I’m here in Chicago waiting for the fun stuff to start. If you see me on the book floor, do stop and say hello. I’d love to hear from you.
I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t had a chance to post as much here recently, given how extremely busy we’ve been these last couple weeks. I hope to rectify that soon! In the meantime, I hope that anyone who makes their way here from my post enjoys looking at some of my and Jeremiah’s older writings.
I’d also love to hear from readers! I’ve seen a few comments on Facebook, but no comments on the blog post itself yet. I would love to hear more about what your experience has been and why you do or don’t identify as evangelical.
The following quotation comes from D’Souza’s website in response to an article in World magazine which has revealed sexual impropriety on the part of D’Souza.
Ultimately this is not just about Olasky or even World magazine. It is also about how we Christians are supposed to behave with one another. And the secular world is watching. Is this how we love and treat fellow believers? If my conduct was improper, wouldn’t it be the decent and charitable thing to approach me about it? Instead, here is a clear attempt to destroy my career and my ministry. This is viciousness masquerading as righteousness. And this is the behavior that is truly worthy of Christian condemnation.
It is incredible that a depraved propagandist would whine about not being treated with brotherly love. I doubt D’Souza agonized over his decision to make things up about his brother in Christ Barack Obama. “Viciousness masquerading as righteousness” is an apt description of D’Souza’s whole “ministry.”
A lot has already been said about the ongoing drama at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, but given the recent article in Inside Higher Ed (which I was directed to by Dr. Cargill) I thought it might be appropriate both to lend my support to Dr. Rollston and to add a few brief comments. The part of the article that has energized the discussion is this particular passage quoting the president of the seminary:
“At a time when Emmanuel is under severe financial stress, we have some potentially significant donors (one of whom is capable of regular gifts in the six-figure range) who refuse to support Emmanuel because they regard your influence as detrimental to students,” Sweeney wrote.
As an admitted cynic, I am in no way surprised to discover that money was yet again the root of an evil. That is not to say that I am not sympathetic to the situation ECS is in. Keeping a seminary running probably takes an almost soul-crushing level of pragmatism, and choosing your battles is probably an important part of keeping the cogs turning. When I was at Fuller, I was bothered to learn that the seminary had received substantial donations from a business mogul who had an unsavory reputation as a budget clothier. The backbone of his early business model was the exploitation of poor immigrant workers in the greater LA area. Did the fact that he had cleaned up his act recently make up for the fact that he built his empire on the raw hands and bowed backs of the poor? It is easy to reflect on the bitter irony of leaving my fantastic class on Luke where I learned that in the third Gospel losers become winners and God is on the side of the poor to go home to an apartment complex named for abusers of the poor. It was in many ways disappointing, but I understand that without those donations there would not have been an affordable place for me to live. Perhaps in such situations a consequentialist approach is permissible and we might hold our noses and carry on.
In the case of Rollston though, much more is at stake than a slight whiff of hypocrisy. Here, the very soul of ECS is at stake. This is where an organization with integrity digs in its heels and decides to ride out the consequences. The point of any educational institution worth its salt is to provide a quality education, but how can such a mission be accomplished without academic integrity? If even the curriculum is for sale to the highest bidder, then ECS has fundamentally betrayed itself. Why? Because tenure is a promise. The whole point of tenure is to protect intellectual exploration from the ravages of political concerns. If ECS tosses aside Rollston, it has tossed aside its promise to provide a quality education. The wealthy already festoon their names upon the buildings, rooms, and benches (pretty much any surface you can attach a plaque to) of our seminaries and colleges, but in a way Sweeney is considering letting the wealthy place their stamp on the curriculum itself. The courses would not be titled “Wealthy Donor’s Introduction to the Old Testament” or “Hebrew Poetry presented by Wealthy Donor.” No, their mark would be invisible, but the situation would be no less insidious or real for it being done in secret.
If the wider academic world comes to believe that ECS is an institution that doesn’t respect its promises and is for sale to any “orthodox” donor with a big enough checkbeck, then ECS will have bigger problems than low enrollment. If Rollston is actually dismissed, I suggest that a formal complaint be filed with the ATS on his behalf. Because of the nature of ATS’s complaint policies (quoted below), it would be necessary for Rollston or a colleague to file the complaint.
