Friday, July 24, 2009

Booth Seminar with Tom Noble

I have just concluded two enjoyable days at Booth College reflecting on John Wesley's Doctrine of Holiness with Dr. Tom Noble of Nazarene Theological Seminary. What follows is an attempt at a precis of what he presented. The exposition was punctuated throughout by a series of thirty-one well-chosen direct quotations from Wesley's writings which I'm not going to reproduce here, but trust me it was very well grounded in the primary sources. What exactly was Wesley's doctrine of holiness and is it coherent? There are a number of hurdles that must be overcome in order to answer these questions. The first is that Wesley's writings were occasional in nature; they were written to address particular occasions rather than being systematic statements of Christian doctrine. The largest treatment of the topic is The Plain Account of Christian Perfection which is a pastiche of materials from across his whole career, hence there is a certain lack of coherence to it. His doctrine developed over time so one must give careful consideration to when a given statement was made andin what context. A further complicating factor is that we come to a reading of Wesley with other theological sytstems in mind and it is difficult for us to lay those aside and read Wesley on his own terms. Finally there is the matter of semantics. We must define terms in order to reach understanding and Wesley uses his terms with a distinct meaning that must be identified. It's important to remember that theological definition is a kind of map of the Christian life. The map is not the journey itself.

Wesley's theologiccal heritage is a broad one. It begins with the Fathers especially the Ante-Nicene writers of the "primitive church." Clement of Alexandria speaks of two levels of perfection - every Christian is "perfect" in the sense that he or she is perfectly a Christian (one cannot be half a Christian) and yet there is a higher degree of perfection that awaits the believer. The anonymous writer "Macarius" speaks of a holy flame that purifies from sin. Augustine, [pictured at left] (not one normally associated with Wesley in a positive way) spoke of love (amor) as either concupiscentia or caritas. We either love the things of the world or we love the things of God. It is a matter of how our love is directed. "Turn the waters flowing into the drain into the garden." It was admitted that there is no direct influence of Augustine on Wesley, in the sense of a paper trail that demonstrates Wesley's close engagement with Augustine's writings. Rather, as the theologian of love par excellence, Augustine's theology profoundly influences the entire Western tradition and Wesley is a part of that tradition, especially in his emphasis on loving God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Moving beyond the patristic period we may consider Bernard's four levels of perfection in love, and Thomas a Kempis' "purity of intention," the latter having a particular emphasis on Wesley's thought. Through the Moravians Wesley discovered the Lutheran emphasis on justification by grace through faith, and he draws on the Pietist and Puritan emphases within the Protestant tradition.

Next we turned to the development of Wesley's doctrine. He was first captured (well before his Aldersgate experience) by the goal of Christian perfection. Only later did he grasp justification by faith whereupon there was a shift from an emphasis on a steady obedience to God's law as the means to perfection to an emphasis on the grace that flows from Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Then he combined the two in what George Croft Cell famously referred to as "an original and unique synthesis of the Protestant ethic of grace with the Catholic ethic of holiness." Tom Noble suggests that a better way to think of it is as a synthesis of the Protestant Evangelical doctrine of justification by grace through faith and the Patristic and Medieval doctrine of holiness [this sounds like the same thing to me so I may have missed something here. During question time we also discussed the possibility that the Eastern idea of theosis has been seen by some as an important contributing factor in this synthesis].

How exactly did Wesley use the term "sanctification"? In a number of ways. Sometimes the word means "initial sanctification" or the "regeneration" that accompanies the new birth. At other times it means "gradual" sanctification and at other times "entire sanctification." To avoid confusion Wesley recommended that the qualifier "entire" should always be used if a second work of grace beyond the new birth was in view. The problem was he didn't always follow his own rule, leading to some confusion. Justification effects a relative change; sanctification (that which comes at the new birth) a real change. The word "relative" here should be understood in the sense of "relational" - a change in relationship toward God. Nineteenth-century Holiness teachers, contrary to Wesley, almost always used the word "sanctification" to refer to "entire sanctification." One is "saved" and then later "sanctified." But this has a tendency to obscure the breaking of the power of sin that takes place in the new birth (initial sanctification). [As an aside Dr. Noble expressed the view that the doctrinal expressions of our nineteenth-century forebears in the American holiness movement were more culturally conditioned than Wesley's in his own day.]

