A Land of Lakes and Rivers…

This will be long and maybe boring for many of you. It is a paper I wrote for a class I am finishing: History of Christian Spirituality and Renewal. If you choose to read on… use it as a sleep aid…

“A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw
water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His
disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

The Samaritan woman, taken aback,
asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a
drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to

Jesus answered, “If you knew
the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I
would give you fresh, living water.”

The woman said, “Sir, you
don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you
going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob,
who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed
it down to us?”

Jesus said, “Everyone who
drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water
I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring
within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

The woman said, “Sir, give me
this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this
well again!”[1]


“But today our sovereign God is
drawing many streams together that heretofore have been separated from one
another. It is a little like the Mississippi River, which gains strength and
volume as the Ohio and the Missouri and many other rivers flow into it. So in
our day God is bringing together a mighty ‘Mississippi of the Spirit’”[2]


Water has been used extensively through centuries of Christian thought and teaching as an apt
metaphor to speak about God’s interaction with people. Water is essential to life; human as well as the diversity of life on our planet. Without a consistent supply of water, living things wither and eventually die. Life as a Christian is just as precarious without consistent outpourings of the fresh, living water of the Holy Spirit. Richard Foster uses the metaphor of water to describe the Spirit of God pouring renewal through of spiritual vitality and life through six different streams of Christian tradition: The Contemplative Tradition, The Holiness Tradition, The Charismatic Tradition, The Social Justice Tradition, The Evangelical Tradition, and The Incarnational Tradition.[3]
This paper compares and contrasts The Holiness Tradition and Incarnational Tradition. I must say, up front, that my description of  the Holiness Tradition is taken from my own experience of growing up in a particular expression of this tradition; that of “second blessing” holiness theology. My description of the Incarnational Tradition will include what I am beginning to understand as my own tradition, which is a work in progress.

I will borrow from Jesus and Foster (not bad company) as they use water as a symbol for the Holy
Spirit, but I will depart somewhat in the manner in which the symbol is used by them as it relates to the manner in which each tradition embodies the manifestation of the Spirit. Specifically, my observation of how the Holiness Tradition embodies water, is as a lake; while the Incarnational Tradition embodies it is as a river. I will use these disparate expressions as a means to compare and contrast each with the other in these ways:

  • A General Overview of each tradition’s
  • Attitudes Towards the World and Culture.
  • Key Images and Symbols.
  • Relation to the Bible, including key
  • Perception of God.
  • Place of Sacraments, liturgy, art,
    music, and architecture.
  • Prayer and Spiritual Practices.
  • Use of Personal Narrative, Stories, and
    Faith in Life.
  • Methods of Spiritual Formation and Guidance.

A General Overview:

Grand Lake lies in the heart of the Great Divide of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It is the deepest and largest natural lake in the state. It’s water is deep and pure, due to its location and the natural barriers which surround it. Although its water is used by residents in the Denver Metroplex; in its natural state, great effort must be made to cross mountainous barriers in order to partake of its pure water. Therefore, as a source of water for the surrounding ecosystem, it is attractional, in nature. It is a source of water for Denver only because a tunnel was drilled through the mountains at great effort and cost. My own experience within the Holiness Tradition was through membership in The Church of the Nazarene, and in my early years of childhood, in The Pilgrim Holiness Church; one of the two forebears of The Wesleyan Church. As with Grand Lake, the purity of the water of the Spirit in these denominations, at least in my memory of the past, was due to theological, self-imposed isolation. They sought to be distinctive in dress and behavior from the rest of the “world.” A key goal phrase was to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Although these denominations shared a goal of evangelizing the communities within which they lived, their strategies were attractional in nature. Church services were where the water was dispensed, and people were invited to come to the church in order to find the water of the Spirit. Their methods of living, style of dress, and strict code of restrictions with regard to entertainment, created barriers to natural friendship development with people who didn’t share their faith or faith expressions.

So…if you wanted water…you had to go get it!

