Use the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).
Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.
Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:
…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).
Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.
God’s nature as “holy love”
A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).
It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:
‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).
Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.
Summing it all up
Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.
There’s a conversation in Wesleyan circles about God’s nature. Thomas Jay Oord insists that the unadorned noun, “love,” is sufficient when talking about the character of God. Kenneth Collins, on the other hand, prefers to add an adjective, describing God as “holy love.” I side with Collins, and here’s why:
1. The biblical evidence – Two key New Testament passages come to mind. In 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 11:44, God calls us to holiness in simple terms: “Be holy, because I am holy.” The verse is preceded by a call to avoid the “evil desires” that typified us when we “lived in ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14, NIV). Holiness is presented as the opposite of evil, i.e. righteousness. God is saying: “Pay attention! This is something crucial about who I am. Because purity is part of who I am, so it should be part of who you are.”
Yet if we stop there, we have only one half of the equation. 1 John 4:8 (NIV) teaches: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” There is no hatred in God. Rather, God seeks the well-being of all creation. In fact, love does not exist where a genuine and prioritized interest in the well-being of others is absent.
2. Immanence and transcendence – Christian theology teaches that – in relation to creation – God is both transcendent (over and above) and immanent (close by). Isaiah 6:1 is the prophet’s vision of the LORD who is “high and lifted up.” This is the picture of transcendence, that the LORD is the Other, the Creator not to be confused with the creation. Yet this coin has two sides. In Jesus, Immanuel, we also encounter God with us (Matthew 1:23), the immanent one, close by and alongside all that God loves. This is a tension in our view of God, to be sure, but not unlike other tensions that we accept, such as Jesus being wholly human and wholly divine.
So where does this leave us?
If we say only that “God is love,” we are favoring part of the biblical revelation over another; it is an incomplete picture of God. Balanced doctrine takes into account what John Wesley called the “whole tenor of Scripture.” Though this brief essay has cited only a few passages, a more thorough study of Old and New Testaments would confirm that these dual emphases as related to God’s nature – holiness and love – exist side-by-side. Like a double helix strand of DNA, stability comes when the two remain joined together.
Danger lies in either extreme. Should we speak of God as only holy, inevitably our concept of God would be that of a distant, even harsh deity unable to identify with our weaknesses. On the other hand, if we only speak of God as love, we risk making God a doting grandfather who cares little about the moral quality of our lives. To maintain the transcendence/immanence tension – of the exalted, righteous God and the God who showed his affection for us through the incarnation of Christ – then speaking of God’s nature as “holy love” maintains equilibrium in our vision of who God is and who we are to be in response.
May the God who is holy love be our exemplar. May Jesus Christ – who is the very image of God – inspire us to lead lives that are simultaneously unpolluted by the world and selflessly poured out in loving service to others.
The tendency over the past 50 years in some Christian circles has been to say:
Jesus died on the cross so we could go to heaven.
The epitome of this approach was an evangelism strategy developed by the Reverend D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In home visits, church members would ask prospects: “Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?”
At Seminary, we learned this method in a slightly modified form. However, it has always seemed incomplete to those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective. In Matthew 28:16-20, the passage commonly called the “Great Commission,” Jesus outlined our mission not as helping people make sure their ticket is punched for the heavenly bus ride. Rather, it is a call for people to follow Jesus in the here-and-now:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).
Common Evangelical parlance says that we must “get saved.” Strangely, there is often little mention of this in relationship to following Jesus. An experience of praying a “sinner’s prayer” becomes the be-all and end-all of our interaction with individuals. Discipleship – the act of following Jesus and growing in holiness – seems to be relegated to an optional activity. To this, Gregory Boyd responds:
To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.
Even this needs more clarity, for a decision to “be saved” is a decision to turn our backs on wrongdoing and to follow Jesus together. The Great Commission is explicit at this point since disciples are to be baptized, a sign of our abandonment of evil ways and our initiation into the church. In meeting together we find strength and mutual encouragement. An ember separated from the fire soon grows cold, but when left piled up with other embers keeps glowing and producing warmth. It is together that we can learn to obey all that Christ commanded, in love holding each other accountable.
But let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus die on the cross?
