It is reasonable at this point to question whether the conflict between Wesleyan and Palmerian definitions of entire sanctification is enough to be considered a point of crisis for the Holiness movement. After all, the movement has endured for a very long time in relative unity. Melvin Dieter certainly seems to have felt that the question of identity was reaching a crisis point as far back as 1985, in a paper titled, “The Development of Nineteenth Century Holiness Theology.” He believed that the movement must choose between the two identities or risk being assimilated into a more general context within the Church. While Dieter was in favor of the choice of a Palmerian identity, other voices within the movement would argue instead for allowing the Holiness movement to move to the selection of an exclusively Wesleyan character. This leads to other questions, such as should the Holiness movement prefer one aspect of its formative past over the other, and why should it examine the past as a solution to a current lack of growth both in numbers and social impact?

The answer to the former question is that it has been a lack of accuracy about the true distinctiveness of the movement that has caused the crisis that Dieter and others have been addressing for over 20 years. In terms of an identity that concerns itself with accuracy, there is no question that the Wesleyan model would present itself as superior. A Wesleyan model would by its nature incorporate logic and reason as part of its identity. John Wesley left capacious writings to indicate that the experience of holiness must be examined theologically to ensure that it did not conflict with Scripture. A Palmerian model, by contrast, would be concerned primarily with the experience of holiness itself. Phoebe Palmer’s writings indicate a primary commitment that is centered on leading the individual Christian to the experience. Some might accuse Palmer of being completely unconcerned with theology; this is not disdain, but simply a belief that the exactness of the theology behind sanctification is simply not as important as achievement of the experience.

The answer to the latter question, why the Holiness movement should turn to the past for a solution to present-day woes, is that embracing either model could well mean a return to the successes that were previously associated with that identity. Certainly within the context of the American Holiness movement, it is unarguable that Phoebe Palmer and her followers enjoyed the fruit of numerical growth and widespread social impact fully as much as John Wesley and Methodism did during the Revival in an English context. A decision for either model would seem to hold the hope of return to such successes and while the argument against Palmer’s lack of theological correctness is quite valid, it is fair to note that Wesleyan model does contain problems of theological exactitude as well.

Chief among these troubles is an inconsistency in Wesley’s own teachings, which Randy Maddox demonstrated to be products of three chronological periods of Wesley’s life. There is little disagreement with Wesley’s own positions during the earlier two periods, yet much disagreement in the third and latest period. Mainly at issue would be the subject of Biblical inerrancy, a position to which for much of his life Wesley did not subscribe; only in the third period, according to Maddox, does Wesley proclaim that the Bible contains no error.

Nevertheless, the Wesleyan model seems to offer a clearer path for the Holiness movement to avoid the ambiguity caused by two differing theological identities. Yet if both the Wesleyan and Palmerian identity present difficulties, what solution can be offered? One can argue that the answer to the dilemma lies in a return to liturgy. Why liturgy? Because it can be proposed that one of the causes of the recent predicament of the Holiness movement lies in insufficient attention being paid within the movement to the critical importance of spiritual formation and practices. The historical liturgies of the broader Christian church provide a means for denominations in the Holiness movement to maintain connection to their past lineage within the Church. This loss of a link to that lineage can have very damaging results; Keith Drury, in his infamous address The Holiness Movement Is Dead, identified one of these results as the adoption of “church-growth thinking without theological thinking.” When holiness denominations become severed from their pedigree, they risk ceasing to be a part of what Steven Hoskins has labeled, “the ancient procession of those who have trod the path of Christian faith that has followed the way of holiness.”

In Part Four, the final part of this series, I will explain why I believe that liturgy is a solution to the identity crisis within the holiness movement, which I believe was caused (at least the majority of it) by Phoebe Palmer’s theology of entire sanctification.

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