February 19, 2020

Riffs 07:24:09: Checking the Pulse of the Post-Evangelical Conversation in Three Manifestos

John Wesley 4I’m going to comment on three documents, and I don’t want to reproduce them here. All are available online. One is “A Post-Evangelical Manifesto” and can be found at Next Wave Magazine’s web site. It is written by Raffi Shahinian.

Another is “The Jesus Manifesto” written by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. It can be found at its own web site, though the font is ridiculously tiny, and you may want to download the pdf at the bottom of the page.

Finally, the “Call To An Ancient Future Evangelicalism,” which was one of the last things to come from the ministry of Robert Webber.

I answered the question “What is a post evangelical?” here and here.

1. One would be entirely correct to say that anyone who uses “post-evangelical” in a singular, undefined way- be they an emerging church advocate or a truly reformed critic- is operating well off the conclusions merited by the evidence and quite possibly engaging in damage by friendly fire. There is little doubt that post-evangelicals may have some commonality in regard to how they view contemporary evangelicalism and even some of the recent rescue missions (i.e. the Calvinistic resurgence), but from there one would be wise to look carefully at what is meant. That isn’t an attempt to be squirmy. It’s just telling you that the term has some quite different directions among those who use it.

2. There is a substantial difference in the attitude of post-evangelicals towards the classic confessions of faith that set the boundaries for classic Christian orthodoxy. Shahinian sees the emphasis on these formulations as part of the problem. Webber and I would see them as long overdue and essential solutions. Sweet and Viola presuppose their emphasis on Christology. The point doesn’t need to be labored: whose Jesus? The Jesus of classic orthodoxy is wholly Biblical and sufficient and needs no contemporary revision.

3. Sweet and Viola, who are hardly theological twins, have detected something seriously amiss in the post-evangelical/emerging church understanding of the Gospel: the centrality of Christ. I think I have a nose for this sort of thing, and I know it can be very rhetorical, but Sweet and Viola are crucially and significantly right. And not just about Christianity becoming politics, but about theology that puts Jesus into an assigned “place” in someone’s version of Christianity and doesn’t make him the “all” of the Gospel. As I will say in one chapter of my book, unless you do great damage, there’s not going to be any escaping the narrowness of Jesus when it comes to putting the focus onto himself rather than anyone else’s agenda. So whatever we have to say about “narratives,” or “sources” or “confessions,” we must be a people radically identified with Jesus. No “Jesus Disconnect” allowed.

4. I cannot help but think that something very good- the post-evangelical critique- is getting split into teams at places that are not necessary. We act as if no one in our past every held together all that we are discovering is important, and this betrays what Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” especially as it pertains to those who are our theologcial ancestors.

We need to especially reconsider John Wesley and the Wesleyan awakening.

At this point, let me castigate the Calvinists for turning Wesley into a caricature of bad theology. Shame on you for repeating the worst things to say about Wesley and ignoring his incredible achievement of balancing church, evangelism, missions, education, social involvement, community, administration, experience and worship together in one movement. Wesley has been lost to thousands of students because of his brutal, one-dimensional treatment at the hands of watchbloggers and theological Barney Fifes. At least Calvinist historian Iain Murray has written a wonderful book on Wesley, pleading for his reconsideration. Tony Campolo recently did two podcasts on Wesley exploring this very thing: his value as a model for today’s evangelical renewal. (Someone calm down the watchbloggers. I’m not endorsing everything Campolo ever said, but his insight into Wesley is very helpful.) Evangelical scholar Howard Snyder has done a real favor to those who want to listen in The Radical Wesley, a fine book that came out well before its time.

5. I believe the post-evangelical must reject much- not all- of the present evangelical circus, but reclaim the best of evangelicalism’s influences and past, i.e. Wesley. Then we must have the centrality of Christ and the deep appreciation and robust use of the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds in particular. Unless post-evangelicals can “replant” our movement in the “old soil” we tossed out back, we are doomed to the “coming evangelical collapse.” Our best hope is to “survive and thrive,” not to rescue what cannot and should not be rescued.

