Next year, 2016, will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publishing. If you were a colleague or student of Dr. Rob L. Staples, who passed away on May 19, 2015, you knew it had been in the works for years, if not decades, before it was released by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City in 1991. Some had heard the material tested over the years in courses at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Yet, from the moment that Outward Sign and Inward Grace appeared, everyone knew that this was Rob’s magnum opus. It was his greatest literary work and his most significant contribution to Wesleyan/holiness thought, other than his gracious teaching and mentoring of ministers-tobe over a lifetime. (The fact that Staples also pushed hard for the book to reflect gender-inclusive language—a practice not common in Nazarene books at that time—was an added plus.) Into the paucity of literature on the sacraments in the Wesleyan/ holiness arena, Staples stepped with expertise and boldness to suggest normative practice with a humility of expression grounded in his rural Kentucky upbringing. His book landed in the middle of the worship wars in the Church of the Nazarene like a bombshell from the future— anticipating the trajectory of worship practice by years in advance. The liturgical renewal movement was underway, and Rob was at the head of the Nazarene pilgrims, helping to chart the course.
By the time I came to Kansas City to attend seminary, my interest in all things worship had been piqued in my undergraduate studies, not coincidentally by a former student of Rob’s, Roger Hahn, who taught at Southern Nazarene University before moving to Nazarene Theological Seminary in 1994. I was determined to study in this blossoming field, which ranged from homiletics and the sacraments to the historical origins of ancient worship. This broad field was inhabited by the likes of Craddock, Buttrick, Bradshaw, Wainwright, Webber, and others. The sacraments part of the field was opened to me and grounded in Wesley by Outward Sign and Inward Grace. If you identify yourself as a Wesleyan, this is the book that most definitively articulates sacramental theology and practice for our tradition. Again, as Staples acknowledges, it’s not “descriptive” (i.e., identifying what is thought and practiced) but, rather, “normative” (i.e., what should be thought and practiced). As a reader, you may disagree with Rob, but your position will be challenged by the thorough Wesleyan scholarship and reflection of a finely tuned and theologically astute thinker and writer.
When I look back at some of what Staples wrote more than twenty-five years ago, he sounds like a soft-spoken futurist pointing to the trends that will become more and more influential in the coming years. He writes: “Some are calling for worship renewal and a recognition that worship can be enhanced by incorporating traditional forms such as the use of the lectionary, preaching the Christian year, and a more meaningful appropriation of the sacraments” (27). In 1991, could Staples have been any more prescient? These three basic elements of the liturgical renewal movement over the last thirty years or so have worked their way into and through worship practice in the Church of the Nazarene to an extent that would have been difficult for even Rob to imagine so many years ago. Some of the most successful projects from Nazarene Publishing House in recent memory have been directly tied to awareness of and practices revolving around the Christian calendar. Some of the most active websites and other expressions on social media are devoted to discussion of the sacraments. I presume it is possible to have completely missed this movement and these growing trends within the broader church and even in the Church of the Nazarene, but to do so would require a pretty sound state of sleep and complete inattention to a steady churn of books, articles, and conferences dedicated to these issues.
The first chapter, “The Wesleyan Dilemma: ‘Spirit’ vs. ‘Structure,’” is alone worth the price of the book. In his survey that meanders through Augustine, Luther, Anabaptist thought, Wesley, and back to Luther, Rob clearly addresses the contemporary situation in which he functioned, where subjective experience and Spirit were more highly valued than objectivity of faith and structure. Staples was determined to press down strongly on the value of God’s action (a.k.a. objectivity) in the sacraments as a way of trying to balance the scales. Faith for Staples was always both/and—always head and heart. Of course, he learned this from Wesley. Sacramental theology and practice, properly understood, was a wonderful way to bring balance and to resist the dangers of an overemphasized, subjective experience. Even now, Staples continues to speak into our context.
Rob’s discussion of the difference between sign and symbol, and how these words are used differently depending on the situation, is invaluable. His treatment of the meaning of sacrament and how Protestantism concluded that there are two—baptism and communion—is enlightening. But when Staples turns to questions about baptismal practice within the church, he is most helpful to pastors who are willing to examine and (re)align their teaching and practice in the local congregation.
Rob, before giving himself to the teaching ministry, pastored for a while, and while he taught, he was an active participant in the life of a church. He faced the questions that swirl within the Church of the Nazarene regarding infant dedication, baptism in other traditions, rebaptism concerns, and others. Again, as he confronts these issues, Staples is careful not to articulate what is the current practice but what should be the practice of Wesleyan pastoral leaders.
It burst onto the scene twentyfive years ago and was a harbinger of things to come. It remains as relevant today as, if not more so than, it was then. Outward Sign and Inward Grace should be on every pastor’s bookshelf—not to sit and collect dust but to be read and reread as it informs, challenges, and refines our sacramental practices.
BRAD ESTEP is senior pastor of Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene.