United Against Theology

I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?

I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology.

My point is not to attack Smith, he is a philosopher and is simply doing what he believes he is called to as a Christian philosopher. My point is to note that evangelicals seem continually poised to try and answer the question: How do we make this God thing work – without addressing dogmatic theology. Or, in other words, the evangelical starting point is fundamentally anti-theological. It tends to baptize philosophies, images, metaphors and anthropologies (in the case of Smith), and turn to rough-and-ready frameworks to adopt as solutions. Doctrine, when finally considered, is brought in to “Christianize” an account. Nowhere is this more evident than discussions of practices in churches, where former CEO’s write books about leadership that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ or the gospel, but with time management and subtle manipulation of others, where preaching is boiled down to rhetoric and growth is simply human self-realization with some Christiany stuff thrown in.

Therefore, it seems that evangelicals, like moth to the flame, find themselves strangely drawn to an account simply if it is common-sensical and a-theological. Theological reasoning, to put it more positively, is too foreign to make sense. Theology,therefore, is simply left to decide who is good and who is bad, which then morphs into movements whose fundamental orientation (like almost all movements in evangelicalism) is idolatry (for my post outlining this see here).

I am curious to hear any theories about this development. Is it simply the pragmatism that is inherent in American evangelicalism? Could it be that there is, hiding under the surface, a subconscious belief in the post-millennialism of Edwards, which creates a curious church-world relation, and the assumption that God’s eschatological advancement will equal a rise in both church membership and Christian experience? Any ideas?


12 thoughts on “United Against Theology

  1. Kyle,

    Rather than “Evangelicals hate theology,” how about “evangelicals have a hard time understanding theology, esp. the constructive kind”? It seems that there are many reasons why this is, but i think 2 might candidate well for the position. (1) The curious history of, at least 20th c., evangelicalism contained so much doctrinal (hence, identity) confusion. I think this point could be subdivided ad infinitem. (2) It seems also that many popular evangelicals earned PhDs in disciplines other than theology (esp. NT), and have majored on biblical exegesis, breeding somewhat of a suspicion (ignorance?) of dogmatic theology, especially since specific doctrinal constructs have been so identity-forming. And then, strangely, some of these (a-theological types) have attempted to don the theologian’s cap, even defining evangelical theology from within their disciplines, and that, FOR THE CHURCH.

    It seems that you’re raising questions about some serious issues related to our present context that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. But I don’t think evangelicals hate theology. They love it – but just don’t understand it.

    • Jason, your first suggestion is entirely too charitable for theology forum! I like the middle ground you offer, that evangelicals, for the most part, are suspicious of theology, particularly dogmatic theology. I do think it is a bit stronger than this, on the whole. I think that the individuals you mentioned who have done doctoral work in other areas actually want Christianity to be read through their task in toto, and often attempt, purposely, to undermine the validity of the systematic-theological task.

      This is why I think Smith is so interesting. He is a part of a line of Dutch philosophers who are interested in taking the Bible, cultural analysis and philosophy and developing a (Christian?) philosophical way forward. I think, deep down, that many evangelicals are just more comfortable with this because it avoids dogmatics.

  2. Option (a) for sure. Bebbington, the preeminent historian of evangelicalism, puts it this way, calling it an “instrumentalist” view of doctrinal theology:

    “[Early evangelicals] did champion doctrines that related directly to salvation, but the beliefs were appreciated chiefly as necessary instruments for converting people to Christ: ‘They cared for their “truth”, wrote Dale, ‘as a general cares for his guns and ammunition, or as a mechanic cares for his tools; not as an artist of genius cares for his canvas.’

    This certainly carries over into today, but I wouldn’t say its an aversion to theology; rather its a perception of theology’s role and function cordoned off from the lived existence of the individual.

  3. Kyle,

    Thanks for the theorizing. It seems you can’t claim any sort of evangelical heritage these days without confronting what I really think is an important generational change.

    I’m not entirely convinced that the watershed is theology vs. practice. That seems like an entirely plausible distinction to make for an earlier generation of evangelicals. Perhaps I’m reading too much into anecdotal evidence, but I tend to think that the appeal of Radical Orthodoxy or narrative theology or liturgy is particular to a younger generation of evangelicals. And I don’t see these younger evangelicals owning the same anti-dogmatic tendencies of their parents. Off hand, I can’t think of any sustained, self-consciously liturgical movement which was not integrated with some dogmatic trend (it’s for this reason that I remain skeptical about the longevity of the ancient-future movement).

