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.

Growing in Christ = Growing in Church: a book review

The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship by Thabiti Anyabwile

Henry Scougal, the 17th Century Scottish theologian penned a book called The Life of God in the Soul of ManThat book was instrumental in George Whitefield’s conversion and influential on the Methodist revival in Great Britain and the First Great Awakening in America.  Scougal took union with God seriously and urged his readers to pursue union with God and forsake false notions of religion; nevertheless Scougal’s vision of union with Christ in  an explicitly Christ centered way (J.I. Packer’s critique) and his vision of union with Christ was individualistic.

In The Life of God in the Soul of the Church, Thabiti Anyabwile expands on Scougal’s theme by examining the corporate, public character of union with Christ through the lens of involvement with a local church. Anyabwile is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands). He is passionate about communicating both the nature of the church as a spiritual fellowship and what the practical implications of our shared union with Christ and one another.  The book is a collection of sermons Anyabwile preached at First Baptist which explore this theme (expository sermons, mostly from Paul’s letters but two are based in texts from 1 John).

Anyabwile’s sermons are organized into two sections. In Part 1, Anyabwile describes our union with Christ and spiritual fellowship.  Like Scougal he stresses the vital necessity of union with Christ in the Christian life, but he takes great care to make sure that the Christian life is not conceived in privatized, individualistic terms. Rather our growing up in the image of Christ necessarily takes place within the context of the Body of Christ, his church.

In part two, Anyabwile explores what this looks through sermons about how we ‘apply’ our union with one another. Loving one another forms an inclusio of all his material here. He also has sermons on fellowship and the nature of Spiritual gifts,  what it means to partner in the gospel, the ministry of restoration and encouragement, suffering with one another and offering comfort, forgiving one another, singing to one another,  giving and mutual acceptance.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s treatment of his theme and the careful exposition he offers. Anyabwile’s ecclesiology is biblically rooted and these sermons are meaty. There is a lot to chew on here. Anyabwile does not simply describe what your church should be (but probably isn’t), but gives sound, biblical advice to his readers/hearers on what it means to be the church.  It is impossible to grasp the message that Anyabwile is saying here and be a passive observer. In Christ  we have fellowship with God and with one another. In Christ we have been invited into a whole way of life which is  characterized by mutual sharing, love and sacrificial care for the church and for the world.  This book may enlarge your vision about what it means to be ‘in Christ’ and what it means to be in the church.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it should have been edited to reflect the print medium. Sermons are meant to be heard, and at times this book reads like a transcript of a Sunday sermon (I don’t know if these sermons come from Anyabwile’s manuscripts or are transcribed from his delivery).  Occasionally a sermon refers to ‘this morning’ or describes what we do ‘here at First Baptist.’  I found these  rhetoric devices a little distracting. But my critique is more for its style rather than it’s substance.  I can appreciate that these sermons came out of a context, and do like that Anyabwile isn’t just spouting timeless truth but presenting the gospel with in a context.

I recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to deepen their fellowship with other believers and to those who wonder why church matters. This is a short accessible treatment on the theme.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Christian Focus Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.