The Missouri River runs from where it is formed by the convergence of three different rivers near Three Forks, Montana; to where it empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri. In its natural state, the Mighty Mo, or “Big Muddy” as it is also frequently called, constantly shifted directions in its flow, carving out and dispensing valuable nutrients across the 338.5 million acres of the Missouri River basin.[4] This twisting, turning action also creates a plethora of various, natural
habitats which are home for a wide variety of species of plant and animal life. The power of the river is difficult to tame. Obstacles along its shifting banks are eventually overcome as the power of the water eats away at earthen foundations, until the obstacle itself is carried away by the river to be deposited wherever the river pleases. Historically, the river also was a means of transportation and varied commerce from communities which rested along its banks. Choosing a site near the river became imperative for people living in the region, because it became a conduit of all the necessities of life.

The Incarnational Tradition takes the water of the Spirit to people. It shares the nutrients of its traditions with the world. People living this tradition don’t wait for the world to change as they live in isolation; they change the world through active engagement with it. Incarnational people are happy living in a variety of spiritual ecosystems, and they act as connectors between disparate faith
traditions. They find value in the ordinariness of life and understand the wealth in the giving of seemingly trivial things.

So… the water comes to find you!

Attitudes toward the World and Culture:

Holiness Tradition-

“We rejoice that, in spite of the onsets of the enemy, and that, though the world,
the flesh, and the Devil, are violently over against us, and that, though we
are attacked on one side by formalism, ceremonialism, and worldliness, and on
the other by fads and fanaticism, that our churches and people have steadily
held on their way, in truth and righteousness, and have been generally able to
push the battle on to victory.”[5]

The above statement is indicative of my memory of the Holiness denominations in which I came of age. The world was something to guard against. Although I realize the “world” as used in this way concerned an approach to living which was contrary to God, but the actions I saw and conversations I heard demonstrated anger rather than love for culture, with no real positive regard for the environment, or planet. I will admit, however, that although they were antagonistic to culture and the world system, they did seem to care for the people within those systems, or at least the SOULS of the people in those systems.

Incarnational Tradition-

Foster explains the Incarnational Tradition’s relationship to world and culture thusly:

“But the religious dimension is the beginning, not the end. We are to take this life
and incorporate it into all we are and all we do.  We bring it unto daily life: into our homes, into our work, into our relationships with children and spouse and friends and neighbors and, yes, even enemies. Here we come to the most fundamental arena
for the Incarnational Tradition: the arena of everyday life. It is the place, par excellence, in which we make visible and manifest the invisible realm of the spirit”[6]

This is active engagement with people and the world, rather than withdrawal from it.  Although both traditions seem to love people, the Holiness tradition does so in hopes of changing them, while the Incarnational tradition does so in hopes of serving them.

Key Images and Symbols:

Holiness Tradition-

Fire… The metaphor of fire was a recurring theme in at least two ways:

  • As a symbolic expression of the holiness of God which purified the life of the disciple
  • As a representation of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when flaming tongues dropped from above and alighted upon the disciples, thereby anointing them with the presence and power of God.

The Alter… also called a mourner’s bench:

  • The alter was a place of public prayer and personal, spiritual sacrifice. It was there that people came forward to and knelt in order to seek the forgiveness of God and repent from their past life of sin.
  • It also was the place where people came in order to give themselves completely to God.
  • People would also seek anointing with oil by the pastor at the alter, to be healed personally or for the healing of a love one.
  • Infant “dedication” also happened near the alter.

The Incarnational Tradition:

  • Ark of the Covenant… Foster suggests this symbol as a way of portraying how God uses all manner of talents and abilities to house God’s presence in the world.[7]
  • A cup of cool water… I would suggest this image as a means to explain how even the most basic gifts can testify to God’s love for another person.

Relation to the Bible, Key Texts:

Holiness Tradition-

  • Acts 2: 1-4… ”When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one
    place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be
    tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”[8]
  • Romans 12: 1-2…” Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”[9]

Incarnational Tradition-

  • Genesis 1: 26-31… “God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature

So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,

the birds in the air, the cattle,

And, yes, Earth itself,

and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

God created human beings;

he created them godlike,

Reflecting God’s nature.

He created them male and female.

God blessed them:

 “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!

 Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds
in the air,

 for every living thing that moves on the face
of Earth.”

Then God said, “I’ve given you

 every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth

 And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,

 given them to you for food.

