A Theology of Religious Change: What the Social Science of Conversion Means for the Gospel

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A Theology of Religious Change: What the Social Science of Conversion Means for the Gospel

David J. Zehnder

Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011 (179 pages)

Religious conversion is a topic of interest to many domains of knowledge. Historians, social scientists, philosophers, and theologians of every creed have studied and attempted to explain conversion. David Zehnder is the rare theologian--or scholar of any discipline--who has done the difficult work of crossing disciplinary boundaries to bring back the fruits of fields not his own. The title of his book, A Theology of Religious Change: What the Social Science of the Conversion Means for the Gospel, indicates that Zehnder is a net importer of ideas, and contributing back to the social sciences is not on his agenda. He is interested in the pastoral, apologetic uses to which social scientific findings can be put. But his primary task is to mine the psychological and sociological literature on conversion in an attempt to resolve one of theology's most longstanding questions: "the problem of why one person believes the gospel and another does not" (141).

This "theologian's cross" raises the question of how to reconcile the human and the divine role in salvation. Zehnder's study of divinity has given him a firm position on the matter of God's role in salvation. He subscribes to a theology of monergism--the belief that God is the only active agent in salvation--that initially drew him to the theological question of predestination, and that shapes the opening and concluding chapters on theology as well as many of his observations about the social science of conversion in the middle five chapters.

Zehnder is also willing to study the human side of conversion, and has set upon the social sciences, especially sociology and psychology, as the best way to approach the questions. Reconciling the social sciences and theology requires a theory of how those domains of knowledge relate to one another. This book takes a "correlational" approach that "holds theological and scientific claims in tension as different explanatory means that cannot directly contradict one another" (xv). This theory has its merits, but Zehnder is unable to follow it consistently because he does occasionally find that social science contradicts his theology.

Chapters 2 through 6, which present the findings of social science on various topics, all display the same pattern. A brief theological or pastoral introduction is followed by an extensive review of social-scientific literature, after which Zehnder reflects on the use of the social science for pastoral concerns and its implications for theology. The book summarizes social scientific research on religious change, transformations of individuals, parental influences, ideology, and social ties as they relate to conversion. …