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The problem of being a Christian 'enthusiast,' and of not being one

The problem of being a Christian 'enthusiast,' and of not being one

“Oh, you’re one of those kinds of Christians!”

Courtesy of Anthony Costello

Maybe you've heard this kind of snarky and condescending comment before. Or, perhaps you have never heard it. But, if you have had this said to you, how did you react? Perhaps you quickly retreated from its implied conclusion, conjuring up excuses to ensure your accuser that you most certainly are not one of those kinds of Christians. Or, perhaps you came back with a sharp rebuke instead, immediately embracing the charge, saying, “Why, yes, I most certainly am one of those,” adding perhaps for good measure, “and what are you going to do about it?” Either way, whether excusing or embracing, you walk away knowing deep down you are a real Christian, regardless of how you reacted or what was said.

But, there is a real difference about how one expresses his faith in Christ, one not entirely bound up in personal psychology, but which is rooted in historical developments and theological commitments. For several hundred years in the West, a distinction has been made between twokinds of Christians. There are Christians who seem quite hyper about their faith in God’s personal agency and immediate action in the world, and those who see God rather at somewhat of a remove from the everyday of human affairs. The former kind earned themselves a name in the late 18th century among men of a more “deistic” persuasion. The deists called this first group, “Enthusiasts.” They were Christians who believed that God, the God of the Bible, was active, indeed very active, in the everyday affairs of man. This activity included everything from miracles and prophetic visions, to direct, divine control over all social activity and political processes. These Enthusiasts truly did see God everywhere, and in seeing Him everywhere were always expecting Him to “show up” in dramatic fashion.

The other kind of Christian, the one preferred by the enlightened deist, was less enthusiastic, and less confident, about the direct intervention of the Divine in the affairs of men. This kind of Christian was more disposed toward the law-like structures that God had woven into both nature and society, and the natural outworking of those original laws. This had the appearance, perhaps, of being a more rational form of biblical faith; one more in line with the high tradition of the church, and the work of its great philosophical theologians who carefully studied and articulated the rational grounds for belief in God.

The first kind of Christian sought miracles and made bold claims about what the God of history had done in the Bible and would do again in their day and age. The second kind found it less pressing to think of such divine incursions. More important was to stay focused on what man had to do to align himself with the natural order of things, and contemplate carefully his own role in light of God’s transcendent, yet inscrutable, providence over history. Our best bet, according to these more “hands-off” Christians, was not to put too much stock in metaphysical events like miracles or to bypass normal epistemic standards via words of prophecy, but rather to study hard, be reasonable, and just try to act Christ-like. God might, in principle, still be able to act in history, but we shouldn’t hold our breath. 

For these rationalist Christians, however, Christian enthusiasts who became too confident in the “direct action” of God in human affairs were often seen as a dangerous lot. As philosopher Charles Taylor explains, enthusiast Christians, in the eyes of the “hands-off” believers, could become very “clamorous” in society, making “self-assured claims to divine inspiration” that they could rarely back-up with hard facts and reasoned proofs. Their enthusiasm indeed often became aggressive and could lead to an upsetting of the status quo, the “established order.”[1] As such deists and “hands-off” Christians who saw God working more indirectly in human affairs, developed a very distasteful attitude toward such subversive Christian elements; the enthusiasts became “a menace”[2] to society and needed to be restrained. After all, this kind of religiosity not only stretched intellectual respectability, but could lead to real trouble. Moreover, such enthusiasm could make Christianity appear unpalatable and just downright “odd” to those who had been enlightened through the advances of science and the philosophy of the day. “Superstition” and “fanaticism” were other labels 18th century deists invented to label these particularly religious Christians.[3]

The “hands-off” Christians did seem to have a point. After all, too much reliance on God’s direct interaction in the world, too much expectation to “see miracles,” and an overconfidence in “prophetic words” really have lead not only to Christians appearing odd in the culture (something that perhaps shouldn’t really matter), but also to the more serious problem of having to recover when those expected miracles do not happen, those prophetic words fail to manifest, and God’s direct intervention remains obscure. Many have lost faith over the failure of such things to take shape. Not to mention the potential for manipulation in some or all of these areas by those who are “in the churches” but not “of the Church.”

Some of this “problem of enthusiasm” of many ordinary Christians was exposed recently in the aftermath of the November 3rd presidential elections. Many prophecies were made, dreams were had, and visions unveiled about the next four years of presidential leadership. Toward the end of Donald Trump’s sojourn in the White House there were odd looking events like “Jericho Marches,” and ultimately aggressive outbursts, like those of January 6th, that sought to upset the established order (sort of). In light of these things, many “hands-off” Christians were able to sit back with some degree of smug confidence and say to themselves, or post to their Facebook friends, “see, I told you so.” The spiritual and social distance between these “enthusiast” and “non-enthusiast” camps has grown wider, indeed much wider, in just the last few weeks of our American history.

However, there is a corollary to this “problem of enthusiasm.” It is the problem of lack of enthusiasm, or apathy. “Hands-off” Christians are not exempt from warranted criticism by their enthusiast counterparts. Those who think they can safely stay above the fray by never committing to a God who truly acts in history, may be in a greater danger than the enthusiast who finds herself disappointed or confused when God appears not to act. The slip from belief in a God who acts almost exclusively through secondary causes into either an impersonal Deism, or a graceless humanism, is not a long fall, although the impact is hard. Those who persistently take the safe and well-worn path of Christian rationalism may soon find themselves doubting in the actual God of the Bible; a God who is neither otiosus nor absconditus, but active and alive in history — a real wonder worker.

As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once pointed out, in a time and place when Christian enthusiasm was at an all-time low, “And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”[4] To avoid enthusiasm in the personal activity of God may appear prudent (one of the classical virtues), but if taken too far may result in faithlessness. The enlightened Christian who is tempted to sit back and judge the Evangelical enthusiast of today, even the misguided ones, may want to carefully consider his own situation. He may want to ask himself whether his lack of enthusiasm is in keeping with a genuine biblical faith, or whether it is the very opposite of it. This might also shed light on why he shies away from the accusation of being “one of those kinds of Christians.”

[1] see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 274-275.

[2] ibid., 274.

[3] Taylor, 239.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, 111.

Anthony Costello has a BA from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and two Masters Degrees from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in Christian Apologetics and Theology. Anthony's areas of focus are Apologetics and Systematic Theology. He has published in both academic journals and magazines and co-authored two chapters in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell. He is a US Army and Afghanistan Veteran.

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