Deconstructing "evangelicalism"

What is “deconstruction,” anyway?  Well, I’ve been reading a lot about that and it turns out it’s not at all what I had been told.  It’s not “destruction” but rather has a positive agenda–to expose idols for what they are and help institutions and movements (etc.) improve themselves by becoming more open, more just and more flexible.

A basic presupposition of deconstruction is that all ideologies are idols because they usurp the place of God (for Christian deconstructionists) and/or claim to be what no human system can be–totalizing, monolithic, all-encompassing explanatory schemes that function as God (for secular deconstructionists).

According to Peter Rollins (How [Not] to Speak of God) (depending largely on Christian philosopher Merold Westphal) there are at least two principles of deconstruction: the principle of finitude and the principle of suspicion.  These, along with some other possible deconstructive principles, serve as critical tools for exposing idols.

Today some are making an idol out of “evangelicalism.”  They are doing that by insisting that it is a closed system, exclusive of all but themselves and those who think just like them, always the same (impervious to change and development), absolutely and objectively true (unbiased, without perspective) and bounded by identifiable boundaries (propositional truths) impervious to outsiders or new ideas and established by “the received evangelical tradition.”

Of course, few evangelicals would put it this way, but one can easily detect this notion of evangelicalism by reading some of its self-appointed spokesmen.

My intention is not at all to critique authentic evangelicalism, although it is always improvable, but rather my intention is to deconstruct the concept of evangelicalism being promoted by some conservatives.

My first deconstructive move is to demonstrate the aporia of a movement with boundaries.  I’ve written about this here before, but it bears repeating.  Evangelicalism is a movement and a movement, by definition, cannot have boundaries.  Thus, it is simply ridiculous to think of or to talk about evangelical boundaries.  Evangelicalism would have to have a magisterium to have boundaries; it has no magisterium.  It is a people’s movement stemming from the Reformation, the Pietist renewals, the first and second Great Awakenings, the conservative reaction to liberal theology (early fundamentalism) and dissatisfaction with fundamentalism.  Evangelicalism has always been tremendously diverse.  All within it have similiar concerns and interests, but the moment you try to put your finger on something that could serve as a boundary (rather than a center of attention and interest) it slips away because someone within the movement has already violated it!

Along the same lines (exposing an aporia of this concept of evangelicalism): evangelicals have always valued the Scripture principle stemming from the Reformation (sola scriptura).  They have interpreted it in many different ways, but it stands at the center of the movement (which is a centered set but not a bounded set).  Yet, many of those promoting this new, narrow, almost idolatrous notion of evangelicalism seem to violate sola scriptura even as they identify it as a boundary of the movement.  They violate it by solidifying tradition and raising it to a level of authority functionally equal with Scripture.

Real affirmation of the Scripture principle manifests in openness to correction of all systems and traditions from Scripture itself.  Where that openness is missing sola scriptura is receiving only lip service at best.

Moving on the the deconstructive principle of finitude: Evangelicalism is historically allergic to idolatry of any kind and yet idolatry appears wherever and whenever something finite, human, is elevated to God-like status.  Anything treated as immutable, absolute, incorrigible, all comprehensive, completely objective and exclusive of insights from others (beyond God’s own self-revelation) is an idol.  No theological system or doctrinal confession or tradition can be any of those things because they are all finite creations of humans.  That is not to say they are false; it is only to say they are less than absolute and, if they are to avoid idolatry, must be held open to correction.  Thus, to the extent that people treat evangelicalism as a regime of truth incapable of improvement through criticism and correction it is becoming an ideology rather than an expression of the gospel and therefore an idol.