The Commission has an obligation to the various publics it serves to give responsible consideration to complaints that may be made against any accredited school. The Board of Commissioners maintains policies and procedures for reviewing and responding to complaints. The complaint must be filed in writing, together with substantial documentation, as appropriate for the circumstance. The Board of Commissioners will determine if the complaint has standing with reference to any membership criterion or accreditation standard of the Commission. If the complaint has standing, the Board of Commissioners will conduct an investigation.
I do not make this suggestion out of malice, rather I see accreditation as the next line of defense for academic integrity. If the system of tenure has failed, then perhaps a revocation of accreditation is necessary.
Whatever happens in the case of Dr. Rollston, I think we can all agree that we have a larger problem. The heresy hunters have always railed against academia, but now the economy sucks and they wield six-figure clubs. We have seen a string of high-profile cases in the last couple of years. We have scratched our heads at the treatment of folks like Pete Enns and Anthony LeDonne who are, after all, clearly people who care about being faithful believers. Though we scratch until we are bald, I am starting to believe the causes are rather simple. The ugly foundations of inerrancy and associated outmoded readings of scripture are crumbling, and the conservatives are circling the wagons. Their insular orthodoxy must be protected, and if that means dismissing a competent academic then so be it. Exclusion and separation are ever the tools of the weak minded, and the sad truth of it all seems to be that the conservative evangelical reading of scripture is so weak it can’t stand up to scrutiny. Rather than protecting their community from the heretical incursions of “theological liberals,” they demonstrate the sad fact that a tenuous tenure is a sure sign of a tenuous orthodoxy.
A friend recently asked me about my views on child discipline in light of the Bible. She already had some opinions based on her background in marriage and family therapy, but she wanted to know what to make of a few particular verses. My response: The Bible isn’t a child discipline handbook, so it doesn’t really matter very much. Its point isn’t to teach us what God thinks about spanking, so we shouldn’t treat the Bible as if it has much to say on the matter. Instead we should let psychological research, basic Christian theology, and Christian ethical perspectives guide the discussion.
This reminded me of a similar matter I’ve been feeling soapboxy about lately: using the Bible as a leadership handbook.
Jesus is not a leadership guru. I repeat: Jesus is not a leadership guru.
We often treat leaders from the Bible—Moses, Joshua, Peter, Paul, sometimes even Deborah or Esther—as examples to follow. And at the very least, we consider Jesus to be the “ultimately example” of a great leader. We often take leadership principles (whether or not they really originated in Scripture) and try to teach them to others through books, seminars, and Sunday morning lessons using Bible stories, especially stories about Jesus.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is foolish:
1) There is no reason why discussing leadership principles of secular origin should be off-limits. Yes, there are some evil, ruthless leaders out there, but there are also really gracious leaders whose styles (and visions) fit very well within a Christian framework. We should feel free to borrow from these sources.
2) There is no reason to think that the leadership techniques of Jesus apply to your situation. This is because part of being a leader is being sensitive to the task at hand, the people you’re trying to lead, etc. What works in one scenario might not be the best approach in another. Plus, what worked in Jesus’s time and culture might be completely counterintuitive and ineffectual in ours. Of course, sometimes it might work well. But sometimes it won’t.
3) There is no reason to think the stories of Jesus even give us relevant (or accurate) information about his leadership style. Because let’s face it: Teaching us about Jesus’s leadership style is not the point of the Gospels. We’re probably lacking a comprehensive picture of how Jesus led. Some of the information we do have about his “leadership style” might even just reflect the theological and literary aims of the Gospel writers more than anything. Communicating information about Jesus’s teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection is the focus of the Gospels, not teaching us “how to be leaders.”
4) “Leadership,” as popularly understood is ultimately not the point of Christianity, anyway. Yes, most Christians think they should be spreading Christian teachings, and yes, this means that “leadership” of people and organizations can be useful. However, “leadership” is often just shorthand for “charisma” or “getting people to do what you say.”
God can use charisma, but charisma is not part of Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit.” There are plenty of Christians throughout history who have served God in wonderful ways but lacked charm. Not everyone has a magnetic personality, and that’s ok. Particularly because the most “charismatic” people are typically extroverts, and it would be ridiculous to pretend there is no place for introverts in the church!
Similarly, getting people to do what you say is a ho-hum goal. I don’t think our faithfulness can be measured in terms of how many people respond the way we want. Plenty of people use emotional manipulation to “encourage” conversion or lifestyle changes or greater generosity towards the church or whatever else their aims may be. I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage any of these things, but it’s quite possible that when we are patient with others, reliant on the Holy Spirit to work in the world around us (and therefore not trying to do the Spirit’s job ourselves), and sensitive to the ethical issues surrounding ministry, we may see rather undramatic results.
