Book Review: Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal Book Review

As some who happily self-identifies as both evangelical and sacramental, and often bumps up against pentecostalism (I am a Charismatic, but I don’t think I’m a pentecostal in particular) in its various forms, I was intrigued to get my hands on this little book. A challenging call to the church to drink deeply of the various wells that contemporary tradition affords, this book is a provocative and imaginative bit of practical theology, which I will likely refer to in a variety of contexts. Gordon T. Smith – President of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta – has written this little, readable book that invites Christians to embrace and enjoy all three of the labels he discusses. His argument is clear – if not simple – that the Church must necessarily be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal, and that doing so should lead to a richer and deeper practice and theology of Church, integrated in the way that Jesus invites us to be.

Smith begins with a brief discussion of John 14-16, focusing in on John 15, and the call of Christ to his disciples to “abide in me, as I abide in you“. Noting the different ways that evangelicals, pentecostals and more sacramental Christians have answered this question throughout Church history, we start to move on to the meat of the book. Broadly speaking, Smith identifies these different streams of theology with key motifs; evangelicals and the Word of God, sacramental Christians and the actions of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and pentecostals and the Holy Spirit. The thrust of this book is that all three are needed, vital to a life-giving and healthy church. I’ll close this paragraph as Smith closes his first chapter: “All three, taken together, are the means by which the benefits of the cross are known and experienced. The three – Spirit, along with Word and sacrament – are then the means by which the intent of the cross is fulfilled in the life of the church, the means by which we abide in Christ as Christ abides in us… Each is essential if we are to embrace the words of Christ: in and through him our joy is made complete (John 15:11)“.

The second chapter of this book seems slightly out of place – a particular focus on Luke-Acts and the view of the church contained therein – but eventually turns out to be an ideal doorway into the rest of the book. There is a richly Trinitarian, carefully orthodox, beautifully written discussion of the way in which worship works and the church should happen. I loved Smith’s description of true Christian worship:

true Christian worship is Christ-centered, not pneuma-centered. The meaning of worship is that the ascended Christ is adored, preached, and encountered in the Holy Meal. In worship we meet Jesus. In worship with have an encounter with Jesus in the power of the Spirit and to the glory of the Father. But the dynamic center and focus is the second person of the Trinity. Our pneumatology is Christological. Thus the ascension and Pentecost are twinned. Each gives meaning and expression to the other… So, how is the grace of the ascended Christ made present to the church? How can the individual Christian live in fullness of life under the reign of the ascended Lord? Through the grace of the Spirit – receiving and living in the gift of the Spirit. Ascension and Pentecost are distinct but inseparable“.

This description will be particularly attractive to those of us who have a place for sacramental and pentecostal understandings of worship. But I believe it is also importantly biblical, scripturally rooted, and deliberately traditional in the best sense. Smith goes on to note the devotion of the early church to the apostles teaching, “they were a community of the Word” and also to the sacraments in biblical terms; “second, they committted themselves to the Lord’s Table within and as part of their common prayers“. Smith pivots through joy; “Joy is not an incidental byproduct of what it means to be evangelical, sacramental and pentecostal. Rather, joy is perhaps the very crucial, essential and elemental evidence that indeed the church is living in dynamic communion with the living and ascended Christ“. This said, the author now turns to consider ‘The Grace of God’, in the chapter that sets the scene for the three meaty sections of this book. In order to prepare readers, lessons are drawn helpfully and honestly from lives of John Calvin and John Wesley, in a particular attempt to reassure evangelical readers. I loved how Smith invites us onwards and deeper:

I suggest that whether one comes to this question from a sacramental, evangelical, or pentecostal heritage and perspective, the bottom line remains: the biblical witness and the historic witness of the church consistently call the church to a fully orbed embracing of the vital means by which the grace of the risen and ascended Christ is made present in the life of the church.

