RetroChristianity Interview: Part 2
Yesterday we heard from Dr. Svigel in Part 1 of our interview series on his new book RetroChristianity. If you missed Part 1 you can read it here. Today, the final installment from Dr. Svigel as he answers questions on the severity of the evangelical crisis, how we can become better evangelicals, the role of the pastor-theologian in evangelicalism, and some suggestions for further reading. Thanks again to Dr. Svigel for taking the time to give such thoughtful and thorough responses.
Q: According to many, evangelicalism is in a crisis. Are things really that bad? And if so, what are the greatest indicators of the crisis?
This is actually an area of some controversy. As with most descriptions of evangelicalism (positive or negative), nothing we say can be equally applied to every part of the tradition. Whatever generalization we make, many people can appeal to anecdotal evidence to the contrary. With regard to statistics, some point to data that suggests evangelicalism is doing just fine . . . others that it’s at the verge of a collapse.
Last year Probe Ministries (www.probe.org) tried to get to the bottom of the debate between those who have been warning that “the sky is falling” and those who replied that “we’re soaring on eagles’ wings.” After looking at the data from a much more confessional evangelical perspective (rather than merely a sociological perspective), Probe concluded, “Unfortunately, what we found convinced us that things are not only worse than what [positive assessors] Wright, Johnson, and Smith concluded, but they appear to be worse in some ways than our prior assumptions from the existing [negative assessor] Barna surveys” (http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.7498017/k.7BC6/The_True_State_of_American_Evangelicals_in_2011.htm).
Although I give a nod to this discussion in RetroChristianity, my approach was a bit different. Through biblical, theological, and historical considerations, I adopt the marks of the historical body of Christ—oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity (pp. 162–172)—and I establish a descriptive model of the essential marks (orthodoxy, order, ordinances) and works (evangelism, edification, exultation) of a legitimate local church (pp. 173–218). With this model in place as a standard against which to measure broad attitudes, priorities, and practices within evangelicalism as a whole and among individual local church communities, one cannot help but conclude that, yes, things are pretty precarious. There are, of course, stunning examples of wholesome and healthy churches. But the reality is that many of the star churches and celebrity pastors we set up as models to emulate (or at least privately envy) don’t actually measure up to a biblical, theological, and historical model (see, for an example, my essay, “7 Church Ministry Models from Ideal to Awful” at http://www.retrochristianity.org/2012/02/13/7-church-ministry-models-from-ideal-to-awful/).
Q: You say that careful biblical, theological, and historical reflection should make us better evangelicals, not former evangelicals. Can you explain this a bit further?
There’s sometimes a fear among “nothing but the Bible” evangelicals that too much theology will turn a person away from the faith . . . or that too much history will drive a person out of evangelicalism toward Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or one of the more liturgically-oriented traditions. There is actually some truth to this. Since about the mid-twentieth century, modern evangelicalism tended to lose touch with its deep theological and historical roots in the conservative protestant (classic evangelical) tradition. When that happened, modern evangelicals began to engage in a hasty marriage to modern popular culture to regain an identity they lost when they forgot their theological and historical ancestry. The result has been a redefinition of what it means to be evangelical Christians in the modern world—reinterpreting the Bible in ways that conform to individualism, consumerism, pragmatism, and American ideals.
Many of our seminarians who have been exposed to a more theologically balanced and historically informed faith have often become frustrated with the modern evangelical turn. This is understandable. To illustrate this, just remember poor Luke Skywalker raised on that barren moisture farm of the arid planet Tatooine. Although he didn’t know it, Luke was the heir of an unbelievable legacy—the son of a queen and the most powerful (and infamous) Jedi ever . . . and the brother of a princess. As he was progressively exposed to the truth about his roots, he began to feel deceived and betrayed by those who had kept it from him. Similarly, young evangelicals exposed to the depth of their historical and theological roots can strongly react against the simple “stand alone on the Word of God” confession and the shallow “read your Bible, pray every day” spirituality. They can feel deceived and betrayed by the churches that hid this from them. As a result of this, instead of working within the movement to steer it back toward its original theological and historical course, they abandon ship, joining with traditions that have their own problems with the marks and works of authenticity. They become former evangelicals instead of better evangelicals.
