Dr. Richard Lovelace was a professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary when he wrote his magnum opus on the dynamics of the spiritual life in 1979. The book is a fascinating combination of church history, spiritual theology, personal growth, and corporate renewal. Reading Lovelace’s book today can at times feel dated because of his interaction with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. But in other ways, his book is extremely timely, showing that Lovelace was writing with keen insight into the future struggles and successes of the church in America. I really enjoyed Dr. Lovelace’s book and want to interact with several of his ideas in a series of blog posts. Just like the book, some of my posts will be deeply theological and historical while others will be extremely practical.
The first gift that Lovelace passes on to his readers is an understanding of our historical context. As a professor of church history and devoted fan of Jonathan Edwards, Dr. Lovelace can’t deal with any topic without giving 10 to 15 pages explaining the historical development of that doctrine or practice. The larger impact of his work on my mind was to remind me that we are all historically formed. We are foolish to not understand how our tradition and our cultural history impact the way we read the Bible and practice our faith.
For example, I am a 31-year-old white male who was born and raised in the American south at the end of the twentieth century. I grew up in a Methodist congregation and came to personal faith in Jesus Christ in a small Southern-Baptist church. I went to seminary at Dallas Theological Seminary and was trained for church-planting in a non-denominational Bible-church movement. All of these experiences and cultural situations have formed the man that I have become and more importantly the way that I read the Bible and practice my faith. Dr. Lovelace reminded me in his book that I am wrong to think that my historical context is the best context for following Christ. Rather, my historical context has strength and weaknesses like all others. And the only way to even begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of my historical context is to read and study other historical contexts. For that reason alone, Dynamics of Spiritual Life is helpful in starting to see how our generation has been impacted by those who have gone before and by the culture we currently live in. Here are four ways I am coming to understand my historical context:
1- I am a child of the revivalist tradition. Dr. Lovelace helped me to more clearly understand something I have seen in part before. I am a child of a revivalist tradition that was birthed from the Second Great Awakening. This was not just the open-air preaching of Whitefield and Wesley, but the revivalism of Finney that impacted Moody and Graham. Revivalism taught and practiced that the spirit of men could be revived not just through biblical teaching but through emotional appeal. This tradition saw the birth of the public invitation to receive Christ at the altar, the importance of “setting the mood” with music and lights, and the importance of emotions in making decisions before God. While the revivalist tradition has helped to make sure that Christianity is not just a religion of the mind, it has also led to emotional manipulation, anti-intellectualism, and a devaluing of sound theology.
2- I am a child of the independent church tradition. Both the Southern Baptist church were I was saved and the church I now pastor are known as “autonomous” local churches. That means that we pride ourselves in being led by local church elders who are not taking direction from ecclesiastical higher-ups. The independent church tradition is the ultimate conclusion to the reformation spirit of separatism – if something is going on in a church tradition that a group finds unbiblical, they will separate and start their own tradition. Eventually, this led to thousands of denominations and independent “non-denominational” churches. While the independent tradition can help us to stay faithful to the text in each generation, it has also led to unnecessary divisions, sectarianism, and suspicion of authority and tradition.
3- I am a child of American consumerism. I have been shaped by the broader American prosperity of the twentieth century in more ways that I can begin to understand. The fact that we all live in abundance puts us in the NT category of the “rich.” While nobody thinks they are rich, the truth is that all Americans are rich when compared to the rest of the world and the rest of history. We have great homes, abundant food and clothing, and toys and trinkets galore. All of this means that while we have the opportunity to use our resources for the global kingdom of God, but we also face the temptation to trust and idolize our wealth and lose our dependence on God.
4- I am a child of western post-modernism. Dr. Lovelace spends a great amount of time talking about the impact of modernism on the western church. He was just beginning to see the introduction of post-modern thought in his time as the journey of western rationalistic enlightenment reached its nihilistic conclusions. I was born in the year that Dr. Lovelace published this book (1979) and have lived in a generation that has rejected the modern understandings of truth and meaning. This has led to a healthy emphasis on community and finding our place in the narrative, but it has also led to an unhealthy dismissal of objective truth as impossible to discern. I believe this has made church leaders in my generation even less courageous when it comes to proclaiming biblical imperatives.
While we can’t outgrow our historical context, we can begin to understand and articulate it. When we start to see its positive and negative influences in our lives, we can root out those parts that contradict the Word of God and learn to find healthy balance in our life with God. In addition, as those like Dr. Lovelace help us study other historical eras, we can begin to learn from what other giants of the faith have seen in God’s Word as they lived by the Spirit in their generations.