Evangelicals and Tradition

In my last post on Evangelical idolatry I focused on the various movements in evangelicalism and how they tend to be attached to various kinds of idolatry. In the discussion on Facebook, unfortunately not had on the post itself, it was suggested to me that evangelicals cannot honestly be concerned with the Christian tradition and still be Evangelical! I find this both possible and shocking. I have often said that if you want to be miserable (and are Evangelical), the best way is to study either theology or Church History, but I never imagined that giving the tradition any weight whatsoever would preclude you from being Evangelical.

I find this suggestion interesting because it could very well help to delineate two kinds of evangelicalism – as well as help explain why evangelicals tend towards either fundamentalism or frustration. Fundamentalism because they border on, or accept wholesale, bibliolotry, such as post-Reformed heretics who were biblicists Continue reading

Evangelical Idolatry

I have been thinking, as of late, about the various strategies in evangelicalism to navigate the marketplace of ideas. It seems to me that the typical evangelical strategy to “win” (sorry, I don’t mean this to be polemical (yet) but I can’t think of another word which is accurate), is simply to create something of a boys club. In other words, we surround ourselves with people who both agree with every word that comes our of our mouth and who won’t actually attack our views in any significant way. This is enough, in itself, to be idolatry, but it rarely stops there. The next step is to start a movement. A movement, in these terms, is nothing more than simply organizing leadership and adopting worldly strategies for kingdom building. Once teaching, leadership and dogma can be disseminated, there is a twofold turn outwards: First, a turn outwards to evangelize – not Christ as much as the movement itself – and, second, a turn outwards to attack anyone who thinks differently. The latter turn stems from the inherent fundamentalism in evangelicalism which equates difference with danger.

So, why this seemingly random rant about evangelical idolatry? Well, I have been thinking about what a healthy movement of the church might look like, and I didn’t have any examples. All the movements I can see, from my perspective, seem to be endlessly idolatrous. Continue reading

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

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David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Being Evangelical

It seems that the topic of evangelicalism and its somewhat fluid demarcations have struck a cord with many of our visitors, so I wanted to re-address the issue from a different perspective. James’ post asked questions concerning the lowest common denominator of evangelicalism, and from that, we’ve had several interesting issues raised. He decided to remove it since the responses forced him to realize that one could see revivalism as more essential to evangelicalism than the two convictions he proffered. And revivalism’s importance for the evangelical identity is precisely what I want to explore here.

It seems that many see a genetic link between evangelicals and revivalism, in some form or another, and that it is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) attribute of being evangelical. My question for us here is whether or not this could explain some of the friction within the camp at large? Not to be overly reductionistic, but wouldn’t one way of seeing the conservative/liberal debates of the last century be in terms of the centrality and denial of revivalism respectively? Likewise, I can’t help but wonder if those of us who bemoan the evangelical (stereotypically speaking of conservative American evangelicalism) obsession with staying “relevant,” and constantly lowering Christian practice, worship and living to the lowest common denominator are really just hitting the wall of revivalism? Could we understand the missional, emergent and spiritual formation discussions in light of this issue – as those who, in trying to be biblically responsible, have in the end denied a central tenent of the movement they wish to breath new life into?

In other words, does being evangelical neccessitate preaching a revival-oriented gospel, leaving every other non-revivalist gospel outside the moniker “evangelical” (even though it be considered roughly “Christian” but no doubt disconcerting nonetheless)? If this is the case, could we see revivalism as the subconscious and cultural reality that actually orients the other main features of the movement so that the theological distinctives are really “theological distinctives in light of the revival-gospel?”

What are your thoughts? Is this too reductionistic to be helpful, or can this be used to talk about the nature of evangelicalism and the movements that have never found a true home in the conversation?

Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. Continue reading

Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).

The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.

In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.

‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Continue reading

John Webster on taking Dogmatic Delight in the Gospel

The best evangelical theological work emerges from the delight in the Christian gospel, for the gospel announces a reality which is in itself luminous, persuasive, and infinitely satisfying. That reality is Jesus Christ as he gives himself to be an object for creaturely knowledge, love, and praise. To think evangelically about this one is to think in his presence, under the instruction of his Word and Spirit, and in the fellowship of the saints. And it is to do so with cheerful confidence that his own witness to himself if unimaginably more potent than any theological attempts to run to his defense.

Christology responds to the self-communicative presence of its object in the twofold work of exegesis and dogmatics…Exegesis is served by dogmatics, whose task is to look for systematic connections between the constituent parts of the Christian gospel, and to attempt their orderly and well-proportioned exposition. In particular, dogmatics can help to prevent the distortions of perspective which can be introduced into an account of the faith by, for example, pressure from polemical concerns or excessive regard for extra-theological norms (‘Jesus Christ’ in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology‘ pp. 60-1).