One of Wesley's key texts is 1 John 3:6,9 given here in the Authorised (King James) Version, the standard translation of the day. "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him...Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." How can this text be reconciled with Christian experience? It is in the context of dealing with this passage that Wesley comes up with his well-known definition of sin as "voluntary transgression." The term "transgression" is used by Wesley in two ways - 1) voluntary transgression - "sin properly so called" and 2) involuntary transgression. It is only the first that is in view in 1 John 3. Real Christians do not deliberately go out and break God's commandments. Their lives are marked by obedience. But we are not free from involuntary trangressions so long as we are in this body. These are not properly speaking "sins" (in that they are not voluntary trangressions of a known law of God) yet still they fall short of absolute perfection so they must be daily confessed and they require (and receive) the continuing cleansing of the shed blood of Christ. John's declaration that the believer cannot sin (in the first and proper sense of a willful trangressionn) is a conditional impossibility. So long as he relies on Christ he cannot live in a manner that denies Christ's Lordship.

The intial sanctification that is concommitant with the new birth is followed by the "gradual work" of mortificatio (putting sin to death) and vivificatio (bringing the Christian graces to life). Different Christians are at different stages in this process. Some, in the language of John's first epistle, are "little children," others "young men", still other "fathers." The goal of the complete mortification of inbred sin is possible in this life (contra Calvin)but it is not something attained in a "holiness meeting" in which a holiness sermon is addressed to a group of lukewarm Christians with otherwise no previous interest in the pursuit of perfection. Rather it comes in the context of a lifelong pursuit of perfect love for God and neighbour to serious Christians who are availing themselves of all of the classical Christian disciplines. Mountain tops are not reached in a few easy steps but after a long and arduous ascent.

"Entire sanctification" is the act of God bringing the believer to perfection in love. It is not something to be sought for its own sake, not an end in itself but the means to the end of perfect love. Wesley's focus is on the result rather than the means, whereas the nineteenth-century holiness movement tended to focus on the means (the "moment" or "instant" of entire sanctification). Wesley never used the word "crisis" in reference to entire sanctification (that is a nineteenth-century term), though he did speak of the "instantaneousness" of the gift. Nor did he ever use "experience" as a noun, that is, he never spoke of "getting the experience" of entire sanctification. Instead he spoke of loving God more and more until God was loved perfetcly.

What then in this "perfect love"? Wesley employed three models. 1) The Psychological model - purity of intention. 2) The Christological model - "all the mind that was in Christ Jesus" and 3)The Ethical [or Love] model - the great commandment to love God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength and the neighbour as onself. Entire sanctification is not something different in kind from the holiness received in the new birth but different in degree. The heart filled with love has no room for sin. It has experienced the "expulsive power of a new [or greater] affection." It is not the rocket propulsion that sends a spacecraft to the moon, but the moon's own gravitational pull. The spacecraft has been freed by the earth's gravitational pull and captured by the moon's until it is drawn into a safe landing. So entire sanctification frees the heart from sin's gravitational pull until it is captured by the gravitational pull of perfect love.

Whether or not this change is instantaneous is not a question Wesley answers dogmatically. He concedes [in The Plain Account of Christian Perfection] that an instantaneous change had been wrought in some believers. Others canot perceive the exact moment in which this change was made nonetheless they do now love God perfectly. "It is often difficult to perceive the instant when a man dies; yet there is an instant in which life ceases...And if even sin ceases, there must be a last moment of its existence and a first moment of our deliverance from it." Still, in the sermon "On Patience" he declares that the Scriptures are silent on this question and that every person may hold his own opinion so long as others are allowed to do the same. "Be the change instantaneous or gradual, see that you never rest till it is wrought in your soul..."

It is also important to establish what entire sanctification is not. It is not final salvation, legal perfection, or freedom from "involuntary transgressions." It is not a holiness independent of Christ for even the most fully sanctified must rely daily on Christ's shed blood. It is not "static," not a permanent state from which it impossible to lapse. Nor is it a proud or self-sufficient holiness, for none know their "imperfections" so well as the "perfect." It is not the first reception of the Spirit for the Spirit is received at the new birth.

Wesley's doctrine of holiness is not a straightjacket for determining theological orthodoxy. It is a map, a guide, and like all theological language it is analogical, built on metaphors not exact correspondence. Even so it is an approach which is coherent, challenging and richly satisfying.

Above: Some participants at the Tom Noble Seminar (l to r): Sing-Chee Tan, Tom Noble, Steve Wright, Glen O'Brien (photo courtesy of Heather Wright's Facebook page.)


Heather said...

thank you for this Glen... I have only skimmed through but will come back for a closer look... I really appreciate that you have done this... very helpful to me. I really, really enjoyed that seminar... would have loved to have come back on Friday, but I already had a very, very important date. Heather

Adam Couchman said...


Thanks for a great summary of what was an excellent presentation of what John Wesley actually said.


BJ said...

Hi Glen - this was really helpful - we had Tom Noble here for THE STREAM but I could be at all his lectures so this filled in the gaps nicely.


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