Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 2
Although I find myself generally favorable to the Manifesto, I have qualms about the way in which it identifies “evangelical.” According to its authors and signers “We Evangelicals are defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.” I agree that we are not defined “politically, socially, or culturally.” It’s the emphasis on “defined theologically” that troubles me.
According to the Manifesto, “a particular set of beliefs…make us who we are.”
Now, I agree that evangelicals have generally shared certain beliefs, but two questions occur to me about the Manifesto’s emphasis. First, is anyone who does not share one of the stated beliefs not an evangelical? Second, can someone who shares the stated beliefs but does not even claim to have a “born again experience” or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” be an evangelical?
I prefer to talk about a rough doctrinal consensus of most evangelicals rather than define evangelical faith doctrinally. Perhaps the writers of the Manifesto agree with that, but the wording is ambiguous. It could be interpreted as setting doctrinal boundaries rather than identifying a doctrinal component as part of the center of the evangelical ethos.
I also prefer to define evangelicalism spiritually as well as, if not more than, theologically. I agree with my late friend Stan Grenz that we evangelicals must move beyond “fixation with theology” such that “The primary statement to be made about evangelicalism cannot focus on doctrinal formulations. Rather, ‘evangelical’ refers first of all to a specific vision of what it means to be Christian’.” (Revisioning Evangelical Identity, 30-31) What Grenz meant is that “the evangelical understanding of what it means to be Christian focuses on a distinctive spirituality.” (31) He labeled that spirituality “convertive piety” (a phrase he borrowed from Donald Dayton). (23) I have called it “conversional piety.”
Grenz made abundantly clear that he was not dismissing theology as unimportant; he was simply attempting to place experience alongside or even above doctrine in terms of defining what is distinctive about evangelicalism (as an ethos). Yes, to be sure, evangelicals have mostly been Protestants of generally conservative doctrinal persuasion (compared with liberals). But we stand out from other orthodox Protestants as those who insist that authentic Christianity necessarily includes a born again experience and a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Now, let me be clear: the Manifesto does not deny such evangelical experience. My only complaint is that it does not put it above or alongside doctrine in terms of defining evangelical identity. In fact, especially in the full version of the Manifesto the authors go out of their way to include devotion and Christian living as essential aspects of being evangelical. My complaint is about emphasis. (However, nowhere in the Manifesto do I see conversion described experientially as I would describe it. I worry that a person might be able to agree with and sign the Manifesto and embrace only a sacramental spirituality with no belief in a “born again experience” involving decision-conversion.)
I know that some of the members of the steering committee of the Manifesto worried about Stan’s and my (and other evangelicals’) emphasis on spirituality (“conversional piety”) as the essence of evangelical identity. One of them chided us publicly for it asking “Isn’t anyone else worried about Schleiermacher?” We thought he did not understand what we were saying about experience. Schleiermacher did not believe in conversion-regeneration with decision enabled by supernatural grace as Grenz spelled out and I agreed. Nor were we denying the importance of doctrine.
Now I’ll turn to the way in which the theological identity of evangelicalism is spelled out in the Manifesto. Generally speaking, I’m pleased with it. It rightly begins with Christology: “Jesus, fully divine and fully human, as the only full and complete revelation of God and therefore the only Savior.” That is where I would begin as well—as opposed to beginning with Scripture. To me, one of the key differences between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalist evangelicalism is that fundamentalists tend to begin with a certain commitment to Scripture rather than with Jesus Christ.
Also, the Manifesto’s list of key evangelical doctrines does not include inerrancy. It says “The Bible [is believed] as God’s Word written, fully trustworthy as our final guide to faith and practice.” I can just imagine the fervent discussions that must have surrounded that wording. I know some of the steering committee members and their commitments to inerrancy. I know others and how they would object to making it essential to evangelical identity. I’m glad the latter won!
Overall, the description of evangelical theology in the Manifesto could rightly be called “generous orthodoxy” (a phrase not coined by the author of a book of that title but by Hans Frei). The one element I would not include were I to make up such a list is “The death of Jesus on the cross, in which he took the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God” (italics added). In the complete version of the Manifesto the authors make clear that they consider the penal substitution doctrine of the atonement essential to authentic evangelical faith. I consider it traditional and normal, but not absolutely essential or normative. I wonder what they would say about someone who believes in the governmental theory, like many in the Holiness tradition? Can they be authentically evangelical anyway? I would certainly say yes.
I don’t want to make too much of these areas of disagreement. They are only qualms. But they are not merely quibbles or absolute lines drawn in the sand. They concern me without making me reject the Manifesto.
Next, in the final part of this review, I will address the issue of political-social engagement and involvement as reflected in the Manifesto.