Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Recent Books Read on Holiness

What follows are reviews of books I read in preparation for teaching an Intensive unit in April at Booth College called Doctrine of Sanctification: Biblical Perspectives.

Kent E. Brower and Andy Johnson, eds. Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) is a good collection of scholarly articles from Wesleyan theologians, though like all such anthologies the quality of the offerings varies somewhat. I had considered this as a text for the unit but thought the title indicated too narrow a focus. As it turns out it probably would have made a worthy textbook. The material is predominantly biblical theology, so there is little by way of confessional theology here. Those looking for uniquely Wesleyan insights into the doctrine of sanctification are not likely to find them here. It's a pity in a way that we are seeing Wesleyan theologians doing such fine scholarly work but not, at least not in this collection, doing much more than apologise for the inadequacies of their own tradition. Where is the creative articulation of Wesleyan theology that reads the Scriptures in a traditioned yet at the same time open-ended way that will advance the tradition? It has often been said that Wesleyan theology is less "systematic" and more "biblical." If that is the case why are the most fruitful and creative Wesleyan theologians all systematic and historical theologians (Maddox, Collins, et al?). Is there a biblical theologian in the Wesleyan tradition? Tell me if you have an answer to that question because I'm still looking for a good textbook for this course!

Stephen C. Barton, Holiness Past and Present (London: T & T Clark, 2003). OK I haven't read all of this book, only the sections on the biblical material. It is clearly however a great collection of essays that indicates just how fertile a field is the topic of holiness in religious studies. It revisits classic theoretical treatments such as Rudolf Otto's concept of "the numinous," deals well with the scriptural material including the recent re-examination of purity laws and their significance, has some good historical essays including David Bebbington on "Holiness in the Evangelical Tradition," and some interesting ethical essays that ground the consideration of holiness in concrete situations. The most interesting insight for me was what Barton calls the "Dislocation and Relocation of Holiness." It shouldn't surprise us that with the arrival of Jesus the meaning of holiness should undergo a revolutionary change. In the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, while there is direct continuity with Old Testament concepts of holiness there is also radical reinvention. For one thing the location of holiness is moved. “Holiness looks different now”; it looks like Jesus. In the holy character of Jesus there is a power present to make holy all who come within its influence. Craig Blomberg refers to this as “contagious holiness” and Kenneth Walters sees the heavenly realm encroaching upon the earthly realm in Jesus so that “where contact with God once meant destruction for any earthly being or object, contact with God in Christ now means sanctification and life.”

Consider here only two of the ways that the ritual impurity of the older code has been invested with an altogether new meaning in the teaching and actions of Jesus. The casting out of a legion of demons from the troubled man of Mark 5:1-20 “expresses something of the sanctifying presence of God in Jesus bringing a new sense of self, not only to the demonised man…but also – if only they would receive it – to a nation possessed by the demons of subjection to imperial Rome.” In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), “true holiness is shown to be a matter, not so much of separation from corpse impurity – the (no doubt legitimate) motivation of the priest and Levite in passing by on the other side…as of acting with compassion toward the poor.”

Though I have only really covered one of the four parts of this book, I look forward to returning to it for what I'm sure will be further worthwhile insights.

David Bebbinton, Holiness in Nineteenth Century England (Paternoster, 2007). Bebbington is perhaps the world’s leading historian of British Evangelicalism and the opportunity of engaging with his lectures on the forms of nineteenth-century Holiness teaching in England is simply too good an opportunity to miss. Though my primary interest in reading this book was in Methodist teaching, the other essays on Keswick, Anglo-Catholic and Reformed teaching provide a broader comparative context into which to place the Wesleyan brand of Holiness teaching. Highly recommended.