“Leadership” is often about enthusiasm and numbers. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s not necessarily the most Christian way of approaching ministry. And since the Bible seems to set other goals much higher than “being an effective leader,” even if we take an interest in leadership, it should not surpass those other values we hold, such as love of God and neighbor.
5) Leadership style is probably one of those things we project onto Jesus more than we learn from him, anyway. Eisegesis anyone? I think we are all prone to seeing our personalities and leadership styles in Jesus. As Harnack says, “There is something touching in the anxiety which everyone shows to rediscover himself, together with his own point of view and his own circle of interest, in this Jesus Christ, or at least to get a share in him.” As it is true of the historical Jesus movement, so is it true of Christian leadership books. Everyone wants to make Jesus into a leadership guru in his or her own image, which is really just a little sad and amusing.
It’s a pet peeve: those people on Facebook (and real life) who call themselves “followers of Jesus.” Yes, I’m glad they’re followers of Jesus. I just wish they wouldn’t say it that way.
Why? Because it’s a substitute for the word “Christian.”
“Followers of Jesus” want to distinguish themselves from nominal Christians, from mean Christians, and from Christians who focus on “religion” instead of “relationship.” It’s great that they care about orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy. It’s great that they see faith as a journey. And, of course, it’s great that they like Jesus so much.
But I still hate the term.
From my perspective, many “followers of Jesus” focus on their individual relationship with God. They would be comfortable joining a group of followers, usually, but they’d prefer a more decentralized band of Jesus-following friends. That’s not to say they don’t go to church—typically they do. However, they want to think of themselves as somehow more akin to a New Testament disciple than a captive of the institutional church.
Christian, on the other hand, denotes connections to people of different perspectives and eras, to Rome and Constantinople, to Reformers and Anabaptist martyrs, to tacky pop music and exquisite icons, to Westboro Baptist and Metropolitan Community, to Gnostics and Arians and the creeds which ousted them, to Jewish roots, to a liturgical calendar, to Mother Teresa and the Crusades and World Vision and the Nazis.
“Christian” has baggage in many people’s eyes. It is claimed by people way more conservative than we are or far more liberal than we are. It links us with revolutionaries who have gone “too far” or traditions we see as dead and cold. It forces in our face the historic Christian creeds, but also means we ironically share a label of self-identification with many heretics, a label some of them still claimed—rightly or wrongly—after (formal or informal) excommunication. We are confronted with the sins of the past and present, and we don’t always have a chance to explain we aren’t like “those” Christians.
Being “Christian” forces us to have a history. It forces us to be humble. It forces us to be creedal. It forces us to be ecumenical.
In some sense, it forces all of us to aspire to the balance of Vatican II, recognizing a pure stream of Christianity while also accepting how broadly God extends his grace. While I may not be ready to call Rome home, I really appreciate this way of looking at things. We will all always think that our way is the “right” way, and it’s good to recognize and attempt to preserve the approach to Christianity that we think is best. However, when someone who disagrees with us—and perhaps we think is barely Christian—still insists on identifying that way, we should be gracious towards them and look for common ground.
Similarly, we should not be so foolish as to think we can divorce ourselves from history by avoiding the people from which our denomination separated, forgetting the wars fought in Jesus’ name, safely distancing ourselves from the sexual abuse committed by clergy, or magically returning to the New Testament church before bishops and councils.
Like it or not, we are connected to those who use and misuse the word Christian. We are connected with institutions of waxing and waning power. We are connected to millions of people both like and unlike us, a great communion of not-always-very-saintly-seeming saints.
We may wish that some people who have gone off the deep end theologically would admit they’re not Christian anymore. We may think our denomination has it right. We may wish people would stop behaving in very unChristian ways, and especially that they would stop using the Bible to support what they’re doing. It’s somewhat inevitable, and in some ways it’s good—because “Christian” should mean something and the misuse of it should offend us.
But we should not stop using the term, as if we are the only true “followers of Jesus,” unlike all of those other so-called Christians, as if we are simply “following Jesus” without cultural baggage and ecclesial traditions of our own, as if we “follow Jesus” unlike those judgmental hypocrites over there, as if because we “follow Jesus” and we just need to pray and read the Bible and can neglect to educate ourselves about church history (particularly between the New Testament and the Reformation), as if we have no lasting—and certainly no involuntary—association with people or structures.
