The Logic Of Renewal


The Western church is currently awash in a sea of renewal movements - so much so that she is in danger of drowning. Across the church's many denominations and great theological divisions there is a persistent quest for change, reflected in repeated calls for "revival," "reform," revitalization," and "restoration." We now have so much literature on the topic that one is hard-pressed to keep up with it, let alone evaluate it critically.

In The Logic of Renewal William Abraham ...

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The Western church is currently awash in a sea of renewal movements - so much so that she is in danger of drowning. Across the church's many denominations and great theological divisions there is a persistent quest for change, reflected in repeated calls for "revival," "reform," revitalization," and "restoration." We now have so much literature on the topic that one is hard-pressed to keep up with it, let alone evaluate it critically.

In The Logic of Renewal William Abraham helps church leaders and members get their bearings in the renewal debate by analyzing the most salient proposals for church renewal that have surfaced over the last fifty years. In successive chapters he pairs outspoken figures who (in all but one chapter) represent strongly contrasting convictions - James T. Draper and Dennis Bennett, Lesslie Newbigin and John Shelby Spong, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Cardinal Ratzinger, Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Romero, Alexander Schmemann and Gilbert Bilezikian, Don Cupitt and Edward Norman, C. Peter Wagner and R. R. Reno. Abraham gives special attention to the theological assumptions of each proposal, highlights its overall strengths and weaknesses, and develops his own proposals for church renewal through interaction with those under review.

Articulate, bracing, and constructive, The Logic of Renewal will redefine the way Christians think about church life.

WILLIAM J. ABRAHAM is Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His other books include The Logic of Evangelism and The Coming Great Revival.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802826565
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 12/8/2003
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.42 (d)

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By William J. Abraham

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2656-3

Chapter One

The Western church is currently awash in a sea of renewal movements. So much so that she is in danger of drowning. Across the denominations, even across the great theological divisions so prevalent in the contemporary church, there is a persistent quest for the kind of change that will enable the church to do the work of God in a healthy and forthright manner. We now have so much literature on the topic that one is hard pressed to keep up with it. The shape of the interest is reflected in the language deployed. We have developed over the years a whole family of concepts to capture what we might broadly refer to as renewal. Some speak of "revitalization," some of "reform," some of "awakening," some of "revival," and some of "restoration." Renewal is our contemporary jargon. It has effectively replaced the language of revival that has been so common in Protestant circles over the last three centuries.

For some, revival remains the paradigm of renewal. The great need of the hour, as they see it, is for another revival. The want to see a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will purge the church of her sin and fill her with Pentecostal fire so that the work of evangelism will be owned afresh as both joy and responsibility. I have some sympathy with this sentiment, in that I have enormous respect for what happened in and through revivals in the history of the Western church. Outside the West, revivals are by no means a spent force. However, as Albert Outler observed some years ago, w e will not have a Third Great Awakening until we realize that the second one is over.

Revivals, however, have been a thoroughly mixed affair, far from what the hagiography and myth-making have cracked them up to be. Jonathan Edwards, surely the acutest observer of revival that has ever lived, was right to spend a lot of time working on the pathology of revival. John Wesley was a brilliant leader and an able thinker, yet the movement he reluctantly founded in the eighteenth century failed as a church to sustain its best insights and practices beyond a century and a half or so in North America. Charles Finney, surely one of the most interesting leaders of the nineteenth century, knew only too well that he had overly mechanized the means of revival and thus created space for all sorts of daft practices in the years to come.

How are we construing renewal? Standard dictionaries give three different senses to this innocent little verb," to renew." It can mean "to replace," as when we renew our driver's license after it has expired. It can also mean "to get again," "to make again," "to say again, "or "to give again," as when we renew a lease, when we renew a subscription to a periodical, when we renew our attack, or when we renew our complaints. It can also mean to make as good as new, to put new life and vigor into, and to restore to the original condition. Clearly, it is the third sense that interests us here. We are interested in the recovery of the apostolic life and identity of the church, in the receiving of new life and vigor into the daily life of the church, both locally and nationally, and in the remaking of the church, so that she reflects her original, God-given intention and splendor.

From this broad definition, we can begin to sketch several considerations that are going to be relevant when we think through proposals about the renewal of the church.

1. Proposals in renewal will be inescapably theological in content. They will presuppose some sort of ecclesial picture of what the church is supposed to be and to do. It is all too easy to forget this, not least because Christians in the West are woefully weak in their thinking about ecclesiology. Either they refuse to think about it at all, or they simply accept uncritically the conception of the church that they have inherited. Yet ecclesiological considerations are crucial in any deep conception of ecclesial renewal. Our conceptions of renewal depend in part on some governing model of what the life and work of the church should be. We operate with some picture of how things really ought to be in the church at large.