We’ve seen so far that the answer “so that we could go to heaven” is inadequate in that is skips over the crucial notion of discipleship. It neglects to mention that our one day being with Jesus in heaven will be because we’ve followed him there first.
A better answer to the question would be:
Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.
In the film, Apollo 13, the astronaut character played by Tom Hanks radios back to earth: “Houston, we have a problem.” In the same way, the Bible teaches that each of us has a problem, and that problem is sin. Sins are the evil actions we commit that estrange us from God. These acts of disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4) set us on a path that ultimately leads to our destruction (Romans 6:23). To follow the path of sin is to follow what Jesus called the “broad path” (Matthew 7:13). On the other hand, God gives us the power to choose to follow Christ. A decision to follow him is a decision – by God’s help – to turn away from the path of destruction and take another path, a narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
When the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child, the angel told Mary what name to give the newborn. He was to be called Jesus, derived from the Hebrew word Yeshua (salvation). And what would Jesus’ mission on earth be? He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, KJV).
These days some want to rewrite Matthew 1:21 to say that Jesus will save his people not from their sins but in their sins. It is like we believe that since Jesus saves me, it doesn’t matter how I live. John Wesley (1703-91) called this false doctrine antinomianism, or lawlessness. He saw it as the most widespread and deadly error of his day. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus died in order for us to live transformed lives:
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV).
In this verse, to sanctify is to purify. God longs to make us like Jesus, to clean us up! Nina Gunter insists: “Grace does not leave us where it found us.” This is exactly the opposite of the slogans we hear, such as “I’m only human” or “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” You may have been a sinner, but that was then, this is now (1 Corinthians 6:11). Now, we are followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family! Jesus can change us; he can save us from our sin, or he is no Savior at all.
Church leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they can do to make the church grow again. May I suggest sinning Christianity is the problem? Until we get to the place where we are sick of our sin and desperate for God’s holy love to fill us, we will have nothing of value to offer to people who look on and see only the same filth and absence of love that they can find 24/7 elsewhere. If the church has a PR problem, it’s only because it has a sin problem. How can we offer deliverance if we ourselves are still enchained?
Heaven isn’t enough. Jesus died for more than to take us to heaven. He died so that as his true followers we can live new lives, transformed lives, lives characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, spilling over with God’s holy love right here on earth. May the Lord renew His church both individually and corporately!
Last week, I posted a review of David Thomas Stark’s 2011 Manchester thesis on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Read the full review here.
David was my classmate at Manchester, and we always enjoyed good discussions. So, it’s no surprise that he gave a thoughtful e-mail response to my review, which I’ve posted below with his permission.
We live at a time when what God’s grace can accomplish in our lives is too often downplayed. Yet Stark helps us understand that the remedy to one extreme is not going to the other. The “credibility gap” that Mildred Wynkoop first mentioned is often laid at the feet of the American Holiness Movement. But, in-light of Stark’s thesis, it may be asked: Did Wesley sow the seeds of the “oversell” of our doctrine, claiming too much for it?
Let the reader decide.
Thank you for this review and reminder that I should at some point pursue getting my work published. You were as engaging and complimentary as you were critical, and I appreciate that. You seem to understand the importance of amissibility in Wesley’s logic and in early Methodist spirituality. Allow me a few further points of explanation, which I don’t necessarily expect you to readdress in your review:
1) You’re correct that much discussion has been made about Methodist identity within or without the Church of England, but I believe I am the first to hammer home that it was specifically because of the doctrine of Christian perfection as prioritized in the context of holiness revivalism in the early 1760s (albeit an arguably failed first experiment) that early Methodism made some of its most momentous and official, legally-binding steps towards securing what would ultimately become its independent, denominational status (i.e. increased licenses under the Act of Toleration, The Model Deed and The Deed of Declaration during this period or its aftermath). I don’t gather that you’re of the camp much bothered much by the fact of Methodist dissent, but there is a growing batch of scholars (Jeremy Gregory, David Rainey, and Joseph Wood – all who I knew from my studies in Manchester) who I think are trying to re-peg Wesley back into an Anglican identity which he necessarily left in actual practice, even if he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. Wesley and the early Methodists could be regarded as “faithful dissenters”, in that they imagined themselves in line with earlier strains of Anglican renewalist thought (Richard Hooker, for example), but they were dissenters nonetheless, as is proved by every legal document they signed describing themselves to be as much. That agenda, I think, is based on a current “identity crisis” of sorts (as Christianity Today most famously put it about a decade ago) by those in the COTN or other offshoot groups from Methodism to normalize and formalize their organizations’ existences within a more consistent tradition of faith rather than the lonely and compromised strands of splinting denominationalism and sectarian association which have more historically been its reality. If “second blessing” holiness revivalism as actually taught by John Wesley was the catalyst for a distinct Methodist identity as I argue, then it makes sense that movements which were defined for over 200 years by this “distinguishing doctrine” or “peculiar doctrine of Christian perfection” as Wesley called it but no longer maintain it with Wesley’s unique and original radical semblance, would have no problem recasting themselves in a congruent chain with Establishment. Whether or not the Established Church is as interested in such remains suspect.
