As a child, Mildred Bangs sat under the preaching of Dr. Phineas Bresee in the infant First Church of the Nazarene in Seattle. Dr. H. Orton Wiley was her college professor, president, and mentor. He enlarged her understanding beyond what were perhaps rather narrow sectarian horizons to explore the Wesleyan heritage within the wider perspectives of the church catholic. But it was later as an evangelist, traveling with her husband, Ralph Wynkoop, that she became aware of a growing problem in Nazarene churches—what we may call the problem of inauthenticity. Through considerable personal questioning and struggle, she came to the conclusion that many second-generation Nazarenes were repeating the hallowed phraseology they had learned from the first generation and were trying to reproduce their experience of revival. But the hardened shell of a stereotyped theology of sanctification seemed to have become divorced from real life. It seemed to her that people were seeking for a high moment of almost magical spiritual experience that was however unconnected with their existential, daily experience of living the Christian life. It was her perception that an absolutist, black-and-white, rather simplistic doctrine of sanctification was not connecting with the rather more complicated and messy business of real living—daily temptation, ethical choices, conflicting demands, and ambiguity. Perhaps it was the sincere but simplistic fundamentalist mind-set of the mid-twentieth century that was influencing the holiness movement, resulting in a complete disconnect between theoretical doctrine and the real daily lives of Christian people.
From her own spiritual wrestling with the issues, this assessment of the problem of inauthenticity led her back to school. In further studies for master's degrees and a doctorate, she immersed herself in biblical theology and in the study of the life and thought of John Wesley. She became convinced that other streams of thought from other traditions, including a species of Calvinism, had contrived to produce a problematic amalgam of theology in the holiness movement. It became her mission to take the tradition back to the Bible and back to Wesley as a truer interpreter of the Bible and a truer spiritual guide than many of his later followers.
IT WAS HER PERCEPTION THAT AN ABSOLUTIST, BLACK-AND-WHITE, RATHER SIMPLISTIC DOCTRINE OF SANCTIFICATION WAS NOT CONNECTING WITH THE RATHER MORE COMPLICATED AND MESSY BUSINESS OF REAL LIVING.
It was out of this spiritual and intellectual searching that her main publication came—A Theology of Love. It was said of Barth’s commentary on Romans that it fell “like a bomb on the playground of the theologians,” and the effect of Wynkoop’s book was rather similar for theologians in holiness churches. Many were horrified at what seemed to them a departure from the tradition because it questioned undetected presuppositions and hallowed phraseology and ways of thinking. All of the criticism was sincere, and some of it may have been justified, for A Theology of Love was not the last word on the subject. It did not present a fully rounded re-expression of the Wesleyan understanding of Christian holiness. It was rather a provocative exercise in rethinking. The storm it raised may have demonstrated a lack of the kind of theological maturity that can distinguish between the core convictions and particular metaphors and models. But while the debate of the time was divisive, in the long run it was healthy.
Although her theology appeared to some to be provocative, destructive, and revolutionary (quite contrary to her personal demeanor, which was charming!), in fact her “revolution” was a conservative one. She was taking us back before the stereotypical simplification of later teachers to the daring, adventurous, and deeper constructive thinking of Wesley himself, and attempting to express that in ways that resonated in the late twentieth century. Her focus on the existential (but not existentialism), on the personal (but not mere personalism), and on the moral (but not mere moralism and legalism) were intended to re-express Wesley’s understanding of Christian
Wholiness in the language of her day and generation.
SHE WAS TAKING US BACK BEFORE THE STEREOTYPICAL SIMPLIFICATION OF LATER TEACHERS TO THE DARING, ADVENTUROUS, AND DEEPER CONSTRUCTIVE THINKING OF WESLEY HIMSELF, AND ATTEMPTING TO EXPRESS THAT IN WAYS THAT RESONATED IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
Her book had a particular significance for me. Engaging in theological studies in the ecumenical context of New College in the University of Edinburgh, partly in order to evaluate my own Wesleyan and Nazarene heritage in the wider tradition of the church, Wynkoop’s newly published Theology of Love demonstrated to me that there was intellectual life in the tradition. It was living proof that Nazarene theologians were allowed to think! It demonstrated that the Wesleyan tradition had something vitally important to contribute to the life and theology of the church catholic. It left many unanswered questions, as intellectually alive, creative thinking always does. But it was a doorway not only to the intellectual revival of our theology but to the recovery of its relevance to the life of the church and to the daily life and discipleship of Christian people.
The core of Wynkoop’s creative thinking is in chapters 13 through 16. But readers should take the time to plow through the earlier chapters, too, in order to see how this remarkable sister persevered in the graft of hard thinking and hard study to make her theology relevant to daily life. Here is a remarkable testimony to an eventually triumphant search for authentic Christian holiness.
THOMAS A. NOBLE serves as professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
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.