Numerical Statistics and the Path to Liberalism

There is no question that mainline Protestant denominations are in numerical decline in the United States. Year by year, those denominations that have affirmed the tenets of theological liberalism are dying off.

Many theologically conservative Protestants tend to highlight the numerical decline of liberal denominations as proof of their rightness in standing for truth. Some of the less combative theological conservatives occasionally use the decline narrative as a basis for not being combative: let it go, the false religion will die out one day.

The argument that numerical decline is a necessary result of bad doctrine is, however, a bad one. In fact, it is one that has tended to enable doctrinal distortions and sociological abuses among some of those most active in theologically conservative circles.

Explaining the Decline

There is little doubt that the lack of vitality in theological liberalism is a part of reason for the decline of denominations characterized by it. In simplistic terms, the main project of theological liberalism is to strip away objectional parts of Christian orthodoxy until the end result can be accepted by someone without abandoning any important cultural beliefs.

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This has been the project from the beginning. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of theological liberalism, was earnest in his desire to remove barriers to modern humans to convert to Christianity. As a result, he engaged in the process of redefinition of difficult ideas and excision of theological truths that conflicted with naturalistic, minimally supernatural worldview.

His project has continued, with scholars and pastors in the liberal tradition arguing against central Christian truths, like the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, and the possibility of his miracles. In the end, there are some members and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations who believe so little that is vital to orthodox Christian doctrine, they have no business calling themselves Christians.

Theological liberalism is, when it is lived authentically, an entirely different religion than Christianity. It may use some of the symbols and share some vocabulary, but when the core meaning of these signs is stripped away, it is hard to say that they are the same things.

When one takes away the power of the cross to bring about redemption, for example, then the entire power of the gospel has been denied. It is the gospel that makes the Church and not the Church that makes the gospel.

Historically, the Christian churches around the world have been animated by the power of the gospel. It is what enables Christians to not simply endure persecutions, but to thrive in hostile environments. It is the power of the gospel that has grown the church throughout history.

When theological liberalism is sufficiently advanced (which is not in all cases), it alienates itself from the very thing that makes the Church a coherent and vital reality. At that point, especially when everything that is uniquely Christian and differentiates believers from the culture around them has been stripped away, there is little reason to remain in a church. In fact, there are many more reasons not to abandon the hassle of the local congregation when the gospel is absent.

Consider this: the local church should be a collection of people that have no business being socially united. It should be ethnically heterogenous (or open to it, since some communities are essentially homogenous). It should represent people from various economic classes, educational backgrounds, political interests, etc. The Church is a messy community. That takes hard work, and it is only possible when the strong nuclear force of the gospel holds the nucleus together.

When you strip Christianity of the very thing that makes it distinct from culture, there is no reason to meet anymore. If the essence of Christianity becomes simply doing “good” things for the community, then that can be much more easily accomplished by joining an association with fewer social entailments. In other words, why bind yourself in community with a bunch of weirdos when you can just casually and conveniently work at the soup kitchen on occasion. You get the benefits without the inconvenience.

The power of the gospel is what animates Christian congregations and denominations. When that is stripped away, then it makes sense for the numbers to decline. The weirdness of a community with the entailments of a church is not worth it without the gospel.

Resisting the Opposite

Our desire to be justified in our own eyes often tempts us to crow over the decline of theologically liberal denominations. Often theological conservatives will try to argue that their own stagnant or rising numbers are a sign of God’s blessing on their continued faithfulness to the gospel.

Sometimes faithfulness to the gospel and to the central truths of historic Christianity is a sign of God’s blessing. Passages like Acts 2:41 are exciting. The gospel is preached and three thousand people are converted. Clearly, we might think, God is blessing the faithful preaching of his word. The numerical growth is an indicator of (1) truth and (2) faithfulness.

As exciting as Acts 2:41 is, how many of us would see the rapid shrinking of the local gathering of believers in Jerusalem, described in Acts 8, as a sign of their unfaithfulness or abandonment of the truth? To the contrary, had Stephen abandoned the truth in Acts 7, he probably would have lived, and the persecution of the church might have been forestalled at least for a while. The denial of the gospel might have extended the period of numerical growth.

In our contemporary contexts we need only look at the rapid growth of the Prosperity Gospel movement to see that abandoning the real gospel can lead to an increase in numbers. In other words, numbers don’t tell the whole story and they often don’t tell much of a story at all. Or, they don’t tell a story about the things that matter most.

