Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Dongell on Love, Purity, and Power

1. I had the chance to have lunch with Joe Dongell a couple weeks ago in Atlanta. He's a Wesleyan professor at Asbury Seminary and one of the smartest people I know. We have a lot in common, including similar backgrounds and similar educational pathways. I always know I'm going to be laughing when I'm having a meal with Joe, his brother Pete, and other friends from the Asbury era of my life.

Recently, Joe read through all of Wesley's works multiple times. I believe he will put out a book with his reflections, but he has spoken several times on his conclusions in various circles. I wanted to explore and expand on one train of thought emerged from that study.

2. It is well known by now that Wesley did not talk about entire sanctification in terms of the book of Acts. His preferred phrase was "perfect love" and he much preferred the books of John and the Sermon on the Mount in his preaching. It was John Fletcher who equated this experience with Acts, which gave the experience a much clearer experiential template.

There is some evidence that Wesley didn't have a problem with this approach, but you practically have to be a Wesley scholar to argue for it. It just wasn't a primary way he thought about entire sanctification.

3. One train of thought Joe has explored is that the shift from preaching on being perfected in love to preaching on Acts entailed some shifts in the way the American holiness movement thought about entire sanctification. In particular, Joe believes it shifted the focus from love to a focus on purity and power. I'll let the church historians hash out the details, but I want to dance a little with Joe's thoughts here.

One thing I think is clear is that the shift to Acts eventually shifted the American holiness movement away (not completely, but in focus) from the substance of the doctrine (love) to the experience of the doctrine. For example, Joe would argue that Wesley did not really specify any timetable for having this experience. In the late 1800s, the holiness movement would shift toward having a second experience ASAP after conversion.

Joe is suggesting that when Fletcher preached sanctification by way of Acts, he presupposed the substance of Wesley's teaching on love. But once the focus was on Acts, Joe argues, it became possible to preach sanctification without the substance of Wesley's teaching.

This shift inevitably made a lot of room for a certain shallowness to the experience, what Keith Drury once called, "two-tripism." At the beginning of the twentieth century, people were asking questions like, "Did you jump when you were sanctified?" "Did you shout?" In a slightly different context, "Did you speak in tongues?"

4. At some point, another shift happened. Sanctification shifted from a positive dynamic--love toward others--to a negative move. Holiness somewhere shifted to being against things. This was a twisting of the heart of the doctrine. Holiness was now about what you didn't do, about stopping certain behaviors, and holiness preaching was often dominated by preaching against relatively external things like what you wear or where you go. The holiness movement became heavily infected with legalism and Pharisaism.

(Soon forgotten was the social activism of the mid 1800s, when Wesleyans were activists against slavery and for women's right's.)

Not everyone, to be sure, not every sermon. There was still preaching about being saved from anger or self-destructive behaviors. I especially prize the preaching I heard on selflessness and self-denial, of doing everything for the glory of God. It was only the content toward which that teaching was directed that I question.

Could it be that the prevailing sense of holiness in the mid-twentieth century became a negative movement, and often about relatively superficial things? Holiness preachers were conceived along the lines of the prophets of the OT, but they missed a key dynamic. The OT prophets preached more for people than against sin. The prophets railed for social justice and against idolatry. They didn't primarily preach against breaking the Law.

5. It's no wonder that the Boomers of the Wesleyan Church largely rejected holiness in the late twentieth century. They saw neither purity nor power in the movement. They shifted their focus to the church growth movement.

Even moreso, those groups that continued to focus on this shell of a doctrine understandably confused a certain kind of cultural conservatism with holiness. A place like Bob Jones or Liberty University felt more holiness to them than a place like IWU, which actually promotes Wesley's actual values and the values of the nineteenth century church. Holiness became cultural and political conservatism, not perfect love.

Indeed, it was fascinating recently to hear the question of when Wesleyans shifted from a holiness emphasis to an emphasis on love, as if holiness was ever for Wesley anything but perfect love!

In short, we lost our way.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks to both of you!