You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged for a week; that’s because I’m spending much time nowadays finishing my first book! It’s about how signs and wonders are combined with peace and justice in the Bible, throughout church history and today. During the last week I’ve focused on the history part, researching and writing about saints like Francis and Agnes of Assisi and radical church movements like the Moravian church and the Jesus Family in China.
I am so encouraged to see these myriads of people who combine miracles and activism. Did you know that Maria Woodworth-Etter, who is often considered the grandmother of the Pentecostal movement, was baptized in the Spirit in a Quaker church and at one time ministered in a denomination founded by Mennonites? Or that the Salvation Army, famous for its evangelism and social ministry to the poor, experienced tons of signs and wonders in its early days?
I have now arrived to the part where I discuss movements that only have one half of the Biblical Holy Spirit Activism combination. Like patriotic, prosperity-preaching Pentecostalism, or miracle-doubting progressive liberalism. Interestingly, both of these streams originated roughly at the same time, the 20th century. They are not just unbiblical, but historically unique.
Why won’t some Spirit-filled Christians become activists for peace and justice and practice community of goods and nonviolence as the apostles did? Why does God use them? Well, I would say because He’s good. When reading through church history I encounter so many marvellous saints that I’m sure were used by God even though I don’t agree with them on every single point. I’m thinking about for example missionaries Francis Xavier and Marie Monsen.
Since I’m neither Catholic nor Lutheran I can’t stand behind all their theological thinking, but the fruits of their ministries were so great that I have to acknowledge that God uses imperfect people. And that’s good news – otherwise He wouldn’t use me and you!
Prosperity theology is actually a form of liberal theology. Instead of obeying the Bible, the prosperity preacher makes stuff up, like the idea that Jesus was rich or that disciples will have glorious lives where every trouble can be wished away. Similarly, the liberal Christian ignores Jesus’ command to heal the sick and raise the dead and focuses on the “easy” part of peace and justice, often without living in community of goods though. Both of these theologies make similar errors: they don’t want to practice Biblical Christianity as it is described in the New Testament.
Why then do non-activist charismaticism and non-charismatic activism arise within Christianity at roughly the same time? My guess is that it arose when the state church system fell down, because it opened up the possibility to call anything Christian. Previously, people who wanted to live Biblically were often persecuted and martyred, which made it a serious choice. Today, John Shelby Spong can claim that Christians shouldn’t believe that God exists or that prayer work, and Kenneth Copeland can claim that God wants to make all Christians rich, without any real consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for persecution. I’m just explaining why ridiculous theology has emerged in the 20th century. Before, there was a division between persecuting state church-supporters, who were neither charismatic nor activists, and persecuted apostolic restorationists, who were charismactivists. Thankfully, the latter, Biblical stream still exists, and I’m so glad to be a part of that.
Your last comments wouldn’t apply to the USA, since there hasn’t been a state church since the European colonialists established this nation-state (and a state church existed in only some of the colonies before that), and you are dating these streams much later in the 20th century. However, the Deist movement of the Revolutionary War era might be considered to be a precursor of the liberal theology which rejects the signs and wonders.
Hello Bill! To clarify: the US was indeed one of the first countries introducing freedom of religion in 1789, and European countries followed in the 19th century. I believe it took some time before the consequences of prosperity and progressive theologies emerged, which is why they blossomed in the 20th century. The deism of Americans and pantheism of some European philosophers defenitely nurtured naturalism and, through that, liberal theology.
I doubt your last thesis. The history of the church is full of various “ridiculous” ideas throughout history and there have been lots of fringe groups that had bad theology (eg the Albigensians) as well as good one (eg the Valdensians).
Also, some ideas that seem ridiculous in retrospect, might seem very natural in their original context. One example: Ambrosius of Milan argued that a group of Jews who had their synagogue burned down by a “Christian” mob should not receive any compensation, even though burning the synagogue was wrong. Theologically and morally a reprehensible position. But he argued that such compensation would send the signal that Christianity and Judaism had equal standing in society, and that would be an even worse error. And the emperor of Rome listened to his advice, since to him Ambrosius seemed to make sense. There was no mechanism in place to suppress such a bad idea.
But I’d say that the modern inventions – beginning with the printing press and culminating with the Internet – has made the proliferation of ideas simpler and simpler. Conspiracist theories (birthers, truthers, holocaust deniers, etc) can spread like wildfire, just like good ideas.
In fact, thanks to changes in our information gathering habits, more and more young people become less able to read a book from cover to cover, follow an argument that consist of detailed explanations or think through an issue from all angles. that means that it is actually easier for bad ideas to spread, than it is for sound ideas to do the same. Bad ideas are usually easier to explain, since most bad ideas in fact are over-simplifications. And that applies equally well to Spong, Copeland and Dawkins.
Hi Lars! I agree, ridiculous theology isn’t new, it was a bad formulation of me. My point was as you probably can guess that the particular nature of prosperity theology and liberal theology were pretty much unseen before. And I do think that they both are ridiculous.
Is there a difference between progressive and liberal to you? What do you mean by liberal? I know many who believe in miracles and the wonder-working power of the Spirit through Christ’s atoning work who do not believe the Bible is inerrant and are gay-affirming. Does that make them liberal? Or progressive? Or are you talking about neo-Schleiermacherian folks?
To be honest, I used the term progressive because it sounds similar to prosperity 😉 While they do overlap, there are differences between liberal and progressive Christianity in that the former is a more academic stream with clear connections to atheist philosophy, while the latter is more popular and pluralist. I go with the Wikipedia definitions by the way, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Christianity https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Christianity
The particular theology I’ve been discussing in my book is “classical” liberal theology, that for example has shaped much of Protestant academic theology here in Europe. It denies the existence of miracles while it focuses on peace and justice and the Social Gospel. And it doesn’t view the Bible as authorative.
I think there is a big difference between shaping one’s theology based on how one actually thinks that Jesus and the apostles believed and behaved, and on basing it on other sources without paying much attention to the Bible. This is what I mean when I talk about a theology being unbiblical: it doesn’t really care much about what’s in the Bible.
Thanks for clarifying the difference between “liberal” and “progressive” Christianity. Progressive Christianity as I know it doesn’t limit miracles and the adherents certainly often live in community. I know that it’s snappier to contrast “progressive” with “prosperity”, but it’s more accurate to say “some liberal” or “some progressive.”