Greathouse and the Future of Theology

March 31st, 2011 / 15 Comments

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.


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.


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.

Add comment


Rob L. Staples

Tom, you are correct in thinking with the passing of Greathouse we no longer have a leader who can function as a “denominational pope in issues of theology” to use your phrase.  Although each member of the current Board of General Superintendents has certain unique abilities, in terms of theological expertise it is collectively the weakest Board in the history of the Church. This worries me.  But I pray that God will give them theological wisdom when it is needed.  And I strongly suspect it will be needed in coming days.

John Grant

Dr. Oord,
Very well said.  I share your concern, as I’m sure many do.  I am also hopeful becuase I think we do have some great theological minds who haven’t give up on the CotN.

Todd Holden

If I am understanding you correctly, it seems to me, you are saying that perhaps we have entrusted theological direction and definition to a few. Further it seems what you are proposing is that we (CoN) need to become a thinking people in regard to our faith. Not that we do have those we trust to ask when we want a check on ourselves, but that we come with something in hand. Instead of coming to the table ready to hear what “the great minds” will tell us.

Wesley, in my opinion, would agree with this assertion. He certainly taught people to think and to know God for themselves, personally. Further Wesley taught that we should be good students ourselves, training our minds and spirits to explore and know.

As a pastor, I endeavor to bring people to a place where they exercise their minds and their faith. A place where they desire to wrestle with thoughts.

If this is where your thoughts are leading, Tom, I am there with you. I am there in the midst with this wonderful family our Father has for us!

Bob Sugden

If you were given the task of putting together a ballot for this theological committee, whom would you nominate? And, why?

Marty Alan Michelson


Tom Nees

Greathouse, as you correctly observe was a notable interpreter of the Wesleyan-Holiness message.  However, no one individual or authoritative council has, or can establish an official, permanent definition of this theological tradition.  Holiness theology has evolved as a people’s theology.  In the language of computer technology, it is an open-source tradition with many contributors in the pulpit as well as the academy.

Jason Vickers

Tom: You use the word ‘sophistication’ or ‘sophisticated’ several times here.  You say, for instance, that the CON needs more sophisticated theological leadership.  I can easily imagine the current leaders of your church thinking right the opposite—that what you need are leaders who will, like Greathouse, do theology with “average” (your term) folks in mind. But I think this is more than a matter of writing style.  I think that Greathouse’s gift to your church was the way in which he never allowed the drive for sophistication to overshadow or distract from the work of *edification*.  And I suspect that this is what your denominational leaders want to see in their theologians, namely, as deep a concern for edification as for sophistication.  Indeed, I think they would be inclined to agree with John Webster when he says, “But though technical sophistication is not without its attendant perils, it is only vicious when allowed to drift free from the proper end of theology, which is the saints’ edification” (Webster, Holiness, p.4).  Surely what made Dr. Greathouse special was the fact that he rarely, if ever, lost sight of the proper end of theology.

Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks to all for your good comments. I appreciate them!

@ Bob: I don’t think it wise for me to suggest names. But I do think it would be helpful to suggest procedure, representation, and level of education/training for those on such a committee. Maybe I’ll do that in a future post.

@ Jason: I was using “sophisticated” as my attempt to acknowledge that we are all theologians, but some have more training and greater skill in reflecting on the nuances of theology. But I agree that to use Wesley’s words, there’s an important place for “plain words for plain people.” And Greathouse was someone who could write such words, while still exploring and evaluating a highly sophisticated level. It’s a difficult task, but we need more theologians who can operate on multiple levels.


Charles W. Christian

I resonate with much of what you have written here, Tom.  I am reminded that too many who are “pastor/theologians” are outside of the Wesleyan tradition—at least those whose voices resonate with a large number of people.  I do see more attempts from the pulpit to be more theologically sound/sophisticated.  And, I am seeing stronger attempts by many in the academy to engage pastors and district/general leadership in matters of theology. 

