Beyond Born Again
Introduction: Testimony Time
By now, most people have heard of "Born Again Christians." The recent media prominence of these interesting people was, of course, sparked by Jimmy Carter's "testimony" that he had been "born again." Reactions to the new visibility were of at least two types: one can still spot bumper stickers sporting either "I found it" or "I lost it" slogans. Some applaud the new "Evangelical renaissance." Others are uneasy because of the political repression they fear (cf. Malcolm Boyd's prediction of a "demagogic, chauvinistic national religious movement.... 'Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?' would be the inquisitorial question asked.")  Still others doubt that there has been any revival at all, only increased visibility, or the faddishness of the phrase "born again."
But however one feels about Born Again Christians, one should at least know who they are and what they stand for. In response to this need, we have witnessed a flood of books analyzing Evangelicals and their "old-time religion." Most have been written by Evangelical Christians themselves (e.g., Donald Bloesch, The Evangelical Renaissance; David Wells and John Woodbridge, The Evangelicals, Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals and The Worldly Evangelicals; Morris Inch, The Evangelical Challenge), but a few have been written by non- or ex-Evangelicals (e.g., James Barr, Fundamentalism). Of which kind is the book you now hold in your hands? It's hard to say.... If you are familiar with Tillich's phrase "on the boundary," perhaps you will understand my reticence to jump into a category. But here, what do such categories mean? For even an "ex-Evangelical" is often merely one more kind of Evangelical with one of several available prefixes. For instance, have you ever seen a "Liberal" religion professor give a hard time to fundamentalist students in his class? Often the most militant of such professors were once fundamentalists themselves and are now trying to settle a score. They have in fact become Liberal fundamentalists!
Let me share briefly with you my background in the Evangelical Christian scene. Every writer is working from a biographical context, and it's only fair that the reader be told what it is. This is especially true on a subject as ticklish as ours. Well, I was converted as an adolescent in a Conservative Baptist Church. Having Jesus Christ as my personal savior gave me "eternal security" from the flames of hell which I otherwise had to fear. During the next few years I absorbed much biblical teaching through the filter of dispensationalist fundamentalism. I learned to pray and read scripture, and to "witness" to my friends (and to feel pretty guilty if I didn't do these things). An acknowledged "spiritual leader" among the youth membership, I found the peer-acceptance that all teenagers so desperately need. Church activities weren't enough, so I joined a student group called "HiBA" (or "High School Born-Againers") in order to see as many as possible of my classmates "come to the Lord." Eventually, several did. Just think, I was a father (spiritually at least) several times by age seventeen! My Campus Crusade for Christ training in evangelism served me in good stead.
Of course, winning others to Christ was only half the problem.
After all, I could only help my converts to mature spiritually as much as I myself had. I must be a true man of God. Reading devotional works such as Robert Boyd Munger's My Heart, Christ's Home, Miles Stanford's Principles of Spiritual Growth, and even C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters considerably advanced my progress in piety. But never had I found so much spiritual wisdom as in Bill Gothard's "Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts," a week-long seminar on God's (and Gothard's) unbeatable principles for a successful Christian life. I took this amassed lore with me when I went to college.
It did not take me long to become a leader in the campus chapter of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. My knowledge of biblical doctrine and evangelistic technique was welcome here. As I encountered new influences (though not too many, sheltered as I was), my Christian life grew in new ways. As I erected new barriers, I began to let down some old ones. One the one hand, there were all of those "unsaved professors." One should avoid religion courses offered by such people. Who knows what disturbing things one might hear? But eventually I was ready for combat on this enemy turf. I had become interested in "apologetics," the science of defending the faith. Mentally, I stocked up on the writings of such knights of the truth as Francis Schaeffer, F. F. Bruce, John Warwick Montgomery, and Os Guiness. Ready to do battle, I'm sure I irritated my professors no little.
In a battle like this, one must close ranks with the like-minded. Within the circle of Inter Varsity, I soon encountered new varieties of Evangelical belief and lifestyle. I learned to tolerate and even welcome different ideas on eschatology, worldliness, etc. Wider horizons were a pleasant discovery. Eventually, I had become a convinced and enthusiastic "neo-Evangelical," going to movies (after the long cinematic abstinence of my teenage fundamentalist period), qualifying biblical inerrancy, and teaching the Bible in a Catholic Charismatic prayer group. My commitment to Jesus Christ gave me an exciting and satisfying sense of purpose. The Bible was a thing of constant fascination, and I learned to exult in the love of Jesus, and of my brothers and sisters.
