Friday, February 05, 2010

Contagious Holiness

Craig L. Blomburg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005). Notwithstanding its title, this book is not really about holiness (though its central insight on that topic is invaluable). Rather it is a book about the social and theological significance of meals in the Bible. The author sets out the current debate over whether Jesus' meals with sinners involved genuinely wicked people or simply those who did not live up to the overly particular standards of ritual purity laid down by the Scribes and Pharisees. To arrive at his findings he surveys meals in the Old Testament, Jewish and Graeco-Roman meals in the inter-testamental period, and finally the core texts in the Gospels that deal with Jesus' meals with "sinners." The sixth and final chapter discusses some contemporary applications of Blomberg's finding that the practice of Jesus eating with sinners subverted the rules of ritual purity so that far from Jesus becoming contaminated by contact with sinners, it was they who became "contaminated" by contact with him! His holines rubbed off on them as they came into contact with his transformative presence.

It should not 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 (see Stephen C. Barton, “Dislocating and Relocating Holiness: A New Testament Study,” in Stephen C. Barton., ed. Holiness Past and Present (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2003), 197-98. ) In the holy character of Jesus there is a contagious power present to make holy all who come within its influence. Kenneth Walters sees this as the heavenly realm encroaching upon the earthly realm in the person of 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.” (Kenneth L. Walters, Sr., “Holiness in New Testament Perspective,” in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, eds. The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008), 52.

Historically the church has "fenced" the Lord's Table so that entrance to fellowship with Jesus has been carefully guarded. The early church practice was to limit access to the Eucharist to the baptised. The Puritans looked for evidence of a conversion experience and this remains the usual practice among Evangelicals. Methodists have often taken an "open table" approach based on John Wesley's conviction that the Lord’s Supper was not only a confirming but also a converting ordinance. (His own mother was brought to full assurance at Communion). He welcomed “penitents” (what we today might call “seekers”) to come to the Table and thus take a step closer to saving faith. The practice of an “open table” has become a contentious one among some Methodists and a difficult stance to take in an ecumenical context where baptism is normally seen as the rite of entry to the Table, in keeping with the practice of the ancient church. In the argument from Wesley’s practice of inviting people who had not undergone a conversion experience to approach the Table, it is often forgotten that those Wesley addressed were for the most part baptised as infants and could therefore be admitted to the Table as a way of confirming the grace received at baptism in a conscious act of faith. Those who argue for an open table on the basis that Jesus “ate with sinners” and that this is after all, his Table, not ours, make a more persuasive point. Do we exclude for the sake of maintaining clear marks of discipleship? Or do we include for the sake of bearig witness to Jesus' "contagious holiness"? Blomberg's book will be must reading for those who are seeking to answer such questions from a textual basis.

Holiness in the Gospels

In his book, Holiness in the Gospels (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2005) Dr. Kent Brower makes an excellent contribution to the much needed project of establishing a solid exegetical base for Wesleyan perspectives on holiness. Embroiled in a controversy over the use of “Baptism of the Spirit” language in reference to entire sanctification, the late Asbury Seminary professor Robert W. Lyon once wrote: "We must all keep in mind our basic goals in working through Scripture on the matter of Wesleyan doctrine. We are seeking to show that Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection is biblical in substance, though we all need to assert the right to revise, when required by Scripture, his perspective in any number of directions. To be able to make it marketable, we must be able to show that it is biblical. Attempts to define the baptism of the Spirit in ways not in accord with the tradition must be viewed from this angle: they are attempts to set Scripture in perspective, to set aside what is exegetically untenable in order that we – the holiness tradition – might rest our case and proclaim the good news on grounds that will bear the weight." (Robert W. Lyon, “The Baptism of the Spirit – Continued,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 15:2 (Fall 1980), 76-77)

Books like Holiness in the Gospels and Dr. Brower's forthcoming book on Pauline perspectives on holiness contribute admirably to this end. David W. Kendall has noted how odd it should be that the holiness movement has paid little attention to the Gospels as an exegetical basis for the doctrine of entire sanctification. Instead the focus has been on Old Testament themes and images, on the Pauline literature, on the Pentecostal motif of the Book of Acts, and on the theme of “perfect love” drawn from 1 John. (David W. Kendall, “Jesus and a Gospel of Holiness,” in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, eds. The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008), 57.) Yet it is in the Gospels that the call to discipleship is most radically set forth and where the redefinition of holiness in new covenant terms is firmly established.

