RetroChristianity Interview: Part 1
Michael Svigel, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, at Dallas Theological Seminary has graciously agreed to answer a few questions regarding his most recent book RetroChristianity. He also blogs frequently at retrochristianity.org. Dr. Svigel is a very popular professor on campus due to his teaching ability, theological acumen, and certainly his spontaneous accordion sessions. I am thankful for him and his insights into evangelical theology. Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your experience within evangelicalism, noting some of its greatest strengths and weaknesses?
I converted to Christianity as a teenager after having strayed from my liberal denominational background and after spending a couple years involved with the Church of Scientology. The man who shared Christ with me and eventually baptized me as a believer was a bi-vocational Baptist minister who was pastoring at a small non-denominational community church. So from the beginning of my Christian life I’ve been part of the “low church” or “free church” tradition, never really a Baptist but as close to Baptist as you can get without being eligible for tuition breaks at their colleges and seminaries.
This is the tradition in which I grew in my faith. Mine was a pretty eclectic experience, though. I spent about two years “dating” the Pentecostal movement, a couple years in the large church or mega-church movements, one year in a very small Baptist church, and then, for the last seventeen years, at home in a single non-denominational Bible Church. Most of my church experience has been in Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. So I think I’ve had a chance to personally observe some of the varieties of evangelicalism from within over the last twenty or so years.
I believe the greatest strength of my evangelical tradition is its ability to reflect a catholic “unity in diversity” similar to that envisioned by the apostles and actually experienced in the early church. Originally the term “catholic” didn’t mean monolithic and uniform. It embraced diversity of traditions, which I evidence in RetroChristianity (pp. 109–112). At the same time evangelicalism is a dynamic interdenominational movement that has the potential to easily accommodate changing cultural realities and challenges. Unfortunately, some non-evangelical traditions are like massive ships almost impossible to maneuver, while the diverse denominations and congregations that make up evangelicalism are like an fleet of small vessels that can almost turn on a dime.
However, these strengths are also evangelicalism’s weaknesses when they aren’t guided by biblical, theological, and historical reflection, including the classic marks of orthodoxy and the marks and works of the local church. Diversity has often deteriorated into divided and conflicting independent churches and denominations. Doctrinal coherence and practical unity have been lost to squabbles over non-central matters shoved to the core of orthodoxy. And the ability to change quickly has led to radical pragmatic changes without carefully biblical, theological, and historical reflection.
Q: What specifically has caused so many former evangelicals to find their ecclesiastical home in traditionalism?
Besides being fed up with the lack of theological and historical depth in many free churches, many people have explained to me, “I became [Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox/Anglican] by reading the church fathers.” In fact, most of the converts to the high liturgical traditions that I’ve spoken with defend their decision based on the church fathers. I have to say, though, that these decisions are often hasty and uncritical.
See, there’s what I call a “twilight zone” between ignorance of the fathers and expertise in the fathers in which novice readers experience ecstatic exuberance. It’s a very, very dangerous place in which to make any kind of major decisions about one’s core convictions and church alignments. I personally went through this twilight zone back in Bible College, when I first started reading the fathers (and have since been reading them about an hour and a half a day on average). Thankfully, I pressed on in my study and began asking critical questions: “What are these church fathers really saying? When were they written? Did they believe everything the Orthodox (or Catholic) churches today believe? Did they believe in things that the modern Orthodox or Catholics don’t?” But some people, unguided in their pursuit of the fathers, just don’t make it through the twilight zone of ecstatic exuberance. They read into these fathers a uniformity that didn’t exist. Or they interpret their doctrines or practices (such as the eucharist, episcopacy, tradition, etc.) in categories that didn’t come until centuries later. In the twilight zone, ignorance and zeal result in anachronism, reductionism, and recklessness.
So, most people I’ve spoken with say they became part of a classic liturgical church because they wanted to go back to the church of the fathers—with a fixed liturgy, the Christian calendar, the observance of Lent, an episcopal polity, a sacramental theology, etc. In other words, a “high church.” The problem, though, is what they call the “classic” or “patristic” church with those developed structures actually took centuries to develop. They want to go back to the church of the fourth century. But why not the church of the second? Or the third? Or the twelfth? In many ways this is like an American saying, “We need to return to the America of the founding fathers—the Carter Administration!” A lot can happen in 200 years. Without a careful consideration of the continuities and discontinuities in the history of the church, readers stuck in the twilight zone end up making hasty and unwise decisions.
