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Jerry Walls ~ Dennis F. Kinlaw: Naming and Showing that Mysterious Quality

Dennis F. Kinlaw finished his course on April 10, 2017 at the age of ninety-four. He was an Old Testament scholar, a former President of Asbury College (now University), and an icon in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement.

Dr. Kinlaw was one of the most popular camp meeting preachers in America, and it is easy to see why.  He was one of the greatest Biblical preachers I have ever heard. When he preached, you often wondered where he was going for the first fifteen minutes or so, but you needed to listen very carefully because he was laying his groundwork. Then several minutes later, as he connected the dots, lights would start flashing in your mind and heart and you would find yourself understanding, and loving, biblical truth in ways you had never appreciated before. It is hardly surprising that several of his students went on to become noted Old Testament scholars themselves.

Dr. Kinlaw had a lifelong passion to learn, to think, and to grow.  Several years ago a former student and I had the privilege one afternoon to talk theology with him at his house and ask him questions (James called him Gandalf, but not to his face!). He was well into his eighties, but his enthusiasm for thinking hard and deep about the most important issues in life was as warm and infectious as ever.  His provocative insights he shared that day ranged over biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy, and I found myself admiring his octogenarian passion for learning and his ongoing curiosity and delight in discovering ideas he had not considered before.  More, I was inspired to follow the example he so beautifully modeled.  His grandson, Dennis F. Kinlaw III is my colleague at HBU, and he visited him several days ago. Even in Dr. Kinlaw’s weakened condition at age ninety-four, Denny reported that he was exerting his best efforts to discuss the truth he loved and gave his life to understand and articulate.

As a son of the Wesleyan movement, Dr. Kinlaw had a particular passion for the Church at large to recover the message of Christian holiness.  Unfortunately, the word holiness conjures up for many people images of repressive legalism, dour dogma, and joyless judgmentalism.  Much of the holiness movement seems to have forgotten that John Wesley constantly insisted that holiness and happiness are inseparable.  Indeed, one Wesley’s most memorable descriptions of God was “the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.”

Dennis Kinlaw reminded you of that fountain when you talked to him.  He had a deep resonant voice, and when his eyes sparkled and he broke into laughter as he was sharing his insights on the Trinity or the nature of personhood, you got a picture of what holiness is all about.

I am reminded here that C. S. Lewis was first drawn to Christianity in his teenage years by reading a novel by George McDonald, though he had no idea that was happening at the time.  He was attracted by something mysterious that was conveyed in that book but had no idea what it was.  In his spiritual autobiography, he writes, “I did not know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anados.  I do now. It was holiness.”  In view of this experience, it is not surprising that years later, after he was converted, he wrote the following in a letter: “How little people know who think holiness is dull.  When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”

That is a great question to ponder, and it is fitting way to express gratitude for the life and ministry of Dennis Kinlaw.  Many of us who knew him believe he was the “real thing.”  He was a great holiness preacher and a profound biblical scholar, a respected educational leader and administrator.

And while doing all of this, he showed us that holiness is not dull.

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Featured image courtesy Savvas Kalimeris via Unsplash.