We have a history, beautiful and marred. We have standards of orthodoxy and insiders who try to get away with breaking them. We have divisions. We have unnecessary committees. We have practices which originated centuries after Jesus. We have terrible, terrible bookstores filled with hideous T-shirts and embarrassing bumper stickers. We have weirdos and idiots and fuddy-duddies. And we all know some people using our name who we really think shouldn’t be (and probably really shouldn’t).
And we need to acknowledge that.
Which is why I’m happy to call myself, “Christian.”
This post is part of a two-part series. You may wish to read the first post before proceeding!
First, I think Olson is right to want a term to describe those who have become less theologically conservative while still identifying themselves as evangelical. There are “postevangelicals,” too, which may hold some of the same theological positions (as well as some differing ones), but it’s good for us to recognize both those who stop using the evangelical label and those who retain it.
Secondly, Olson admits that some of the people he identifies as postconservative (e.g. Nancey Murphy, Stanley Grenz, etc.) have not been big fans of the label. This is interesting to me because I know it was also the case with Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy. Well, just as we tend to insist on calling Barth neo-orthodox against his will, I do think there’s some usefulness in using postconservative to describe those who fit our own definitions and understandings of what the word means.
But I think it order to become a more cohesive movement we would need to see more people choosing to identify themselves as postconservative. This may mean less in academic circles since those Olson would call postconservative often interact with each other’s work a great deal, are real-life friends and colleagues, etc. They will continue these same relationships regardless of what they’re calling themselves. However, I wonder the lack of agreement on how to self-identify inhibits postconservatism’s ability to become something that lay people can also understand and identify with.
Thirdly, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which postconservatives have been influenced not only by their fundamentalist and neo-evangelical forebearers but also by movements such as neo-orthodoxy and postliberalism. Are postconservative evangelicals really doing much new or are they merely the evangelicals willing to learn from others? Regardless, I think they have unique opportunities to speak to other evangelicals.
Fourthly, I think postconservative is perhaps most useful when used to identify scholars more than theological opinions themselves, despite the fact that Olson’s book is focused on the postconservative style of doing theology. If you talk about theology, there is the question of why we need to say “postconservative” as opposed to simply identifying theology as more “moderate,” “progressive,” or “liberal.” (Although, admittedly, liberalism and conservative evangelicalism have both been more modern in approach than postconservatism, so a more postmodern/postfoundationalist scholar might want to avoid this spectrum for this reason alone, I suppose.)
There is also, as Nancey Murphy points out (according to Olson), the issues of conservatism being a relative term to begin with. Anyone wanting to retain what they are handed from the previous generation of postconservative scholars is, in a sense, conservative—although since we would never label a liberal who wanted to continue the liberal tradition as being “conservative,” I think this argument is of questionable relevance. Even if “conservative” technically implies conserving traditional views, we use it in everyday speech to create a left-right spectrum.
The sense in which “postconservative” seems to always work well, however, is to describe the paths of individual theologians. If someone comes from a more conservative background but has moved leftward to a certain degree without completely repudiating their roots, it makes sense to use “postconservative” to describe who they are and where they come from. Of course, if we were to really see a boom of denominations and organizations influenced by postconservatism, what would those who grew up and then remained in this tradition call themselves? I guess we can answer that when we get there.
Fifthly, in terms of critiquing the book itself, I have two primary complaints. I did find myself mildly irked that Olson seemed to see postconservatism as coming out of Arminianism more than the Reformed tradition (especially since neo-orthodoxy has been such an influence on many postconservative scholars). I’m not certain if this is true in terms of where most scholars are actually coming from, but I don’t think it’s a necessary aspect of the journey which leads one to become postconservative. The book also seems to mention open theism a whole lot, and while it may be a good example of an issue some postconservatives have been willing to reconsider, I don’t think it’s the defining issue by any means—something Olson admits, too, and yet he still seems to focus on it a disproportionate amount.
Similarly, I thought it was curious that more attention was not given to the issue of inerrancy. A significant part of my own definition of what it means to be postconservative is an abandonment of the doctrine of inerrancy. Perhaps this merely flows out of the postfoundationalism which Olson mentions, but I thought it would have been worth mentioning in its own right.
Lastly, I want to express that even if several handfuls of postconservative evangelical scholars exist, it doesn’t mean they are welcome at many evangelical institutions (ex: Wheaton, where one has to be an inerrantist and believe in a historical Adam) or in the Evangelical Theological Society (also inerrantist). And finding a theological home can be even more frustrating when you’re not a professor. For that reason, I hope that postconservatism (along with postliberalism) matures into something beyond the reaches of the academy, creating space for thoughtful and faithful theological engagement in our pews, as well.
