The original publication of A Theology of Love by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop in 1972 was a milestone in holiness theology. Not since Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) has a woman made such an impact on the holiness movement. Like Palmer, Wynkoop proposed a paradigm shift in understanding that resulted in what she liked to call “a midcourse correction” in the doctrine of sanctification. She recognized that holiness theology has taken on a characteristic that she named “holiness scholasticism.” She defined this phenomenon as a kind of rigidity that developed in holiness understanding following the time of Wesley and that largely took place in America. This mentality, she came to see, had resulted in a “perfectionism” that caused great problems in the church. It had tended to produce “spiritual neurotics, Pharisees and hypocrites.”
IT DESCRIBES THE GAP BETWEEN WHAT HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS THE &LDQUO;EXTRAVAGANT CLAIMS&RDQUO; FOR ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION AND THE ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF MANY PEOPLE.
Her study of the work of John Wesley had led her to the recognition that authentic Wesleyan theology intersected with life in a far greater existential way than the stereotyped teaching dominant in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In describing this situation, she coined the term “credibility gap,” which has become part of the standard terminology of holiness theologians.
This terminology has a twofold implication. It describes the gap between what has been described as the “extravagant claims” for entire sanctification and the actual experience of many people. It also refers to a gap between the arguments for entire sanctification and good biblical interpretation.
The source of the first gap was the rediscovery of the “intractable nature of sin.” The historical period when the holiness revivals flourished was, for good reason, known as the age of progress, a time characterized as highly optimistic, with a confident belief in the perfectibility of human nature. Many factors contributed to the loss of this optimism in the general ethos of the world, including the emergence of a more profound sense of the hidden, often unsuspected, depths of human personality. This awareness is the basis for the shocking declaration of Henry H. Knight III that “our present appreciation of the role of unconscious motives in our lives makes Wesley’s talk of Christian perfection seem hopelessly naive, if not dangerously presumptive.”
WYNKOOP RECOGNIZED THAT THE FUTURE OF THE HOLINESS MOVEMENT DEPENDED ON CLOSING THIS GAP AND SAW IT AS HER CALLING TO ATTEMPT TO DO SO.
The second gap was highlighted by W. M. Greathouse in a paper presented at the 1969 Nazarene Theology Conference. He argued that a source of much negativism toward the “holiness movement” by outside scholars was “its lack of broad and deep biblical grounding,” whereby “it has reduced the many-splendored scriptural truth of sanctification to simply ‘the second blessing’ understood as a sort of watertight ‘experience’ which will keep us secure until Christ returns to gather up the little flock of holiness professors.” He further noted, “A thoughtful reading of Wesley’s Plain Account [of Christian Perfection] will quickly reveal how seriously this ‘folk theology’ has departed from the more scriptural Wesleyan view of sanctification.”
Wynkoop recognized that the future of the holiness movement depended on closing this gap and saw it as her calling to attempt to do so.
She derived her interpretation from Wesley, but in her own words, she did not view him as a “guru” but a “mentor.” This meant that, like Wesley, she gave primary emphasis to the authority of Scripture and on this basis even offered reluctant criticism of Wesley at a few points, notably his tendency to speak of sin in substantive terms. Her philosophical training had brought her to see that there were numerous problems with this way of thinking and found relational thought to be more consistent with both biblical faith and practical living.
As with all challenges to traditional modes of theology, her work encountered much opposition, among both academic theologians and grassroots pastors. One of her fellow theologians and longtime friends even accused her in print of being a major cause of the “death of the holiness movement.” Most of the younger and more perceptive scholars and pastors heard her voice as a breath of fresh air. More than one has declared that her book became the means of preserving for them the message of heart holiness. Her peers in the Wesleyan Theological Society honored her in various ways and annually recognize an outstanding publication with the Wynkoop Book Award.
Wynkoop was a pioneer. She blazed a trail that some of us have attempted to follow. Like most pioneering efforts, her work calls for further clarification and development. There may be areas that further research will show to need correction. But the problems she addressed were real and desperately in need of solving. The direction she pointed was sound, and if the holiness movement survives through the twenty-first century, one of the major reasons will be because Mildred Wynkoop had the courage to challenge tradition and plow a new furrow.
The republication of her magnum opus is a happy occasion for younger pastors and teachers to become aware of not only a great woman and scholar but also the source of a major turning point in the modern holiness movement. As a younger colleague of Mildred’s while she was writing her book, I was profoundly influenced by our conversations and am honored to be able to recommend her work to the reader.
H. RAY DUNNING is professor emeritus of theology at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Taken from A Theology of Love (Second Edition) by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop © 2015 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. Used by permission of Publisher. All rights reserved. Visit www.beaconhillbooks.com to purchase this title.