Probing Evangelicalism’s Revivalist Heritage

Is Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage its greatest asset or Achilles heal?

Yes I know. Questions like that don’t have simple answers, but bear with me for the sake of probing the issue a little. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses that attend Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage was prompted by Douglas Sweeney’s definition of N. American Evangelicalism in The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement  (Baker Academic, 2005), but the issues have been on my mind ever since our vigorous discussion on Christian conversion a couple weeks ago (Asking Jesus into your Heart??).

Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped largely by a Protestant understanding of the Gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist…[M]odern evangelicals differ from other Christian groups in that the movement emerged from a definite, eighteenth century cultural context, one that yielded a twist on Protestant orthodoxy. Modern Evangelicals, as distinguished from others who use the label or share our view of the gospel message, are heirs of the Great Awakening – a renewal movement that changed forever the course of history (p. 24-25).

Sweeney goes on to chronicle the dramatic affects of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, among others, on the self-perception of conversion among American Christians. In the wake of the Great Awakening many thousands of Christians dated their “new life in Christ” to Whitefield’s and Edwards’ field preaching. For example, simply consider Jonathan Edwards’ narrative of his own life-changing conversion at Yale:

The first that I remember that ever I found anything of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim. 1:17, ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever, Amen.’ As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before…From that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. I had an inward, sweet sense of these things, that at times came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them (Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Clayhorn, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 792-93).

Prior to the Great Awakening, the predominant view of conversion in European Protestantism was “confessionalization”, that, with the help of civil authorities, the church sought to “inculcate their confessional views within their jurisdictions” through preaching, catechesis, visitation, and church discipline. The Great Awakening drastically changed all that. Preachers such as Whitefield, Edwards, and the Wesley brothers now called people to “a genuine conversion that transcends all prior confessional allegiances”.

Greatest Asset or Achilles Heal?

By referring to “Evangelicalism’s Revivalist Heritage”, then, I am drawing attention to the fact that most evangelical ministries today place great stress, with Whitefield and Edwards, on an instantaneous conversion experience as critical to the Christian life. They call people to a momentous transfer of allegiance to Christ as the pivotal moment of one’s existence. And for some, little else the church can do, either toward the natural world, culture, or society, matters much beyond this.

So, is Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage its greatest asset or Achilles heal? Related to our theology of the Christian life and Eschatology? Related to Christian engagement with the natural world, culture, and society?

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10 thoughts on “Probing Evangelicalism’s Revivalist Heritage

  1. Kent, good thoughts. I think it would be hard to underestimate how important the revivals have been for evangelical identity. In light of that, maybe I could throw some logs on the fire that might highlight this:

    First, think about what the revivals brought about from a sociological standpoint. This was the first time that people went to hear the gospel away from their own church body, to which they were tied to as citizens of the town (and the place where town discipline was handed out). They made the choice to go listen and be “self-discerners,” an important reality for evangelicals today in light of the barrage of publishing, sermons, blogs, etc., that we come into contact with. In other words, it was a move beyond the clergy (or maybe around the clergy), to a place where individuals as hearers would be the decision makers for their life and their family’s life.

    Second, as Kent highlighted well, the revivals were done beyond the church government, and so the individual (with their new found discernment of truth) would have to discern their own salvific state as well (all around or beyond the reach of their local clergyman, which was based on an understanding of “heart” religion (known as true religion). This true religion was an affectional religion, and therefore necessitated there being some kind of movement of the heart. Think about how important this is in light of Whitfield, who, prior to conversion was a stage actor, and used his rhetorical ability to his advantage – and you, an individual who has now broken free from the lifelong reality of church “lectures” (as they basically were), standing with 10,000+ people hearing this man preach, and watching as hundreds and sometimes thousands flocked to be saved.

    In light of this, it is not terribly surprising that the generations building upon the revivals ended up with a low ecclesiology, and, at times, so low an ecclesiology that it seemed to disappear altogether. The question then, I think, should probably be something like this: Have the revivals defined us because they were a part of our true Christian heritage (from an ideological standpoint) or because they are a part of our American heritage? In other words, does evangelicalism in America owe more of its ideological heritage from its American identity, or its identity as evangelical?

  2. Kyle, thanks for enriching this discussion with your insights!

    Your comments regarding the Great Awakening’s stress on “true religion” as an affectional religion and, thus, its accent on the individual over the corporate body, reminded me of Mark Noll’s brief definition of American Evangelicalism as “culturally adaptive biblical experientialism” (American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, p. 287).

    With James, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about Edwards’ part in this and how American Evangelicalism’s reappropriation of Edwards needs to hear him accurately. Does that make any sense?

  3. James, intriguing question. Perhaps if you gave me a couple examples and expanded a bit on what specific similarities you notice, then I might be able to engage more adequately. At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised that some of what you are noticing goes back to 16th century European Pietism. I am looking forward to hearing more if you have some time.

