Methodist

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Book Review: “Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection” by Matthew Nelson Hill

eh-hillMatthew Nelson Hill’s book, Evolution and Holiness might cause a great number of double-takes when it comes to the subject matter revealed in the subtitle: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection. Indeed, this is one of the more unique studies I have read.

Hill’s thesis is essentially that, granting the truth of human evolution, it is still possible to maintain the highest possible levels of belief in sanctification and holiness. To support this thesis, he examines the Wesleyan concept of holiness, which is essentially that humans can be made perfect in this life. He argues that, if evolution and Wesleyan holiness are not incompatible, then effectively any view of sanctification can be compatible with evolution. The reason for this conclusion is that Wesleyan holiness is largely agreed upon as the most stringent type of holiness, and so if it can past the test put forward by human evolution, other views ought to be able to as well.

Now that we have looked at the thesis of the book, it is important to take a step back. Hill is not concerned here with whether evolution is true, though it seems that he certainly would say it is. His concern is, instead, to see how this might impact the specific doctrine of sanctification. Thus, the book is not a critical analysis of either evolution or Wesleyan holiness (or any other variety). Instead, it is put forward as a defense of their compatibility.

Hill analyzes various theories of evolutionary psychology and the notion that we have “selfish genes” which determine our behavior. Though he offers a few critiques of these theories, his main aim is to see whether the truths of Christianity might overcome the deterministic aspects of these ideas. The filter through which these questions are analyzed is the concept of altruism. Hill argues that naturalistic evolutionary accounts cannot fully explain human altruism. Various proposed naturalistic mechanisms are examined and found wanting, though Hill admits they may offer partial explanations. Ultimately, however, Hill argues that Christianity offers a way around the alleged determinism of our behavior by genes. The power of the Holy Spirit may enable us to overcome the “selfishness” of our genetic lineage and the evolutionary struggle in order to seek to live holy lives. Christianity therefore offers a superior explanation of altruism, even within the strictures of evolutionary theory.

One difficulty throughout the book is the number of assumptions made that will be unpalatable or even irrational to readers. At one point (123-124), Hill simply states that mind is the product of the brain without any argument. He cites in a footnotes Daniel Dennett’s work, but that seems a weak reason to think that such an assumption is worth carrying on, particularly in light of powerful, convincing reasons to think that the mind not only is not but cannot be merely the workings of the brain. Of course, Hill may simply be making this assumption (one he seems to agree with) without argument because the stated purpose of the book basically grants the whole narrative of evolution, which most often includes some form of denial of substance (or other) dualism. Another place this happens is when Hill refers to a number of arguments from natural theology and apologetics as “God of the gaps” type arguments. He doesn’t specifically cite any argument, but it seems odd for him to throw out that phrase without singling out any specific argument as an instance of the type.

Evolution and Holiness is a book that stands unique in my reading experience. It meshes ideas that seem completely disparate into a coherent whole and challenges assumptions we might make regarding these differing ideas. Readers looking for critical interaction with these ideas will have to look elsewhere. Hill offers a synthesis, not a critique. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, I suspect they will find the book an interesting read.

The Good

+Unique topic exposes readers to many new ideas
+Deep look at central theses

The Bad

-Assumes without argument many unconnected points

Source

Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Made Perfect in this Life?- A Lutheran reflection on Methodist sanctification– I analyze the notion of Wesleyan perfection from a Lutheran perspective.

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Made Perfect in this Life? – A Lutheran reflection on Methodist sanctification

sanctification-kapic

I was visiting a United Methodist Church and the pastor preached on the doctrine of sanctification. She referenced the affirmation within the Methodist church that Christians can receive perfection in this life.

I’ve been curious about this assertion for some time, and I decided to explore some more. On the United Methodist Church’s website, in the section entitled “Our Wesleyan Heritage,” sanctification is defined, in part:

We’re to press on, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification toward perfection. By perfection, Wesley did not mean that we would not make mistakes or have weaknesses. Rather, he understood it to be a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our desire to sin. (accessed here)

The embedded link sends readers to a sermon from John Wesley. In that sermon, he talks about what he means by being made perfect in this life. He distinguishes between what, in his view, is not attainable in this life regarding perfection, as well as what is attainable. Christians, he argues, are not made perfect in knowledge in this life, nor will they become free from making mistakes, nor from illness, nor from temptations. Instead, Christian perfection in this life will lead to various blessings:

First, not to commit sin… Secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers…

Wesley, of course, goes into much more detail than that, and defends his positions from various objections. The length of the sermon makes it prohibitive for a detailed interaction, so I just want to focus on these aspects of Wesleyan/Methodist sanctification.

Sanctification Over Time?

The notion of achieving perfection over time is something that causes difficulty because it makes sanctification a biographical account. To clarify, a quote from Oliver O’Donovan in his chapter in the book Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice entitled “Sanctification and Ethics,”- “Sanctification understood biographically [as occurring over the span of a life] has given encouragement to a belief in progressive and incremental moral improvement, to be attained with maturity and age” (155, cited below).

The implication of a view of continual sanctification that is progressive leads to the assumption that a more mature Christian ought to also be more sanctified. Yet this may lead to failed expectations related to the Christian life. If one is led to expect perfection in this life, and they continue to find themselves simul iustus et peccator (to borrow a very Lutheran phrase: simultaneously justified and a sinner [or a sinner and a saint, as it has come to be said]), they may lose their assurance of hope not just in sanctification but also in salvation. After all, their expectations of the Christian life are undercut.

It may be answered that the proper interpretation of Wesley is, rather, that he argued for instantaneous perfection. But this is a debate for a different time. (See the book Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice for chapters related to this topic.)

A Lutheran Interaction

The Lutheran Confessions make it clear that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (Formula of Concord, Article III, paragraph 41). In the Large Catechism, Luther refers to the basics of what could be considered a Lutheran view of sanctification:

…because holiness has begun and is growing daily, we await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life. Now, however, we remain only halfway pure and holy. The Holy Spirit must always work in us through the Word, granting us daily forgiveness until we attain to that life where… there will be only perfectly pure and holy people… (The Large Catechism, Second Part, section 57-58)

Thus, a Lutheran perspective of sanctification sees humans as part holy and part sinful. But what are we to make of this? Here, perhaps, is where the Methodist and Lutheran view of sanctification may split most sharply, for the Lutheran will note that what makes us holy is the Spirit through Word and Sacrament. That is, through the taking of Holy Communion and the receiving of absolution, we are daily made holy by the Spirit of God. Thus, holiness is, yes, in part works driven and completed by the Spirit, but it is also and perhaps mostly that which we gain through participation in the community of Christ, the church. For Lutherans, Word and Sacrament stand paramount.

Some object to this Lutheran position, charging Lutherans with a kind of antinomianism. After all, it can’t be that easy, right? Yet on the Lutheran view, sanctification is ongoing, but not in the sense that we discussed above. Instead, it is something that the Spirit works continually for us. Moreover, though the topic is hotly debated in Lutheran circles, the notion of the “third use of the law”–as a guide for Christian life–helps curb antinomianism and turn the Christian back to Christ for forgiveness.

Conclusion

I believe I have more to learn in this area, and I am interested to read on the topic further. I have a book on the topic I’m currently reading, so I’m hoping this will give me some more insight into the fascinating topic. For now, it seems to me that the primary division between the Lutheran and Methodist view here is centered not so much on the concept of perfection now (though that is an intriguing topic to explore), but rather on a view of sanctification through the Sacraments.

Sources

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000).

Oliver O’Donovan, “Sanctification and Ethics” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice edited by Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014).

Other sources are linked above.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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