Several years ago Carl Trueman wrote these words:
“Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.”
“Is the Reformation Over?” (HT: Esteban Vázquez)
In this first post I will not answer the question, “Why am I not Catholic?” I will explain my reasons for not crossing the Tiber soon enough. Instead, today, I will begin from the “positive” side of the matter: Why am I an E/evangelical?
I am hesitant to use the word “Evangelical” with a capital “E” because right now Evangelicalism is a word with no static meaning. It is in flux. For some, Evangelicals are one and the same with the Religious Right or the Moral Majority. Al Mohler, the late Jerry Falwell, or James Dobson may represent this thread of the movement. Nor do I find comfort in the Evangelicalism represented by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen, and others who are icons of what has become “mainstream” Evangelicalism. I resonate with the efforts of people like Billy Graham and John Stott to create a broad coalition, though this is easier said than done, which may be why some are predicting the collapse of Evangelicalism.
The “mission” of Evangelicalism is hard to define as well: are we to Christianize culture? Are we to “save” as many “souls from hell” as possible, even if the Gospel of the apostolic church had more to do with discipleship than we’d like to admit? Evangelicals don’t know the answer to this question as a whole.
Similarly, doctrinally, Evangelicalism lacks a central creed to define who is “in” and who is “out.” David Bebbington (in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s) argued for these four identity markers: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Evangelicals aim to convert people to Christ. Converts need to have some sort of “born again” experience. This is individualistic in nature. In other words, one is not born a Christian. Paedobaptism has not been accepted by many Evangelicals, traditionally (though this has changed recently as we find coalitions including the Reformed and Baptists now), because every adult or young adult must have that moment when they “personally” confess Jesus as Lord and Savior (oddly, there has been a debate in the past about whether one can call Jesus “Savior” and not “Lord”). Yet this approach to conversionism has its challenges. We have come to see that “revival” and being “seeker sensitive” has done something nasty to our religion. We don’t know what it is exactly, but as one person has said it, “Christianity in American is three thousand miles wide and one inch deep.”
Activism may be the most controversial of the four points. Evangelicals in Great Britain were involved in the demise of the slave trade. Evangelicals have challenged social evils at various points, failed at others, but the ethos allows for civic engagement. In other words, Evangelicals do not retreat from the public square. In the United States Evangelicals are polarizing and contradictory. We fight for the right of the unborn, but we did little to protest our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We may open soup kitchens and orphanages, but we have found ourselves supporting larger systemic realities that prevent people from escaping poverty. We have a s0-so record on racial equality and we do not know what to do with the LGBTQ community. Evangelicals have split over these matters: Some fighting abortion tooth and nail; others willing to compromise. Some fighting for “traditional marriage” while others fight for “marriage equality.” Some “support the troops” while others support the troops by demanding our government keep them at home. If activism is a unifying factor we can’t agree on how to go about it.
Biblicism is a debated definition as well. For a while if one was an Evangelical one used the word “inerrancy” to define Scripture. The Bible isn’t wrong about anything, at all, ever. It is perfect in matters of sociology, science, and the sacred. Evangelicals aligned with the fundamentalist side of Christianity on this matter, but over time as Evangelicals have engaged higher criticism we have had to rethink our Bible. Even those who maintain a perfect Bible put a lot of work into explaining how this works. Others have abandoned the defense of an inerrant Bible using words like “infallible,” i.e. the gist of the Bible is perfectly true and sufficient at a metanarrative level. Some prefer “authoritative,” which may mean something or nothing depending on who you ask. For the most part most Evangelicals approach the Bible with a “hermeneutic of trust.” We want to believe what it says, so we begin there and if we abandon our ideals it is with great remorse. This may be the biggest difference between so-called “Progressive Christians” and less traditional Evangelicals, but the line between many Evangelicals and Progressive Christianity or even Protestant Liberalism is a thinning one. You can find many Evangelicals embracing higher criticism, denouncing the historicity of Adam or Noah’s flood, admitting that the genocidal narrative of the Book of Joshua are immoral or close to it, and so forth and so on. Previous generations of Evangelicals wouldn’t know what to do with this “conceding of ground” and many contemporary ones do not know what to do either.
