Dr. David Fitch has just released a new book entitled The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology from Wipf and Stockpublishers. David is a bi-vocational pastor atLife on the Vineand the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and blogs at Reclaiming the Mission. In a series of posts, I want to explore Fitch’s argument and discuss his conclusions.
In Chapter four of David Fitch’s book, he looks at the evangelical concept of the decision for Christ through the lens of Zizek’s political theory. In the first post on this subject, I will describe salvation as practiced by many evangelicals. Followup posts will show the application of Zizek’s theory.
The altar call is the symbolic practice of evangelicalism in the past three centuries. Evangelicalism as birthed out of the the revivalism of the 18th and 19th centuries and the signature ritual was the altar call, where one made a decision to put one’s faith in Christ.
The basic message of salvation that emerged out of this era looked like this:
1. God created us and loved us.
2. All humanity, however, has sinned and lies under the judgement of sin. As a result, everyone is separate from God and condemned to hell.
3. God, however, has made a provision for our sin through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Christ took upon himself our sin as a substitute, paying for the penalty of sin, and propitiating the wrath and judgment of God.
4. By putting our faith and trust in Christ alone, we are saved from eternal damnation and are gifted with eternal life. Everyone then needs to make a decision for Christ to recognize their own sin.
This basic salvation message brings together two defining characteristics of evangelicalism, as defined by historian David Bebbington: conversion and cross. Evangelicals, Bebbington states, “have always placed a central importance on one’s personal conversion. Someone might do all the right things, lead a good life, go to church, and help the poor, but all of this is for naught if he/she has not personally made a decision to ‘receive Christ'”
The call to holiness and life in the Spirit was central to the revivalist evangelicalism as well. Regeneration by the Spirit was always presented as a next step that came after the decision. “The call to holy living in and through the Holy Spirit was emphasized and took the shape of a second and separate decision. Something happened however with the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s that exaggerated the split between the decision to receive pardon for sin in Christ (justification) and the second aspect (sanctification), the decision to receive and live in the Spirit. As a result, there was an increase in emphasis on the decision to receive pardon for one’s sin in and through Christ. The active decision to engage in the life of the Spirit fell more to the wayside or was left for the Pentecostal movements who were emerging in that day.”
The result was that the conversion and the substitutionary atonement of Christ took renewed prominence as a defining marker of the emerging evangelicalism. The “life in the Spirit” receded in prominence.
Evangelicals still emphasize “the decision.” The practices of the megachurch movement, for instance, declare the reality that these most visible of evangelicals still function of this idea. The decision assumes salvation is individual, begun as a voluntary act, and is nurtured through individually acquired learning and worship. Baptism then becomes for these churches a public declaration of one’s decision to follow Jesus with little regard to the corporate aspects of baptism.
As a result, evangelicals focus on the “cognitive when it comes to the practice of salvation. In other words, despite an emphasis on ‘the heart,’ ‘the Spirit,’ and ‘the experience,’ we put the most emphasis on ‘the mind’ when it comes to salvation. Given the right information (e.g., ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’), we believe the Spirit can convict the soul and move the person towards a decision.” Evangelicals therefore, are Cartesian in their assumptions of how salvation works. Fitch uses Cartesian to speak of the work of Rene Decartes. Decartes gave us the phrase “I think, therefore I am” or the Latin “Cogito ergo sum.” This is a dualistic concept focusing on the mind as the center of the subject that inhabits the body. Decartes held that the mind is a nonphysical substance. He was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the brain, which was the seat of intelligence. This philosophy became the framework for modernity. Today, however, brain research is giving us information that contradicts the theorem.
Discipleship works the same way. It is an informational dispensing practice. Evangelicals focus on cognitive practices versus the holistic spiritual routines found in church history as the means to grow in Christ. After the decision, evangelicals focus on personal Bible study and prayer. There is also emphasis on fellowship and witnessing. The underlying idea is that if the right information can be given to people, they will grow.
1. Do you think Fitch has appropriated Salvation properly?
2. The dualistic nature of salvation. Does the Bible teach this?
3. The cognitive-only understanding of salvation. If salvation is mental only, how can we be sure we are saved?
4. Why do we count the baptisms of those who made a decision if there is little or no transformation evident in the one who made the decision?
In the next post, I will note why Fitch believes that the decision for Christ is an example of Zizek’s master-signifier.