Book Review: Helps to Holiness

Samuel Logan Brengle, Helps to Holiness. London: Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1955.
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Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle (1860-1936) is a name familiar to Salvationists all over
 the world and rightly so. His name is synonymous, in Army circles, with "holiness teaching" largely because of his writings on this topic, but also because he was, in fact, a holy man. Every year Officers are selected to attend "Brengles" at which holiness teaching is high on the agenda. It is with a great deal of respect that I offer this critique of this particular book, and whilst it will become very clear that I do not agree with all that he says, it is because I respect him and his legacy that I, in fact, do this. We do not respect any writer in anyway if all we do is accept what they say uncritically. We must engage with what has been written; applauding that which is worthy of such, similarly but offering correction when it is necessary. For Christians (and for me as a Wesleyan), this means testing what has been said through the lens of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

So, here goes.

Firstly, the positives.

Brengle was, first and foremost, an Officer in The Salvation Army. He had a pastoral heart, and so his desire, stated by General Bramwell Booth, is never far from the readers mind throughout this book; "to help every reader of its pages into the immediate enjoyment of Bible holiness" (pg vii). Every chapter is clearly directed towards this goal. You could summarise each chapter as a kind of "sermonette"; making it very easy for the reader to read a chapter at a time and find benefit for them. Thus, this book should be considered pastoral theology which intends to give practical guidance for the reader into the experience of holiness. For any writer, preacher, or teacher who comes from the "holiness" tradition there is no more important task.

Brengle's openness throughout the book adds authenticity to the task. He is honest with his own failings along the way, or demonstrates how seeking the Lord's will in all situations should be the desire of all Christians. Perhaps the most famous example of this from Brengle's own life is recounted in Chapter 7. It's the story of his second day as a cadet (officer in training). On that day he was sent into the basement to blacken the boots for the cadets. Brengle recounts how "the devil... reminded me that a few years before, I had graduate from university" and so such work could be considered below his station in life. Brengle's humility is displayed in his response; "I reminded him (the devil) of the example of the Lord, and he left me... That little cellar was changed into one of Heaven's ante-rooms, and my Lord visited me there" (pg 36).

In the same chapter Brengle tells the story of a "coloured brother" who was kicked off a streetcar "in the most indecent and brutal manner" presumably because of the colour of his skin. The admiration of the Christlike response of this man displays that Brengle was ahead of his time. Here we find an early example of liberation theology, and the social justice heart of The Salvation Army. Had the Army followed Brengle's lead at this point we could have been leaders in liberation theology. Sadly, serious theological reflection has tended to be a low priority in a movement so driven by activism.

One final positive that I would like to highlight is what Brengle has called the "radicalism of Holiness". 
do not think you can make holiness popular. It cannot be done. There is no such thing as holiness separate from 'Christ in you,' and it is an impossibility to make Christ Jesus popular in this world... Do not waste your time trying to fix up a popular holiness. Just be holy because the Lord God is holy. Seek to please Him without regard to the likes or dislikes of men, and those who are disposed to be saved will soon see 'Christ in you'. (pg 92, 96) 
To the church in our time this is a necessary and timely reminder that the gospel is more often than not "culturally irrelevant". Whilst we use all means to persuade people of the gospel's message for them, at the same time the call to 'die to self and live for Christ' flies in the face of the 'what's in it for me' culture particularly evident in Western civilisation. At this point, Brengle's warning needs to be heard again.

Now for the negatives

Brengle's theological anthropology (theology of the human person) and his hamartiology (theology of sin) reveal that he is a child of his times (aren't we all!). By this I mean that he is clearly influenced by 19th Century revivalism and its understanding of sin and the human condition. As a result, "sin" and the "sinful nature" is, for Brengle, very much a "thing" that needs to be removed from the soul of the Christian. 
After conversion, he finds his old sinful nature much like a tree which has been cut down, but the stump still left. The tree causes no more bother, but the stump will still bring forth little shoots, if it is not watched. The quickest and most effective way is to put some dynamite under the stump and blow it up. (pg 8)
Brengle speaks of his own experience in the past tense; for example, "since I obtained the blessing" (pg 138). The problem here with this "thing" language is that the new believer is to seek it, then it's the job of the entirely sanctified believer to preserve it. So it is possible for it to "slip" (pg 73) or "leak out" (pg 41). In a revivalistic context this is something very easy to preach and appeal for a congregation to respond to (For example, "Come forward, kneel at the holiness table, believe by faith that your sinful nature can be removed and God will do it"). But once the revival settles, and we move from the tent to the hall, believers need to be taught more about growth within relationship with God. Relationship is certainly present in Brengle's writings, but it is hidden behind the language of "thingness"; both for "sin" and the "blessing".

