All posts from "March 2010"March 25, 2010
The surprising reason it falls during Lent, and why it has been important for fighting heresy and abortion.
Over at Christianity Today I’ve just published an article on a subject that has long puzzled me: Why don’t pro-life evangelical Protestants talk much about the Annunciation? And if we believe that life starts at conception, then why are we more likely to associate the Incarnation with Christ’s birth (Christmas) than with the Annunciation (conception)?
Some familiar names for Christian History readers—N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, and others—were kind enough to reply, and I’m grateful for their insights. In fact, I received more response than I had expected, and as a result wasn’t able to include some of the more interesting church history aspects of the discussion.
Among them: Why March 25? The answer at first seems obvious: It’s nine months before Christmas. So many writeups on Annunciation assume (as I had) that once the church placed Christmas on December 25, it was a simple matter of counting backwards to mark Annunciation and Jesus’ conception.
But Muhlenberg College historian William J. Tighe argues that such a history gets things backwards. Before trying to determine either the dates of Jesus’ birth or conception, they tried to determine the date of his death. Tighe’s brief overview, which was published in Touchstone, is worth reading, as is his sequel of sorts in Touchstone’s current issue. But for our purposes here, what you need to know is that Greek Christians in the East said Jesus died April 6 and Latin Christians in the West said March 25.
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed. … Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.
Thus is it no accident or irritation that the Annunciation often falls during Lent—or even Holy Week. Originally, that was part of the point. As Augustine wrote, "He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered." (Biblical Archaeology Review’s article on this point is also worth reading.)
As the centuries went on, Annunciation became more associated with Mary than with the Incarnate Christ. By 656, the tenth council of Toledo,for example, called it "the festival of the Mother of God." But discussion of the unborn Jesus continued.
One of the more beautiful meditations (if you can avoid being distracted by the aural reference) is from Ephrem the Syriac, who lived in the 300s:
It is a source of great amazement, my beloved
that someone should enquire into the wonder
of how God came down
and made his dwelling a womb,
and how that Being
put on the body of a man,
spending nine months in a womb,
not shrinking from such a home;
and how a womb of flesh was able
to carry flaming fire,
and how a flame dwelt
in a moist womb which did not get burnt up.
Just as the bush on Horeb bore
God in the flame,
so did Mary bear Christ in her virginity.
he entered the womb through her ear;
in all purity the God-Man
came forth from the womb into creation.
(quoted in The Harp of the Spirit, via Redeemer in the Womb. John Saward’s Redeemer in the Womb, which is largely available for free on Google Books, has a lot of great research in it. But it is also anti-Protestant in extremis. Example: "The Reformation’s rejection of Mary and the Mass has been followed, four centuries later, by the widespread abandonment of Christian morality and faith in God incarnate.")
For other church fathers, emphasizing God dwelling in utero was an important tool against contemporary heresies, such as Nestorianism (the belief that Christ had two natures).
"When we are speaking of God made man, these months in the womb are, theologically speaking as precious as his birth and life upon earth," Roland Potter wrote in his appendix to the Summa. "This may be unwonted in modern theological thinking, but came naturally to St. Thomas and medievals generally. To be born of the Virgin Mary connotes a unique conjunction of the divine and human from the outset. This is the truth that lies at the back of all this series of article (in the Summa)."
Of course, Marian devotion began to pick up steam in the Middle Ages as well, but the Reformers still continued some thinking about the Annunciation and the unborn Christ. The Reformers were eager to drop many of the devotional practices and observances that had become focused on Mary, while directing some of those practices to Jesus. But rather than refocus the Annunciation on the first moments—the smallest and most vulnerable moments—of the Incarnation, most Protestants have simply let the day pass by.
"Most Protestant Christianity has been ‘festival-lite’, being aware of Paul’s warnings about ‘days, months, seasons, years’ in Galatians 4," Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright told me as I was working on the CT article. Similarly, he said, "Most Protestant Christianity has been ‘Mary-lite’, being aware of the danger of idolatry and non- or anti-scriptural teachings (and, latterly, dogmas)."
That’s not to say that Protestants have avoided preaching on the Annunciation or the unborn Incarnate Word. And to some degree, my question about whether pro-life Protestants have ignored the implications of the Annunciation in their preaching against abortion has more counter-examples than it would have a few years ago. John Piper’s much-blogged 2009 "No Mr. President" sermon, for example, took Luke 1 as its text: "What Luke is doing—and he is doing it as the spokesman of Christ—is treating this child in the womb as a person. He uses the word baby, which he later uses for Jesus in the manger. He uses the word joy, which is what persons feel. He uses the phrase "filled with the Spirit" which is what God does to persons. He simply assumes he is dealing with a human person in the womb. And therefore so should we."