 To all animals and all birds,

 everything that moves and breathes,

 I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”

 And there it was.

 God looked over everything he had made;

 it was so good, so very good!

 It was evening, it was morning—

 Day Six.[10]

  • Matthew 10: 40-42…  “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”[11]

Perception of God:

Holiness Tradition- God is perceived as a pure and holy God.

  • The God in the burning bush which called to Abram
  • The God whose very presence on Mount Sinai caused the mountain to smoke.
  • The God who led the Children of Israel through the desert as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.
  • The God whose purity acts as a refiner’s fire.

Incarnational Tradition- God is perceived as the divine Christ, who was a servant.

  • The God who washed the feet of the disciples.
  • The God who obediently carried the sin of the world to the cross.
  • The God who left heaven to become human.

Place of Sacraments, liturgy, art, music, and architecture:

Holiness Tradition- Worship services in the tradition in which I was raised had a very loose structure, with no observable hierarchy of symbolic sacraments or liturgy. The architectural design was usually very simple in the early days of my memory. However, music held a special place. As an evangelist, my father would sit at the piano and lead the congregation in singing choruses and an occasional hymn. People loved to sing, and they sang out the parts in a beautiful cacophony of
emotion and joy.

Incarnational Tradition- I tend to believe this tradition sees all of life and creation in a sacramental way. The liturgy is that of living a life of service to people from a loving heart, filled with the music which is the playlist of the sounds of life: laughter, crying or singing children, the pounding hammer, and the voices of lovers speaking in hushed tones. The Creation itself is the architecture
within which worship occurs.

Prayer and Spiritual Practices:

Holiness Tradition- My memory of prayer, especially of the personal variety, is that of my mother. I
remember one night in particular, when I had come home after a round of drinking alcohol. After what I thought was a successful lie to her, I awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of her voice and the sight of her kneeling at the foot of my bed; pleading with God for me: her son, and my
salvation. Although it angered me at the time, I still remember the sight and sound, and hope her prayers on my behalf are still heard by God and graciously answered.

In a corporate setting, I remember a person being asked to “lead in prayer,” but with his first word,
the place would erupt in LOUD, communal voices being lifted up to God as if God were hard of hearing. After a few minutes, with no discernable sign or direction, the waves of sound would slow and then abruptly stop, with intermittent “Praise God’s” and “Amen’s” echoing throughout the space. I am more amazed at that scene now, than I was as a child. It seemed common then, and anything but; now.

Other spiritual practices in that tradition included fasting, bible reading, and “family alter”: in which all members of the family would begin the day listening to a short scripture or devotional reading, and then pray together. Another interesting practice was that of running the aisles of the church when the Holy Spirit “blessed” someone, or that of shouting while walking throughout the
sanctuary when God again “blessed” someone.

Incarnational Tradition- Use of “the Jesus prayer” or practicing breath prayers while busy in the course of normal life would be a couple of ways to pray in an incarnational manner. Another form of prayer which is congruent with this tradition is “practicing the presence of Jesus” in the ordinary events of life. Fasting is another practice used, however, all of life can be considered spiritual
practices: making love to a spouse, reading a book to a child, studying for a test, or WRITING A PAPER FOR A HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY AND RENEWAL CLASS. All of life is both a gift to be received from God while seeking to be thankful and lived with praise.

Use of Personal Narrative, Stories, and Faith in Life:

Holiness Tradition- One effective use of personal narratives which I always loved occurred after a
prolonged time of prayer and repentance around the alter. After everyone had finished praying, the ones who had “prayed through” would stand…one by one… and tell their stories of how God had called them to God’s self. Tears of joy would flow from the storyteller, their friends, and family as they testified of God’s redemptive love in action. I loved those stories!

Incarnational Tradition- Using one’s personal story as a means to help others feel more at
ease to share their own is an incarnational use of story.

Methods of Spiritual Formation and Guidance:

Holiness Tradition:
Although I remember my father telling of specific services set aside for corporate confession, I perceived the responsibility for spiritual formation and growth to belong to each individual. Sermons, bible reading, books, and prayer were the primary practices used.