(By the way, this twilight zone lasts about five years or so. I believe any decision to switch traditions between 0 to 5 years of intensive [and preferably guided] study of the church fathers is hasty. Sadly most of the converts I know make their decisions at the worst point in their study of the fathers—between 6 months to 3 years. Frankly, this is pure folly.)
Q: Is the supposed dissatisfaction with evangelicalism as broad as some have claimed? In other words, is this a phenomenon that is occurring among the masses, or is it merely occurring among a select few groups?
This is a great question, but I’m not sure it can be answered easily. I think it depends on where you are. There are a lot of satisfied evangelicals—satisfied, that is, with their own particular way of doing church. They are the common church goers who were either raised in a particular way of thinking about church or who have converted to a particular tradition. They just live with its strengths and weaknesses. That’s commendable.
Because of our modern mobility as well as our access to information, more people than ever are able to be exposed to the diversity of the evangelical tradition. This has led a lot of people to start asking questions about their own particular branch of the tradition and to ponder the differences in theology, ministry philosophies, and methods. When we do this, it can often take the form of dissatisfaction with one’s own branch of the tradition.
I would say, though, that while there is a general dissatisfaction and malaise among many evangelicals—especially younger evangelicals who are leaving Christianity completely—the percentage who are leaving evangelicalism for Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or Episcopalianism over the issues mentioned in the last question are still relatively few. It is clearly noticeable—and enough for people to write books about the subject. But I would say it’s just one symptom of a more general dissatisfaction.
Another evidence of a widespread dissatisfaction with evangelicalism is the phenomenon of church hopping within the evangelical tradition—not leaving evangelicalism itself, but leaving one evangelical church to go to another church. Like butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, large portions of our congregations are lingering for a matter of months or a few years, becoming uncomfortable, disillusioned, or dissatisfied, and then moving to another church. Repeat hoppers don’t seem to know what they’re really looking for, but they keep looking for it. I can’t help but see an underlying dissatisfaction with evangelicalism driving the church hoppers.
Q: In your view, what is the greatest lesson that Evangelicalism can learn about itself from its brief history?
In RetroChristianity I trace the history of modern evangelicalsm—that is, the made-in-America form that took on a distinct identity since the Modernist-Fundamentalist divide in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (an identity, by the way, which has been exported and duplicated around the globe in the last century.) Of course, evangelicalism has historical roots that go deep into the Reformation, through the Colonial Era, including the First and Second Great Awakenings. But my focus in Retro was not to present a history of conservative Protestantism form its beginnings to the present, but to look back from our current vantage point in modern American evangelicalism and try to understand where our particular mutation came from. Just like antebellum America is a “different” America from the United States after the Civil War, modern evangelicalism after the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy is a “new” kind of evangelicalism. At least that’s my thesis.
I think modern evangelicalism needs to look back at the circumstances of its own birth out of the classic evangelical tradition of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. They especially need to realize that in many regards modern evangelicalism is retracing the steps of nineteenth century critical liberal theology. When I describe nineteenth century liberal theology in my Th.M. course, “Church in the Modern Era,” I summarize classic liberal theology with a slide entitled “Seven ‘Fundamentals’ of Liberal Theology.” These are:
1. Christian theology has to adapt to the scientific, cultural, historical, and philosophical world.
2. The individual Christian thinker is free to criticize and reconstruct traditional beliefs and practices.
3. The emphasis must be on practical, ethical, and social change, not doctrinal speculation, creed, or other dogma. Living is more important than believing.
4. Theology must be based on something other than the Bible, which is rejected as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
5. God is immanent in the evolutionary processes of nature, humanity, modern thought, and cultural development.
6. The research universities, not the confessional seminaries, are the proper place for theological inquiry.
7. Scientific inquiry has a progressive nature—“newer is better.” Modern scholarship and theology are more trustworthy than that of our predecessors.
As I point these out, my class grows silent, because many evangelical pastors, scholars, teachers, and leaders today are retracing the same path of nineteenth century liberal theology. No, history doesn’t repeat itself. It’s much worse than that. It approximates itself. We foolishly claim, “Yes, the liberals took these things to an extreme. But we’re must smarter now.” In the end, the anthropocentric turn (today seen especially in individualism, pragmatism, and consumerism) will be our undoing.
This is a lesson we must never forget.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview with Dr. Svigel!