Cicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.
The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.
Holiness and asceticism
Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.
Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.
In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.
Jerome (347-420 AD)
In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy. LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).
What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)
In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).
This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:
Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).
Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.
Summing it all up
Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.
Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place