Tag Archives: vision for 21st century evangelicalism

Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Five

Christian Smith (PhD, Harvard University) is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He is the award-winning author or coauthor of numerous books, including What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good From the Person Up and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

While Smith is no biblical scholar or theologian, he is a gifted writer whose insights into the church are helping to reveal one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century evangelicalism.

That’s why I believe there is no better book to recommend as we complete this series of five books than Smith’s most recent work, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (2011).

Smith believes that American evangelicals are suffering from what he calls “biblicism.” This commitment to biblicism has led to what he calls, “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Evangelicals are often guilty of misusing the Bible, even idolizing the Bible and their interpretations, and judging other Christians against their “plain” and “self-evident” readings of an ancient text. Therefore, leaving little to no room for unity among the Body of Christ.

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal application. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice (p.4).

Smith doesn’t question the inspiration of Scripture, though he does call for a redefining and understanding of what “God-breathed” really means. Instead, Smith claims that the current theory and practice of biblicism is “misguided and impossible” to maintain. Smith says, “It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”

Smith believes evangelicals have made all sorts of dangerous assumptions about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function. He unpacks these assumptions and gives ample evidence of how evangelicals prove, by their endless divisions and factions, there is no consensus on what the Bible teaches about many issues.

Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, Biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking—and does so inerrantly. They essentially demand—in God’s name, yet actually based on a faulty modern philosophy of language and knowledge—a sacred text that will make them certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave (p.128).

He says, “Christians remain deeply divided on most issues, often with intense fervor and sometimes hostility toward one another.” If biblicists were correct in their assumptions about the Bible, then there ought to be a solid consensus on what it teaches, especially on the most important matters. But there isn’t, and there never will be.

What then is a truly evangelical reading of Scripture?

It means living with Scriptural ambiguities. It means dropping the compulsion to harmonize everything. It means being able to distinguish the difference between dogma, doctrine, and opinion. It means extending the right hand of fellowship toward all believers. It looks like a more inclusive study of Christian traditions and historical interpretations.

And it means moving beyond the biblical text onto Christ himself—the Word made flesh.

Smith says this would help to create an atmosphere where Christians could address disagreements in love and grace, “perhaps toward overcoming pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the early church lived without “the Bible” for nearly four hundred years, surely 21st century evangelicals can stop to consider “the role of the church, the Holy Spirit, and the “rule of faith” in the function of scriptural authority for Christians.”

Finally, Smith calls for a “Christocentric” hermeneutic. There is no way to hold to biblicism when the function of Scripture is soley to exalt the living Christ who can be known in the church today.

Perhaps, if and once people have really grasped the good news of Jesus Christ—what really matters, in light of which anything else must make sense—God is happy to let his people work their lives out in different forms of church government and using different modes of baptism, for example. Perhaps some diversity in such matters is okay. And perhaps God has not interest in providing to us all of the specific information people so often desire about the “end times,” divine foreknowledge, and the destiny of the unevangelized. Further, perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than by simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture (p.112).

The Bible Made Impossible will challenge you on many levels. I encourage you to consider what Smith has written about the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism and the biblicists abuse and misuse of Scripture. And hear his evangelical alternative to a biblicist reading of the Bible.

If evangelicalism is going to take a step closer to the heart of God in Christ, we must deal with the division over the Bible that is ripping the church apart, and confusing a lost world. There is a better way.

Thanks for reading!

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Attention: If you have followed this series, please remember to leave a comment letting me know that you have shared each post via social networking or your blog over this past summer. I will enter your name in a drawing for one of the five books, and I will announce the winner on Monday in the comment section below. Thanks!


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Four

Gregory Boyd is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also the founder and president of Christus Victor Ministries, currently undergoing a transformation.

ReKnew.org will be launched on June 30th.

For sixteen years Boyd taught theology at Bethel College in St. Paul. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary. He has authored or coauthored over twenty books.