Incarnational Tradition: The life of Susanna Wesley shows how spiritual formation and guidance can occur in the intimacy of the home, as well as through strong confrontation with human traditions.[12] Susanna allowed the mundane tasks of everyday life to be a means of transformation for her children by filling each day with the presence of the very present, eternal God. She manifested forgiveness and love to those children whose mistakes, and even sin, threatened to discourage them. Susanna willingly undertook the uncomfortable tasks of confrontation when she deemed it necessary to address dysfunctional practices in those people or institutions which she loved; no matter the cost to her reputation or comfort. Even when it related to her husband!

Strengths and Weaknesses of each Tradition:

Strengths of the Holiness Tradition-

  • Living with focus. The aim of each person is fixed on their relationship with God and how that is played out in their habits and choices.
  • Living an examined life. Turning over every intention to examine how it relates to the call of Christ and his sacrifice for us
  • Living with a passion for God. Taking on the practice of embodying the Shema in our life and witness.
  • Living as a witness of God’s redemptive power. We become exhibits of God’s power to change people to a world living in dysfunction and self-defeating action.
  • Living with the Holy Spirit as acknowledged Guide. Making room for God to direct us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Weaknesses of the Holiness Tradition-

  • Living a narrow life. It is easy to be so consumed by our personal, moral stands that we become legalistic and forget to receive the beauty of the totality of God’s gifts to us. We are in danger of refusing to receive all of life as a gift of God.
  • Living in continual transition from birth to eternity. It is a danger of this tradition to live so focused on the future that we forget to live fully in the present.
  • Living in judgment of others while denying our own brokenness.
  • Living in Holiness Tradition communities can create isolated, Christian ghettos. A ghetto is a place of exclusion, whether by force or by choice.
  • Living in denial of the innate value of humanity as given by God, due to a focus on human depravity.

Strengths of the Incarnational Tradition-

  • Living in this manner leads to active engagement with both culture and the world. By so doing, we provide a living witness to the love of God for the world.
  • Living a fuller life, because we acknowledge the value of others, and ourselves; so we receive all of life as a gift of God rather than continually pursuing a narrow definition of Christian
  • Living as a servant; in the manner of Christ.
  • Living a life that brings value to the world around us.
  • Living in and giving others grace, rather than unreasonable, legalistic expectations.

Weaknesses of the Incarnational Tradition-

  • Living so close to the world and culture that our identity might become indistinguishable from it.
  • Living out of balance due to an inability to draw healthy boundaries: a pseudo-martyr complex.
  • Living in this way can get you killed… it did Jesus and Dag Hammarskjold. However, this could also be a strength.
  • Living in love with the culture and the world can also lead to idolatry.
  • Living outwardly can degenerate into the belief that we earn God’s favor by our service, rather than allowing service to be an expression of God’s love for us.


I have been critical, I think, of the Holiness Tradition. In fact, the tradition which Foster describes
seems very different than the one in which I was raised. God continues to lead me to re-define many of the terms I heard while growing up, by finding metaphors which better describe my own journey of faith and that of other friends whose lives of faith I have observed. I am very thankful for this
process of re-definition. I am healthier because of it. The Incarnational Tradition is very attractive to me. The best life I can think of is to be “Jesus with skin on” to my world. It seems to tie in nicely with Edenic, relational principles of living in full appreciation of the gifts God has given us in God’s
self, our self, and others. I desire a fuller life than the one in which I was raised, as it regards to Christianity, and in the Incarnational Tradition, I think I see it.

John 4: 7-15; The Message

Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of
Christian Faith; Richard Foster; New York, NY; HaperCollins Publishers, 1998;
Pg. xv.

Ibid; Foster, Pg. xvi.

Phineas F. Bresee- A Prince In Israel; E. A. Girvin; Wesleyan Heritage Press;
1998, Pg. 191. Bresee is considered the organizing force behind The Church of
the Nazarene, and the first General Superintendent of the denomination. The
quote is taken from his address to The Eleventh General Assembly of the
denomination as General Superintendent.  http://media.sabda.org/alkitab-6/wh2-hdm/hdm0091.pdf

Ibid, Foster; Pg. 263.

Ibid; Foster, Pg. 248.

New International Version


The Message

The Message

Ibid; Foster, Pg. 237-247.


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