2) Per you criticisms in final paragraph starting with “A final preoccupation”, I would point at that I did state “Previous paradigm suggestions for the chronological development of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection that have argued its shape only reached maturity in the mid or late 1760s or later [so after the context of holiness revival] reflect more of an agenda to disassociate the MEthodist leader from the excesses of perfectionism mangiest during the early 1760s than a historically accurate review of his presentations” (bottom of page 200). There I was referencing, but yes, would have been better to specifically point back to, my section from pages 38-42 titled “Survey of Date-Based Paradigms of Development in Wesley’s Doctrine of Perfection”, which includes the likes of Outler, Maddox, Watson, Moore, Fraser, Gunter, Peters, and NTC’s own Olson. The point I attempted to make is that the holiness revival is not something that the “Mature” John Wesley emerged out of, but rather something which the shape of the mature Wesley’s doctrine and pastoral practice actually inspired and should be accountable and accredited for. In fact, I think the strongest language that Wesley every used to describe the secondness of entire sanctification as deliverance from the “evil root and inbred sin” (all aspects emphasized most prominently in the American Holiness experience) occurred in 1767- well after he should have “corrected” himself from the doctrine’s excesses. In the sermon “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Wesley argued for the spiritual importance, if not even salvific importance, of a second event of grace with such assertation as to make it impossible to regard secondness as replaceable in an authentically Wesley’s understanding:
Then only the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed, and inbred sin subsists no more. But if there be no such second change, if there be no instantaneous deliverance after justification, if there be none but a gradual work of God (that there is a gradual work none denies) then we must be content, as well as we can, to remain full of sin till death. And if so, we must remain guilty till death, continually deserving punishment. (JW, “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Works [BE], 1:346.
Referring to Wesley as an “occasional theologian” proves helpful for dismissing problematic arguments like the above from his corpus, even if they occurred so late in his ministry. But there are definite hamartiological weakness, overemphases and downright inconsistencies in Wesley. And not to nitpick, but as quickly as he said he never used the term sinless perfection, he followed up in the next line that he does not object against it either. His constantly playing this game of semantics is why I called it “qualified sinless perfection”.
