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Is There a Future for God's Love
An Evangelical Theology
By Henry H. Knight III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE SHAPING OF EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY
Evangelicals are passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. They have been ardent participants in spiritual awakenings around the world. They are prime organizers of revivals, evangelistic programs, and Bible studies. They have been quick to use the latest media—newspapers, tracts, magazines, radio, television, video, and now the Internet—to proclaim the gospel. They have launched massive social movements to reform society and have initiated vast missionary movements across the globe.
The reason for all this activity is a conviction that God can transform human lives, relationships, and human society. In a world such as ours, beset with war and injustice, disappointments and heartaches, poverty and hopelessness, and driven by materialism and the pursuit of pleasures that leave life empty and meaningless, to hear that things do not have to be the way that they are is good news indeed. Sins can be forgiven; relationships can be healed; lives can have meaning; and human society can have hope. Indeed, death itself does not have the last word. This good news has its foundation in what God has done in Jesus Christ and what God continues to do through the Holy Spirit.
At the very heart of this divine promise of redemption is love. "God is love" (1 John 4:16); "God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9). God's love is marked by compassion and sacrifice. Yet that does not say enough. It doesn't fully encompass how God incarnate in Jesus reached out in love to tax-gatherers and zealots; Samaritans and centurions; women and children; the sick and the disabled; lepers and those possessed by demons; those dead in sin and those physically dead. It doesn't quite express the love that led to the cross, in which "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). This is a love that, in the end, God defines and does so most fully in the life and death of Jesus Christ. We come to know the full meaning of this love not through theological dictionaries but as we grow in the knowledge and love of God through faith in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit.
It is the joyful task of evangelical theologians to reflect on the nature of this transformation of hearts and lives through the power of this loving redemption in Christ. This book is a contribution to that task. A major thesis is that the central feature of this new life that God gives is love—a love for God, for all persons, and for the creation itself. Because this life is in relation to God, it has a distinctive shape both in response to and in imitation of God's love for us in Christ. This change of heart does not instantly change everything around us but it does transform our dispositions and lives, affect our values and relationships, put us on a journey toward growth, motivate us for ministry, and give our lives meaning. It is an eschatological inbreaking into our hearts and lives.
Yet this claim that God changes hearts and lives is not self-evident. It is not just critics who can find real-life examples that undermine if not discredit the promise of new birth. Christians are also well aware of persons whose lives do not match up with their profession of faith, not only in the high-profile cases of clergy misconduct but also among everyday believers in the pews. It is this disjunction between the claim of conversion and the reality of the life that is lived that is the greatest challenge to the credibility of the gospel. It raises the question of whether we can become persons whose hearts and lives are truly governed by love—whether there really is a future for love in this life.
That is the central question this book seeks to address. It will therefore focus on this divine transformation of the heart: what it is and the difference it makes; impediments to receiving it and living it out, and how they can be overcome. In the process we will discover that a pervasive culturally embedded misunderstanding of human freedom is at the root of much of our failure to both nurture loving dispositions and to act in ways that are genuinely compassionate. We will not be attempting to address every concern or issue. But we will seek a clearer understanding of what new birth and sanctification actually are and to identify spiritual practices that assist persons to both grow in love and live that love with greater faithfulness and effectiveness.
We will begin that examination in earnest in chapter 2. Here, in the remainder of this chapter, I want to look more closely at what is meant by "evangelical theology." This will not only identify more clearly the theological perspective with which I approach this topic but also show the absolutely critical place of the new birth within the evangelical theological vision.
Who Are the Evangelicals?
I am developing a self-consciously evangelical theology. The term evangelical has been given to a movement of Christians, mostly Protestant, which has its origins in the religious awakenings of the eighteenth century. Even in its inception it defied strict definition; today, as a global phenomenon, evangelicalism encompasses almost unimaginable diversity.
It is clear from these brief remarks that I reject equating evangelicalism with the "religious right" in America or with "fundamentalism." To be sure, these are segments of the evangelical movement, but they are neither dominant nor definitive. The American media, with its focus on political issues, has been greatly misleading in its assumptions about and depictions of evangelicalism, though this has been partially remedied in recent years.