2. Ignoring ecclesiological considerations in our thinking stems in large measure from casting of renewal in purely personal terms. Thus, following the Puritans and the Pietists, we tend to think of renewal as fundamentally the renewal of the individual. This leads naturally into the great Reformation themes of justification, regeneration, sanctification, grace, repentance, and the like. Richard F. Lovelace's fine book on renewal is a good example of this approach. Insofar as we think of the church in this tradition, we think of the church as a collection of or voluntary association of suitably renewed or sanctified individuals. We need, however, to break loose from this sort of individualism and begin to think in terms of ecclesial as well as individual or personal renewal. To be sure, we cannot have ecclesial renewal without personal renewal, but there are deep dimensions of renewal that go well beyond what can be captured in discussion of personal or individual renewal. We shall attempt to focus on the corporate side of renewal in what follows.

3. Proposals about renewal invariably follow a simple pattern. They propose a description of the life of the church that depicts what is flawed in one way or another - we are told that the church is diseased or sick in some crucial respect. This leads to a diagnosis as to why the flaw or set of flaws has developed - we are given an account of the etiology of the sickness of the church. Finally, there is a prescription as to how to put things right-we are offered an account of the medicine that we need to take if the church is to be cured. This simple pattern is at the heart of virtually all conceptions of renewal. It constitutes the formal skeleton upon which the material proposals that follow are fleshed out and identified in detail.

4. Our extended use of the medical analogy prompts a fourth consideration. Renewal can go wrong in all sorts of ways. It can go wrong because of original misdescription, because of misdiagnosis, or because the doctor has prescribed the wrong medicine. In all these cases, the quest for renewal can be disastrous. It can all too easily lead to the killing of the patient. This is exactly what critics of renewal movements have noted. Perhaps the most celebrated criticism of all renewal movements in the history of the church can be found in Ronald Knox's massive study of "enthusiasm." One suspects that Knox really had little time for the renewal movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which he saw as doing more harm than good.

We need not go to the extremes of Knox in order to reckon with reality, but we must surely acknowledge the possibility of unintended side effects in proposals for renewal. Again and again, leading personalities or major movements have appeared who have identified some deep problem in the life of the church. They propose and implement a solution. The solution then takes on a life of its own, so that across the generations it has led to other equally serious problems. The two most conspicuous side effects of renewal are, in fact, judgmentalism and schism: those committed to renewal very quickly begin to see themselves as better than others, especially better than those others who do not share their vision of change, and they equally very quickly move to break up the body of Christ into factions and parties. Renewal then is often a paradoxical affair. It is a sobering thought to ponder that sometimes our best efforts wreak havoc in the body of Christ.

5. This leads naturally to a fifth point. Like it or not, there is no firm calculus for making good judgments in this arena. Perhaps this is why some people stay clear of the whole business of renewal. They are acutely aware that, in thinking about renewal, what is ultimately needed is a very rich gift of ecclesial and spiritual discernment. It is easy to go astray; more specifically, it is easy to fall prey to a kind of spiritual utopianism. Karl Popper has made famous a distinction in politics between utopian social engineering and piecemeal social engineering. In the former case, the reformer opts for all sorts of revolutionary changes that are supposed to lead to the Promised Land. In the latter case, the reformer is more cautious, preferring to keep change within more manageable proportions. Popper is correct that the former is fraught with the perennial danger of totalitarianism; one can see this in the history of revival and renewal. On the one hand, people who crave for radical and substantial change often feel very incompetent and helpless. In such circumstances, they are liable to follow any leader who is confident enough to lead them to revival. On the other hand, there are leaders who are only all too keen to become spiritual dictators. They can easily develop spurious justifications for their fiscal and moral aberrations.

What this suggests is that there is no substitute for making good judgments in this arena. We can, of course, walk away and forget the whole matter. We can turn our backs on the topic of renewal and find something else to explore, but that would be an extreme reaction that, without any serious warrant, invites us to give up in despair. The better alternative is to muster all the good judgment and discernment we can muster and launch forth as best we can.

6. As a final point, and as a first exercise of that judgment, we should note that there is no necessity for renewal at all times in the history of the church. To put the matter bluntly, there are times when it is foolish and dangerous to call for ecclesial renewal.

We all know that some Christians very easily develop a kind of listless foot-and-mouth disease. They are always on the run to hear some new grand scheme for the renewal of the church. They run from this speaker to that speaker, from this conference to that conference, from this book to that book, from this set of tapes to that set of tapes, in search of the magic medicine that will cure the church of its various diseases. This is true of evangelism, too. We are all aware of the tendency to hearken to the flavor of the month. People run from Evangelism Explosion to church growth, from signs and wonders to exorcism and prophecy, from mega-movements in Korea to mega-churches in Chicago, searching enthusiastically for the principle or the program that will work for them.

There is something inherently incoherent about this kind of frenetic activity. It is theologically bizarre because renewal can only be a means to an end. Renewal is not itself the health of the church but a means to the restoration of health. Hence, at some point, the search has to stop. Most medicine should only be applied for a set period of time. Furthermore, there is only so much renewal a soul or a church can bear. To use a political analogy, permanent revolutions are destructive because they never know when to stop the reforming process. In the end people simply become exhausted, or the quest for renewal becomes a mechanism for achieving arbitrary power over others. This is the case in the long-standing desire of liberal Protestantism to renew the theological life of the church. Its leaders are now intellectually exhausted in their efforts to reform Christian doctrine to fit every new situation, and yet they are extremely reluctant to give up the academic and ecclesiastical power they gained in the twentieth century.

Another way to make this point is to say that the church needs a healthy sense of realism in its quest for renewal. Not every age or every time is a time for renewal. There are also seasons of consolidation, for example. Spiritual and theological gains must be properly institutionalized and stabilized. New insights have to be exploited and explored. New experiences need to be examined and evaluated. There are also times when the church has to hold on for dear life to its manifold treasures. Think, for example, of the current situation of the Orthodox church in Russia. A golden opportunity for renewal failed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then everything went up in smoke as the Communists took over. For over seventy years the church did well merely to stay alive. To speak in those circumstances of renewal - that is, in those seventy years of brutal repression - is cruel and unrealistic, although one never wants to rule out the action of special providence to direct otherwise. It is well that the Russian Orthodox church managed to keep the faith alive across the generations, preserving its liturgical and canonical treasures for ages to come. Now that the oppressors have been overthrown, it is time to speak of renewal; earlier, such talk would have been premature, if not dangerous.

We might well ponder if this is to be our vocation in the West over the next generation or so. If philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre or cultural anthropologists like James Davison Hunter are right, we had better get ready for a new dark age in our culture. Certainly, our culture faces some very stiff challenges. The collapse of Marxism has done nothing to mitigate the greed, the hedonism, the crass materialism, the ruthless competitive spirit, and the moral superficiality that are now the clear concomitants of democratic capitalism; if anything, they make things worse by creating a false and bogus sense of political superiority. The arrival of global terrorism will certainly not mitigate this latter possibility. It may well be, moreover, that the church in the West is so infected with the diseases of the very culture it has helped to create that not much can be expected from her as she enters a new century. In these circumstances, dreaming of the renewal of the church could well be a snare and a distraction. What may be needed, so me might say, is a stoic sense of endurance and simple persistence. What is crucial, they might argue, is the ability to drag oneself across the desert sands that lie in wait for us up ahead.

I am certainly open to this kind of suggestion. In Ireland we even have a special verb to designate this kind of psychological strategy: we call it "tholing." People "thole" through a bad marriage; they "thole" through rough times at work; or they "thole" through the hard grind of preparations for medical exams. To "thole" means to put one's head down and simply survive from week to week. I am not then averse to reaching this conclusion. It should come, however, at the end rather than the beginning of our deliberations. At this stage in the debate, it is premature to say that MacIntyre and those in agreement with him are right in their analysis of Western civilization. The jury is still out. Moreover, even if MacIntyre is correct, we still need to give attention to the subject of renewal, for in so doing we may be able to get hold of matters that are essential to the very existence of the church in the postmodern world.


Excerpted from THE LOGIC OF RENEWAL by William J. Abraham Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The Logic of Renewal 1
2 Foundations and Food: James T. Draper and Dennis Bennett 9
3 A Tale of Two Bishops: Lesslie Newbigin and John Shelby Spong 25
4 Tensions in Rome: Rosemary Radford Ruether and Cardinal Ratzinger 45
5 Dying for Renewal: Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Romero 71
6 Trojan Horses from Paris: Alexander Schmemann and Gilbert Bilezikian 93
7 Postmodernity, or Death by One's Own Hand: Don Cupitt and Edward Norman 111
8 Quaking in the Ruins: C. Peter Wagner and R. R. Reno 133
9 Renewal and the Quest for Intellectual Integrity 153
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