What about the principle of suspicion?  Anyone who has been intimately involved in studying and participating in evangelicalism for a long time can easily see that there is tremendous gain to be had in terms of power, prestige and even money by controlling evangelical thought.  Some evangelical spokesmen (always self-appointed, of course) jockey for status as pontiff of evangelicalism in public opinion.  Such people sometimes change their views in order to gain greater support.  Whole groups of evangelicals attempt to throw others out of the movement by marginalizing them, often my misrepresenting their views.  (I can prove that has happened to me and I know of others to whom it has happened in the most cynical ways.)  Evangelicalism has become respectable and prosperous and worldly in terms of power and prestige and whoever has the ability to convince the movers and shakers of evangelicalism (administrators, publishers, etc.) that he is its true representative wields great power.  Evangelicalism began (at least in modern times) as a movement of the margins.  In some circles it is in danger of becoming a movement of elites who delight in marginalizing other evangelicals to prove they have the power to do it.

Finally, I will add the principle of obligation to the “other”–the principle of alterity.  Postmodern deconstructionism elevates obligation to the “other”–the outsider, the outcast, the invisible–as a primary ethical norm.  Ideologies are belief systems that create otherness and thrive on exclusion under the guise of providing an all-encompassing explanatory scheme.  Evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf writes about “willingness to embrace” the other–a Christian version of postmodern Jewish philospher Levinas’ obligation to the “face” of the other.

In the aftermath of the 20th century–a century of genocidal ideologies–we all need to be careful not to create or embrace or follow new ideologies that exclude and refuse even to hear the voices of those who do not fit in or who disagree.  These days conservative evangelicalism is a monologue, a choir singing only in melody without harmony, a movement aiming at conformity. 

Not long before he died I corresponded with conservative evangelical theologian (to many the “dean of evangelical theologians”) Carl F. H. Henry about inerrancy and other matters of concern.  I mentioned to him that evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch, in his developing Foundations series, denied inerrancy except in the broadest sense possible.  Henry dismissed Bloesch as a “mediating theologian” by which he clearly meant “not evangelical in true sense” (as defined, of course, by Henry).  Anyone who knew Bloesch knows what a great evangelical spirit he was.

Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.  In some cases this lack of value placed on alternity borders on violence.  Not physical violence but spiritual abuse which is another kind of violence.

The upshot is that today’s self-appointed (but very loud and influential) establishment evangelicalism is in danger of turning the liberating evangelical movement that is gospel-centered, generous and loving into an ideology and thus an idol.  There is the danger of God being effectively pulled down out of transcendence and made into a prisoner of a propositional system (and perhaps even a servant of a political agenda). 

The great German pietist Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf often said that whoever puts Christianity into a system kills it.  He didn’t mean, of course, that doctrine is bad.  He was a great defender of basic Protestant orthodoxy, but he recognized the grave danger of giving too much importance and power to human systems of thought that imprison the Spirit of God who always transcends our humanly constructed houses of authority.

  • John I.

    Darryl G. Hart wrote a book, “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.” He makes the point that “Evangelicalism” is an umbrella term used to unite conservative Christians from different traditions and so there never has been a generic Evangelical. An interview with Hart, by a panel of Nick Batzig, Jeff Waddington and Camden Bucey, can be found at http://reformedforum.org/ctc47/

    John I.

  • Jeff Doles

    What is the “center set” that defines evangelicalism, and how does it differ from liberalism or fundamentalism? And if it can be differentiated, how does a “centered set” differ from a “bounded set?”

  • John M

    If it is true evangelicalism has no boundries, is it anything real? How can something with no boundries be defined, and how can something that cannot be defined be named?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Think of any social or religious movement with a name–neo-conservatism, new age movement, charismatic movement, communitarianism, etc., etc., etc. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of movements that have no boundaries but are identifiable nevertheless. What’s NOT identifiable is exactly who is “in” and who is “out.” A centered set category (like a movement) is defined by its center but not by a membership list. When you ask “is it anything real?” my answer is that depends on what “real” means. Tangible? No. Quantifiable? No. Identifiable? Yes. This might be a lame example from astronomy, but think of the solar system. People are still debating whether Pluto is a planet in our solar system. There’s a centered set without a clear boundary. But nobody questions whether the solar system is real just because there’s real debate about its exact boundaries. The solar system is defined by its center; maybe its exact boundaries don’t matter (as to identifying it).