During my college years, I read voraciously, becoming familiar with "our" (Evangelical) literature on most subjects. Not satisfied with encountering the writers only through their works, I took several opportunities to visit other cities where I sought out and conversed with various Evangelical leaders. In Wheaton, I met Carl F. H. Henry, Merrill Tenney, C. Peter Wagner, and Billy Melvin, President of the National Association of Evangelicals. At a conference in Ohio, I met my favorite inspirational writer Peter Gillquist. On a trip to Berkeley I stayed with the Christian World Liberation Front (now the Berkeley Christian Coalition), talking with Sharon Gallagher and Jack Sparks (now of the Evangelical Orthodox Church). In Chicago, I met David F. Wells and Donald Dayton. I talked with Dave Jackson of Reba Place Fellowship and Jim Wallis of the Post-American (now Sojourners). I discussed ministry and theology with these fascinating people and finally decided to go on to seminary. I chose Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, specializing in New Testament. This way, I felt I could prepare for a teaching ministry in my own way by concentrated biblical study. Also, I could continue
my apologetical attack on Liberal, unbelieving biblical criticism and theology. Though I didn't have definite plans for the future (being confident of God's eventual guidance), what eventually happened still surprised me.
One often hears the paradoxical statement that many enthusiastic students lose their faith while in seminary. As the story goes, the wide-eyed seminarian finds his faith in the Bible undermined by the destructive biblical criticism of his Liberal professors. Let me say that there is very little chance of this happening to anyone at my alma mater, where the commitment to Evangelical thought and practice is unswerving. My experience does not therefore fit the stereotype I have just described, but I did undergo quite a change. I found to my unpleasant surprise that by my second year, I was unable to affirm much of that upon which I had spent my life up to that point. I might add that I was dragged to this conclusion kicking and screaming.
As I have said, one of my greatest interests was in apologetics, which in turn greatly contributed to my interest in New Testament studies. The reading of stalwarts like John Warwick Montgomery and Francis Schaeffer convinced me that the stakes indeed were high: if Evangelical Christianity were not true, and based upon historically true events, why then life really held no significance at all! This put me in quite a charged situation. On the one hand, it all must be true! Yet, on the other, I must be honest-- I could not try to convince an unbeliever with an apologetical argument I would not myself accept. My enthusiasm for the true faith, and the secret fear that the faith might not be true, were sources of fuel that fed each other. My zeal was great, but it was interrupted by periods of doubt that might last for months. The more terrible the doubt, the more zeal was needed to make up for it. As the zeal grew greater, the stakes became higher, and the fear in turn grew deeper. Naturally, I was reluctant to find any weakness in the various arguments in favor of the resurrection of Christ, or the historicity of the gospels, etc. Yet if there were weaknesses, I had to know! Eventually, I believe, I found them in the course of my own research.
At the same time, my suspicions were beginning to mount concerning the viability of the way I had been told to interpret experience. I encountered personal disappointments which I piously assumed God must have sent "for a purpose." Praise the Lord, I figured. Still, I couldn't help but notice that I didn't need "God's will" as an explanatory factor. Human failure and immaturity seemed adequate explanations. Besides, what did it imply about life if every significant experience was significant only as a "test" sent by God? And could you be sure you had discerned God's will, since the last time you thought you had it, everything fizzled anyway? I began to wonder if my picture of life was adequate for the increasingly ambiguous world I lived in. Born-again living seemed to me just a crutch which no longer facilitated healing and growth, but actually protracted immaturity.
During this period, I did not let my doubts and dissatisfactions stop me from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But evangelism began to present difficulties of its own. One cold night in Beverly, Massachusetts, I trudged out with a handful of other seminarians to "witness" to local sinners. As I sat conspicuously in a
tavern telling a stranger about the abundant life Christ offered her, I suddenly found myself at a loss for words. Behind my evangelistic rhetoric, what did it all mean? Just how would her life change if she "accepted Christ"? Well, she would begin to seek guidance daily in God's Word, and to go to church, and... uh... well, basically, to take up new religious habits, I guess. This girl already believed in being kind, loving and honest. She didn't need religion for that. What did she need it for, I had to ask myself? Her "problem" seemed to be mainly that she didn't know the requisite passwords and shibboleths: "Christ is my personal savior," "I'm born again."