Pentecostal Scholarship Goes Global
In the mid-nineties, when I was almost finished with my studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my adviser, Dr. Garth Rosell, took me aside for a “career chat.” He hazarded a prediction: “In the coming years, young Pentecostal and charismatic students will do well in graduate studies and make an impact in the academy.” I was one of those young charismatics (though a late bloomer—already a decade older than many of my classmates). And I wondered whether Dr. Rosell was right. I hoped so. Though I still had all sorts of questions about the value of graduate study for the church, I had plunged into this academic world (and its ubiquitous dark reality of student debt) with both feet. It was becoming my world, and I hoped I could make my way in it.
I was that oddball creature: a "charismatic bookworm." For ten years after my conversion in 1985, I was formed as a Christian in the fires of Pentecostal experience. But despite the hand-raising, tongues-singing exuberance of that experience, I was no natural-born extrovert (I probably could have used this book). It took me quite some time to struggle out of my bookish shell and experience the “joy of the Lord” so evident at the interdenominational Rock Church in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.
Even in the midst of the intensive religious experience and activism so characteristic of that movement, I struggled with a welter of questions: What was the salvific meaning, if any, of these experiences I was having? Their biblical background? Who had discovered them first in the church, and how did they become what they were in the charismatic culture of the 1980s? What about the many other quirks and habits of this charismatic culture? How could I negotiate the myriad claims made by visiting and TV evangelists? How did such claims and experiences relate to Scripture? To the historical foundations of the church worldwide?
Those sorts of questions brought me to a decision.
After eight post-college years in the “real world,” I would head for graduate school and the academic path. As Sharon and I visited Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and decided that this was the right place for us, I was supported by some at my church—especially my friend Bruce Belair, who saw giftedness in me that I couldn’t see. Bruce encouraged me that graduate school and the life of an academic could be God’s calling for me.
Most folks in the church, however, were mildly puzzled. Graduate study? In religion? When God had so obviously given us all we needed in our Bibles and through the empowering guidance of his Holy Spirit? During one worship service just before our family left Nova Scotia for Gordon-Conwell, a teenager in the church was given a grand send-off to a short-term missionary experience, with raucous and celebratory corporate prayer from the front of the church. No such recognition accompanied my leaving on what I hoped would be a lifetime’s vocation in service of the church. I never sensed any alienation from my church family, but most of my brothers and sisters there simply hoped I’d “still be saved” when I came back.
Now, a decade and a half later and an ecclesiological world away, I’ve had a lot of chances to see Garth Rosell’s words come true, both in my own life and within the growing evangelical academic culture around me. Many of the most dedicated and accomplished young scholars I know owe their drive and perseverance through graduate studies (a grueling experience that many start but few complete) to formation in the lively context of the charismatic movement. The faculty ranks in universities across America and even around the world are full of these folks. The pages of many academic journals reflect their scholarly labors. And the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS), founded in 1970 by a tiny group of a dozen or so “charismatic bookworms,” now boasts an ecumenical membership of over 600, operating a scholarly journal, Pneuma (sharing the landscape with Brill’s Journal of Pentecostal Theology), and hosting the significant Roman Catholic/Pentecostal dialogue.
The first thing I noticed last week in walking onto the campus of North Central University in Minneapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies is the global flavor of Pentecostal studies today. The field, once dominated by the America-centered work of such leading lights as Vinson Synan, Edith Blumhofer, Cecil M. Robeck, and Grant Wacker (all still leading scholars in the field) is now increasingly opening up the vast fields of the global movement.
That, actually, had been a second burden of Dr. Rosell’s little chat with me: the growing edge of church history was to be found in the new study of global Christianity. Marvelous, but I was intimidated by the language requirement, and so turned to “American church history.” (If only the Azusa Street faithful had been right, and God would give the gift of foreign languages to missionaries, or scholars, going abroad for his purposes! We can’t all claim the dazzling multilingual fluency of Fuller Seminary’s world-traveling Pentecostal scholar David Bundy!)
Actually, the fact that we do not receive the Acts 2 gift of other languages creates a wonderful need for collegial scholarly work: the global Christian histories of this generation cannot be written by individual scholars, however erudite or magisterial their knowledge. These new worldwide narratives must follow the pattern of Adrian Hastings’ A World History of Christianity or Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist’s History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453, bringing together the expertise of a veritable United Nations of scholars to tell the many interwoven stories of the faith worldwide. And standing astride that global landscape is the colossus of Pentecostalism.
The diverse and lively response of Pentecostal scholars to this reality is written all over this year’s SPS conference program.
Asian studies stand out as a vibrant area. This year’s program offers papers on “A Model for Asian Pentecostal-Charismatic Spiritual Formation: Critical Response to Spiritual Phenomenology in Asian Religious Resurgence,” “Holy Spirit and Ch’i: A ch’iological Approach to the Western Spirit,” “A Question of Balance: Eph. 6:10-17 in Light of an Asian Perspective on the World of Spirits,” “Exploring Yonggi Cho’s Thought and Ministry from the Perspective of Worldview.”
