Leaving revivalism behind?

Christianity Today has posted a fascinating article by Gordon T. Smith, excerpted from his essay on “Conversion and Redemption” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.  The Handbook itself is a fantastic resource, though it is terribly expensive.  Thankfully the libraries I have access to have bought the electronic version.   Included in the Handbook are articles by my dissertation director, Ephraim Radner, on the church, and a chapter on spiritual gifts by Howard Snyder, who has been a mentor to me and many other Canadian Wesleyan theological students during his tenure as Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary.

Smith’s article argues that evangelical understandings of conversion are changing dramatically, and that a common feature that can be seen in the wide variety of changes in this regard is that, across the board, revivalism is being left behind:

It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.

Smith offers a sketch of the ways that revivalism has impacted evangelicalism’s understanding of conversion: the focus on a dramatic one-time experience, often crystallized in the the saying of the “sinner’s prayer”; the emphasis on the afterlife; the practical distinction between “evangelism” and “disciple-making,” the emphasis on numeric growth, and so on.

He then traces how developments in evangelical thinking in a number of different fields have challenged the revivalistic assumptions which characterized much of 20th century evangelicalism.  New ideas in biblical studies, new approaches to religious experience, ecumenical influences, the changing face of global Christianity, and an increased interest in learning from Christian history have all combined to undermine the revivalist understanding of conversion.

Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.

The excerpt ends with Smith pointing to the deeper issues that this sea-change will raise for evangelical thinking about the church.

The only question that remains, then, is whether evangelicals will trust these instincts and devote themselves to Christ-centered worship and kingdom-oriented mission. Will this be evident in deep trust that God will do God’s work in God’s time? To trust the work of God is to trust the Spirit and this necessarily means that the church trusts the Word—the Scriptures preached—as the essential means of grace and conversion.

This begs the question of what it means to be the church. The evangelical tradition is at a fork in the road and, given this sea change in the understanding of conversion and redemption, the most crucial issue at stake is what it means to be a congregation. Evangelicals will only be able to navigate these waters if they can formulate a dynamic theology of the church that reflects the Triune character of God, the means of grace—Spirit and Word—and a radical orientation in mission toward the kingdom of God.

The article is well worth a read.   I think it helpfully draws together and summarizes some of the important developments that are taking place in contemporary evangelical thinking.  While revivalism’s legacy includes many positive things, some aspects of revivalist thinking are deeply suspect, and a critical re-evaluation of its influence is most certainly needed.   This was, in part, what I was trying to do in my article “Five Ways to Improve SA Worship” –  I was highlighting the way in which Salvationist worship has been shaped by a kind of “routinized revivalism,” and arguing that there are aspects of this heritage that need to be jettisoned.  The same kind of thing is happening on a much larger scale, and in relation to a broad range of topics.  It is hard to say where any of this is going to end up, but I think this change in thinking about conversion certainly has potential to bear fruit in a genuine renewal of evangelical mission and theology.

Pentecost as a Firstfruits Festival

The Pauline teaching on charisms comes, canonically speaking, after the story of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which occupies a key place in the biblical narrative, marking the fulfilment of the promise given by Christ (Acts 1:8, Luke 12:2; John 14-16), and harkening back explicitly to the prophesied eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32.  Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free.

Lest one take this Lukan theme of “fullness” in too far, the canonical significance of the feast of Pentecost as an Israelite festival must not be forgotten.  I am indebted to Howard Snyder for pointing out the significance of Pentecost as a feast of first fruits.  You can find his discussion of this theme in his chapter on “The Pentecostal Renewal of the Church” in the forthcoming book, Yes in Christ: Wesleyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission, and Culture, Tyndale Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology 2 (Toronto: Clements Academic, 2011). Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, was one of the three great festivals in Israelite worship, coming between Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, and in Jesus day it remained one of the three festivals which included pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Pentecost concluded the Feast of Weeks, which began with a day for the offering of first fruits on the first Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:10-11), and ended fifty days later, with what came to be known as the primary celebration of firstfruits (Num. 28:26, Lev. 23:17).  Firstfruits were offered both as a thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God in the past, a celebration of God’s provision in the present, and as a promising sign of the future harvest which was to come.

While the New Testament writers do not explicitly link Pentecost with a harvest of first fruits, it is difficult not to see the significance of interpreting it as such.  First of all, there is the important eschatological harvest imagery which runs throughout the New Testament, and is particularly strong in the teaching of Christ concerning the final judgment.

Secondly, though the Feast of Weeks per se does not feature prominently in the New Testament, the concept of firstfruits is used a number of times. Paul refers to the resurrection of Christ itself as the first fruits of the coming general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. In Romans 8 he speaks of Christians having “the first fruits of the Spirit” (8:23) and thus joining with all creation in groaning for the fullness of the coming bodily redemption.  James 1:18 identifies those who have experienced the new birth as “a kind of first fruits” of God’s creatures, and Revelation 14:4 identifies the 144,000 as those who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and for the Lamb.”

Finally, recalling the Johannine identification of the cross with the feast of Passover (John 13:1), Pentecost, as the first fruits festival which caps off fifty days of firstfruits celebration, evokes a sense of anticipatory harvest, looking toward the final reaping which is to come at the eschaton.  Christ’s resurrection, then, coming on the first Sunday after Passover, is the initial offering of first fruits, to be followed by the main celebration of firstfruits on the day of Pentecost fifty days later, when the firstfruits of the new creation are harvested in the outpouring of the Spirit.  As Ephraim Radner notes, the traditional Jewish understanding of this time in their liturgical calendar was that the fifty days in the Feast of Weeks marked the wanderings of the people in the desert, and the day of Pentecost was seen as the entry into the promised land, “where all that is enjoyed is given by God” (Leviticus, 247).

We see in Pentecost, the culmination of the Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the first fruits of the great and wonderful day of the Lord, prophesied in Joel 2:28-30.  The outpouring of the Spirit, then, on this day of first fruits, should be seen, not as a complete “fullness” of the Spirit, but as an anticipatory offering of young fruit which is to mature and yield a much greater harvest in the promised future.  The pneumatic firstfruits of Pentecost are a proleptic anticipation of the complete fulfillment of Joel 2, in which the Church experiences in itself the outpouring upon “all flesh,” which is to come, at the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28, 31).

It is important to stress, then, that the charisms, as first fruits of the Spirit, are not to be seen merely as divine acts of “mercy” and “life,” bestowing blessings upon their recipients, but also as anticipatory acts of “judgment.”  This is consistent with Jesus own description of the work of the Spirit as convicting the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment – each of which finds its meaning in the saving work of Christ (John 16:8-12).  Divine mercy and judgment cannot be separated from one another, and this two-sided character of the Spirit’s work as seen in the Church in history ought to be a fundamental theme in the theology of charisms. For if the Spirit participates in God’s acts of judgment as well as God’s acts of mercy, then the Church, as people among whom the kingdom is already breaking in to the present age by the Spirit’s work, will manifest the eschatological judgment just as surely as they will manifest eschatological life and renewal. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter. 4:7).