I had a good conversation with one of my uncles on the phone today. He had read my paper for the church symposium and (being a smart cookie) had noticed footnote 6:
"An informal polling at the Salvation Conference of The Wesleyan Church two years ago yielded the striking result that not a single Bible scholar at Wesley Biblical, Nazarene Theological, Asbury Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan, Houghton, Southern Wesleyan, Bartlesville, or Bethany was found who understood the Spirit-fillings of Acts to be experiences of a second work of grace. In this conclusion Wesleyan Bible scholars have apparently come to agree with the virtually unanimous sense of biblical scholarship in general that receiving/being baptized with the Holy Spirit in Acts is an entry experience rather than a secondary experience subsequent to conversion. The turning point in Wesleyan scholarship might be marked from Robert W. Lyon’s 1979 article in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, “Baptism and Spirit-Baptism in the New Testament,” WTJ 14 (1979): 14-26. The best known scholarly monograph on the topic is James D. G. Dunn’s, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970)."
As I read the paper at the conference, I did not stop to discuss this comment. It was not of course the point of the paper or even in the main text. But I did pause after the sentence that inspired the footnote:
"So in Acts 8 when a group in Samaria have been baptized in water but have not received the Holy Spirit, Peter and John travel there and lay hands on them (8:10). Almost all Wesleyan Bible scholars today would see the problem here as the fact that these people were still lacking the most important ingredient in conversion—namely, they lacked the Holy Spirit."
I nervously paused as I read this comment, noting with my usual understatement that this comment was somewhat controversial, and then suggested I move on.
Why are these things controversial? Let me give a bit of the Wesleyan story.
1. The Wesleyan Church, despite its name, was not founded by John Wesley. Its identity, probably more than anything else, derives from the holiness revivals of the late 1800's. This is certainly true of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, formed around 1900.
And I would argue it is true of the Wesleyan Methodist Church that emerged from the late 1800's. As much as I like to boast over the social consciousness of the WM church's founding, these things were not the central identity of the church as it entered the twentieth century. After many of its founders returned to the mainstream Methodist church after the civil war, its surviving identity turned to other identity markers.
These identity forming traditions of the Wesleyan Church preached entire sanctification from the book of Acts, using the Day of Pentecost as the model for how to get sanctified. The thinking goes like this. The disciples were "saved" before the Day of Pentecost. Then on the Day of Pentecost they become "entirely sanctified."
So you see that when I suggest that I have not found any Bible scholars in The Wesleyan Church currently who equate the Spirit fillings of Acts with entire sanctification, I am making a startling claim. I am suggesting that somehow, perhaps unbenownst to anyone, one of the core features of Wesleyan identity has mysteriously vanished in the last thirty years without anyone hardly noticing!
Clarifications: It is very important to point out what is not being said here. I am not suggesting that the Bible scholars at our Wesleyan schools do not teach entire sanctification. At the Saving Grace conference of two years ago, I think some of our church leaders were surprised to find a good deal of enthusiasm among Wesleyan scholars for the doctrine of entire sanctification. That is not what is at issue here, although there are implications I will mention below. Wesleyan Bible teachers strongly affirm complete victory over sin!
The issue is whether we formulate our understanding of the process of becoming entire sanctified by way of the book of Acts and Pentecost or not.
A second clarification here is that I am speaking of Bible scholars, not theology scholars. We might find a number of theology scholars who associate the Spirit fillings of Acts with entire sanctification (e.g., Larry Wood at Asbury).
Third I have specified Bible scholars, not Bible teachers (although we didn't find anyone teaching Bible at the Wesleyan schools at the conference who understood Acts this way). We might find any number of non-Bible specialists teaching here and there in Wesleyan circles who still preach Acts this way.
I'm not being elitist here. I'm speaking of graduate level training in inductive Bible study method. And I am not suggesting that a person with a PhD in Bible can hear God's Word through Scripture better than anyone else. I'm suggesting they are more likely to know what the original meaning of the Bible was.
Of course that doesn't mean they're right on the original meaning either, of course. It just means they are more likely to be right on the original meaning, especially when they have a consensus on an issue.
