I saw two interesting bits of controversy this past week. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by either of them but I was disturbed by the way they overlapped. The first item was a post as part of a series at Pangea (on Patheos). This one was reeling over the evangelical credibility of C.S. Lewis. Apparently his views on the subject of hell were a little too open-ended and remind some self-proclaimed watchdogs of the views in a recent controversy surrounding you know who and his book.
Over the past decades there has been an increasingly contentious debate about the invisible boundary of evangelicalism. Apparently some have become so concerned that even historical figures who were previously safe (even adored) are in danger if their views are found to be too loose for the contemporary conservative backlash.
I was only mildly concerned by this whole line of reasoning. Then, I found out that this past Sunday, the NY Times called Michelle Bachman the evangelical candidate in the Republican primary pool.
So my question is:
- what are the criteria that we are using for this public label of evangelical whereby the quintessential embodiment from the past century (C.S. Lewis) is out and tea-party candidate Michelle Bachmann is in?
- who is in change of making these determinations?
- what are the demarcations that signify whether someone is “in” or “out”?
This is something that I care deeply about as a Methodist minister (UMC) who is the son of a Methodist minister (Free Methodist) we are both proudly Wesleyan in theology. I think that whatever definition we use it should at least be inclusive of our most historical marquee figures and flagship franchises.
I like to use the definition from British Historian David Bebbington as a starting point. We should at least establish a historical framework. [here is an interview with evangelical scholar Mark Noll where he talks about it]
The four keys are:
conversionism: new birth and a new life with God
biblicism: reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority
activism: concern for sharing the faith
crucentrism: focus on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross
Admittedly, those four emphasis take on a different tone and tenor in each generation. They take on different manifestations in each generation. The presence of these four however is a stabilizing theme that runs through the many historical maturations through the centuries and around the globe. These four themes also hold together whether ones utilizes a bounded-set mentality for marking boundaries or a center-set framework to encourage a shared focus.
I celebrate these four themes and find them even amongst my more progressive friends. They could say these four things with confidence:
- Relationship with God changes you personally internal and your relationships (external) .
- The Bible is central as the Christian Scripture and sets both the agenda and the example.
- One’s faith should both be shared (relationally) and will consequently impact the world around you.
- God’s work in Christ is what illuminates and inspires the life of the Christian – Christ revealed God is a unique and significant way. Jesus’ way is to be our way.
This kind of faith is something that I am inspired by and find deep fulfillment by participating in. I am nervous that a reactionary period of retrenchment by the religious right , moral majority, or other politicized conservative groups would see evangelicals like myself and C.S. Lewis pushed out and figures like Michelle Bachmann made central.
July 21, 2011 at 2:16 am
I would agree with three of your four points so I guess that makes me a 3/4 evangelical. I see Jesus and not the Bible as central. Jesus sets the agenda and is our example. While the Bible is a source of authority, the ultimate source of authority is the Holy Spirit. I would also disagree with referring to Christ’s revelation of God to be past tense. I am a pretty interesting amalgamation of Evangelical, Charismatic, Anabaptist and Quaker, so pretty much everyone thinks that something I believe is heretical. I don’t mind because I am reasonably certain that everyone is somewhat heretical in their own special way.
July 21, 2011 at 2:39 am
WOw. that is some deep stuff. Let me ask two questions:
1) most evangelicals would say that the PRIMARY way we see Jesus’ example is IN the Bible. So the two become kinda inseparable at some level. Thoughts?
2) as far as past tense, if someone believes in ongoing or progressive revelation, can they view the creeds as inspired / authoritative? Would you go with that?
thanks for the thought provoking post. -Bo
July 21, 2011 at 3:57 am
Thanks Bo, While the Bible contains accounts of parts of Jesus life, they are nothing more than inspirational stories without direct relationship with Christ. The missing piece to all 4 of the parts of evangelicalism is the Holy Spirit, without whom we cannot hope to begin to understand what exactly is being communicated in the scriptures. So I would say the primary way we encounter Jesus is through the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I honestly believe that someone could have never picked up the bible in their whole lives, yet through obeying the Holy Spirit in relationship could live more faithfully the values of God’s kingdom than some theologians I know. So I think it is actually dangerous to see the Living Word of Jesus and God’s words of the Bible as the same. Yes, the Bible teaches us and can be used by the Spirit to lead us to Jesus, but the end goal is not to know the Bible, the end goal is to know Jesus.
