Month: May 2009

Basics #1: a guide to labels and why they matter – fundamentalist, evangelical and pentecostal

(Here’s a post written for nvc.org.au that you might want to read. I realise I don’t ever write about any of the basics; this might be the first in a series. If you’ve studied theology, all of this will be superfluous and potentially erroneous!)

Last night I was watching a secular documentary called Jesus Camp. It’s an interesting and rather disturbing look at a ‘Bible boot camp’ run by a Pentecostal children’s pastor in the USA. (The disturbing part was the black and white view of the world these kids were getting, and the pro-George Bush, anti-climate change, anti-the rest of the world attitude. But that’s all a different story.)

What struck me was that on the back cover blurb, the terms ‘Pentecostal’ ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, as if they all mean the same thing. They don’t mean the same thing, and mixing them up causes a lot of confusion. I get the feeling that most Christians wouldn’t be able to distinguish them clearly either, so I thought I’d give a quick guide. I’ve simplified things a lot here, and I’m just going off the top of my head, so please take this as a starting point, rather than a definitive guide.

‘Fundamentalism’ started early in the 20th century as a reaction against a group of theologians called ‘Modernists’ (or liberals). The Modernists were very taken with the findings of science and rationalism and were interepreting the Bible and theological doctrines in the light of science. (That’s not altogether wrong; but they were certainly taking things too far.) In reaction to this, a group who became known as the ‘Fundamentalists’ issued a series of booklets on the ‘fundamentals’ of faith – doctrines they saw as absolute foundations which were non-negotiable.

The movement – or the label at least – became more and more conservative and reactionary. Fundamentalists became those who shut themselves off from the findings of scholarship and theology; who read the Bible in rigid, literal, unnatural ways and who had a real fortress mentality – ‘them and us’. Today, fundamentalism is also associated with political conservatism and religious fanaticism.

‘Evangelicalism’ in its twentieth century form started as a reaction against fundamentalism. They were Christians who believed the Bible and traditional doctrines of faith but felt that they could still engage with scholarship in science and theology. The movement that grew out of this would tend to be seen as emphasising the trustworthiness of the Bible, the need for a personal commitment to following Jesus, and the importance of evangelism.

Confusingly, fundamentalists would believe these three things too, and the line can be hard to draw. It’s often in the mode of engagement with the world – Evangelicals are willing to dialogue with cultural trends in the world, to make their faith culturally relevant without compromising it, and to politely debate liberals and fundamentalists.

My concern is that if ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, the word ‘evangelical’ will be tainted beyond usefulness or redemption – if it hasn’t happened already.

‘Pentecostalism’ grew out of the Azusa Street Revival in the USA in 1904, when the Holy Spirit came upon a congregation and there were manifestations of spiritual gifts. The movement came to generally emphasise the need for a ’second blessing’ or baptism of the Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues. Besides the emphasis on the Spirit, the movement was often quite similar to the fundamentalists in tone.

If this was the ‘first wave’ of the Holy Spirit, the second wave came in the 1960s through the mainline (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) churches and people affected by this were called ‘Charismatic’. Many of these people stayed in their traditional churches, so you can see why there was a big difference between ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic’.

The ‘third wave’ of the Holy Spirit is where Vineyard fits in. It’s associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard movement starting in the 1980s, and emphasising a basically evangelical outlook with Holy Spirit empowerment, most often shown not in tongues but healing.

The danger with labels is that they can be used to judge too quickly and shortcut really understanding people. But the benefit of them is that they give us an understanding of what tradition, what strand of Christianity a person comes from.

My big brown Strong’s Exhaustative Concordance, or how I think the Bible is being read badly

(I’m going to sound grumpy, but I’m not, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the use of the Bible.)

It concerns me how badly the Bible is used by most evangelicals.  Much of it stems from a failure to understand what sort of book(s) the Bible is.

When I was nine, an elder in my Baptist church gave me the tool I needed to become a preacher: a big brown leather copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. For those who don’t know it, it lists every occurrence of every word used in the King James Version.

The method of preaching I learned from listening to a lot of sermons as a kid was to get Strong’s out, look up the key word in question and find every occurrence of it – ‘hope’, for example. Once you’ve read all these verses – each verse being a unit of truth, a proposition about the topic – you would have gained a ‘biblical’ picture of the topic at hand.

If you wanted to be particularly clever, you threw in the ‘real meaning’ of the Greek or Hebrew word in question.

Billy Graham lends his approval to this form of Bible study in his book Billy Graham Talks To Teenagers; he urges them all to get a Naves Topical Bible; it’s much more convenient – it arranges the Bible by topic, instead of that pesky book by book arrangement that God saw fit to saddle us with.  ‘The object of this book is to bring together in cyclopedic form and under familiar headings all that the Bible teaches on particular subjects.’ (p. 23)

The way I hear the Bible used often by evangelicals today isn’t too different from this in its assumptions. The basic failure is a failure to even attempt to understand context. (The main difference from when I was kid is that amongst non-fundamentalists and non-Sydney Anglicans, you don’t have to worry about being particuarly ‘biblical’; a few verses thrown in are often enough.)

