Spurgeon’s Witness and the Plight of Contemporary Evangelicalism: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 4)
And we’re coming to a close. Charles Spurgeon is by no means a flawless witness. The advent of fringe sects such as the “5-point Spurgeonists” (See: Pulpit and Pen, etc.) have demonstrated the futility of orienting whole theological systems off of the work of any single theologian or Church figure. “Calvinism,” with its variegated pool of sources, is less-than-susceptible to this particular crack-in-the-asphalt, although no one theological system is without blemish. Nevertheless, it ought to have been exceedingly self-evident throughout this series that a sustained, immersive study of his ministry and the underlying theological propositions that drove it would be in our better interest. The fault-lines in his theology are not ambiguous. His ecclesiology was insufficiently robust. Although he managed to transcend the hyper-individualism that held Victorian Britain in its oppressive grip, he nevertheless allowed it to influence him away from a more satisfactorily plain reading of the new testament vision of the Church—the list goes on. But those fault lines, substantial as they are, do not diminish what he has to offer.
Although propositional theology has waned in popularity over the last half century, Spurgeon stands as a walking indictment against those who have sought to snuff it out of contemporary Evangelicalism. All of the charges leveled against it—that it breeds a cold, unfeeling demeanor in those who hold it, that it shuts down all opportunities for ecumenical activity, that it inclines believers away from social action by needlessly occupying them with intellectual scuffles, that it kills community between Christians of diverse stripes, and, among other things, that it fosters coercive measures to suppress theological dissenters—are found dead on arrival when applied to Spurgeon. He was vociferously opposed to the what he considered to be the peripheral flamboyances of Roman Catholicism but regarded them as brothers and sisters and unabashedly sought guidance from Catholic devotional writers.
He espoused a warm, emotive gospel proclamation that beckoned any and all to the rest of God. The finer points of theology that furnished his proclamation were not extraneous; they were the substance of his proclamation. His Evangelical Calvinism, his devotion to the supernatural authority of scripture, etc. were not baggage that came along with an otherwise nondenominational message of comforting vaguery. They were his message, and they were more tangibly love-wrought than anything drawn from the fashionable obscurantism emanating from the modern Evangelical establishment.
We can learn from Spurgeon that the challenges of the post-modern age are best met with a robust orthodoxy. After years of thinning out the distinguishing marks of the Christian religion in an effort to render our gospel proclamation more palatable to an increasingly post-Christian culture, it has ironically turned out that we need what Glen Stassen calls “a thicker Jesus.” We’ve come to hold the letter of Paul in suspicion, based on the assumption the he was part of some DaVinci Code-esque theory to depoliticize Jesus by turning Him into a Greek god—or something along those lines. Spurgeon’s testimony reminds us that an unrelenting faithfulness to Biblical authority will render us subversive. If Spurgeon read his Bible right, Paul was the force that cemented the subversive Jesus into the memory of the Church and defended His memory against the amnesiac tendencies of Judaizers and proto-Gnostic hecklers.
Likewise, we have plenty to learn about the importance of integrative theology. One unfortunate by-product of higher criticism’s growing prominence throughout all corners of the Church has been an obsessive attention-to-detail at the expensive of the bigger picture. The most troubling of the conclusions at which our 19th century German forefathers arrived can be pretty well traced back to F.C. Baur’s lack of imagination. Theological trends tend to ebb and flow according to the intellectual climate of the age, and the 19th century proved to be discouraging time for Orthodoxy, not because the foundations of the ancient faith had eroded, but because the men and women (mostly men) to whom we entrusted the keys to the hermeneutical kingdom had a keen eye for details but a hopeless deficiency in the sort of imaginative qualities required to interpret details well.
These controversies only arose at the tail end of Spurgeon’s life, and in any case he was in no condition to approach them earnestly. The stand that he took against higher critical methodology has not aged well, and those seeking to identify as contemporary Spurgeons, waging brave battle against the modern downgrade bear little resemblance to their hero. As a people who live in the middle of a peculiar standstill within the Evangelical world between differing strands of inerrantists, we would do well to emulate Spurgeon’s remarkable aptitude for integrating diverse sources into a coherent theological synthesis. By all accounts, the prince of preachers bore the greatest similarities to the puritan tradition. But we would be remiss to neglect the very real influence of Madame Guyon upon his thought. His disdain for the extravagancies of Roman Catholicism did not prevent him from appropriating that which was truthful in the scholarship and devotional literature of his would-be opponents.
Had he been in a more able state when the so-called Downgrade Controversy, he might have been able to prevent the mass apostasy that took place. Were Spurgeon to have put his imaginative prowess to use in sifting through the admittedly dry literature coming from the higher critical machine, he may well have come to the conclusion that the broad majority of conservative Evangelicals now hold: that the tools introduced by Wellhausen and friends are actually pretty useful so long as you can reason through the data you happen upon. In any case, he did not, and the heated propaganda churned out by both sides probably played a big part in preventing him from doing so. But with his penchant for integrating new and often stultifying information into a coherent ‘big picture’ in view, we are well equipped to confront even the more controversial edges of contemporary biblical scholarship and integrating what is truthful there without making a shipwreck of our faith.
Finally, we have plenty to learn from Spurgeon about the sheer depth of our dependence upon Christ as the inaugurator and completer of our ministry efforts. You could fill Noah’s Ark with all of the books that have been written over the last several decades about the various methodologies employed by Spurgeon and his compatriots at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. These are often helpful but can only tell so much of the story. When surveying Spurgeon’s own comments about his success in ministry, what emerges is a radical dependence upon the Spirit of the Christ with whom He communed to actualize the ministries for which He had commissioned him and his church family.
If a substantial amount of the work undertaken by Evangelical churches today feels empty, it is likely because although we have strategically built our church staffs with the Meyers-Briggs team development methods in mind, and crafted our programs specially around the trends we have noticed in our own communities, and paid close attention to Pew Research statistics and Barna studies to familiarize ourselves with the mind of our friendly neighborhood unchurched Mary(s) and Harry(s), we have carried out our best laid plans with the Spirit of Christ as an afterthought at best. The old saying, “is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” is as cheesy as it gets, but it’s also poignant.
Divine unction arises out of radical desperation for the Spirit of God to carry out the work of God and a willingness to become tools in his invisible hands. This desperation is visible in every line that Spurgeon wrote, and until we surrender ourselves, along with our resources and our status in contemporary western culture, we will see nothing like the revival that God was pleased to bring about in the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.