Theology in the Modern Era: Owen Strachan on The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Owen Strachan serves as associate professor of Christian theology, Director of the Center for Public Theology, and as Director of the Residency Ph.D. Program at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Religious groups sometimes get the reputation of being dry and dusty, stale and fusty. In truth, the opposite is often the case. The modern era was a wild and rollicking time, a period of great  upheaval that left the church and world changed through developments in the church’s conception of salvation, revival, and the work of the Spirit (1700–2000). Much that was settled became unsettled; much that was established was uprooted; much that was believed was rethought. In what follows, we will examine the doctrines of salvation and the Spirit in three distinct contexts: the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, respectively. In the interest of concision, we will, in several cases, track the thinking of a key thinker and leader (or two), which will allow us to understand how different paradigms developed in these periods. By undertaking this ambitious survey, we shall see twists and turns, recoveries and confusion, and explosive growth and splintering factions as we observe the passing of these eras

Historical Overview

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) is known for many reasons: ranking as a masterly theologian, serving as a president of present-day Princeton University, and being very tall. Among Edwards’s other significant accomplishments, he served at the burning center of the First Great Awakening. Edwards and George Whitefield (1714–1770) believed in preaching for conversions and turned New England upside down as they did so. When Edwards preached on justification by faith alone in Northampton, Massachusetts, (in colonial form) in 1734, God opened blind eyes to the glory of the gospel. Edwards was no shy pulpiteer; he preached long, dense, intricate sermons chock-full of rich biblical doctrine. He did not dumb things down; he did not seek to entertain anyone; his pulpit presence was minimalist, yet Edwards’s congregation listened to him nonetheless. The Spirit quickened hearts.

Whitefield did not hold back, either. He also loved to preach on justification by faith alone, the doctrine of doctrines for the Protestant Reformers(one superintended, guarded, and promoted by sola scriptura). Whitefield, like Edwards, was a doctrinal preacher. These great revivalists did not execute extreme psychological maneuvers; they did not harass their hearers or use tricks to produce results. They preached stout and staunch biblical doctrine, and they preached to both the mind and the heart.

Many of these leaders differed from the First Great Awakening’s strongly providentialist view of salvation. In the 1820s, a lawyer named Charles Finney (1792–1875) drew considerable attention for his strength as an awakening preacher. Though ordained as a Presbyterian, Finney had little sympathy for reformational doctrine. He did, however, have great zeal for the revivalist cause, and he threw himself into the work with a passion that left a permanent mark on American evangelicalism. Finney offered no glancing challenge to the idea that God had to move for mass conversion to happen. The fiery orator argued to the contrary that revival depended on human effort.

Many pastors and Christians with a heart for evangelism would commend the evident desire for the saving of sinners in Finney’s outline of his methods. His otherworldly directness, his uncompromising boldness, and his zeal for the kingdom of heaven were conspicuous. Yet his innovations matter as well. The “anxious bench” ensured that those under conviction felt great pressure in a public setting to convert to Christ. They came under the fierce gaze of the revivalist preacher, who used psychological pressure to try to edge them to renunciation of sin. It is noteworthy that Finney mentioned Christ here, for his view of the atonement centered in the balancing of the moral government of the universe by Jesus’s death. In other words, Jesus died to demonstrate the righteousness and benevolence of God. His atonement does not cleanse us, nor does it take the wrath of the Father that we deserve to bear. Rather, Christ’s crucifixion draws us back to God as God shows his displeasure with sin while calling us to receive his love.

Case Studies (Included Above)

For the Church

The Machen-Fosdick battle reminds us of the importance of two things: first, we need to champion sound doctrine because it is true and glorifying to God, and second, we should remember just how much unsound thinking has come into Christ’s church due to a missiological or evangelistic motive. Fosdick’s stated concern was the lack of the “best” men of the world. Although Christians should want all men to be saved, we must never allow our missiology to rework our theology. Our theology, by contrast, is our missiology. Just because we have a good motive—wanting the salvation of sinners—does not mean that we have a blank check to draw people by any means we see fit. Our methods and models of ministry must be biblical.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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