3) And to the larger point of new “approaches”, I would refer you back to my concluding remarks on pages 210- 212, including footnote 24, 30, and 31, in which I list at least five writers by name At the end of thesis I was bookending my introductory statements in the section on Methodist Ideal and Identity in Contemporary Dilemma from the middle of pages 13-16. The mistake I made in not continually reciting these scholars by name- the likes of Outler, Maddox, Noble and other well known and much loved scholars in the Methodist and Nazarene tradition I will not re-mention here by name was intentionally done out of a sense of reverence for my heroes at the time than a mistake or omission. It is a very understandable that modern day committed Methodists, Wesleyans and Nazarenes would want to disassociate his teachings from more problematic areas of its more recent activities, but my point is that there is much more in common with radical Wesley and the American Holiness Movement, just as there was with Wesley and the radicals Maxfield and Bell, than there was difference. Further study could use my thesis as a reference of dialogue with more specific examples of authentically Wesleyan language and practice in the 19th century Holiness Movement and, say, the 20th century Holiness movement abroad. I’m find with what you said — that Wesley can and should be always improved upon. No doubt, he will need to be improved upon by his followers to maintain his relevance in each new and increasingly distanced generation. I just prefer that when this is happening that those points of improvement on Wesley are clear and not casted as the founder’s original thoughts or intentions. After years of learning about John Wesley in college and grad school, I personally was shocked to encounter the real, decisively indecisive, consistently inconsistent and ever elusive John Wesley during my PhD studies when I set out to find him in his own words and in the words of early Methodist spiritual autobiographies and testimonies, which I researched extensively at the Special Collections of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (transcribing for my own purposes more than 90 of the 153 letters in the Early Methodist Volumes at the time). Ultimately, It bodes better for the Wesleyan tradition, and all religious traditions for that matter, to acknowledge the gaps that exists within what its founders wrote and meant and what its modern adherents may wish they had or hadn’t. A more general question that I pondered as I wrote my thesis was whether it is better that a religious movement and tradition lives and dies on the thoughts, principles, and practices it was originally founded upon and clearly proclaimed, or if it should be improved upon through the ages to the point of missing much of its original point in the first place. Is it not more faithful to eulogize than it is to re-imagine, especially when it is clearly more intellectual honest to do so?
John Wesley (1703-91) spent much energy explaining and defending his understanding of Christian perfection. The term has since proven no less easy to explain even though it is a biblical one, appearing in passages like Matthew 5:48, where Jesus calls us to be “perfect,” even as our Father in heaven is perfect.
David Thomas Stark has written a cogent and illuminating inquiry on this challenging topic, entitled “The Peculiar Doctrine Committed to Our Trust: Early Methodist Ideal and Identity in the First Wesleyan-Holiness Revival, 1758-1763” (PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2011). He examines this pivotal time in the history of British Methodism, a period when John Wesley defined Christian perfection in a way that made it more immediately accessible to the average Methodist yearning for a deeper work of God in heart and life. It is this new emphasis – paraphrased in Stark’s words as “an instantaneous but amissible second work of growth in grace producing qualified sinlessness, available now!”(p. 69) – that opened the door to more than 600 professions of entire sanctification in all parts of England. At the same time, Wesley could be inconsistent in how he presented Christian perfection. Stark identifies some of those problematic areas, especially weaknesses in Wesley’s harmartiology (doctrine of sin).
As one who grew up questioning the validity of “once saved, always saved” doctrine, I was pleased to see that John Wesley did not adopt a “once entirely sanctified, always entirely sanctified” posture. To be “amissible” means able to be lost, and this important caveat has made its way into the creedal statements of denominations that follow in Wesley’s footsteps, including Article X in the Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene. This admission protects those who teach a second work of grace from falling into an “I’ve arrived” posture, thereby cutting themselves off from the ongoing need for the kind of self-examination implied in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, ESV).
Stark’s thesis is structured in a way that keeps the reader engaged.
Chapter 1 examines the development over time of John Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. Though Wesley’s default position in theological debate on many topics was to claim that he was merely teaching what he had always taught, Stark identifies important shifts in Wesley’s Christian perfection concept, discerning four distinct stages. These culminated in the position outlined above, a position that – contrary to the denial of some modern interpreters – Stark convincingly demonstrates that Wesley maintained from 1757 until his death in 1791.
Chapter 2 transitions to a recounting of the first (and only) Wesleyan-Holiness revival that occurred in John Wesley’s lifetime. Though some of the ecstatic manifestations from the earliest years of the Wesley brothers’ preaching in the 1740s are well known, it was surprising to find a May 1759 account from Wesley’s Journal that included mention of listeners laughing uncontrollably. This evokes the so-called “Toronto Blessing” of the late 1990s. More surprising still is Wesley’s forbearance toward this kind of chicanery. Stark observes that – contrary to Wesley’s earlier impatience with such examples of “enthusiasm” (fanaticism) – Wesley now appeared “more open to these kinds of displays” (p. 74). If Wesley evolved in his view of Christian perfection, then here is another area where the more mature Wesley appears to have attenuated his stance. This area merits additional digging in the primary resources to clarify the issue.