Latin American studies are also thick on the ground: “The Mysticism of Gustavo Gutierez: Open Door to a Pentecostal Theology of Liberation,” “Reconciling Liberation Theology and Classic Pentecostalism: Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Liberation,” “Spirit-filled Politics: A Quantitative Analysis of Brazilian Pentecostalism.” Less numerous but also present are African studies: “Historiography of Ethiopian Pentecostalism,” “African Epistemology and the Christian Faith: Towards the Epistemic Use of Orality and Symbolism in African Christian Scholarship.”
Most numerous are studies that detail the interactions between Pentecostalism and Islam: “Acceptance Without Compromise: The Personal Journey of a Pentecostal and a Muslim,” “The People of Acts 2 and Islam,” “Pentecostalism and Islam,” and “Rediscovering Narrative as a New Voice for Reaching New Peoples” (from a representative of the “Center for Ministries to Muslims”)
Then there are the overviews, in “The Global Christian Forum,” “Pentecostalism and the Transformation of Global Christianity,” and “Denominationalism in Classical and Global Pentecostal Ecclesiology.”
Friends in the society tell me that it still has a long way to go to become thoroughly global in its efforts. But the study of the global movement seems at least to be entering a kind of springtime, with a lush undergrowth of work beginning to emerge, to the great joy of such charismatic bookworms as myself.
Randall Balmer recounts The Making of Evangelicalism.
Randall Balmer’s academic credentials find few equals among scholars of evangelical history. The Columbia University professor earned his PhD at Princeton and wrote the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, now published in paperback by Baylor University Press. The Texas publisher has enlisted Balmer once more, this time to write a slimmer volume, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. What the book lacks in comprehensiveness it makes up for with contemporary punch. And Balmer lands several punches against evangelicals both living and dead.
Balmer enlivens his narrative by focusing on four turning points in evangelical history: “the transition from Calvinist to Arminian theology in the embrace of revivalism, the shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism in the late 19th century, the retreat into a subculture, and the rise of the Religious Right.” The primary aim of his book is evidently political, as he teases out the public policy implications of all but the first turning point. In one persistent theme, Balmer credits disestablishment for America’s comparative religious vitality while denouncing the Religious Right for trying to “eviscerate the First Amendment.” Then he closes his introduction by describing how President Barack Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 “dealt a mortal blow to the Religious Right.” Younger evangelicals, Balmer writes in the conclusion, have fled from the Religious Right, because they care for the environment and care little for traditional views on sexual identity. But Balmer has treated political issues more extensively in his book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. So with limited space for this review, I will focus on another element of Balmer’s brief history.
Following the lead of other recent evangelical historians, Balmer notes three streams—Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and New England Puritanism—that fed into the American evangelical movement in the 18th century. The Puritans, according to Balmer, were obsessively introspective, the Presbyterians prone to “doctrinal precisionism.” It’s not hard to see that Balmer prefers the “warmhearted spiritual ardor of the Pietists.” Indeed, Balmer laments that the denomination of his upbringing, the Evangelical Free Church of America, has shifted away from pietism toward a broadly Reformed theology in the last several decades. Several such personal anecdotes give the impression that Balmer has scores to settle.
He notes the “deadly detail” of “arcane” Calvinist soteriology as taught by William Perkins and Jonathan Edwards. By contrast, “we Americans” follow Charles Finney, who taught that humans control their own destiny. “The Edwardsean theology of salvation and revival seems stilted and confining,” Balmer writes, “whereas Finney’s is supple and accommodating.” If it’s “supple and accommodating” you want, I’m not sure Finney’s “new measures” for revival fit the bill. Yet no one ever called Finney’s critics, especially Charles Hodge, “supple and accommodating,” either.
“Reformed theology made one last, albeit sustained, stand in the person of Charles Hodge and his nineteenth-century colleagues at Princeton Theological Seminary,” Balmer explains. “But theirs was a forlorn and hopeless battle, one fought increasingly on the ramparts of hyper-rationalism that owed as much to the Enlightenment as it did to Calvin or even to historic Christianity.”
Balmer does, however, note a more recent surge of interest in Reformed theology. How does he explain this turning point? Seminary-educated evangelicals see Reformed theology as supposedly “more intellectually respectable and theologically rigorous” than the Arminianism that animated the Pentecostal boom of the 20th century. While misguided, these evangelicals who would willingly betray their legacy have little popular appeal, Balmer assures readers.
“And somewhere in the Presidents’ Plot of Princeton, New Jersey, cemetery, Jonathan Edwards, theologian of the First Great Awakening, is spinning in his grave,” Balmer writes.
For such an accomplished historian, Balmer has written a slanted story more befitting today’s political polemics. Bad guys abound. Righteousness retreats in fear. But truth and justice will ultimately prevail, so long as we expose our opponents’ deficient intellect and character. A better, more balanced alternative would be Douglas Sweeney’s The American Evangelical Story.