Good Deal, Great Impact

from in Christ Jesus blog

Here’s an extended sample from the free sample (see below):

Two major developments emerged in the late nineteenth century that contributed to the loss of the Christian mind in America. The legacy of the Pilgrims and Puritans waned, and two new movements emerged from which the evangelical church has never fully recovered….
1. The emergence of anti-intellectualism. While generalizations can be misleading, it is safe to say that from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the middle of the nineteenth century, American believers prized the intellectual life for its contribution to the Christian journey. The Puritans were highly educated people (the literacy rate for men in early Massachusetts and Connecticut was between 89 and 95 percent) who founded colleges, taught their children to read and write before the age of six, and studied art, science, philosophy, and other fields as a way of loving God with the mind. Scholars like Jonathan Edwards were activ- ists who sought to be scholarly and well informed in a variety of disci- plines. The minister was an intellectual, as well as spiritual, authority in the community. As Puritan Cotton Mather proclaimed, “Ignorance is the Mother not of Devotion but of HERESY.”

In the middle 1800s, however, things began to change dramatically, though the seeds for the change had already been planted in the popu- larized, rhetorically powerful, and emotionally directed preaching of George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening in the United States from the 1730s to the 1750s. During the middle 1800s, three awaken- ings broke out in the United States: the Second Great Awakening (1800–1820), the revivals of Charles Finney (1824–1837), and the Layman’s Prayer Revival (1856–1858). Much good came from these movements. But their overall effect was to overemphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationship to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas. Sadly, as historian George Marsden notes, “anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism.”

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the emphasis of these movements on personal conversion. What was a problem, however, was the intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity that came to be part of the populist Christian religion that emerged. One tragic result of this was what happened in the so-called Burned Over District in the state of New York. Thousands of people were “converted” to Christ by revivalist preaching, but they had no real intel- lectual grasp of Christian teaching. As a result, two of the three major American cults began in the Burned Over District among the unstable, untaught “converts”: Mormonism (1830) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (1884). Christian Science arose in 1866 but was not connected with this area.

2. Evangelical withdrawal began. Sadly, the emerging anti- intellectualism in the church created a lack of readiness for the wide- spread intellectual assault on Christianity that reached full force in the late 1800s. This attack was part of the war of ideas raging at that time and was launched from three major areas. First, certain philosophical ideas from Europe, especially the views of David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), altered people’s understanding of religion. Hume claimed that the traditional arguments for God’s exis- tence (for example, the world is an effect that needs a personal cause) were quite weak. He also said that since we cannot experience God with the five senses, the claim that God exists cannot be taken as an item of knowledge. In a different way, Kant asserted that human knowledge is limited to what can be experienced with the five senses, and since God cannot be so experienced, we cannot know He exists. The ideas of Hume and Kant had a major impact on culture as they spread across Europe and into America.

For one thing, confidence was shaken in arguments for the exis- tence of God and the rationality of the Christian faith. Additionally, fewer and fewer people regarded the Bible as a body of divinely revealed, true propositions about various topics that requires a devoted intellect to grasp and study systematically. Instead, the Bible increasingly was sought solely as a practical guide for ethical guidance and spiritual growth.

Second, German higher criticism of the Bible called its historical reliability into question. The Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was challenged and the search for the historical Jesus was launched. Believers grew suspicious of the importance of historical study in understanding the Bible and in defending its truthfulness. An increased emphasis was placed on the Holy Spirit in understanding the Bible as opposed to serious historical and grammatical study. Third, Darwinian evolution emerged and “made the world safe for atheists,” as one contemporary Darwinian atheist has put it. Evolution challenged the early chapters of Genesis for some and the very existence of God for others.

Instead of responding to these attacks with a vigorous intellectual counterpunch, many believers grew suspicious of intellectual issues alto- gether. To be sure, Christians must rely on the Holy Spirit in their intel- lectual pursuits, but this does not mean they should expend no mental sweat of their own in defending the faith.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, fundamentalists with- drew from the broader intellectual culture and from the war with liberals that emerged in most mainline denominations at the time. Funda- mentalists started their own Bible institutes and concentrated their efforts on lay-oriented Bible and prophecy conferences. This withdrawal from the broader intellectual culture and public discourse contri- buted to the isolation of the church, the marginalization of Christian ideas from the public arena, and the shallowness and trivialization of Christian living, thought, and activism. In short, the culture became saltless.

More specifically, we now live in an evangelical community so deeply committed to a certain way of seeing the Christian faith that this perspective is now imbedded within us at a subconscious level.

This conceptualization of the Christian life is seldom brought to conscious awareness for debate and discussion. And our modern understanding of Christian practice underlies everything else we do, from the way we select a minister to the types of books we sell in our bookstores.

It informs the way we raise our children to think about Christianity; it determines how we give money to the cause of Christ; and it shapes our vision, priorities, and goals for both local and parachurch ministry. If our lives and ministries are expressions of what we actually believe, and if what we believe is off center and yet so pervasive that it is seldom even brought to conscious discussion, much less debated, then this explains why our impact on the world is so paltry compared to our numbers. I cannot overemphasize the fact that this modern understanding of Christianity is neither biblical nor consistent with the bulk of church history.

What, exactly, is this modern understanding of Christianity?

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