The New Shape of Evangelicalism

A few years back I applied for a ministry role - one that I didn't get. I'm not worried about that now, as with retrospectacles I can see that not only was I not the right minister for the job, but that it wasn't the right one for me. Thinking back to one of the series of interviews, I recall being asked how I would define myself theologically. I told them I am an evangelical, because I believe the Bible has good news that should be shared, and a charismatic, because I believe a present experience of the Holy Spirit is essential in the work of the ministry. Because it was a Presbyterian role, I may have also said something about being convinced of the value of governance by eldership, though I probably fudged the issue of infant baptism. Now that I am serving in a Baptist Church, my somewhat non-Presbyterian views on that matter are not an issue.

I wonder if defining myself so readily may have influenced the panel's decision against selecting me for the role. After all, both "evangelical" and "charismatic" have become somewhat perjorative in certain circles over the last twenty years. They have come to mean more about being "anti" than epitomising the joy and hope that the good news of the Scriptures and the daily empowering of the Spirit should mean. I reflected on this fact as I listened this week to Nigel Wright, Principal of Spurgeon's College, a Baptist seminary in London. He is in New Zealand to address a number of gatherings of Baptist pastors. His two talks "Reimagining Evangelicalism" and "Reclaiming Charismatic Experience" were a call to church leaders to reappropriate these two influences in our heritage so as to conserve the healthy and biblical without being conservative in the sense of opposing anything fresh and different. After all, it was a Baptist who first said that "God has still more light and truth to break forth from his Word "(eighteenth century Separatist John Robinson).

Nigel Wright's preference is not to become "post-evangelical" in the style of David Tomlinson, but to stay in the fold and reimagine Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity, by enriching the somewhat simplistic, even arrogant, propositions of the past with a new focus on reconciliation - with God, with one another, with the earth and with ourselves. Parenthetically, I have to confess this last gave rise to a slight flutter in my doctrinal cortex, as I have been reading some archived news reports about the ousting of preacher Robert A Schuller from the pulpit of Crystal Cathedral's TV programme Hour of Power. We had noticed that Robert Junior was permanently absent from the dais but had not been aware of the mysterious and public parting of the ways between father (founder of Crystal Cathedral, Robert H Schuller) and son, some six months back. The truth of the story will probably never be known, but the blogosphere is pretty convinced that the catalyst was Robert Junior's attempt to bring a more orthodox Biblical focus into his father's ministry, which for fifty years has offered a humanistic gospel based on God as an purveyor of "possibility thinking" and sin as the result of "negative self-image." But thankfully, this is not what Wright means by reimagining the gospel.

Wright's - Nigel G, not N.Tom, and its easy to mix them up, they both get invitations meant for the other - theology of restoration is definitely not aimed at mimimising sin or its consequences. In fact, many of the examples he gave bear witness to the frailty of a humanity which takes something good and true and twists and manipulates it, and delivers it back as something quite un-Biblical. He calls this a "thin" faith, which he compares to a rich or "thick" faith which takes account of broader truths about humanity, history and heaven.

Let me give some examples, and these are not literal quotes, but the result of my integrating of his theses with my own experience as a "continuing" evangelical. In the recent history of the evangelical tradition, we have taken the Biblical notions of a divinely-inspired Word and a guiding Spirit, and moulded them - perhaps unintentionally - into a theology of the infallibility of "my" (or in some cases, "my pastor's") interpretation of the rich and mysterious gift of Word and Spirit. We have taken the New Testament explanation of the Cross as a substitution - just one of many Biblical metaphors that illuminate the Atonement - and offered people a crude picture of an angry God who kills his own Son, in child abuse of an incomprehensible scale. We have taken the deep possibilities inherent in the Scriptural promise of "a new heaven and a new earth" and trimmed it back to a simplistic notion of "going to heaven when we die." (More on this from both Nigel and Tom Wright in a future posting) We have taken the missionary heart of God, which both calls and sends us, and narrowed it down to a local evangelism committee which once a year brings in a rousing speaker to stir up our guilt about not saving the lost in our city, without it making a jot of difference. All these are "thinned down" theology that needs to be restored, conserved, enriched and reimagined. And that was just Part One - the evangelical theme. In Part 2, Wright - Nigel not Tom - addressed the Pentecostal/charismatic heritage of the church.

It has to be said that the charismatic renewal was indeed a "move of God" amongst evangelicals and in our churches. Over forty or so years, we have rediscovered the neglected Third Person of the Trinity and renewed our appreciation of his role in worship, prayer, Scripture, service, mission and community. We have realised that our daily experience of the Risen Christ is utterly pneumatological. We have confessed the error of relegating the New Testament witness to spiritual power (dunamis) and gifts (charismata) to the apostolic age, and been encouraged (given fresh courage) to appropriate our heritage as children of the King today. Much in the renewal movement has been of deep and lasting value to the normal Christian life. But at the same time, four decades of observation, experience, and reflection have enabled us to critique what is an intriguing meld of divine and human input. We realise that in this realm too, there is a crying need for the honest assessment and fearless appraisal that makes reimagining possible.