David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). This book is an excellent treatment of the New Testament material on sanctification and I used it as one of the texts for the unit. However, I do feel quite ambivalent about its use in that context. While it deals admirably with all of the key texts on sanctification, providing good exegetical studies along the way, it is marred by an apparent need to criticise (and often unfairly) those in the Wesleyan theological tradition. The author will often portray Wesleyans as holding to sinless perfectionism overlooking the nuances of perfectionist teaching within the tradition. Ironically his own findings in discussing certain passages are sometimes fully in line with Wesleyan views. The book is also a critique of the author's own Reformed tradition, at least its Puritan heritage which has placed great stress on holiness as a mark of the elect. The characteristic Puritan stress on "progressive sanctification" (mortification and vivification) the author sees as unhelpful because it places, he says, an unhelpful burden on believers and obscures the completed work of Christ in their lives. Since the New Testament is primarily concerned with the positional holiness of believers we should place the stress on the instantaneousness of sanctification not its progressive features. Christ's death secures believers as the holy ones of God, set apart as belonging to him. That is a completed action that cannot be taken away from or added to. That is all good so far as it goes but Peterson does not do justice to the frequently found imperatives within the New Testament to "perfect holiness in the fear of God," to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received," etc. Believers are "saints" yes, but saints "called to be holy." Holiness in the New Testament must be understood as holding the positional and the experiential together. This was something Calvin certainly understood and it is a pity that this particular Reformed theologian seems to have departed from that emphasis here. I wish there were a book that did as good a job as this at interpreting the New Testament material on sanctification without the need to engage in an unnecessary and often unfounded polemic against Wesleyan theology.

John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM Press, 2003). This is a book of considerable depth despite being only one hundred pages long. Systematic theologians have not always been strong on the doctrine of holiness so Webster's contribution is very welcome. This is "confessional" theology, confident in God's Trinitarian self-revelation. It bears the characteristically Reformed and Barthian emphasis on what is usually called "positonal holiness" and also shares Barth's nervousness about the piety of the sanctified. Though its dominant note is positional holiness it avoids any antimonian implication by stressing the genuine godliness of the elect. As well as covering the Holiness of God, the Holiness of the Church and the Holiness of the Believer, perhaps the most fascinating chapter is the first on the Holiness of Theology itself. It will need to be read slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully, but this book makes a great contribution to contemporary discussion on the doctrine of holiness and is highly recommended. Facebook users can also read my colleague Adam Couchman's review here.

Michael Lodhal and Thomas J. Oord, eds. Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2005). This is a fairly lightweight book that is accurate in its central thesis that love is the organizing centre of the doctrine of holiness, but weak in that it does not provide a solid theological treatment of the topic. The stress on a Trinitarian view of holiness is welcome but not sufficiently developed here. The book is aimed at a general lay readership and is pitched reasonably well at that audience I suppose but both authors are capable of much more serious writing. It is a book typical of the crisis in the Wesleyan-Holiness churches over the doctrine of sanctification. Having given up on the simplistic formulas of nineteenth century second blessing formualtions of the teaching, no adequate substitute has yet been found. Much that is said here might be found in a book by an evangelical of any particular theological tradition or none. There are a few distinctively Wesleyan insights but the tradition still awaits a contemporary formulation of its core doctrine. The reading lists at the end of each chapter provide valuable clues for further reading. PS Does a book that is 140 pages long really need two forwards and two prefaces?

Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, eds. The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids: Eedrmans, 2008). I have only really dipped into a few of the essays here (those on specifically biblical themes) but thought I'd include it here as a significant new release in the field that will probably be worth revisiting. A more adequate review may follow a closer read.


Sing Chee said...

This is a bit of an aside, but what do you do when you read academic books? Do you take notes as you go along? How do you recall quoteable quotes or phrases? Just interested in your "archival" system :P

Glen O'Brien said...

I used to underline and mark up my books with notes in the margins but then I found when I went to make photocopies for handouts and readers and such I didn't have a clean copy. Now I will often take notes on a blank page at the back of the book for future reference. Can't say I have a very consistent "archival system" though. I tend to rely a lot on memory.

Sing Chee said...

I realised that too with marking book pages. I've resorted to using an A4 paper folded into quarters as a bookmark, and writing on it as I go along (since I borrow lots of books). Just been wondering how you remember things like that quote from Mark Twain on the previous post :P


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