Dr. Thomas Noble : Holy Trinity, Holy People (Part One)
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In this episode of You’re Included, Dr. Thomas Noble, author of Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, helps us understand the connection between holiness and love. He discusses the importance of defining holiness within the context of the Trinitarian relationship. Our host is Dr. Gary Deddo.
Gary Deddo: Tom, it’s great to have you here for this session of You’re Included. And I know you’re currently serving as a Professor of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in the States here in Kansas City. But you also go back and forth across the ocean quite a bit because you also live, as your primary residence, in Manchester [Thomas Noble: That’s right.], where you are a visiting lecturer and a PhD research supervisor.
Thomas: The latter, PhD supervisor. They call me a research fellow there, but I don’t actually do any lecturing there. I haven’t done for some couple of decades. But I’m also a research professor at the seminary in Kansas City. So, I teach very little. I’m down to one course a year. So, my main focus is on supervising PhD research and writing.
Gary: So, supervising other peoples’ work?
Gary: But that’s an important work itself. Myself, having had a very good supervisor in James Torrance in Aberdeen, I know how important that is.
Thomas: It’s true.
Gary: It makes or breaks some PhD candidates. So, I’m sure many are, have been very grateful for that. You did mention writing and I have very much enjoyed reading your book. Now, it’s been out for a couple of years.
Thomas: Six years, I think.
Gary: I read it only about three years ago. Maybe I was a little bit late on the uptake, but the title there, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting. Now that’s pretty interesting. I don’t hear a lot of talk about holiness. There are some churches and circles where that’s an emphasis, but I don’t hear a lot about that. And also, it’s interesting, here right in the title, Holy Trinity, Holy People. And I know that’s something you explore extensively in the book, but tell us, where does that book come from? Why did you pick that topic and want to write a whole book on it?
Thomas: Well, that largely comes from the tradition I grew up in and within which I teach in the church of the Nazarene, which arose out of the 19th century holiness movement.
Now that began in the Wesleyan Methodist church. So, it’s Methodist tradition, but it actually spread cross-denominationally in the late 19th century. It took all sorts of forms from Finney to the Keswick movement in England and so on. But the tradition I grew up in was specifically the Wesleyan and the holiness tradition, with this emphasis on sanctification.
Gary: So, you’re really pursuing that. Is this kind of a summary of where you’ve come to over the years?
Thomas: Well, I think that’s right. You could say that since my childhood, I have been listening to sermons and testimonies, and so on, people speaking about sanctification and Christian holiness. And so very often that was presented in an individualistic kind of way. But through my studies with the Torrances at New College Edinburgh, I began to see the importance of putting that in the context of the overall structure of Christian theology, which is Trinitarian. And too often in the past, we’ve kind of talked about the holiness of the Christian quite separate from the holy Trinity. The Trinity hasn’t played any part, or much part, in our understanding of the holiness of the individual Christian.
So, it was bringing those two together, and also the title brings out the point: that it’s holy people, not just holy individuals. So, we can only understand the holiness of each person within the context of the people of God: the church. Now that’s particularly important in the Wesleyan tradition because Wesley defined holiness as not just holy behavior, but fullness of love.
And you cannot talk about that in a purely individualistic sense. If you’re talking about love, you’ve got to talk about relationships, and you’ve got to talk about community. So, this was an attempt to develop the tradition in which I grew up, in which I represent, institutions I teach in, but to develop it in a way that emphasized the importance of the church, and that all of this has to be set in a Trinitarian context.
Gary: Yes, I know in my own background and upbringing, holiness is often reduced to morality, for instance, and the individual moral behavior. [Yes.] Yeah, I think that very much. Now, do you make a distinction between kinds of holiness? I didn’t grow up in a holiness tradition, but we did talk about, occasionally, sanctification.
Thomas: Yes. Well, every tradition does.
Gary: Right. Now do you make some distinction or do you say – when you’re talking about the people – that sanctification and holiness is essentially the same?
Thomas: Oh yes. Across the spectrum of Christian belief, I think one of the mistakes our tradition has made is to emphasize its distinctiveness.
And we say, “this and this is different from everybody else.” I’m interested in an ecumenical understanding that helps us in the Western tradition to value what is being said in the Reformed tradition, the Lutheran tradition and so on and to help them to value what we are saying. Some years ago, there were two books published, one with a title, the other of the subtitle: Five Views of Christian Sanctification.
Now that’s fine. That’s good. But I’m interested in, can we understand each other? Is there a possible unifying that can take place here in which we see the value that each tradition brings to the table?
