Is evangelicalism worth fighting for?

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There has been a lot of debate recently about the contested identity of the evangelical movement in America. We have been aware for some time of the strength of the neo-Reformed reaction against the emerging movement. I wrote a piece a while back about the depressing war between Emergents and Reformed over the cross, just to give an example. But it is probably a sign of the strength of the backlash that it is now being directed at what takes itself to be mainstream evangelicalism. It was, in fact, a comment by Jim Hoag on a post about the Pyromaniacs’ hostility towards cultural engagement that drew my attention to Scot McKnight’s impassioned piece on the need for big tent evangelicals to resist the redefinition of the term. Daniel Kirk’s promulgation of a modest evangelical manifesto for the 21st century has also provided a timely response to the perceived lurch to the right.

Scot McKnight on ‘Shifting Evangelicalism’

Scot McKnight writes in response to a lengthy article in Christianity Today about Al Mohler and the dramatic conservative realignment of the Southern Baptist Convention. His argument is that as a result of the influence of Mohler and of the reshaped SBC the word ‘evangelical’ now overlaps to an unprecedented degree with the word ‘fundamentalist’.

Evangelicalism in America is being redefined. The generous big-tent neo-evangelicalism that began with Billy Graham is losing ground to an intellectually rigorous advancement of four or five point Calvinism, anti-evolutionism, and a complementarian disenfranchising of women. The problem for the generous evangelicals – McKnight includes himself among them – is that they appear to have little appetite for a fight. He concludes rather gloomily:

Today’s scene is not what it was. It’s a new era. When Al Mohler is on the cover of CT, when he represents the shrewd and powerful takeover of a former liberal-to-moderate seminary, when he has publicly claimed any form of evolution is inconsistent with the gospel, and when he is seen as the voice of American evangelicalism, a new world stands before the American evangelical. It’s actually an old world.

Daniel Kirk’s ‘Evangelical Manifesto’

Daniel Kirk expresses concern that the ship of evangelicalism in America is listing dangerously to the right. In what sounds like a rather despairing attempt to prevent the complete devaluation of the currency he offers an ‘alternative articulation of evangelical theology’. To be evangelical, he argues, is to be committed to the notion that the message of Jesus is good news, to scripture as the word of God, and to the task of telling the gospel story. He then offers a five point ‘evangelical affirmation for the twenty-first century’ in which he is careful not to exclude those on the Reformed Right who might disagree with the points made:

1. You can be evangelical and not believe in inerrancy. This is good news not least because it means we do not have to disregard the ‘labors of critical scholarship’.

2. Evangelicals can affirm the full inclusion of women in the life of the church, which is good news to the world ‘because it declares that the restored world into which God is inviting it does not demand subjugation of the weak to the strong, but upends the world’s hierarchical system’.

3. Evangelicals can praise the God who created a 4.5 billion year old earth, which means that ‘students of the natural world do not have to abandon their scientific knowledge to participate in the story of God’.

4. Evangelicals robustly affirm the social ramifications of the gospel because restoration encompasses all human relationships.

5. In a separate post he affirms an evangelical ‘conviction without sectarianism’ for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ.

Beyond modern evangelicalism

These two responses (there are plenty more out there) highlight what seems to me to be a very serious rift in modern evangelicalism. It would not be too difficult to draw up i) a list of the theological, practical and cultural distinctives that define the division (dogmatic-narrative, complementarian-egalitarian, proclamation-engagement), or ii) a list of the respective blogs, seminaries, churches, denominations that populate this deeply divided territory. But what is the way forward?

I would happily sign Kirk’s manifesto, but I’m not at all sure that in itself it’s going to solve the problem. I agree that a broad and generous evangelical ecumenism provides a healthier and happier framework within which to pursue the agenda of modern evangelicalism than the aggressive reductionism of the neo-Reformed movement. But we have to ask whether pursuing the familiar agenda of modern evangelicalism, no matter how passionately, is going to be enough.

There is still a very insistent question to be faced: Does moderate modern evangelicalism have the intellectual resources, on the one hand, to expose the serious theological shortcomings of the Reformed reading of scripture, and on the other, to construct a viable alternative for the age to come? I think that Kirk needs at least to add to his five points a commitment to intellectual renewal in the light both of the collapse of the implicit legitimations that evangelicalism has inherited from Christendom and of significant emerging ‘new perspectives’ in theology. The latter seems a particularly odd oversight in Kirk’s case.