Around the same time, I found myself in a Cambridge cafe having supper with some friends. We were on our way to a lecture by Harvey Cox, whose books I'd always found fascinating, though I'd filled their margins with vociferous criticisms. I suddenly thought, "Listen, is there really that much difference 'them' and 'us'?" I had always accepted the qualitative difference between the "saved" and the "unsaved." Until that moment, it was as if I and my fellow-seminarians had been sitting in a "no-damnation" section of an otherwise "unsaved" restaurant. Then, in a flash, we were all just people. My feeling about evangelism has never been quite the same.
I had to reevaluate my faith. I had some idea of what other theological options were like. But since I had always read them only to refute them, it was going to take some adjustment to be able to give them a sympathetic hearing. In the summer of 1977, I took course work at Princeton Theological Seminary, learning much from Donald Juel and visiting professor Monica Hellwig. The next fall, I went to Boston University School of Theology and Harvard Divinity School (members of the Boston area consortium to which I had access as a Gordon-Conwell student). There I had the privilege of taking courses with Howard Clark Kee, Helmut Koester, and Harvey Cox. A new world had opened up to me, both theologically and personally. I felt like a college freshman, thinking through important questions for the first time. The anxiety of doubt had passed into the adventure of discovery. It was like being born again.
This sharing of my "testimony" brings me now to the theme of the present book. One might call it an attempt to "put away childish things." Of course, I allude to Paul's eschatological vision in 1 Corinthians 13. The imperfect must fade with the advent of the perfect. Childish things, adequate in their day, must be set aside, perhaps painfully, when maturity knocks. My experiences and researches lead me to believe that there is a new maturity on the horizon, beckoning to Evangelical Christians. The current, tiring struggle over biblical inerrancy are part of the "birth pangs" of this "new age." In this book I will sketch several of the difficulties to be found in traditional Evangelical approaches. I will go on to outline some possible directions for the future already becoming apparent in the thinking of Evangelicals here and there. What I will be proposing is a really new Evangelicalism, something transcending Harold J. Ockenga's "Neo-Evangelicalism" (fundamentalism with better manners) and Richard Quebedeaux's "Young Evangelicalism" (politically and behaviorally liberalized Neo-Evangelicals). Let it be
noted that I will not be advocating a new candidate for "the one true faith," but rather a possible option for those who see the problems as I do, and would still like to remain in real continuity with their Evangelical heritage. (Not that becoming an out-and-out theological liberal would be a bad thing, mind you. I simply realize that this is not an option for everyone.)
Now that I've told you who I am, let me take a guess about who you are, or who I hope you are. Naturally, I hope that Evangelical students and seminarians caught in dilemmas similar to mine will read and profit from this book. Its chapters may serve to articulate or crystallize questions you are asking. This would be no surprise, since, as Paul says, "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man" (I Corinthians 10:13). Or in the words of Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." I do not imagine that I have made many original points here, but I do know that I had to discover most of them for myself. I had to do this, because my predecessors in the pilgrimage did not see fit to stick around to tell anyone else what they found before flying the Evangelical coop. I hope to save some of you the trouble I went through.
I think next of those convinced apologists who with their inadequate arguments place others in the dilemma I have described. Such apologists put so much stock in their devices that their reaction to this book would no doubt be to do apologetics for their apologetics, to defend their defenses! But I hope to challenge them to do some honest re-thinking.
What about any non-Evangelicals who might chance to pick up this book? I remember once reading an in-house fundamentalist booklet which chided church members for their insufficient zeal and their worldliness. Halfway through, the writer interrupted himself to threaten any irreverent unbeliever who might have gotten hold of this tract. "Don't be too quick to laugh at our foibles, mister, because unless you repent, there's a place in hell waiting for you!" On the contrary, I welcome non-Evangelicals. I hope to further dialogue, just as does Morris Inch in his The Evangelical Challenge. Inch sets forth what Evangelicals are supposed to believe and do, inviting a consideration of Evangelicalism at its best. Indeed, one must understand the best hopes and ideals of a group if one is to understand the group. But there is also value in seeing the weak points of a movement. Is there something deeply ingrained which produces them? To get a well-rounded picture of Evangelicalism, the observer needs a little dirty linen, I think. Their occasional claim to the contrary notwithstanding, Born Again Christians are only human, like everyone else.
