"Born Again"

A Portrait and Analysis of the Doctrine of Regeneration with Evangelical Protestantism

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Stephen J. Hamilton
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
    , April
     2017.
     348 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783525604571.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In some ways, the discipline of systematic theology appears to be undergoing a sort of renewal. One way, in particular, is the so-called revival of trinitarian theology, and its underlying emphasis on the need for metaphysics. Another significant element is the emergence of the study of historical theology that calls for the retrieval of classical Christian divinity. Some of these manifest in movements such as Radical Orthodoxy, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Thomas Oden’s Paleo-Orthodoxy. Despite these worthy and fruitful efforts, the discipline of systematic theology has not always embraced non-theological, empirical analyses. There seems to be an enduring historical divorce—certainly a tension—between doctrine and experience.

Stephen James Hamilton’s text seeks to bridge this methodological gap between doctrine and experience by exploring the theological structure and implications of the “born again” experience within evangelical Christianity. “Born Again”: A Portrait and Analysis of the Doctrine of Regeneration within Evangelical Protestantism was originally written as a doctoral dissertation for the graduate research group “presence and tacit Knowledge” at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. It seeks to present a “portrait” of the tension between the experience of presence and the exposition of doctrine—“born again” is generally understood and known in the tradition as the doctrine of regeneration—using a three-fold structure of the theological grammar as a starting point, which is: “a radical change of one’s own person” (21), “a change of one’s status before God” (21), and “the immediate, mystical, and ultimately indescribable presence of God himself, typically identified as the Holy Spirit” (21). Born Again seeks to “understand Christian new birth not merely as a doctrine, but as the result of interdependence between doctrine and experience” (26).

The book has three parts. Following an introduction that highlights the field of inquiry, method, and the subject, part 1 consists of chapter 2, which explores the Protestant theological tradition of “Born Again” Christianity through cultural, exegetical, and historical-theological lens. Chapters 3 through 6 describe and analyze four major theological figures within the Protestant tradition whose lives and works witnessed regeneration as an experience of presence. These include Philipp Jakob Spener, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Grandison Finney.  Interestingly, these figures were all pastors, a fact that allows both the researcher and the reader to witness the tension and relationship between doctrine and experience. Discussions of their corresponding historical contexts was not only eye opening for their times, but can potentially illumine our present. 

Based on the analyses of these four major figures, part 2 engages the doctrine of regeneration within the contemporary evangelical discourse in North America. Chapter 7 seeks to develop a catalogue of theological criteria or “topography of the doctrine of regeneration” (35). Chapters 8 and 9 focus on two book-length autobiographical conversion narratives. Chapter 10 explores a set of shorter testimonies taken from Christianity Today, a major evangelical magazine. These testimonies are analyzed in chapter 11 utilizing the three-fold structure of the theological grammar (mentioned above) and the theological criteria of importance of the moment of regeneration, the role of free will, the conversion process (its patterns), its relationships to Scripture and doctrine, and friendship and the church community.

Part 3 consists of two final chapters. Chapter 11 provides a summary of the results of this study. Chapter 12 focuses on what the author catalogs as an intriguing question by Europeans—the logic and reasons behind US evangelicalism have a strong tendency to identify themselves with a specific political identity, and to what extent the “born again” experience leads to particular cultural and political beliefs. This issue demands greater attention. The absence or presence of the church in ongoing issues in the current US civil discourse demands a theological-empirical inquiry into how doctrine, or simply faith, inform citizens’s choices, views, and practices.   

The methodology employed in Born Again is commendable for four reasons. First, the work exhibits the critical need for the study of historical figures and contexts as viable avenues for the illumination of current ecclesial practices derived from theological and biblical sources. Second, it displays the gains that the discipline of systematic theology may obtain when it incorporates different methodological tools from the social sciences in order to close and bring into dialogue the traditional demarcations between doctrine and experience or theology and non-theological empirical sources. Third, the use of methodological tools demands a broader sample of autobiographical conversion narratives. The author acknowledges that his study is limited to the context of North American evangelical Christianity, thus conversion stories from Global Christianity are not a focus adding, “South American Pentecostals” and “the manifold forms of evangelicalism on the African continent” are “too wide a net for the present study” (33). However, one does not need to visit those countries or regions and conduct fieldwork and begin to gather and appreciate their conversion narratives. There are countless conversion narratives of Global Christians living inside the author’s North American evangelical Christianity. This is a viable path, and an urgent one, as the author comments. Finally, there is a critical need for studies of regeneration or conversion that document the themes of continuity and discontinuity within Catholicity. While this study was generous in its approach and tone regarding the Protestant tradition, the doctrine itself gestures towards the significance and need to consider other historical and present sources outside the Protestant tradition which can attest to this enduring tension between doctrine and experience as well as its connection to present social and political movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Escobar Arcay is Adjunct Instructor in Religion, Christian Theology, and Leadership at South Florida Bible College and Theological Seminary and Western Theological Seminary, and is a doctoral student in Divinity at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019

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