In approaching Phoebe Palmer’s excerpt in the Study section of Richard Foster’s Spiritual Classics, I was anticipating an account of someone excited by exegetical enigmas and preeminently preoccupied with parsing participles—and maybe even awkwardly allured by alliteration, as so many pastoral theologians seem to be. I mean, this excerpt falls in a portion of a book dedicated to the spiritual discipline of study, so I was naturally prepared for some sentence diagrams or a crash course on Greek vocabulary. Instead I was met with a woman who had undoubtedly studied the Scriptures deeply and lived them out passionately. I had expected to see a work of theological study mostly devoid of heartfelt devotion, but instead was met with someone who had altogether disregarded the false dichotomy of the heart and head that is so often promulgated in Christian circles. Here was a woman who had merged homiletics and hermeneutics in a beautiful way that also allowed the reader to see that she passionately lived out her theology.
In this passage, Palmer’s main character is wrestling with the question “Is there a shorter path for getting to the way of holiness that so many saints have walked?” Yes is her simple answer, but there is really only one way: God commands that we be holy. Palmer declares in response, “Whatever my former deficiencies may have been, God requires that I should now be holy. Whether convicted, or otherwise, duty is plain. God requires present holiness.” As she pursues this ideal, Palmer’s protagonist is met with a number of questions and struggles which she consistently brings into the submission of Scripture. Even in confusion and disenchantment at the difficult call towards holiness, Scripture guides: “Be ye steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Eventually, this leads Palmer’s pilgrim to declare in true devotion, “I am wholly thine!—Thou does reign unrivaled in my heart! There is not a tie that binds me to earth; every tie has been severed, and now I am wholly, wholly thine!” Into this ubiquitous surrender, the Holy Spirit speaks: “What! Wholly the Lord’s? Is not this the holiness that God requires?” Thus we come full circle to see that we are called to be holy as God is holy, and to be wholly God’s.
I wish that I could capture or reflect even a sparkle of the glory that shines forth in Palmer’s prose. What other than a deep commitment to Scripture and passion to obey can lead one along such a journey as this? I was humbled and encouraged—and probably convicted a bit as well—by such a simple example of someone wholeheartedly devoted to allowing Scripture to speak the truth of her identity and to dictate the texture of her life. It seems to me a perfect model of what should come to mind when I think of the discipline of study: allowing God to inform my mind, yes, but also my heart and my actions. This is just the second or third segment from Spiritual Classics—the book Echo will be utilizing throughout the summer—that I have read and I am thoroughly thrilled (I know, I just can’t get enough of that cursed alliteration today!) to continue diving deeper both now and in Echo!