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.

5 comments:

Ken Schenck said...

Here, here! I was much more comfortable being thought of as evangelical when I was doing my degree in Durham than I am back here in the States. I've long considered joining IBR, but have no interest in becoming a member of ETS so that they can debate whether to kick me out. Its very flavor turns me off.

Dirk Jongkind said...

I wonder to what in this post is about difference in culture (i.e. British non-confrontationalism over against the North-American desire for hyper-clarity) and what is about a different concept of evangelicalism.

By the way, I would not mirror IBR with Tyndale House, but with the Tyndale Fellowship (slight difference).

A. B. Caneday said...

I am a member of both ETS and IBR. As a member of both, I have long observed a strange and ironic fact concerning ETS and IBR.

The ETS has a doctrinal basis that is very brief. Here it is: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

The IBR has a much fuller doctrinal basis:

1. The unique divine inspiration, integrity and authority of the Bible.
2. The deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
3. The necessity and efficacy of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world.
4. The historical fact of his bodily resurrection.
5. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration and for the understanding of the Scripture.
6. The expectation of the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What constitutes the difference between ETS and IBR? I would suggest that it is not the stated doctrinal basis but the resoectuve cultures shaped by the culture of North American evangelicalism out of which the two societies emerged at the time they emerged.

The culture of the ETS, which entails an unwritten doctrinal basis that is much fuller than the written doctrinal basis, holds greater sway over the life of the Society than the stated doctrinal basis does. Witness, for example, the controversy over Open Theism a few years ago. How does the written doctrinal basis exclude Open Theism? In the end, Open Theism and Open Theists were not excluded from membership.

The matter of the ETS culture, in my estimation, is a matter that the leadership should address. However, addressing and adjusting the culture of any institution, even as small as a family, is a herculean task that invariably meets resistance and opposition. The culture of ETS is changing, and the Society has a woefully small doctrinal basis from which to address those changes. The written doctrinal basis is not adequate to support the culture that has developed much more from tradition (i.e., unwritten doctrinal basis) than from the written doctrinal basis. The tradition of ETS has been changing so that the Society is not what it once was, nor is it now what it will almost surely become in another 60 years.

IBR, on the other hand, has a clear doctrinal basis and those who have become members forge a culture that springs out of a different time from the origins of ETS, almost 60 years ago.

The issue of the ETS culture, as I see it, does entail differences between American and British evangelicalism. There is more to it, however, in that ETS and IBR, which are both principally North American, are distinctively different. ETS leadership continues to have within it a strain of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has no foothold in IBR at all, thank God. Fundamentalism is, first and foremost, attitudinal and cultural.

Both ETS and IBR consist principally of members from North American. IBR, as Dirk observes, does mirror Tyndale Fellowship. In fact, membership in IBR brings the added benefit of a subscription to the Tyndale Bulletin.

Celucien L. Joseph said...

"ETS leadership continues to have within it a strain of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has no foothold in IBR at all, thank God. Fundamentalism is, first and foremost, attitudinal and cultural."

Well said!

A. B. Caneday said...

I would suggest that it is not the stated doctrinal basis but the resoectuve [correction: respective] cultures shaped by the culture of North American evangelicalism out of which the two societies emerged at the time they emerged.

The error that I committed, misplacement of the right hand by one character to the left, reminds me of a very important memo that we Ph.D. students received from the Director of the Ph.D. program during my first or second year of study. The director's executive assistant committed the same error, printed the memo and distributed it to our mail boxes. Half the memo was like a code. Each of the characters from the right side of the keyboard were shifted to the left by one character. It took some time to decode the memo, but it was possible, if one figured out what happened to produce the strange document. Later, we received the official memo corrected.