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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

A brief and friendly critique of the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith

In response to Peter’s post about the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith, I would suggest that this sort of statement is designed for a particular purpose and does it admirably. An organization like the EA needs to define a doctrinal position that is acceptable across the spectrum of evangelical churches in the UK and cannot really be criticized for not being sufficiently imaginative or radical. Having said that, I can’t help but take issue with most of the statements in one way or another - on the understanding that this is not simply a negative exercise, a mean-spirited swipe at mainstream evangelicalism. It reflects the fact that even these magisterial pronouncements are unavoidably part of a larger conversation. There are, in fact, some indications in it which betray a certain provisionality - I get the impression that there are issues that have not been fully thought through, background debates that have not been fully resolved.

1. The one true God who lives eternally in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I still have problems with explicitly trinitarian statements of the being of God. No doubt they are theologically justified and necessary, but should they really be made normative in this way, given such prominence in a statement of faith? They are hard to account for biblically and if nothing else, we lose something of the narrative dynamism of Father, Son and Spirit as they are encountered in the Bible. If we make this sort of abstract and theoretical statement normative for faith in God, what sort of faith will result?

2. The love, grace and sovereignty of God in creating, sustaining, ruling, redeeming and judging the world.

Something could have been said here about the value of the world that has been created. It’s a shame that the last word is ‘judging the world’. If we are going to bring eschatology into it, the last word ought to be ‘recreating the world’ (as in statement 11), which allows us to reaffirm God’s compassionate commitment to his creation in all its fulness.

3. The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God – fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.

To label the Scriptures in toto as ‘the written Word of God’ acknowledges in general terms the seriousness which we attach to the Bible. Fair enough. But it also creates the impression that the Bible is a consistent and homogeneous discourse through which God addresses humanity today. We also believe, surely, that the Bible is complex, difficult, and confusing, the product of a long and obscure historical process, a profoundly human testimony to a people’s struggle with their idea of God. Why not confess this aspect of the church’s engagement with the Scriptures?

4. The dignity of all people, made male and female in God’s image to love, be holy and care for creation, yet corrupted by sin, which incurs divine wrath and judgement.

The phrase ‘incurs divine wrath and judgement’ seems unnecessarily theological in tone, and, more importantly, too abstract. In the Bible the wrath of God is no less a historical notion (here’s my eschatology showing through) than the dignity and well-being of people - it is experienced in history, through the concrete circumstances of life. This way of stating things reinforces the idea that ‘salvation’ is a matter of individuals avoiding condemnation and getting to heaven. It becomes rather detached from the much more worldly and humanistic idea of the ‘dignity of all people’.

5. The incarnation of God’s eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ – born of the virgin Mary, truly divine and truly human, yet without sin.

Fine as an encapsulation of post-biblical theologizing, but it presents all sorts of problems from a biblical point of view. Within the New Testament this perspective on Jesus is at best marginal and ambiguous. The Gospels do not, in my view, present the virgin conception as an argument for incarnation. The argument about the sinlessness of Jesus is only meaningful within the context of his vocation as messiah, not as a general ontological attribute. Why not use genuinely biblical language to speak of the exalted Christ?

6. The atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross: dying in our place, paying the price of sin and defeating evil, so reconciling us with God.

Similar problems here. Where is the Jesus whom we see in the Gospels, the Jesus who lived as well as died? Where is the prophet from Nazareth who was so passionately engaged in the fate of a nation under divine judgment? Indeed, where is Israel at all in this statement of faith? Why is there no mention of Abraham? Why is nothing said about why this people was worth dying for?

7. The bodily resurrection of Christ, the firstfruit of our resurrection; his ascension to the Father, and his reign and mediation as the only Saviour of the world.

I would quibble with the phrase ‘firstfruit of our resurrection’ because it is potentially at odds with the final statement about the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. I would argue that Christ is the firstfruits of those who will participate in the ‘first resurrection’ of those who suffer during the period of God’s wrath upon the Roman world (Rev.20:4-6). Our resurrection is different from this: we will not be raised to be with Christ in heaven at the right hand of the Father but to be part of a new creation - but that’s another story.

8. The justification of sinners solely by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

This is fine as a statement about ‘justification’. The question is whether the notion of justification is as central to salvation as this statement suggests. The next question is what do we mean by salvation. Again, I feel that this formulation reinforces the individualism of modern evangelicalism and obscures the reason for being saved, for being incorporated into the people of God.

9. The ministry of God the Holy Spirit, who leads us to repentance, unites us with Christ through new birth, empowers our discipleship and enables our witness.
10. The Church, the body of Christ both local and universal, the priesthood of all believers – given life by the Spirit and endowed with the Spirit’s gifts to worship God and proclaim the gospel, promoting justice and love.

Can’t help feeling that ‘promoting justice and love’ has been tagged on the end to please the emerging church crowd.

11. The personal and visible return of Jesus Christ to fulfil the purposes of God, who will raise all people to judgement, bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost, and establish a new heaven and new earth.

This sounds a bit muddled to me. I have expressed elsewhere my doubts about how we have understood the ‘second coming’ of Christ. I am glad, however, that mention of a new creation has been included, even if as something of an afterthought. There are indications here of how the whole thing might be reconstructed so that what is central to our confession is not the salvation of the individual but the mission of God realized through a people.

One other thing that we might consider: how different would this read if it was written not as an in house document for the evangelical church (implicitly in dispute with other parts of the church) but as a statement for the world? How would we want to summarize and explain our faith to normal people who find the language of ‘three persons’, incurring wrath, ‘truly divine and truly human’, ‘atoning sacrifice’, ‘mediation as the only Saviour of the world’, ‘justification of sinners’, etc., at best meaningless and at worst absurd. Why not make some sort of public statement of faith normative for the belief and practice of a missional church rather than this sort of abstruse and highly technical document? It might help us to get out of the mental rut we have got stuck in with our statements of faith.