John Milbank’s Nazarene Heritage

The Church of the Nazarene (CoN) arose  out of the American Holiness Movement, and the Anglo-Catholic British theologian, John Milbank, has roots in it. I find this to be a pretty interesting fact in itself. I imagine the young John Milbank (who in my mind looks exactly the way he does now, only shorter), sitting cross-armed at a revival service while ladies with big hair and no jewelry run up and down the aisle shouting, “Glory!” 

John Milbank
John Milbank

But there may be something a bit more significant going on here. I was writing the other morning when I realized that a point I was making against John Milbank was structurally similar to an objection I have raised about the CoN’s doctrine of entire sanctification. I acknowledge it is quite possible that this is because am the one making the criticism. It is only natural that my mind would look at different data sets (as it were) and  notice similar patterns and draw similar kinds of inferences. Thus this is all a bit sketchy, but I think it is a sketch worth drawing.

First, a bit of background. John Milbank is probably the most prolific advocate of a school of thought that goes by the name of Radical Orthodoxy (“RO” or sometimes “RadOx” for short). To sum up his schtick, Milbank thinks that the secular is violent to the core, and the job of the church is to expose and counter that violence with its own inclusive peace. (It should go without saying that RadOx is more nuanced than that.)

Second, the CoN grew out of the American Holiness movement (which has Methodist roots). Without going into too much detail, its central teaching is a version of John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Wesley taught that the Holy Spirit could purify one’s heart so that it became possible to love God perfectly and attain a state in which one no longer willfully sinned. Wesley said this gift was rare and came usually only toward the end of life. For various reasons, the CoN differs with Wesley on this point (for the most part). In general, it claims that this gift can be instantaneous because it is sola fide (by faith alone). All one has to do is believe and ask. 

Tony Baker, one of the few men I know who can pull off a pony tail.
Tony Baker, one of the few men I know who can pull off a pony tail.

I will return to this doctrine in a moment, but it seems proper now to connect Milbank to the CoN. My information comes from Anthony D. Baker, who was one of Milbank’s new PhD students (back when the latter taught at the University of Virginia). In 2001, Baker published a paper in the journal of the Wesleyan Theological Society in which he played with a Wesleyan reading of Milbank. He reports:

Milbank himself was a Methodist for the first twenty years of his life. His parents, in fact, criticized Britain’s United Methodist churches for what they perceived to be a “weak doctrine of sanctification.” Both of them claim heritage in the twentieth century Holiness Movement. His mother’s family…was Nazarene. Her father became a Nazarene minister and later the superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene throughout the British Isles. Milbank’s paternal grandfather was a co-founder of the International Holiness Mission, a midcentury charismatic sect based in South London that eventually merged with the Church of the Nazarene. John often attended this grandfather’s church on Battersea Rise and describes it as “a strange and exotic world.”…Milbank’s lineage, then, is rooted deeply in holiness churches and, by his own admission, the theme of “perfection” is implicit in all of his writings.

Let me add for purposes of full disclosure (and potential extortion) that Tony Baker and I are friends. Though our friendship began in adulthood, we did know each other back when we were kids. We are both Nazbeens from the same district. In fact, Tony was part of a youth gospel quartet that sang at the very first revival service I ever attended. (Current friends and students of Tony Baker can contact me via this website. I accept PayPal.)

Now to the point: When it comes to John Milbank, my main beef with him is that the way he thinks about the secular leaves us with a Christian faith that is dishonest with itself. We are supposed to oppose the secular, but it is simply impossible for a modern person not to support the secular. Milbank does acknowledge this, but my claim is that he does not account for this fact in his theology. We are thus left with a kind of accidental hypocrisy, a cognitively dissonant Christian practice wherein we lob philosophical and rhetorical grenades at the “enemy” with one hand, while handing it boxes of ammunition with the other. I am not going to say more about that point now. Time will tell if I can successfully pull it off.

My observation about this parallel between the CoN and Milbank came the other morning I was working on revising my summary of Milbank’s little known “preface” to Theology and Social Theory, an article titled “Against Secular Order.”

“Against Secular Order” deals with the nature of salvation — whether it is individual or social. Another way of putting the question would be to ask whether salvation is mostly “spiritual” or mostly “material”? A spiritual viewpoint sees salvation as “a mechanism for the recruitment of individuals into heaven or even a state of private temporal well-being.”

His sources make clear that the social/material perspective referred to Catholicism in general and liberation theology in particular. But when it came to the individual/spiritual perspective, it was less clear who Milbank had in mind. I speculated that,

Milbank is probably thinking of Protestantism in general, but perhaps Holiness churches in particular. These stress salvation as a personal spiritual experience with this-worldly implications. Those who “get saved” and work to maintain a lifelong intimacy with the Holy Spirit will go to heaven when they die, but they will also have joy in this life.

John Wesley and his beautiful locks!
John Wesley and his beautiful locks!

Like I said, I am speculating a bit. But a Holiness connection would make sense here. Not only does it fit Milbank’s (admittedly vague) description of an individualistic view of salvation, but it also comports most fully with his own background in Protestantism.

Now the key thing here — the thing I have been rambling toward — is that holiness theology arguably lends itself to a similar kind of self-deception. If it matters, I do believe it is possible for a person to attain something like “heart perfection” in this life. In the Orthodox Church, this is called theosis. It is a journey that never ends, and that only a few manage to attain (we call them saints). So Wesley was basically right. The problem was his Protestantism. That tricky issue of sola fide — salvation (and by extension, sanctification) by faith alone — led American Holiness preachers to a quite logical conclusion that heart perfection not only should be but could be a ubiquitous Christian experience. The practical outcome of the doctrine of entire sanctification is a great deal of social pressure to attain “the second blessing,” and to demonstrate the truth of one’s heart perfection to oneself and others. Basically, there is a strong incentive to lie. The lie of one’s perfected love is not malicious, but it is often wrong.

This criticism is structurally similar to my argument against Milbank. In both cases there is a kind of pressure to pretend that things are different than the way they actually are. In Milbank’s case, it is that we can somehow overcome that within which we are ineluctably bound. In the CoN’s case, it is that we are wholly sanctified to God when in fact, after the spiritual high wears off, we are pretty much just as screwed up as we were before we “went to the altar” (a.k.a. prayer rail) and offered the whole of our lives to God.

What is the point in all of this? I am not sure. It is all a bit speculative and probably too psychological to hang anything on. In general, arguments that address what makes a person tick are quite weak. I do not know John Milbank, and even if I did, I doubt I would know what makes him tick. Hell! I barely know what makes me tick.

But I note these analogical arguments to you, dear reader, because there is a good chance that you are smarter than me. Perhaps you can make more out of this than I am able to. It is also possible that I am full of crap. In any case, I invite your thoughts and discussion: Is there a kind of accidental self-deception happening in the way Milbank relates the church to the secular, is this in some way comparable to the self-deception in the CoN’s emphasis on individual purity of heart, and if so, so how? 



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.