All Growth is Not Healthy

Every numerical increase is not a sign of God’s blessing. It is exceedingly dangerous to use numerical growth (or stagnation) as an indicator of either truth or faithfulness.

Consider that the Church is a body. This is not a hard leap, since the Apostle Paul used the analogy in 1 Cor 12:12-31. All growth in a body is not healthy.

Ask the morbidly obese individual whether an increase in size is a healthy thing. Or, perhaps more tellingly, ask someone with cancer whether all growth is healthy. Both will tell you that size and growth is not directly tied to health.

Although there is good evidence that the abandonment of the gospel by many theologically liberal denominations and congregations has contributed to their decline, it does not follow that growth among theological conservative denominations has been healthy.

In fact, when we consider the number of people who identify in public polls as “evangelical” and yet fail to demonstrate any meaningful signs of conversion in their own lives, we begin to recognize a symptom of a deadly problem.

I have a working theory that while many theologically liberal denominations have abandoned the gospel in pursuit of cultural acceptability, many supposedly theologically conservative denominations have abandoned the entailments of the gospel in pursuit of numerical growth. I think this is an outworking of the bad logic that comes from seeing that numerical decline is often the result of the deletion of the gospel.

Numerical Growth as the Source of Liberalism

I am concerned about theological liberalism because it represents an anti-gospel masquerading as truth. I am more concerned about a conflation of gospel power with numerical expansion because (a) it is happening in my own theological tribe and (b) it is the first stage of theological liberalism.

The original intent of theological liberalism was not to abandon every truth that matters. Nor was it to reject the gospel. Rather, theological liberalism began with a belief that (1) the gospel matters a great deal, (2) that some things make the gospel harder for people to believe because it is so different than modern beliefs about the world, and (3) we can help more people get the gospel by stripping away the extras around the gospel that are holding people back. Though they typically lacked the elaborate head counts and well-analyzed statistics that we have today, liberalism began over a concern for numerical growth.

The main issue with liberalism is that when the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, or at least the truth about the hard parts of Scripture, then it really does create a slippery slope. A low point in theological liberalism was when a bunch of non-believers sitting in a room in Berkeley, California using colored beads to decide which parts of the gospels represented things the real Jesus would say. One need merely look around to see how individuals, congregations, and denominations are all finding ways to affirm and celebrate immorality in contrast to Scripture and in the name of numerical growth or cultural cache. One need also not look far to see cases where the pursuit of numbers and cultural cache have encouraged a minimization of the gospel, “unhitching” one’s faith from the documents of the faith, and the diminution of orthopraxy as a central aspect of the Christian life. All of these are ways that Scripture is diminished for a non-gospel purpose, even when they occur under the banner of a robust doctrinal statement.

To draw a general conclusion, which deserves a lengthier investigation some other time, it seems that the beginning of doctrinal decline is found when making something other than worship in spirit and truth becomes the purpose of a group of Christians. An advanced symptom of doctrinal decline is the redaction of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The beginning of the decline, however, is when something other than the gospel of Christ becomes the animating force of a group of Christians.

Historically, it seems that the decline of doctrine often begins when numerical growth and the social clout that goes along with it become the focus.

Judge Not, But Look for Fruit

Matthew’s Gospel offers some insight that may be helpful in drawing some conclusions to this already lengthy discussion.

Within a single chapter, which by all accounts represents the core of Jesus teaching, Matthew provides two passages that are sometimes held to be contradictory, such that often only one is acknowledge at a time or by a given group. One is the key passage of much of socially progressive Christianity: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) The other is the key passage of many combative theologically conservative Christians, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Mt 7:15-16b).

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we have to recognize both simultaneously and seek to obey them both. On the surface (and I have heard this argument made against the coherence of Christianity), this appears contradictory. However, it is not.

We are clearly called to be on our guard against false prophets. There are a lot of people who spew a lot of words that aren’t gospel. Sometimes they sound a lot like gospel, but they really aren’t. Jesus uses the image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a theological conservative, I’ve got that down. I see how theological liberals torture the historical doctrines of the faith, how they encourage their parishioners to live debauched lives, and I recognize the bad fruit.

At the same time, I have to be cautious that I am judging others by a metric that I can withstand. Therefore, I cannot judge the spiritual health of others by their numerical growth. As the tide of culture continues to reject the need for religion and see Christianity as backward and anti-social, the number of casual adherents to theologically conservative churches will decline or stagnate. The size of the Church won’t change, but the size of the congregation will change.

