The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion). Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.
American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism. Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets. American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.
This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true. Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not. It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level. Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.
Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia. Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control. This is true within American evangelicalism too. Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.
I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings. Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture. However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.
Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation. Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.
This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother. This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry! No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life. Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation. So, he went on his merry way with his life.
This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles. I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really. Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.
As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change. The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God. In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.
It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized. If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?
Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people. He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.
Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience. The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity. Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator. The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”
We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all. However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.
No. I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?” Answering, “No. But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think. Neither is defaulting to, “No. I never felt that you were with me.” To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?” Then our lives will speak for themselves.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)
- “Barna Report on the “New Calvinism”” and related posts (forsclavigera.blogspot.com)
- Crystal Cathedral had its day | Harriet Baber (guardian.co.uk)
- Puritan Nation: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- Poll: Many Americans know little about religion (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Bringing the Reformation to Protestantism (geneveith.com)
- The failure of evangelical ecclesiology (westernthm.wordpress.com)
- Evangelical Hypocrite (joshharris.com)