[This is the third part in our review of D. Ray Hostetter’s The Soul of the Brethren in Christ. To read the first two parts of our review, click here or here.]
Hostetter’s text is not without flaws. Primarily, these relate to the way the author treats two of the theological streams associated with the Brethren in Christ: Wesleyan holiness and American evangelicalism. In his treatment of the latter movement, for instance, Hostetter makes two glaring errors. First, he fails to draw on any of the current historical scholarship related to evangelicals. Obviously, this is a damning misstep for any scholar attempting to explicate a particular historical trend. Drawing upon such resources might have helped the author avoid his second error: failing to provide his readers with a reasonable and even-handed historical introduction to and definition of American evangelicalism. Hostetter primarily relies on purely theological definitions of the movement; this approach comes across as more confessional than scholarly. In fact, Hostetter even takes pot-shots at “fundamentalist-type Christian leaders” and “the press, pollsters [and] pundits” who misappropriate the term “evangelical” (p. 17) for political or other polemical uses. As one might expect, given the author’s inattention to recent historical scholarship on evangelicalism, the text offers little about the early twentieth-century “crisis” of evangelicalism, the rise of fundamentalism, and the neo-evangelical revival of the 1950s and 1960s—major historical landmarks for the movement. His ultimate “definition” of evangelicalism comes across as confessional at best and defensive at worst: “[T]he essence of Evangelicalism is the Gospel (good news) and its supporting doctrines. It is not a political movement of any sort. The true center of evangelical fellowship is spiritual and theological in nature” (p. 18). Clearly, this is not the treatment expected from a scholarly monograph.
Ultimately, in taking this uncritical approach to evangelicalism, Hostetter does a disservice to his readers and to the study of church history, and leaves a glaring hole in his analysis. Given evangelicalism’s present status as the most under-interpreted “stream” of Brethren in Christ identity, this lapse is particularly difficult to excuse; even if Hostetter hoped to debunk evangelicalism’s influence upon the Brethren in Christ, he should have offered sound and well-researched treatment of the topic. It goes without saying that this movement deserves critical treatment—and, as confessing historians like George Marsden, Mark Noll, and John Carpenter have shown in their scholarship, such treatment can be both critical and equitable. Hostetter is neither, and his study suffers because of it.
Unfortunately, Hostetter treats the Wesleyan holiness tradition much as he does evangelicalism. Once again the author seems utterly non-conversant with the major texts of the tradition; he draws upon neither primary nor secondary sources in his definition. Hostetter focuses almost exclusively on the seventeenth-century life and work of the tradition’s namesake, John Wesley, and provides almost no discussion of the movement’s evolution in North America. Thus, he essentially reduces the movement and its theology to a single doctrine: second-work sanctification. Such a definition fails to consider the numerous other cultural and doctrinal aspects of the movement, including its involvement in social reform and its emphasis on nonconformity—both of which affected (to a greater or lesser extent) the Brethren in Christ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Furthermore, Hostetter seems unwilling (or unable) to dialogue with the Brethren in Christ scholars who have previously studied the group’s relationship to the Wesleyan holiness movement; he fails to challenge the conclusions drawn in the numerous academic articles published on the topic by Luke L. Keefer, Jr., Owen Alderfer, and others.
Though flawed as a scholarly work, Hostetter’s study nevertheless holds value. For historians of the Brethren in Christ Church, the value lies in the way the text confronts long-standing misperceptions and problematic characterizations of the denomination’s founding traditions, Anabaptism and Pietism, by breaking down the piety/obedience binary that has long dominated Brethren in Christ studies. Furthermore, by centralizing Anabaptism and Pietism, Hostetter is able to focus succinctly on the dynamic tension that has long characterized (and complicated) Brethren in Christ religious thought: reconciling the biblical call to “be ye separate” (the “essence” of Anabaptism) with the similarly biblical call to “make disciples of all nations” (the “essence” of Pietism). While dramatically oversimplified, this “portrait” of Brethren in Christ history will no doubt prove useful to future denominational educators as they seek to introduce members to the church’s history.