For those who imagine a lock-step agreement between John and Charles Wesley on most issues, Chapter 3 and 4 confirm conclusions previously drawn by John Tyson. In fact, what John celebrated as a moving of the Holy Spirit between 1758-1763, his younger brother, Charles, critiqued as instances of enthusiasm bound to discredit the Methodist cause. Central to this period were the hundreds of testimonies to Christian perfection, a state of victory over sin that is the bi-product of a deeper divine work commonly termed “entire sanctification”. The brothers’ disagreement hinged on the timing of the attainment of Christian perfection – not so much the positive aspect of perfect love – but the negative consideration of deliverance from all sin. Charles was skeptical of this work of grace happening earlier in life, postponing it to the time immediately before death. For his part, John increasingly saw such a postponement as a de facto enthronement of sin as the norm for the Christian rather than the life of holiness. Stark adds texture to this important discussion between the brothers. Further, he examines the brothers’ ecclesiology and how Charles’ unwavering commitment to the Church of England made him far less receptive to the pragmatic adaptations that his brother made as the new wine of Methodism gradually burst old ecclesiastical wineskins.
Chapter 5 rounds out the thesis, narrowing the focus to the more extreme manifestations of perfectionism. Chief among these was the prediction by London Methodist preacher George Bell of the end of the world, scheduled for February 28, 1763. Besides teasing out overlooked nuances between Bell’s behavior and the more reasoned involvement of Thomas Maxfield, Stark makes a case that in nearly all particulars other than amissibility, Bell and Maxfield were merely following the logic of their mentor, John Wesley. This was implied in the deliberate way that Wesley handled the affair, only reluctantly expelling them. Though Wesley took pains in writing to distance his views from theirs, one is reminded of the saying: “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” New to me was the emphasis that Bell and Maxfield placed upon Wesley’s non-profession of Christian perfection. Stark clarifies: “They truly believed that they were living in the promised land of Christian perfection that Wesley, a type of Methodist Moses, had only led the people towards but never entered himself” (p. 177). Stark makes a modern application, observing:
It is odd that later denominations that look to Wesley as a namesake and primary influence would necessitate testimony of Christian perfection as a prerequisite to ordained ministerial service since Wesley himself never made any such claim or made it necessary for early Methodist ministry (p. 203).
David Stark has done a commendable job of re-examining John Wesley’s developing doctrine of Christian perfection. Though a good deal of what he writes can be found in other interpretive sources – particularly his treatment of Methodism’s growing breach with the Church of England – his deeper investigation of the Bell/Maxwell saga within the context of the 1758-1763 revival contributes an improved understanding of that painful event.
A second area of originality is his fascinating discussion of what some – though not Wesley – called a “third work of grace” or the “sanctification of the mind.” Through an examination of Wesley’s 1762 Wandering Thoughts, he shows how close Wesley came to affirming that subsequent to entire sanctification is a work of God that can even prevent stray thoughts from entering our consciousness. Stark ably places mind sanctification within the context of the lofty claims that some Methodists made at the time.
A final preoccupation in the thesis is re-visiting one area of division between classical Wesleyanism and the American Holiness Movement over the nature of Christian perfection. According to Stark, it has been argued that John Wesley modified his doctrine after the disastrous Bell/Maxfield episode, softening his claims for Christian perfection. Starks observes: “Though it can be said that early Methodism was in an experimental phase during 1758-1763, to argue that any major changes in Wesley’s teachings on the substance or structure of Christian perfection were introduced after this period is a groundless argument” (p. 200). Unfortunately, the reader is left to wonder exactly which modern interpreters are making this argument as none – other than Albert Outler, in passing – are referenced here nor at the end of chapter 5, where Stark (p. 212) speaks vaguely of “approaches” intended to “lift Wesley and his doctrine from the limitations of his context.” Here, he provided no specific quotations from modern Wesley scholars to illustrate. Revisions of the thesis would do well to shore-up this weakness.
