>I finished McGrath’s book a while ago but have been waiting to post on it till after we finished discussing it as a staff, knowing those discussions would bring additional insights.
Again, let me say that I think McGrath’s book is really, really good – insightful, hopefully, optimistic and yet critical as well. I tend to pick books apart, even ones I think are good (and this post won’t be any different).
McGrath’s sixth chapter sounds ominous – ‘The Dark Side of Evangelicalism’. Honestly, the title is more daunting than the chapter. It’s pretty lightweight, devoted to three ‘negative’ aspects of evangelicalism. First, “One of the more worrying aspects of some evangelical preaching and counseling is the creation of a sense of guilt, paralysis and self-doubt that results from a deficient understanding of the Reformation doctrine of ‘knowledge of sin'” (pg. 140). Really? That makes the list of top three things that we should be worried about? Me guesses it might have something to do with the fact that McGrath coauthored a book Self-Esteem: The Cross and Christian Confidence with his wife. Shameless.
His second point is more legitimate. Evangelicals can be ‘intensely dogmatic’. He sees two negative aspects of this intense dogmatism. First, evangelicals place a high premium on assurance and certainty, “making doubt a serious problem for evangelicals” (pg. 143). Christians are taught to conquer (read: suppress) their doubts from an early age. (I’d like to post on the evolution of the doctrine of assurance in the Great Awakenings at some point – it’s fascinating and helps us understand a lot about he contemporary evangelical situation). McGrath rightly points out that this is a departure from earliest Reformed thought. Quoting Calvin, “when we stress that faith ought to be certain and secure, we do not have in mind a certainty without doubt, or a security without any anxiety. Rather, we affirm that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own lack of faith, and are far from possessing a peaceful conscience, never interrupted by any disturbance.” McGrath offers his commentary that I believe is spot on: “Evangelicals need to rediscover the pastoral consequences of an excessive emphasis on certainty, make the vital distinction between intellectual and existential certitude clearer and realize that people have different outlooks on life that can affect them in different ways” (pg 144). That, I believe is helpful. Interestingly, McGrath also has a book on doubt, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith.
Unfortunately, his second point regarding dogmatism isn’t as helpful. He argues that in the evangelical camp there is a “tendency to become dogmatic over issues of relative rather than absolute importance” (pg. 145). He does acknowledge that there are doctrines and issues we should be dogmatic about, yet goes on to argue that we can ill afford a ‘protracted civil war’ over nonessential doctrines. He goes on to offer four such ‘relative issues’: Whether evangelicals should remain in or separate from liberal mainline denominations, the precise nature of the authority of Scripture, the place of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and the role of women in the church. In theory I think I agree – and I think ECC is a wonderful example of this, choosing to unite around the core of the faith and allowing for liberty in nonessentials. However, reading McGrath you get the sense that to take a stand on any of the issues is to become dogmatic. Honestly, I don’t think you can avoid taking a stand on most of them – and whatever position you take will be divisive. Take for example the issue of women in ministry. Its fine to say its nonessential. However, you will either have women on the staff/elders or you won’t, and whichever it is you’ll alienate people who think your position violates conscience or is too narrow. McGrath offers little guidance in how to handle these nonessential issues other than “Individual evangelicals owe the movement as a whole the responsibility of taking each other seriously, wherever Scripture permits more than one reading, just as they are obliged to defend evangelical truth wherever this seems to be under threat. But it needs to be realized that evangelicals are free to differ on matters of secondary importance” (pg. 148).
McGrath’s third main concern is a huge concern of mine also – the evangelical personality cult. With the advent of new media it’s a huge problem, although not an entirely new one. Others have pointed out the evangelicalism was, from it’s inception, much more reliant on personalities (Whitfield, Finney, Sunday, Moody, Graham, etc.) than were the more mainstream and confessional expressions of Protestantism. McGrath speaks very critically of ‘power ministries’ which are almost inevitably authoritarian (much like the medieval Roman Catholic church), marginalize Scripture, and ‘vulnerable to sinful human exploitation’. To counter this, McGrath advocates a return to the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and of the material sufficiency of Scripture. That would divest the ‘elites’ of their power and authority and would give men and women in the church “both the right and the means to ensure that his or her church and pastors remain faithful to their gospel calling” (pg. 157).
The seventh, and final chapter “Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity” explores the question, “What bearing has the growth of evangelicalism on the future of Christianity itself?”
First, he rightly sees that the future of Christianity depends on evangelism – more so than in centuries past. Even the mainline denominations recognize this, though what gospel they will offer people is questionable. However, McGrath believes it to be essential that the church realize “the proclomation of the good news cannot be restricted to individuals but must include the transformation of the context in which individuals live. A recovery of the biblical notion of the corporate and social aspects of both sin and redemption has led many younger evangelicals to be concerned about the transformation of society as well as of individual lives” (pg 161). I think he’s right; however, I don’t agree with him that this is necessarily a development that is beneficial. In fact, I’d argue it will prove to be more divisive, distracting, and ultimately detrimental to the witness of the church. McGrath argues, “in faithfulness to Scripture itself, it must be pointed out that the gospel is also ‘good news’ for society. It is virtually impossible to read the Old Testament without being aware of the social dimensions of the faith” (pg. 165). I honestly expected more nuance from McGrath here. The parallels between the Old Testament and the church in exile is not an apples to apples comparison, and it is intellectually dishonest to imply it is.
I agree that evangelicals should be active in the public sphere, but acting out their committments to the common good, not to Christianize or convert or transform society into the Kingdom of God. We should engage in secular activities recognizing God’s common grace in all areas of life, save the profane. That common grace allows us to partner with nonbelievers, working together for the good of the city, not only with Christians seeking to impose Christian values on a pluralistic culture.
Much of McGrath’s hope for the future of evangelicalism seems to hang on our ability to find a common vision for public life. He argues that this was set aside in the 1920’s and the fundamentalist movement, but has gained new life in recent decades. First, fundamentalists did not set aside a vision for the common good, nor did they cease to be active. This is a myth often told (I’ve told it myself). Fundamentalists were very active in politics – they were patriotic in the extreme, lobbied for prohibition, lobbied to keep Bible reading and prayer in public schools, were active in inner city rescue missions and in many more endeavors. As DG Hart argues, they were ultra conservative in their activities, but to say they were withdrawn is a total misrepresentation of the facts. Moreover, McGrath overestimates our ability to find common ground in seeking to apply the gospel to today’s social ills. We may all agree profound poverty is the result of numerous injustices; yet, we will not likely agree on how best to remedy these injustices. In the end, advocating for a public policy will add yet another layer of things for evangelicals to become dogmatic about and divide over.
McGrath concludes his book with some interesting thoughts on evangelicalism’s relationship to the Roman Catholic church, to the mainline churches and to post-Enlightenment culture at large. In each venue, there are many opportunities to take advantage of, as well as dangers to be aware of.
In the end, McGrath’s book is a helpful, thought provoking book. In many cases, my hopes run contrary to his, but he is an articulate and thoughtful advocate of a ‘transformationalist’ approach to Christianity. I feel my understanding of the evangelicalism and it’s future is more developed and my own commitments, though different than McGrath’s, are keener for having read his work.