“Re-examining the Language
and Concepts of Conversion”
A Review of
Rethinking the Language and
Contours of Christian Initiation
By Gordon T. Smith
Reviewed by Chase Roden.
Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and
Contours of Christian Initiation
Gordon T. Smith
Paperback: Baker Academic 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Conversion is a concept familiar to every Christian, and one to which evangelicals in particular have historically paid a great deal of attention. Many Christians see their conversion as the apogee of their spiritual lives — not just a change of faith, but the moment in which God intervenes personally into their existence to turn their paths from condemnation to glory. For these Christians, every worshipful moment looks back to that conversion.
Despite its centrality in Christian life, conversion is a concept whose theological and historical underpinnings are often unexamined. Is the idea of a single moment of conversion biblical, or does that notion come from later interpreters? What happens in one’s conversion, and is it also to be considered the moment of salvation? What actions should follow conversion — how does the act of conversion itself influence the life of a believer?
In Transforming Conversion, Dr. Gordon Smith (former dean of Regent College, Vancouver) sets out to re-examine the language and concepts of conversion, with an emphasis on reclaiming the idea from the dominant interpretations inherited from the revivalists of the 19th century.
According to Smith the ways that revivalism gets conversion wrong are nearly innumerable; a tendency to combine salvation and conversion into a single event, an overly individualistic understanding of faith, a “punctiliar” view that sees conversion as an instantaneous moment, a poor concept of the mission of the church outside of conversion, a lack of understanding with regard to sacraments — all of these errors (and more) are attributable to revivalists, and all of them affect segments of the church today.
In his re-examination, Gordon Smith turns first to the Bible, then to historical perspectives on conversion. Specifically, he presents an exegesis of Ephesians intended to outline his interpretation of the biblical concept of Christian conversion. In this exegesis, Smith highlights not just the means or mechanisms of conversion, but the entirety of the gospel message as presented by the letter’s author; Smith admirably wants to make sure that whatever understanding of conversion we’re to get from his book is integrated into a full understanding of the Bible’s message. From here, Dr. Smith moves on to describe historical perspectives on conversion, from Acts to Augustine, to the monastics, to the reformers and the Puritans, with a brief sidebar on Menno Simons as the token Anabaptist. Although these sections are well-informed and relatively concise, Smith does not always keep the topic in sight and the desire for completeness sometimes seems to derail his train of thought. Moving into the modern era, Smith covers the revivalists (of course), Pentecostals, and even makes a detour to consider the rise of Islam and Muslims’ stories of conversion to Christianity.
Despite his understandable negativity towards revivalists and their theological heritage, Dr. Smith is extremely ecumenical. Throughout the book’s close examination of denominational differences one would be hard-pressed to find a passage where he says anything unkind toward anyone. Smith looks at the practices of not just mainline protestant denominations, but also Roman Catholics, Orthodox traditions, and Anabaptists.
Having surveyed Biblical and historical concepts of conversion, Smith concludes that the primary damage revivalism has done to Christianity — via its emphasis on a particular idea of conversion — lies in the destruction of mature faith. Biblical and historical Christianity outside of the last century have placed greater importance on how one’s life is lived for Christ as a mature believer and less on how one becomes a new believer. As a foundation on which to construct a more authentic understanding of conversion, Smith outlines the basics of what he considers the holiness of mature Christianity.
This is where the book suffers from an excess of ambition; in the process of describing a holistic view of conversion, Gordon Smith finds it necessary to outline the entirety of the Christian life. Along the way, Dr. Smith’s observations are astute and well-informed, but he ultimately tries to distill the faith into a form that all varieties Christians can stomach — while making sure that he doesn’t repeat the error of the revivalists by presenting a minimalist faith devoid of content. Predictably, Smith is not entirely successful in his attempt to describe a multi-denominational Christianity, and the later sections of this book — in which he fleshes out the details of the conversion concept in light of this generic-but-specific faith — are peppered with some strangely dogmatic conclusions, such as Smith’s admonition that a parent who is a pastor not baptize his or her own child, and a rant about the theological vacuity of PowerPoint.
In addition, this isn’t Smith’s first writing on the topic — this book appears to be, essentially, a reworking of Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation (2001, InterVarsity Press). The exegesis on Ephesians is new to Transforming Conversion, and the conversion stories offered by way of example belong to different famous believers, but otherwise the two books share many, many similarities.
Despite these flaws, Dr. Smith’s deep and broad knowledge of conversion shines through in moments of clarity. The final chapter, titled “What then does it mean to be a congregation?” is an excellent application of the view of conversion painstakingly laid out in the previous chapters, including sections on how a congregation should relate to its children and to “seekers,” how the church might restore some of the wisdom in ancient conversion and initiation practices, and even helpful thoughts on how to preach in light of Smith’s integral understanding of conversion. This book will be helpful for any believer seeking to deepen his or her thoughts on conversion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com