Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading

When We Lack Ecclesiological Structures

I read here today that the NAE has developed a code of ethics for pastors.  Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote integrity and purity among pastors, but would this be necessary if evangelicals were properly rooted in ecclesial traditions and confessional frameworks that emphasized more than just Bebbington’s big four?

What do you make of the implications of this code?  Is it an important corrective?  A problematic development?


A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality.  Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive.  Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.

A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices.  For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister.  Murray relates the Doctor’s response:

‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).

Continue reading

Experimental Theology in America

As some of you may have noticed, I have been off the blog for a while now. My wife and I (more her than me!) had a baby girl on Oct. 31st – Brighton Angelina Strobel. We are very excited and very tired. All that to say, I’ve been meaning to write a review of a fantastic book but am only getting around to it now. The book, written by Patricia A. Ward, is entitled Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fenelon, and Their Readers (Baylor University Press, 2009).

For those who have been following this blog for a while now, you know that we have an interest in the nature of evangelicalism. I was taken in by Bruce Hindmarsh’s claim that evangelicalism is best understood as a school of spirituality – a school that borrows heavily from other schools. Towards this end, Patricia Ward’s book goes a long way to justifying that claim (though this is my own interest and not her stated goal). This book is an excellent example of intellectual history, focusing its attention on the mystical writings of Madame Guyon and her defender Fenelon. As interesting as that is, you might wonder, why do I find it interesting? In my studies of early American theology, focusing on Edwards, I noticed what seemed to be a influence of Fenelon. Edwards did, in fact, read Fenelon, and Edwards’s spirituality does reflect some of Fenelon’s spirituality. That is what originally made me curious about Ward’s work, but now, after reading it, I am amazed at how ubiquitous Guyon and Fenelon’s influence actually was. Wesley appropriated, with caution, some of Guyon, as did figures like A. W. Tozer. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s protegé, was compared to Fenelon, and Fenelon became something of an ecumenical spiritual figure (as did, in her own right, Guyon). Continue reading

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Contemporary evangelicalism, as I understand it, started out as a populist movement. It was, therefore, not primarily concerned with theology but with practice – and theology tended to be tacked on as something of a necessary evil. As a populist movement, its virtues were simplicity, repeatability and method. A specific kind of evangelicalism, forged in the revivals, has developed a value system that is primarily unbiblical, where savvy rhetoric, church competition and the ability to “rate” ministry based on numerical analysis have become the norm.

For many who grew up in this movement, they recognize both the great virtues as well as the vices, and seek to purify evangelicalism through a broader engagement with the Bible, church history, theology, etc. If my brief comments about evangelicalism are true, this, in a real way, undermines its very foundation. The problem, as I see it, is that those of us who seek greater biblical and theological clarity are still evangelicals. We still identify as such, except our vision for being evangelical means that we must continue to reform rather than simply circling the wagons. Continue reading

The Future of Evangelicalism

I just read a characteristically helpful post by Steve Holmes on defining evangelicalism. Holmes wants to emphasize that evangelicalism is not simply defined materially, but also formally. What makes one an evangelical, in other words, is not only what they hold to, but how they hold to it (I encourage you to read the post after my terrible summary).

Since we have spent a lot of time on Theology Forum talking about the nature and boundaries of evangelicalism, being evangelical and all, I thought it might be helpful to take Holmes’ point to talk about the future of evangelicalism. If he is right, and I think that he is, we could see a lot of the fragmentation in evangelicalism as disagreements over the location of certain doctrines. The missional discussion is a certain material understanding of the Church-world relation as well as a specific understanding of the centrality of that doctrine to the nature and task of any evangelical church. Spiritual formation, likewise, entails a certain material understanding of the Christian life as well as the belief that spirituality is central, and therefore orders discussions concerning the Church-world relations (for instance). James posted earlier about the 9 Marks ministry’s concern about “liberalism” in evangelicalism (meaning something like, reading broadly, rather than theological liberalism), which specifically lays out 9 actual marks that are central organizing commitments.

That said, is this a helpful way to understand the various debates being had in evangelicalism? Can we use this as a way to talk about what could be defining debates in the near future (I tend to think that theological interpretation, Church-world relation and anthropology will be those kinds of debates)? Any thoughts?

United Against Theology

I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?

I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology. Continue reading

Evangelicals and Tradition

In my last post on Evangelical idolatry I focused on the various movements in evangelicalism and how they tend to be attached to various kinds of idolatry. In the discussion on Facebook, unfortunately not had on the post itself, it was suggested to me that evangelicals cannot honestly be concerned with the Christian tradition and still be Evangelical! I find this both possible and shocking. I have often said that if you want to be miserable (and are Evangelical), the best way is to study either theology or Church History, but I never imagined that giving the tradition any weight whatsoever would preclude you from being Evangelical.