Other times, Stark goes along too readily with those who criticize Wesley’s supposed promotion of “sinless perfection,” a term Wesley never used. For example, after citing a passage from Wesley’s 1784 On Patience, Stark quotes (without critique) Victor Shepherd, who asks: “If this is not sinless perfection, then what would sin-free perfection be?” However, in the passage quoted, noticeably absent is what Wesley commonly called “infirmities,” which may include mistakes of various kinds. For example, forgetting one’s spouse’s birthday is technically a falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), yet would not be a sin “properly so-called,” to use the term from Wesley’s 1766 treatise, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. A rebuttal of Shepherd’s critique in this instance would have strengthened Stark’s analysis.
Those who espouse what Collin Williams called the Wesleyan “optimism of grace” should be thankful for investigations that identify problematic areas in Wesley’s teaching. It is always possible to improve upon Wesley. Stark’s “The Peculiar Doctrine Committed to Our Care” helps the reader identify areas where such improvement is needed. As of this writing, it has been 4 years since the thesis was approved and the PhD awarded to David Stark. It is unfortunate that the thesis has yet to appear in monograph form, for it deserves a broader reading by those committed to promoting the message of holiness.
The life and teachings of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders, have shaped me at a deep level. Sometimes I call John “Saint Wesley” since we in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition are prone to place a halo on his head, overlooking evidence of his all-too-human imperfections. Those responsible in 1791 for etching the words on Wesley’s tombstone must have sensed this ill-advised tendency. Toward the end of the inscription appear these words:
READER if thou art contrain’d to bless the INSTRUMENT,
GIVE GOD THE GLORY.
“There were and are none like him (Jesus Christ). He is so incomparable to the celebrities we celebrate today that to offer a comparison is an affront to his majesty.”
When John Wesley in the 18th century or anyone else in the 21st century takes on the aura of celebrity, are we not “blessing the instrument” rather than giving God the glory?
To say that “the only good in me is the Christ in me” is more than a throw-away slogan. It is a profound theological truth that John Wesley himself promoted as Scriptural. It is no accident that the doctrine of sin looms large in Christian theology. Jesus himself refused to entrust himself to people, because he knew what was in their heart (John 2:24). Like Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Because we know that our default position as human beings post-Fall is to do evil, we cannot give direct credit for good deeds to any individual. To do so would be to “bless the instrument.” Rather, we can only praise God for the powerful working of His grace in the lives of individuals who have surrendered to the impulses of that grace, wherever they are on the spiritual journey.
As Wesleyans, we believe that God the Holy Spirit through prevenient grace (the grace preceding conversion) is always at-work in the world. Not only Christians but people of all faiths (or no faith) are recipients of God’s preceding grace. The old hymn asks God to let our hands move “at the impulse of Thy love” and many do, even if they are not yet conscious of it. A beautiful work of art or a memorable song (like Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band“) is an admirable expression of grace. The poet Cecil Alexander put it this way:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
How will a Wesleyan understanding of grace change how we talk about one another?
Instead of blessing the instrument, we will bless the One who made the instrument. The conversations might sound something like these:
Comment: “Susan, it’s so exciting to see how you’re allowing God to do some amazing things in your life!”
Reply: “Thanks, Mrs. Jones. You’re exactly right. God has been good to me.”
Comment: “God has given you a gift for singing, Kyle. Keep letting God use it for His glory!”
Reply: “Thanks, Mr. Thomas. It’s fun singing for the Lord.”
Comment: “Your work in the children’s department has really turned things around, Brian. I thank God for you.”
Reply: “Do you think so, pastor? I’m glad God has let me be part of a good team.”
On the other hand, if we praise the individual directly as if they are responsible for whatever is good, should we be surprised when sooner or later they develop an attitude of superiority? As the people of God, when we praise the recipient of the gift rather than the Giver, are we not beginning to walk down the fatal path of celebrity? The most that we can do is to praise the individual for allowing God to do admirable things in their lives. Whether that individual is a believer or a non-believer, we believe that any good is a reflection of the grace of God at-work in His creation.
The self-esteem movement was well-intentioned but has served to focus the attention back on the individual, robbing God of the glory due to Him. We are valuable one and all because we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When we see something beautiful in each other, shall we not direct the praise back to God, the maker of beauty?
