The “Antithesis” of Human Intelligence, Initiative
and Ingenuity in Making the Church Effective
From an earlier blog –
Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today. DBS+
While doing some research for my Doctor of Ministry Integrative Project some 20 years ago at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary I stumbled across this assessment of frontier revivalism by a professor at a Stone/Campbell Movement University –
Periods of increased evangelism, called “revivals,” occurred on the American Frontier, following the Second Great Awakening. Frontier religionists usually explained these cycles of increased “conversions” as times when God poured out His grace in an abundant way to sinners. They believed that man had little to do with these “revivals” occurring. God alone made the decision concerning these “special outpourings of His Spirit.” Today, as we look objectively at these revival periods, most of them can be explained by greater zeal on the part of the evangelists themselves. Occasionally, however, an outbreak of some dreaded disease or a financial crisis caused frontier people to be more receptive to God’s message. [Ronald Bever – “The Influence of the 1827-29 Revivals in the Restoration Movement” – Restoration Quarterly – Vol. 10; No. 3, Third Quarter, 1967 (134)]
I was struck then, as I am struck now, by the startling anti-supernaturalist bias at work in this assessment of our history. The author sniffed at the thought of revivals being the result of God’s direct action, a “special outpouring of His Spirit.” “Objectively,” God wasn’t really needed for the renewal of the church according to this scholar. Human beings just needed to “do more” and “try harder” in order to bring about revival – master some techniques – or else wait for social circumstances to get frightening enough to create a general condition of anxious receptivity in people.
Tim Spivey, a Stone/Campbell church planter in Southern California confronted this anti-supernaturalist bias in our spiritual heritage directly in a recent blog.
In his conversations with leaders in Churches of Christ, Pat Keifert noted that God was used as the subject of an active verb less roughly 5% of the time. Here’s what that means in part: leaders in Churches of Christ generally view God as passive. That finding doesn’t surprise me at all. As I hear churches discuss their futures, deal with crises, debate theological or textual issues–there is a sense that God indeed spoke, but doesn’t speak. He did, but doesn’t do. He lives, but isn’t living. [http://timspivey.com/deism-in-churches-of-christ/]
Now, contrast this with the reformational perspective of Martin Luther.
Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.” [http://www.reformationtheology.com]
And here is the thesis of the necessity of the Divine presence, power and provision in order to do church effectively countered by the argument of the antithesis of the indispensability of human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity if the church is to be successful. So, which is it? What makes the church effective? Is it the action of God or the action of human beings? Is it God’s sovereign grace or humanity’s obedient faithfulness?
A book that I stumbled across on my Sabbatical earlier this year that has greatly enriched my understanding of these questions was Ian Stackhouse’s The Gospel-Driven Church: Retrieving Classical Ministries for Contemporary Revivalism (Paternoster 2004). Ian is a British Baptist Pastoral Leader with firsthand experience in the Charismatic Renewal Movement. In the words of another British churchman from an earlier generation, Ian “believes in the Holy Ghost not merely vaguely as a spiritual Power, but as a Person indwelling believers… who justifies our faith in Him” [Roland Allen – Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? – 1962 (149-150)].
In the first part of this book called “The Pathology of Revival” Ian critiqued both the utter passivity of those Christians who are entirely comfortable with the “tarrying” in Jerusalem until they have been endued “with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), and the frenetic busyness of other Christians who embrace every fad and pursue every new technique that’s guaranteed to produce numerical increase and congregational effectiveness.
There are Christians who intend nothing and initiate nothing until and unless the Holy Spirit has been released with power in them to make them witnesses (Acts 1:8). Some believers are always “looking for the alchemist’s stone” that will instantly and effortlessly renew the church. It’s a kind of magical thinking. And at the other extreme there are those Christians who think that they can automatically and invariably engineer spiritual growth by the discovery and application of the right techniques. They are in a perpetual quest for “the ingredient, the program, the plan, the strategy that will bring about the breakthrough” (Stackhouse 19). Church effectiveness is an entirely “predictable process.” Once you’ve mastered the method, just like a favorite recipe, it can be successfully repeated again and again.
To the first group of Christians it’s all about God and what God does. Go back and read that Martin Luther quote – “the Word did it” is their motto. This is the thesis of Divine action (see my last blog for a further exploration of this idea). And to the second group of Christians it’s all about us and what we do. Go back and read that Stone/Campbell scholar’s naturalistic explanations for the revival on the American frontier. It was “the greater zeal” of the evangelists that brought it about. And this is the antithesis of human action. It’s point, counter-point; thrust and parry. And it is in the push and pull of these “furious opposites” that the middle ground of a new synthesis emerges, and that’s what we will explore next week. DBS+