Shaping Christianity: From Modernism to the Global South

This paper was written for RELS 131 World Religions at Queen's University and received a grade of 98%.

This was an extremely insightful paper, Leslie. - Savoula, TA
Though nothing was actually written about Jesus at the time of his ministry, Christianity is a faith based on his life, teachings, death, and supernatural resurrection. Christian beliefs about his life and teachings are principally based on the first four books of the New Testament, commonly called the “gospels”. The gospels themselves were written down from oral transmission of stories and discourse about 40 to 60 years following the death of Christ. Theological interpretations of biblical stories are based on evidence of the Bible itself, but it is impossible for people not to bring their own experiences to them. This essay will consider how Christianity has been shaped through the various ways Christians have read the Bible in the past, first by examining the theological modernist movement and the responses it provoked – evangelicalism and fundamentalism – and then looking at contemporary matters such as the geographical shift in the centre of Christianity known as the Great Reversal, the way the Bible is read in the Global South, and the problems associated with conservative and literal readings of the Bible. In the intervening centuries since Jesus’ death, Christian sects have grown incredibly varied in their core beliefs and opinions about how Biblical scripture should be read and interpreted. Christianity has been and continues to be shaped by these varying approaches to scriptural interpretation.
The late nineteenth century brought the rise of theological modernism in mainline Protestant denominations. Modernism was the attempt to adjust Christian theology in light of modern ways of thinking by applying romanticism, evolutionary science, and higher criticism of scripture. Applied to Christianity this meant that the Bible was not necessarily authoritative for modern Christians. Scripture, it was thought, represented the earliest and most rudimentary form of Christianity and by this point, the faith had evolved over the centuries into a much more advanced experience with God (Hankins 3). For the modernist, the core of the faith was a natural experience of God made possible because God was immanent, meaning very near to human beings. Individuals had within them a natural capacity for experiencing God and needed no supernatural conversion. Modernists emphasized the incarnation, which is the notion that God was in Christ, more than they emphasized the crucifixion. They also believed that God dwelled in all humans as well as within Christ. The Bible’s authority was rivaled and often replaced by the centrality of the religious experience, conversion was deemed unnecessary since human beings possessed a natural capacity to experience God, and the crucifixion was no longer central because it had been overshadowed by the incarnation (Hankins 4). The theological modernist movement was just one of many iterations of Christianity to that point, but it set in motion the trajectory and shape the faith would take over the next two centuries.
Not surprisingly, the rise of theological modernism provoked a vigorous response that further shaped Christianity: evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a highly active, large, and growing segment of contemporary Christianity which places the “born-again” experience as the central component in a Christian’s life (Fisher 360). Evangelicalism traces its history to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and even left-wing groups of that era emphasized the “primacy of scripture and salvation by faith”. These early evangelicals believed that salvation came to individuals by faith alone, not by faith plus participation in the sacraments as the Catholic Church taught. They therefore taught that the Bible alone was authoritative, not scripture plus the church, as Roman Catholics believed (Hankins 1). Today, evangelicals continue to believe that the Bible stands above all other authorities in matters of faith and Christian living, and many ascribe historical and scientific authority to scripture (Hankins 2). While many liberal Protestants point primarily to Christ’s life as an example of faithful living, evangelicals emphasize his death on the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of humankind and Christ’s resurrection as the hope of everlasting life with God (Hankins 2). Like liberal Christians, evangelicals also see Christ’s life as an example for living, but believe the Christlike lifestyle is something that follows conversion. Evangelicals also emphasize personal morality and social justice (Hankins 2). David Bebbington, a Scottish historian, developed the following four point definition of the core tenants of evangelicalism that is often still used to define the movement: biblicism (a particular and constant regard for the Bible); crucicentrism (a stress on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross); conversionism (a conviction that lives need to be changed); and activism (the expression of the gospel in effort) (Fisher 360). Their activism entails evangelism, the sharing of the faith with others in the hopes that they will convert (Hankins 2). Like all Protestants, evangelicals practice the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper but are more concerned that the sacrament be personal and meaningful than that it be done correctly according to a book of worship (Fisher 361). The enthusiasm and willingness of evangelicals to convert others to their particular belief system has molded Christianity since the sixteenth century with the potential to continue shaping it well into the future.