Those of us who sat under Dr. Brower's teaching at the Inaugural Conference of the Australasian Centre for Wesleyan Studies, held at Booth College in Sydney on 14-15 August 2009, know the high standard of his scholarship. (Dr. Brower is pictured here in the foreground.) This book began as the 2000 Collins Holiness Lectures delivered at Canadian Nazarene University College in Calgary, Alberta. It has also been informed, according to the author's Preface by the experience of teaching courses in the MA course in Aspects of Christian Holiness at the Nazarene Theological College Manchester where Dr. Brower is Vice Principal and Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies. The book has an unusual structure, eschewing the canonical ordering of the books in favour of giving priority (after a helpful chapter on Holiness in the Second Temple Period) to the Gospel of Luke. The author's purpose is Christological, as he purposes to deal first with the humanity of Jesus and then (in John's Gospel) with his divinity. Furthermore, Luke gives special emphasis to the work of the Spirit, a key theme in holiness thought, and to Jesus' interaction with Pharisaism, itself a first century holiness movement. The chapter on John's Gospel takes a welcome Trinitarian approach. Mark's Gospel is then covered with a focus on discipleship. A series of texts from the Sermon on the Mount forms the centrepiece of the chapter on Matthew's Gospel, appropriately culminating, given the purpose and intended audience of the book, with a discussion of Matt 5:48 - "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." A final chapter sets out five "Lessons in the Holy Life" - Christian holiness is 1) centred in the Triune God 2) defined by Jesus 3) communal and personal 4) a journey and 5) present life and future goal.

On a minor point, an odd feature of the book, though I'm sure it is an editorial decision and not the author's, is the continuation of numbering in the endnotes. Instead of the numbering restarting with each chapter, it continues through the length of the entire book from footnote 1 to footnote 367. This is a rather untidy arrangement which I hope the Beacon Hill editors will change.

It is encouraging to see Wesleyan theologians such as Kent Brower working in the fields of biblical studies and biblical theology. We need scholars who will enter into the confessional task of articulating a Wesleyan theology. Too often Wesleyan theologians do fine scholarly work in their fields but do not do much more than apologise for the inadequacies of their own tradition. We need a creative articulation of Wesleyan theology that reads the Scriptures, informed by its own tradition yet at the same time open to fresh exegetical findings 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?).

The current crisis in the Wesleyan-Holiness churches over the doctrine of sanctification cannot be met by giving up the simplistic formulas of the nineteenth century, but finding no adequate substitute. Much that is said in many recent books on holiness by Wesleyan authors might be found in a book by an evangelical of any particular theological tradition. The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition still awaits an adequate contemporary formulation of its core doctrine. (Dr. Brower suggested to me that this may be provided by the forthcoming work of his Colleague Tom Noble.)

If Professor Lyon was correct in alerting us to the need to “set aside what is exegetically untenable in order that we – the holiness tradition – might rest our case and proclaim the good news on grounds that will bear the weight” then systematic and historical theologians in the Wesleyan tradition will have to enter into more vigorous cross-disciplinary dialogue with their colleagues in the field of biblical studies. Dr. Brower will be an important dilaogue partner in this process.

Reform and Conflict

Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion (Oxford: Monarch, 2006) is an excellent one volume introduction to the Reformation period, suitable for a college level text. In fact I will use it as such the next time I teach "The Reformers and the Reformation" at Booth College. It's long reformation extends from 1350-1648, nicely framing the central events in a larger context. The work of revisionist historians is taken seriously but Heinze also wants his readers to understand and appreciate the insights of older historians and the importance of their work. One of the most helpful aspects of Heinze's book is his discussion in chapter 11 of women in the Reformation period including interesting discussions of Wibrandis Rosenblatt, pictured above (who was married three times including to both Oecalampadius and Martin Bucer), the Strasbourg reformer Katherine Zell, and the Catholic reformer Vittoria Colonna.

