Revival of the Mind (part 3)

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Revival of the Mind (Part 3)

Last week we discussed the emphasis of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) on religious feelings and how it influenced both liberal and conservative theologians. It was the conservative’s retreat into religious feelings and away from the hard work of scholarship that helped solidify an anti-intellectual sentiment among evangelicals. But Schleiermacher was not the only influencing factor; the Second Great Awakening (1800-1820) and the revivals of Charles Finney (1824-1837) also contributed.

The 19th century revival movements were centered on emotionally charged preaching with the goal of eliciting an immediate response. Although much moral reform came from these revivals, they tended to place personal conversion and a personal relationship with Christ over against church tradition (creeds and doctrines) and traditional learning. Since personal conversion was the only thing deemed necessary, church doctrine, including the issues surrounding the Great Reformation, was viewed as unimportant. In ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,’ Mark Noll writes, “They [revival preachers] called upon individuals to take a step of faith for themselves. In so doing, they often left the impression that individual believers could accept nothing from others. Everything of value in the Christian life had to come from the individual’s own choice—not just personal faith but every scrap of wisdom, understanding, and conviction about the faith.” Added to this extreme focus on the individual, revival preachers railed against the “learned clergy” and their classical university training, creating a general mistrust of formally educated pastors (and formal education in general).

Charles Finney not only despised formal theological training, he also despised formal sermons (expository sermons) because they “put content ahead of communication.” The style of sermon Finney preferred included moving stories, no-holds-barred emotional appeals, strong humor, graphic applications, and personal appeals to come forward and sit on the ‘anxious bench’ to be converted. These sermons were purposefully devoid of any serious reflection on Christian doctrines.

Of course, personal conversion is absolutely necessary in the Christian faith, but the revivals inadvertently created a shallow, non-thinking, doctrinally illiterate form of Christianity that emerged as a part of mainstream evangelicalism. In his book, ‘No Place for Truth,’ Dr. David Wells wrote, “The church-centered faith [reformed theology] that had been favored before the Revolution retreated before itinerant revivalism, reasoned faith retreated before exuberant testimony, and theological confession retreated before the axioms of experience.” Wells also noted that when Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel prize winner visited America in the 1880’s, he observed that the typical sermon did “not contain theology but morality….They do not develop the mind, though they are entertaining.” A quick scan through preachers on television reveals that nothing much has changed. Because of this continuing neglect of the mind, much of modern evangelicalism has become a mile wide and an inch deep.

A revival of the mind does not mean Christians should become stoic, but zeal without knowledge does not honor God (Romans 10:2). In John 4:23-24, Jesus tells us that the Father is seeking those who would worship Him in spirit and in truth, meaning that true worshipers must engage both their hearts and their heads for the glory of God.

Article by Pastor Billy Elkins