Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology. Kansas City: Beacon Hill: 2010. 320 pages. John D. Wagner, ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011. ISBN: 978-8341-2469-1
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Fall 2011. Volume 29.
Date Posted July 08, 2011
Leclerc, professor of historical theology at Northwest Nazarene University, opens with a plea for a postmodern approach to holiness. She argues that we cannot go back to modernism. And I applaud the rejection of Enlightenment rationalism as the ultimate source of authority.
But the postmodern approach emphasizes complexity, ambiguity, and diversity. It rejects any notion of absolutes and therefore is rejected by most evangelicals. However, Leclerc proposes seven ways in which Wesleyan theology parallels postmodern theology. She embraces a postmodern Christian consciousness which is expressed in the emerging church movement.
What follows is her postmodern, relational, feminist, Wesleyan presentation of holiness which follows the quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Part 1 is a survey of the Scriptural foundation. Part 2 is a survey of holiness historically. Part 3 is the theological statement based on reason and Part 4 is the experience, holy living for a new century.
Leclerc does affirm that the Bible stands above the three handmaids of tradition, reason, and experience. However, chapter one, "How to read the Bible as a Wesleyan," implies that we approach the Bible with a certain philosophic presupposition. This, however, may result in an interpretation which differs from Wesley himself.
There was nothing unique to Wesley about his hermeneutic. He utilized Reformation hermeneutics, the grammatical-historical approach. Leclerc describes Wesley's approach as inductive, yet she states her conclusions before ever approaching scripture. Basically, we are to accept Wesley's order of salvation and so when we read the Bible we read those presuppositions into the text. Yet Calvinists read the same scripture with their own presuppositions and arrive at very different conclusions. There can be no objective proof whether either approach is right because we have already stripped the Bible of its final authority.
Leclerc argues that exegesis is hard. The result is that she tends to avoid stating what a passage means. Thus she is unsure of what happened at Pentecost, how to interpret Romans 7, or even what happened to John Wesley at Aldersgate. Yet she is critical of Wesley's views on biblical authority and is sure that we should reject biblical inerrancy. We are assured that Wesley would have adopted the biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had he been living now. Therefore, we are given permission to reject Wesley's view of inspiration and authority, but we must read the Bible with Wesley's analogy of faith - yet realizing he may not be right!
Part 1, Biblical Holiness, was rather sophomoric and does not lay an adequate foundation. Part 2, Holiness History, is stronger. Leclerc, however, tends to write a consensus history which plays down any departures from Wesleyan theology by the holiness movement. For example, she repeatedly connects Phoebe Palmer's "altar theology" with the comments of Adam Clarke. However, the truth is that Palmer misunderstood and misapplied Clarke's comments. I also think Leclerc misunderstands John Fletcher's statements on Spirit baptism. On the other hand, Leclerc is absolutely right that Charles Finney was teaching a new kind of Calvinism.
Part 3, Holiness Theology for Today, is a strong section. Leclerc affirms total deprivity and total depravity. She sees idolatry, not pride, as the essence of original sin.
She explains how faith is a gift of God and not a human work. She presents a Wesleyan order of salvation begins with prevenient grace. She declares, "Void of an understanding of prevenient grace, we find no way of explaining how the steps of faith are possible except as an act of the human will." Without such a doctrine of prevenient grace, the danger is that we embrace a "practical Pelagianism."
Leclerc also warns against proclaiming sanctification in such a way that the power of the new birth is minimized. "Holiness begins at regeneration. Sanctification begins at our new birth in Jesus Christ." Later on she writes that at the moment of salvation God begins to impart righteousness to us.
She describes sanctification as the grace which heals the disease of sin and empowers us for sacrificial living. As God pours his love into the heart, love excludes sin. In a five-page section, Leclerc deals with ten myths about sanctification. Here she is basically correcting misconceptions which arose from the holiness movement and is giving a more Wesleyan understanding.
The further we read, the better it gets. Part 4, Holy Living for a New Century, begins with a chapter on holiness as purity. This chapter ends with a helpful excursus on sexuality. The next chapter deals with holiness as perfection and relied heavily on Wesley. In the chapter on holiness as power, when discussing power for victory over sin, Leclerc finally comes down on Romans 7. "What Paul talks about in Rom. 7 is not to be descriptive of a saved, redeemed, or sanctified Christian's experience."
This chapter contains a very helpful discussion under the heading "power when life goes wrong." Leclerc says if holiness is anything, it is absolute dependence on God. This weakness is strength because his strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9-10). Thus, power and weakness are not in contradiction. Weakness elicits our dependence on God and on each other. We are holy through the broken body of Christ. In fact, God saved the world through the broken body and shed blood of Christ, which we celebrate at the Lord's table. Therefore, the heart of God is present to the broken and weak. In her 2008 Presidential Address to the Wesleyan Theological Society, Leclerc expanded on this theme, revealing how she has watched some of those closest to her suffer. Her own son has a form of Autism.
This chapter is followed by chapters on holiness as character and holiness as love. I was very depressed with how this book began and very challenged by how this book ended. I have no doubt that the author is a woman of God. All this raises the question which begs to be asked, If Leclerc can produce a challenging theological statement of Wesleyan doctrine without an adequate biblical foundation, how important is the biblical foundation?
My opinion is that this theology reflects the residual influence of those prior to Leclerc who did have an adequate biblical foundation. How far can we go in accommodating the latest philosophical trends until we have compromised truth? We will be in trouble when academics, who do not have a heart after God, write our theology. I believe Leclerc does have a heart after God and the second half of this book is worth the asking price. Get it, even if you skip the first section.