I still like John Wesley, but what I really like is that Wesley allowed God to work powerfully in his life. My prayer is that more and more I will let God do the same in mine. To Him be the glory, forever and ever!
In 2014, I am committed to plunge into the massive literature on African theology, or what I prefer to call “Christian theology written by Africans.” After all, we don’t usually speak of “European theology,” “Australian theology,” or “North American theology,” so why should we insist on the term “African theology”? By speaking of Christian theology, it is an acknowledgment that the broad, Scriptural themes that unite us – wherever on this planet we happen to have been born and raised – are the priority. On the other hand, speaking of “Christian theology written by Africans” admits that each of us unwittingly brings cultural “glasses” to the reading of Scripture that cannot be removed. These glasses affect the way we go about building our theology, including the choice of which themes from Holy Writ to emphasize and which to soft-pedal or even (unconsciously) which we ignore. Teaching only theology developed in Western settings means neglecting themes that are dear to the heart of Africans while emphasizing some that for them may hold less interest.
To begin this plunge, I took down from the shelf a book that – to my embarrassment – has sat unread for years, even if it has traveled with me as I’ve made my home and served as a missionary in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Haiti, Kenya, and now South Africa. William Dyrness helped edit Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology (Zondervan, 1994). The compendium contains three essays penned by Christian theologians from Africa, as follows:
Anthony Balcom, “South Africa: Terrifying Stories of Faith from the Political Boiling Pot of the World”
Cyril Okorocha, “The Meaning of Salvation: An African Perspective”
Kwame Bediako, “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanaian Perspective”
Today, we will look at the first.
Tony Balcom was born in South Africa but raised in Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His essay was published the same year when South Africa elected Nelson Mandela as President. This means that Balcom would have been writing some time in 1993, when many South Africans feared that their country was teetering on the brink of civil war. In this context of seemingly intractable mistrust between citizens of differing backgrounds, Balcom poignantly observed (pp. 47-48):
For almost four centuries in South Africa, we fought and killed each other. When we tired of this we shouted abuse at each other across great divides of race, culture, and ethnicity. When we tired of this we slammed the door on each other, each pretending the other was not there, each hoping the other would go away. But when we squatted at the keyhole and squinted through to the other side, we saw each other there, as large as life, waiting. And we knew that one day we would have to do it. One day we would have to talk…it is the conversation of those who have begrudgingly come to realize that conversation is the only way out, because those who do not talk, fight. It is therefore conversation steeped in suspicion, resentment, fear, and hate. But it is nevertheless conversation.
Balcom tells three stories to illustrate his contention: “Not a single issue of life can escape the fact of our faith. Our faith demands of us that we ask the questions to do with our lives” (p. 47). The best story is that of Nonqawuse. A prophetess from the Xhosa people group, in 1856, she revealed that the ancestors had spoken to her and had instructed that all the cattle must be slaughtered. Once they were dead, not only the cattle but all the ancestors would come back to life in spontaneous resurrection, chasing away the white oppressors (p. 50). The paramount chief of the Xhosa, Sarhili, accepted the prophecy, and he ordered the slaughter, believing – according to the prophecy – that the resurrection would happen on 11 August 1856. The date came and went, with no resurrection. Balcom concludes: “The Xhosa people were effectively decimated” (p. 50).
The story of Nonqawuse is a tragic narrative that makes one appreciate the desperate lengths that the oppressed will go to in search of liberation. Further, it encourages today’s messengers of the Gospel to make sure that we are preaching Good News. This Good News is of a Christ who not only liberates us from our sins. More than that, regardless of our cultural heritage – in the words of our Nazarene communion ritual – Christ unites us as believers who are “one, at one table with the Lord.” Barriers of ethnicity must crumble around the Table.
It has been 19 years since Tony Balcom’s essay. Just over one month ago, former President Nelson Mandela passed away, heralded by one and all in the country as a Great Uniter. Debate continues regarding whether Madiba was a follower of Christ. Certainly God knows the heart, and we rest in that truth. However one answers the question, one thing is certain: Of all peoples, Christians should be at the forefront of promoting harmony among peoples of all backgrounds. This is the primary take-away from Balcom’s chapter, a timeless lesson in a troubled and divided world.