THE PERSONAL SAVIOR
RECLAIMING THE LANGUAGE OF PIETY
Young Evangelicals are on the move, politically, theologically, spiritually. They move in different directions, but their point of departure is the same. All are reacting to the Evangelical or Fundamentalist tradition of their upbringing. Much attention has been paid to where they are heading, but scant attention has focused on this equally intriguing question: Will Young Evangelicals put their past behind them in the sense of repudiating it, or of seeing it as a starting-point beyond which they must grow? Many would seem to intend the latter. Yet it is often difficult for them to demonstrate any thread of continuity with their revivalistic or pietistic background. Wes Michaelson attests this.
I think that's typical of many people who go on this journey from an evangelical or fundamentalist background. The language, the terminology, so many things so totally turn one off. We still want to put our roots down there.... But I had to look to other places... than my evangelical tradition for making the inner life, the spiritual life, the presence of Christ, vitally real. I found it primarily through a Catholic tradition. 1
Richard J. Mouw speaks of a similar journey, though one more in the direction of mainline confessional Protestantism: "neo-evangelicals usually become 'progressive’ by moving in the direction of confessionalism.” 2 As they move in this direction, Mouw asks, Will they be able to maintain any Evangelical distinctive? “What, finally does the evangelical label come to? For many of us, it comes down to the fact that there are basic elements in the evangelical understanding of the Christian message and life style that we cherish and do not find adequately treated in nonevangelical Christian groups.”
Among these Mouw includes “an emphasis on the need for a 'personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of one's life”3 Interestingly, both Michaelson and Mouw raise the question of the language of evangelical pietism. Michaelson grudgingly admits that it “turns him off," whereas Mouw see s enough value in it to want to retain it in a new synthesis. But common to both writers is a certain unease. Both are reluctant to leave the rhetoric of pietism behind, but neither seems to know quite what to do with it.
In the present essay we will attempt to point the way toward a solution to this difficulty. We want to indicate some important difficulties entailed in conventional evangelical spirituality, together with some ways in which key concepts might be broadened. If this effort is successful, we may have
helped clear the way for a reclamation by Young Evangelicals of the religious language of their forebears.
Let us begin with the phrase, central in importance, mentioned by Mouw, the claim to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Just what does this slogan mean? How is it possible to have a "personal relationship” with an individual of the past? Granting that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today, how can one “relate" to him as to another flesh-and-blood individual? When asked what their “personal relationship” terminology refers to, Evangelicals will often press for an apparently literal application. Much of the rhetoric suggests literal interaction between individuals. A beloved hymn describes how “he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own,” etc. A common evangelistic slogan defines Christianity as “not a religion; it's a relationship.” Robert Boyd Munger’s ingenious My Heart Christ's Home 4 reinforces this understanding in the minds of many readers who take his parable in a pretty literal sense.
A couple of problems immediately become apparent. Everyday relationships between individuals depend upon conversational interaction available by sense impression. Conversations may be carried on at long distances and with time intervals (say, by letter or telephone), but there must be such interaction. Is Jesus available in this way? Obviously not. When someone claims that “I speak to him in prayer; he speaks to me through the words of the Bible, 11 this is really metaphorical.
A related difficulty is the individualized, concrete picture of Jesus implied in such a claim to have a personal relationship with him. If the risen Jesus is still another individual like ourselves, like he was during his earthly life, we are forced to ask absurd questions like, Has Jesus gotten older and wiser in the two thousand years since the Incarnation? Or, how does he listen to all those prayers at the same time? (Of course, New Testament texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:45 and Ephesians 4:10 would make the whole idea seem inappropriate from the outset.)
Richard J. Coleman at least sees the first problem here.