Therefore, we ought not to use numerical decline as the ultimate arbiter of the truthfulness of a group’s theology. Bigger or growing does not necessarily mean truer or better. Membership is a metric that can be quickly used to argue that the truth of the gospel, when it becomes socially unpopular, is not in fact true.

Work Toward Authentic Christian Character

When we shift our mission from being a true representation of Christ on earth as his body to meeting numerical statistics, we have begun the shift away from sound doctrine. It happens slowly at the beginning and ends in a crashing avalanche.

This happens when we tolerate sexual abuse in our ranks or cover it up because a leader is effective and we don’t want to ruin the brand. This happens when we accept unholy bullying in our organizational structures because someone is good at packing the house or strategic planning. This happens when we build the life of our congregations around entertaining and pacifying rather than really discipling.

Make no mistake, all of those decisions are just as doctrinal as the nature of the Trinity. None of them will make it into a confessional statement, but they reflect the deepest values of the individual or group making the decisions.

In the end, the calling of the individual Christian and the body of Christ as a whole is terribly difficult. As Jesus notes, “How narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life and few find it.” (Mt 7:14)

The best we can do is consider the nature of good works. They require us to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. It is out of the pattern of our choices that the character of the believer, the congregation, and the worldwide Church is both formed and revealed.

What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

Wesley and the Anglicans - A Review

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know that much about how Methodism separated from the Church of England. There were a few minutes of discussion in my Church History II class about John Wesley trying to keep his people inside the Church of England, but having it fall apart shortly after he died. That’s about all I knew, though if you had asked me, I would have credited it to some of the theological differences between the Anglican communion and the revivalistic Methodists.

In his recent book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, Ryan Danker gives a much more nuanced account. Even if the origins of Methodism are not a major interest for you, this book is enjoyable for students of historical theology.

Danker’s argument, fleshed out in nine chapters, is that the the divisions between John Wesley and the Anglicans were much more than theological. In fact, they were not primarily theological. After all, the same Church of England that eventually spit out the Methodists remained hosts to some Unitarians and other heterodox (and perhaps some heretical) theologians. Instead, the chief points of dissent between the Church of England and Wesley were those related to politics.

Summary

Chapter One outlines the characteristics of English Evangelicalism, which included Methodists, but also included more traditional members of the Church of England and dissenters on the outside of the sanctioned church. The second chapter places Wesley within the context of English Evangelicalism. He lived on the edge of acceptable circles, given his seeming drift toward dissenting ecclesiology combined with a surprising desire to remain within the high church tradition. He was at once too radical and too conservative for many English Evangelicals.

In Chapter Three, Danker surveys the vast array of pamphlets and tracts published about the Wesleys and by the Wesleys, which served to confuse people regarding the actual position of the Methodist movement about many issues. Fake news and propaganda had a place in this dispute as well. The fourth chapter considers the influence that political history in England had on the Methodist movement. As outliers on the ecclesial scale, the drift away from the Anglican communion caused many to remember the negatives of Cromwell and his revolutionaries. Indeed, there were echoes of ethical stringency among the Methodists that brought back unpleasant memories of Puritan political hegemony. This added to the negative view many had of Wesley and his followers.

Chapter Five reflects on the territorial tensions caused by Wesley and his large network of lay preachers. Parishes were generally divided by geographical boundaries, but Wesley’s unsupervised, unsanctioned lay preachers went to wherever their message was needed. This led to tension between Evangelical Anglicans who saw Methodist preachers making inroads in their territory, making it more difficult for them to reform. The sixth chapter documents how this tension was even increased as the Methodist lay preachers began to administer the Lord’s Supper, which was traditionally reserved for ordained clergy. This is a theological issue that gave momentum to the departure of the Methodists from the Church of England upon Wesley’s death.

Chapter Seven records the shifting political tide against the Methodists, as young men practicing some of the methodistic practices were expelled from state universities. This increased the attempts of the reform-seeking Evangelical Anglicans to distance themselves from the irregularities of Methodism and aided in the final alienation of Wesley’s tribe. Chapter Eight attempts to paint Wesley as a reformer in line with earlier forms of Christianity rather than the English reformation. Danker concludes the volume in the ninth chapter documenting Wesley’s final attempt to be reconciled to the Evangelical Anglicans, which eventually failed and caused him to drift farther from the Church of England.

Analysis

As a Baptist theologian reading about the life of Wesley and the split with Anglicanism, I found myself unfamiliar with some of the nuances of the history Danker expounds. His book, for me, was informative and engaging. It provides a gateway into the conflict of the origins of the Methodist denomination.