In 2010, Boyd was listed as one of the twenty most influential Christian scholars alive today.

In April 2004—an election year—Boyd preached a sermon series entitled The Cross and the Sword, which addressed the Christian’s call to love one’s enemies and to give exclusive allegiance to Christ and his kingdom.

As a consequence of challenging the highly politicized American evangelicalism, refusing to promote certain political agendas from the pulpit, and for preaching a radical non-violent commitment to Christ, Boyd lost about 20% of his congregation. Those who left Woodland Hills were later replaced with others who agreed with his vision.

From Boyd’s controversial sermon series came the book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (Zondervan 2006). This book got Boyd a front-page New York Times profile in July 2006. He was also featured in CNN’s 2007 religious special, “God’s Warriors.” And an interview with Charlie Rose about the book.

I read the book when it was first published. It has not only been one of the most influential books in my life, a milestone in my personal thought, I believe it offers the clarity of vision evangelicalism needs right now—especially this election year.

Here are the contents of the book:

  1. The Kingdom of the Sword
  2. The Kingdom of the Cross
  3. Keeping the Kingdom Holy
  4. From Resident Aliens to Conquering Warlords
  5. Taking America Back for God
  6. The Myth of a Christian Nation
  7. When Chief Sinners Become Moral Guardians
  8. One Nation Under God?
  9. Christians and Violence: Confronting the Tough Questions

Boyd says, “My Thesis, which caused such an uproar, is this: I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” Boyd believes evangelicals have fused their faith with certain political ideologies. Something Jesus never did.

“For some evangelicals, the kingdom of God is largely about, if not centered on, “taking America back for God,” voting for the Christian candidate, outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keeping the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, fighting for prayer in the public schools and at public events, and fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings” (p.11).

Boyd dismantles the myth that America is a Christian nation, claiming that the myth “blinds us to the way in which our most basic and most cherished cultural assumptions are diametrically opposed to the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus and his disciples.”

He says that this myth “clouds our vision of God’s distinctly beautiful kingdom” and “harms the church’s primary mission” in the world. He believes that the American flag has “smothered the glory of the cross.”

Boyd contrasts the different versions of the “power over” kingdom of the world with that of the “power under” kingdom of God. “Allegiance to the kingdom of God,” Boyd says, “ is confused with allegiance to America, and lives that are called to be spent serving others are spent trying to gain power over others.”

What is the role of the government until Christ comes? How ought the Christian relate to politics and still carry out Christ’s commission? Boyd persuasively addresses these questions and much more—expositing the words of Christ and the teachings of the apostles in fresh relevant ways.

He even deals with common objections: “What about self-defense?” and “What about Christians in the military?” or “Don’t your views lead to passivity?”

Boyd writes, “Jesus’ teachings aren’t a set of pacifistic laws people are to merely obey, however unnatural and immoral they seem. Rather, his teachings are descriptions of what life in God’s domain looks like and prescriptions for how we are to cultivate this alternative form of life.”

While Jesus acknowledged political realities, he refused to invest his hopes and energies in politics as a solution to the world’s problems. In an examination of moments drawn from history and our own day, Boyd shows that whenever the church is co-opted by politics, we are seen as self-righteous jerks rather than God’s loving servants.

This needlessly turns people away from Christ.

Boyd is tirelessly working to cast a new vision, which is really an old vision, for evangelical Christians who have lost sight of the gospel. It’s time to abandon the quest for political power and begin living out the beautiful kingdom that Christ began with his life and ministry.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

* Read the final post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Five


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Three

There is a great deal of talk about Jesus within evangelicalism today, but oddly enough the church has lost sight of who Christ is and what it means to make him the center of our lives. I’m confident that the third book that every evangelical needs to read for a fresh vision is the book, Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (June, 2010).

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola combine their voices to trumpet a resounding reminder that we never “graduate beyond Christ” in the Christian faith. And Christ isn’t found only in the center of things, but along the “corners and on the edges” as well.

