Well, this blogger is back, and as you can tell from the title of this post having an identity crisis. In fact, I should warn you that I am still not in fact fully back blogging. Until my book is actually ready to submit to my publishers, I plan on continuing to mostly limit my posting to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and this post like the following was written a while back.
I have been thinking for some while about definitions. I have always been happy to first of all label myself as a Christian. There is of course a lot of confusion about how we can define what is a Christian. With Billions of people holding to that name, it has loosely come to mean any “follower of Jesus”. As much as I might want to resist that and instill all kinds of content into my personal definition of Christianity, I live in a world that has defined the word very very broadly. As a result, for a form of shorthand it is helpful to use other words to define what we believe.
For most of my life, the words I have used most to describe my set of beliefs have been “Charismatic” and “Evangelical”. The meaning of “charismatic” is fairly straightforward, ie a belief in the continuation of spiritual gifts, though I do not hesitate to say that much of what happens under that label fills me with dread and revulsion. I especially resist the tendency of many charismatics to devalue the word of God, instead I really do “want it all“!
The word “evangelical” , however, seems to rapidly be becoming less clear. It was once used as a clear alternative to “liberal”. I remember meeting people in years gone by who were dismissive of us “evangelicals” and much happier to use the label “liberal” of themselves. Liberals were seen as more culturally relevant, as thinkers, as modern, and as somehow “fairer” and less “bigotted”.
The Evangelical movement once seemed to be a small minority within the church, but one that clearly stood for something. There was obviously disagreement within the movement – you could have charismatic and non-charismatic, baptist and pedobaptist, anglican and free-church, calvinist and arminians. But we all stood together and saw ourselves consciously as one movement. We read the same books, we sometimes even attended the same conferences.
The liberal movement I knew of in my youth basically died and faded away. Evangelicalism rose and became ascendent. The churches that beleived in the gospel in a dogmatic and clear way were growing. Those that rejected traditional teachings shrunk to almost nothing so that the old liberal majority suddenly seemed to have practically disappeared. For a while it almost seemed as if evangelicalism had won the day, at least in England. Evangelicals had the biggest churches, the biggest conferences, the biggest book and music sales, and even started radio and TV stations. Evangelicalism became big business.
Now, however, a new insidious tendency has arisen within this broad family. It seems to have really begun only in the last few years. Within the camp people are challenging doctrines we once all held dear and assumed were part of the definition of being evangelical. Interestingly most of the time these people only challenge one such aspect, and are very reluctant to accept the label “liberal”. I call them the neo-liberals, because at root I do not see any difference between their thinking and that of the old liberals. We might argue that liberalism was about the accomodation of theology to modern thinking. Neoliberalism is about the accomodation of theology to post modern thought. One of its key distinctives, however, is a reluctance to accept previously accepted definitions of terms and instead to redefine them to be more inclusive. So for example, rather than Steve Chalke derriding evangelicalism and separating from its institutions on the grounds they are outmoded for believing in Penal Substitution, he is working from within to redefine evangelicalism to include people who hold to his perspective. The real shame falls upon those who still claim to be orthodox and yet do not believe that doctrine is important enough to take a stand over. Are we expected to simply roll over and accept that Evangelicalism is now so broad a concept it is no longer meaningful?
The following passasge on Parableman demonstrates the problem exactly. He is trying to explain exactly what are the boundaries to modern day evangelicalism and is clearly struggling!
[Those who have some liberal views but can still be defined as evangelical] would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element … who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end. . ., who are universalists of the sort that they’re convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated . . .who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ’s sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view . . .rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition. . .I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don’t actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn’t be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it’s hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That’s just theological liberalism in its most plain form.
So I’m certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism. . . one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It’s a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I’m not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. . . Some evangelicals want to restrict the term ‘Christian’ so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it’s linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean. READ MORE
If we accept Jeremy’s perspective (and it does seem to be rather becomming mainstream) then maybe we need another word to identify ourselves with. “Reformed” is really too restrictive as it tends to mean “Calvinist” and so excludes evangelical arminians such as Wesley. One could try and stress the five solas rather than the five points, but that probably wont do for our Arminian brothers. So, what word then? It seems to me we have only two viable alternatives short of creating a new word or concept. The term “born again” is one, but since that is more about a religious conversion experience and less
about certain theological content as useful as that word is, I am not sure it is helpful in bringing definition to the movement that is rapidly emerging. That is not to say that I don’t value the concept incredibly highly. In fact, I think Piper’s book on this subject, Finally Alive is his most important volume yet!
The only other term I can come up with is “Conservative Evangelical“. For me this is ironic, as throughout most of my Christian life I was defined as clearly not belonging to that group. Conservatives were by definition it seemed not charismatic, and I would have held them in as much suspicion as they would no doubt have held me. But, as the bridges have been built, and the neoliberal assaults have unfolded, I do think that bible-believing people from many different backgrounds have been finding that we have more in common with each other than we previously realised. The internet and conferences such as Together For The Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and New Word Alive have all been a major force for that discovery. As a result, for example, yesterday, we had Hugh Palmer of All Souls preach for us at Jubilee Church.