Friday, December 12, 2008
Evangelicals and the Reformed
At ETS in Boston this year Michael Horton gave a paper at one of the sessions and he made a useful analogy of how evangelicals relate to each other. If I understand him correctly, he said evangelicalism is kinda like the hallway where people leave their dormitory rooms (denominations) and go out and mix and mingle with others. This makes a useful distinction between one's denominational setting and one's willingness to mix and engage a wider theological and ecclesial context. In other words, you can retain your denominational distictives and still intersect with a wider Christian community. Thanks Mike Horton for that analogy.
But in all the recent talk about "evangelicals" and the "reformed" I am noticing another trend. To use the same analogy, there is a group of the "reformed" out there who have basically decided to go and sit in their room, lock the door, and do nothing but than rant and moan about how everybody in the evangelical hallway is a theologically defficient turnip and only those in the room with them are among the doctrinally righteous elect. This group is typified by several traits: (1) They are more excited about all the things that they are against than anything that they are for; (2) They preach justification by faith, but in actuality practice justification by polemics; (3) They appear to believe in the inerrancy of a confession over the suffiency of the gospel; (4) They believe in the doctrines of grace, but do not treat others with grace; (5) They believe that unity is overrated; (6) They like doctrines about Jesus more than Jesus himself (and always defer to the Epistles over the Gospels); (7) mission means importing their debates and factions to other churches; and (8) The word "adiaphora" is considered an almost expletive.
If you re-draw the boundary lines between the good guys and bad guys and if you place "evangelicals" on the side of the bad guys, then you are, with respect to your theological compass, lost in a sea of sectarianism or marooned on an island of theological in-breds. Now I know in North America evangelicalism can be an almost nebulous term. For example: (i) Nice people are evangelical; (ii) I am nice people, ergo (iii) I am evangelical. And those who go by the name evangelical include open theists, emergent/emerging, and (heaven forbid) even Anglicans and Democrat-voters! I concede the point in terms of the problem of evangelicalism as a mere cultural affirmation and the strained breadth that evangelicalism as a theological movement appears to take at times. But generally speaking, I think we can recognize that there is a firm and solid evangelical centre that holds together quite well (see the book One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus by Thomas Oden and James I. Packer if you don't believe me). So evangelicalism as a whole is not quite so nominal and nebulous as it is often touted to be by arch-conservatives.
But let's consider, first, that the term "evangelical" was almost a synonym for the reformers at one time so it has, historically, a close link with the reformation, and so it should do. To be evangelical is part of one's Reformed heritage. Second, my dear friends in North America have to learn that outside of North America the things that they regard as badges of evangelicalism may not necessarily be badges elsewhere. For example, nowhere outside of the USA is "inerrancy" the single defining issue for evangelicals. The UCCF statement of faith in the UK refers to the Scriptures as "infallible" not inerrant. At the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem where an international group of Evangelical Anglicans met together, their statement of faith referred to the "sufficiency" of the Scriptures, but there was no reference to inerrancy or infallibility. Ironically, these are people who are besieged by real liberals (not N.T. Wright, Peter Enns, Norman Shepherd, or those Federal Vision chaps, I mean real liberals!) and they do not associate an orthodox view of Scripture with pledging one's allegiance to the Chicago Statement or to B.B. Warfield. Now, if you ask the average non-American evangelical what they believe about Scripture, I think you'll find that they regard it as "true and trustworthy" in every meaningful sense, but without necessarily resorting to the well-worn mantra of the "inerrant autographa" (though I imagine that they might just as well affirm it even if it's not their default setting). In other words, American evangelicals (reformed or otherwise) need to try understand themselves as being one small fish in a much bigger ocean and not expect non-Americans to line up with their own parochial theological proclivities. Moreover, there are also some things about North American evangelicals that Christians outside of North American cannot comprehend: 1. Only north american evangelicals oppose measures to stem global warming, 2. Only north american evangelicals oppose universal health care, and 3. Only north american evangelicals support the Iraq War. Now, to Christians in the rest of the world this is somewhere between strange, funny, and frightening. Why is it that only north american evangelicals support these things? Are the rest of us stupid? It makes many of us suspicious that our North American evangelical friends have merged their theology with GOP economic policy, raised patriotism to an almost idolatrous level, and have a naive belief in the divinely given right of American hegemony. North Americans would do well to take the North-Americanism out of their evangelicalism and try to see Jesus through the eyes of Christians in other lands. To give credit where it is due, America itself has several great religious, political, and economic lessons for the world, but that education must flow in both directions. The paradox of America is that it has the best and worst of everything that there is about Christianity and Humanity! Another paradox is that America (and I think here of North American Evangelicals too) is the only nation in the world that suffers from both solipsism and exhibitionism! Third, I am convinced that what linked many Christians together was not only doctrinal affirmations (e.g. 1 Cor. 15.3-8), but also a common experience (see L.T. Johnson on this point). This reminds me of the words of John Wesley: "If your heart is the same as my heart, you can hold my hand". Let's not forget that John Calvin called his magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion not Intitutes of Christian Theology. For Calvin it was the cultivation of true religion (piety, worship, faith, fellowship) and not doctrine that was the aim of his instruction. In other words, doctrine is not the only grounds for fellowship: experience, ethics, and praxis counts too. Fourth, what is the biblical definition of a Christian? Well, I would point people to Rom. 10.9-10 which is a pretty broad definition. Is there any confessional weight behind that assertion. Consider the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question 22, it asks: "What then must a Christian believe?" Answer: Everything God promises us in the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:30-31). That gospel is summarized for us in the articles of our Christian faith---a creed beyond doubt and confessed throughout the world. This is why I am convinced unto the point of death that what should be the defining characteristic of evangelicalism is one's theological articulation of the evangel and (practically put) what one does with it. To be Reformed, then, is to be an evangelical and to proudly and graciously stand shoulder to shoulder with our evangelical brothers and sisters throughout the world. There endeth the lesson: solum evangelium!