6. I continue to see something with the emerging church that concerns me, and it concerns me even when it comes from those who revere Webber, who is my hero and mentor: we must not put our place in the narrative in the place of authoritatively interpreting the narrative or creating more authoritative narrative.

There is a sense in which I deeply appreciate Wright’s view that we are the “fifth act” in the play, or “Acts 29” as some would say it…..but we have to be very careful there. I detect something less than humble about the idea that we, as the “continuation of the story,” are the true interpreters of the story. This narrative defines us. It questions us. It judges us and offers us grace. We belong to it and to the God who writes and enacts it. There is a sense in which the authoritative narrative must be told as scripture tells it- from Acts, through the epistles and on to Revelation- without putting our particular bit of the story in there on equal terms. This is why we must guard scripture as sufficient WITHOUT our recent interpretative marvels to supplement it. (See TEC for details on where that will take you.)

This is the disturbing lack of humility I sense in some quarters of post-evangelicalism, and I would wish that we could learn how often that sort of arrogance, in history and in denominations, has provided the rocks to crash upon. Let the Holy Spirit write the story. Let others tell it. Let us live it and proclaim it, not constantly explain that no one really got it until we arrived. There’s an ugliness to that I want nothing to do with.

Comments

  1. Mike McConville says

    Wesley has been long neglected. Even the Methodists have forgotten him.

    • I hope that’s the case, for if the Wesleyan theology I was taught in my recent teenage years in the Methodist Church is truly Wesleyan, I disagree with quite a bit of it.

      What I’ve learned about Wesley since has not been so bad (Such a liberal theology could not thrive in the Bible Belt, had the practice not been changed). But the Methodists I know (those still at my church at home, plus those I know from playing music at a university Wesley Foundation) do not seem to believe in God’s ultimate sovereignty. Not to be Calvinist, but you simply cannot question God’s sovereignty. I mentioned it once in a small group bible study and got some funny looks, even from our preacher. At least my dad, a Methodist minister until I was 12, agrees with me on that point.

      From what I understand, while Calvin started with God’s sovereignty, Wesley started with God’s love. Two very different positions, yet both are very correct in their own way. My disagreement starts when one side begins to refute the other. I don’t know if Wesley himself ever said anything about God’s sovereignty, but most of the Methodists I know have forgotten it. And while Calvin was certainly lacking grace (for everyone, anyway) in his theology and practice, most of the New Reformists (or whatever you want to call them) I know embrace grace and love.

      Perhaps Wesley himself may be good model, but, in my opinion, today’s Methodists are not.

  2. Good Call on highlighting Wesley as a model for renewal!

  3. Pastor M says

    Thanks for the reminder about “Father John,” who does indeed have a lot to teach us today, although, like all of us, had his flaws too. Your comment about a lack of humility seems smack on target to me in regard to many today. I always wonder about what I perceive as arrogance in some statements/articles/blogs, etc. It is indeed Barney Fife-like at times.

  4. The concepts of evangelism and predestination are incompatible except through lawyer-logic, requiring pages of legal briefs to convince a Christian that black is white or that up is down.

    It defies reason to argue that God requires person A to evangelize person B before person B can find Christ, for God’s will then becomes determinate on the actions of mortal man. Person A holds person B’s salvation in his hands — and that’s not evangelism, that’s God-by-delegation.

    And how about the Methodist concept of backsliding? I’d argue that the threat of losing one’s salvation is a good reason to fulfill the great commission, but how threatening that must be to those that suspect they might be favored enough to be elect, but who ignore Jesus’ words?

    Wesley’s concept of God’s Grace, and indeed the word itself, has been so very misused by the Calvinists. Yet it is Grace that drives evangelism. Not the predestined kind of grace, but the here-and-now kind of Grace. Amazing Grace.

  5. Michael:

    Thanks for this and all the post-evangelical critique. I don’t think that the Sweet/Viola piece has gotten nearly the attention it deserves, and I think that Wesley has been getting slammed too much in Reformed circles (I was reminded that Calvin would probably castigate those that call themselves Calvinists, because it focuses too much on him). Thanks for the book mentions on Wesley. Something more to add to the reading list.

    As much as I admire the passion of the Acts 29 group specifically, the name, while I understand it, has bothered me as well.