  4. Hey guys, good thoughts here.

    James, I am still wrestling through the full implications of what Edwards was doing (and trying to do). I personally think that Edwards soteriology was forged outside of the revivals, but that, instead, it was his issue of discernment that was really worked out in light of the revival issues.

    I think that Edwards soteriology was developed in light of the broader picture of the nature of God and anthropology that he developed within the spiritual brethren tradition (to use Janice Knight’s terms). If Knight is right, and I think she is, there were two major strands of Puritanism leading up to Edwards: the intellectual fathers (think Ames and Shepard) and the spiritual brethren (think Sibbes and Mather). The emphasis in God’s attributes for the intellectual fathers was power, while for the spiritual brethren it was God’s diffusive love.

    It was in the tradition of the spiritual brethren with the God of diffusive love, that Edwards worked through his soteriology, utilizing his aesthetics, pneumatology and anthropology to help develop an affectional soteriology that didn’t regress into an emotional reality (or, “an experience of dependence on God” or something).

    I think what American Evangelicalism has taken fragments of Edwards that apart from his thought as a whole turn into pragmatism and/or emotionalism. For Edwards, the heart was the locus of salvation, but not apart from the understanding, will and therefore life and direction of the individual. I think it was evangelicalism’s abstraction of “heart” from the whole person that took an Edwardsian vision and made it American.

  5. James, since our conversation on this topic, and those outside it lately, have orbited the roles played by soteriology and ecclesiology with the church today, let me invite a couple more participants into the discussion by way of Kenneth Collins (The Evangelical Moment(2005)).

    Collins argues that American evangelicalism has not developed a significant and well-thought-out ecclesiology that “can both inform and sustain its sons and daughters in their own self-understanding” precisely because many American evangelicals have allowed “ecclesiology to be eclipsed by soteriology”. In their reaction to the Roman teaching that institutional church is a mediator of salvation that one must be “properly related in order to be redeemed”, many evangelicals “have gone the other way…and have minimized the agency of the church to the point that the body of Christ is seen as little more than a voluntary association of believers” (187).

    Collins goes on to appropriate the free-church evangelical Miroslav Volf’s work in After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity to articulate a more holistic vision for the church that, nonetheless, remains Protestant. Variously quoting Volf, he proposes a relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology that secures the Protestant/EVangelical focus on Christ while stressing the necessity of the church as well:

    “The church is not a mother that stands ‘over against individiual Christians’ as in the Roman definition; rather, ‘Christians are the mother church [which is] the communion of brothers and sisters.’ Put another way…faith comes to people from ‘the multidimensional confession of faith of others,’…yet the church is not the subject of salvific activity with Christ; rather Christ is the only subject of such salvific activity.’ That is, one does not receive faith from the church (since saving faith is a gift of the Most High) but through the church. At each step along the way, then, believers are rightly directed not to the church itself but to the Father, through the Son and the Holy Spirit” (188).

    Is this a way of parsing the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology that resonates with your Anglican commitments – one that could “reinsert” the church into American evangelicalism in a substantive way?

  6. James, while I should give your remarks here some further thought before I move much further let me say this up front.

    I agree with you entirely that evangelicalism can be out of balance regarding its individual vs. social tendencies, but I’m not sure that you don’t read evangelicalism’s “personal” character as “individualism.” Evangelicalism, at its best, is highly personal without being individualistic. A robust evangelical soteriology, then in my opinion, should speak to the personal nature of reconciliation without depleting the social character of the Christian life. Perhaps teasing apart the differences between “individualism” on one hand, and a particularly evangelical focus on redemptions’s distinctly “personal” realities, on the other, would go a long way to helping us out.

    For example, since Collins is our conversation partner as of late, consider the following example of this line of reasoning (since I read it this morning and it is fresh):

    “American evangelicals are not championing the wonders of individualism when they underscore the necessity of being born again. Instead, they are highlighting the reality of the personal dimensions of the Gospel…That is, the proper Christian faith must ever engage the throne room of our being, the very depth of the human soul” (The Evangelical Moment, 53, 91).

    It would seem to me that an evangelical soteriology would not necessary terminate in the problems that worry you: individualism, church as voluntary gathering. Do we have to say that “the church exists for the sake of beleivers” or that “believers exist for the sake of the church”, as you do? Is this a zero-sum game? I’m with you 100% that we need to talk about reconciliation with others as we talk about reconciliation with God, but I’m not sure we get there by circumventing the great accomplishment of the Reformers and their heirs: reminding us of the “personal” character of redemption. You seem to say the same about 3/4 of the way down your comments when your language shifts entirely to “personal” rather than “individualism(istic)”.