A personal relationship with Jesus is different [from ordinary personal relationships] insofar as we will never have the opportunity to know him in his earthly existence. The relationship must therefore be formed on what we can learn about Jesus secondhand [by reading the gospels] rather than by a firsthand experience; but this is no different from forming a personal relationship with someone by correspondence. 5
Though Coleman does sense the difficulty, his solution is inadequate. As we have suggested, correspondence by letter is in fact firsthand experience of another in that he is communicating specifically and intentionally with you. Coleman's suggestion would also imply the possibility of "personal relationships" with Julius Caesar by reading the Gallic Wars, or with Abraham Lincoln by reading Sandburg's biography of him. The point is not that Coleman has not said anything significant. It is merely to point out that he has failed to justify the use of "personal relationship'! language for the kind of religious experience he means to describe, ie., an "encounter" with the Jesus of the gospels.
Let us dwell a moment upon the real religious value in Coleman's argument. His idea is very similar to that of nineteenth century theologian Wilhelm Herrmann. Herrmann contended that Christians experience the power and love of God only in the New Testament's portrayal of the "inner life" of Jesus. As we are transfixed by the picture of the personality there revealed, we are flooded by the grace of God. According to Herrmann, "the communion of the Christian with God" is mediated by our loving apprehension of the portrait of Jesus in the gospels. However, Herrmann vigorously denied that this devotion is tantamount to a "personal relation with Christ”6 which pietists even in his day claimed to have. This latter, he said, is an illusion. The apprehension of a portrait of someone's "inner life" is not a relationship with that person himself. Coleman's argument really amounts to Herrmann's view that the New Testament picture of Jesus is essential to Christian devotion. This would certainly be a valid point worth making, but since there is no interpersonal give-and-take, "personal relationship” language is not appropriate as Coleman tries to argue.
Several UFO cultists and Spiritualist mediums have claimed that Jesus literally communicates with them via internally "heard" voices. But evangelicals do not seem to want to make Jesus into a disembodied "spirit guide" or "space brother.” An analogous phenomenon that is accepted in Christian circles concerns occasional visions of Jesus. These are granted to certain individuals, usually Pentecostals. In these appearances, Jesus actually speaks to the individual, giving a particular direction or word of comfort.
Again, we may gladly recognize the spiritual value of such occurrences, but this kind of thing is not likely to be what evangelical pietists refer to with their "personal relationship" language. They themselves recognize such experiences to be rather extraordinary, different from that "relationship!' enjoyed daily by all believers.
Perhaps the pietists mean that they experience the reassuring presence of a divine providence in their lives. This is obviously true; there is no question that they experience this. But again we have to ask if "personal relationship" terminology is appropriate for this. One may pray to such a divine presence, and one may even interpret general feelings of comfort and reassurance as a response to one's prayers. But is this really the kind of give-and-take interaction between individuals implied in a “personal relationship”? Along the same lines, it must be asked why such a spiritual presence is to be characterized as “Jesus Christ”? Do not all religious people of whatever persuasion claim to experience such a divine presence guiding and comforting them? Obviously in principle there cannot be much continuity between the concrete individual known historically as "Jesus Christ” on the one hand, and such a rather amorphous benevolent “presence” on the other. One may reply, “Yes, but it is through faith in Jesus Christ that I experience this 'benevolent presence.’” Once again we have an altogether valid, and valuable, point here. But it could more accurately be communicated with language like “I know God through Jesus Christ.” This phrase, unlike the phrase “I have a personal relationship with Christ,” has a solid exegetical foundation in the New Testament. And like the latter, the former is already a venerable part of evangelical vocabulary.
