Asbury Aflame: An Update

The revival continues at Asbury. But some are doubting. Social media skeptics abound. The questions range from the legitimate (what is the biblical and theological content of what’s going on?) to the nakedly cynical (why are there so many white people in these photos? why is there so much emotional singing?). But the reports seem pretty overwhelming at this point: something real and Christ-exalting is happening at Asbury.

Listen to this testimony from a visitor to the revival services, Robert Cunningham, director of Christ for Kentucky and a Presbyterian minister:

Lay down your doubts and believe. Open yourself to revival. A powerful exhortation.

Again, some initial questions are legitimate, but what does it say about us that we are so quick to be skeptical? We would rather remain cynical than risk looking naive. What does that choice say about us? Isn’t it better to believe and hope all things and risk the possibility of a later retraction or correction than to remain judgmentally aloof?

Something similar could be asked about the responses to the “He Gets Us” campaign and the commercials that aired during the Super Bowl last night. To be sure, there is a critique to be made of this ad campaign. Are all of these analogies between Christ and us really apt? What is the underlying theology? Why so much money devoted to this? All legitimate questions to ask. But that’s not really my point. The more revealing question is why are people this agitated by it? I have a friend who likes to say “mirrors before windows.” Before you focus on someone else, look at yourself first. Yes, there may be serious problems with the “He Gets Us” campaign, but why am I so bothered by it? It is not a little ironic that people got so angry over an ad that emphasized Jesus’ love for those who are the objects of our anger! Maybe you don’t like the message behind the ads. Okay. You can still use the conversations it raises to tell people about the biblical Jesus and his life-giving gospel.

Maybe these things are related. Maybe God is up to something in American Christianity. Maybe there are fresh openings for renewal popping up all around us. Maybe if we had eyes to see and hearts to pray, we would see more. Discernment is still needed. Every revival in history has had to distinguish between the true and the false. But, for my part, tenderhearted hope is a better posture than calculated coldness.

I don’t know about you, but I want revival on my campus! I want revival in my life and family and church. I want to see “each soul be rekindled with fire from above.” Don’t you?

UPDATE: Robert Cunningham has deleted the thread above. The gist of the thread was that this PCA minister witnessed an authentic revival focused on Jesus, Scripture, and prayer.

Revival at Asbury

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The fresh wind of revival seems to be blowing at Asbury University. Word started spreading on social media Wednesday that students simply didn’t want to leave the chapel service after it ended. I’m not on social media anymore, but I had several friends send me links to what was happening. Hundreds of students stayed or came back throughout the day to pray and sing and recite Scripture. And it kept going. Tom McCall, chair of theology at Asbury Seminary, gives an account:

Winfield Bevins, director of church planting at the seminary, shares a taste:

Testimonies continue to pour in on Twitter and Facebook. For the latest, just search for #asburyrevival.

Tom’s thread above captures my own sentiments well. I am the inheritor of a strongly revivalist tradition of Alabama Baptist piety, and I appreciate so much of the spirituality that gave birth to my own faith. But I see the weaknesses in it as well: the dangers of manipulation, an overemphasis on experience, and sometimes a neglect of more regular patterns of spirituality–gospel-patterned liturgies, regular observance of the ordinances, and worship and preaching that is oriented toward the edification of the body, not just the conversion of the lost. But for those of us who critique revivalism, we must be careful not to foreclose the possibility of true revival. The Spirit appears to be blowing where it listeth at Asbury, an institution rooted in Wesleyan spirituality. And we all need to be paying attention. And praying.

The reason why these early reports of revival are so moving, I think, is that we all have grown so cold and cynical toward the possibility of an authentic experience of the Spirit, and we don’t even realize it. Or else we don’t fully appreciate it. The Christian West is dying, withering, fracturing. Out of an apparent sense of desperation, many professing Christians are becoming more radical and divisive, drawing tighter and tighter circles of theological (and, more often, political) narrowness. Others are grasping for something, anything, to recover an authentic faith. Often we are searching for something historical, something back behind our current malaise: medieval scholasticism, Reformation- and post-Reformation-era political theology, Calvinism, etc. There is, no doubt, some utility in these arenas of retrieval. I’m interested in them as well. But for those of us whose spiritual patrimony lies, at least in part, in the Anglo-American revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, perhaps we have neglected something important. Maybe there is still some fire left in the embers of evangelical piety. God grant it.

Daniel Treier on Evangelical Theology in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Creedal Perspective (Repost)

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Daniel Treier of Wheaton College. We discuss sports heroes (3:29), defining evangelical theology (6:16), the Nicene Creed and theological method (9:10); the Ten Commandments as moral formation (12:00), the Lord’s Prayer as spiritual formation (14:16), the Trinitarian shape of theology (19:00), and more. Buy Dan’s books.

