Redefining evangelicalism

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Scot McKnight has started working through David Fitch’s massively titled book The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions). I strongly recommend following him if you’re interested in the future of modern American evangelicalism.

My own feeling is that an evangelicalism that understands itself according to the standard definition of Bebbington and Noll, which Scot cites, does not have much of a future. On the one hand, I agree that evangelicalism has become largely “an empty politic”. On the other, the standard definition provides us with, at best, a severely emaciated account of how the idea of “gospel” or euangelion works within the biblical narrative. The two failings, of course, are not unrelated.

The standard definition makes evangelicalism a movement within Protestantism shaped by four main beliefs—in Scot’s wording: 1) the centrality of the Bible; 2) the centrality of the atoning death of Christ; 3) the centrality of the need for personal conversion; and 4) the centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society. Partly goaded into this by Jim Hoag (not for the first time), I thought I’d try and sketch a narrative-historical alternative. Or to put it bluntly, what would a biblical evangelicalism look like? The following four statements roughly correspond to the four beliefs of the standard definition:

1. the centrality of the biblical narrative—as opposed to the biblical text—as an account of how the tribal God of Abraham established his rule over the gods of the pagan empires;

2. the centrality of the transformative set of events through which the localized people of Israel became the means by which the God of Abraham asserted his sovereignty over the pagan nations in Christ (cf. Phil. 2:-11);

3. the centrality of the summary announcements—a dynamic and contextualized rather than fixed or static “gospel”—regarding the sovereign action of the Creator God with respect both to his people and to the nations;

4. the centrality of the post-eschatological “mission” of the people of God to be a concrete, corporate sign, both actually and proleptically, of new creation in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world.

A biblically constructed evangelicalism, however, is not necessarily exactly what we need today. Just as modern evangelicalism was a reaction to a particular state of affairs within Protestantism, so a post-modern evangelicalism must rediscover a biblical identity—a relationship to the narrative—under the particular circumstances of the collapse of Christendom and the failure of Christian modernity. So while the biblical narrative remains pretty much the same (the first two statements), “gospel” as an announcement of divine intention would need to be restated, and the practical and prophetic existence of the church as new creation would need to be imaginatively developed.

"Goading" you? Great line, I laughed, it seems I've been found out. I will have to change my approach, how about desperation? But seriously, the post was a great help and opened up discussion at our leadership meeting last night, as some are reading Fitch's book and most are following McKnight's review of it. We got into a conversation around what seems to be a redundant cycle: to break from the Christendom mindset people are often using (inadvertently?) a "new" Christendom paradigm! We talked about whether or not the concern should be with the underlying theological model that shapes understanding (in our case the NP) THEN the prxais that emerges. We got into what we thought might've happened in Seattle with Mars Hill (Driscoll's church). Early on they were quoting people like Newbigin all the time and were excited missionally. But the underlying theological paradigm that shaped their thinking eventually HAD to undermine a more holistic missional expression, slowly re-subordinating them to one, narrow, rigid, universal theological system. The missio Dei is not open-ended. It is contingent, it is contained so that it can be contextualized. A lively discussion to say the least! Thanks Andrew, the post was a huge catalyst towards clarity. 

C. Ehrlich | Wed, 04/27/2011 - 18:57 | Permalink

In saying that "the biblical narrative remains pretty much the same," you risk closing the door on new and evolving understandings of that narrative.  You risk pre-empting the very sort of developments we might expect from a living and divinely-inspired text.  

The evangelical should always be a little bit bothered by Jesus' strong rebuke of the pharisees, despite--and even for--their pious approach to the sacred scriptures.  



@C. Ehrlich:

Agreed. My point was more that the textual form of the narrative is not going to change very much. It’s unlikely that we will add to or remove from the canon in any significant way, though I think there is a case for de-canonizing the New Testament at least for the purpose of seeing things in a different light. But I certainly would not want to close the door on re-interpretation. Not until I’ve finished re-interpreting, at least.