Danker argues his thesis well. He makes a solid case that there was much more to the division between the Wesleyan tradition and the Church of England than a dispute over Arminianism and Calvinism. (These are Danker’s terms on page 13.) Based on the story that Danker tells, it is clear that political tensions, territorial feuds, and a whole host of very human difficulties caused the final schism between the Methodists and the Church of England.

Whether Danker is right in his final analysis or whether he has overlooked significant evidence is a matter for the Methodists and Anglicans to fight out. I’ll bring my popcorn and enjoy the debate.

However, as a theologian and one who appreciates Church History, I applaud the care in Danker’s analysis to show that this is a complicated question. Too often history falls prey to the magic bullet explanation that neutralizes all counter arguments and makes simple that which is complex. That is what the Arminian/Calvinism split explanation has been for surveys of Church History and the reason for the Methodist exodus. Danker does well to show that there was much more at play. Humans are complicated creatures and our theological debates are often driven by more than simply the doctrinal question at hand. Here is a nuanced account of how one historical debate unfolded.

This volume could have been improved had Danker added a chapter laying out the accepted arguments for the split. He mentions in passing the soteriological explanation traditionally given in his introduction, but for those of us who have little background in Methodist/Anglican history, a bit more fleshing out would have been beneficial. That criticism aside, this is a helpful and interesting book that a student of Protestant Church History and Theology will likely find instructive and enjoyable.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Evangelical Politics - A New Hope

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that politics are messy.

All political systems bring together with differing opinions into coalitions designed to pursue an agenda. This means that careful thinkers often find themselves pushing for candidates that represent them in some areas, but not in all. It means sometimes accepting the lesser of two evils, as long as neither evil is that bad.

Christian engagement in politics is even more difficult than for the general population. Our integrity as Christianity is moored to eternal truths with contemporary applications. This means that in some areas compromise is impossible. It means that we will (or should) find ourselves pointing to good things on both sides of a political argument.

Scott Sauls’ book, Jesus Outside the Lines, discusses this conundrum of trying to be gospel-centric and truth-centric instead of power-centric. Contemporary American politics (and all politics, to be honest) have become especially divisive because power has become a greater concern than truth in the postmodern era.

Many times these political divisions split congregations and even individual the viewpoint of individual Christians. A Christian can be both for racial reconciliation and believe the free market is the best option for an economic system. The same Christian might also be confident in the importance of protecting the environment while being certain that abortion is a moral evil. These are all issues that can be supported with reasoned arguments and reconciled with a Christian worldview, but which have tended to fall on either side of the American political party divide.

The lowest of lows of our American political scene, with two intolerable candidates for President from the major parties, may be the source of renewed gospel-centric cooperation between Christians. Instead of insulting someone for a D or an R on their voter registration card, the fact that both parties have played their voters for fools has potential to bring Christians together across previously insurmountable political divides.

A team of socially conservative Christians, with voices from both major political parties, have united for a new attempt to engage American politics with a distinctly Christian voice. The website, Public Faith, represents a hopeful attempt at renewal of evangelical moral witness in politics.

Their vision statement affirms a positive hope of a better political future with an authentic voice for the faithful:

“We invite all Christians and those of good will to join us as we advocate for a perspective that challenges political parties with a better vision. We call on Christians to work within political parties to advocate these essential ideals and to change parties or create new ones when reform is no longer feasible.”

A movement for the common good among Christians is an excellent thing. Let the faithful be for the good of all, not the power of some. It’s early in the history of this new evangelical organization, but I’m hopeful it can begin to give a voice to many of us who have been publicly embarrassed by the compromise of so-called progressive evangelicals who butcher Scripture as they cave to culture on every issue of contention and the embarrassing cavorting of self-described evangelicals like Jerry Falwell who have become Donald Trump supporters.

My greatest concern for this organization is that its founding documents area bit lean on theological content. They affirm a “commitment to orthodox Christian faith” but that is left somewhat loosely defined. I recognize the difficulty in laying out a sufficient theological vision to accompany the high quality political vision, but since theology precedes politics, the statement is very important. Time will tell whether there is sufficient theological cohesion to support this movement’s political vision.

In the meanwhile, I am encouraged by the start and hopeful for the movement’s future.

Is Charles Finney the Prototype for Evangelicalism?

With the recent publication of the second edition of a book from the 1970’s, Douglas M. Strong has repackaged Donald Dayton’s theory that evangelicalism is defined by faith experience and right living, rather than by doctrinal fidelity. 