I think the creeds were inspired and appropriate to their time, I don’t know that the Hellenistic worldview they are based on fits with current understandings of the way the world works or even with Hebraic understandings. So I think it is a bit problematic to speak of essences in a time when Plato’s realm of ideas is a funny way to look at human thought constructs, but in no way reflects reality.
Honestly I see ultimate authority as being discernible through the conjunction of three things: the inward teaching of Christ through the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and the eternal community of faith. When those three agree it is hard to go wrong. To answer about the creeds I see them as part of the discerned work of the eternal community of faith.
Does that clarify things? I am enjoying your blog (and the conversation) quite a bit.
July 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm
I get the Bebbington/Noll definition. In my view it may be a good account of MODERN evangelicalism, but can we take another look at how useful it is in helping us to grasp a BIBLICAL, post-modern, evangelicalism, as such? For instance in my view, the emphasis on a gospel of personal salvation, which is what three of the four points seem to emphasize, seriously tilts the biblical narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, individual salvation is (of course) hugely important, but “me-and-my-salvation” are not the be-all and end-all of Christianity. As you know, and as N.T.Wright affirms (and even rails about in his book on Justification) the salvation of human beings, though of course extremely important, is part of a larger purpose.
At any rate, I think there is a narrative-historical framework that might be an alternative to the Bebbington/Noll paradigm. For instance, one of the four main beliefs, “the centrality of the Bible” might be re-worded to say, “the centrality of the biblical narrative” — as opposed to the biblical text — where we have a dynamic and contextualized story-line regarding the sovereign action of Creator God in history with respect both to his people and to the nations. I think we need to rediscover a biblical IDENTITY (rather than simply being “biblical”) — a relationship to the narrative — especially today under the particular circumstances of the collapse of Christendom and the failure of Christian modernity.
Lastly, I think David Fitch (great interview with him on Homebrewed by the way) shows us what can happen with paradigms like Bebbigton and Noll have constructed; how over time they become redefined “Master Signifiers” which people gather around to claim identity and form walls. Fitch lists them as “the inerrant Bible”, “the decision for Christ” and “the Christian nation”. Toward this end Fitch identifies three parallel historical commitments which he believes have the potential for grounding a renewed evangelicalism. In his book “The End of Evangelicalism?” He fleshes out a vision of how re-grounding these commitments in our post-Christendom age have the potential to launch evangelicalism quite far down the road toward renewal. May we have the courage to hear his challenges and those of others like Wright who are bringing renewed emphasis to the corporate nature of the church and doing the hard theological work on the ground.
July 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm
This is so irritating. One thing is for sure, people need to focus On their own salvation and work it out with fear and trembling, not gaze on another’s with such intense scrutiny. It is such a a human (not Godly) thing to tear someone else apart with a severity one would never apply to yourself! Was CS Lewis a Evangelical? I don’t know…are you? And depending on your definition perhaps I am not one either. Like A wise contributor pointed out on a relatively recent Homebrewed podcast…we should not allow someone else (like the news media) hijack our descriptive adjectives and redefine them for us while we stand idly by. This is becoming ridiculous. Who even knows what it means to Liberal or Conservative anymore? When our words are destroyed we lose something important. Not cool!
August 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm
It is very clear to me that this is an unfortunate use of terminology by the main stream media to paint any political candidate that does not agree with the current trend of political views as a right wing ‘evangelical’ christian nut job. You see we all should be interested in what is happening to our country and be involved (or at least interested) in politics. Aside from what Jesus teaches and Holy Spirit guides us to do to help each other, politics has become a volatile arena that is trending towards labeling any person interested in Christianity at all as a right wing extremist…..just lovin Jesus will become a bad thing. You are right Nathan, it is becoming ridiculous but unfortunately will become much worse than that if we are not alert in our knowledge and view of where our political leaders are taking our society.