I recently read Roger Olson‘s book Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), mostly because I wanted to hear how someone else was describing postconservative theology. For a while I’ve had an interest in exploring the outskirts of evangelical theology, and postconservatism is one of the movements with which I feel some level of identification. Olson identifies six characteristics of postconservative evangelical theology in his first chapter:
“First, postconservatives, like conservatives, presuppose revelation, but they consider its main purpose to be transformation more than information” (53).
Similarly, Olson discusses a focus on the Bible as narrative over propositions. I appreciated the narrative vs. propositions emphasis more than the transformation vs. information emphasis. Olson discussed Vanhoozer’s “dramatic approach” to revelation, which is based on speech act theory but otherwise doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar from Wright’s “a troupe of Shakespearean actors making up the fifth act to a long-lost play of Shakespeare’s of which we have only recovered the first four acts” idea. I’m sure there are important distinctions, but not having read Vanhoozer, I don’t yet know what I’m missing. Anyway, I agree with the idea that the Bible can’t be treated as a systematic theology textbook. But I’m not certain I like the “transformation” vs. “information” distinction. Isn’t information (about God, about God’s work, about ourselves, etc.) what transforms us? If we didn’t know who Jesus is, how could we be transformed? I worry about a focus on experience that neglects the intellect, and I’m not certain postconservative theology must prefer experience in this manner.
“A second common characteristic of the postconservative style of evangelical theology is a certain vision of what theology is all about. For postconservatives theology is a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and a conquest. Also, for them the constructive task of theology is always open; there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology” (55).
I agree in large part with this point. Postconservatives exist only because they have been willing to venture beyond the bounds of conservative evangelical theology, questioning what has not previously been questioned. I am not certain, however, if this is a characteristic of postconservative theology as much as a characteristic of the individual theologians who have moved in postconservative directions. I think postconservatives have been willing to change their minds in order to preserve academic integrity and avoid cognitive dissonance more than they have specifically been seeking to move new theological places. And once they arrive in certain new theological places, they are often unwilling to leave. For example, how many postconservatives who have abandoned inerrancy would be willing to reconsider that issue? How many people who have ceased to believe in a historical Adam will one day decide Genesis 1-11 should be taken literally after all? Postconservatives may be willing to explore new theological possibilities, but they also form new commitments along the way.
“A third characteristic of postconservative theological work is a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of conservative evangelical theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought” (57).
I think this is a very important part of what it means to be postconservative. Olson talks a great deal about postfoundationalism, critical realism, McIntyre, etc. It was practically like sitting in on Nancey Murphy’s class again (fond memories!). It is being postfoundationalist which allows postconservative theology to cease committing bibliolatry, using presupppositional apologetics, etc.
“A fourth common characteristic of the style of evangelical theology called postconservative is its vision of evangelicalism itself… Postconservatives view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than a set having boundaries” (59).
I think this is simply necessary for anyone who wants to continue using the evangelical label after becoming postconservative. If evangelicalism has rigid boundaries or if the Evangelical Theological Society determines who is in and out, then most postconservatives can no longer be called evangelical. But if evangelicalism is a centered set with fuzzy boundaries, then people can continue to use the evangelical label (because they want to change its connotations or because they feel it’s important to honor their roots or whatever reason might apply) even as they move past what some more narrow-minded folks might call “evangelicalism.” Considering evangelicalism a centered set is legitimate—and maybe even best—but it is admittedly self-serving for postconservatives who still want to think of themselves as evangelical.
“A fifth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and therefore the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief” (61).
This is the idea of Olson’s about which I am most skeptical. Isn’t the point of theology to define what we believe? I would say spiritual experience is important to consider someone’s faith genuine, but an experience with God is not automatically Christianity. Similarly, Christianity cannot be Christianity without some theological basis. I would prioritize theology but say that theology truly internalized produces fruit in terms of experience and action.
As for “the core of evangelical faith,” it doesn’t even make sense for this to be defined as “spiritual experience” because this—at least without clarification as to the kind of spiritual experience—seems to say that being evangelical and a “real” Christian are synonymous, which is preposterous. It seems here that Olson’s definitions of evangelicalism are rather messy. Yes, maybe evangelicalism should be a centered set, but there is a point at which some Christians are not close enough to that center to be called evangelicals. It doesn’t mean they haven’t had any spiritual experiences or that they’re not real Christians, but they don’t deserve the evangelical label for either theological or sociological reasons.