 Dayton’s book uses Charles G. Finney and those closely tied to him as the exemplars of this trend. While it cannot be denied that Finney preached the gospel (or at least a form of it) widely and pointed many to Christ, there is significant doubt that Finney’s belief system is a viable foundation for a sustainable Christian faith, much less being at the heart of historic evangelicalism.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

 Finney’s intellectual hubris was his theological undoing. As a trained lawyer, and by all accounts a very intelligent man, Finney assumed that he could, without cultural influence, rightly interpret Scripture. Based on a likely limited library at his teacher’s house, Finney rejected all historical Christian teachings because he did not like the way they were argued. Instead, he committed himself to a “no creed but the Bible” approach, without the aid of theological conversation with contemporary or historical peers. This unfortunate confidence was enabled by Finney’s quick wits and premature promotion to public ministry. In truth, Finney’s belief that he could rightly interpret Scripture without any external influence affecting the outcome rests very close to what is known as the “fundamentalist fallacy.”

Misunderstanding the Atonement

 In his autobiography, Finney records his opportunity to debate with a Universalist while he was still in his ministerial training. His teacher was ill and Finney stood in, ostensibly to defend orthodoxy. Finney writes,

I delivered two lectures upon the atonement. In these I think I fully succeeded in showing that the atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense in which the Universalist maintained; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under the obligation to save anybody; that it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom he died deserved to suffer; that no such thing as that was taught in the Bible, and no such thing was true; that, on the contrary, Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of God’s forgiving sinners, so as to render it possible for him to proclaim a universal amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation that instead of having satisfied retributive justice, and borne just what sinners deserve, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honoring the law, both in his obedience and death, thus rendering it safe for God to pardon sin, to pardon the sins of any man and of all men who would repent and believe in him. I maintained that Christ, in his atonement, merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying for the indebtedness of sinners. (Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography [Westwood, N. J.: Barbour Books], 38)

Finney rejected the notion of election, divine calling, and substitutionary atonement in Christ’s death on the cross.

In truth, Christ’s death on the cross as a human in human form was only necessary because it is substitutionary. If all Christ did was make possible salvation in a general way, it could have as simply been done by fiat as by self-sacrifice. Without extending this post with further discussion on the atonement, it is clear that Christ came as a redeemer not as an enabler. Even taking a thematic view of Scripture, rather than pursuing a verse by verse defense, it does not seem that Finney’s perspective on the atonement is helpful. In short, even without accepting a fully Calvinistic theological paradigm, Finney’s reasoning seems better suited to win an argument against Universalism than to be considered biblically faithful.

An Unsound Foundation for Evangelicalism

 In all this, I am not making the claim that Finney was not converted, nor that he did not have a profound impact on many people. Finney preached a form of the gospel that enabled many to come to faith in Christ through repentance of sin. He was also instrumental, as Dayton and Strong rightly argue, in ending the evils of American slavery.  All of these things could have been, and were otherwise, done while still maintaining doctrinal integrity.

 By basing their image of historic evangelicalism on individuals on the fringe of orthodoxy, more subject to their culture than to Scripture, Dayton and Strong have undermined their own case.

 In fact, most of the organizations and theological movements cited in this volume have tended to cut their mooring to Christian orthodoxy in the years since Finney’s influence. Wheaton University has maintained fidelity to its evangelical doctrine. On the other hand, the Salvation Army is no longer concerned with salvation in any meaningful sense. Oberlin College, where Finney was president, is no longer distinctly Christian.

The track record of Finney’s theology demonstrates a failure to thrive in the long term. In the first generation, the theological content is assumed, in the second it is unknown, and by the third it is rejected.

This should point present day evangelicals toward the need to be active in pursuing social justice while adamant about maintaining the doctrinal orthodoxy of our Christian heritage.

A Brief History of Mercy Ministry in the Church - Part Three

This is part Three of Three posts in a series on the history of Mercy Ministry in the Christian Church. Part One is accessible here.  Part Two can be found here.
After introducing the topic and giving a brief overview of Mercy Ministry in the Early Church, Patristic Era, Medieval Era and Reformation Era, today's post emphasizes the Modern era, bringing the discussion up to the present time. 

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Used under creative commons license. http://ow.ly/IHxpd 

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Used under creative commons license. http://ow.ly/IHxpd 

As a reaction to the religious wars of the Reformation Era, Deism began to rise and people began to try to demonstrate that non-Christians could be ethical, too. Divisions began to form between Church and State, with none starker than the division in France due to the French Revolution. When the church and state split, the larger political organization rose as a more significant participant in what had previously been the church’s role in dealing with physical needs.