Leonard Sweet occupies the Chair of Evangelism at Drew University in New Jersey and contributes weekly to http://www.sermons.com and a podcast, “Napkin Scribbles.” He has authored numerous articles, sermons, and forty books.

Frank Viola is a best-selling author, international conference speaker, and a personal friend. Some of his books include Pagan Christianity?, Finding Organic Church, Reimagining Church, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, and the best-selling From Eternity to Here.

Sweet and Viola believe we have created a “narcissistic” and a “best-seller” Christianity which is “self-centeredness wrapped up as ‘spirituality,’ which has become the latest fashion accessory for the person who has everything” (p. 100).

As I look across the present post-modern landscape of Christianity, I see several camps of believers pushing their way through the crowd to stand on the rooftop of evangelicalism with their megaphone in hand (i.e. books, magazines, blogs, etc.) proclaiming a gospel tailored to fit their own tradition. And you dare not challenge that tradition!

There are several current groups and “movements” that are all trying to highlight the neglected sides of historic and “traditional” Christianity. We have the reformed “defenders of orthodoxy,” the emerging brand, the missional-minded, and the organic house church folk, just to name a few.

I do believe that most of the people in these groups truly love the Lord and his church, but many of them are in danger of becoming preoccupied with some thing else other than Christ.

There is indeed much to be disheartened with in Christianity today. Yet, there is a growing number of evangelicals that are discovering that pop-culture Christianity is leaving them high and dry. “Whether they realize it or not,” says Sweet and Viola, “people are looking for a fresh alternative—a third way” (p. xiii).

Sweet and Viola believe there are three features present in every spiritual awakening in the Christian church: (1) a rediscovery of the “living Word,” or the Scriptures and its authority; (2) a rediscovery of the living Christ and His supremacy; and (3) a rediscovery of the living Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts and power to manifest Christ in the context of that culture.  (p. xvii)

We’re living in some hot times economically, politically, and socially. Christians are engaging in an exchange of ideas (not without some name-calling and finger-pointing). It’s evident that even those who have been the most outspoken for the “supremacy of Christ” and right “doctrine” have succumbed to rhetorically burning people at the stake in the name of Jesus.

Where is Christ in word and deed? Sweet and Viola write, “Whatever you are occupied with comes out of your mouth. It’s what you talk about most of the time” (p.19).

And we should not just be hearers of Jesus only, but doers of him.

Is “mission” our center? Is it community? Maybe discipleship? Some say it’s preaching and others say it’s ministry. If we say that Christ is central and supreme, what does that mean concerning justice? What does his universe look like when we are first seeking Christ and his kingdom?

When Christ is not central and supreme in our lives, everything about life shifts out of orbit and moves out of kilter. So for Christians, our first task is to know Jesus. And out of that knowing, we will come to love Him, adore Him, proclaim Him, and manifest Him. (p. 2)

That’s why this book has been written. It addresses the present challenges we face as many “things” compete for the centrality and supremacy of the person Jesus Christ. We are called to be “living epistles” or “Jesus Manifestos” in our world. It’s about being true to Christianity.

So what is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy. Neither is it a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview. Christianity is the ‘good news’ that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a person. And true humanity and community are founded on and experienced by connection to that person. (p. xvi)

Jesus Manifesto has been purposely written in an “ancient devotional tone” of writing. In the spirit of Watchman Nee, Jeanne Guyon, Andrew Murray, and T. Austin-Sparks, this book is a fresh call to the post-modern church: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Heb. 12:2).

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”   Paul, Colossians 2:6,7

As evangelicals, can we agree upon the person of Christ, and cease from all of our heresy hunting and doctrinal division? “Receiving Christ also means receiving all who belong to Him” (p. 147).

The future of evangelicalism depends upon our willingness to embrace all Christ followers and extend grace to the outsider.

