Mark Maddix and Diane LeClerc have done it again. Just two years after collaborating as co-editors of Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology (Beacon Hill, 2014), they’ve overseen the production (also by Beacon) of Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer (2016), a welcome volume that will fill an important niche for those desiring a concise but comprehensive introduction to Wesleyan theology.
The term “primer” is well-chosen. Each of the 19 chapters in the 159 page book serves as an introduction to an important doctrinal topic. Organized in a traditional format, the five sections move the reader from 1) the sources and method of theology, to 2) God as theology’s subject, then 3) creation/humanity/sin, followed by 4) the nature of forgiveness and sanctification, and ending with 5) the church’s “meaning, purpose, and hope,” i.e. ecclesiology and eschatology. By book’s close, the careful reader will have taken in the panoroma of Wesleyan theology and – thanks to the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter – confidently be able to double back to pursue smaller trails that fork off from the main path.
The editors assigned the writing of chapters out to a crop of younger, emerging scholars, both male and female (Essential Beliefs, 16). This was a good decision, giving the book a freshness and sensitivity to more recent emphases, including a relational reading of sanctification. Also commendable is that not all writers were from North America, with solid chapters contributed by an Austalian, Zimbawean, Brit, and Filipino.
Mark Maddix’s chapter on spiritual growth contains a sentence that caught my attention. Referring to Communion, he observes: “Christians recognize that as they breathe in through participation in Word and Table, they are healed, empowered, and equipped to breathe out in God’s mission in the world” (Essential Beliefs, 122). This is a powerful metaphor that applies not only to Eucharist but to many other discipleship aspects of church life, including Christian education, preaching, and participation in small groups. Not having read Essential Beliefs until this week (December 2016), it’s fascinating that his breathing in/breathing out image is exactly what I have developed at greater length in Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016) as the concept of “spiritual respiraton.” Maddix’s sentence is a confirmation that the Holy Spirit is always speaking to the church in sundry locations, yet somehow moving us together in the same direction.
Particularly well-done is the chapter on sin by Diane LeClerc. I didn’t expect to read anything new on the topic, yet she manages to breathe new life into an old subject. Likewise, Sarah Whittle’s follow-up chapter on systemic evil is effective, even touching upon spiritual warfare from the perspective of Ephesians 6 and an assortment of other New Testament passages. It is refreshing to see a Western scholar take malevolent spiritual realities seriously. Systemic evil proves to be the right venue to broach the subject, particularly for Western readers who may be inclined to dismiss such things as “superstition.”
While there are many good things to say about Essential Beliefs, one inaccuracy is found in Gift Mtukwa’s essay, “What Makes Ethics Christian?” (chapter 14). In an otherwise strong piece, Mtukwa erroneously follows a well-worn misintepretation of John Wesley’s term “social holiness,” relating it to “reforming the nation” (Essential Beliefs, 111). Certainly, Wesley had a social conscience and was involved in many efforts, including poverty relief, the provision of education to young children from the lower classes, and lending his voice to the anti-slavery efforts of abolitionist parliamentarian William Wilberforce. However, the oft-quoted 1739 phrase – “no holiness but social holiness” (Essential Beliefs, 113) is not a reference to engagement in social causes. Rather, it refers to Wesleyan connection, i.e. the importance of small groups of Methodists meeting together for mutual encouragment and spiritual growth, as Kevin Watson explains. Since Wesley’s time, as Watson points out, some Methodists have nearly equated “social holiness” with social justice. Admittedly, one may argue that in so doing they have improved upon Wesley, but it must be acknowledged that this is a subsequent expansion of the more narrow meaning that John and Charles Wesley ascribed to the phrase.
An additional weakness in Essential Beliefs is the lack of an index. This is unfortunate, particularly since the book is likely to be used in undergraduate classrooms or in small group congregational settings where such an apparatus would prove helpful.
These weaknesses aside, readers will find much to commend in Essential Beliefs. In a publishing world dominated by Calvinistic perspectives and presuppositions, this little volume lives up to its name of being a Wesleyan primer, consistently bringing to bear Wesleyan distinctives – including prevenient grace – to a diversity of topics. I highly recommend this book for those wanting to learn about Christian doctrine as seen through the lenses of the ecclesiastical descendants of the Wesley brothers.
Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2016) is available in both paperback and e-book editions at NPH.com and Amazon.com.