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Understanding World Religions

Religion is the driving force behind much of what happens in the world today -- particularly when it comes to the "big three" religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious differences have and continue to spark wars, create nations, and spawn ongoing conflict down through the centuries. No matter what religion you adhere to (or even if you claim that you don't adhere to any religion at all), you need to have a basic understanding of the world's religions in order to understand what is happening in the world today so that you can be better informed and a more useful citizen of your nation and of the world. Without some knowledge of religion, you will not understand the underpinnings of what is happening in an increasingly global society.
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Jan 28, 2015

Our quote for today is from Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Evangelical Christianity" 

Evangelicalism is a movement in Protestant Christianity that began in the twentieth century as a response to changes in the beliefs, or doctrines, of some Protestant churches, especially with regard to the Bible's authority. 

Modernism, and more recently postmodernism, have influenced the thinking of many and cast doubt in their minds about some scriptural teachings. While there is a broad range of belief within Protestantism, some see the Bible as an ancient, error-filled human record of religious experience rather than a divinely inspired revelation from God. As a result, they reject one or more foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. 

For example, some dismiss "Jesus as the only way to salvation" as arrogance. Some consider the need for salvation at all from "God's wrath" to be an abhorrent myth. They might say Jesus is a remarkable human teacher, but not the divine-human Son of God. They deny his miracles and his resurrection and, in the extreme, question whether he actually existed as a historical person. And, despite all these denials of historic orthodoxy, many who hold these beliefs still consider themselves Christian and remain active in churches and seminaries. They find the content of Jesus' teaching to be mostly a useful source of principles for right living. 

Catholicism has been impacted by the same philosophical and worldview trends, and many today, including some leaders, hold one or more of the above beliefs. Certainly this has brought dissension and debate into Catholic scholarship and writing. Unlike some Protestant denominations, though, the Roman Church's official teachings still reflect a more traditional stance with regard to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

How did these changes come about? In seventeenth-century Europe, new ways of thinking produced what is now called the Enlightenment. One key Enlightenment facet was its emphasis on rationalism, the elevation of human reason in determining truth. If something could not be understood by the human mind, it was rejected as false. 

There were positive aspects to rationalism—for example, the development of the scientific method—but it also rejected revealed religion and made humankind the ultimate authority. By the eighteenth century, a different way of studying the Scriptures emerged. Biblical accounts of miracles were assumed to be fictitious, since Europeans of that era couldn't produce miracles themselves. Biblical statements about Jesus' deity and resurrection were dismissed as the fabrications of "primitive" human minds in the ancient world. The worldview that evolved from these ideas was called modernism. The macroevolutionary hypotheses brought forth by Charles Darwin's theories further influenced modernism's focus on the material world and rejection of the supernatural. 

Initially, these humanistic ideas were limited to the educated elite and had little impact on the masses of European and North American Christians. But theological education would come to be influenced by modernistic views, and some Christian leaders became convinced that the church needed to change or else the faith would become irrelevant and die out. This process, over several decades, led some entire denominations to alter their doctrinal statements toward a modernist viewpoint. 

The reaction by those who still believed in the Bible as God's authoritative Word was strong. Dozens of new denominations were formed as churches split over belief in Jesus' virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. By the 1920s, the labels “liberal” and “fundamentalist” were used to identify these two Christian groups. As modernist teachings grew in long-established seminaries, fundamentalists (so-called because they held to the "fundamentals" of biblical Christianity) started a number of Bible schools around the United States. 

By the mid-1940s, fundamentalists had become increasingly disengaged from American society, separating themselves even from other Christians who did not believe exactly the same way. Some within fundamentalism became uncomfortable with this rigidity and negativism. (Fundamentalists, it was said, "were known more for what they were against than what they were for.") While still holding to biblical fundamentals regarding Christ's person and work, this new movement sought increased cooperation with other Christians, engaged in the pursuit of scholarship (the fundamentalist movement had become strongly anti-intellectual), and generally became more involved in society. Those within this group came to be known as evangelicals. 

Today, “evangelical” has become an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the Bible's accuracy (its inerrancy) and full authority. They also believe in the necessity of being born again for salvation. 

The term is used broadly. It may describe an individual, a local church, or an entire denomination. It's used to identify subgroups within larger denominations, like the "evangelical wing" of the global Anglican Church. There are evangelical organizations, such as the Evangelical Theological Society. The World Evangelical Alliance is made up of more than a hundred national evangelical associations representing thousands of denominations, hundreds of thousands of churches, and approximately four hundred million Christians. 

As the movement has grown, it's become more diverse nationally, ethnically, and culturally. Since modernist or liberal churches no longer believed in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, most twentieth-century missionary work was carried out by evangelicals. Although Pentecostal Christianity had earlier and different origins and for decades remained separate from evangelicalism, the two are often considered part of the same branch of Christianity. Now almost all non-biological growth in Christianity, globally, is in the evangelical-Pentecostal wing.  

Now, for An Extra Minute 

What's in a label? Terms can be perplexing. In contrast to liberal Christians, evangelicals are often labeled conservative. But liberal may refer to politics as well as theology, or it may mean a person is generous. Someone who's theologically liberal may be politically conservative, and vice versa. Denominations that generally have liberal theology in the sense described above are also known as conciliar, mainline Protestant, and ecumenical. Denominational labels aren't always reliable guides either. For example, some Presbyterian denominations are conciliar/liberal and others are evangelical/conservative. And despite the name, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., isn't evangelical, doctrinally speaking (there are individual ELCA churches that hold evangelical views). It's more reliable to listen with discernment to the preaching and teaching of a local church than to go by any label. 

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