Friday, February 05, 2010

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.

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