“A sixth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief” (63).
In some ways this is merely another way of stating that nothing is set in stone and that postconservatives are willing to change their minds about things. I worry a bit about a deemphasis of tradition and wonder if there must be firm lines between paleo-orthodoxy and postconservativism as Olson implies. Unfortunately, I think a more thorough exploration of postconservative and paleo-orthodox evangelical theologians is necessary before I can answer that question.
Want to continue reading? Go on to Pt. 2!
Christianity Today recently posted an editorial called “The Evangelical Jesus Prayer,” which I had trouble understanding beginning as early as the subtitle: “It’s not perfect, but the Sinner’s Prayer is a work of genius.” Unfortunately, this editorial is not or else they wouldn’t be saying that.
Let’s start with the first problem: We cannot compare the evangelical “Sinner’s Prayer” to the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer without gravely insulting the Orthodox. Eastern Christians love to make their worship beautiful, and compared with the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”), the Sinner’s Prayer is like your awkward pimple-faced cousin. I’m sorry Eastern brothers and sisters—your prayer is nothing like ours, and for that you should rejoice. The editorial also calls the Sinner’s Prayer “as brilliant as the simple formulations of Martin Luther (Sola fide! Sola Scriptura!).” We have now insulted Lutherans in addition to the Orthodox. We’re making lots of friends today.
What is so mediocre about the Sinner’s Prayer? Ironically, it is the only scripted prayer evangelicals like. Yes, there are different “versions,” but it is still scripted in the sense that traditionally evangelistic literature has included a printed prayer rather than letting anyone invent their own. Similarly, evangelistic preachers often lead audiences in their version of the Sinner’s Prayer, as if the poor sinners could not find the words to approach God themselves. I generally have no problem with pre-written prayers. I like our church’s prayers of confession which come from various liturgical resources and are printed in the bulletin. I like the Book of Common Prayer. Jesus taught us how to pray, and we repeat him word for word. All of that is great. But that’s because they’re not clunky and thoughtless. Rather than elegantly simple, the Sinner’s Prayer is insultingly simplistic and devoid of pleasing aesthetics. Let’s go extemporaneous, people, or let’s allow someone with a theological education—or at least an English degree—write our prayers. Or a sweet child for goodness sakes. But not some tasteless descendent of Charles Finney.
The editorial makes the point that the Sinner’s Prayer can be said over and over like the Jesus Prayer. No, it can’t. It’s too long to be much use to contemplative prayer. Additionally, this is a pathetic response to the complaint that many people say it over and over. They are not saying it over and over because they have any idea how Eastern Christians use the Jesus Prayer; they are saying it over and over because they have never left Finney’s anxious bench.
The editorial also proclaims that the Sinner’s Prayer “summarizes the gospel that so many desperately long for” because “[m]ost people live with all manner of personal crises, the greatest being an abiding guilt and shame.” First of all, whoever wrote this is out of touch with reality. The average person on the street will not call guilt and shame their #1 foe. This might be true if they were raised fundamentalist, raised Catholic, or responsible for killing someone in a drunk driving accident. And even then, only might. This guilt-focused formulation of the gospel may or may not be of optimal theological quality, but it certainly isn’t addressing the felt needs of people today. If it were, we wouldn’t see people devising new ways of trying to explain Christianity to others like we see in James Choung’s True Story.
And it ends up it’s not of optimal theological quality either. It’s ridiculous to encourage an expectation of a single moment of conversion for all Christians when the majority of people raised in the church have not experienced conversion that way. Furthermore, the Sinner’s Prayer prizes penal substitutionary atonement as the one-and-only—or at least the best—model we have for understanding Christ’s work on the cross. It might be a model worth keeping around, but it almost certainly isn’t the best.
All in all, not a work of genius. Not necessarily ethical to press upon people. Not necessarily useful to even those who embrace it. Not necessarily world-ruining either, and certainly a part of the conversion stories of many faithful Christians. But I give it a C-. ”There may be good reasons to reform or replace the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelical ‘liturgical life,’” the editorial opines. “But we have to do better than theological snobbery or spiritual self-righteousness.” No, I don’t think we do. I’ll happily be a theological snob on this one, CT. If you think that’s wrong of me, I guess I could use endless repetitions of the Sinner’s Prayer to absolve myself, except I think that might have the opposite of the desired effect on poor Jesus’s ears…