Evangelicalism — and the Renewal of Christianity

By: Amos Yong
Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

evangelicalThe question of What is Evangelicalism? rages on. For me, David Bebbington’s by now classic “quadrilateral” definition – in which the defining features of Evangelicalism include its biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism – remains an adequate starting point. However, so many other variables come into play, which lead to disputes, even among those who can agree on these four elements, about what else is requisite to an evangelical identity. I want to suggest what might be called a pentecostal or renewalist spin on these Bebbingtonian characteristics. (I use “pentecostal,” “charismatic,” and “renewalist” synonymously in what follows and in the rest of this blog series.) Such a twist, as will be clear, does not negate these central markers but is indicative of their evolving character.

First, within a pentecostal key, the Bible certainly remains the word of God. Yet pentecostal biblicism can also be distinguished from evangelical biblicism in its apostolic, restorationist, and primitivist orientation. What this means is that the apostolic teaching includes not only the clearly didactic portions of scripture but each and every scriptural genre. More precisely, what is normative for present day Christian life includes narrative portions of scripture that tell of the drama of redemption. “What happened then” hence becomes a template of possibilities for “what can happen today.” Such a restorationist and primitivist hermeneutical sensibility thus is open to following in the footsteps not just of the apostles (although they retain a position of primacy) but of all biblical characters. I will return to clarify what is at stake in a later blog on the modern study of scripture.

Second, the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death remains central to renewal Christianity. However, renewalists do not stop with Golgotha. Rather, if in fact Christ suffered in our stead, then we may not need to also suffer. Further, if in fact our present lives are touched by suffering then it is only momentary; it might be Friday, but Sunday’s coming! This means, then, that the cruciform work of Christ cannot be understood apart from the resurrecting power of the Spirit, and that the achievements of the person of Christ are intertwined with those of the Holy Spirit. The crucified Christ was risen by the Spirit and exalted to the right hand of the Father from whence he has proceeded to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:33 and 2:17). Incarnation and Pentecost are thereby equally important for pentecostal spirituality.

Third, evangelical activism and pentecostal mission are arguably two sides of the same coin. Classical pentecostal missions initiated in part through the Azusa Street revival from 1906-1908 has opened up into a torrent of missionary energy and activity so that if the nineteenth was dubbed the “evangelical century,” the twentieth has now been understood as the “pentecostal century.” Pentecostal missionary praxis may accentuate the workings of the charismata, in particular healing and miracles, phenomena underplayed by evangelical missiology. As important is the role of testimony, the ability and expectation of each person who has been touched by the Spirit to bear witness to the wondrous works of God (Acts 2:11) in their lives so that others can be edified and expect similarly. If the Protestant Reformation urged the “priesthood of all believers,” the pentecostal revival has democratized their activism through the empowered speech of the Spirit so that the people of God are now constituted as a “Prophethood of believers.”

Last but not least, evangelical conversionism understood along a pentecostal register means not only the once-for-all turning away from sin but also ongoing renewal and transformation in the path of Christ-following and Christian discipleship. This is because the work of the Holy Spirit is dynamic, not just at a point in time. Christian conversion in this sense is a life-long journey so that believers “expect a miracle” daily. Some might think of this primarily in terms of personal enrichment but the more sober and mature understand that salvation is a path and that it “is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Rom. 13:11b, NRSV). In that sense, then, there is an eschatological dimension to salvation to which believers are carried by the purifying and empowering work of the Spirit: “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

I would suggest that the Evangelicalism of the twenty-first century will be increasingly pentecostalized and charismatized. This will reconfigure, not eliminate, the biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism that have long featured in evangelical life. The embodied and affective pietism of renewal spirituality will become more predominant as the center of evangelical gravity continues to shift from the Euro- and Anglo-American West to the global South. The growth and expansion of Asian, African, and Latin American forms of evangelical faith will go hand-in-hand with the pentecostalization and charismatization of Christianity as a whole – indeed this process is already well underway.

There will also be trends in the other direction – one might say an evangelicalization of both Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal movements. This is already being seen especially among classical pentecostal churches which are emerging as denominations. Such institutionalizing processes inevitably involve a certain degree of social (not to mention ecclesial) upward mobility and these bring with them a tempering of the charismata and of charismatic sensitivities and priorities. However, the genius of renewal is that whenever things begin to stagnate, new currents emerge to counter anti-charismatic trends. I would insist that not all evangelicalizing processes are to be understood in negative terms. Oftentimes, pentecostal tendencies involve excesses and the evangelical witness in these cases serves as an important corrective.

My point is to highlight the mutuality at work in the pentecostalization of Evangelicalism and the evangelization of Pentecostalism. This two-way exchange suggests to me that while distinctive in some respects, both are central to the Christian life. Neither is subservient to the other, although each left on its own can tend in unhealthy directions. Therefore, each needs the other in order that their gifts can be mutually complementary for a vigorous and revitalized Christianity for the twenty-first century. In that sense, an Evangelicalism without renewal ceases to be evangelical (i.e., a carrier of the good news) even as a robust evangelical identity always presumes pentecostal and charismatic renewal not as incidental but as essential to the Christian life.

Tags: , , , , ,

Amos Yong
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, May 7th, 2013 at 7:54 am and is filed under Does Evangelicalism Have a Future. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.