  6. I like the entire Wesley family. Songwriting, preaching, and mom raising two kids who changed the world. What a family!

    I would that all those watchblogging Barney Fifes be required to go out and do missions overseas and missions among the gin mills and missions among the poor before they would get to blog another word.

  7. But, Wesley preached a false gospel, so he should not be listened to and all the good that he did was for nothing.

    Sorry, I’m waxing sarcastic here. But, seriously, that is what I am hearing from folks these days about him. We need to have some balance in our critique of people, I would think.

    Good post.

    • cermak_rd says

      Isn’t that more a function of the medium though? Blogging and commenting don’t really lend themselves to nuance.

      • No, I don’t believe it is a function of the medium. In fact, any written medium lends itself particularly well to nuance because, unlike with spoken communication, one can write, read, re-write, re-read, think some more and re-write again before pushing that “send” button. This works even in a chat with it’s immediacy. That people (including, all too often, myself) don’t do this is entirely their own fault and a reflection of their (our) sinful pride and not an intrinsic function of the medium.

        • cermak_rd says

          Pardon, me, I think you’re right. What I meant by the medium was the people attracted to actually make comments. People who don’t have an opinion one way or another, in my experience, seldom bother to comment on blogs (or even read blogs about such).

  8. Wesley was the finest flower of the West to bloom since the Reformation. Maybe since the Schism

  9. I enjoy Wesley’s hymms, but I find most of his writing to not hold up so well.

  10. John did write some hymns, but you probably mean Charles.

  11. Had revival this week. Three preachers, an SBC, a UMC (rural church young fellow) and a local black baptist church pastor (can’t remember the denom).

    All did very well. No complaints about any, but the one who delivered the sermon that was the most scriptural based, reasoned, and yet impassioned for a call to follow Christ in our every day lives?

    The UMC guy. I should add that he spoke with me after church and added that he was not at all happy with the national UMC church and that he found himself more on the Weslyean, Nazarene side of the church.

  12. The bad theology of the Great Awakenings that gets blamed on John Wesley really needs to be blamed on Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer. I applaud your call to reconsider John Wesley. That doesn’t mean I don’t think he had his own failings or short-comings.

    For a man who read so many books, John Wesley was a man of one book: scripture. You can’t pin him down as a follower of this or that theologian. He truly had a “generous orthodoxy”, but he didn’t pick and choose teachings to suit his fancy or personal, designer religion; if it didn’t jive with scripture, he threw it out.

    I recommend “John Wesley” by Albert C. Outler, which is mostly John Wesley’s own writings, letters, and sermons. What is true of scripture I believe is true of theologians: don’t read what someone else said after reading it, read it for yourself. Find out what the man was like. Agree AND disagree. See the man behind the theology.

    There is a set of prayer beads on display in a British museum which supposedly belonged to John Wesley. Doesn’t sound very reivial-ish, does it?

  13. On his blog, “A Catholic Blog for Lovers”, the late Gerard Serafin had this to say about John Wesley (available via archive.org):

    http://web.archive.org/web/20000818195622/http://praiseofglory.com/heartswarmed.htm

  14. Another good book on Wesley I came across via the intriguing in print recommendation of the old Catholic apologist Frank Sheed–who grew up singing Methodist hymns and wrote, “Protestants can only be converted by Catholics who can almost imagine themselves Protestant.”

    Of course I’s say the exact same thing reverse(!), but the book is a fascinating: John Wesley in the Evolution of Protestantism. Maximin Piette. Sheed & Ward. 1938.

  15. As an aside I also recommend the modern church heeds the teaching of Rev. Augustus Toplady!

  16. I’m coming to this as someone who’s greatly enjoyed N.T. Wright, so I know I probably look at his books through very sympathetic lenses. Given that, I always took his “fifth act” metaphor to be the picture of humility: whatever we do, and that includes interpreting the texts of the Bible, ought to happen with constant awareness that we’re not self-made or the sum total of God’s work in the world but that we’re always the working-out of what God has done in the first four “acts.” I suppose I could imagine an arrogance rising out of a doctrine that we’re Christ’s body or that we’re a city on a hill, but I wouldn’t blame the metaphor first.

