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CHRISTIAN PERFECTION: TOWARD A NEW PARADIGM

 

H. Ray Dunning

 

It 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,[1] 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 the case.

In 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 Holiness Movement.[2]

 

Past Paradigm Shifts

 

The 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.

One of the important paradigm shifts that has taken place in the Holiness movement in the United States has been a shift from the Authority of Scripture to the Authority of Experience. Wesley Tracy, in an introduction to A Layman’s Guide to Sanctification highlighted this shift in a dramatic way that also explains why it took place.

A hundred years ago our spiritual ancestors who led the American holiness movement saw the world they inherited crash in pieces at their feet.

What they had always believed about the Bible crumbled before the onslaught of European biblical criticism.

What they had always believed about their nation had just a generation before been shattered by the Civil War.

What they had always believed about the Christian faith withered before the attacks of what was then called “theological modernism.”

What 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.

What 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 declared.

And 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.

From 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.

This 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.

They 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.

In 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.

Avoiding 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 followers.

The 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 in Wesleyanism.[3]

As 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.

1. 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.[4]

Thus, 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.

What 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.

It 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, America moved from being largely a rural culture to an urban culture. The song that was popular then has more truth than poetry: “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” The incisive words of Robert Chiles in his book Theological Transitions in American Methodism are really appropriate here. He observes: “It seems clear that a particular formulation cannot be imposed successfully on a religious disposition to which it is essentially alien.”[5] Whatever we may conclude about the demise of the modern Holiness movement, there is a consensus that it is presently suffering an identity crisis.

2.  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 Truth.

A 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.

All 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 the “pattern.”[6]

Putting 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 ‘practical’ sermons.”[7]

It 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 been abandoned.”

 

Reorienting Our Thinking

 

These 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 and character.

The 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 for him.”[8] 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.

Language 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.

The 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 to stand.

He 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.”

Support 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 life:

 

A.  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.

 

B.  Loving 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.

 

C.  There 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 total.”[9]

 

Practically, 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.

One 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.”

According 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.

In 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

This is an important consideration in spiritual maturation and is reinforced by the frequent scriptural references to “knowledge” as a component of growth in grace (see 2 Peter 3:18 ). Many treatments of the theme of spiritual growth are developed by drawing parallels to organic growth.  But the essential elements in organic growth are external to the plant itself, in a word, environment.  Spiritual growth is radically different and, as with all personal development, entails an internal dimension that necessarily includes a concept of “adulthood.” From the biblical perspective, it is clear that the epitome of adulthood is to be found in Jesus Christ, the only “full grown” person from a spiritual perspective. This means that perception, or knowledge, of the Christ-pattern of adulthood is an essential ingredient in sanctification.

The 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.”[12]  “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.”[13]

 

Major Implications

 

I see three major implications of this analysis for the theology of holiness. They will be summarily stated without extensive elaboration here.

1. 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:

 

If 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 myth.[14]

 

This 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 meaningless.”[15] At the practical level, Wynkoop’s perspective provides a barrier to the all-too-common claims to inner “cleansing” accompanied by unethical behavior and attitudes.

2. 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.”

Holiness 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 significance.[16] “Virtue” or disposition (the affective realm) is the result of the maturation of character as the outcome of the interplay between perception and intention.

3. 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.

Hauerwas’ way of stating this is instructive, partly because it places it squarely within the context of the central structure of New Testament theology:

 

Character 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.[17]

 

Recall 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.

The 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.

 

 

Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online

Wesley.nnu.edu

 



[1] Keith Drury, “The Death of the Holiness Movement,” published in the God’s Bible School Gazette, Spring, 1994.

[2] 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.

[3] “Foreword” to H. Ray Dunning, A Layman’s Guide to Sanctification (K. C.:  Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1991), 9–11.

[4] Stephen J. Lennox, “Biblical Interpretation in the American Holiness Movement: 1875–1920,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Drew University, 1992).

[5] Robert Chiles, Theological Transitions in American Methodism, 1790–1925 (N. Y.: Abingdon Press, 1965), 16.

[6] Adam Clarke, Christian Theology (N. Y.: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1840), 206–9.

[7] Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love  (K. C.:  Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1972), 39.

[8] Stanley Hauerwas, “Characterizing Perfection:  Second Thoughts on Character and Sanctification,” Wesleyan Theology Today, ed. by Theodore Runyon (Nashville:  Kingswood Books, 1985), 251.

[9] See Paul Bassett and W. M. Greathouse, Exploring Christian Holiness,  The Historical Development (K. C.:  Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1985), 137–138.

[10] William P. Brown, Character in Crisis ( Grand Rapids :  William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. , 1996), 7–8.

[11] Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville:  Kingswood Books, 1994), 68.

[12] Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1989), quoted in Brown, Character in Crisis, 8.

[13] Brown, Character in Crisis, 8.

[14] Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, 169.

[15] Ibid., 173.

[16] Albert Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville:  Tidings, 1975), 80.

[17] Stanley Hauerwas,  Character and the Christian Life (San Antonio:  Trinity University Press, 1985), 183.