The Monarch History of the Church
(Baker History in the US) is an outstanding multi-volume series, and this is the third of the four volumes appearing so far that I have read. Each one delivers in terms of avoiding too much technical discussion but at the same time introducing the reader to recent scholarship on key issues in dispute. The books are attractive and inexpensive (you can opt for the hardback or paperback editions), and include helpful timelines and suggestions for further reading after each chapter. Four out of five stars from me.

B.J. Kidd, The Counter-Reformation. London: SPCK, 1958.

Arnold Toynbee once derided those historians who think that “history is just one damned thing after another.” They may have had Kidd’s book on the Counter-Reformation in mind. Light on any kind of historical analysis, this is essentially a chronology of significant events in the movement to turn back the tide of Protestantism in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. As one might expect, the Jesuits, the Roman Inquisition and the Council of Trent figure prominently, each being given a chapter of its own (the Jesuits in fact get two chapters). Other than these thematic chapters (and a few others) the rest of the material is arranged on a more or less geographical plan, beginning with Italy and Spain, and extending as far as Britain, the Netherlands and the Baltic states. Germany of course figures prominently.

The first edition of this work appeared in 1933 so naturally a study of the Counter-Reformation would need to be supplemented by more recent works such as John O’Malley’s Trent and All That (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) or Martin Jones, The Counter Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Even an older work such as A.G. Dickens’ The Counter Reformation (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969) will yield a lot more reading pleasure than Kidd whose tone is for the most part a dry recitation of events.

Though Kidd is dry I would not say he is impartial. Warden of Keble College, and canon of Christ Church at the time of this edition’s publication I read the SPCK edition of 1958 not the 1980 reprint by Greenwood Press), his disdain for the fracturing tendencies among Protestants is thinly veiled, and there are one or two passages where he almost becomes interesting in praising the beauty and resilience of Catholic resurgence. It is more than a little frustrating that not until a footnote on the very last page of the book (p. 262, fn. 4) does he provide a definition of the word “Protestant,” and when it comes it is very narrow (though historically accurate enough). “Protestant” to Kidd means only “Lutheran” and “Reformed” means “Calvinist.” This is fair enough, but what is really interesting is the brief excursus he provides in the same footnote into the nature of his own Church of England, which he is keen to insist is neither “Protestant” nor “Reformed.” He cites the decision of the bishops at the Savoy Conference in 1660 to reject the term “Protestant” and the insistence, in 1689, of the Lower House of Convocation that the Church of England could not be termed Protestant without associating it with Socinians, Baptists and Quakers (!). Clearly Kidd was one of those Anglicans for whom the very Protestant (and perhaps even “Reformed’) Thirty-Nine Articles could only be likened to the “forty stripes minus one” received by Paul.

The book’s most interesting chapter for me (also its longest) was chapter 4 on the Council of Trent. A helpful summary of important decisions of the Council is given and the way in which different visions of Catholic reform were set forth provides an interesting record. It would be the reforming zeal of Pope Pius IV that would be the most determinative factor and Trent is really his most important legacy. His successor Pius V continued in a similar vein with a special zeal for the repression of heresy. It was the insistence on an educated, literate and articulate clergy, and the establishing of universities and seminaries in order to bring this about, that did more than any other single initiative to promote genuine reform of the Church. Chapters 6 and 8 on “The Great Powers” and “The Forces behind the Revival” make it clear that there could be no reforms without the willing participation of the princes (especially in light of the established rule cuius regio, eius religio) and the special genius of religious thinkers and activists with a passion for organisation. Ignatius Loyola was only the most conspicuous of the latter, whose ranks included others such as Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, and the earlier mentioned Popes Pius IV and V. In case the reader should think that religious reforms are solely the result of the prayers and labours of the saints, Kidd wisely reminds us that behind the reform stood also Phillip II of Spain’s “great scheme to crush out Protestantism in Europe.” (p. 160)

Those wanting an introduction to this period should probably not begin here. But those who are already somewhat familiar with the lay of the land, and who are looking for a detailed chronology, could do worse. Two and a half stars.

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