Greathouse and the Future of Theology
With the recent passing of William Greathouse, I’ve been thinking anew about the future of theology in the Church of the Nazarene.
Greathouse’s contribution to theology came in many forms. He wrote most of his books for the “average” reader. His writing style was often more sermonic than academic, although he liked quoting great minds from the past. His inspirational style made him more influential in the Church of the Nazarene denomination than many theologians whose writing contributions were aimed mainly at the academy or classroom.
Greathouse’s contribution also came through institutional leadership. He served as college president before taking the position as the president of the denomination’s premier seminary of its day: Nazarene Theological Seminary. At these institutions, Greathouse shaped theological education in diverse ways. He was often most proud of the able-minded thinkers he attracted to the institutions he led, such as Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and others.
Upon his election to the top leadership role in the denomination, General Superintendent, his leadership took other forms. He was widely regarded as a leader able to articulate a Wesleyan theological perspective to a denomination often not fully aware of its theological identity.
Retirement did not mean Greathouse’s theological leadership ended. Seminary, university, and college presidents often consulted with him on theological concerns. He was brought in occasionally to assess a theologian’s orthodoxy. His recommendations were taken with great seriousness. For a few decades at least, he was the most influential “behind the scenes” theological advisor in the denomination.
Even after retirement, the denomination’s highest leadership consulted him often about the direction they might lead members. General Superintendents considered Greathouse’s advice on emerging theological questions, doctrinal disputes, and the nuances of holiness. In some ways, he functioned as a denominational pope on issues of theology.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW?
With the passing to glory of William Greathouse, I have been asking myself several questions. Most of them have to do with how theological matters will be handled in the Church of the Nazarene’s future.
As far as I can tell, no current theologian can easily fill the role Greathouse has been filling. Many theologians in the denomination are academically capable, of course. In fact, I would judge several academically superior to Greathouse. But none is trusted by top denominational leadership to a degree anything similar to the way Greathouse was trusted. I know of none who functions as “insiders” in denominational decision-making.
It may be time for the position of “unofficial theological pope” to pass. It may be that the denomination is too theologically diverse and globally segregated to allow for a voice of Greathouse’s authority.
It also may be that the denomination should form an official and elected theological committee to adjudicate theological questions. Such a committee could be invaluable for working through potential changes to the denomination’s Articles of Faith, for instance.
I worry about what I perceive is a widening gap between academically trained theologians and top leadership in the Church of the Nazarene. Rightly or wrongly, fewer university presidents and General Superintendents are viewed by those in the academy as able to articulate well a Wesleyan perspective on the gospel of Jesus Christ. This worries me.
THE NEED FOR THEOLOGICAL LEADERSHIP
No matter what the mechanism needed to fill the void left by Greathouse’s passing, I am more convinced now than ever that the Church of the Nazarene needs sophisticated theological leadership. I say this not in criticism of the denomination’s top leaders. I say this to recognize that the diversity and expansion of the denomination requires strategic plans to address questions of theological identity and proclamation.
The need for sophisticated theological reflection – on both Christian practices and doctrine – must not be ignored. In a time of shrinking financial resources, the denomination and its leaders must look to inspire and inform those inside and outside the church community to walk the highway of holiness.
I believe we must affirm the core of the Wesleyan message but present it in forms and language helpful for people today. Like Greathouse, I think the primary form and language is love. But there are many other dimensions of the gospel that require fresh articulation and creative expression in our postmodern world.
There will never be another exactly like William Greathouse. But I hope we as a denomination and as individuals honor his legacy by making theological reflection and proclamation top priorities.