Crucicentrism is the proposition that the Christian Gospel is centered on the death of Jesus. We do not deny that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, but many Evangelicals cannot agree on what happened on Good Friday. Should we use language like “substitutionary atonement?” Did Jesus satisfy a wrathful God by dying or do we need to rethink the meaning of Jesus’ death? Also, what about the resurrection? Does the crucifixion mean anything if Jesus did not overcome death?
I don’t know if I am a big “E” Evangelical. I will let others decide. Personally, I affirm that God’s saving work, God’s renewal of the cosmos, began in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It continues through his mediatory work for us before the Father. It will be consummated at Jesus’ Second Coming to establish his Kingdom fully on earth as New Creation replaces Old. I want everyone to be a Christian because I think Jesus is that important, but unlike many Evangelicals I do not feel comfortable with speaking for God as regards who can and cannot be reconciled to him.
Activism matters to me, but I have been tempted by the anabaptist approach of being an “alternative community” rather than trying to grasp power to force culture to Christianize. I know, there is a difference between using power and being “salt and light,” but I don’t know how to go about this usually. Some causes are easier for me to embrace; others I want to avoid altogether. Sometimes I am apathetic. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the state of the world so I use my money to go buy something comforting, like ice cream.
I approach the Bible as a nexus where I can be lead by the Spirit of God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with it. I don’t know what do with many portions of Scripture. I use higher criticism in my own studies and I don’t need a perfect, inerrant Bible to be a Christian. Oddly, some Patristic exegesis has made me rethink how I read the Bible. When Origen wrote that problematic parts of Scripture were inserted by God to make us stop and ask about the “deeper meaning” he said something that appeals to me, kind of. I don’t know that I can allegorize everything that bothers me, but I am OK with stopping, praying, questioning, and allowing Scripture to discomfort and interrupt me without explaining away everything apologetically.
I affirm the Gospel as a God’s chosen King establishing God’s Kingdom on earth. That King is Jesus. While the “Gospel” is being discussed and debated by many at this time I am willing and excited to engage my siblings in Christ and the world on this topic. If we do not understand the Gospel, then what are we doing? If Evangelicalism means that we begin our fellowship, discussion, and debate around the Gospel and its implications then call me an Evangelical. This is how I understand my Evangelicalism. It may be “mere Christianity,” but that is where I am confident: the basics (not saying we agree on the basics, but there is a basic ethos shared by most Christians that has more in common than not).
Now, I am one who has come to agree that Evangelicalism as a “denomination” is problematic. Rather, I see Evangelicalism as an ethos. It is a movement within denominations and churches that reminds Christians to come back to the Gospel. The Gospel is not something we learn at the “start,” but then abandon. The Gospel is Christianity. Currently, I worship with a Mennonite congregation. Can I be “Evangelical” and “Mennonite?” Yes, I think. Mennonites have a tradition that informs their doctrine and practice. Mostly, I can embrace Mennonite Christianity, but Mennonites, like Presbyterians, or Anglicans, or even Catholics may find themselves so engaged in being this or that type of Christian that the core of Christianity–the Gospel–disappears into the background. Evangelicals exist across these traditions to remind Anglicans debating over whether to allow women to be Bishops, or Presbyterians debating whether to ordain people involved in same sex relations, or Pentecostals debating whether “speaking with tongues” is essential to Pentecostalism, that none of this matters if we forget the Gospel: the proclamation that God has invaded the world, established his Kingdom, chosen his King, and sent ambassadors into the world to announce, “Be reconciled to God!”
Oddly, my definition of “Evangelical” doesn’t prevent JohnDave from embracing a label such as “Evangelical Catholic” and I’m fine with that. That is the Evangelicalism I know. It is a movement, an ethos, that embraces Christians across a variety of traditions seeking to renew the C/church by calling her back to her central proclamation then working on peripheral matters from there.
Next up: JohnDave will explain why he is a Catholic.