Evangelicalism in narrative-historical perspective

Read time: 6 minutes

A new report by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the US and LifeWay Research has identified four main statements that constitute normative evangelical belief:

1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour.

3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Apparently, the sociologists, theologians and leaders consulted came up originally with a set of 17 statements. Since three out of the four that survived the cut seem to be making basically the same point, you can’t help wondering whether something important was missed out. The resurrection? The reign of Jesus as Lord at the right hand of the Father? The church? Right behaviour?

The NAE-LifeWay list diverges in one obvious respect from David Bebbington’s classic account of historic evangelicalism as biblicist, conversionist, crucicentrist and activist. Mainstream evangelicals in America today appear not to believe in activism.

This may only reflect the particular focus of the report on what evangelicals believe—or at least what they think they are supposed to believe. The list is meant to capture the distinctive emphases, not the whole theology and practice. What distinguishes North American evangelicalism from other sections of the church is its views regarding the authority of scripture and the universal and personal significance of Jesus’ atoning death.

But Bebbington’s more detached approach highlights something that can easily be missed in the familiar confessional language of these creedal affirmations, which is that modern evangelicalism appears to the world not as an embodied reading of scripture but as a reaction to changes that have taken place over the last two or three hundred years. Evangelicalism is very much a child of its times.

The biblicist emphasis of historic evangelicalism reflects the fact that the towering edifice of Scripture has been undermined by the dark subterranean forces of rationalism unleashed by the European Enlightenment. Biblicism is the hermeneutic—the intellectual scaffolding and buttressing—erected to keep it from finally crashing to the ground.

It’s like the doting, fussy, anxious, protective parent who won’t let a teenage daughter go out alone or speak for herself.

Over the last few decades evangelical scholars have been quietly developing the hermeneutical and historical techniques that will enable us to renovate our understanding of the Bible so that it can stand on its own. But dismantling the support structures will take time, not least because most people now think that the biblicist methodology is part of the building.

Conversionism is a natural reaction to the collapse of the Christendom mindset that took it for granted (not unreasonably given the premise of Christendom) that people were Christian by virtue of their birth into a Christian society. Evangelicalism has had to be strenuously evangelistic in order to keep the numbers up.

The crucicentrist insistence that a person is saved by the atoning blood of Jesus, etc., anchors the whole thing in a profoundly personal existential need. You need Jesus because you are inescapably a sinner, eternally separated from a holy God. Faith has had to be internalised. If faith can no longer be sustained socially or culturally, it has to be sustained personally and experientially. Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement have been further developments of this basic strategic shift. If it moves us so powerfully, it must be true.

Finally, evangelicalism has had to be activist in order to survive. It has had to fight hard to defend itself against the rationalist critique, to resist the pressure to slide into liberalism, to maintain sufficiently high levels of personal motivation. The social activism for which evangelicals are well known cannot be dismissed quite so cynically, but there is always the risk that in the secular setting doing good works is implicitly an attempt to secure public validation. We may be justified before God by our faith, but the world is much less impressed.

Modern evangelicalism is proudly biblicist, but the historically conditioned theological keyhole through which it peers into the vast room of the biblical narrative is woefully inadequate.

So evangelicalism is a reactionary modern phenomenon, and for that reason I don’t see that it has to be sustained indefinitely—at least, not in its present form. It can be defended as a legitimate and necessary, and in many ways very effective, response to secular modernity, but I think that there are better reasons to keep the word “evangelical” than the “heritage” to which Michael Jensen appeals:

The word “evangelical” is a great word, because it says that you are a gospel Christian first and foremost, and not a church Christian, or a cultural Christian. It is worth telling the story of the evangelical movement because it is one of the great stories of our age, and it has so much that testifies to the power of Jesus Christ in it. It is worth standing in this heritage because it is intellectually rich and yet powerfully convicted of gospel truths. It offers a spirituality that is profound, and it compels people to do extraordinary things to help others.

Insisting that an evangelical is a “gospel Christian first and foremost” may indeed highlight the central relevance of the story about Jesus. But if the story about Jesus is interpreted according to the sort of morbid self-obsessed individualism highlighted so effectively by the NAE-LifeWay report, then I think that evangelicalism has a serious problem. Being a “gospel Christian” is in fact just another form of cultural Christianity, for all its vitality and timeliness.

The divergence between this narrow theology of personal salvation and what we find in the New Testament is simply too great. Here is the sad irony. Modern evangelicalism is proudly biblicist, but the historically conditioned theological keyhole through which it peers into the vast room of the biblical narrative is woefully inadequate. It’s time to unlock the door and go inside.

The “evangelical movement” that we find in the New Testament, beginning in Jerusalem and spreading across the Greek-Roman world, had as its primary objective not personal salvation but social transformation—just not in the secularised sense that we generally understand the term.

The euangelion or “good news” proclaimed to the nations had reference to a future event: God had raised his Son from the dead, therefore at some point in the future the pagan world would be judged and overthrown and a new era would begin, in which YHWH’s anointed king would rule over the nations. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

This historical process, culminating in the transformation of the ancient world, would have profound religious, spiritual, ethical, cultural, social, intellectual and political implications for ordinary Jews and Gentiles. But this was all secondary, a side-effect. The gospel was the announcement of régime change—the coming reign of Israel’s God. Personal salvation and transformation happened in response to this expectation. If you wanted to be part of this new future, so eagerly and charismatically proclaimed by those who had encountered the risen Lord, you had to change. It’s as simple as that.

What does this mean for us today? Well, not simply copying and pasting that chapter into our own future. I suggest it teaches us that to be evangelical is to understand what it means still to affirm that God raised his Son from the dead and gave him the name which is above every name. What does it mean for the church? What does that mean for a globalising western culture? And then, how can that conviction be restated as good news? That ought to be, I think, the driving impulse behind a narrative-historical redefinition of evangelicalism.

The “good news” has to do with what the creator God is doing in the continuing story of his people as they struggle to maintain the integrity and credibility of their corporate witness in an inhospitable cultural environment. Anyone who wants to be part of this has to change. It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that.

Not to be a broken record but how can we go about exploring this new perspective and bring it into our faith communities? It seems to me that so much of the structure and accoutrements of faith and church are tied up in a theologically construed approach. How can we bring the narrative-historical perspective into the conversation? You know how hard it is to do this without being called a heretic! :-)

The books, preaching aids, curriculum, language, culture, mindset of Western Christianity seems infused with this Gospel Christian approach to the point that to argue that other options are available is to break with Church. The only seeming option outside an abstract, universal, theological ideology is a progressive social gospel ideology. With seeming disappearance of the emergent church is there a place for a narrative historical approach? Is Europe different than America in this?

Rob Kampen | Fri, 09/23/2016 - 11:40 | Permalink

Surely if we tell the gospel story like John the Baptist of Jesus did we’d do so much better: REPENT FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND
I think that is the good news the world needs to hear. Keep going the way you are and you’ll miss the revolution that ushers Jesus’ return. We need to turn from our way of doing life — look where that’s got us so far up to 2016 ….. we need to recognise the picture is so much more than “me”, “I” and “myself”.
Nothing less than total transformation is called for, we need to die to “our”selves and join in the massive change that is not only possible but inevitable as Jesus splits the sky, returns and rules the nations and they will flock to hear the wisdom and solutions that demonstrate Kingdom rule and reign. EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE