Monday, October 1, 2012

What Is Evangelicalism?

There were a couple of stories that talked about evangelicalism and exactly where are it's boundaries. There was Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay talking about his new record being outside of the comfort zone of most evangelicals. That can be good or bad. Spiritual growth comes through getting uncomfortable. Then again heresy can happen that way too. Which is it? Depends who you ask. The trouble is that evangelicalism is defined by comfort to a large degree. How else can it be defined? There is no one organization that defines it. There is no one leader or set of leaders that have the final say. In fact, one of the defining properties of evangelicalism is their discomfort with the very idea of any definitive religious authority.

The other story involves Brian McLaren. He has gone outside of the evangelical comfort zone a few times. The latest episode involved the same-sex "commitment ceremony with traditional Christian elements."

Timothy Dalrymple does a good job of analyzing the issues with defining who is and is not evangelical. Still he avoids the obvious question, how could it work?
There’s nothing inherently oppressive or intolerant or authoritarian in seeking to identify who is an evangelical and who is not.  The Jews, for instance, have clear terms of definition.  If they did not, they would not have survived as a people for so many centuries.  Similarly, any group that wishes to maintain some semblance of coherence over time will need, so to speak, to patrol its borders.  That means examining boundary cases, cases that challenge you to formulate a more precise definition.
It is not oppressive or intolerant. It is authoritarian in the sense that doing it claims for yourself the right to do it. That amounts to quite a significant authority. That is why it has not happened.

He makes a good point about the long term survival of any religion depends on defining clearly what it is and what it is not. That is why evangelicalism today is very different from what it was 100 years ago. It will be different again in another 100 years if it exists at all.

He talks of "examining boundary cases." Great idea. What would that look like? One evangelical criticizing another? That happens all the time. It would need to be some more definitive criticism. Something beyond just disagreement. It is just unthinkable in the evangelical world.
This is a particularly acute question for evangelical seminaries.  This nation has seen countless Christian institutions of higher learning that have, over time, lost their Christian character.  Evangelicals have shown a lamentable eagerness to discover the latent heresies in Christian college and seminary faculty, to make mountains out of molehills and drive people from their jobs for minor theological transgressions.  But I cannot fault the general desire to cultivate a faculty that reflects the fundamental convictions of the institution.
Seminaries do have authority attached to them. They define what faculty members have to believe. It is not simple. It involves one of the biggest problems with Sola Scriptura. That is deciding which doctrines are essential and which ones are OK to disagree on. There is no list in scripture so seminary rectors are in an impossible position. They need to make decisions that are going to draw fire and they have no biblical basis from which to defend themselves.
Finally, saying that Person P is not an evangelical is not at all the same as saying that P is not Christian or does not have a saving relationship with God in Christ.  If I were to say that P is not an evangelical, that’s not intended as an insult or exclusion.  It’s not to say that P is wrong or unrighteous, an enemy or unwelcome.  It’s merely an observation of what evangelicalism means and an observation of whether or not P comports with that definition.  A community that does not define what is holds essential will not survive as a community for long.
You need to say someone is teaching heresy. That does not mean they are going to hell. But saying it is "merely an observation of what evangelicalism means" is too weak. If that is all you are saying then why bother? What you need to say is that you believe evangelism to be true. That truth has content.When we define the boundaries of that content we need to say there are spiritual consequences to leaving those boundaries. Otherwise why bother with the notion of "evangelicalism" at all? If you don't claim it just is the true Christian faith then what is the point?

So Dalrymple has some good thoughts but he dances around the central problem. Evangelicals as a group can't say anything. They cannot, in principle, be precisely defined. They can only be defined by consensus of human opinion. When the consensus breaks down there is no way to be sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

What that means is we get what Catholics call scandal. People associated with evangelicalism do things that get people talking. They don't know if this guy is all wrong or if evangelical Christianity is now accepting this. They just get that something is rotten. When that happens in the Catholic church it is up to the pope and the bishops to clarify matters. For evangelicals it is done by consensus. If you have all the major leaders basically saying the same thing it can work. If you don't then the scandal does real damage to the church's mission.

1 comment:

  1. This ties directly into your "Are Mormons Christian" post of last month, when you made the brilliant observation:

    "Protestants are quite arbitrary about how they decide who they call Christian and who they don't. They don't have an objective standard and so definitions change with what ideas are fashionable. Petrey is essentially arguing that this is good and Mormonism is now fashionable because of Romney so what is the big deal? If Christianity has no borders then it has no meaning. The fact that the protestant cannot give a clear answer to the question, "What is a Christian?" is a good reason to reject protestantism."

    Dave Armstrong wanted to debate White on this very issue because he knew it would force the question: who has the authority to say who's a Christian if not an authoritative Church?