Thursday, May 11, 2017

Evangelical, Sacramental, & Pentecostal (Gordon Smith) -- Review

EVANGELICAL, SACRAMENTAL, & PENTECOSTAL: Why The Church Should Be All Three.  By Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. 140 pages.


Having been an evangelical, a Pentecostal, and an Episcopalian, I was intrigued by the title of this book. As a Mainline Protestant with progressive leanings, I have tried to integrate these three parts of my faith journey into my current faith experience. I came to this book with a certain set of expectations. I was looking to see how the author would explore these three expressions of the Christian faith to see how they fit with my own experience and understandings of the three. Because the publisher is rooted in the evangelical tradition, I expected that the book might reflect that orientation. I was correct in this expectation. The author is an evangelical writing to other evangelicals, inviting them to incorporate the gifts that the sacramental and Pentecostal traditions offer them. If I were to write this book, the orientation might be that of a Mainline Free Church Protestant inviting those who share my perspective to incorporate the gifts of the evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal traditions. In fact, I’ve envisioned that very book. But, that’s not the book in view. This is Gordon Smith’s book, and he writes from an Evangelical perspective..


As to the identity of the author: Gordon Smith is President of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to his administrative duties, he teaches theology. He is also an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which is a distinctly evangelical denomination that its origins in a missionary organization formed in the nineteenth century. Starting from this evangelical perspective, he believes that the evangelical experience would be enriched by its engagement with the sacramental and Pentecostal traditions, at least as he understands them.

The lens through which Gordon Smith explores the relationship between the three elements is the grace of God. That is, he seeks to help us understand how the interplay of these three principles enable us to appropriate the grace of God. In chapter one, Smith offers the key to what follows. That is what he calls the "extraordinary invitation of John 15:4." that invitation is offered by Jesus to his disciples (and all followers), "abide in me as I abide in you." This is the core premise of the Gospel—abiding in Jesus even as he abides in us. It is with this in mind that he seeks to explore the interplay of what he calls the evangelical principle, the sacramental principle, and the Pentecostal principle. Moving from John, he looks to Luke-Acts, and finds a witness to the interplay of all three principles as being central to the church being truly itself.

So, if the means of grace is available in all three traditions, but the mechanism is understood differently, if we’re to integrate all three, then we will want to know what these principles are. He devotes one chapter to each principle, beginning with the one that is most familiar to him, the evangelical tradition. With this principle, Smith focuses on the centrality of Scripture, as it is read, preached, and taught. As such it is a means of grace. He explores how scripture might be interpreted and applied in such a way that the grace of God might be encountered. He believes that this word comes to us from the mouth of God, not in a narrow way, but affirming that we encounter the true words of God in Scripture, and that "the church is sustained, fed, and encouraged by the word" (p. 70). But, this word needs to be acted upon. 

Smith will get very few arguments about the centrality of the Word from fellow evangelicals, but he has come to believe that this is not enough if one is to truly experience the grace of God. Thus, he turns to the sacraments, especially baptism and the Lord's Supper. He notes the evangelical ambivalence about the sacraments, but Smith insists (rightly in my mind) that symbols matter and therefore the sacraments matter. They are not adiaphora that can be easily dispensed with. They stand at the center of the Christian faith. Therefore, he is disturbed by the ambivalence to the power of these symbols among fellow evangelicals. In his argument for emphasizing both Word (Bible and Preaching) and Sacrament (Baptism and Lord’s Supper), he notes that "the church has always recognized that there are two great movements in Christian worship -- the Word read, proclaimed, and then the Table, following the Word" (p. 89). But Word and Sacrament are not sufficient in themselves. There is also the need for the Spirit. 

Moving to the Pentecostal Principle, it needs to be noted that Smith isn't interested in the traditional emphasis on glossolalia. What he's interested in is the emphasis on the necessity of the church being led by and empowered by the Spirit. What is interesting here is that the founder of the CMA, A.B. Simpson, emphasized the Spirit. In fact, Simpson’s own four-fold gospel including healing as a sign of the Spirit, but he and they did not follow the path that led to speaking in tongues being the mark of the Spirit’s baptism. Be that as it may, Smith wants to embrace the Pentecostal vision of the immediacy of the presence of the Spirit. That is, he insists that the "heart of the Spirit-filled life is an immediate awareness of the presence of Christ, and the fruit or evidence of that awareness is the quality of human experience that is the fruit of living 'in Christ' in gracious community" (p. 111).

The essential message of the book, at least as I would take from it, is that a grace-filled/grace-formed life requires the Word, the Sacraments, and the Spirit, who brings the two together into a full experience of God's presence that is transformative. At points, I diverge from the author, as I am not in the evangelical mainstream, therefore, my understanding of how the Word factors into faith will be different, and I would probably add into the evangelical principle more of the missional vision than does he (perhaps he assumes that to be an essential). As a Mainline Protestant, who has evangelical roots, my takeaways might be a bit different (though I agree that some in the sacramental tradition downplay scripture and preaching). From my vantage point, we could use a greater dose of all three!

This should prove to be a valuable resource for Evangelicals whose faith can become sterile if it is only word-centered and lacks the spiritual depth of sacramental experience and the spiritual breadth provided by the Pentecostal witness. I might suggest adding into the mix the social gospel/liberationist traditions as well, as this voice would deepen the conversation even more. Speaking as one who lives in the Mainline, we can learn as well from this exposition of three principles that may not be part of our experience. Of course, perspective is important and so perhaps another book written from the Mainline vantage point that seeks to integrate the witness of other parts of the community would be helpful as well. Gordon Smith, however, gets us on the road and that is worth giving time to his story.   


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