Gary: Yes. I know that particular book as well. And it does have a value. But yes, there must be some central meaning, some central significance, some coherent reality to what we’re trying to talk about, even if we have difficulty deciding how to talk about it or how to approach it. And it’s kind of standard to say, “Well, the church hasn’t really come to a consensus on that.” But of course, it’s not going to come to a consensus if we’re all emphasizing our individual, separate views. That’s not going to help. So, I can see how what you were writing is moving in a different direction to try to bring things together.
I think also with holiness, often the popular view is: holiness and love are opposed to one another; someone that’s concerned about holiness is not going to love anybody.
Thomas: Nope. It can be very judgmental, legalistic. My own tradition fell into that and became very legalistic.
Gary: So how do we talk about that? How do we get past that? How do we see the connection between holiness and love? They’re not fighting against each other.
Thomas: No. You cannot reduce one to the other totally. You cannot say holiness is merely love because then that becomes something quite sentimental. The holiness of God means that he is holy fire. The warmth of his love comes to us, but that same holy fire will burn up all that is opposed to it. So, evil will be destroyed by the holy fire of God.
It doesn’t mean to say that there is no element of judgment. I think that’s sometimes the problem that we polarize the two, and it’s either all love and all positive, or it’s all judgment and damnation and hell. And we’ve got to see that it’s precisely because God is love (1 John) that he will not admit destructive evil to his kingdom. And so, there has to be the going through the fire.
I think the other mistake is to so emphasize the negative side, if you like – the judgment, the negativity, what’s excluded – that you fail to see that’s not the heart of holiness. The heart of holiness is the love of God.
And seeing that in a Trinitarian context, therefore, we see that love is not just something that God evidences externally, as it were, to us. If that were the case, then it could be something incidental to his nature. But the love of God is seen, in that, it is the love of the Father for the Son and the Son from the Father within the unity of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
And so, holiness is not just something that negatively reacts against sin. If holiness were merely separation from sin – and you know that the root of the Hebrew word is separation – if holiness were only separation from sin, then how could God be holy before there were sinful creatures to be separate from? So, you have to have a more positive understanding. And the love of the Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, within the unity of the Holy Spirit, I think helps us to understand that God is love in himself, internally, in his very being, essentially. So, if we are to be holy – “Be you holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 2, the law to the Israelites) – if we are to be holy, it can only be because his Holy Spirit comes into our hearts and remakes us in the image of Jesus.
Gary: Right. So, could you say that holiness is the particular quality or “a” quality, “the” quality of God’s love? That’s the kind of love it is? Would that work?
Thomas: Yes, exactly. P.T. Forsyth, a Congregationalist theologian, famously said – reacting against 19th-century liberalism, which was very hot on love – P.T. Forsyth said, “It is not enough to say God is love. We must say, ‘God is holy love.'”
Gary: Right. I can remember James Torrance referring us to P.T. Forsyth.
Thomas: Yes, in Aberdeen, of course, where I came from.
Gary: Yeah, on exactly that topic. It is, I think, very important, but it’s hard for people to get a grip on because they keep hearing it in this dichotomous fashion and then try to wrestle with it.
You talked about your Wesleyan background. I know in certain circles, if people are aware of it, they hear about Wesley’s doctrine of perfection. Some people are attracted to it and other people are repelled by it. But in reading your book, what became clear to me is that some who are attracted to it and some who are repelled to it, actually have a rather shallow or maybe even a misunderstanding of what Wesley was getting at. Can you tell us a little bit about what was Wesley getting at by Christian perfection?
Thomas: Well, the first thing to say is to disabuse people of the idea that we are talking about sinless perfection. There is a sinless perfection we will only have in the hereafter, but the good news of the gospel is that we will have it in the hereafter. And that is only possible because of the cross of Christ.
But in the meantime, in this world, in this life, I think it’s important to get the biblical concept here. And the Greek word for perfection teleiōsis. The adjective is teleios, comes from the root, telos, meaning an end or a goal.
Now, I think that’s very helpful because Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection – Christian teleiōsis – is inherited from the Fathers and from the medieval theologians, Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux and so on. And it’s the idea that the only perfection available to us in this life is not a perfection of performance. It’s a perfection of intention, the intentions of the heart. So that while we still live in this fallen flesh, while we are in this world nonetheless – Wesley believed from his study of the Old and New Testament – that the gift of God was such that he could fill our hearts with his Holy Spirit in such a way that the Shema was fulfilled, that we could love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Now that didn’t mean that we were beyond temptation. It didn’t mean we were beyond falling. It didn’t mean we were formed perfectly. But it meant that we no longer lived with a divided heart being pulled two ways. You know, the texts from James [1:8] that the two-souled man is unstable in all his ways.