    If evangelicalism is taking a postmodern turn, it may be toward a more historicist-narratival view of theology, but it does seem like theology has a newfound importance for the younger generation. I’m not sure exactly how this social imaginary will play itself out, but I’m fairly hopeful. Perhaps the orthopraxy is just preceding the orthodoxy in this first stage?

    • Davey, I am less surprised by the younger evangelicals going this direction as well, but as far as I can tell, it is the older generations that are grasping Smith’s work so readily. I think you are right that younger evangelicals will spend more time doing serious theological work than their parents generation did (on the whole).

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. I think that evangelicals have turned from ‘theology’ because it doesn’t fit their desire for (epistemological) certainty. Look at the popular names of evangelical theology (Grudem, Piper, Ravi Zacharias, Francis Schaeffer, etc) and what are the overlapping principles? At least one of them is a kind of apologetics that has turned into analytical philosophy in which not just God but the entirety of evangelical belief can be and is proven. If someone doesn’t have that as a goal, then it must not be good theology to these evangelicals because it either (1) doesn’t prove faith or (2) theorises about something evangelicals are uncomfortable theorising (and I think this is a perversion of negative theology in that if it is partially unknowable or mysterious, then don’t talk about it at all).
    Secondly, with their greater focus on Biblical studies, I think evangelicals tend to disregard the theoretical stuff that isn’t tied directly to some kind of exegetical kung fu (i.e. if it’s not clearly in the Bible, then it’s not worth discussion). I think this is why we see some really extreme stuff (I remember a home school curriculum which claimed to have derived its entire programme from the Bible — including arithmetic, science, English, etc). So I think it’s safe to say that evangelicals have an aversion (if not an allergy) to ‘academic’ theology (whether it is doctrinal, dogmatic, systematic, etc) but not to theology as a concept. Every time I go home and people hear that I’m studying theology, they ask me what I think of the latest popular books from IinterVarsity or LifeWay, never something that I would see mentioned in a theology journal.

  5. Interesting as this proposal is, it seems to me that there are Evangelicals and then there are Evangelicals. Who exactly are we talking about?

    Is it really the same folks who are reading ‘Desiring the Kingdom’ and digging some of the stuff in there – that are tuning in to “CEO’s write books about leadership that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ or the gospel”?

    Maybe, but who are these people?

    • Mike, I figured someone would raise this. It is a good point – first, are we even able to talk about “evangelicalism” in any helpful manner, and second, is there an audience within evangelicalism for this kind of work (Smith’s) that goes beyond my caricature? I do find it interesting that Smith’s book won one of Christianity Today’s book of the year awards (I don’t remember the category). I just find it interesting that his work, which hits on so many classic evangelical fears, is getting so much attention in evangelicalism broadly.

  6. Kyle,

    All I can say amen, to your vent. As an “Evangelical” I sense the same bewilderment as I try to engage my brethren with the logic that dogmatic theology presents.

    I think “Evanglecalism,” by and large can be defined by fear (per its “Fundy” roots). As B. B. Warfield called it, the “Apologetic Religion,” and he should know. Their is a constant pietistic introspective fear that causes the Evangelical to wonder what the world thinks of them; which means there’s really no time to engage in positive dogmatic theology — just ‘negative’ reactions to the questions that the “world” poses. That’s the way I would define “contemporary Evangelicalism” — “The Religion driven by the fear of man.” But I still see some reedemable parts, thus my continued identification as an Evangelical (probably more historically defined though).

    Anyway, I didn’t read any of the preceding comments, but I thought I would throw my 2 cents.

  7. A much more charitable take on the prevalence of apologetics within “Evangelicalism” is that Evangelicals – whatever else they love or hate – do a fair amount of evangelism.

    It’s not just that their theology includes places for mission and evangelism, lots of them really do it and I think the practice of evangelism often includes apologetics. Maybe it should involve less or none at all – not my point. Only that Evangelicals, often, really think people should believe the Gospel and really try to get them to – hence apologetics takes a front seat.

    Again that could be wrong headed in it’s approach to evangelism but its not he same as lusting after “(epistemological) certainty” or worrying about “what the world thinks of them”. Those charges are certainly true in some measure but they don’t tell the whole story.

  8. Here’s another charitable take on the phenomena Kyle mentions (this is mostly speculative). Perhaps evangelicals simply don’t read what some here and elsewhere consider good theology or even theology simpliciter. Perhaps the reason for this is that evangelicals see stuff like the Jesus Seminar and the like and think that it’s somewhat representative of what goes on in contemporary academia. Perhaps they hear of various compromises on the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture and they simply don’t want to waste their time on that sort of theology. I’m honestly not sure that this is at all correct, but it could be, at least for certain segments of the evangelical population. Just a thought.

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