Our evangelical movement needs young, energetic, and idealistic pastors and teachers who are firmly grounded in Scripture as the final authority for Christian faith and life . . . in history as a source of wisdom, insight, and guidance . . . and in theology as a balancing, stabilizing force for doctrinal and practical reflection and engagement.
Q: What role do pastors play in encouraging this retrieval of the Christian tradition within evangelicalism? What role to academics/professors play?
First, these two groups need to be reunited in our colleges and seminaries. In Ephesians 4 the ministries of the pastors and teachers were to be united, not divided. Yet we’re living in a day when entrepreneurial pastors have forsaken seminary training (or encouraged hiring pastoral leaders with little or no training) to help pilot their churches into the unknown waters of the future. Simultaneously, evangelical scholars have often neglected the church for purely academic pursuits, desiring to engage in higher level scholarship rather than “stoop” down to minister to the church in a confessional context. So, a first step in this retrieval would be to actually breach this gap. A pastor of a church who has no seminary training simply has not been adequately discipled in the biblical, theological, and historical spheres—at least not in a balanced way. They will continue to reproduce the same mistakes of the past because they will be unaware of their own blind spots. I’d encourage such pastors to engage in a serious “continuing education” program that will help fill holes in their biblical, historical, and theological equipping. I would also encourage more academic types to consider pastoral ministry. I know we describe our Ph.D. programs as means of preparing graduates for academic pursuits, but I’m not as eager to maintain this kind of dichotomy as others are. I’m actually thrilled when Ph.D. graduates enter pastoral ministry. In fact, I wish it would happen much more.
Second, academics and professors can help by actually engaging in the task of preparing pastors in areas of weakness. They can provide easy access to biblical, theological, and historical resources for those in ministry in a way that keeps these in balance. This would require our biblical scholars, theologians, and historians to think and work together—something that the modern departmentalization and fragmenting of the disciplines has been working against for some generations. New Testament, Old Testament, biblical theologians, systematic theologians, historical theologians, philosophical theologians, and pastoral theologians can’t afford to be competing with each other for the hearts and minds of seminarians and pastors. It ends up producing pastors who are enamored with biblical exegesis but disinterested in history . . . or infatuated with theology but unconcerned about homiletics . . . or excited about history but bored with the Bible. That won’t do anybody any good.
Finally, pastors need to begin gently exposing their churches to a deeper understanding of Scripture, theology, and history. They can do this in league with professors and teachers—inviting them for conferences or seminars, engaging in studies in the church that explore doctrine and history, and drawing on resources that will better stabilize church members who were raised on or initiated into a shallow or one-sided tradition.
Q: If there was one book, besides RetroChristianity, that you would have every evangelical read to become more engaged with the Christian tradition, what would it be?
In the back of the book I recommend several books that engage various aspects of this discussion. I would say, though, that the best place to start is in the primary sources themselves, taking care not to jump to conclusions and to approach them with humility. So, a good English edition of The Apostolic Fathers would be the place to start. The edition by Michael W. Holmes is excellent. I often tell my students, though, that this volume should probably come with a label on the front cover that says: “Warning: After thoughtful study of these writings you will not be able to read your Bibles the same way again.”
We bring to the text of Scripture a lot of presuppositions about what they mean, what they’re emphasizing, and how they should be applied. Where do these presuppositions come from? Our own experience, culture, traditions, or preferences. When we expose ourselves to the actual beliefs, practices, and emphases of the earliest Christians—whose writings either immediately preceding, are concurrent with, or immediately following those of the New Testament—our own presuppositions will be irreparably challenged. We might hold to the same basic theology and continue in the same basic practices, but how we think about these things will be illumined by a different set of emphases and questions.
From The Apostolic Fathers I would encourage a chronological reading through the early church—keeping in mind the developments of doctrine and practice that one perceives through the centuries. We will better understand our own history, tradition, and denominational distinctives . . . including why Protestants reacted the way they did to some of the later patristic and medieval developments.
On my website, www.retrochristianity.org, I list a number of recommended resources graded for beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert students. They are broken down by category. Any of those would be helpful to begin gaining a balanced biblical, historical, and theological appreciation of our evangelical tradition.