In A Future for Truth I described evangelicalism as a highly diverse movement, which nonetheless has a family resemblance. It was examined from the standpoint of a common set of beliefs—such things as Jesus Christ as incarnate divinity, Lord, and Savior; the authority and inspiration of Scripture; the presence and power of the Holy Spirit; the need for conversion and spiritual growth; and the importance of evangelism—and as a distinctive spirituality. Most of the discussion involved an extended historical argument, showing the interplay of Pietist and scholastic tendencies in producing diverse and at times almost contradictory forms of evangelicalism.
Although in my earlier treatment I began with the Protestant Reformation, I agree with recent historical works that place the inception of modern evangelicalism in the eighteenth-century awakenings. The great tributaries of the Reformation—Puritanism, Pietism, and even to some extent Anglican spirituality—all fed into evangelicalism; it in turn became a massive spiritual river, which had a major impact on the geography of cultures all over the world. It was, at the same time, shaped and domesticated by those cultures and thereby lost some of its original spiritual dynamism. Still, it flows powerfully today, having its most recent impact in the Southern Hemisphere.
Even apart from cultural and racial/ethnic differences, evangelicalism has so many crosscurrents that some question whether it is a useful term at all. The tensions between Calvinists and Arminians within evangelicalism go back to the eighteenth century, whereas the tensions between Pietism and scholasticism go back to the seventeenth century. There have been major disagreements over eschatology, revivalism, the nature of Scripture, the role of women in church and society, charismatic phenomena, economic and political issues, and the church growth movement. Such diversity should encourage modesty in those who would offer definitions.
David Bebbington, with that appropriate modesty, has identified "four qualities" that have characterized evangelicalism: "conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism." The appeal of Bebbington's definition is that it identifies common elements while not disallowing additional priorities from different segments of the movement nor specifying too precisely the theological beliefs that inform them.
Others have sought to amend Bebbington's proposal by adding to it. Roger Olson would include a "deference to traditional, basic Christian orthodoxy within a higher commitment to the authority of God's Word in Scripture as the norming norm of all Christian faith and practice"; Peter Goodwin Heltzel would add "transdenominational populism"; and Thomas S. Kidd would include "an increased emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in seasons of revival and personal conversion." All of these amendments have merit.
My own approach is to identify three goals or concerns that characterize the theology of evangelicalism. This means that, unlike that of historians, my focus will not be on the movement as such but on its theological aims. This in turn will set the stage for the chapters that follow.
The Goals of Evangelical Theology
For most of the history of Christianity, theology was reflection on the faith to enable persons to grow as Christians and the church to be faithful in the world. Indeed, as Kilian McDonnell has noted, "Up until the twelfth century theology was not a manner of knowing but a manner of praying," involving the affections of the heart. Even later, with the advent of more scholastic and systematic theology, theology was still understood as being about a kind of wisdom for knowing, loving, and serving God. It was, as John Wesley would say, more a "practical divinity" than a "speculative divinity."
Evangelical theology has stayed close to the concerns of this tradition. It has most especially been an attempt to maintain the identity and vitality of Christian faith and life in the face of three distinct challenges that first emerged in the eighteenth century. At times, an overemphasis on one of these has led to an impoverishment of the others. Yet, as we shall see, each one is necessary for the integrity of the other two.
The Defense of Orthodoxy
The first of these concerns is apologetic: the defense of traditional theological claims against both secular skepticism and attempts by liberal theology to dilute or modify those claims to fit modern sensibilities. Apologetics has been a theological concern since the beginning of Christianity. In 1 Peter 3:15-16 we are urged to "always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (This last part of the admonition has, sadly, all too often been neglected.)
For evangelicals, it was not the diverse spiritualities of the first century but the emerging secularity of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that shaped its apologetics. Prior to the seventeenth century, the bias in Western thought had been to have confidence in long-held ideas that had stood the test of time, while those of more recent vintage faced suspicion. The Enlightenment turned this on its head. The philosophy of Descartes and Locke, and the science of Bacon and Newton, challenged inherited notions with the explanatory power of their newer ideas. Science in particular began to provide explanations of natural phenomena that were more satisfactory than those of the past. Disease, crop failures, and natural disasters were understood not as the judgment of God or as being caused by demonic influence but as the result of natural processes that could be understood and, perhaps, predicted or prevented through human ingenuity. The theories of ancient authorities, previously assumed to have stood the test of time, were being swept away by those that were new and progressive.