Stop fighting over the wheel for a moment and look what’s down the road

It concerns me that the reaction to the fundamentalist resurgence represented by McKnight and Kirk does not take into account the longer term impact of the progressive marginalization of the church in the West. The evangelical movement in America cannot afford to be so absorbed in this immediate internal conflict – serious as it is – that it fails to notice the massive crisis of irrelevance that is looming some way down the road. American evangelicals should stop for a moment and ask themselves why this is really only an issue for American evangelicalism. Why is it only in this last bastion of Western Christendom that this sort of ideological conflict can be fought with such intensity?

This has been a crucial and damaging consequence of the Reformed counterattack: it has shifted the focus away from the intellectual and contextual issues raised by the emerging movement, which for all its flaws I still regard as having (or as having had) real prophetic significance for the modern church. (See, for example and somewhat at random, Kester Brewin’s Letter to the Church in North America.)

One of the things that we really should learn from biblical eschatology is that the church needs to be forward-thinking. It needs to be acutely aware of, and practically prepared for, whatever ‘day of fire’, whatever testing of its integrity, whatever challenge to its raison d’être, may loom just beyond the horizon of its vision. The real debate over the sense of the term ‘evangelical’ should be over its validity as a descriptor of the people of God in the context of global and environmental disorder, intellectual discreditation, and the increasing pressure of religious alternatives, Islam perhaps foremost among them.

‘Gospel’ is an eschatological term. It is not, in the New Testament, the offer of personal faith in Jesus – that is only an implication. It is a statement with regard to critical moments in the historical journey of the people of God. I don’t myself think that evangelicalism will find a way forward until it recaptures something of that narrative dynamic – until it gains a much clearer sense of its place not merely in a culture but in the prophetically interpreted story of a people, which is, after all, just what scripture is.

Jim Hoag | Mon, 11/08/2010 - 17:25 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

On Trevin Wax’s website “Kingdom People" he quotes John Piper regarding how love for the Word can unite Calvinists and non Calvinists; Piper says,"I love this Book. I love this Book way more than the Institutes… or way more than Jonathan Edwards. An Arminian who is a lover of this Book – and you can smell humility on that guy, an absolute submission to this Book – man, can I go a long way with that guy! I can talk to him all day long. But if a Calvinist comes along who never quotes this Book, but just quotes Calvin – I don’t want to spend any time with him. I’m not interested. He’s just always blabbering away. He’s read some latest catechism or some latest book, and he’s on to this doctrine or that doctrine… I want to say: “Would you give me a verse?! Give me a verse. I just want to hear God come out of your mouth! In that sense, I hope that I’m a winsome person. If an Arminian says, “Look, I think that everything I say is in this Book.” I say: “Me too! Let’s talk! Let’s go to this Book together. Let’s worship the God we see in this Book.” It’s amazing how far you can go with those people."

I'll overlook the reference to "those people" and get to my point which is first that Piper's bid for non-argumentative unity is generous and admirable (though I don't know how I might fair with a narrative/historical hermeneutic) and second that regardless of a unity actually coming to pass, it seems like two ahistorical paradigms will simply agree more readily about the "essentials" and continue somewhat universalizing and systematizing I wrong? (It would not be the first time). But I'm looking for an entirely different approach and outcome; that is, a collaborative effort to reconstruct a historical/eschatalogical biblical narrative by which we can deal with issues like alternative (new creation) communities, who we are and how our eschatalogical reality defines our mission and relatationship to culture NOW. Andrew you said, "But we have to ask whether pursuing the familiar agenda of modern evangelicalism, no matter how passionately, is going to be enough".

Trevin Wax says, "Piper’s point about love for the Word being a unifying factor for evangelicals is important to note. It shows that the dividing lines in evangelicalism are not merely about particular doctrines (Arminian vs. Calvinist, charismatic vs. cessationist, Baptist vs. Presbyterian, etc.), but about the centrality of the Word".

I would say the dividing lines are more about hermeneutics than the centrality of the word itself. I know the narrative-realist approach and an overarching creation story will not suddenly supplant ahistorical methods of reading Scripture but I believe they should at least be in the game. It’s a third way (?), a path out of the morass of Christendom. Andrew, any thoughts?

I suppose it’s conceivable that the inter-Reformational conversation could be extended to include new historical perspectives. I know a staunchly Calvinist pastor here who enjoys reading people like NT Wright. As you say, it remains a conversation about scripture, and perhaps we will find ways of preserving our different traditional spins on the narrative. One of the features of the post-Christendom situation is that we are finding ourselves crowded together at the margins, and it may well be that the sort of ecumenical spirit that Piper exhibits in that quote will nurture a healthy conversation about Christian origins that will take us beyond the Reformational stalemate in ways we cannot yet imagine.