Paul M. Bassett, Holiness Teaching: New Testament Times to Wesley, Volume One of Great Holiness Classics (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1997), 339 pp.
In 1950 Leroy Froom published a four-volume set entitled The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers. It was an attempt to demonstrate that the Seventh Day Adventist approach to eschatology was what the Christian Church had historically believed. Froom declared early in the set, "The early church was distinctly premillennialist in her cherished expectations of Christ's second advent." Those who did not fit this mold tended to be discredited and those who agreed at one point were represented as supporting the Seventh Day Adventist party line. The set crossed the line of historical research and entered into the realm of propaganda.
In 1984 the Church of the Nazarene published the first volume of an ambitious six-volume project entitled Great Holiness Classics. Their purpose was to provide an anthology of holiness literature which demonstrated that the doctrine of entire sanctification, as taught by the holiness movement, was known and exemplified by saints of every age.
The project has proven to be an embarrassment to the publisher and has failed to demonstrate that the particular emphasis of the nineteenth century American holiness movement may be traced back to the early Church.
The editors began by drawing up a statement of doctrine with 27 (later expanded to 28) particular code words. These code words were imposed as headings in the text and supposedly demonstrated that this emphasis had broad acceptance. However, where the text differs from the bias of the editor, the editor simply stated his disagreement with the text. For example, noted Wesleyan theologian Thomas Ralston stated,
"It matters but little whether this eminent state of holiness be gained by a bold, energetic, and determined exercise of faith and prayer, or by a more gradual process, whether it be instantaneous or gradual, or both the one and the other."
But editor Richard S. Taylor objected in a footnote, "It really matters a lot!... And where are the witnesses to a clear experience of entire sanctification attained by the gradual process?" Both the superficial headings and the contradictory footnotes tend to weaken the attempt of this entire series to make their point.
The history of the Christian Church was divided into six periods for this series. Volume two covered basically the eighteenth century, while volumes three through six cover the remaining two hundred years. It is with particular interest that we focus on volume one which covers the first 1700 years of the Christian Church. After thirteen years, volume one was finally published in 1997. All of the subsequent volumes, in a sense, rest upon this foundational first volume.
Paul Bassett considered 165 authors and works in his research. While he is to be commended for his wide reading and his fresh translation of these early Christian writings, he declared that these "pre-Wesleyan works do not speak Wesleyan language." Wesleyan theology effectively synthesized early Church traditions. Bassett, however, muddies the waters here by confusing Wesleyan theology with that of the later holiness movement which has no historical precedent for much of its theology.
At one point Bassett cautions, "Do not expect to find anything like the rounded, full, theological expressions of the doctrines of entire sanctification and Christian perfection to which you may have become accustomed in reading the literature of the Holiness Movement." At another point Bassett confessed to facing a dilemma: no surviving literature from the second or third century explicitly discussed the doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection.
Specifically, Bassett does not reprint a single classic which either advocates a second crisis experience subsequent to regeneration or equates the baptism with the Holy Spirit with Christian perfection. Instead, the emphasis is on a progressive work of the Spirit and His perfecting grace.
The same theological statement formulated by holiness advocates which appears at the beginning of each volume is found at the front of this volume, but this theological grid cannot be imposed very directly upon the material Bassett handles. Throughout the text Bassett inserts 286 cut-in headings to identify major themes within the text. However, only about 18% of these headings correspond in any way to the 28 code words at the front of the book. Even in some of these cases the heading is forced or strained, not agreeing with the subject matter of the text. Bassett admitted these headings "serve a different role than in the later volumes."
While at times Bassett is objective, he attempts to read his interpretation of two works of grace back into the ancient ritual of baptism. Over time the ceremony became more complex, but the two major acts were the baptism with water and the anointing with oil. A fourth century document, the Apostolic Constitutions taught that this anointing with oil symbolized the baptism of the Spirit. It does not logically follow, however, that this was meant to symbolize two distinct works of grace. There may be two parts, but it is still one ritual which was initiation into the kingdom of God. Bassett notes that with infant baptism, over time, the anointing was postponed until the child could make his own profession of faith. However, Bassett has no basis for his assertion that the anointing with oil "was the liturgical moment of entire sanctification." If the symbolism means anything it is connecting water baptism and Spirit baptism as two parts of one meaning. In The Apostolic Constitutions the candidate for baptism declares that he is baptized "into the Lord Jesus Christ... and I am baptized into the Holy Spirit... and into the remission of sins...." The new birth includes both the washing of regeneration and the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Bassett's theological presuppositions is causing him to read something into this document that it does not teach.