A final inadequate meaning of the Evangelical claim we are discussing is what might be called the “figment of faith." Many Christians, in effect, mentally imagine a picture of Jesus listening to them. They pray to this imagined figure and even think themselves to receive some kind of answer or guidance from it. This phenomenon is perhaps most analogous to that of a child’s "imaginary playmate” with whom he pretends to frolic when there are no flesh-and-blood playmates about. Herrmann comments:
It is of course not difficult for an imaginative person so to conjure up the Person of Christ before himself that the picture shall take a kind of sensuous distinctness...Someone thinks he sees Jesus Himself, and consequently begins to commune with Him. But what such a person communes with in this fashion is not Christ Himself but a picture that the man’s own imagination has put together. 8
C. S. Lewis describes a similar state of affairs in The Screwtape Letters. The veteran demon describes a Christian at prayer:
If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many... ingredients. There will be [e.g.] images derived from pictures of [Christ] as He appeared during... the Incarnation. . . . I have known cases where what the [person] called his "God" was actually located. . . inside his own head. . . . [Such a Christian will be] praying to it- -to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. 9
The line between faith and imagination has been completely erased in Ruth Carter Stapleton's "inner healing." Here, the troubled are told to envision a past trauma, then to imagine Jesus coming into the scene to, e.g., reconcile the participants. The result is an "inner healing" effected by an avowedly imaginary appearance by Jesus! But if this were not reductio ad absurdum enough, we need only turn to the InterVarsity booklet Homosexual Struggle to find the personal savior becoming an empty screen onto which any trial of the believer may be projected. On the strength of Hebrews 4:15-16, the author "realized that if Jesus 'in every respect has been tempted as we are, I then that must include homosexuality!" Yes, Jesus “knows from personal experience what homosexual temptation feels like.” 10 So here we find an evangelical saying that Jesus was gay! And all because "nobody knows the trouble I've seen; nobody knows but Jesus."
But, abuses aside, we need not deny the religious value of even a devotional "figment of faith" if one is able to avoid making an idol of it as Herrmann and Lewis warn against. In a Tillichian sense, such an imaginary figure might truly function as a transparent "symbol" through which the worshipper encounters the Holy itself. But once such a figment is recognized for what it is, a better alternative might be sought.
Do I have any such alternatives to offer? Let me suggest two. The first is suggested by the insightful analysis of theologian Don Cupitt. 11 A familiar distinction is often made by evangelists between "knowing" and (merely) "knowing about" Jesus Christ. The idea is that the rather impersonal, abstract, and secondhand knowledge about someone is vastly inferior to personal knowledge of (i.e., acquaintance with) that individual. This is no doubt true in the realm of knowable individuals like ourselves. But we have just seen how difficult it is to place a "relationship" with Christ in this realm. Cupitt suggests that a slightly different distinction be drawn. There is a personal kind of "knowing about" that is superior to an impersonal kind of "knowing about." For instance, we may know about love theoretically, say from movies or psychology books, but it is quite a different thing to know about love from being in love. In the latter case we are not “acquainted with" love as if it were a "Thou" in its own right, but we can say we "know love" in that we know about it from experience.
In the same way we could meaningfully claim that we "know Jesus Christ" without claiming personal acquaintance with him. We could “know" him in that we truly discern and grow in the presence of his Spirit as encountered in his Word or his Body, the Church. The difference is obvious between this, and a trivial "knowing about" Christ in that we merely know, e. g., that he lived two thousand years ago.
Though Cupitt’s redefinition salvages the term "knowing Christ," it does not deal directly with our phrase "having a personal relationship with Christ." Here our second alternative can help. Let us call attention to what I believe was the original connotation of this phrase. Keep in mind the revivalistic context of its origin. Revivalists felt that the churches were full of "nominal Christians" to whom commitment to Christ was a rather abstract proposition. It was a mere religious inheritance from one's culture. "Faith" in Christ was impersonal and cold. In this context, revivalists pressed home questions like "You may intellectually believe Christ is the Savior, but do you take him as your personal savior?" Was one's relationship to Christ merely one of social convention, or was it a personal relationship? In short, the issue was not whether you related to Christ as to an individual person, rather whether you took your commitment to Christ as a matter of personal (existential) concern. The "personal" is focused on my side of the relationship, not Christ's.
Of course this element is still very much present in Evangelical rhetoric, alongside the dubious claims to know Jesus as an individual personality. We merely suggest that greater clarity would result if "personal relationship" language could be restricted to meaning "personal commitment." The phrase itself need not be discarded, as long as in using it Young Evangelicals are careful to avoid the conceptually confusing dead ends reviewed earlier.
