Friday, March 31, 2006

A Century of Holiness Theology

Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene since age 3, I became familiar with the typical modus operandi that seemed to permeate the local Nazarene churches in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s interesting how the congregations on my district in Ohio would typically operate in two modes: and by this I distinguish between “normal” time and “revival” time. Naturally the “normal” time is that between the typical biannual “revival” weeks where a special preacher would hold a series of meetings. It was only during these meetings that I remember hearing mention of “entire sanctification” preached in the local church. But why was this covered only during revival meetings? Was this concept, which was explicitly stated in our Articles of Faith, not central enough to the work and witness of the local body to warrant a purposeful expression from the pulpit on a regular basis?

Mark Quanstrom’s A Century of Holiness Theology has shed some light on the doctrinal formulation and reformulation that has gone on during the twentieth century in the Church of the Nazarene. In this work, Quanstrom details the expression of entire sanctification Church of the Nazarene’s first 100 years of existence as a denomination. He begins naturally with the original conception born with the founders of the denomination as influenced by the “holiness movement” theology of the nineteenth century, then progresses along with the denomination’s life and trials throughout the tumultuous 1900s. Along the way, life and experience yields various thinkers such as Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and H. R. Dunning to begin to point to a reinterpretation of entire sanctification in light of Wesley’s theology, such as that which defines holiness in terms of relationships rather than the elimination of “substantive sin” within a person. Naturally this leads to serious debate over how to state the “distinctive” Nazarene doctrine as denominational leaders are split on the issue; many who favor various shades of the new expressions mixed with the traditional, but some such as Richard S. Taylor were determined to keep the original formulation in tact. At the end of Quanstrom’s Century we leave off with a sort of indeterminate optimism; while the latest meeting of Nazarene theologians and leadership has not yet yielded a homogenous definition of entire sanctification, we see that this gives us no call to abandon the work that God has begun in the Church of the Nazarene.

All throughout this book I noted that the leaders of the Church of the Nazarene were reacting out of concern that our “distinctive doctrine” of entire sanctification was in danger of losing its relevance, perhaps it’s “saltiness” to adapt the Matthew language. But this begs a question: why is a “distinctive” doctrine so important, how about an “effective” doctrine? It seems in carrying out the work of Christ’s Kingdom, we as disciples of Christ would want to seek a doctrine that best enables we as His body to do the work that honors the Father by the enabling of the Spirit. So, why does the preoccupation with the distinctiveness of our doctrine come to the forefront of these reported discussions? Is it that important that our theological identity be that distinguishable from other denominations for us to carry on as a body of believers? It seems that we would want to make sure first and foremost that our ideal theology would be that which enables effective Kingdom work through the best Scriptural, historical, experiential, and traditional perspectives to our avail.

Another question that comes to mind: If the twenty-first century is the dawning of a new morning, what shall our “new song” be? Quanstrom’s book proper ends with “Holiness unto the Lord” a central Nazarene hymn that sticks out in my mind as what we sang as ordination candidates marched into the sanctuary at my district center a few years back. Now, there is no way I would ever advocate the abandonment of this hymn since it’s message is probably more applicable to the future of a “holiness people” than it has been to our past since I have great hope and optimism toward our emerging new understanding of biblical holiness. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if we are really intentional in our hope that we will find a comprehensive, relevant, and effective theology by which to fervently continue ministry under the banner of “holiness”. In other words, I hope that we work and pray expectantly for our “new song” from the Lord, by which many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord (Ps 40:3 NRSV). Since we’ve come to the point where the traditional modus operandi of the “crisis moment” or “altar” emphasis has effectively faded from view, and given the fact that I’ve been very intrigued by theological discussions by our leaders, I am certain that God will lead the way for a holiness emphasis to continue among those of us who yearn to see God work mightily in our midst while doing the work of the Cross.

So upon reflection, my initial impression of the Church of the Nazarene was that an entirely sanctified life was that of what I’ll call anhedonistic piety, marked more often by that which one denies oneself than rather than that which one is afforded and empowered through grace. It seems that our efforts in the twenty-first century would want to continue to emphasize and reflect the latter, namely, a vision of Christ coming into the world and showing us the way to advocate divine change through unabated obedience, faith, and love. At any rate, I would also hope that we would arrive at a doctrine that reflects what the Church of the Nazarene wants to become, and one that is identifiable not only from our theological discussions, seminars, and sermons but from the witness and work of Nazarene congregations wherever they may be.