Q&A with Dr. Ron Benefiel
BY BRIAN BECKER
PLNU was founded by P.F. Breese and is affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene, a holiness denomination birthed out of Wesleyan Methodism. PLNU’s dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry shares some of the ways this tradition informs life at PLNU today.
Q: What are some distinctives at PLNU that are formed by Wesleyan/ Holiness thought?
A: For me, it is really important to see the Methodist movement and the American Holiness movement, this Wesleyan tradition, as part of a larger Church of Jesus Christ. [The movement] is in unity with the Church through the creeds and through the history of the Church. This becomes a really important point. Rather than talking about Wesleyan distinctives, it’s Wesleyan affirmations. We’re not trying to show how we’re different from the rest of the Church. If anything, it’s about how we are a part of the Church—this is a movement that we believe has been raised up by God, in history, through the Wesleyan/Methodist revival that is a renewal movement within the Church catholic, not distinct from it. So it’s not Wesleyan distinctives, but out of the particularity of this movement, it’s Wesleyan affirmations.
Q: So what are those affirmations for us?
A: Right at the heart of that is holiness—holiness of heart and life. The Church of the Nazarene is a people with a story and a calling and a sense of being raised of God with a particular emphasis that we offer as a gift to the Church. That emphasis means that we have thought long and hard about the holiness of God and about the Holy Spirit, who calls us not only to reconciliation and redemption and salvation in the narrow sense but calls us to be transformed into the very likeness and character of God’s holy love. If we’re talking about Wesleyan affirmations, that is central. That captures a lot of it.
Q: How does PLNU hope for all of its constituents to experience the Wesleyan/Holiness affirmation?
A: One of the phrases we’re using in a document that we’re writing now is “confessional hospitality.” It is new language; you don’t find it out in the literature. It is confessional in the sense of confessing our faith in Christ as part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s confessing the creeds, confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In confessing that this is what we believe, another way of talking about it is McLaren’s language of generous orthodoxy … And I love the language of understanding grace as the hospitality of God. The grace of the people of God is the hospitality of the people of God. So because we’re participating in God’s holy life together as the people of God, that life is not only poured out in love, it is gracious, welcoming, hospitable. A confessional hospitality is one that, because of our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, the creeds, and Wesleyan theological affirmations, has this spirit of welcoming others into this community … So we recognize the particularity of our tradition and that central affirmation of the holiness of heart and life is the ultimate end of all we’re about in a Christian community of learning that also is welcoming. It’s welcoming of people from different traditions; it’s welcoming of different ideas, so that we’re a Christian university— and decidedly Christian, and confidently Christian—in this particular tradition … Brothers and sisters, and even doubters, even dissenters, are welcome in this community, but they do need to know what kind of community we are.
Q: Our mission statement says that PLNU is a place where “grace is foundational, truth is pursued, and holiness is a way of life.” What does the Wesleyan heritage affirm in relation to grace and to the pursuit of truth?
A: Let’s take grace first … In the Wesleyan tradition, as with most other Christian traditions, all is of God, and all we ever do is respond to the gracious love of God … There is nothing that we decide to do to please God or to earn our salvation. Thomas Kelly, a Quaker, said it really well in his book Testament of Devotion: “God is always the initiator; we are always the responder.” That is the formula of grace. With truth, it’s interesting. What we know to be true, we know in God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures. But God is also revealed to us in creation. The Psalmist says, “Look at the heavens that speak of the glory of God.” We have to be careful with this phrase, but there is a sense that “all truth is God’s truth.” Whenever we discover anything about anything that is true, it has something to do with God and God’s Truth— precisely because God is the Creator of our universe. Wesley talks about a sixth sense or being able to see truth through the eyes of faith. Think of a scientist who through the empirical method and the five senses observes the universe, astronomy. For people who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the Spirit enlivens our senses so that we see everything that the non-believing scientist sees, but we also see the order and majesty of God’s creation. We see through the eyes of faith. In literature, we often see that interwoven in the stories we read are things that speak of truth, of grace, perhaps even more than the authors may have intended sometimes. Or [the same is true] in music or art or the social sciences. We don’t have to put everything into a God box, but on the other hand, there is the sense that the Spirit enlivens our senses, so we see everything that everyone else sees and something else through the eyes of faith. The “something else” we see is the revelation of God in and through all of creation.