 The roots of modern evangelicalism are in British non-conformist religion. The four central aspects of early evangelicalism were conversionism, crucicentrism, biblicism and activism.[1] The key for today’s discussion is activism, which refers to the belief that the internal change brought about by gospel conversion would be worked out in external application of the gospel to life. It was this tendency toward activism that led William Carey to build businesses to improve the local economy in India, end injustices like the burning of widows, and start schools instead of only preaching the gospel. This also drove people like William Wilberforce and John Newton to fight for the abolition of slavery.

 It about the same time as the rise of evangelicalism that the higher critical approach to Scripture was developed. Faith became subjective, the integrity of the Bible was frequently questioned by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Julius Wellhausen, and others. Deism became increasingly accepted through the work of individuals like Thomas Paine. In summary, people began to doubt the central truths of Christianity, but retained their desire for the works of the Christian religion. As a result, mercy ministry began to take precedence over doctrine. Later, liberal theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch began to promote the idea that the Kingdom of God was a condition of earthly justice that had no true doctrinal content.

 Unfortunately, the morals of the church cannot stand without a doctrinal foundation. Individuals like J. Gresham Machen, B. B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge resisted the discrediting of Scripture. Others reacted more strongly against the doctrinal decay of the theological liberals by rejecting the social aspect of ministry. This led to the rise of fundamentalism, particularly in the United States, which promoted doctrinal truth and evangelism without significant concerns for mercy ministry. This overreaction was a divergence from the central traditions of Christianity and the resurgence of an interest in mercy ministry among doctrinally conservative Christians should be seen as a course correction not an innovation.

Carl F. H. Henry

Carl F. H. Henry

 Carl F. H. Henry’s brief but significant book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, speaks about the loss of social ministry among theologically fundamental Christians: “The social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.”[2] That reality began to change in the mid Twentieth Century as some theologians began to shift the language from doing missions (which focus only or mainly on saving souls) to mission (which focuses on participating in God’s redemptive work in all creation).

Recently there has been an explosion in conferences, sermons, and books on the topic of Mercy Ministry. Evangelicalism has largely recovered its vision for working out the implications of the gospel in the world. Our task on our External Journey, with this cloud of witness in history behind us, is proclaim the gospel while we are serving them. Or, to enable them to hear our proclamation because we have met their physical needs.

[S]ome can’t hear our proclamation [of the Gospel] until they’ve been delivered physically from injustice and other forms of suffering. Until we pick them up from the road, they won’t hear of the good news. Today, millions are being drugged, sold, and raped multiple times a day in sex trafficking. Do you think they will hear your proclamation? I don’t.[3]

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1989), 5.

[2] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1947), 3.

[3] Tony Merida, Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H, 2015), 29.

Is Doctrine Central to Evangelicalism?

When a second edition of a theology book is published nearly four decades after its first publication and just over a quarter century after its second printing, it begs for an explanation. The explanation is even more necessary when the book is a monograph and the author is dead, requiring the addition of a second author to edit and augment the volume.

 Rediscovering and Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justice is the equivalent of a digital re-mastering and re-release instead of a series reboot. Donald Dayton’s original text remains intact. The 1988 printing only added a preface. The most recent edition adds postscripts to several chapters, another introduction (1/4 of the book is introductory!), a conclusion, and a foreword by Jim Wallis.  The core of this volume is exactly the same as it was in 1976, three years before my birth.

 The answer to my question rests largely in the similarity between the cultural milieus. Just as the 60’s and 70’s gave rise to a growing number of Christians who emphasized social justice and cultural engagement over doctrinal definitions, another similar tide is rising. This time, instead of the civil rights and the beginning stages of environmentalism, we have an aggressive sexual revolution and a much stronger push for environmental repristination. Wallis is nearly correct when he observes in his introduction “that a new generation of evangelical Christians is hungry to do exactly what these earlier reformers [the 19th century subjects of this book] were doing.”

 After its excessive front matter, the book has ten chapters. The first seven deal with institutions or people that Dayton felt represented the best aspects of evangelicalism in the 19th century. He writes about Jonathan Blanchard, who founded Wheaton College, in the first chapter.  Chapters two through seven focus on Charles Finney and those who are closely related to him. All were active in abolitionist movements most were active in moving parts of the church toward egalitarianism. Chapter eight explains that, according to Dayton, the roots of feminism are in evangelicalism. Chapter nine emphasizes the focus on the poor and marginalized among the 19th century American evangelicals. Finally, chapter ten laments the loss of social justice among evangelicals and tries to explain why this loss apparently happened.