First of all there’s the belief that each verse is a unit of truth. Each verse is read as if it can be plucked out of its context in a particular book, in a particular story or in a particular letter, addressed to a particular place and time, and read as if it is a timeless truth for today.

Alas not many verses work like this, so evangelicals keep going back to their favourite verses – Romans 8:28; John 3:16 – the ones that can be understood to work in this way.

Secondly, preachers too often move between the Old Testament and the New Testament, plucking out verses without putting those passages into the overall framework of God’s narrative of salvation. (The Bible is treated as a flat book, equally ‘inspired’; a verse from the Old Testament is just as valuable as a verse from the New Testament and is speaking in the same way to us.)

Thirdly, there is rarely any attempt to understand the social and historical context of passages.  Looking at the work on Paul being done by the New Perspective scholars, including Reta Finger, I am more and more believing that without a good understanding of these contexts, readers will get the Bible terribly wrong despite the best of intentions.

Which brings me to one of my concerns with the house church movement, a movement I am associated with. In the push toward small, simple church, there is often an even greater disparaging of scholarship and of theology. In reacting against the travesty of the passive laity, the mistake is being made that anyone can do this, that we don’t need people who have studied theology to inform our learning. The result is shared ignorance, a failure to get past the misreadings of the Bible people already have, or the risk – present in every church – of going down a leader’s crazy path.

I don’t have an answer to some of the dilemmas posed here. If I’m sounding elitist, I guess I  am. I long for the fruits of careful and sometimes brilliant scholarship to affect our church. But the timelag is long and sometimes the interface just isn’t there.

I’d really like it if an emphasis on reading the Bible contextually wasn’t confined to the Sydney Anglicans.

The general blessedness of his life

I want to live with the grace and thankfulness of the Reverend Boughton in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home:

The house embodied for him the general blessedness of his life, which was manifest, really indisputable. And which he never failed to acknowledge, especially when it stood over against particular sorrow. (p. 3)

This quote doesn’t get close enough to what I mean. You have to read a couple of pages, so he can come alive. I’m only in the early pages of the book, but Boughton has an indefeatable thankfulness to his manner; he’s a beautiful character who fleshes out the forgiving father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. We need more fiction like this.

‘We need more money’

A reluctant visitor to a megachurch last night, the ‘financial giving’ talk made me feel queasy and miserable. I wanted to run out of there. I believe they have that every week, a talk to encourage everyone to give more money, to ‘sacrifice’ for the kingdom.

I guess you have to do that when you employ as many staff as they do. I know they do a lot of stuff in the community, but I am very uncomfortable with how corporate they are and how money orientated. One might call them ‘postpentecostal’ but the roots show.

It made me proud of my little church, Network Vineyard, where the pastor sometimes forgets to take up the offering and has to be reminded by the elder. Or he just leaves the flowerpot up the front and says to come up and give before you get a cup of tea. People actually give heaps of money at our church, but they don’t need to be exhorted to it weekly.

Is God to blame?

When something bad happens, is it God’s will? And even if it wasn’t, why didn’t he intervene? Gregory Boyd’s book Is God to blame? moving beyond pat answers to the problem of suffering discusses these questions and offers some helpful responses.

Boyd starts by critiquing what he calls ‘the blueprint’ view of the world. According to this Augustinian/ Calvinist view (and I’m sure proponents feel both he and I are simplifying it) everything that happens in the world, God has willed for his higher purpose. There is a specific divine reason for everything that takes place. This comes out of a conviction that if God is all powerful, then nothing can thwart his will. It leads to people asking when their baby is stillborn or their brother dies in a car accident: What is God trying to teach me? What greater good did this serve?

In Boyd’s pastoral experience thinking of God like this has led people to lose their faith or at least develop a picture of God as someone who hurts them. (I think that God can teach us things through any tragedy. But I don’t think that he wills tragedies in order to teach us things.) It also presents a big apologetic problem to non-believers who are told this is the sort of God we worship. Of course, these reasons in themselves don’t make the blueprint approach wrong.

People who believe in the blueprint view of the world might say that God is mysterious; we can’t understand his deeper purposes. Boyd offers an alternative. His argument can be summed up like this:

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass. (p. 79)

I like this a lot. We know what God’s like; it’s the created order that we don’t understand. We can assume that ‘whatever appears inconsistent with the character and purposes of God revealed in Jesus Christ ultimately comes from agents who oppose God’ (p. 80).

Boyd describes a rebellious creation at war with God. God is constantly keeping the forces of chaos at bay as best he can within the logical constraints of our free will world. When we wonder why God hasn’t intervened, it might be that he can’t.

He can’t intervene more than he does, not because he lacks power but because the kind of world he created prevents him from doing so. (p. 112)

The kind of world he has created is one where love is made possible because agents have free choice. Without free choice, Boyd argues, love would be impossible.

Boyd is careful not to claim too much for his approach here. It doesn’t answer all our questions. But it throws us back to a position of trust, confident that we know God is good and that he is at work in the world overcoming evil.

Published by IVP in 2003, it’s an accessible book suitable for the general reader.