The rise and fall of the modern evangelical paradigm

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This is a response to a couple of questions raised about the conclusions to the preceding post on the logic of the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. First, what did I mean when I said: “As a response to the fall of Christendom, modern evangelicalism has reinvigorated the universal model to keep the numbers up…”? Secondly, how are we to envision the “new faithfulness to the biblical narrative”? It’s a sketchy piece, really just an outline of my working assumptions; and it has much more to say to the first question than to the second.

The reinvigoration of the modern paradigm

Under Christendom faith was sustained not primarily at the individual level but at the social level. People mostly were not converted; they were born into a Christian society, baptised as infants, and their relation to God was sustained throughout life by a shared worldview and an intricate mesh of cultural and institutional practices. We’re rather dismissive now of the whole model, but that’s only because we are modern people, informed by modern presuppositions, and not pre-modern people.

The Christendom matrix disintegrated from the eighteenth century onwards largely because it could not defend itself against rational criticism, and people inevitably dropped out of faith, like rocks from a melting glacier. Christianity in the West went into rapid decline.

The church fought back at a number of levels, but the basic challenge was to provide a new grounding for faith. Two broad strategies were pursued: on the one hand, a defence of the reasonableness of belief in the form of fundamentalism or the rationalist apologetics of post-war evangelicalism; on the other, the recovery of the experiential dimension of faith—from revivalism, through Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement, to the consumerist modern church and what has become known as therapeutic deism.

We are still left with a “gospel” that owes its shape more to the collapse of Christendom and the emergence of modernity than to the New Testament.

This is obviously simplistic, but in these two strategies we have that reinvigoration of the universal model: a supposedly rational belief-system substituted for the pre-critical worldview of Christendom, and a powerful orientation towards the personal appropriation of faith in place of the socialised religious commitments of Christendom. This process was driven by a strong evangelistic, church growth impulse, which probably saved the church in the West, along with a rather slow modernisation of the forms of church life—language, worship style, communication techniques, buildings, and so on.

More recently, the focus on personal faith has been offset by an emphasis on community and a broad reorientation towards social engagement. But I think we are still left with a “gospel”—the defining component of faith—that owes its shape more to the collapse of Christendom and the emergence of modernity than to the New Testament. The focus on personal faith is both a reaction to the loss of a socially maintained religious affiliation and an accommodation to the progressive individualism of modern culture.

So whereas in the New Testament the “gospel” was the announcement that the God of Israel was about to rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world in the place of the old pagan gods, in the modern era it became the offer of personal salvation in the hope of stemming the loss of faith that followed the triumph of Reason.

History to the rescue

Alongside this story of the church’s adjustment to the secularisation of the West there have been important developments in the historical-critical reading of the Bible. Because historical criticism was initially a powerfully corrosive force, the conservative church saw it as the enemy of faith and either actively opposed it or ignored it, resulting in a massive gulf between church and academy.

But over the last fifty years much more constructive historical readings of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, have emerged, grounded largely in a positive re-evaluation of the New Testament’s relation to the Jewish scriptures and to the world of second temple Judaism. I suspect that much of the enthusiasm has come from more or less evangelical scholars who are intellectual heirs to an older school of conservative theologians and apologists.

This development has not answered all the questions that modernity has thrown at Christian faith, and there is considerable disagreement among scholars still about how the story should be told. But I think it has shown itself capable in principle of providing a much more cogent and compelling basis for understanding Christian origins. The question is whether the church can take some form of this new account on board.

Can the church stop talking about Jesus as a universal, quasi-Gnostic, supra-historical, personal-redeemer figure and start talking about him instead as YHWH’s agent of historical transformation, apocalyptically interpreted by his followers, who was made judge and ruler not only of Israel but also of the nations of the Greek-Roman world?

Can the church turn the modern arrangement on its head, so that we begin not with the salvation of individuals as a matter of fundamental existential priority but with the historical vocation of the church, as a continuation of Old Testament Israel, to serve the living God as a priestly-prophetic people, in the midst of the nations, over time?

Moving in the right direction

Evangelicalism’s renewed interest in community and missional re-engagement with society are steps in the right direction, but to a large extent this has been done under the old theological paradigm. The result, I suggest, is that mainstream evangelicalism has an under-developed theology of community and virtually no theology of social engagement beyond the vague and misguided assumption that this is what the kingdom of God is supposed to be about. This is why the progressive Christian left, for all its good intentions, has again disengaged itself from a serious reflection on scripture.

So what more is required? I recently addressed the question in this post, but perhaps, in summary, there are two main developments to emphasise.

First, I think that the church will need to develop a much stronger narrative-historical consciousness. Currently we rely heavily on dogmatics and pragmatics for Christian formation: is it doctrinally sound? does it achieve the immediate (and woefully limited) practical goals that the church has set itself? I think that formation should come much more through the multifarious telling of the crude, unprocessed, unedited story, including the story of the modern church, without the abstraction, simplification, idealisation, and refinement that comes with modern theologising.

Secondly, I suggest that the church needs to think of itself and promote itself more as a dedicated priestly community than as an aggregation of saved people. This keeps us much closer to the biblical pattern, but I think it will also be essential for the survival of the church in the West as a viable, non-sectarian entity under the immense pressures of secularism. If we take seriously this approach, then the practical implications will be obvious.

This is about as far as I can go, off the top of my head, in answering Milan’s question about what it would look like. My assumption is that simply telling the story well, as historical narrative, in the context of the believing community, asking good questions about where it is taking us, deeply conscious of the seriousness of the challenges that we face, will over time teach us how to think and live.

“I think it will also be essential for the survival of the church in the West as a viable, non-sectarian entity…”

The Church has never been and will never be non-sectarian entity.


By “sectarian” I mean a group with a fragile worldview that has to turn in on itself to survive. It seems to me essential that the church is secure enough in the public viability of its identity and purpose to remain open to the world.

Takashi Kojima | Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:37 | Permalink

Thanks for the prompt response to my inquiry.
Sorry for being late in thanking you.
I enjoyed reading your response.