Check out Brandon’s new book: The Trinity in the Book of Revelation: Seeing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in John’s Apocalypse (IVP Academic, 2022). You can also preorder his next one, The Biblical Trinity.

Church Grammar is presented by the Christian Standard Bible and Cedarville University’s Graduate School. Episode sponsor: Speak for the Unborn. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, a co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

The Three Holy Hierarchs

In the Eastern calendar, today is the commemoration of the so-called Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil “the Great” of Caesarea (330-79), Gregory “the Theologian” of Nazianzus (329-90), and John Chrysostom, “the Golden-Mouthed,” the bishop of Constantinople (347-407). Many of us are more familiar with the grouping of Basil and Gregory with Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, the trio known as the Cappadocian Fathers. But the grouping of Basil and Nazianzen with John Chryostom is rooted in an eleventh-century debate over which of the three was the greatest theologian, a debate allegedly resolved by a vision of the three to John the Bishop of Euchaita in which they declared their unity and equality.

All three were defenders of Nicene orthodoxy and were committed churchmen (as was Gregory of Nyssa). All three were men of holiness and prayer. All three were supported by close Christian friends and family members, many of whom are also canonized in the Eastern tradition (especially noteworthy is Basil and Nyssen’s sister Macrina, a profound theological and spiritual influence on them both). But each of the three had his own unique gifting and personality, and each has his own lesson for today’s church.

Basil the pastor underscores the importance of the church. He left a monastic life to pursue a public ministry in defense of the divinity of Christ. He soon conscripted his reluctant friend Gregory to the same task.

Gregory the theologian teaches us the value the intellectual life. He is given the title “the Theologian” for a reason. Among his other writings, Gregory’s Five Theological Orations, preached to a small band of orthodox Christians while the see of Constantinople was in the hands of the heterodox, remain a classic defense of the doctrine of the Trinity.

John the preacher reminds us of the power of proclaiming the Word of God. He was given the moniker “Golden-Mouthed” because of his remarkable gifts of oratory. Few in church history have moved the church more powerfully to obey all that Jesus demands in Holy Scripture.

Men like these are an inspiration to the whole church of Jesus Christ. One need not be Orthodox or Roman Catholic to find great value in the lives of the saints. Yes, we Protestants understand that all Christians are already saints through faith in Jesus Christ. No, we Baptists will not be found asking the saints in heaven to intercede for us. But we confess belief in the communion of saints just the same. We too believe that all Christians share life together in the one body of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. We too are the inheritors of the whole history of the church. All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Basil or Gregory or John. And we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:22-23).

Considering the lives of the saints who have gone before us serves as inspiration to our own faith and life. Growth in Christian virtue takes place, by the grace of God, through habits inspired by exemplars. So, let us remember faithful pastors, theologians, and preachers like the Three Holy Hierarchs. And let us imitate their faith as they imitated our one Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 13:7; 1 Cor. 11:1).

The Trinity in the Book of Revelation with Madison Pierce

Today’s episode features a discussion about my new book with Madison Pierce of Western Theological Seminary. You can purchase the book here and also preorder my next one, The Biblical Trinity, here.

Church Grammar is presented by the Christian Standard Bible and Cedarville University’s Graduate School. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, a co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Thomas Weinandy on Christology in the Gospels and the Mystery of the Incarnation

This episode is a conversation with Fr. Thomas Weinandy. We discuss the making of the Jesus Becoming Jesus series (1:50), the Synoptic Gospels’ contribution to Christology and Trinitarian theology (11:14), Christology and Trinitarian theology in John’s Gospel (22:49), immutability and impassibility in the incarnation (42:50), and more. Read Thomas’s books.

Check out Brandon’s new book: The Trinity in the Book of Revelation: Seeing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in John’s Apocalypse (IVP Academic, 2022).

Church Grammar is presented by the Christian Standard Bible and Cedarville University’s Graduate School. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, a co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

A Few of My Favorite Things: 2022 Edition

The last couple of years I have compiled a list of my favorite book, album, and movie from those years. Here are my 2020 and 2021 picks. It’s a fun way to chronicle what I was especially moved by in a given year. My pick for the book is not necessarily time-bound. In other words, I pick from the books I read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. But for the album and movie, I try to pick one that was actually released during the year.