I find this suggestion interesting because it could very well help to delineate two kinds of evangelicalism – as well as help explain why evangelicals tend towards either fundamentalism or frustration. Fundamentalism because they border on, or accept wholesale, bibliolotry, such as post-Reformed heretics who were biblicists Continue reading

Evangelical Idolatry

I have been thinking, as of late, about the various strategies in evangelicalism to navigate the marketplace of ideas. It seems to me that the typical evangelical strategy to “win” (sorry, I don’t mean this to be polemical (yet) but I can’t think of another word which is accurate), is simply to create something of a boys club. In other words, we surround ourselves with people who both agree with every word that comes our of our mouth and who won’t actually attack our views in any significant way. This is enough, in itself, to be idolatry, but it rarely stops there. The next step is to start a movement. A movement, in these terms, is nothing more than simply organizing leadership and adopting worldly strategies for kingdom building. Once teaching, leadership and dogma can be disseminated, there is a twofold turn outwards: First, a turn outwards to evangelize – not Christ as much as the movement itself – and, second, a turn outwards to attack anyone who thinks differently. The latter turn stems from the inherent fundamentalism in evangelicalism which equates difference with danger.

So, why this seemingly random rant about evangelical idolatry? Well, I have been thinking about what a healthy movement of the church might look like, and I didn’t have any examples. All the movements I can see, from my perspective, seem to be endlessly idolatrous. Continue reading

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule


David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Being Evangelical

It seems that the topic of evangelicalism and its somewhat fluid demarcations have struck a cord with many of our visitors, so I wanted to re-address the issue from a different perspective. James’ post asked questions concerning the lowest common denominator of evangelicalism, and from that, we’ve had several interesting issues raised. He decided to remove it since the responses forced him to realize that one could see revivalism as more essential to evangelicalism than the two convictions he proffered. And revivalism’s importance for the evangelical identity is precisely what I want to explore here.

It seems that many see a genetic link between evangelicals and revivalism, in some form or another, and that it is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) attribute of being evangelical. My question for us here is whether or not this could explain some of the friction within the camp at large? Not to be overly reductionistic, but wouldn’t one way of seeing the conservative/liberal debates of the last century be in terms of the centrality and denial of revivalism respectively? Likewise, I can’t help but wonder if those of us who bemoan the evangelical (stereotypically speaking of conservative American evangelicalism) obsession with staying “relevant,” and constantly lowering Christian practice, worship and living to the lowest common denominator are really just hitting the wall of revivalism? Could we understand the missional, emergent and spiritual formation discussions in light of this issue – as those who, in trying to be biblically responsible, have in the end denied a central tenent of the movement they wish to breath new life into?

In other words, does being evangelical neccessitate preaching a revival-oriented gospel, leaving every other non-revivalist gospel outside the moniker “evangelical” (even though it be considered roughly “Christian” but no doubt disconcerting nonetheless)? If this is the case, could we see revivalism as the subconscious and cultural reality that actually orients the other main features of the movement so that the theological distinctives are really “theological distinctives in light of the revival-gospel?”

What are your thoughts? Is this too reductionistic to be helpful, or can this be used to talk about the nature of evangelicalism and the movements that have never found a true home in the conversation?

Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. Continue reading

Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).

The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.

In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.

‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Continue reading

John Webster on taking Dogmatic Delight in the Gospel

The best evangelical theological work emerges from the delight in the Christian gospel, for the gospel announces a reality which is in itself luminous, persuasive, and infinitely satisfying. That reality is Jesus Christ as he gives himself to be an object for creaturely knowledge, love, and praise. To think evangelically about this one is to think in his presence, under the instruction of his Word and Spirit, and in the fellowship of the saints. And it is to do so with cheerful confidence that his own witness to himself if unimaginably more potent than any theological attempts to run to his defense.

Christology responds to the self-communicative presence of its object in the twofold work of exegesis and dogmatics…Exegesis is served by dogmatics, whose task is to look for systematic connections between the constituent parts of the Christian gospel, and to attempt their orderly and well-proportioned exposition. In particular, dogmatics can help to prevent the distortions of perspective which can be introduced into an account of the faith by, for example, pressure from polemical concerns or excessive regard for extra-theological norms (‘Jesus Christ’ in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology‘ pp. 60-1).