 There is some helpful history in this book. It accurately portrays the evangelical pursuit of the end of slavery before the American Civil War. Many of the abolitionists were Bible believing Christians, contrary to the popular meme that portrays all Christians as bigots. This is because chattel slavery founded on the practice of kidnapping is unquestionably a violation of biblical norms. The fact that some Christians couldn’t see that, or that they argued against that, is not an argument against Christianity but an indictment of cultural blindness and bad hermeneutics.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

 This book gets it wrong by assuming that Finney is theologically representative of evangelicalism. Finney held some doctrines which were consistent with theological orthodoxy. However, Finney, confident in his own ability to reason, approached Scripture alone, without benefit of the community of tradition to help shape his beliefs. This is what led Charles Finney to adopt the heresy of Pelagianism, or a position next door to it, according to some friendly accounts. Even Donald Strong admits in the newly added conclusion, “Finney’s theological orientation went beyond these standard Arminian positions when his preaching ended to verge close to Pelagian works righteousness, especially when he described humanity as having an almost unaided ability to bring about social perfection.” Other contemporary theologians, like J. I. Packer and Beth Felker Jones (who is a Weslyan and generally sympathetic with an Arminian point of view), have described Finney’s doctrine as Pelagian.

 In short, despite the good that Finney did in preaching the gospel, he did so from an unsound theological foundation that tended to undermine the realistic vision of humans as sinful people, living in a sinful world, in need of God’s redeeming grace to save and redeem them. Finney’s preaching enabled social justice movements to move forward vigorously, but crippled the future generations that would reject the established doctrinal foundations that empower believers to recognize the source of injustice in human sin and call for righteousness through the cross.

 The rejection of concern for right doctrine is at the heart of Dayton’s and Strong’s version of evangelicalism. Strong makes the lack of concern for orthodoxy apparent in his conclusion to the 2014 edition. He argues that religious experience (“orthopathy”) and ethical behaviors (“orthopraxy”) are the central characteristics of evangelicals. He then specifically rejects concern for right belief (“orthodoxy”) as a necessary attribute for evangelicals.

 In truth, what Strong and Dayton seem to be arguing for is a lighter form of liberation theology, which maintains a real, but less caustic suspicion of the text of Scripture. This is similar to the position argued in another recent book from Baker Academic, Introduction Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis. In that book the authors present an ecologically formulated liberation theology as an acceptable evangelical option despite its rejection of the norms of Scripture.

 In the end, the purpose of Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage is to promote the idea that right doctrine is not an essential characteristic of the authentic Christian life. What matters for this paradigm is having a religious experience and acting the right way. In some ways, this sounds much like the Pharisaic lifestyle–which was primarily concerned with externalities–more than true conversion–which comes through the power of the Christ and leads to the conversion of the mind and the hands.

 The movement to reject doctrinal norms and sever contemporary evangelicalism from historical mooring has been ongoing for decades, but it is reaching a new climax of activity as social liberals attempt to lure self-identified evangelicals into socially popular positions that contradict Scripture. This book is an attempt to argue toward that end. It encourages young believers to reject “doctrinal exclusivism and biblical literalism,” by which Strong means evangelicalism connected to historical Christianity.

 In many cases, as with a pursuit of environmental health, just treatment of minorities, and reform of the justice system, folks like Dayton and Strong have just cause. Pursuing social justice is a moral good and a necessary part of being a true evangelical. However, so is doctrinal integrity. Maintaining doctrinal integrity prevents believers from advocating for abortion rights, redefining sexual norms, and creating policies that wantonly eliminate societal freedoms because those things violates the image of God.

 Doctrinal integrity permits evangelicals to ask the question, “Is this consistent with what the community of God has consistently believed about the world?,” in addition to asking, “Is this immediately consistent with my envisioned ideal state for the world?”

 The evangelicalism promoted in Rediscovering and Evangelical Heritage rejects the foundation of doctrine, and thus enables the ability to reject scriptural teachings in pursuit of contemporary definitions of justice. In other words, contemporary culture becomes a superior source of moral authority to Scripture.

 In this manner, the value of the unborn, biblical sexual norms, and property rights become subject to debate, despite their settled nature in historic interpretations of Scripture within the church. The church can do better than this. Evangelicals can, contrary to Dayton and Strong, pursue doctrinal integrity and social justice. Indeed, they must.

