Word, Sacrament & Spirit: a book review

Gordon Smith’s Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal begins with a couple of anecdotes. Smith tells about being on a bus heading to a theological conference in Lima, Peru, where he was to speak. He struck up a conversation with Chilean Anglicans and asked them what was distinctive about the Anglican church in their context. They responded,”The Anglican church in Chile is evangelical but not sacramental.” Smith silently mused, “but why do you have to choose.”(1) Later that year he was visiting a Baptist theological college in Romania before heading to a Pentecostal college. His Baptist host made clear the difference, “we are evangelical, they are pentecostal” (1-2).
5160Smith asserts that the Christian faith shouldn’t be forced into false dichotomies which place Word against sacrament or Word against Spirit. The fullness of Christian experience includes all three dimensions—it is evangelical, sacramental AND pentecostal.  Smith helps enlarge our vision and deepen our ecclesial and spiritual lives. If we are to know the grace of God fully, we need Word, sacrament, and Spirit.

Smith begins by exploring how evangelicals, sacramentalists, and pentecostals each have different approaches to Scripture.  In chapter 1, he examines John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Smith points out, evangelicals  understand the abiding life as involving time in the Word—reading, studying, preaching and meditating on it (14), sacramentalists describe how abiding in Christ involves participating in the Eucharist with a community of the baptized (14-18), pentecostals emphasize the connection between God and humanity which comes through the outpouring of the Spirit’s presence (19-20).  Smith observes, “All three, taken together are the means by which the benefits of the cross are known and experienced. The three—the 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” (21).

In chapter two, Smith walks through Luke-Acts, highlighting the immediacy of the Spirit, the devotion to the Word and the sacramental fellowship. Chapter three fleshes out how these three components belong together in a full-orbed Christian spirituality. The remaining three chapters consider in turn the evangelical, sacramental and pentecostal streams. Smith explores the insights, contributions, and practices of each stream and the ways in which they augment and inform one another.

Capital “P” Pentecostals will not be happy with everything Smith says here. He does emphasize dynamic spiritual experience—immediacy, and intimacy with God(98) and root this in Pentecost (the Spirit sent in Acts 2, and earlier in John 20:22); however, he looks to the insights of the broader Christian tradition and history in expounding on the pneumatological character of the Christian life, citing John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, but no Pentecostals like Charles Parham, William Seymour, and Azuza street, or other contemporary Pentecostal voices. Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement are spoken of by Smith in broad, general terms. What Smith is attempting to do is hold up the charismatic/pentecostal nature of the Christian life, for Christians of all stripes and theological persuasions. Without the giving of the Spirit, there is no conversion, no Word of God, no sacramental efficacy and no intimacy with God. But if you expect to hear a commendation to charismatic revivalism, tongues speaking, and the ongoing place of prophetic utterance, you won’t find it here.

Smith doesn’t just dislike hard theological/denominational categories, he himself defies such categorization. He is ordained in the Christian Missionary Alliance and is president and professor of one of their institutions (Ambrose University, Calgary), but his Ph.D. is from Loyola. He is an Evangelical in the holiness tradition who upholds the sacraments. He is a spiritual director and lover of Jesuit spirituality committed to the evangelical mission, ecumenism, and global theological education for the church. This book draws together the various strands.

I was lucky enough to audit a couple of classes with Smith while I attended Regent College. I took a course on Conversion and Transformation and a class on the sacraments, highlighting, in turn, the evangelical and sacramental streams (though in both instances he expounded the pneumatological character of each).  He has become one of my favorite authors of Christian Spirituality and he never fails to make me see things in new ways. I recommend Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal for anyone who feels like their faith has become one dimensional and wants to deepen their understanding of the Christian life. —★★★★½.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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