Favorite Book

Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis by R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman

What is the proper relationship between Scripture and Doctrine? How are we to conceive of the precise relationship between biblical exegesis and Christian dogmatics? For several decades, theologians and biblical scholars alike have explored what it would mean to reintegrate these crucial disciplines. But attempts at a reunion have sometimes been characterized by a lack of cohesion, rigor, and concrete specificity. From a certain perspective, Biblical Reasoning serves as a kind of remedy to these deficiencies. Exploring seven “principles” and ten “rules” for exegesis, the book shows how the relationship between exegetical reasoning and dogmatic reasoning is reciprocal and reinforcing, even if asymmetrical. Drawing on the seminal work of the late John Webster (but also ranging widely in the fathers, the medieval doctors, the Reformers, the post-Reformation scholastics, and modern scholarship as well), Biblical Reasoning has rightly been called a “book of generational significance” and “a master class in how to read the Bible directly and accurately.”  I hope this book gets a wide and serious reading.

Honorable Mention: Jesus and the God of Classical Theism by Steve Duby

Favorite Movie

Everything Everywhere All at Once, written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

A trippy and bizarre multiverse fantasy sets the stage for a moving dramedy about an immigrant family. It made me laugh and cry…in the theater. It skirted right up to the line of nihilism and backed off, rediscovering family as our primal meaning-maker as human beings.

Honorable Mention: Top Gun: Maverick

Favorite Album

American Heartbreak by Zach Bryan

Zach Bryan has been building a cult following for years, with homemade Youtube videos he made moonlighting from his former day job in the United States Navy. He’s one of those rare singers that punches you in the gut from the first listen. So by the time Bryan released his first major record label album this summer it felt a bit like letting a bucking bronco out of the shoot. The production is clean but doesn’t overwhelm the rawness and authenticity of Bryan’s voice. It’s a sprawling and epic production (34 tracks long!) that mixes Red Dirt country with a good dose of folk songwriting reminiscent of Bryan’s fellow-Oklahoman Woody Guthrie. Having moved to Oklahoma this summer, I’ve seen the skies that inspired a track like “Something in the Orange.” This album is an opus from the cutting edge of the authentic country music revival we have been witnessing in recent years.

Honorable mention: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief

Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

The world lost a theological and spiritual giant today. It’s not too much to say that with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI this year, the West lost something of itself. The West has lost a living connection to another world, the world of its Christian patrimony.

I have an obituary and reflection on Benedict’s life that will be published over at Mere Orthodoxy, I believe on Monday. In the meantime, I want to point you to a fascinating conversation between then Cardinal Ratzinger and the late Johann Christoph Arnold, elder of the Bruderhof Communities. The conversation launches from a discussion of Anabaptist martyrs who died at the hands of Catholic authorities. Ratzinger’s comments on the danger of relying on worldly power to do the Lord’s work seem especially relevant in our day:

What is truly moving in these stories is the depth of faith [of these men], their being deeply anchored in our Lord Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than death. We are distressed, of course, by the fact that the church was so closely linked with the powers of the world that she was able to deliver other Christians to be executed because of their beliefs. This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to repent again and again, and how much the church must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accept the truth as the only standard, to look to Christ, not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing ourselves, a way that the world will always oppose, a way that will always lead to some form of martyrdom. I believe it is very important for us not to adopt worldly standards but to be ready to take upon ourselves the opposition of the world and to learn that his truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness, and that this is truth’s most trustworthy sign. I believe this is the point at which we all have to learn anew, the only point through which he can truly lead us together.

A joy that is stronger than death. Truth expressed in love. Looking to Christ. These are some of the lessons the whole church learned from the late pope.

Lewis Ayres’s Foreword to “The Trinity in the Book of Revelation”

In honor of the release day for The Trinity in the Book of Revelation: Seeing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in John’s Apocalypse, I’m posting Lewis Ayres’s foreword to the book. Aside from the kind words about my book at the end, I was encouraged by his comments about the current rise of retrieval among evangelicals. Ad fontes!

It is a commonplace that theologians today—especially younger theologians—work in a more ecumenical mode than did previous generations. theologians who are deeply embedded in their tradition—as Brandon Smith is in his, and I am in mine!—nevertheless find dialogue partners far beyond what might seem their natural community. Those who manage to keep this balance over great hope for the future. That future is, of course, in God’s providential, benevolent, and mysterious hands—not in ours. All that those of us who attempt to argue faithfully can do is to seek to enter the truth more deeply and attempt to share it respectfully and lovingly with others.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this new ecumenical outlook is that, despite our significant and currently unresolvable doctrinal differences, many from widely divergent traditions have come to recognize that the deep Christian tradition offers us the resources needed to think through the mighty theological mysteries that confront and dazzle the student of Christian theology. By “the deep Christian tradition” I mean the history of responses of men and women to God’s call over the long centuries since the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and since the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. We will necessarily view this tradition from a variety of perspectives and with different understandings of its authority in view. But for many now, it is in turning to that tradition that we best find resources for describing God’s action among us and resources for reading the Scriptures. And from this long tradition, it is the early, vibrant centuries of the Christian church that have drawn the attention of perhaps the widest group of theologians.

