Review: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

Review: The Future of Evangelical Theology

the-future-of-evangelicalism

The Future of Evangelical TheologyAmos Yong. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration of the contribution that has been made and could be made from
Asian-Americans to evangelical theology, with particular attention to context and the author’s Pentecostal perspective.

Euro-American voices have long dominated evangelical theology, such that some may consider the two synonymous. The landscape has changed. In addition to the presence of many people of color in the North American context contributing to the theological dialogue from their own context, there is a growing church in east and southeast Asia, as well as in the global South that now represent a numerical majority of evangelical Christians in the world, and are beginning to exercise a voice in theological discussions.

Amos Yong’s book is a contribution from the Asian and Asian American perspective. Also distinctive, and important in global discussions of evangelical theology are the voices of Pentecostal believers, and Yong represents this stream as well. In fact he describes his own perspective as an Asian American pent-evangelical perspective!

His first two chapters chart the contemporary global scene of evangelical theology, including the voices of Asian theologians in chapter one, and those of the Asian American diaspora in chapter two. He then asks why the evangelical Asian American voice has been relatively “unenergetic” compared to mainline and Roman Catholic voices, considering both the white North American contribution to this problem, and how Asian American evangelicals have internalized this tradition. This is central to his argument in the book. He writes,

“The argument unfolded here is at the heart of this book: it claims to address not only challenges confronting Asian American evangelicals but also the blind spots of evangelical theology especially in its American incarnations. If it is successful, then we shall see that the ‘problem’ for Asian American evangelical theology is simultaneously the problem of evangelical theology itself–there is no way to address either without addressing the other” (pp. 29-30).

In chapter four, Yong turns to the Pentecostal voices in Asian American theology and the unique contribution that the Pentecostal experience brings to understanding the many voices in the conversation in a context where the missional impetus of the Spirit’s empowering creates contact across so many cultures.

Chapters five and six were, I thought, among the most interesting in the book, in exploring what an Asian American pent-evangelical theology brings to questions of immigration, centering on themes of migration in a Pentacostal reading of Lukan migration narratives, and the experiences in the Asian American context around money, migration, and mission.

Chapter seven is Yong’s attempt to sketch a programmatic vision for pent-evangelical Asian American theology that encourages Asian American voices in dialogue with other North Americans and also engages with other voices in the global South. This is followed by a more personal epilogue in which Yong charts with ten binaries ways in which he, perhaps mirroring the experience of “hybridity” of other Asian Americans, finds himself between _____ and _____.

Speaking from a Euro-American perspective, I welcome work like this. So often, we are unreflective of how our own cultural context (which we often fail to distinguish from the gospel of the kingdom) has shaped our theology, even our theological categories. I appreciated the more extensive sketch of an Asian American pent-evangelical theology of immigration. Our inability to think this way, and often blindness to how so much of the Bible is a narrative of migrations and diasporas, is one of the areas where our Asian American fellow believers might help us see parts of the Bible that our own context may have obscured. We need voices like Yong’s, not only in the theological formation of the Asian American diaspora, but to see the world beyond our own, often Euro-American, perspective. I share his hope that his book would encourage other Asian American evangelical and Pentecostal theologians to find and use their voices.

 

Review: Grassroots Asian Theology

GrassrootsGrassroots Asian Theology by Simon Chan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: In contrast to the growing list of “contextual” Asian theologies out of academic “elitist” settings, Chan explores the Asian theologies implicit in the popular church movements and writers in the Asian context, and particularly the significance of Pentecostal theology.

One of the healthy developments in our post-colonial setting is the increasing number of Majority World theologians contributing theological insight from their particular cultural context. Yet one of the problems is that much of this is written from “elite” perspectives, kind of a top down approach exemplified by Minjung theology, Dalit theology and the writings of people like C.S. Song, Kosuke Koyama, and others. Chan is concerned about the gap between these theologies, often shaped by liberation theology and post-colonial discourse, and the lived theology of the grassroots church in Asia. Early in the book, he cites a Latin American theologian who observed, “Liberation theology opted for the poor and the poor opted for Pentecostalism” (p. 27).

Chan begins with a chapter on methodology. His basic approach is shaped by a “Trinity as family” thesis in terms of considering the Godhead as family, consonant with the importance of family structures in various Asian contexts, the state of humanity in relation to God and how then we understand Christ and salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of the church. For each of these topics, he surveys the work of leading “elitist” theologians, then that of more popular movements and preachers in various Asian contexts, and then includes reflections on these as contributions to a “catholic” theology reflecting contributions of both east and west. This last step, it seems to me is important, because the truth is that in his survey there are multiple and sometimes conflicting grassroots theologies and to stop here would seem to be a descent into cultural relativism. This results, I believe in some important contributions to the discussion of the theological contribution of the Asian context both in engaging various Asian cultural contexts, and for the wider church. Some of these include:

1. An understanding of the Trinity as “divine family” provides both challenges and attractions vis a vis other religious beliefs including the personal versus the impersonal, and the model of an ordered family that serves as a grounds for the culturally important human families of Asian cultures.