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Roger,

    Another home run!

    Jeff

  • http://www.postost.net Andrew Perriman

    Roger, I like your argument, but strictly speaking this is deconstructing a certain vociferous type of conservative evangelicalism. I would have thought that deconstructing evangelicalism itself would result in exposing evangelicalism in a much broader sense as a power-play, as an artificially sustained meta-narrative, as a hindrance to a clear-sighted reading of the biblical texts, and so on. Although deconstruction may have a positive agenda, there is always an element of subversion, not merely of correction, to it. No?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Yes. What I am trying to do is subvert the current concept of “evangelicalism” being promoted by some conservatives.

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  • John I.

    The following quote is from an excerpt of “Church Without Walls” a book by Jim Petersen, and put out by Navpress, 1992. The full excerpt from the book can be found at http://nextreformation.com/wp-admin/general/ch-walls.htm

    ” If our lives as God’s people are to be lived out in full view of the world, we need to take conscious, deliberate steps to be sure this is happening. This calls for resetting the boundaries of our definitions of the church.

    RESETTING THE BOUNDARIES

    Perhaps the big difference in what we’re saying has to do with where the boundary markers are being placed as we define the church. What is in-bounds? What is out-of-bounds? I am proposing that the boundary markers for the church should be determined by where the gifts and callings of God’s people take them. If believers were encouraged and enabled to seize the opportunities God brings their way in the neighborhood and across society, and if they could proceed confident of support from others in the body, the church would be redefined. It would change from being a bounded set to being a centered set.

    Bounded Sets and Centered Sets

    What we are arriving at here is truly a paradigmatic change in the way we perceive the church. We are accustomed to defining the church within a certain circle. We work at clarifying who is in, who is out; what the leadership structure is to be and not to be; what we believe and do not believe; which activities belong, which do not; and what behavior is appropriate and what is not. So the line between insiders and outsiders is clearly drawn.

    Paul Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School calls this kind of thinking “bounded-set thinking.” That is, there is a boundary that sets the standard. One either qualifies or is rejected; it’s pass or fail. What I’m advocating in this chapter is that we move from bounded-set thinking to what Hiebert refers to as “centered-set thinking” in our understanding of the church.

    In a centered set, what counts is how each member is moving in relation to the center. The focus is upon the center, and each individual is in dynamic relationship to it. Belonging, in this case, is not a matter of performing according to an agreed-upon profile, it is a matter of living and acting out of commitment to a common center. The focus is on the center and on pointing people to that center. Process is more important than definitions. Centered-set thinking affirms initiatives that would otherwise not find a place. It rewards creativity.

    It is not that bounded sets are always bad and centered sets are always good. Boundaries do exist. Salvation is a bounded set. One is either in Christ, or not in Christ. Discipleship is a centered set. To be a disciple is to be constantly moving toward the center, which is Christ.

    What we are talking about can be visualized by the following diagram.

    Bounded Set and Centered Set and the Church

    This distinction is helpful in communicating some of what I have been saying in this chapter. To view the church from the perspective of the centered-set model opens the possibility for recovering its multiform nature, and thereby its mobility.

    If we use this model, our understanding of what is the center must be very clear. The church is not that center. The center is the Head of the body. All members of the body are to function in relation to the center: Christ. If there is confusion on this point and we think of the church as being the center, we will find ourselves merely creating another bounded set.

    We have described God’s people as being people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is transforming their character and giving them gifts they are to use in serving their brothers and sisters – and their neighbors. To accept that description means accepting the idea that exercising our gifts and functions, according to the enabling of the Holy Spirit in response to needs and opportunities, will determine our boundaries. ”

    John I.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I was very influenced by Hiebert concept of bounded versus centered sets years ago and it has served me well over the years. I give him credit for that in Reformed and Always Reforming. Thanks for the quote from him.