Historically, it seems that Greathouse mirrors greatly admired theological and pastoral leaders of Christianity’s past in that he had “pastoral credibility” and style, accompanied by theological credibility (although not an earned PhD).  In the Baptist tradition, for instance, there are many of these voices that have emerged from their pulpits and have trained generations in their theological tradition.  Dr. W.A. Criswell had a PhD in New Testament, for instance.  Stan Grenz, a Northern Baptist, did a majority of his work from the classroom and through writing; however, he was a pastor’s kid, and his wife Edna is an ordained minister.  Stan wrote a great article for the WTJ about being a “pietist with a Ph.D.” that I think would resonate will in Nazarene circles in particular.  That is, as Dr. Nees writes in his comments, the ethos of what Nazarenes seem to connect with in regard to their theology….


Franklin Cook

As a Regional Director, we opened work in over 20 nations, including those of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. We brought in Dr. Greathouse several times.  He had a unique ability to bring clarity, humor, and personality to theological discourse in an area of cultural sophistication.  Also, don’t forget the tie between r. Greathouse and another theologian/General Superintendent, John Knight.  They were quite a pair!  The composition of the Board of GS is the result of a democratic process.  Unfortunately, voting delegates don’t often think through sufficiently the composition of the Board as a whole, when voting.  I did not think of WM as a pope, but as a friend.  And that is a significant gift.

Ramón A. Sierra

Thanks Tom for your insights.

I agree with you that the passing of Dr. Greathouse is a good time to look into the future of theology in the Church of the Nazarene. I think in a new way, since this theme has been treated in numerous occasions In the past and IBOE has developed some initiatives in this respect.

This renewed way could consider focusing on some of the contributions that Dr. Greathouse made, and others, that need continuity (you have mentioned many of them in this article) and considering other aspects that need to be included.

I am convinced that the future of the Church of the Nazarene as a Wesleyan-holiness international movement is tightly knit with the future of its “official” and “grassroots” theology. So we have to work with local pastors and churches as well as with higher education theological institutions in this regard.

I was struck by Dr. Staples comment about the present Board of General Superintendents that “… in terms of theological expertise it is collectively the weakest Board in the history of the Church”. I ask myself, if this is so, what repercussions does this have for the future of our church and its theology?

I had the privilege of participating in the First International Theology conference held some years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Dr. Greathouse was the main speaker and shared about Clergy Development towards the future in the Church of the Nazarene.

At least two issues, arose from that gathering, that in my judgment we need to intentionally reinsert in our theological agenda towards the future: (1) the ongoing theological conversation within the international church with pastors, lay leaders, districts, educators and other sectors, to reflect and act on common challenges we face. (2) the development of contextual theologies rooted in our shared Wesleyan and holiness biblical-theological tradition, to address the cultural and generational realities that we must face, but that vary from place to place.

I am confident that with God´s help and seeking new avenues of engaging the global Church of the Nazarene, as a priority for its present and future, a better future for the Theology of our church can emerge.

Gabriel Salguero

I really appreciate your commitment and contribution to the theological competency and literacy of the COTN. My hope is that in your advocacy and articulation you would explicitly mention the need for scholars of color both in the Global North and Global South. This is not just a need to address postmodernity but also post-colonialism. 

I have found that in many of the COTN theological discussions the focus is on epistemological issues of truth, inerrancy, revelation, etc. All of these are important issues but what about putting some intellectual energy and gifts behind epistemologies of justice.

Regrettably, at many of these discussions and conferences I often feel I am observing an internal debate between dominant groups with primary commitments either to postmodern or modern ideologies without little attention to the disenfranchisement of other voices in both groups.  

Whether it’s attention to Foucault, Derrida, Levinas or Descarte, Wiley, Wesley, Bresee, etc… I find myself saying “The wardrobe has been changed but it’s still the same figure!” The discussion is between modern and postmodern male WASP and the other life and death issues are ignored.  (Example; all the attention to Rob Bell by our scholars with less conversation about the lack of voices at the table of a diversity of scholars, theological reflection on Middle East challenges, global hunger, educational equity, etc).  