This was a revolution in thought that promised a future of progress and prosperity. It was based on moving the authority or what is true from Scripture and tradition to the reason and experience of the autonomous individual. The methodological doubt at the heart of the Enlightenment project would in fact scrutinize both Scripture and Christian tradition themselves, with unsettling results for theological orthodoxy.
Initially, many Christian intellectuals sought to use the new Enlightenment methods to confirm orthodox belief. Indeed, many scientists were in awe of the handiwork of God in designing a universe of natural laws. But by the eighteenth century, more and more thinkers began to raise arguments against central elements of the Christian tradition, including the Incarnation, resurrection, miracles, and the authority of Scripture. In response, some Christian intellectuals developed a more modern or liberal version of Christianity. The deists of the eighteenth century were the first sign of things to come; the nineteenth-century liberals, with their emphasis on divine immanence within the ordinary processes of nature and history, would come to dominate the theological world at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Evangelicals saw liberal theology, however well intentioned, not as a modern version of the Christian faith, but instead as the abandonment of those beliefs essential to Christian identity. Evangelicals could be distinguished from liberals by seeing how each reacted to an emerging dualism, assumed by post-Enlightenment thinkers, between "fact" and "faith," which was itself related to the dualism between "object" and "subject." The prevailing assumption was that "fact" was composed of empirically verifiable, universally held objective truths, whereas "faith" consisted of things subjectively believed or experienced but unable to be publicly verified. Thus science dealt with objective facts; religion with subjective faith.
Much of liberal theology was happy with this fact/faith distinction, for among other things it meant that no matter what claims of orthodox Christianity turned out to be factually untrue, their faith would remain untouched. They were more likely to see historic beliefs such as incarnation and resurrection to be contextual expressions of subjective faith than as the ground and reason for faith. Evangelicals were unhappy with how this fact/faith dualism had relegated Christianity to the (presumably less true) "faith" side. For evangelicals, incarnation and resurrection were not simply among a number of ways faith could be expressed; they were the nonsubstitutable ground of Christian faith. To deny these was to deny Christianity itself.
Evangelical theologians developed two overall apologetic strategies, each containing within it a variety of approaches. One strategy was to deny the fact/faith dualism itself by reframing objective reality within the purposes and activity of God. A second was to accept the dualism but seek to rationally demonstrate Christian claims to be publicly verifiable truth, belonging on the "fact" side of the dualism.
Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, the leading theologians of the eighteenth-century awakening, illustrate the first approach. Both were aware of the direction the new intellectual currents were flowing and both were determined to counter them. They did this not by rejecting the new learning but by reimbedding it within the larger revealed purposes and activity of God. Avihu Zakai describes Edwards's goal as the "reenchantment of the world by demonstrating the infinite power of God's absolute sovereignty in both the 'order of nature' and the 'order of time.'" The deists had exiled God outside the creation and then sought to explain everything within the creation through natural causation. Although their theologies were different at crucial points, both Edwards and Wesley argued that the natural world and human history are best understood as interplays of divinely created natural processes and divine and human agency. That is, our understanding is deficient if it does not recognize ongoing divine activity.
Central to their theologies is the new birth and the occurrence of religious awakenings. Post-Enlightenment thinkers seek the full explanation of these phenomena through natural means, looking, for example, for the psychological reasons for conversion experiences or the socio-historical factors that lead to an awakening. Neither Wesley nor Edwards discount those factors. What they deny is that they constitute a full explanation of the phenomena. The failure of post-Enlightenment accounts of things like conversions and awakenings is because of their ignoring the presence and power of God. There is a larger reality within which nature, history, and humanity must be placed in order to be fully and accurately understood.
How, then, does one know this larger reality? It is certainly revealed in Scripture. But Wesley and Edwards add a second, complementary element to their apologetic: a "spiritual sense" epistemology. Drawing on both Christian tradition and eighteenth-century thought, they understand faith to be a "spiritual sense" that enables us to know—that is, to directly experience—the reality of God. It is important to note what they do not mean by an experiential faith. For Edwards and Wesley experience is not private and individualistic (and hence not unverifiable by being purely "subjective"). To know God through faith is to encounter a God who is other than us ("objective"), analogous in some ways with how we know another person.
Excerpted from Is There a Future for God's Love by Henry H. Knight III. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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