  17. You may not like this at all, but this is my gut speaking. Having been raised kinda half evangelical, I have plenty of old evangelical friends from hs and college in the 80’s. I appreciate fully the witness of evangelicals to the person of Christ and try to bring that same sense to my preaching as a Catholic priest. I have also become aware of a kind of industry among some evangelical ministers to become the local “expert” on things Catholic or Orthodox, actual Catholics and Orthodox needing not apply.

    What I find perplexing is a tendency of some evangelical ministers to read something from Catholicism here or Orthodoxy there to include in their preaching and sound deep and studied and interesting. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t work terribly well. While in some sense this border crossing and return can be very edifying (it has been for me), it can too easily be yet another exercise of the ego, a way to bring some new tricks to the trade, a way to stand out and appear unusually spiritual compared to the rest.

    This, of course, can be said as well of a Catholic priest who claims some evangelical influence in his preaching. I am aware. The difference is the Catholic who finds a particular avenue to speak about a conversion to the person of Jesus is touching a reality that is as simple as it is profound. Neither Catholic nor Orthodox liturgy, devotional life, doctrine or spiritual traditions can be easily approached without some significant study. What is risked is a presentation of certain aspects of the ancient faiths that hides more than it discloses of them.

    There is an infamous YouTube vid of an Episcopalian church in San Francisco which does just this sort of thing. The odyssey of Eastern chant, African drums and Shaker dances ends up being less a spiritual abandonment to Christ than a self-conscious act of multiculturalism and for its participants a distilled exercise in “interestingness.” It is, admittedly, a worst case scenario, but it is telling.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5wYkFAfPs4

    For the minister who seeks a meaningful crossover experience, a certain humility is necessary so that it not become a service to his ego. The same is true for the Catholic.

  18. Fr. J, I watched the video you gave the link to and watched the Easter vigil at St. Gregory’s in San Francisco. It looked like they were celebrating with great joy. I know a little bit about that church, having read Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread. and I realize this church would not be everyone’s “cup of tea,” but they do reach out to the hurting people in their community and I have to say….if I was “disowned” by other churches, I think I could go there and find people still willing to reach out to me with God’s unconditional love.

    I’m happy that there are so many different types of churches, celebrating life and God’s love in various ways. I am not a very demonstrative type of person (raised Catholic) so it may take some “breaking in” before I could “do church” in the manner of St. Gregory’s. I am happy with the way we do Mass at my little Catholic church. Jesus is proclaimed; confession is offered; various groups are available for people who want them.

  19. I was encouraged a few weeks back by “The Jesus Manifesto” myself–great stuff–thanks to Jared Wilson for providing a link (I think he shared it on his blog?).

    While you may speak for post-evangelicalism–there are other voices, if there is something to be said that is. In other words, I appreciate the definitions you provide but there may be others with something to add or subtract from what you have contributed (i.e. “here and here”).

    [Mod edit]

    You write (and it’s even understandable for a simpleton like me), “The point doesn’t need to be labored: whose Jesus? The Jesus of classic orthodoxy is wholly Biblical and sufficient and needs no contemporary revision.”

    Jesus needs no revision or a 21st century makeover as you point out Michael, as he needs nothing–never will. Our calling remains: It’s we who must preach Jesus and his gospel, and anything short of that is wasted airtime–and can be ultra-devastating to those who happen to be weaker and impressionable and still listen when and if we are get off the genuine gospel and might even preach “another” one.

    A favorite scripture might apply here (1 Corinthians 1:11-13, NIV), “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

    Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”

    Jesus says he has set us free… what do we say? Not a one of who truly trusts in Jesus and follows him can claim him or his gospel as our own, no matter our affiliations or lack thereof–“Post-Evangelical” or “the Calvinistic resurgence” for that matter. It’s “his gospel” and it is “one gospel”–even if it takes on different forms (no doubt it does).

  20. I hadn’t read points 5 and 6 Michael before I went ahead and commented. Sorry. You cleared up my concerns.

  21. Great post, Michael. You finally caused me to read Sweet and Viola’s piece – and I’m glad I did. It really is all about Jesus – no matter how often we get sidetracked.