 This book is significant and worthy of attention. Not because its content is earth-shattering (it can’t be this because it was originally published decades ago) but because it points to a recognition that in many ways we are where we were in the 1970’s, though the issues have changed slightly. This re-publication points toward an opportunity for orthodox evangelicals to respond to culture and doctrinal degradation in a way that is more helpful and healthy than the Religious Right and the Moral Majority were decades ago. We should be thankful to Baker publishing and to Douglas Strong for making that clearly evident.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More

Who is Hannah More?

Unless you have read Karen Swallow Prior’s recent book Fierce Convictions, or you are a careful student of late 18th century British history, you probably don’t know.

I have studied some history from that era. Until I picked up this book, I did not know who Hannah More is nor why I should care. I’ve been missing out.

William Wilberforce is the political figure that is recognized as the leader of the British abolitionist movement. He is the subject of multiple biographies, including the popular book by Eric Metaxas and the recent biographical film, Amazing Grace.

Like any significant political or social figure, Wilberforce did not act alone. Wilberforce was heavily influenced by John Newton’s personal accounts of slavery and his emotional and theological plea to end the barbarity. Wilberforce also relied on a circle known as the Clapham Sect for encouragement and support.

The list of individuals involved in the Clapham Sect includes authors, businessmen, and Members of Parliament. It also includes Hannah More.

Think about this: One of the most historically influential social reformers had a woman in his inner circle in the late 18th century in England. This is so socially abnormal that it speaks to the value More must have brought to the group, as a writer, thinker, organizer, and financial supporter.

Prior’s book fills in a gap in evangelical history by providing a well-written and well-researched biography of a significant player in the reformation of British society. More was instrumental in ending slavery, popularizing the Sunday School movement, legitimizing the role of women as writers, and ending popular support for a variety of social vices.

More wrote a novel, many poems, several plays, and hundreds of pamphlets–the blog posts of the late 18th century. Her literary product was well received and popular, which raises the question why Jane Austen’s moralistic volumes have superseded More’s in the canon of Western Literature. Although I took a course in British literature for my undergraduate degree that emphasized that period of literature (and had us read more than one of Austen’s books), More made nary an appearance.

In fact, it is More’s emphasis on manners and propriety that have largely led her to be marginalized and included only as a footnote to the lives of Wilberforce and Newton. Also, as Prior notes, More made the tragic mistake of rebuking the biographer of Samuel Johnson for drunkenly accosting her. Though she was a close and longtime friend of the popular and influential British author, Samuel Johnson, her rebuke led the offended James Boswell to largely write Hannah More out of Johnson’s biography. The small appearances More makes in that biography present her negatively, which has likely contributed to her disappearance from the pages of histories.

Prior portrays More sympathetically, though not without flaws. While More was adamant to teach the poor to read, she resisted teaching them to write since that was viewed as above their station. More was kind and considerate, but sometimes too subject to the opinions of others. Public criticism and theological debate would cause her to be physically ill.

In the balance, though, Prior’s depiction of More is overwhelmingly positive. Much like Dorothy Sayers, More points toward ontological egalitarianism while recognizing functional complementarianism between the genders. By her example, Hannah More helped to begin the movement evangelicalism from an unhealthy patriarchalism to a more appropriate view of gender. Through all this More clung to her distinct feminine identity and was most injured by accusations of theologically improper gender roles. This biography presents an intellectually brilliant woman who managed to be a major social influencer in a largely patriarchal society without devolving into the shrill protests common among feminists in our day. This facet of More’s life alone makes this biography a worthwhile read.

If you enjoy biographies, this book is a must read. Prior does an excellent job in presenting the facts of Hannah More’s life in engaging prose. The front of the biography may seem to drag a bit for some, as Prior carefully explains why the reader should be interested in More’s life, sets the social stage, and explains why More has been previously neglected. However, the information Prior provides in the first few chapters is essential to the narrative. Once the reader plows through of the details of the back story, which are extremely important to academics like me, into the action in More’s life story, the book is a page-turner.

By the end of the book I was encouraged as a believer living in a time of social turmoil that is similar to More’s epoch. I was instructed by the methods used by More and others to change society. I was delighted by an artful account of the life of a full life. I was blessed by the biography of a godly woman engaged in living her life according to her fierce convictions, which were shaped more by the content of Scripture than the cultural needs.

This is a book that belongs on your shelf. More importantly, it deserves to be read.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher. There was no expectation of a positive review. All thoughts and ideas expressed above are my own.