Fundamentalists were also reacting to the modernist movement that sought to reconcile science and religion and to use historical and archaeological data to understand the Bible. Their response was to call for a return to what they considered the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (Fisher 361). Presbyterian conservatives at Princeton University and seminary first attempted to identify the fundamentals of the faith in 1910 in response to modernist attempts to change the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was the doctrinal creed of Presbyterians. The five defining points they identified were: the inerrancy and full authority of the Bible; the virgin birth of Christ; Christ’s substitutionary atonement; the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and the authenticity of miracles (Hankins 5). The last point was later changed by many fundamentalists to the more specific doctrine of Christ’s second coming (Hankins 2). George Marsden, author of Fundamentalism and American Culture, wrote that “fundamentalists were evangelical Christians … who in the twentieth century militantly opposed both modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed.” According to Barry Hankins, this is still the standard scholarly definition of fundamentalism (6). The term “fundamentalism”, once a simple description of a particular approach to reading Christian scripture, has become a catch-all description for ultraconservative intolerance (Jenkins 10). Perhaps then, it could be said that the fundamentalist reading of scripture has contributed to the shaping of Christianity in two ways: both the conservative return to “fundamentals” of the faith itself, and the backlash against that return.
Unfortunately, because evangelicalism and fundamentalism share many common characteristics, the distinction between them is often difficult to decipher. Fundamentalists today make up the right wing of evangelicalism and while all fundamentalists are evangelicals, most evangelicals are not fundamentalists and resist being characterized as such. The key difference is that fundamentalists are more militant and separatist (Hankins 6). At the centre of the evangelical belief is the authority of the scripture. This, however, does not mean that evangelicals agree on the Bible’s teaching in all or even most matters. To the contrary, the importance of scripture ensures that evangelicals will disagree over biblical interpretation because so much is at stake. Generally, evangelicals believe the Bible is the product of special revelation and contains what God intends for humans to know about sin and redemption. Beyond this, many evangelicals and fundamentalists believe the Bible is inerrant in matters of history and science as well as theology and Christian living. (Hankins 9). The common belief that evangelicals and fundamentalists have in the authority of the scripture, whether or not they actually agree on its teachings, constitutes a major defining force in the direction of the Christian faith.
Mary Pat Fisher writes of a geographical shift in the centre of Christianity from North America and Europe to Asia, Africa, and South America, a phenomenon that she calls “The Great Reversal.” Though contemporary Christianity was shaped largely in Europe and the North American colonies, the largest numbers of Christian adherents are now found outside those areas (Fisher 366). Christianity has been received in these societies that were not previously Christian, and expressed through the cultures, customs, and traditions of the people in that region. “World Christianity is not one thing,” says Lamin Sanneh, Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, “but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms, but in any case without necessarily the European Enlightenment frame” (Fisher 366). The assumption of Western missionaries that European cultural ways were superior to the indigenous ways as they spread Christianity to other regions tore apart existing social structures without scriptural basis. Now theologians of the African Instituted Churches reject this historical missionary efforts that separated them from their traditions claiming that they can maintain their African customs and be perfectly good Christians at the same time (Fisher 366). Because residents of Third World countries have a personal understanding of Jesus’ ministry to outcasts and the downtrodden, modern views of Jesus have been enriched (Fisher 367). In Asia, for example, the emphasis is on a Christ who is present in the whole cosmos and calls everyone to a common table to partake in his love, whereas in Latin America, Jesus is viewed as a liberator from political and social oppression, dehumanization and sin, while Africans have incorporated indigenous traditions such as drumming, dancing, and singing into community worship. There Jesus is viewed as a watchful caretaker of the people, a mediator who carries prayers between humans and the divine (Fisher 367). The sheer numerical strength in these areas will profoundly shape Christianity in the years to come, as their interpretations of the Bible increasingly become the norm.