Further, perhaps nowhere is this new interest more apparent than in work on trinitarian theology and scriptural exegesis. It should surprise no one that Orthodox and Catholic theologians turn to this deep tradition as they seek to articulate classical trinitarian theology, but it is noteworthy that a host of theologians in (for example) the Baptist and Presbyterian traditions have also begun to turn toward early Christian theology as a key resource for explaining and exploring God’s revelation to us of the triune life. In some ways this is no new development—there is a number of Baptist church historians who have made important contributions over the past few decades to our understanding of early Christian theology. What does seem to be new is the rise of a new generation of younger Baptist theologians who wish to use the resources of the early church to present a fully scriptural account of the divine being and economy.

Many of these figures have been caught by the sheer power and beauty of the expositions of Scripture that they have found from this period. Many have come to recognize that older narratives—in which this period sees the overcoming of true Christian faith by “Greek philosophy”—hold little water, and that early Christian theology is both deeply exegetical and philosophically engaged (rather as is Paul’s own engagement with the Jewish Scripture!). As we seek to avoid the perennial danger of reinventing the wheel in every generation, it is only right that we turn again to the figures who played such an elemental and foundational part in drawing from Scripture one of its most central themes—the inseparable unity and yet irreducibility of Father, Son, and Spirit.

It is within these contexts that Smith writes. In the first place his theology is deeply informed by attention to the heritage of early Christian thought. In the second place his goal is to read Scripture, in this case the book of Revelation, in aid of a compelling presentation of God’s self-revelation. The book unfolds as a dialogue between careful engagement with modern scholarship on Revelation and the manner in which pro-Nicene trinitarian patterns of scriptural reading may lead us to understand the possibilities of this complex and mysterious text more fully. As the book proceeds, Smith draws us deep into the text of Revelation by careful study of key passages. At the end we are left with an important challenge: to read this text anew as an integral part of Scripture’s revelation of the simple and undivided life of Father, Son, and Spirit. His work should be welcomed by all interested in the constant renewal of Christian thought.

Christmas in Darkness

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625)

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. It is always striking to me that the liturgical calendar follows up the Feast of Nativity with commemorations of St Stephen, who was stoned for his witness to the Risen Christ (December 26), of St John the Evangelist, who died in exile (December 27), and of the Holy Innocents, who were slaughtered by King Herod (December 28). The First Advent leans forward to the Second.

For all of its joy and mirth and light, Christmas doesn’t actually bring an end to our darkness. No one needs to tell us this. We know it experientially. We wake up on December 26 (or on January 6, when Christmastide gives way to Epiphany) with all of the same problems. The diagnosis doesn’t miraculously change. The devilish temptations don’t magically disappear. The dead remain painfully cold in their graves.

Christmas signals the end of the old order of sin, suffering, and death. But, taken in isolation, it doesn’t actually bring it to pass. The mystery of Christ’s nativity is connected like a chain to the subsequent mysteries of his suffering, crucifixion, and death. Christ’s birth sets him on a journey that will end in the cruel death of the cross. The death of the Holy Innocents (and then, later in the gospel, the beheading of John the Baptist) foreshadows this.

But even the crucifixion, taken in isolation, doesn’t shatter the darkness. It too, is tethered to the further mysteries of Christ’s descent, resurrection, and ascent to the Father’s right hand. But, painfully, even these glorious mysteries, as we well know, have not brought an end to our suffering. Eastertide bears its own burdens as well.

And so we come to St Stephen, the Spirit-filled deacon (Acts 6:5), wonderworker (Acts 6:8) and exegete of redemptive history (Acts 7). Even he, on this side of Christ’s ascension, is not spared martyrdom.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And herein we see the light breaking through the darkness that even the ascension does not remove from our experience: the Risen Lord Jesus, the divine-human Son of Man, temporarily suspends his session–his having sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high–and stands in honor of his first martyr. Daniel’s promise of the Son of Man coming in the clouds is given a kind of preview, at least in its first moment, at the protomartyr’s death.

Soon, this same Jesus will stand once again from his throne and return to earth to make all things new. And so, the chain will be complete: the whole mystery of Christ–his incarnation, life, death, burial, descent, resurrection, ascension, session–will be brought to a climactic conclusion in his Second Advent to judge the quick and the dead, to defeat all his and our enemies, and to usher in a new creation. And the denouement: a world of perpetual light (Revelation 22:5).