Finally, I should think it would be of interest to Evangelicals themselves to hear in detail just why outsiders do not accept their claims and apologetic arguments. Their apologists never tire of complaining that they are ignored by mainstream scholarship. In the main this is true, but perhaps not for the reasons the apologists imagine. At any rate, they do deserve a response.
Now, let me explain the set-up of the book. It focuses first on Evangelical schemas for understanding experience as colored by their distinctive religious views. Here I attempt to outline what some would call a "phenomenology of consciousness." I go on to consider the social and psychological devices with which Evangelicals maintain
the believability of their world of experience. The focus then narrows to consider the nature and function of the Evangelical and Pentecostal belief in demon-possession. This small aspect of Born-Again belief, as we will see, contains larger theological and hermeneutical issues in cameo form. I conclude this section with an observation on the meaning of the claim to have a "personal relationship with Christ."
The second major part of the book deals with a host of apologetics offered by Evangelicals on behalf of several themes. These include the historical reliability of the gospels, the resurrection of Jesus, and the claims of Jesus to be divine. Here my goal is not to challenge the beliefs defended but only their manner of defense.
The third section examines the Evangelical doctrine of scripture, especially the claim that it is the only legitimate and scriptural version of biblical authority. I go on to question other stock criticisms of Liberal theological positions. Then I conclude with some positive proposals for a really new Evangelicalism.
The connection between these sections should be evident, as it is tirelessly made by Evangelical apologists themselves. They maintain that all their edifices are erected to defend their theology which in turns safeguards their pietism. Without Evangelical theology they will have no "answer" to offer modern man in his existential dilemma. We find this sentiment expressed clearly by Clark Pinnock:
It is important to ask just what Evangelicals have in mind when they refer to such a "solution." The answer is not far to seek. Of course, they mean Evangelical pietism, "a personal relationship with Christ." Carl F. H. Henry criticizes dialectical theology because it allegedly
As one might have suspected, Evangelical theology and apologetics turn out to be cognitive bodyguards for Billy Graham. If these were surrendered it is feared that pietism would become unavailable. I suggest that none of the three areas I am discussing either stands alone or is really intelligible by itself. All three must be taken together.
I would like to make it clear from the outset that I have no desire to "attack personalities." By contrast, I have very much enjoyed meeting people whose views I critique in this book. Such people include Harold Lindsell, J. I. Packer, J. N. D. Anderson, Bill Gothard, Kenneth Hamilton, and especially Clark Pinnock. It is clear to me that, as important as theoretical opinions undoubtedly are, they need not come between people. Along the same lines, I should also point out that in some cases the views criticized in these page may
no longer be held by the writer to whom they are attributed. This is most obviously true of Dr. Pinnock, whose theological quest has in fact led him to change his views on various issues over the past few years. Remember that I am not interested in personalities as such. Rather I want to discuss particular literature which is still commonly used among Evangelicals today, whether or not the writers of it still hold those views. I think this clarification should also protect me from criticisms to the effect that I have not criticized "true Evangelicalism" on this or that point. I am only interested in discussing certain views which are in fact held by many or most Evangelicals. In fact, I suppose that such a would-be critic of mine must agree that the views I critique are indeed deficient. And in view of my last, reconstructive chapter, it becomes clear that in a real sense I agree that the views critiqued here do not (or, better, should not) represent true Evangelicalism.
Let me thank my long-suffering mother, Mable Price, who typed various drafts of this book; Ed Babinski for his great encouragements toward seeing it published; Cecil Wysche for his invaluable support toward the same end; Jeff White, who cannot now receive my thanks, for his enthusiastic response to the book; Professor Ted Drange for his helpful suggestions; and Clark Pinnock for his typically open-minded and open-hearted evaluation of it.
"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
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