Ken Schenck has some interesting thoughts on the origin of evangelicalism and how the concept has changed over time.
The origins of American evangelicalism are in these preachers of assurance, these preachers that you can be justified by faith now and you can know it. In short, the original evangelicals in America were revivalists. George Whitfield and the First Great Awakening are the starting point for American evangelicalism and, yes, Jonathan Edwards was a part of that.
John Wesley and his followers are a key part of that, the early American Methodists like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Then the Cane revivals in the early 1800s, the Second Great Awakening, are part of that. Think of the Baptists who preached assurance and a moment of conversion.
This is the season in which millions of people will watch with joy some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
It is interesting to me that we can watch this story and approve of its viewing in a world in which any talk of judgment is labeled as destructive to the mission of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The central arc of this story is a redemption story driven home by the horrible fate awaiting Ebeneezer Scrooge if he does not repent. Granted, an eternity walking the Earth as a ghost burdened by heavy chain is not hell fire, but can there be any doubt that Scrooge’s reform is set in motion by the prospect of the wrath to come?
It strikes me as a deeply Christian parable. But make no mistake, it is a story that stands in deep judgment of Ebeneezer Scrooge and flinches not an inch at the punishment his heart’s unholiness deserves.
How can we reckon this with the popular response to judgment?
In our creed we say Jesus will judge the living and the dead. The Bible certainly says the same thing.
Although some people have popularized the idea that their is no judgment, I cannot agree with such ideas, no matter how appealing. I can’t agree because such a sentiment makes void so much of scripture and church teaching. It also seriously undermines the claim that God is just and faithful, a keeper of promises. The notion that there is no punishment for the wicked strikes me as a hope that only the comfortable hold dear.
The oppressed pray for justice. The oppressors and their anesthetized allies plead for a “reasonable” god, who does not hear the cries arising from Egypt and Babylon.
Isn’t Marley’s ghost nothing more than the convicting spirit of the Holy Ghost? Why do we reject conviction in the church but enjoy it on our television and computer screens?
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5, NIV)
I’ve had my two semesters of required Old Testament study, and still I struggle with the proper way to understand the application of Torah to the church.
What are the best books you have read on this topic?
What other resources have helped you?
I was reading this story about Google — and how it is the most important company in the world — when I came across this little discussion about the problem of identifying evil:
[W]e don’t have a book that defines evil in terms of how we should specifically behave. I think we understand as a culture what is good and what is evil. You need some mechanism to judge that. So I welcome the criticism that “this is evil” but it’s also possible that the critic is wrong, right? In other words, the critic doesn’t understand the trade off, doesn’t understand the consequence. I spend lots of time with people criticizing Google on this or that and I sit there and I think, “I just don’t agree.”
Of course, as a Christian, the “we don’t have a book” bit made me smile. He is correct, though, that there are times when even our book does not tell us specifically how to behave in every moment. It does give us some pretty good landmarks, though. Many of them are problematic for a global corporation bent on making profits as its reason to exist, but that is an issue for another day. What struck me more about the quote is how it captures wonderfully the contemporary mind.
Part of the truth about the culture we live in is that everything is contested. Everything is justified based on competing human perceptions. It can’t be evil, the Google executive says to himself, because I’ve looked at the data and I don’t agree. It is all he said, she said.
This is one way that Christianity simply does not fit the world in which we live. It is something else entirely, a kingdom breaking in and hidden in the shadows of this world, a place where evil has a name.
John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”
The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.