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  • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

    … Thus, it is simply ridiculous to think of or to talk about evangelical boundaries…

    Here are two boundaries, Roger. Tell me whether these boundaries of evangelical Christianity are ridiculous.

    1. The Deity of Jesus Christ
    2. Faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ

    Without boundaries, an “evangelical” could easily state , well, Jesus is divine but he is not God. Another “evangelical” without boundaries could state there are many paths to God. I think you are trying to define evangelicalism as a porous fence in the gap rather than a sturdy defense of the faith.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      And who is it, exactly, who is enforcing these boundaries? You and I may agree that these are essentials of evangelical faith, but the evangelical movement is not composed of people with membership cards you or I or anyone else issued or approved. You are not understanding my point about movements and boundaries; it is a sociological point. It is ludicrous to talk about a movement having boundaries where there is no one with magisterial authority to enforce them. The moment a movement has that, it is no longer a movement but an organization.

      • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

        If there are no absolute boundaries, there can also be no absolute exclusions. I believe I understand your point succinctly and reject it. If you define evangelical Christianity as a movement without boundaries, then neither of the two essential beliefs can be regarded as hallmarks of evangelicalism. Who, in your words, enforces those two core beliefs and at the same time avoids making evangelical Christianity an organization?

        The question is quite clear and this tests your hypothesis. Can one be deemed an evangelical Christian if they deny either or both of the two scriptural teachings I mentioned, the deity of Jesus Christ and assenting to faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ? If you state no, you have established a boundary. If you state yes, you have refused core doctrine for the sake of ecumenism (in my opinion at least).

  • John M

    Anybody out there affiliated with a church that incorporates Evangelical in it’s name – Evangelical Free Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, etc.? I’d be curious to know their take on the question of evangelicalism as a movement with no boundaries.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      As I said, organizations have boundaries. No denomination is the whole movement. Some folks I know (including some evangelical theologians) believe an “evangelical boundary” is monergism. That should make any Arminian evangelical sit up and take notice of the dangers of talk of evangelical boundaries. The danger is when evangelical administrators buy into it and start refusing to hire anyone who isn’t a monergist (which I know sometimes to be the case).

  • Moody Baptist

    “Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.”

    So, does that mean that Truett Seminary would hire a professor who does not accept egalitarianism concerning women’s ordination? If not, then the practice of exclusion is not unique to the fundamentalists.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Organizations exclude; movements do not. I never said that organizations must not exclude or that evangelicalism must be open to “all comers.” My point is about a mindset and approach to boundary-patrolling within the historically diverse evangelical movement. I don’t speak for Truett Seminary.

      • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

        This seems contradictory. Perhaps you can clarify. If evangelicalism is not open to all comers (and I certainly agree), what are those attributes that exclude someone from identification with the movement of evangelical Christianity? Once you make that identification, how do you distance yourself from setting boundaries for which you maintain do not exist?

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          Who can exclude someone else from evangelicalism? A person can shout loudly into the wind (even in the pages of a book or magazine) “I exclude you!” but it carries no real weight in a movement. I thought I made clear (somewhere) that I consider a person “evangelical” who is rooted in the evangelical movement and facing toward the center of the movement constituted by its historical hallmarks. But, even as I say that I realize it is my opinion and I have no authority or power to enforce it. All I can do is attempt to persuade people to agree with me.

  • John I.