So how did the association of entire sanctification with Acts disappear in The Wesleyan Church?
Scene 1: The generation of current Wesleyan grandparents.
I'm going to call this phase of holiness preaching the legalistic phase. Now let me be clear, I am not suggesting that all our grandparents were legalists. And I would also make a significant distinction between being strict and being a true legalist. To me this is a very important distinction!
But the doctrine of entire sanctification was strongly connected with standards for this generation--at least that's the way their children, the generation of current Wesleyan Boomer parents, perceived it.
Holiness was perceived to mean no jewelry, no movies, no smoking, long hair for women, no slacks or pants on women, no buying on Sunday, etc... Again, I am not commenting on hearts. For my purposes, I am describing how I think the Boomer generation, the parents of the current generation, experienced their parents.
At the merger, there was a "split" of sorts in this generation, the generation of grandparents. The more "standard oriented" holiness people didn't go with the merger. To remove oneself from the church required an identifying act. And since the "liberalization of the church" was the protest, those who withdrew from our fellowship effectively defined themselves around standards as the dominant lens for understanding holiness.
Those who didn't merge thus tended to be less committed to a standards understanding of holiness. Those who withdrew might say these didn't want to be different from the world. Those who stayed might say the differences from the world of this group were arbitrary rather than substantial. Those who withdrew might say they weren't fully committed to God or were rebellious. Those who stayed might say those who withdrew did not understand what true holiness was.
This was the conflict of the grandparents' generation over holiness.
Scene 2: Boomer generation, the parents of the current generation
This group wanted to have nothing to do with what they saw as the "legalistic holiness" of their parents' generation. In fact, they cared little about the message of entire sanctification at all because they associated it with standards, what they saw as bitter people squabbling over what so and so was wearing. They saw these debates as trivial and quite distracting from the gospel.
Here also there were two ways:
a. There were those who followed John Maxwell into battle. I would say these were largely the leaders of the church for the last decades of the twentieth century. "We need to save souls and stop arguing over petty things," was their sentiment. The previous generation was seen as dying small churches of old people with no message but a lot of bitterness and backstabbing. Where are the fruit of the Spirit in these so called entirely sanctified individuals?
This was the church growth phase of our church, a phase in which almost no attention was paid to doctrine whatsoever. It was all about numbers and evangelism. This generation group couldn't care less about the doctrine of entire sanctification.
In a now famous paper, Keith Drury with regret pronounced the holiness movement dead in the 90's.
b. There was another group among the Boomers and Gen xers like me. Following the lead of the J. D. Abbott trajectory, we reached out for respectability, for decency and order. We went to seminary, where we reached out to John Wesley to be thought intelligent and respectable.
They discovered that entire sanctification was supposed to be about "perfect love," not about earrings. And here's the surprise. Wesley, the originator of the doctrine of entire sanctification, never formulated it in terms of the book of Acts! In fact, although Larry Wood has argued that John Fletcher did with Wesley's approval, consider this quote from Vic Reasoner of Northwest Nazarene University:
"Wesleyan scholars such as Herbert McGonigle, Rob Staples, Kenneth Grider, Donald Dayton, George Allen Turner, Mildred Wynkoop, Kenneth Collins, Leo Cox, and William Greathouse have all concluded that early Methodism did not connect the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost with entire sanctification, as did the later American holiness movement."
("John Fletcher Revisited" http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/arminian_mag/16_2_98.htm )
The seminary Boomers found John Wesley's version of entire sanctification much more attractive than that of their parents, who for the most part didn't even realize the historical forces at work on their thinking (e.g., Phoebe Palmer). They thought they were just reading the Bible and doing what it said and were almost completely unaware of the historical factors behind how they preached these texts.
At the same time, this seminary crowd absorbed the evangelical method of reading the Bible in context, inculcated not least among Wesleyan leaders by the "English Bible" method of Asbury Theological Seminary, where the overwhelming majority of seminary trained leaders in The Wesleyan Church went for graduate studies.