2. An understanding of human sin as bringing dishonor upon the divine family and resulting in shame.

3. An understanding of Christ as the one who bears shame and re-orders and reconciles disordered family relationships, between people and God and people with each other, as the one who delivers from illnesses, poverty, and oppressive spirits. Particularly interesting was the understanding of Christ as the “ancestor-mediator” addressing the questions of ancestor veneration that are so central in much of Asian family life.

4. A pentecostally informed understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit who unites and empowers the church to face both the world of spirits and human brokenness, bringing, healing, wholeness, and relationship with God.

5. Finally, he articulates an idea of the church as a community of “contrast” and yet one that lives in “the communion of the saints” that extends to the dead. In this last, and on the basis of the discussion of Christ as the “ancestor mediator” he allows for the possibility of prayers for or even preaching to the dead that they too may be reconciled to Christ looking toward the day of the marriage feast of the Lamb when that communion will be visible to all and fully realized.

Chan acknowledges that this last conflicts with much post-Reformation theology and yet is consonant with ideas in Catholic and Orthodox circles, and even with writings of people like C.S. Lewis. Here, as in a number of places, Chan does not shy from controversy in raising questions about the possibility of postmortem repentance and salvation, particularly for those who have not heard the message of the gospel, so important in questions about family ancestors, but also for many in the west.

This does raise a question for me about Chan’s methodology. He assesses both elite and grassroots theology against ‘catholic’ articulations of doctrine. Yet on some questions, like this last, the ecumenical creeds are vague, and the understanding of scripture disputed among the different parts of the Church. It is not clear whether for the author the final arbiter is the individual theologian such as Chan, (a post-Reformation view), the grassroots community (a post-modern and post-colonial view) or some form of Magisterium (a Catholic view).

Nevertheless, Chan makes an important contribution in arguing that the grassroots implicit and practiced theology of Asian church communities must be heeded in any discussion of contextual contributions to theological understanding. Any less would not in fact honor “the communion of the saints.”

Review: The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott

The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott
The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott by Brian Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this book proposes an ambitious project and I am impressed with how well Brian Stanley pulls this off in under 250 pages of text. While focusing on the evangelical landscape in the U.S. and U.K.(hence Graham and Stott), he gives us a helpful overview of the global spread of the evangelical movement from 1945 to the year 2000.

He opens with exploring the dynamics of this period–communications, the spread of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world, and the growing evangelical influence of the majority world. He then goes back to the beginning of this period and explores the differentiation of evangelical from fundamentalist in its US, British, Canadian and Australian forms, marked most notably in the US with the establishment of Christianity Today as the print organ of the forming evangelical consensus.

The next chapter on missions, evangelism, and revival focuses on the development of Billy Graham’s global ministry, the World Evangelical Fellowship, the Evangelical Fellowship of India, and the East Africa Revival, and finally the work of Scripture Union in Africa. “Scholarship, the Bible, and Preaching” focuses on the beginnings of an evangelical effort to engage the biblical scholarship of the day and produce scholarly work consonant with an evangelical view of scripture, including the New Bible Commentary. Stanley explores the British controversy over inspiration and the later American one centered around Fuller Seminary over the issue of inerrancy. The chapter concludes with profiling the development of expository preaching as an expression of evangelical biblical conviction in the ministries of Martyn Lloyd Jones, John R. W. Stott, and James Boice.

Chapter 5 profiles the major evangelical apologists of the period beginning with Cornelius Van Til, Carl F.H. Henry, Edward J Carnell, Francis Schaeffer, and Leslie Newbigin. He also cites the philosophical work of Alvin Plantinga, and the appropriation by evangelicals of High Church Anglican, C.S. Lewis, whose approach to the Bible was anything but evangelical. Chapter 6 explores the history of world missions consultations and the increasing social justice emphasis beginning from a bare mention at Berlin 1966, to a greater majority world presence and emphasis at Lausanne 1974 and the increasing integration of evangelism and social justice efforts since.

Chapter 7 covers the global spread of pentecostalism and that rapid growth of pentecostal movements in the majority world. This often gets short shrift in Western contexts but is critical to understanding global evangelicalism. Then the book concludes with raising the disturbing question of whether evangelicalism is simply diffusing, or in fact disintegrating as a cohesive movement with a coherent theological stance. The book ends with the provocative idea that this may not be something decided in the West but in the Majority world.

I found this book a fascinating overview of this decisive period–how decisive, the next 50 years may tell. It makes one give thanks again for the vision and character of so many profiled in this book, notably John Stott and Billy Graham, but also many other scholars, pastors, evangelists and missionaries of this period. At the same time, I think the book shows evidence of, but fails to diagnose the critical issue of the lack of consensus with regard to what is meant by the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy (or infallibility, or trustworthiness) of the Bible that was oft fought over and also the source of an interpretive pluralism that could lead to disintegration of this movement. Does final authority lie with the individual interpreter, within “interpretive communities”, or in the tradition of biblical interpretation? This is an issue discussed at length in Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (reviewed here). Perhaps an exploration of this issue in detail would move beyond the descriptive character of this work and yet this issue is important in what seems a growing movement of frustrated evangelicals to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. That being said, Stanley has given us a masterful overview of the development of evangelicalism up to the turn of the century.

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