>Praise God for the Messiness of Evangelicalism

>Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I confess I have a little mind and I love consistency. I love order, I love tidy systems of thought. Maybe that’s why I’m so Reformed – true Reformed theology is consistent, sometimes too tidy. Maybe that’s also why I sometimes wonder if wonder if I’m really an evangelical. Evangelicalism isn’t tidy, is nebulous, nearly impossible to define, has no center, not organizational flow chart, no controlling creeds or confessions. In a word, it’s messy. Maybe I should shift to a less evangelical though conservative denomination like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or the Reformed Church. Those groups are evangelical in belief (the uphold the authority of the word, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, miracles, sustitutionary atonement, real resurrection, the church, the return of Christ, etc.) , but not evangelical in self conscious ways. Many would askew the label. They wouldn’t disagree or deny Bebbingtons definition of an evangelical (bible is authoritative, evangelism/missions is important, the cross work of Jesus is central, conversion is necessary), but resist the controlling pietistic air and revivalistic emphasis on experience. They’re world is tidy. Do I fit there?

Reading Alister McGrath’s Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity reminded me of why I love evangelicalism and should appreciate it’s messiness. The beginning of the book is, to be honest, overly optimistic. By the end he does address the ‘darker side’ of the evangelical movement, but the opening three chapters are incredibly positive. It was refreshing. I read a lot about evangelicalism – more than on any other single topic probably. Most of what I read is critical – usually from friends within the movement, but critical nonetheless.

This isn’t an organized review, but just to point to a few things that were really encouraging.

1. The tent is big and, while there are many disagreements, the unity is profound as well. Evangelicalism draws from a wide range of historical sources and traditions – from classic confessions of the Reformed Tradition to Anabaptist dissent to Wesleyan practice and Pentecostal worship and experience. In addition, evangelicalism is growing globally and the being expressed in innumerable cultural contexts. There is no wonder there is such diversity and disagreement. However, it’s remarkable what a consensus there is on core issues. McGrath describes six controlling convictions: 1) the supreme authority is Scripture, 2) The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the Savior of sinful humanity, 3) the lordship of the Holy Spirit, 4) the need for personal conversion, 5) the priority of evangelism, and 6) the importance of Christian community. In each of these, the imprecision (aka ‘wiggle room’). For example, Scriptures supreme authority doesn’t necessarily inerrancy. Also, the need for personal conversion is flexible enough to include various modes of conversion (gradual process or dramatic ‘Damascus road’ type). Some groups would emphasize the convictions differently, but there remains a ‘coherence amidst diversity.’ Moreover, there is a ‘devotional ethos’ within evangelicalism that is unifying. “It is no dead orthodoxy, but a living faith,” writes McGrath (pg. 57). He continues, “Evangelicalism is basically Christian orthodoxy, as set out in the ecumenical creeds, with a particular emphasis on the need for the personal assimilation and appropriation of faith and a marked reluctance to allow any matters of lesser importance to get in the way of the proclamation and application of the gospel” (pg. 57).

I love the blending of orthodoxy with the truth that some doctrines that are nonessential should be “matters of indifference” (I don’t like that phrase, but it’s historic. Doesn’t mean we don’t care about them, but they aren’t worth dividing over or fighting about). Some of those conservative Protestant denominations I love have a poor track record on this, dividing over issues like the propriety of speaking about grace in God’s dealings with Adam, etc. Silly things to divide over. So McGrath helped me appreciate again the unity within diversity in evangelicalism and how beautiful it is. The ecumenicalism of evangelicalism is good. McGrath quotes Trembath, “Considered ecclesiologically, evangelicalism is Protestantism’s clearest attempt to recapture the pluralist nature of the early church.” We should embrace this I think.

2. The evangelical movement is relatively new – 280-450 years old, depending on which side you take in some current debates (some would argue it’s only 60-70 years old, but they are nutts). Yet, there are deep roots; roots that extend all the way back to the ancient creeds. As McGrath argues compellingly, evangelicalism is orthodox Christianity (with an 18th century twist, to steal from Doug Sweeney). McGrath may overstate his case when he writes, “Evangelicalism is historic Christianity… evangelicalism has shown itself to have every right to claim to be a modern standard bearer of historic, orthodox Christianity” (pg. 94). That seemingly controversial statement is even acknowledged by many liberal theologians. For example, McGrath cites Kirsopp Lake wrote (in 1926), “It is a mistake often made by educate men who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that fundamentalism is a new form of though. It is nothing of the sort; it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians…The fundamentalist may be wrong; I think he is. But it is we [liberals] who have departed from the tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the the fate of anyone who tries to argue with the fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible is the corpus theologicum of the church is on the fundamentalist side” (pg. 28).

As the standard bearer of classic orthodoxy, evangelicals have the right, the duty, to claim the ancients as their own and draw upon them. On this McGrath quotes J.I. Packer, “”The Spirit has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work he was sent to do – guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth. The history of the Church’s labor to understand the bible forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonoring the Holy Spirit. To treat the principle of biblical authority as a prohibition against reading and learning from the book of church history is not an evangelical, but an anabaptist mistake” (pg. 83).

So evangelicalism has deep roots. I like that. That’s not to say other groups, say Lutherans and Reformed types don’t have deep roots. It’s only to say those roots aren’t theirs exclusively.

3. McGrath sounds a corrective to my arrogance, and arrogance that can sometimes be discouraging. As I look around the evangelical landscape, I’m often frustrated and discouraged by those who’s practice and theology are sub par biblically. Pragmatism runs rampant. Doctrine is slighted because it’s not useful. Confetti canons are brought into the church because they’re fun and people like fun. All kind of wild stuff. But, and here’s McGrath’s corrective, God can use all these means to be drawing people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak against poor practice and theology and seek reform, but it does say to us that God is bigger than us. McGrath recounts how the invitation of Billy Graham to speak at Union Theological Seminary in 1954 (uber liberal at this point) created quite a stir. Reinhold Niebuhr thought it below the institution to invite someone so un-academic and backwards in their theology (his words were ‘obscurantist version of the Christian faith’). Niebuhr continued, “we can be assured that his approach is free of the vulgarities which characterized the message of Billy Sunday, who intrigued the nation about a quarter century ago. We are grateful for this much ‘progress'” (pg. 77).

A biting critique of Niebuhr’s snobbishness came from his own president (of Union), Henry P. van Dusen, “Dr. Neibuhr prefers Billy Graham to Billy Sunday. There ar many, of whom I am one, who are not ashamed to testify that they would probably have never come within the sound of Dr. Niebuhr’s voice or the influence of his mind if they had not been first touched by the message of the earlier Billy. Quite probably five or ten years hence there may appear in the classrooms and churches of Billy Graham’s severest critics not a few who will be glad to give parallel testimony to his role in starting them in that direction” (pg. 78). Likewise, there are many in our church (es) who have been drawn by God through churches/ministries/pastors with whom we have profound disagreements. There will be many who grow find their way out of WillowBack churches into deeper, more theological churches, but who owe their spiritual life to those shallow churches (humanly speaking).

Reading that was a good corrective and softens one of my constant agitations against evangelicalism. As I progress through the book, I’m sure I’ll post more – especially on the critical side. But today I was feeling cheery and chipper. It doesn’t happen often.