This week, I had lunch with a clergy friend, who, like me, is an evangelical United Methodist. Unlike me, he didn’t go to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary like my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology. He heard me say once that while I graduated happily liberal on most theological questions back in 2007, I changed: within a few years, I became a conservative (by UMC standards) evangelical Christian. I had what I’ve called an “evangelical reawakening,” having returned, in many ways, to the evangelicalism of my youth—only far better informed. It was nothing less than a conversion experience.
My friend wanted to hear about my journey. What accounted for the change?
Many things, I’m sure, but below are the three most important. Two of them were seeds planted at Candler itself, in spite of its theological liberalism, which later bore fruit.
Dr. Steffen Lösel
First, I took a systematic theology class (CT503) that was taught by a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel. Dr. Lösel had us study the work of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He told our class on Day 1 that one critical task of pastors and theologians is to be able to defend the faith. He said that in modernity, we can’t easily separate the work of theology from apologetics.
On that note, he justified belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on historical and scientific grounds. Frankly, this shocked me. I half-expected him to describe the resurrection as some kind of spiritual event that took place in the hearts of the disciples—a “mystery” that we shouldn’t try to solve. But no: while the resurrection was more than merely physical, it was at least physical. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered the risen Lord.
He also taught the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. While we shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity shares much in common with other religions—there is, after all, one Spirit performing the revelatory work—the revelation of God in Christ is definitive. Indeed, as Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Moreover, we’re not respecting other religions if we disregard their competing truth claims and say, “All these paths to God are equal. We really believe the same things.”
Dr. Lösel also affirmed the reality of hell and the Second Coming.
Dr. Lewis Ayres
Another professor at Candler planted an important seed in my mind: Lewis Ayres, a Patristics scholar. Dr. Ayres, an English Catholic, was a well-known theological conservative on the faculty (there weren’t many!), which I didn’t know when I signed up for his class on the theology of Augustine. During one lecture he described Augustine’s view of Satan and the demonic realm. At the time, I didn’t believe in a literal Satan, so I objected: “I don’t need the devil to tempt me to sin—I sin just fine on my own! I don’t understand what role Satan or demons play in human sin!”
He looked at me and said, “Just because you don’t understand what role Satan plays doesn’t mean Satan isn’t real!”
I remember being shocked: this very smart scholar, who more than holds his own, intellectually, alongside the faculty at this mainline Protestant seminary, believes in a literal Satan! I’m sure he wasn’t the only faculty member who did so, but he was the only one who admitted that he did—who didn’t speak as if the demonic merely symbolized evil in our world.
The third and possibly most important influence on my evangelical reawakening was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. While acknowledging the debt to resurrection-affirming Wolfhart Pannenberg (Dr. Lösel’s protégé), Wright argues that Pannenberg concedes far too much ground to modernity. Wright’s massive book, around 1,000 pages, explored historical evidence for the resurrection much more deeply. Wright argues that the evidence we possess for the resurrection is precisely the evidence we should expect if the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. Moreover, Wright wrote this and his many other academic books within the realm of critical, as opposed to evangelical, scholarship.
Reading Wright blew me away. And unlike Lösel and Ayres, Wright is a self-identified evangelical. Intellectual evangelicals? To my shame, thanks in part to Candler, I didn’t know they existed!
My point is, once I began to believe—really believe—that the resurrection happened, that the Bible is telling the truth not only about the resurrection but about the exclusivity of Christ, the Second Coming, Final Judgment, heaven and hell, and Satan, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door in order to embrace a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, I was ready to become an evangelical.
And so I did… and here I am. I can say, along with Wesley, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.” Or at least I’m trying to!