Wright uses Paul Ricouer's helpful concept of "second naivete" to address the shifting paradigms. Second naivete is when you receive something in its own right, but not in a naive and unthinking way. Rather you have explored the historical, scientific and sociological terrain, and go on the journey again, knowing more richly and thinking more deeply than you did first time round. Wright accurately identified the landscape of the first naivete:

  • the teaching that all Christians are promised an experience of empowering and gifting - the baptism of the Spirit - subsequent to their saving decision to follow Christ;

  • the insistence on the gift of tongues - an angelic or not-learned human language - as the proof of this;

  • the consequent triaging of believers into categories of Spirit-filled or not filled, with the implication that the former are more spiritual, effective and favoured;

  • the description and identification of individual spiritual gifts leading to both pride in what one has, and abdication of one's responsibility to participate in the gift areas of others;

  • an exalting beyond questioning of leaders who manifest the more dramatic gifts;

  • a rejection of any criticism of charismatic phenomena as the unforgiveable sin;

  • a categorisation of any spiritual gift practised by nonbelievers as a Satanic counterfeit; .

  • the extolling of a later move, known as the Toronto Blessing, seemingly transmittable, and accompanied by extravagant physical manifestations
This all very familiar to me, as a child of the charismatic renewal that occurred here in Auckland in the early seventies. The disillusionment that follows this first stage was also recognizable to me as a practical theologian with a science background. Just a few examples:
  • no clear link between giftedness and sanctification;

  • a fairly clear link with suggestibility and excitability;

  • subtle issues of ego and manipulation;

  • identifiable issues of culture, eg prophecies given in King James Version English by conservatives, or reference to Our Lady by Roman Catholic believers;

  • an assumption that if something - a prayer, a sermon, a communion service - is unplanned, it is more spiritual than something carefully and prayerfully prepared

  • the fact that many gifted and inspiring Christian leaders over centuries did not practise speaking in tongues, even though some asked for this gift;

  • the recent finding that "praying in tongues" involves a specific area of the brain, and is practised by people with no experience of faith in Jesus Christ
Wright's book "Charismatic Renewal: The Search for a Theology" - coauthored with Tom Smail and Andrew Walker but sadly out of print, try the Carey Library - undoubtedly gives a fuller critique, and then offers the reimagined possibilities of second naivete. Again just a few clues:
  • the Holy Spirit's personal presence and his charismatic gifts are given to us by Jesus and therefore of high value;

  • but not everything that glitters is gold;

  • there is no such thing as non-human experience of God, therefore all spiritual gifts are rooted in human nature, and affected by the wiring of the brain, eg temperament and memory;

  • this in turn means there is no spiritual phenomenon that is not subject to human fallibility;

  • the cerebral and the intuitive need to be held in balance, and "gifts," such as the practice of speaking in tongues, understood as natural human phenomena which become spiritual as offered to God

  • the experience of Baptism in the Spirit - attested to in Scripture and history - is better reframed as "baptisms in the Spirit", given and appropriated at critical moments (eg Acts 4) but not confined to the traditional classification of "Second Blessing"

  • altar calls and the provision of "ministry time" need to be kept safe within the bounds of preaching and sacraments;

  • leadership means creating the conditions in which people can thrive.
You will see why we came home buzzing with thoughts, responses and questions! And in this posting I haven't gone near the issues of universalism and the afterlife, which played a dominant part in Wright's first talk. Though he brings a refreshing critique and heaps of insightful reflection, Nigel Wright's authentic conviction is that he will never be post-gospel or Post-Holy Spirit. The students of Spurgeon's College are in good hands. I am left reassured that I too want to be continuing evangelical and charismatic, and if I am post-anything, it is post-easy answers.

To Chew Over: Did you recognise some of the landscape described here? Did it raise some questions for you? How are you going to process them further?

Beautiful Lord, wonderful Saviour, I know for sure all of my days are
Held in Your hand, Crafted into Your perfect plan

You gently call me into Your presence, Guiding me by Your Holy Spirit

Teach me dear Lord, To live all my life through Your eyes.

I’m captured by Your Holy calling, Set me apart, I know You’re drawing

Me to Yourself, Lead me Lord, I pray.
Take me, mould me,
Use me, fill me

I give my life to the Potter’s hand

Call me, guide me, Lead me, walk beside me

I give my life to the Potter’s hand.

Darlene Zschech