Traditional pietists often speak of “claiming the promises," "claiming the victory" of Christ. Such Christians, absorbed in the self-discipline of sanctification, tend to focus myopically on the application of Christ's death to the private internal struggles of piety. The strong impression is given that God sent his only begotten Son, the second person of the Trinity, to earth to be crucified and resurrected just so the pietist can become a nicer guy, or have a blissful "quiet time." Witness the song by Keith Green, "My son, My son, why are you striving? / You can't add one thing / to what's been done for you / I did it all / while I was dying / Rest in your faith / My peace will come to you.”12 Or the devotional anecdote circulated among pietists:
One evening a Christian lay on his bed reading the Bible, and began to laugh for joy at what Christ had done for him on the cross. Suddenly God's voice was heard, demanding, "You mean after all the pain and agony my Son went through at Calvary, you can laugh about it?" Hesitantly but honestly, the believer answered, "Uh… yes, Father." He was relieved when God replied, "Good, because that's why he did it!"
Thus the reality of Christ is effectively limited to an energy source for individual sanctification, even for spiritual coziness.
In all fairness, it might be objected, certainly there is a larger, cosmic dimension to the fundamentalist's faith--doesn't he believe after all in the imminent parousia of Christ to judge and recreate the world? Yes, he does, but note that this schema often serves to defer dealing with worldly reality, referring it to "some glad morning... in the sweet by-and-by.” The world will be reformed only in the Millennium. In the meantime the practical function of this belief is to prompt the pietist to ever greater efforts at individual sanctification.
The whole business becomes less puzzling if we see it in the larger context of the fundamentalist worldview. Acquaintance with Evangelical and Charismatic devotional literature makes it clear that believers tend to regard all external events and circumstances as having no neutral or independent significance, but rather as being God's instruments to perfect the soul.
Whether weal or woe, God is believed to have ordained everything 13 either to teach the believer or to chastise him toward greater Christlikeness.
I believe that, probably unconsciously, the pietist does virtually the same thing with the cosmic victory of Christ. He makes it into a mere function of his pietism! Christ’s death is imagined to have been just one more instrument for the believer's spiritual growth. This is probably never explicitly stated in their literature, but it is the missing piece of the puzzle. To sum up this line of reasoning we might apply the image of a telescope. The introspective pietist tends to look through the wrong end of the instrument and reduces Christ, the object of his gaze, to tiny size, rather than using it properly to bring a distant reality into manageable view. Or to return to our earlier image of the "figment of faith," we may say that the pietists’ redemptive drama is a miracle-play acted out inside his own head.
But suppose one turned the telescope back around? A Christian might stop making himself the focus of all heavenly and earthly events (an amazingly ego-centric posture, really). Instead he might realize, so to speak, that his small planet is only one of many orbiting a greater sun, he might begin to see the same light that illuminates him, shining on other people, other areas of life and culture. Instead of grabbing all the grace for his own selfish sanctification(!), he might try to apply the gospel to the larger issues of the world around him. And who would be "minding the store" of his soul in the meantime? Perhaps now the Holy Spirit might be freer than ever to do his work, with one less would-be helper. As Bonhoeffer pointed out in The Cost of Discipleship, the true righteousness never appears when we look into our own souls; it only appears when we are mindful, not of it, but of Christ.
Finally, let us consider one more stock phrase in the vocabulary of Evangelical devotionalism, the claim to have “given one's life to Christ.” Other devotional clichés shed light on the meaning of this one. For example, "I don't want Christ to be first in my life anymore; I just want him to be my life." Or, "Of course you can't live the Christian life; only Christ can live it (through you)." Basically the idea seems to be that one gives one's life to Christ instead of continuing to live it oneself. Revivalist John R. Rice seems to advocate this sort of thing when he extols "soul-winning," or personal evangelism, in the se terms: "To be absorbed in the greatest task in the world and [to] have all one's powers, all one's energy and enthusiasm harnessed in this great work certainly does simplify the matter of living right.”14 Tim LaHaye counsels: "Never ask, ‘What do I want to do about this?’" Instead, one should somehow let Jesus make all daily personal decisions. 15 So one’s time, energy, and will are to be consumed on the altar of faith.