So, it’s this unifying of the intentions and love and motivation around this all-consuming passion to love God, to serve God. That’s the concept that Wesley came to early on. I think it is important to say, however, he used the word Christian “perfection.” I quite deliberately changed that in the subtitle of the book to Christian “perfecting” in order to get away from the idea that we ever reach sinless perfection in this life.
And very often in the newer translations, the word teleiōsis is translated “maturity” or teleios is translated “mature.” Now that’s right. That’s true. That’s part of the meaning of the word, but it’s not the whole meaning of the word. It doesn’t capture this idea of a focus on one goal that shapes the whole of the life.
I use the illustration in the book of the golf ball. When you hit a hole-in-one on those rare occasions (which never happens) once the ball is in the hole, it’s a perfect shot! But it has to have a perfect trajectory to get to the hole. Now, within this life, what we’re talking about, just not as sort of static state of having arrived at absolute perfection. We’re talking about what Paul expressed in Philippians 3 as, “This one thing I do.” So, there are lots of other things we do in life, but everything is integrated around this one passion: to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Now that’s the heart of Wesley’s concept. And it’s not unique to him. It’s inherited from the Fathers and the Medievals.
Gary: Yeah. So, he deliberately went back. It wasn’t accidental.
Thomas: Oh no, no, no, no, no. There was quite a recovery of patristic studies in the church of England in the 18th century, particularly because they were keen to argue against the Roman Catholics that they, the Anglicans, where the true Catholics. So, he became very interested in the Fathers. Wesley was part of that revival of patristic studies.
Gary: Interesting. Now I know these days there’s an interest in spirituality. But I find that people mean a wide range of things, not only in conversation, but also in teaching and preaching. And of course, some people, even who don’t have any background in the church or others have, I’ve had people say to me, “Well, I don’t know if I’m so interested in God or Jesus, but I’m interested in spirituality.” There’s a huge wide range. How do we address that? What would be a kind of a Christian approach to spirituality, and how would it relate to sanctification and others? The Holy Spirit? What do we do with this word that’s used in so many ways?
Thomas: I think a lot of people have become keen on it because it’s a way of reacting against the tendency to reduce the human to the mechanical. So, if you can fully explain the human being – and of course, the social sciences are out to explain human behavior and so on – but if you can fully explain a human being, then you would appear to have turned that human being into some kind of machine.
So, I think the search after spirituality comes from a sense that there is mystery about life, about the world, and that we cannot tie everything down. So we’re not to reduce everything. Of course, you can see that rooted in the romantic movement, Wordsworth and all the rest of it, Beethoven and so on. And so, for humanists, their spirituality is in the Arts. Now, that is quite understandable. And it’s in one way commendable that they should realize that there’s more to human being than can be taped down or explained mechanically. Yes, that’s good. However, there is from a Christian point of view the danger there that a kind of spirituality emerges which is purely humanly based and therefore is susceptible to various forms of evil.
And so, for Christians, the whole area of spirituality has to be linked to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is the Lord. That is, he is God and the giver of life. The word “spirit” in the original languages means “breath.” So, the breath of life, he is the source of the breath of life. So yes, there is mystery here.
You cannot put the Holy Spirit into a box any more than you can put the wind into a box. The pneuma, the wind, the Spirit blows where it will. That also brings us to the point that Christian theology can therefore never be a totally logical system that explains everything without remainder. There is always that element of mystery about God. And Christian spirituality, therefore is a word which you can use to apply to the spiritual practices of the church: prayer, singing of hymns, psalms of praise to God, worship. All of that is part of spirituality. We have such a rich heritage of hymns and verse and liturgies and beautiful writings, spiritual writings that can help us to engage until we enter into that sense of the presence of God, either corporately or personally.
So, in the sense that spirituality is a matter of sensing the presence of the Spirit who is, of course the Spirit of Christ. There is no other Spirit. And by the Spirit, we come to the Father, but through the Son, and all three are essential. So, there’s no independent spirit wafting here that is other than the Spirit of Christ.
The Spirit brings us into the presence of Christ, into the body of Christ, where through Christ, we come to know God as “Abba Father.” So, you cannot detach spirituality from that Trinitarian gospel.
Gary: And that brings us back to the Trinity. Well, thanks so much, Tom. It’s been great talking with you.
Thomas: My pleasure.
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