At the same time that Larry Wood at Asbury was a lonely voice for the early Methodists associating Acts with entire sanctification, Bob Lyon at Asbury, following James Dunn, was using evangelical methods of exegesis to show that this was not the original meaning of Acts.
Melvin Dieter, at the Saving Grace conference of two years ago, made a plea for Wesleyans to return to preaching entire sanctification from Acts. He decried Lyon (and Dunn) for the damage they had done to the Wesleyan tradition. I understand and deeply appreciate what he was saying. Wesley and Fletcher may not have formulated entire sanctification by way of Acts. But it is so much easier to promote the doctrine from Acts!
Acts gives us a narrative to preach entire sanctification in the following way. The disciples were "saved" before Pentecost. But they were cowards and weren't fully committed. Look at how Peter denied Jesus. Look at how they all ran away.
Then they get entirely sanctified at Pentecost. Now look at the boldness! Now look how they are ready to die for their faith! How much easier it is to preach entire sanctification from a concrete, experiential narrative in Acts rather than from the heady theological arguments of Wesley!
3. The current Wesleyan generation.
The current generation of Wesleyans by and large know little of the "legalism" of their grandparents' generation. It is funny to them, if anything. Yeah, "Sister so and so"doesn't wear make-up. Look at that facial hair! Can I just pluck a few of those for you?
But they don't have the bitterness of their parents' generation. Some of them are actually excited about Wesley's ideas of full salvation. They don't associate holiness with earrings or Wesleyan wads.
What about Acts? Ironically, the postmodern age re-opens the door a little to preaching sanctification from Acts.
The evangelical/Asbury/boomer scholar asks this question:
"Did Luke have entire sanctification in mind when he wrote Acts?"
I think the answer to that question is clearly "no." I mean, does he mention it? Look up "entire sanctification" in your concordance for how many times that phrase appears in the book! Does Luke say anything about removal of the carnal nature? For that matter look for the phrase "sinful nature" in Greek even in Paul's writings--you won't find it! Does Luke say anything about victory over inbred sin? Put it this way, "Would the book of Acts be worded the way it is if a holiness preacher had written it?" I think the answer is pretty clearly no.
But the holiness preacher was not asking the question I have above. They were asking this question:
"Were the disciples entirely sanctified on the Day of Pentecost?"
Now that's a very interesting question! I think I'm inclined to say they were, even though this is not a question Luke was meaning to ask or answer!
The holiness preacher, like the biblical authors themselves, placed the biblical text within an overarching story of salvation they to some extent brought with them to the text. They were not, like the evangelical scholar, trying to find it in the original meaning of the text. True, the holiness preacher intuitively drew many of the elements for that story from the biblical text. But they did not look at John for the contextual meaning of John or Luke-Acts for the contextual meaning of Luke-Acts. Rather, they drew elements from these books to tell the single, overarching story of the disciples, not the particular stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
So they were not asking what Luke's theology of Pentecost was, like the evangelical scholar of today does. They were constructing (without knowing it) a theological story of the disciples. They were hearing the Word of God in dialog with the words. In this sense they were preaching a theological parable by way of the biblical texts. This parable was not exactly the story of the "historical" disciples. Nor was it exactly the original meaning of the biblical text.
But this does not mean that the story was untrue, any more than the Parable of the Prodigal Son is untrue even though it is not a story that actually happened!
So were the disciples "saved" before Pentecost? I believe they would have gone to heaven if they had died then, just as Abraham.
And were the disciples "entirely sanctified" on the Day of Pentecost? I bet they were, even though I don't think Luke would know what you were talking about. And I'm not sure I would say the same thing of the Christians in Samaria, or Cornelius, or Paul in Acts 9, or the people at Ephesus in Acts 19, although it's possible.
The doctrine of victory over sin is not dead. The fallow ground of the Boomer field is ripe for planting. Actually, I have a twisted sense of relief about some of this story. I remember thinking as a teenager, "Wow, how unlikely is it that I would just happen to be born in the Christian group whose theology was all right!" I mean the statistics against that are staggering!
Now I think we were mostly right! And I'm releaved that since I think I can identify some blind spots to our tradition's history, the statistics are much better in my favor! ;-)