Book Review: Thomas Reeves’ Was Jesus an Evangelical?

One of the things that makes writing this blog tricky is the simple fact that being a product of the Anglican and Catholic world on the one hand and being in the Pentecostal world on the other forces one to live in many “tensions” to borrow a term from the seminary academics.  Some of those (albeit going in the opposite direction) can be seen in Thomas Reeves’ Was Jesus an Evangelical?: Some Thoughts About the American Church and the Kingdom of God.  Reeves is an Anglican rector in Roanoke, VA, who has come from Evangelicalism to write a book that is both challenging and dissatisfying at the same time.

Most of the book is taken up in an examination of the Beatitudes, with an introductory section to start with and some conclusions at the end.  That brings us to the first strong point of the book: his knowledge of the Scriptures and his ability and willingness to apply them in ways that are both informed and challenging.  Any barbecue of Evangelicalism will sooner or later involve looking at the Sermon on the Mount; it is doubtless the most purposely neglected portion of the Scriptures in Evangelicalism.  He starts there, and his critique is effective; one hopes that he pursues the rest of the Sermon in subsequent writings.  His interpretation of the genealogy of Matthew 1 is probably the best I’ve seen.

The second is his realisation that the faults of American Christianity are across the board.  Progressives typically seize things he points out to justify themselves and their idea, as if they have a monopoly on the Sermon’s teachings.  Reeves wisely avoids this; any ACNA man (or woman) of the cloth who has interacted with their Episcopal counterparts should know better, and he does.  In a sense Reeves comes with the assumption that both American progressive and Evangelical Christianity come with many of the same shared assumptions and are in many ways mirror images of each other.

The third is his critique of the “performance-based theology” (to use a phrase from a friend of mine in the Church of God) at both the clerical and lay levels in the church.  The predominance of that has always bothered me about the church I’m in now, although it is an effective counterweight against the inertia I’ve seen elsewhere in the church.

With the strong points are the weak ones.  The first one is his tendency towards sweeping generalisations, usually of those he is criticising but also sometimes of those he supports.  Some of that is due to his reticence in being specific about naming names of those he is either supporting or not.  That’s not bad in itself but in some cases he not only paints with a broad brush but, like a man who used to work for my father, spray paints anything that doesn’t move.

Second, he has a want of a real historical sense, either of the history he’s trying to play down or that which he’s lifting up.  To a large extent where you’re at in Christianity is determined by what history you think is important, but history (especially Anglican history) can be a messy, complicated business.  He should be aware, for example, that the whole Pentecostal movement, with the Wesleyan-Holiness one behind it, in part started as a reaction to the respectable “go down, shake the preacher’s hand and join the church” Christianity that he finds justifiably inadequate.

That brings us to the most significant weakness of the book: the solution he proposes to fix the problem.  Like many Anglicans (and others) he proposes a return to historical Protestantism, with its creeds, liturgies and emphasis on Patristic teaching.  While I think that American Christianity would be better off with all three coming to the surface more often, I don’t think that these alone will get us to the “Sermon on the Mount” Christianity that Reeves so comprehensively describes in his book.

For openers, the “historical Protestantism” he advocates for is not univocal.  There were significant differences between Luther, Calvin and the Anglican reformers, both in doctrine and in practice, and these cannot be ignored.  Reeves also ignores another important reformer–Zwingli–whose influence on Evangelicalism is enormous, including but not limited to Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology.  To present a united front based on the Reformation is easier said than done, and in any case the fact that American Christianity is traditionally Protestant hasn’t stopped the “success gospel” from being front and centre, even before the tasteless prosperity teachers of our day got going.

Beyond that, the restoration of “historical” Christianity would be enriched if it included individual renewal and encouragement of a personal relationship with God.  The alternative is to see what Main Line churches have done from the Reformation onwards: degenerate into box-checking institutions where vague assent to creeds was for most a substitute for real Christianity.  Unfortunately most of these churches–and we might as well throw in the Roman Catholic Church while we’re at it–have shown an unwillingness to put the pastoral effort into making a higher level of commitment among the laity actually work.   It’s easier for someone who was raised in that environment to see than one coming from a “performance-based” environment, but it’s true none the less.

I honestly think that this book would have been better if it had been organised as a “devotional” type of book to challenge Christians to seek change in themselves and their churches rather than an assault on certain types of Christianity.  Certainly Reeves’ treatment of the Beatitudes lend themselves to that kind of application.  And one wonders if his title Was Jesus an Evangelical?: Some Thoughts About the American Church and the Kingdom of God is really the best.   Perhaps it would be better if the title asked the question Was Jesus an American?

The answer: thank God no!

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