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!


Mme Monette said...

Amen brother Mike! I am a north american evangelical and I think you hit the nail squarely on the head. I pray that more evangelicals read blogs like yours

Anonymous said...

Mike, thanks SO MUCH for this post brother. One would think that if the reformed actually believe in election, they would realise they don't elect who's in the church but God does. Hence, it's not for them to choose which brothers and sisters in Christ they should hang out with. To do so is elitist and snobby. When people claim Christ as Lord and repent I'm in koinonia with them whether I like it or not.

I wonder if Mike Horton's illustration thus isn't flawed. It seems to me that we need to be evangelical first before being denominational. In other words we actually should spend more time in the hallway than in our separate rooms. Thus the analogy breaks down. Perhaps the denomination is a bit like playing a sport that one happens to like with a few friends who also like it on the side. But, it's only on the side!

Blessing to you brother. Hope you're surviving the cold and slush. At least it forces one to get work done.

Stephen said...

Thanks for your reflections. I resonate with them.

Earlier today I was reading part of F. Kefa Semangi’s A Distant Grief: The Real Story Behind the Martyrdom of Christians in Uganda and something he said struck me along the lines of one of your points. In discussing his time at Westminster Theological Seminary he wrote:

Now in the security of a new life and with the reality of death fading from mind, I found myself reading Scripture to analyze texts and speculate about meaning. I came to enjoy abstract theological discussions with my fellow students and, while these discussions were intellectually refreshing, it wasn’t long before our fellowship revolved around ideas rather than the work of God in our lives. It was not the blood of Jesus Christ that gave us unity, but our agreement on doctrinal issues. We came together not for confession and forgiveness but for debate” (179).

In my experience one of the most insidious parts of (north American?) Reformed Theology connects to its supposed strength and contribution to the larger church. Reformed circles take pride in (officially) caring deeply about “what Scripture says” and paying more attention than most to having right doctrine----something for which there is certainly a place in the Kingdom. Along the lines of what you shared, Mike, this turns out to be one of the most insidious aspects of the Reformed world as well. In our zeal to pursue this strength (and along the lines of what I quoted above from Sempangi) we center more on what we believe rather than the One we are to be faithful to. Our tendency to (even love of) fight(ing), to define ourselves against things, and to behave ruthlessly towards others in the church “for the sake of the truth” stand as some of the most wretched fruit of our centering more on doctrine than Christ. Of course we cannot completely separate what we believe from following Christ…but we center on doctrine to our peril.

For many of the reasons you enumerate and reflect upon above, the North American Evangelical and Reformed world often makes me sick…especially with its triumphalism and arrogance. I just hope my wife and I may continue to serve others within our church and the broader world faithfully, without getting too mangled by the constant fighting and devouring that goes on around us.

Matt Jenson said...

Mike. This rocks. That's theological jargon for 'I really like it - a lot'...

Jordan Barrett said...

Do these comments stem from your experience of NA Evangelicals, from your reading of them (thus maybe limited to scholars/pastors), or from NA friends of yours? I think you hit the nail on the head on a few points, but if I'm being honest, some of the criticisms are more trendy than accurate

John Davies said...

Much in agreement, though some of what you depict can sadly now be said of the Australian evangelical/reformed scene (another dubious US export to the antipodes).
John Davies

::aaron g:: said...

Nice post.

AJ said...

Really excellant.

Ironic that it is some of Mike Horton's closest colleagues that are the well described by your eight points.

It is noticeable how often they use the word 'heresy' when referring to other evangelicals.

There are a going number of reformed UK ministers who are falling into this camp, both inside and outside the anglican church.

Nick said...

To steal and change a phrase by N.T. Wright, "You do not become a Christian by believing in TULIP!"

Gerald said...


Nice posts--many good points.

Regarding the stance of North American Evangelicals on issues such as the Iraq war, etc: it's helpful to hear what those outside the situation have to say about it. North American Evangelicals need to do more of this. But the adverse is true; sometimes it's hard to speak meaningfully to a situation from the outside. I once had a professor who developed all of his views on divorce and remarriage from the comfortable confines of the classroom. But when he later became a pastor and had to actually counsel those going through it, things weren't so nice and neat anymore. All of that to say this: both sides need to ask themselves if they're blind to some piece of data only the other side can see. Probably we both are.

Enjoy the blog--many blessings.

dopderbeck said...

Excellent post! What precisely do you mean by "one's theological articulation of the evangel?"

Peter Parslow said...

Our British liberal media particularly picks up on your political batch of descriptions for their understanding of "evangelical", and assume it applies to us here in England too (contrary to evidence, quite often). This for me is one of the key reasons to drop the label "evangelical": it no longer means (to my friends) what it used to, and now gets in the way.

Allen said...

I'm a born and raised and fully supportive, believing Reformed Christian in the Christian Reformed Church studying at Calvin Seminary. I am certainly not sure what Reformed people you're talking about. Those aren't the ones I know or am a part of. It is quite dangerous to generalize a whole segment of our brothers and sisters. We all hate it when all Christians are lumped into one category, "Fundamental evangelicals who only vote republican." By the same token it would be inappropriate to lump all postmoderns into the McClaren or Pagitt camp, if you know what I mean.