    Mallet has picked out two aspects of the centre, not the boundary. Without those two beliefs one could hardly even be called a Christian, at least not an historically orthodox one. The centre is made up of irreducible commonalities, the rest is made up of movements to or from the centre, and different collections of or different understandings of other aspects. One is more evangelical the closer one approaches or moves toward understandings of the deity of Christ and innerancy and missions/ evangelism, and less evangelical as one moves away from that, or believes in the same issue (e.g., inerrancy) but defines it differently from the majority. Centred vs. bounded sets comes, obviously, from set theory but was first applied in a thoughtful way to Christianity by Hiebert. I quote the following summary of his thought from: http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com/2005/08/bounded-sets-centered-sets-and.html

    “Paul Hiebert, a Christian anthropologist and missiologist, discusses mathematical set concepts in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books, 1994). His entire discussion on this topic, [is] found in chapter 6 with the title ‘The Category Christian in the Mission Task’ . . . Hiebert draws upon studies in mathematics where categories are created that define a set which entail certain structural characteristics and boundaries. He contrasts bounded sets with sharp boundaries, and centered sets that have boundaries but the emphasis is placed on that which centers the set rather than the boundaries around it. Hiebert lists five characteristics of bounded sets:

    1. The category is created by listing the essential characteristics an object must have in itself to belong to the set.
    2. The category is defined by a clear boundary…The central question, therefore, is whether an object is inside or outside the category.
    3. Objects within a bounded set are uniform in their essential characteristics – they constitute a homogeneous group.
    4. Bounded sets are essentially static sets.
    5. Bounded sets, as we use them in the West, are ontological sets. They have to do with the ultimate, changeless structure of reality, which is defined in terms of unchanging, universal, abstract categories. (Hiebert, 112-3)

    Characteristics of centered sets are:

    1. A centered set is created by defining a center or reference point and the relationship to that center.
    2. Centered sets do not have sharp boundaries that separate the set from those outside it. The boundary emerges automatically by the relationship of the object to the center.
    3. The variables of centered sets are membership and distance from the center.
    4. Things headed away from the center can shift and turn toward or away from the center. (Hiebert, 123-4)”

    Regards,
    John I.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Great explanation! Thanks.

    • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

      John,
      It is your opinion that these are the center issues. Personally, I agree with you. However, in the hazy realm of that boundary-less world Roger is evoking, there are many, especially among the liberal and emergent camps, who would clamor for a “many paths to God” theology. There are many who refuse to accept the Bible as the infallible word of God. The largest denomination in Methodism has traveled so far outside the edge of any recognizable boundary as to be seriously considered apostate by many yet they are considered to be within the realm of evangelical Christianity .
      Here is where I think Roger and others who are sympathetic to liberal and emergent ideas stumble the greatest. Jesus told us that the way is not a broad road traveled by many. It is a narrow way lacking the numbers of those seeking worldly comfort. Evangelical Christianity (is there really any other?) cannot be expected to be a great big tent with open flaps painted with every color of the rainbow in order to be as inclusive as possible and avoid offending others. Knowing that the road to righteousness is narrow and straight, evangelical Christianity is a relatively small tent with flaps, defined by essential doctrine. I suppose we could suggest the tent enlarges itself just as hell enlarges itself, in the Psalmist’ vernacular, but regardless, there are truths that define the Christianity we embrace for salvation.

  • http://evangelicalcalvinist.com Bobby Grow

    I’m an “Evangelical Calvinist,” it’s not what you think.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Do tell.

      • http://evangelicalcalvinist.com Bobby Grow

        Roger,

        Have you read TF Torrance’s “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell”? If so, that would give you a pretty good idea. If not, you should; I am working on an edited book project with Myk Habets due out late 2011 that will be introducing “EC”. Until then you can always visit my blog and go to my “pages section” and click on “The Themes of Evangelical Calvinism.”

        It’s too involved to try and sketch in the combox here — I’ll have to come up with a sketch like that sometime :-) .

  • Dan

    I believe it was Tom Oden (Methodist-Arminian) who made the point that there can be no center without an edge. A “center” without an edge is just an undefined point in space.

    If this is true, then the “centered-set” idea is unworkable. Christ is fully God on one edge and fully man on the other. That is a boundary. Presumably to be orthodox, one must believe in God as Creator, Christ as “begotten not made”, crucified under Pilate, born of a virgin, and in the Holy Spirit who has “spoken through the prophets”. Those are boundaries. To be in the center, one must be well away from those edges.