What Others Have Said…

“One more sign of a Christianity that is beginning to look like Jesus again. Our great challenge over the past few decades has not been one of right believing but of right living. Viola and Sweet create a harmony here that invites you to give the world a Christianity worth believing in … after all they will know we are Christians, not by our bumper stickers and t-shirts — but by our love.” 
Shane Claiborne—author, activist, and recovering sinner    http://www.simpleway.org

“From beginning to end, authentic Christianity is all about Jesus and, ultimately, nothing but Jesus. No one has proclaimed this more clearly and persuasively than Viola and Sweet. Jesus Manifesto is an important and powerful prophetic call for the Martha-like Church to get back to doing “the one thing that is needful.” 
Gregory A. Boyd—Senior Pastor, Woodland Hills Church, Maplewood, MN; Author, Present Perfect, The Myth of a Christian Nation, and The Jesus Legend.

“This is a really exhilarating reintroduction to a Jesus who seems sometimes to have become a stranger to the Church; a passionate and joyful celebration of God with us, which cuts right through churchy quarrelling and brings us back to wonder, love and praise – and the urgent desire to make Him known to all.”  Rowan Williams—Archbishop of Canterbury

“I look for books that call us to love Jesus and make His name more widely known. In Jesus Manifesto, Sweet and Viola ask us to step away out of the “Youniverse” (their word) of narcissistic religion and away from the pop-culture Jesus who is just a nice man. Throughout the book, they exalt Jesus as the divine Savior and ask the church to do the same. I believe this book will spark a renewed love for Christ by pointing us to the deep mystery of His person. You will be motivated to love and serve more deeply as your life is focused on Jesus the Messiah.”
 Ed Stetzer—President of LifeWay Research http://www.edstetzer.com

Read more endorsements at:  www.thejesusmanifesto.org

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Four

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

 


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book One

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies. There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.

Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of NT scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings offer fresh insight and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise as to why I have chosen one of his books as the first in a list of five books offering up a new vision for evangelicalism.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

Is our evangelical language of our future existence reflective of NT orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic view of the future that fouls up our presentation of the gospel in the present. He believes we have lost sight of the biblical vision for the future.

Our future home is not “heaven”—for this is where God is presently—another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that we find our hope, and a hope for the world.

Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”

It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the 21st century.

“Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).

This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as some evangelicals have embraced. Wright says that his misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not fully account for evil.

This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.

Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). Evangelicals have also been guilty of preaching the apocalyptic demise of the space-time universe! Therefore, we all must get ready to be raptured for another world altogether.

This belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future—a future where we “fly away” and are “raptured” to spend an eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.

Wright believes that embracing the biblical vision of the future will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not entirely about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God, more specifically in ways keeping with the example of Christ who has revealed what it means to be human.

It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the NT—a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).

Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter into our promised resurrected existence.

In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.

We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.”  Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).

Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things. But if evangelicals ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead, then we miss the entire Christian hope.

God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the judgment gives the unbeliever much to worry about.

While Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that are reflective of a theology from the Dark Ages, he finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” for those who have rejected God’s purposes for the earth. He says that these folks will cease to bear the divine image, and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”

Wright believes that whatever “hell” is in reality, beyond the bizarre biblical metaphors, it should suffice for evangelicals to agree that it is a horrible end. And that should be enough. It is time to stop arguing over evangelical views about hell. Belief in a literal hell is not the true test of orthodoxy.

Wright’s main idea is this:

Heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Gospel.

The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these look like in light of this radical message of hope? What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Furthermore, what should the mission of the church be in light of this biblical hope for the future? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).

Finally, I have chosen Surprised by Hope as the first book in this series because it is a much-needed theological challenge to popular evangelicalism. It gives us a biblical vision of God’s good future for heaven and earth.

I pray that Wright’s message will begin a move among evangelical churches to return to the biblical hope for the future, and offer the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell for a distant realm in a bodiless heaven.

For those interested, you may also purchase the 6-session DVD study with this book. It is an excellent resource for both independent and group study.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two

* See the first post Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series.


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