Most of the material gathered by Bassett is of a general nature; some does not even address the subject of Christian perfection. Bassett concedes that "one seeks in vain for particular passages of any great length in which Irenaeus expounds his understandings of sanctification and perfection." Bassett asks, "Did Irenaeus speak of or imply a 'second definite work of grace, subsequent to regeneration'? Did he talk of entire sanctification? The answer to both questions is yes and no." Bassett has already conceded that Irenaeus wrote nothing specifically on the question, yet Bassett wants to read into the writings of Irenaeus his own bias that he "seems to be referring to a 'secondness' of sanctification in the context of baptism...." But the symbolism of water baptism is initiation, not something subsequent.
Clement of Alexandria refuted the teaching of the gnostics that there were two sorts of believers - the perfect and the imperfect. He insisted that all believers are perfected in their baptism and that must continue that perfecting throughout their lives.
Symeon the New Theologian taught that "unless one is baptized with the Holy Spirit, he does not become a child of God or a fellow heir of Christ.... We are baptized from above and born again and made into children of God."
Walter Hilton asserted, "In the justification of a soul, our Lord Jesus manifest His greatest love to a soul.... Such is the greatest thing that He is able to do for the soul."
Peter Riedemann wrote, "For as soon as one believes His Word with a whole heart, God wills to seal the covenant in us with the gift of His Spirit." He further notes that Christ would not send out His disciples until they had received this grace of the Holy Spirit. God gathers His Church through His Spirit. The disciples could not gather the Church until they had received the same Spirit. None of the previous five references, all taken from this book, further the cause of second-blessing holiness.
The truth is that there is no precedent in the early literature to support the contention that Christian perfection must be an instantaneous experience. The Fathers did speak often about perfection, but tended to see it as a gradual process. Bassett does make a distinction between entire sanctification and Christian perfection. His teaching seems to be that entire sanctification is the door into Christian perfection and that while perfection is progressive, we go through the door at a specific time.
This concept is not without merit, but has been exaggerated by the holiness movement. Typically, their teaching has been that "purity" occurs as the result of an instantaneous second blessing and "maturity" is the subsequent growth toward perfection. However, it is much easier in practice to claim an experience than it is to live the life. Many who are "saved and sanctified" demonstrate little of the love described in 1 Corinthians 13. A life of holiness is more important than any number of experiences claimed. It cannot be demonstrated from the literature of the early Church that much emphasis was put on seeking a specific experience. What can be demonstrated from any period of church history, however, is that genuine believers of every theological persuasion have felt an inner compulsion toward Christlikeness.
In mythology is the legend of the Procrustes bed in which everyone who laid on it was either cut or stretched until they fit. With Bassett, it does not matter whether the subject is Augustine or Macarius - they are all portrayed as exponents of the American holiness message. Bassett does not include the statement of Macarius that perfection comes gradually. "Not as some say, 'Off with one coat and on with another.'" Neither does he cite Augustine's interpretation that Romans 7 was the highest state of Christian experience. Whatever material does not fit on Bassett's bed is either omitted or re-interpreted.
While this volume may provide additional fodder for the holiness preacher, it will not convince those who have not accepted the presuppositions of the holiness movement. In fact, if this is the best material that can be produced, the case is a lot weaker than most of us ever realized.
John Wesley's teaching on Christian perfection not only summarized the teaching of Scripture, but it synthesized the various emphases within the Christian Church. The later nineteenth century American holiness movement claimed Wesley, but instead followed Phoebe Palmer and Charles Finney. Their reduction of holiness to a standardized formula broke continuity with the past and Paul Bassett is unable to demonstrate historic precedent for their emphasis. Instead of more attempts to rewrite history, why doesn't someone put the 50 volumes in John Wesley's Christian Library on a CD-ROM?