This geographical shift in Christianity is important because Christians in the Global South are more conservative in their traditions and tend to read the Bible more literally than their counterparts in the North. As a result, Christian denominations worldwide are deeply divided on issues of gender, sexual morality, and homosexuality and debates on these issues illustrate a global division between North American and European churches who are willing to accommodate liberalizing trends in the wider society, and African and Asian churches who are more conservative. Much of the controversy is rooted in attitudes to authority and to the position of the Bible as an inspired text (Jenkins 1). Philip Jenkins suggests that if the numerical strength of Christianity is increasingly in the South, a move toward literal and even fundamentalist readings of the Bible might be expected (2). The Global South churches stress a greater respect for authority of scripture, a willingness to accept the Bible as an inspired text with a tendency to reading it literally, a special interest in supernatural elements of scripture (such as miracles, visions, healings), a belief in the continuing power of prophecy, and the veneration of the Old Testament, which is considered as authoritative as the New (Jenkins 4). Cultures that readily identify with biblical worldviews, such as those in the Global South, find it easier to read the Bible not just as historical fact, but as relevant instruction for daily conduct (Jenkins 6). In the Global South, Creationist beliefs are widely held, but interestingly, the devoted are at liberty to also believe in the principle of evolution, however literalist they might be on other biblical matters (Jenkins 12). As the centre of Christianity moves to the Global South, the prevailing conservative beliefs held there will more than likely dominate the future shape of Christianity.
The “inerrancy” of the Bible is questionable given the context within which it was written and conservative and literal readings of scripture, such as those prevalent in the Global South, have serious consequences. The first issue concerns those who wrote down the gospels to begin with: men. Jesus, in contrast to the prevailing patriarchal society at the time, preached and lived by radical ethics, calling people of all sorts, including women, the impure, and the marginalized, to eat with him at an inclusive “table fellowship” (Fisher 309). But because the gospels were written down by men, many were excluded from their view and are not reflected in the scripture. Conservative and literal readings of the Bible therefore continue to exclude and marginalize these groups today, contrary to the original teachings of Jesus. The second issue is that of translation. The gospels were originally written in Greek and Aramaic, the everyday languages spoken by Jesus, then copied and translated in many different ways over the centuries (Fisher 304) and any translation involves value judgments made by the translators themselves (Anderson 22). As an example, the construction of chapter I, verse 5 of the Song of Songs is as follows: “I am black [conjunction] beautiful,” where the conjunction waw could be translated as either “and” or “but”. Randall Bailey, an African American biblical scholar, notes that the Greek translation of the text used “and.” When Jerome translated the verse into Latin, however, he could not conceive of someone being black and beautiful. Instead, he chose the conjunction “but”. Bailey points out that translators of the King James Version agreed with Jerome and translated the verse as “dark but comely” suggesting that they could not even admit the possibility of one being black. Contemporary English versions of the Bible have yet to reach a consensus on how to properly translate the verse. The more inclusive New Revised Standard Version reads, “I am black and beautiful,” whereas the more conservative New International Version reads, “Dark am I, yet lovely.” Attitudes about colour and beauty are communicated in the verse, and these attitudes have more to do with the translators than with God. (Anderson 23). As an antidote to these issues, Northern liberals argue that both the Old and New Testament were written in a society that accepted slavery and since regulations are thoroughly culture specific, they need not bind modern believers (Jenkins 3). Societies change over time, and as the Bible is clearly not infallible nor inerrant, it is crucial to the future shape of Christianity that scriptural interpretation change with them.
While congregations in North America and Europe shrink and Western Christianity stagnates, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and adherents of the Global South are a growing and formidable force in contemporary Christianity. Though they may disagree on the specific details, in common they hold a core belief in the authority of the Bible. That said, the Christian scripture is a large and complex set of documents that is subject to both the inherent bias of those who first wrote down the oral history as well as to those who translated it from its original languages. Not only are different portions and emphases more relevant in some settings than others but Christians in different parts of the world emphasize such different parts of the scripture that it can seem as though they are not even reading the same book. It is clear that the consequences of very conservative and literal readings of the Bible are exclusionary, perhaps even harmful to individuals on the margins of mainstream society. And yet, the geographical shift in the centre of Christianity from North America and Europe to the Global South indicates that the future of Christianity looks less like the liberal, critical, and forward-thinking position of the modernist movement, and more like the return to the fundamentals of faith that it provoked. To be sure, Christianity is a faith that has been evolving constantly since the birth of Christ and its evolution is far from complete.
Works Cited
Anderson, Cheryl B. Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Fisher, Mary Pat. “Christianity.” Living Religions. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 302-376. Print.
Jenkins, Philip. “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1-17. Print.
Hankins, Barry, ed. Evangelicalism & Fundamentalism: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2008. Print.
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