,” but which wills
that such negatives not be present and continues to pursue the more perfect
actualization of the ideal on which the total person is focused.
way of stating this is instructive, partly because it places it squarely within
the context of the central structure of New Testament theology:
can provide a way of explicating the kind of determination of the believer in
Christ without necessarily destroying the tension between the “already but not
yet” quality of the Christian life. The idea of character, while not removing
this tension, will at least provide a way of making the Christian life
intelligible as a definite form of life that results from the commitments
distinctive to being a Christian. It can do this because it makes clear the kind
of orientation and direction a man’s life acquires through God’s
determination without isolating that orientation as a separate entity from the
source that provides its basis and substance.
that Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:12–14 using the dynamic language of
“perfection” (telios) “perfectly” reproduces this pattern. The
perfection he claims (focused direction for his life [“this one thing I
do”]) is characterized by the intentionality of unswervingly pursuing the
perfection he denies but has perceived to be proper goal of all Christian
existence. Here is a preachable and possible version of experience that
articulates in a contemporary idiom what we have traditionally (but perhaps
inadequately) referred to as entire sanctification.
perceptive reader may have discerned an important omission in the above analysis
and prognosis, the element of the work of the Spirit or transforming grace. I am
not suggesting a psychological reorientation merely, but a controlling focus
that can only occur when enabled by Divine assistance and then functions in the
realm of the moral rather than the magical. Here is a programmatic proposal (a
hypothesis) for further exploration and testing in the fires of human experience
which is, after all, the acid test of all theological interpretations.
Keith Drury, “The Death of the Holiness
Movement,” published in the God’s Bible School Gazette, Spring,
For an analysis of one of the more obvious
examples of these shifts, see Victor P. Reasoner,
“The American Holiness Movement’s Paradigm Shift Concerning Holiness,”
Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 31, Number 2, Fall, 1996.
“Foreword” to H. Ray Dunning, A Layman’s
Guide to Sanctification (K. C.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City,
Stephen J. Lennox, “Biblical Interpretation in
the American Holiness Movement: 1875–1920,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Drew
Robert Chiles, Theological Transitions in
American Methodism, 1790–1925 (N. Y.: Abingdon Press, 1965), 16.
Adam Clarke, Christian Theology (N. Y.: T.
Mason and G. Lane, 1840), 206–9.
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop,
A Theology of Love (K. C.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City,
“Characterizing Perfection: Second Thoughts on Character and
Sanctification,” Wesleyan Theology Today, ed. by Theodore Runyon
(Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1985), 251.
See Paul Bassett and W. M. Greathouse,
Exploring Christian Holiness, The Historical Development (K.
C.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1985), 137–138.
William P. Brown, Character in Crisis (
Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville:
Kingswood Books, 1994), 68.
Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen, Bible and
Ethics in the Christian Life, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg,
1989), quoted in Brown, Character in Crisis, 8.
Brown, Character in Crisis, 8.
A Theology of Love, 169.
Albert Outler, Theology
in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Tidings, 1975), 80.
Stanley Hauerwas, Character
and the Christian Life (San Antonio: Trinity University Press,