A Holiness Hermeneutic

Biblical Interpretation in the American Holiness Movement (1875-1920)

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Stephen J. Lennox
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , April
     196 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A Holiness Hermeneutic, by Stephen J. Lennox, provides a rare glimpse into how the American holiness movement at the turn of the 20th century viewed and interpreted Scripture. Lennox acknowledges that while this movement was “small and socially isolated” (xiii), it holds profound global influence, particularly in the form of Pentecostalism, which traces its roots to this historic stream.

Discerning a distinctive hermeneutic of the American holiness movement is daunting, as its spokespersons, decrying biblical scholarship and criticism, held a more populist interpretation. Nevertheless, Lennox draws insightfully from primary sources to accomplish this aim. Through exploration of written sermons and teachings from seven representative leaders (Daniel Steele, Beverly Carradine, W. B. Godbey, Martin Wells Knapp, Reuben “Uncle Buddy” Robinson, George Watson, and Joseph H. Smith), the author identifies “four pillars of holiness interpretation”: 1) God is imminent (deeply involved in our lives); 2) The Bible is pneumatocentric (to be read entirely through the lens of the Holy Spirit); 3) The Bible is one unified work (a wholly holiness book); 4) The Bible may be interpreted in a more-than-literal manner (using symbolism, metaphor and allegory) (100). These perspectives, according to Lennox, distinguish the American holiness movement from both liberalism and fundamentalism, although one could argue that fundamentalist Keswicks, (a branch of the holiness movement from the Reformed tradition), share at least some aspects of this hermeneutic.

While Lennox’s research makes a groundbreaking contribution to historical holiness and Pentecostal studies, it does raise some questions for further exploration. First, Lennox claims that holiness adherents failed to recognize two essential elements of the Wesleyan quadrilateral: tradition and reason; relying on experience (encounter with the Holy Spirit) alone as their primary guide for biblical interpretation. There is certainly evidence for this priority of spiritual experience, but could they have possibly drawn upon tradition and reason from other, less obvious sources? Rather than negating them, maybe they valued a different kind of tradition and reason. A compelling case could be made that reason in the holiness movement is expressed through common sense, “one of the most important elements of the populist hermeneutic” (90). They would also claim solid standing in the stream of holiness tradition, threading back through Phoebe Palmer, John Wesley and John Fletcher, to the early church. Wouldn’t they say their message was an effort to “re-capture” faithful Christian tradition (in the form of Pentecost) rather than a departure from it?

Another issue raised by the holiness hermeneutic Lennox proposes is the difference between the representatives he uses. Steele, a life-long Methodist, brought a mainstream holiness perspective into his writings. Others, such as Godbey, Robinson, and Knapp, were aligned with the “come-outers,” a fringe group which William Kostlevy calls “the radical holiness movement.” Those of the radical element insisted upon a narrowly defined holiness which was much more fundamentalist and dispensationalist in nature. This differentiation explains why Steele often seems to be the odd man out in Lennox’s analysis when it comes to such issues as eschatology and the value of biblical scholarship. The holiness hermeneutic, so splendidly unearthed by Lennox, could, perhaps, be divided into two: the traditional holiness hermeneutic (expressed by Methodists and those involved in the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness), and the radical holiness hermeneutic (expressed by those who departed from the Methodist Episcopal Church to form several splinter denominations at the turn of the 20th century). While there is overlap between these two camps, the differences are identifiable.

Lennox concludes by exploring the intersection between critical biblical studies and the American holiness movement, encouraging mutual and humble dialogue between them. At this intersection, those in the holiness movement will discover the value of higher education, a larger Christian tradition, richer theological reflection, and expanded exegetical insight. Concurrently, those steeped in biblical criticism may find life in a fresh, Spirit-inspired understanding of Scripture. Lennox points to Steele as a noteworthy example of “theological interpretation operating in the holiness movement” (158). Steele moderates the holiness movement through chastened, Spirit-directed, theological discernment. He also employed “the best of biblical scholarship” while leaving room for polyvalence (159). “Experience outweighs theory” Steele noted, “faith makes philosophy kick the beam” (158).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark O. Wilson is Assistant Professor of Discipleship at Southern Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen J. Lennox is President of Kingswood University in Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada. He has also served as Honors Professor of Bible and Humanities at Indiana Wesleyan University. Lennox is the author of commentaries on Psalms, Proverbs, and Joshua, and an introduction to the Old Testament, God’s Story Revealed (2009).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.