Next, there is a real danger that writers will say one thing about one particular topic which on the surface is quite helpful for readers but at the same time (be it unknowingly or accidentally) the author is saying something very wrong about another thing. I don't feel I've explained myself very clearly here, so let me display what I mean with an example.
I once heard William Booth say in an officer's council: 'Take time to pray God's blessing down on your own soul every day. If you do not, you will lose God. God is leaving men every day. They once had power. They walked in the glory and strength of God but they ceased to wait on Him and earnestly seek His face, and He left them. I am a very busy man, but I take time to get alone with God every day and commune with Him. If I did not, He would soon leave me. (pg 49)
Brengle's attention here is upon the daily life of the believer, but the question I would want to ask is "What has he said about God here?" That it is possible to lose God, that he is leaving people who do not get alone with him every day, and if you're not careful he will do it "soon". Is this really the Biblical picture of God? At this point I suggest that Brengle's theology needs correction. Whilst I agree with the possibility of what we would call "backsliding", I also believe in a God who pursues his people. Like a marriage, the relationship is not guaranteed to last without the participation of both husband and wife, but at the same time it is also not just dependent upon the activity of one of the parties. Consider the relationship with the Divine, and we know that he is faithful, not wanting any of his people to fall out of relationship with him. He does not leave us, we leave him.

Finally, whilst Wesleyans include experience within their theological method, myself included, it is Scripture that is the guiding rule. We interpret our experiences, the tradition of the church, and our reasonings through the revealed Word of God. I would argue that Brengle's theological method depends too heavily upon experience. He's not the first writer to be influenced by their own spiritual experiences. Luther went from "hating" God to loving him when he came to the realisation that his righteousness is given by faith, not by works. John Wesley's Aldersgate experience on 24th May, 1738 certainly had a lasting impact upon his views on sanctification. John Calvin was a educated in law, so it's no surprise that there is a "forensic" emphasis in his theology. In Brengle's words; "That experience fixed my theology" (pg 145). The experience he is referring to is the moment in his life (the "blessing"), when God sanctified his soul. For Brengle, this was a dramatic experience when his entire worldview was changed. 
Oh how I loved! In that hour I knew Jesus and I loved Him till it seemed my heart would break with love. I loved the sparrows, I loved the dogs, I loved the horses, I loved the little urchins on the streets, I loved the strangers who hurried past me, I loved the heathen--I loved the whole world. (pg ix)
After a life-changing experience like that, why wouldn't he want to share it? The problem is that this experience, or "blessing", became in Brengle's theology the normal experience of all Christians. The difficulty with this is that no one experience in the Christian life is ever normative for all people. Brengle is right to encourage all believers to pursue holiness, but not all Christians will experience sanctification as a single life-changing experience where their worldview is completely altered beyond recognition. This is, for me, a fault in Brengle's theology.

In conclusion, Christians should read this book. Salvationists should read this book. But we should read it how Brengle intended it to be read; as a pastoral and devotional aid. Whilst Brengle had some training in academic theology he didn't write academic theology. He wrote practical theology. It's not perfect, but it is helpful. Read in this way, understanding Brengle's context and desires, this book will continue to be a helpful and inspiring tool for Christians who desire to live a holy life.

Comments

  1. Adam, thanks for this review! I really appreciate the way you've acknowledged Brengle's contribution without shying away from the difficulties.

    I see all three of the issues you raise as leading to an overemphasis on human agency in Brengle's perspective - as you say, in this respect he is very much a man of his time. An underestimation of the extent of sin's corruption, an overestimation of the possibility of and dangers of backsliding, and an elevation of human experience in theological method, which is another way of saying that B looked at sanctification primarily from the human side. Of course, many others make the opposite mistake, of giving no real place for human agency, but I think B and his generation went too far in the other direction.

    Thanks again for this review. I hope lots of people read it!

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  2. Thanks James! Thanks also for posting a link to this on your site. I appreciate it.
    God bless
    Adam

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Adam. Thanks for taking the time to do the review and posting it for us. I've found people use the experience you quoted from page ix to argue that a true "second blessing" is a dramatic and emotional event. But when I read page ix I hear Brengle saying "God sanctified his soul" on the morning of Jan 9th. Five days later he received an experience which he calls a "blessing that I never dreamed a man could have", which he attributes to God's realisation that he, Brengle, was going to remain committed, as evidenced by his public testimony. Though it again was two mornings after the testimony, so I aren’t sure how he can be so definite it was caused by the testimony. My point is, Brengle people seem to make a lot of the 5th day, but if we are 'labeling' experiences of God, surely that is more a third blessing. The less dramatic morning of Jan 9th was the point of sanctification and so the "second blessing". Your thoughts. Paul

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  4. Hey Adam,

    I enjoyed this review, I have read a fair bit of Brengle now and I like that you really looked into not only what he was trying to say, but also what we may interpret him to be saying. I have to admit I often read Brengle without looking into the validity of everything he says which is hazardous.

    I think it has been an issue in TSA that figures such as Brengle, the Army Mother or the Founder have not been questioned in their theological works, and whilst they were inspirational and brilliant people with a lot of excellent insights and wisdom, they were just that, people; as imperfect as anyone else.

    Thanks for the reminder that everything needs to be assessed with sober judgement, even the greats!

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