My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I grew up in a denomination that defined (and continues to define) itself by a single point of doctrine: entire sanctification. It’s a term you know if you’re a Nazarene, and if you were raised Nazarene (like I was), it’s a term you spent a good deal of your childhood and teenage years trying to puzzle out. For a certain generation, entire sanctification was something that happened after you were saved, a “second act of grace” by which the Holy Spirit filled you completely and you were cleansed of sin and entirely devoted to God. For others (generally in a younger generation) it was a crisis point at which you fully dedicated yourself to God and began a lifelong process (that may have started at the same point at which you were saved) of committing yourself and living a holy life. Whatever it was, it sounded wildly exciting, exuberantly optimistic, and incredibly confusing.
I’m not a Nazarene anymore, and it wasn’t the idea of holiness or sanctity– the idea that one could and should and that certain people even did live a holy life before God– that drove me out. Indeed, I don’t think I was driven out at all, and I still have a great love and even a lot of like for the denomination. I believe there’s a place for people who appreciate, respect, and understand the Nazarene heritage working in and serving the Nazarene world. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am doing what I’m doing.)
But the doctrine of entire sanctification is still confusing. Poll a dozen Nazarenes as to what exactly this means and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. And what I learned reading Mark Quanstrom’s excellent historical survey of the doctrine is that there’s a reason for this. Quanstrom’s work does what the best historical studies should: it gets at the primary sources to provide an insightful narrative, and in this case a narrative that resonates with me and explains a lot of the reason I was at times confused regarding my own church’s doctrine growing up. The work is not a philosophical polemic (Quanstrom lets the documents speak for themselves), nor is it a systematic theological exposition (though my own background in the church helps, as I already in some sense speak the language). I’m not sure how accessible it would be to someone with no background or relationship to the denomination.
Quanstrom starts by laying the historical groundwork for the church’s formation, which I only patchily remembered from my days reading missionary books and studying up for my Caravan badges. (I’m sure I would have gotten more of this had I been a religion major at a Nazarene college.) The point is that the Church of the Nazarene grew from an assortment of groups with one common belief: sanctification as a second act of grace subsequent to the initial salvation experience. Drawing on his sources (which includes texts as varied as General Assembly reports and addresses, evolving Articles of Faith in the Church Manual, and books that were at one time or another on the list of recommended reading for those studying to be ordained in the Nazarene church) Quanstrom clearly shows that the early Nazarene church– an assembly of several disparate holiness movements– was unified in the early decades of the 1900s about the distinct, instantaneous second crisis event called sanctification that cleansed the Christian from inbred sin.
By the 1960s, however, the denomination had to face a loss of optimism of what this second act would actually accomplish– coming to grips with the depth of the sinfulness of humanity, especially in the lost of confidence that led to the Second World War. First, holiness theologians spent some time refining their definitions of exactly what was cleansed in sanctification and differentiating between actual sin (forgiven when a person was saved), the fallen sinful nature (cured via sanctification), and infirmity (never fixed during this lifetime). Then with an important book by the Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop in early 1970s and scholars beginning to go back to John Wesley’s original writings, there developed an understanding of holiness (as well as sin) that was more relational and less ontological. This viewed sanctification as more of a process and put more emphasis on the initial act of grace. Opponents of this view felt it watered down the original meaning of holiness, the doctrine for which the denomination came into being in the first place. Quanstrom says in his study that the church is still in the position of having an official position that rests in an uneasy tension between these two rather irreconcilable positions.
This probably won’t be a page-turner for many people out there (though the writing was lucid and easy to follow), but I honestly found it incredibly compelling. It helped me place a lot of the things I had learned and the cognitive dissonance I experienced learning them into a historical context. And by doing this and by bringing external factors to light that were impacting theological developments in the denomination, it gave me a deeper understanding of the community in which I continue to live and work.