    I have always understood the boundaries of evangelicalism to include salvation by grace through faith, through the finished work of Christ. I have also understood evangelicalism to include some statement of inerrancy, but a fair amount of freedom in interpretation of non-essential issues (not related to the nature of God or the efficacy of the cross).

    My concern here is that the “centered-set” means rallying around a fairly undefined notion of the “person of Christ”, rooted more in loose reading of Jesus ethical principals and “love” passages through a very fluid cultural lens. If we rally around such an ill-defined “center” pretty much everybody is an evangelical and pretty much everybody is orthodox.

    There is no center without a boundary.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I believe you are still not getting my point about movements. Sociologically speaking, a movement cannot have boundaries.

      • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

        Are you really content to define evangelical Christianity by the constraints and inferences of a philosophy that has it’s birth in 19th century secularization?

  • gingoro

    My definition of evangelical involves three characteristics:
    1. Straightforward affirmation of the Apostles Creed
    2. A high view of scripture. Some evangelicals are willing to allow accommodation and some are not, I am. I find words like inerrant not helpful but rather hold to the words used in scripture about itself. Words like “inspired, profitable, truthful”.
    3. A willingness and desire to cooperate with other Christians that hold to points 1 and 2 without adding a lot of their denominational distinctives which I consider to be important but secondary.

    Thus I would disagree that there never was a boundary although the boundary was fuzzy.

    It appears that some who used to be grouped under the fundamentalist label want to become evangelicals as today fundamentalist is not a term in good repute. Unfortunately they seem to insist on making what I see at secondary to be part of the definition of evangelical. Frequently fundamentalists also were highly separtistic and thus in conflict with point 3 above and many have scars from those who hold such beliefs.

    Note that I accept that their are Christians who do not have a high view of scripture as I have tried to define it. In other words not all Christians are evangelicals. Some are fundamentalists and some tend towards liberalism.
    Dave W

    • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

      Dave W.
      I think you have presented an excellent understanding of your viewpoint in this matter and for the most part I agree. To be truly evangelical is to be orthodox with regard to the ecumenical creeds lest we cast the pillars of the church to the wayside and forge our own self-crafted religion.

      • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

        Nice rhetoric. But how do you enforce it? And what do you say to someone who says that one who is not a monergist cannot be authentically evangelical? I can provide you with names of influential evangelicals who say this publicly if you like. Fortunately they cannot enforce that. But neither can you or anyone else enforce boundaries around evangelicalism.

        • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

          Put it on the line, Roger. Is a person to be considered an evangelical Christian if they reject significant aspects of the Apostles Creed? It is all fine and dandy to think wispy thoughts in the tower but let’s have your boots on the ground on this issue. Does Christianity lack boundaries?

        • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

          I wish you had an edit function on this thing …..

          Why would I need to enforce a boundary? Does an unenforced boundary grant legitimacy to the one who rejects the tenets of ecumenical orthodoxy? I think you are missing the real point in all of this although you have alluded to it. It is the offices of the church that define the boundaries of Evangelical Christianity.

          • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

            “Offices” of which church? What “offices?” There’s no evangelical “office” in the traditional sense of a teaching office (magisterium). I think you are confusing evangelicalism with a denomination. It is no such thing.

          • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

            “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph 4:11-16 AV)

            If there are no offices of the church and no boundaries established by the offices, then the above is a meaningless. I believe a good argument can be made that the rejection of boundaries (or redefining them in this case as the “center point”) has led to the disintegration of sound Christian doctrine in several bodies. You are being inconsistent with your statements regarding boundaries and organizations. In your latest thread, you indicated a necessary aspect of evangelism to be crucicentrism. You have in one word swiped a good bit of this modern “evangelical church” right out of your boundary-less movement. The cross of Christ has become an offense in many churches to the point where some of these “evangelical Christians” will go to great distances to avoid even the mention of Christ’s blood, of sin and the need for Christ’s atonement. Yet, they are included within your boundary-less evangelicalism. So while you have drawn a line in the sand with crucicentrism, your boundary-less worldview of evangelical Christianity seems to have washed it away with it’s own tide… in a word, confusion.

          • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

            We are clearly like ships passing in the night. To my way of thinking your thinking is too black-and-white. You aren’t recognizing the difference between “center” and “boundary.” Absolutely, crucicentrism is part of the evangelical center. But in order for it to be a boundary there would have to be some person or office with the authority and power to enforce the boundary. (Centers are not enforced; they are just noticed by those examining a movement historically and sociologically.) I suspect you are confusing evangelicalism with your own United Methodist Church–in terms of structure. There’s no similarity. The UMC has a magisterium (of sorts). How well it functions is another question. But the UMC has boundaries–at least on paper–and an authoritative body with power to enforce them. Evangelicalism has no such thing. I am fairly certain you are still simply not “getting it” when I talk about the nature of movements. By definition (!) a movement cannot have boundaries. By definition (!) an organization has boundaries. I’m very confused about why you don’t get that. It’s simply a matter of observation and description–of the natural difference between movements and organizations.

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  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Having a center point does not also include the need for a circumference. A circle will indeed have a center, but no one ever claimed that Evangelicalism is a circle, only that it has a center, and that the center point is illustrative of those beliefs that we hold to be of greatest importance. Some of these have been outlined already.

    A boundary is not necessary in such a context. One is considered ‘more’ Evangelical by their closeness to the center; by their belief in and relationship to those ideas considered significant by the majority of those under the tent. There will no doubt be variety in the finer details of some of those beliefs, but enough of the core is maintained to maintain ones position to the center. Ones distance from the center is dependent on their relationship to core beliefs.

    As Roger and others have pointed out, who determines what these core beliefs are exactly? Some under the tent may consider a certain set of beliefs of central significance, while others will no doubt hold to a slightly different set. Context plays a significant role here. Methodists may aspire to maintain sanctification, while Pentecostals may wish to hold emphasize Spirit baptism.

    Someone once said that theology is a matter of emphasis. If this is true, then what one particular group emphasizes in their theological systems is often deemed to be of special significance to them, and therefore worthy of being held close to the center.

    With this in mind, I’ll ask the questions again: who determines what beliefs are core and which ones should be moved a little further away from it? If Evangelicalism does not have a central ruling magisterium, as Roger and others stated, who makes the decision as to what constitutes core and peripheral doctrines? If that right has been given to no one group (and it hasn’t), then who decides? Neither the Open Theists, Arminians, or Calvinists. All three have to in some way or another contribute to the discussion. Each group should have an equal voice at the table. In this type of scenario, a degree of theological hospitality has to be given by each voice, as each also recognizes and appreciates the theological emphases of the other.

    In the end, we (as Evangelicals) get to decide. Not Arminian Evangelicals, or Calvinist Evangelicals, or otherwise. Evangelicals together decide. No one group has been appointed as the official spokesperson and theological determining body. For a group to assume such a role, for whatever reason, would be a prideful and arrogant tactic. It reminds me of the question posed to Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom of God! His response was, ‘certainly not those who assert themselves to the front of the line.’ We refer to that move as rude.

    The center of Evangelicalism is determined by us – those who call this place home. There will be some degree of theological variety because of our varied emphases, but it is possible to gather around those things we hold in common and are deemed to be of greatest significance. On those areas where we differ, we continue to discuss them in a spirit of charity and grace, realizing that we are all en route and equally need increasing clarity for the journey ahead.

    In the end, I need my Calvinist family, just as much as I need my Openness relatives. Like an family, there will be disagreements, but we don’t disown members for disagreeing with one another. No, we take the time to listen more attentively and love each other anyway, despite our differences. For those who differ more greatly than the others, we love even more; in the hope that love will eventually bring them closer to home, the center of a family’s existence.

    Peace.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Amen! Well said.

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