Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review of Be Holy

Joseph Coleson, ed. Be Holy: God’s Invitation to Understand, Declare, and Experience Holiness. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2008.

This collection of essays gets off to a rather poor start with a chapter from former General Superintendent David W. Holdren. His assertion that at salvation we receive Jesus as Saviour and only later do we receive him as Lord (p. 23) is neither biblical nor Wesleyan. To speak of trusting Jesus as Saviour without simultaneously receiving him as Lord is out of step with the New Testament’s insistence on uniting the two. This sounds more like something one would hear emanating from Dallas Theological Seminary where “Lordship salvation” is decried as an awful heresy. And to speak of “entire sanctification” as “receiving Jesus as Lord” would certainly seem odd to John Wesley for whom among “the glorious privileges of those who are born of God” was to be found freedom from all wilful sin. Certainly for Wesley, obedience to Jesus Christ and submission to his Lordship (albeit not yet perfected) was a mark of the new birth, not of entire sanctification.

Right here lies much of our problem with preaching and teaching both the new birth and entire sanctification. We have so lowered our expectation of both that our eighteenth and nineteenth century ancestors would be hard put to recognise our doctrine and practice as authentically Wesleyan. For example, we tell people that they just have to “receive Jesus” and he will forgive their sins. They will be saved without any repentance, moral transformation, or obedience. Later, when they get serious about following Jesus they make a commitment to follow him that brings a radical change of heart and behaviour issuing in a great degree of obedience and satisfaction in living the Christian life. They are in fact now born again, following Jesus as Lord, but on the assumption that that level of experience had already been reached earlier, we tell them they are now “entirely sanctified.” The problem is that now they have nowhere else to go and their Christian experience is seriously truncated. Essays like Holdren’s contribute to this problem. It’s not all bad, however. His warnings about the limitations of traditional terms now past their use-by-date is timely (pp. 15-16), and his identification of the shorter, medium, and longer way to holiness (pp. 20-22), borrowed from Chris Bounds, is helpful.

Things definitely improve with the following two essays from Joe Coleson and Terence Paige on the Old and New Testament materials on holiness. These scholars take complex biblical theology and relate it well to a non-technical audience, the intended readership of this book. John Tyson provides a good summary essay in chapter 4 on the eighteenth century roots of Holiness teaching and, in keeping with his own research interests, includes Charles Wesley along with his brother John highlighting both convergence and difference between the two. Clarence Bence gives an excellent historical overview in the fifth chapter, again addressing a non-technical audience and providing a user friendly contribution that is nonetheless well grounded in solid scholarship. Particularly good is his placing of the American holiness movement in the context of three formative influences – Jacksonian democracy, Wesleyan perfectionism and Finney’s radical social reforms – and in his discussion of Wesleyanism’s ambivalent relationship to fundamentalism. It’s a pity, though that the chapter should be focused only on what Bence calls “American holiness.” The Wesleyan Church (the publisher of this book) is supposedly a global church (the International Wesleyan Church), and only one holiness denomination among many spread throughout the world. Broadening this chapter to provide a more internationalist perspective or providing a separate chapter on the wider world presence of the Church would have added considerably to the value of the book.

Keith Drury is always one to ruffle feathers and shoot from the hip (pardon the oddly mixed metaphor). In his chapter on “Experiencing the Holy Life” he makes the insightful observation that “[W]hen the Holiness Movement married evangelicalism, we downplayed our own family traditions for the sake of the marriage.” (p. 130). This loss of distinctiveness has brought the Wesleyan-Holiness movement to a crisis of identity. Judy Huffman, in chapter 9 on “Practical Holiness” relates her experience of growing up in a Holiness context dominated by rule-based legalism and the expresses the debt she owes to contemporary Wesleyan scholars who have helped her understand holiness in a new, more relational way, grounded in social Trinitarianism (pp.135-59). This is all very good but it begs the question of the distinctive nature of Wesleyan discourse about holiness. That the older take on entire sanctification is fading is evidenced by the several places in this book where traditional holiness movement themes are challenged or rejected. For example in chapter 3 Terence Paige states:

In my opinion nowhere does the New Testament explicitly address the question whether sanctification is ‘instantaneous’ or ‘gradual.’ That may be a legitimate question to ask today, but I am not sure it was a question Paul or Jesus asked or answered. Rather, sanctification is presented, I believe, as part of the life journey of a disciple. To ask Paul, ‘When are we perfectly sanctified?’ is like asking ‘When have I perfectly loved my spouse?’ The answer is that it is something that happens every day as God works in us and we work with God.(p.52)

That sanctification is the “life journey of a disciple” is certainly true. But what Christian, Wesleyan or otherwise, would state anything to the contrary? When there was a clear “second blessing” message about entire sanctification, the Holiness movement had a distinctive message, even if one that some could not accept. With that emphasis fading what features of our teaching about holiness might be said to be distinctively Wesleyan? Rich Eckley helpfully reminds us in chapter 6 that holiness is the concern of all Christians, and Mike Walters in his chapter 7 on “Preaching Holiness Today” reminds us that holiness “stands at the beginning and centre of God’s call on [all] our lives.” (p. 110). I concur wholeheartedly with this, but is it the case, then that the Wesleyan contribution is simply to emphasise holiness as something important? Or are there also specific confessional statements that need to be set forth? These are questions of confessional identity that I believe need to be asked and answered.

Robert Blacks’ chapter on “Social Holiness” reminds us that the expression as used by Wesley did not primarily have reference to social reform but to the importance of Christian community. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon’s chapter on “Social Justice” picks up the reform agenda admirably, and calls the Wesleyan Church back to its more radical roots. She recalls how Dr. Virgil Mitchell expressed regret late in life that the Wesleyan Church had been largely silent during the great civil rights era of the 1960s. Charles Edwin Jones provides the sobering fact that “within twenty years of assuming denominational form, holiness churches officially abandoned welfare work.” (Charles Edwin Jones, Perfectionistic Persuasion (Scarecrow Press, 1974), p. 177 cited in Be Holy, p.186.) What had happened to the earlier political radicalism that had been a defining characteristic of the Church’s abolitionist ancestors? The election of Jo Anne Lyon to the General Superintendency is one of the most encouraging signs of the Wesleyan Church’s recapturing of its original justice ethos and this return is long overdue.

Each chapter ends with “Action/Reflection Suggestions” that will prove helpful in both small group discussion and personal study. The list of books for further reading is accompanied by helpful synopses of the content of each book. Overall I am pleased that the denomination to which I belong has produced a book such as this and the “Wesleyan Theological Perspectives” series to which it belongs is a commendable one, even if the quality of individual essays varies considerably.


Share |