Conversion October 28, 2015

What is conversion? There are different answers, argued Jerald Brauer in a 1978 essay on conversion in the Journal of Religion. He contrasts Puritan notions of conversion with those of later revivalist. Over several centuries, conversion was converted from a more corporate change to an individual experience, and from a sacramental to an a-sacramental experience.

According to Brauer, Puritanism already represented as “subjectivizing” of the original Protestant notion of conversion. Puritanism attempted to maintain a “delicate balance” between “objective and subjective, communal and individual.” But this effort at balance had “radically divergent consequences”: “If it is viewed from the perspective of the magisterial reformation worked out by Luther and Calvin, Puritanism can be seen as a gradual subjectivizing of the Reformation faith” (240).

He sees this subjectivization in the imagery of pilgrimage and spiritual war that are common in Puritan accounts of conversion: “Emphasis was placed on the subject, the major character, the one who underwent the pilgrimage and fought the good fight. This tended to shift the center of attention from the givenness of God’s work in history to man’s personal religious experience. Further subjectivization was introduced into the Reformation tradition through the Puritan emphasis on conversion. Throughout Christian history the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the symbol of the Spirit’s presence have been closely connected with the doctrine of conversion. It is interesting to note that Puritanism paid greater attention to that doctrine and wrote more on it than any movement in Christian history” (240).

For Puritans, the individual’s conversion was the foundation of the covenant community, and this set the direction for Puritan development: “Though Puritanism employed the doctrine of conversion for both the sake of the individual’s salvation and the purpose of building up a covenantal community in order to transform an entire nation into a holy commonwealth, the very fact that the individual’s conversion was the base of all of these possibilities marked a special direction in Puritanism. Inevitably the Puritan was led to pinpoint the moment of conversion and usually did so. Many accounts of the conversion experience in the hagiographies, autobiographies, and diaries name the season of the year, the date, and frequently the hour of the conversion experience. This represents a movement beyond the classical Reformation concern for conversion as exemplified in Luther and Calvin. Though conversion in Puritanism was still very much in the context of a nurturing community with its clergy and sacraments, it was moving in the direction of transforming the nurturing community into a converting community” (241).

Revivalism’s notion of conversion was more individualist and subjectivist still: “If Puritanism tended to over-emphasize conversion from within the classical reformed doctrine of justification-regeneration, Revivalism took further steps which eventually excised conversion from a carefully constructed doctrinal context. . . . Historic modes of thought developed by centuries of Christian history, both symbols and discursive thought patterns, were subsumed under the centrality of the conversion experience. It became the touchstone in terms of which all doctrines, traditions, offices, and institutions were to be tested. This represented a further shift in goal from concern for the covenantal community with its modes of thought and action and from the holy commonwealth, to a primary concern for the individual’s conversion” (242).

This is familiar, though admittedly controverted, territory. Brauer is, I think, fundamentally right, and over time the revivalist notion of conversion has become the doctrine of conversion, driving earlier, more churchly notions from the field. And this remains one of the key fault lines and challenges of contemporary Evangelical Protestantism.

(Brauer, “Conversion: From Puritanism to Revivalism,” Journal of Religion 58:3 [1978] 227-243.)

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