The poor fundamentalist is sooner or later left with scarcely any interests or amusements at all, if he takes certain "spiritual” rhetoric seriously. For there is the constant exhortation to make a “fuller" or "deeper” commitment to Christ, and to put down every "idol” remaining in one's life. These terms are not specifically defined; they need to be general so that each individual may let the Holy Spirit convict him of what fuller commitment will mean, or just what favorite possession or pursuit or relationship is a "stumbling block" to spiritual growth. Now what happens to the zealot who is pretty much selfless already? What “idols" are left for him to smash? In reality none, but he must go on smashing, so eventually every innocent thing that is near and dear to him will be fingered by his overactive conscience, and marked for destruction. Every base is covered, for if a particular pursuit must seem innocuous even to fellow fundamentalists, one still may be haunted by Bill Gothard's all-encompassing taboo “Others may, you cannot.” Thus one may feel “convicted" of a thing's sinfulness in the acknowledged absence of any reason for thinking it sinful!
All this adds up to what Gordon Allport called “the immature religious sentiment.” This kind of commitment to Christ “is not really unifying in its effects upon the personality. Excluding as it does whole regions of experience, it is sporadic, segmented, and even when fanatic in intensity, it is but partially integrative of the personality.”16 Again, this is what Paul Tillich called "idolatrous faith” which suppresses legitimate interests of the personality. True faith, by contrast, is always a "centered act" of the whole person. I have argued that what Evangelical pietists often mean by "giving one’s life to Christ" implies that one is henceforth going to sit on the sidelines and let Christ do something or other with his life. It is rather like giving someone else the keys to your car; you won’t be driving it any more. But let us experiment with a different analogy. What if “giving your life to Christ” were more like writing a book or a song and then dedicating it to someone else? Then such a commitment would imply something more like this: “I will live my life in all its fullness, enjoying my interests, and making my decisions responsibly. And the whole resulting tapestry I present to Jesus as a gift, which I hope he will enjoy as I have.”
What of our original concern? We have seen various aspects of traditional devotionalism which make Young Evangelicals uncomfortable with that piety. But we have also seen that many even of the most central beliefs can be understood in more realistic and humane ways. These beliefs when clearly defined turn out to accommodate less narrow and introspective forms of faith. The result is that Young Evangelicals may without equivocation claim to have a "personal relationship with Christ,” i.e., their commitment to Christ is intentional and sincere. They may “appropriate the victory of Christ” claiming his promises in their cultural and political, as well as devotional, pursuits. They may "give their lives to Christ," happily giving a "royal command performance" of an "act" that is their own.
Now perhaps our analysis will not persuade traditional fundamentalist critics of the Young Evangelical movement to widen their circle to include the latter. But for Young Evangelicals who find themselves in the quandary of Wes Michaelson and Richard J. Mouw, it may be a relief to know that the circle was wider than they thought, that they haven’t necessarily fallen outside it.
1 Wes Michaelson in "A Conversation with Young Evangelicals,” Post American, January 1975, p. 7.
2 Richard J. Mouw, "New Alignments: Hartford and the Future of Evangelicalism,” in Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (eds.) Against the World For the World (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), p. 109. 3 Ibid., p. 110.
4 Robert Boyd Munger, My Heart Christ's Home (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
5 Richard J. Coleman, Issues of Theological Warfare, Evangelicals and Liberals (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p. 44.
6 Wilhelm Herrmann, The Communion of the Christian with God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), p. 283.
7 I owe this comparison to my friend Jeff Gregg.
8 Herrmann, p. 281.
9 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co., 1970), pp. 21-22.
10 Nancy, Homosexual Struggle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 22; and quoting John White on p. 23 of the same work.
11 Don Cupitt, Christ and the Hiddenness of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), see chap 12, "Claims to 'Know’ Christ,” pp. 184-197.
12 Keith Green and Melody Green, "When I Hear the Praises Start,” April Music, Inc., 1977.
13 Merlin Carothers, Power in Praise (Plainfield, N. J.: Logos International, 1972), p. 102.
14 John R. Rice, When a Christian Sins (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954), pp. 122:-123.
15 Tim LaHaye, Ten Steps to Victory over Depression (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), p. 15.
16 Gordon Allport, The Individual and his Religion (New York: Macmillan Co., 1974), p. 62.
By Robert M. Price