Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Evangelicalism and North America
Ben Witherington offers up a prayer for the New Year in which he decries much of Religion, Politics, and Evangelicalism in North America.
Generally speaking I like America and Americans. I believe in Democracy, free-market economics (with Govt. intervention like universal health care), and if it wasn't for the USA, Australia would have been invaded by Japan with grim consequences. Americans are fairly generous people and very friendly. Generally speaking I also like American Evangelicals. I count them among my closest friends. Sadly, they have the best and worst of everything: Billy Graham and Pat Robertson! But there is one joke about American Evangelicals that I have heard in numerous places: "Many American Christians will find the afterlife disappointing when they discover that heaven is not any where as glorious as America!"
I think Americans in general and Evangelicals in particular need to appreciate their place in the global scheme of things. For American Evangelicals that means appreciating that Evangelicalism is not identitical with American Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a global movement. The reason I say this is because some guys write and talk as if Evangelicalism is "us" and "us" is North American Evangelicals. A friend of mine recently reviewed a book where the author kept equating Evangelicals with Evangelical Christians in North America. Where does Africa, China, South Korea, or South America fit in?
I have always been struck by the fact that the Evangelical Theological Society should really be called the "American Evangelical Theological Society" since its doctrinal statement, program, and constitution are all focused on the USA. Let me say that given its constituency and location that this is understandable and there is no hostility or suspicion towards foreigners at annual meetings. In my estimation less than 5% of members are from outside of the USA (but I need to double check). The question I have is does ETS want to be the theological society for Evangelicals in North America or the theological society for Evangelicals of the world? If the latter, then it requires making changes. Let me suggest a few: (1) It should consider holding its meetings occasionaly outside of the USA or else adopting an "international meeting" once every year or every two years much in the same way that SBL does. (2) It should appoint an international member to the executive committee in order to voice international concerns to the committee (I don't want the job!). (3) There should perhaps be program units allocated to international issues like Evangelism, Theology, and Social Justice in Africa and the like which would hopefully go on in leaps and bounds from there. (4) Perhaps one of the plenary speakers should always be from outside the USA which I'm glad to say has happened in recent years with Chris Wright and Paul Trebilco. (5) While inerrancy is the centre of the theological galaxy for Conservative Evangelicals in the USA given the Bible-Wars of the 20th century, this is simply not the case in the rest of world. Therefore, why make "inerrancy" the central issue? It might be better to adopt a broader and more comprehensive statement of faith like the UCCF statement or give a range confessonional options like the Anglican 39 Articles, the 1689 London Baptist Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Helvetic Confession, or the Baptist Faith and Message (1962 or 2000). This would make the statement of faith options representative of the diversity of global Evangelicalism rather than focus on one issue that has been prominent in North America.
I suspect that it is this narrow focus on the theological context of North America and the inordinate concern with inerrancy which is why Tyndale House in the UK sees its American counterpart in the Institute for Biblical Research rather than with ETS (but I may be wrong on that and there might be other reasons for it). Note, I'm not trying to attack inerrancy, but what I'm saying is that this has not been the hill to die on in most parts of the world and other traditions have ways of explicating biblical authority and veracity which are not tied to the grammar and conception of inerrancy. ETS can either try to indigenize itself in other parts of the world, remain parochially American and invite others to join in, or else modify its doctrinal statement, programming, and structure to reflect the international nature of the world wide movement that is Evangelicalism. Some might respond and say that with so few international members is there any point in making these changes? Well, it might be the nature of ETS which is why there are so few international members, and changes could facilitate the globalization of ETS. Finally, let me reiterate that this is not an exercise in American bashing, I'm not out to vanquish inerrancy either, I merely want to point out that Evangelicalism is bigger (much bigger) than North America and ETS as the flagship organization of Evangelical Biblical, Theological, Pastoral, and Missiological scholarship should try to reflect that.