The fourth chapter of Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal deals with ‘The Evangelical Principle’. Here Smith focuses particularly on the distinctive of evangelicalism as those who are ‘bible-believing Christians’, looking at the evangelical theology of the Word of God and how this can teach the wider church. I loved the definition of careful exegesis, echoing both dynamism and faithfulness: “We come to the Scriptures that we might know Christ; but we cannot assume or hope to know Christ until and unless we are faithful to the Scriptures“. Smith notes that key practices of the evangelical principle are Bible study, preaching and meditation, placing the Word of God at the very core and as the very foundation of the Church. I very much resonated with the conclusion to this chapter, that “all preaching, regardless of the text or the occasion, is about nurturing the capacity of preacher and hearers to trust more deeply in the ascended Christ. It means trusting the Word to do what only the Word can do – slowly, gradually, and incrementally but assuredly, bring about the formation, or better put, the transformation of the people of God (see Isaiah 55)“. This dynamic, faithful and transformative passion for the Bible is at the heart of healthy evangelicalism – and a vital part of true Christianity.

The fifth chapter of Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal deals with ‘The Sacramental Principle’, and is a no-holds-barred discussion. Just two pages in, even whilst noting throughout the sensitivities around language and practice, Smith nails his colours firmly to the mast, stating that “Sacraments are symbols – no more, no less. Indeed, what makes them powerful is precisely that they are symbols. More specifically, there are ordained symbols; a sacrament as a Christ-ordained symbol for the life of the church“. I appreciated Smith’s rejection of some more ‘magical’ or exotic interpretations of sacrament, even as he is careful to stress the tradition and Christ-rootedness that undergirds these symbols. This author is also careful to undergird and contextualise the sacramental principle; “Creation, incarnation, church. Taken together they provide us with a powerful basis for recognizing that God is revealed and God’s grace is known through physical, material reality, including, most notably, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Following on from this, Smith is careful and quick to discuss the importance of the Church as the body of Christ – with the intimacy and physicality that such an image demands. Readers will be well aware (and appreciative of the fact) that what the author is doing is modelling his integrative ecclesiology, with the evangelical principle shaping and translating the sacramental principle throughout this chapter. The discussion of baptism here is also helpful – shying away from controversial statements in order to focus on what might actually be happening. As I look to expand and refine my own work on the Lords Supper, and extend it to include discussion of baptism, this chapter will be a valuable conversation partner.

The sixth and penultimate chapter, as the canny reader of this review might have guessed, deals with ‘The Pentecost Principle’, looking at what it might mean to take seriously the call to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16) that shapes many Christians. Smith opens with a robustly Trinitarian vision of what this might look like – we are encouraged, rightly, not to settle for a binitarian theology, but instead to consider how our pneumatology might shape us. For my sceptical, more cessationist friends, this chapter could be seen as providing an interesting argument for continuationism, the charismatic theology that I hold to. Smith traces the concept of experiencing the Holy Spirit throughout church history, though his deployment of various mystics might put some people off. Smith notes, “the main point I am making here is that there is a consistent stream or thread in the history of the church that has stressed both the potential of immediacy with God – indeed not only the potential but the priority“. It is worth noting that what this particular author understands as ‘The Pentecost Principle’ looks to me, at least, less like classic pentecostalism, and more like a generic, theologically robust-but-not-too-specific charismatic theology. Harking back to the sacramental principle is a helpful and important little detour considering creation, ecology and beauty. I agreed, towards the end, wholeheartedly with Smith as he writes “We can embrace a full and dynamic appreciation of the Spirit in the life of the church without in any way diminishing the critical role of the Scriptures – read and preached – and the fundamental rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Word and sacrament are an indispensable means by which the Spirit graces the church, the individual Christian, and indeed the world… It is no overstatement that it grieves the Holy Spirit when we neglect the Scriptures or the sacraments“. Here, dear reader, you can clearly see the way that these three principles can be well tied together.

Smith closes his book with a conclusion that contains case studies and questions, putting some practical polish on this very readable piece of provocative constructive theology. As I expected, based on the title and theme of thoughtful integration, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’ve already found it useful in conversations with Christians from other streams, and in talking to those from other churches who can’t understand or abive what they understand others as doing. I think it would be a good book for ‘worship leaders’ in charismatic evangelical churches to read – particularly as regards what is ‘happening’ in worship, and in the arrangement of the worship space, and also for Anglican ministers moving between traditions (perhaps when changing parishes or starting a curacy).

 

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