    I worry that by making the social move you propose (“the fullness of salvation – soteriology – is about social reconciliation, of which my individual reconciliation with God is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient”), we lose the force of the antecedent work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, the new birth, from which grows the fruit of the Spirit in her life. Though we don’t want to speak about personal reconciliation in abstraction from its social dimensions, don’t we also want to retain the appropriate weight/stress on the prior work of the Spirit on the “person”? You can tell me if you think that worry is way off.

    I could be wrong, and very well might be, but it seems clearing up the distinction between “personal” and “individualistic” would also address the worries we both have about postliberalism’s stress on the social aspects of the church; “I” am not “us” (in a heavily qualified Wittgensteinian way).

    Looking forward to your response.

  7. Hi guys,

    Well, I’m glad someone finally threw eschatology into the purported soteriology-ecclesiology evangelical divide.

    Kent’s balancing thoughts on evangelicalism are to me intuitive and essential to the discussion. But I think James is right to focus on the necessary integration of both “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of reconciliation. Yet, I would go even further to propose that the there is a third dimension of reconciliation involving the restoration of the fallen world (2 Cor 5:18-20), and it can’t be separated from the other two.

    It seems to me that the governing theological category here is the telos of The Reign of God through Human Agency. Could this better capture how all 3 dimensions of reconciliation are woven into an integrated soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology as the Reign of God is realized in space and time?

    Our parochial tendency to gravitate to extremes—clinging tenaceously to either “communal” ecclesiology or “individualized” soteriology—puts us at grave risk of completely missing “what God is up to” as He invites us into his mission in the world in all three areas. James’ last post was very helpful in recovering some of this balance.

    I have devised a schematic diagram to help visualize this interdependence, but I don’t know how to insert the file in this blog. I’ll e-mail the file to Kent and see what he thinks.

  8. James, thanks for your careful expansion on this topic! I am on the same page with you in so many ways related to these imbalances and needs for continued reform.

    Over the course of our conversations (not necessarily here) I would love to hear you elaborate more on what you mean when you say that salvation should be “actualized in the church”. I agree that we need to say so much more about salvation than its personal elements alone. So, I would like to hear how salvation’s “actualization” in the church gets filled out. I have no doubt it will be good.

    Jim, great to have you back! Orienting our discussion toward its eschatological dimensions was a great move and one that significantly broadens it dogmatically. Thanks for that! I had difficulty opening your attachment but will try again later. It sounds like your proposal has a great deal of promise so it would be good to discuss it here.

    Have to run. Cheers.

  9. Hey guys, sorry for the delay. Something to keep in mind about the seed bed of evangelicalism in America is that the larger context was the “errand into the wilderness,” or, in other words, the attempt at creating a city on the hill for all the world to see. I think there is an implicit ecclesiology based on an eschatology which saw their actions as intricate elements of the end times. Edwards, for instance, kept notebooks about the Catholic church losing money, battles, etc., as a way to exegete contemporary redemptive history as he saw it. It could be, in other words, that evangelicalism, in one way or another, always saw themselves a part of a larger narrative that was so intricately woven with the nations that they could not be considered two. Anyway, just a passing thought.

    With Edwards, the focus of soteriology is really twofold. First, the focus is on union with God, focusing particularly on the Spirit’s work in uniting us to Christ. Second, there is an aesthetic element in his “sense of the Spirit,” where we come to see God as truly beautiful. For Edwards, salvation entailed a reordering of loves based on our ability to see them as the greatest good and the most beautiful. Therefore, there was not only an ontological change, but an epistemological one as well. What was foolish prior to conversion, can be understood as true wisdom after.

    As I continue to dive into Edwards, the one question I continue to come back to is that while Edwards seems to draw out a beautiful picture of this reality, I have to wonder, is there room for sin? In other words, does his anthropology change so dramatically in conversion that perfection becomes the inevitable conclusion? Pastorally, he didn’t think this, but I have had something of a hard time figuring out if he is consistent in that.

    Anyway, just some thoughts late at night!

  10. First, let me say I’m only here because James told me to show up. Second, I’ll confess I find the practice of tracing lines of causality through history to the present moment tedious, and this, no doubt, because I’m not very good at it. Beyond that, I suspect its benefits have been overestimated (what with the fear of being “doomed” to repeat the past and all . . .).

    I will say I concur with James that there is a rampant individualism in evangelicalism and with all the astute observers here who have posted thus far that we must responsibly coordinate soteriology with ecclesiology and–thanks for not mentioning it in a sensationalist, slobbering sort of way–eschatology.

    I would only add that in the endeavor to turn the focus outward from individual to ecclessial community we must make sure that this is a global endeavor and that the voices that make up the community are representative of the whole church. I say this only because I’m halfway around the world and had to give a sermon with a translator for the first time on Sunday and have decided that being a genuine, global, eschatological community is much harder than I had ever thought. I heartily applaud any effort to shift the focus of the individual outward. Might as well start that process with the preaching of the gospel . . .

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