If we are really to articulate a Wesleyan theology of the 21st Century it seems to me the focus much be deeper and broader. In short, an integrated theology of love, truth, and justice. Without this reflection by great minds like you we will continue to promote an esoteric theology that to its detriment does not reflect the diversity of the Church. 

I have no doubts that you are one of the allies in this endeavor. I remain hopeful and encouraged. I write to you as friends and leaders in framing the discussion in the decades to come.  

A hopeful Nazarene ( a phrase from a forthcoming article), 

Gabriel Salguero


Hello, I’m jumping in the conversation for the first time as a African Wesleyan pastor and theologian of the Church of the Nazarene in the majority muslim country of Senegal. I was encouraged by the ending comment of Dr Oord about the “ongoing theological conversation within the international church to reflect and act on common challenges we face”.

In most countries around the world, the Holiness message only exist in the name of the denomination but most of the views on sin, holiness and others are expressed in the Calvinist perspective. This is due to the lack of Wesleyan Holiness literature in other languages than English but also due to the lack of trained theologians who can address the needs of their context.

How can I talk about polygamy, demon possession, HIV Aids, Encounter with Islam and African Traditional Religions in a Wesleyan perspective. That’s where we need theological discussion with the international church rather than top-down decisions not really addressing the real issues.

Dany Gomis

Jonathan Privett


Two thoughts
    1)There was a wideness of mercy and love and openness in William Greathouse.  I remember a summer conference at NNU in the 90’s where I will never forget how ‘holiness’ was found in so many writers and theologians of other persuasions. I was struck by the way a hunger for God, in whatever tradition or writer, Catholic or Protestant, that forged Greathouse’s thinking. He was so widely read that I am reminded to stop reading and regurgitating what everyone is talking about as if it all that matters. He was a holiness theologian because everyone he read informed him about holiness.
    2)Gabriel’s comment is striking as I had the privilege of visiting his church this past summer. Bilingual worship was a treat for my family.  Reaching beyond my theological culture changes the way I see my world and myself. Wesley said the ‘world is his parish’. Silly debates will not reach the world. I think I need to hear what Wesleyans from around the world need to say. And I need to listen. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight. This old white preacher needs help!

Todd Stepp


Like many, Dr. Greathouse had a profound impact on me.

I agree with your idea of a theological council/panel.  While writing resolutions to the previous G.A., knowing we, previously, tabled issues concerning the Articles of Faith, I thought about a resolution that, at least, impaneled a group of theologians at the G.A. to discuss resolutions related to the Articles.

I have concerns about the future, theologically speaking.  My concerns come from such things as William Abraham’s statement, which I heard at a meeting of the Confessing Movement in the UMC, and which he put in print in the Oxford/Methodist book, that the CotN is currently in the process of “giving up the doctrine” (of Christian Perfection).  A statement he has based on his discussions with certain Naz. theologians.

My concerns come from the statement of another UM “holiness” theologian that Naz. theologians (unlike the days of “two camps”) are “all over the map,” and that we are quickly becoming a “generic evangelical denomination.”

I am NOT concerned with the academic ability of our theologians.  (Nor am I so delusional as to think that I am anywhere near their “class,” academically, though I do consider myself a pastoral theologian or “theologian in residence” of my church).

However, in connection with Greathouse (and I’ll extend it to the “Trevecca Connection”), I am concerned about two things:

First, I am concerned with our theologians being Wesleyan.  Certainly, we need to dialogue with contemporary (and historical) theologians, and we need to be 21st Cent. Wesleyans.  But I am concerned that we not be “all over the map,” “giving up the doctrine,” and “generic evangelical,” but rather that we be 21st Cent. Wesleyans.

My second concern is with the level of “churchmanship” of our theologians, that they love the Church, that they love the Church of the Nazarene, and that, because of that, they live/work for the church.

Neither of these concerns are meant to be accusations.  They are simply concerns.

As I look at Greathouse, I see a Wesleyan Christian and a churchman.

Wishing there was a spell check for these comments(!), I am:

Your Brother in Christ,


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