My Response to Frank Viola

Frank Viola–the author of Beyond Evangelical is a fellow Patheos blogger. He blogs here on the Evangelical channel–is engaged in a “dia-blog” with me. I ask him a question. He replies. I respond. He asks me a question. I reply. He responds.

Here is a summary of the conversation so far. You can read the whole thing here.

Fr DL: … Frank, you represent a particular stream of Protestant Christianity which you describe as “post Evangelical” or “beyond Evangelical”. I’m still learning what this means, but among other things does it mean that you have moved beyond the old, assumed, “no question about it” anti-Catholicism of American Evangelicalism?

Yr brother in Christ,

Fr. Dwight

…and here’s Franks’ reply:

David Livingston said, “I am prepared to go anywhere . . . provided it be forward.”

We are living in a day when modern evangelicalism is in ruins. The four notes of evangelicalism – being bible-centered, cross-centered, conversion-centered and evangelistic . . . have taken on meanings so diverse that Albert Mohler (on the right) and Rob Bell (on the left) call themselves evangelical. But the tide is turning.

Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are tired of the shallowness of modern evangelicalism. They are tired of the self-righteousness, callousness, and judgmentalism that marks much of the movement. They are tired of the libertinism (grace=license to sin) that marks much of the movement. They are neither left nor right.

They are Christians who have a deep allegiance and devotion to Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus alone is this world’s true Lord and He stands above all systems and personalities, even religious. They love, desire, and stand for the ekklesia, a local body of believers who are enthroning Christ as Head . . . and they believe that the church is Christ existing as a shared-life community, not two hours on Sunday and Wednesday.

They don’t advocate any particular church form or structure. They simply want to follow the Lord with others. This hearty band of Christians from every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue stand for the four notes of classic evangelicalism. But they have gone beyond them….

In answer to your specific questions, “beyond evangelicals” embrace all Christians who name the name of Jesus regardless of what denomination, movement, or Christian “tribe” to which they belong – whether Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Radical Reformed, etc. Whomever Christ has received we must also receive.

Fr DL: Thanks for your response. You’ve set out an attractive ideal, and I like the idea that “beyond Evangelical” evangelicals are open to Christians from the traditional churches, and I’m intrigued by the idea that you and they have set aside the old anti-Catholicism that has always been part of Evangelicalism.

I’d like to challenge your thesis however. What you’ve proposed isn’t really that fresh is it?

Here’s my story: I was brought up within a Bible church that was newly formed in the early 1960′s with virtually the same ideals you have set forth: a group of sincere, Bible believing Christians broke away from the corrupt, liberal and complacent mainstream denominations. They met in a rented store–much like I see community churches doing today. They were going to be simple, Bible believing followers of Jesus. Then they hired a pastor, built a church, wrote a constitution, joined a fellowship of like minded “independent” churches and formed a new denomination. Now they’re perceived as the “corrupt, quarreling, Evangelical establishment” and a new generation are being the  “brave new pioneers” of yet another fresh movement.

When you read church history you come to realize that this is nothing new. This is a cycle within church life: a Spirit-led movement rises up. It becomes established. Quarrels and corruption develop. Then a renewal movement takes place which–within Protestantism–means another schism is established.

The ideals you’ve set out of a simple Christian faith that rises above all the denominational squabbles…a simple renewal movement that gets back to basics…that’s something called “Primitivism”–and it’s been around since about the second century. I’ve written an article here on the problems with primitivism.

Catholic Christians experience this same cycle of new movement, establishment, disenchantment and renewal. However, when this happens to us we don’t break away and form a new group. Instead we remain in communion with the ancient church and struggle to incorporate the renewal movement within the historic Body of Christ. We accept that the church will always be plagued with the problems you diagnose, and we realize that if we started a break away group it wouldn’t be long until the same problems cropped up again.

So how do we deal with the very real problems you assess? An interesting comparison in this respect is between St Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. Both men longed to serve Christ completely. Both men faced corruption and bickering and disappointment with the established church. Both men experienced persecution, distrust and rejection by the established church leaders.

Martin Luther set out on his own and broke away from the historic, apostolic church. St Francis walked to Rome and stood barefoot in the snow with the beggars waiting in prayer for an appointment with the Pope. Eventually the Pope endorsed the renewal movement, and the rest is history.

So I applaud the desire to be simple followers of Jesus Christ and to move beyond what you perceive as hypocrisy, corruption, bickering and ego trips. I applaud the desire to belong to simple core communities who simply follow Jesus Christ. My question (which we might continue to discuss in other ways) is “why should we expect that your ‘beyond Evangelical’ movement will turn out to be any different from the hundreds or thousands of other ‘renewal’ movements that have come and gone down the ages?”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Frank Viola replies thus and clarifies nicely…and I offer my comments in red…

Dwight. Thanks for your reply. The scourage of exerpts and blog posts. Several points made in the book, Beyond Evangelical, which address your points:

1. what I’m calling beyond evangelical or post evangelical (which some have called it) is not a movement nor a monolith. Just a description for a trend among *some* Christians today. I think people like Roger Olson, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and the late Michael Spencer articulated some of the same themes. We are evangelicals, but we don’t fit the Left or the Right and we emphasize certain themes neglected in Protestant Christianity today. Catholics like myself agree with much of what you say. We are also frustrated with the right-left divide. Catholics should be ‘right’ on family and moral issues, ‘orthodox’ on historical doctrinal issues, and ‘left’ on social and economic issues. We try to affirm the truth wherever we find it. That’s why we have so many enemies! 
2. since it’s neither Left nor Right, the majority of Christians don’t resonate with it right now. so it’s not even large enough to call a movement, let alone the fact that it’s not organized and doesn’t have a leader. I understand. Thanks for clarifying. It sounds like you’re not a movement, but prophetic voices within Evangelicalism.
3. as I say in the book, “Beyond Evangelical,” the themes aren’t new. In fact, I don’t know anything that’s really “new” in Christianity right now. It’s all been said before. You can find many of what I articulated in writers like A.W. Tozer, T. Austin-Sparks, and Watchman Nee. What’s new is that these themes are coming together in a fresh way for a younger generation. I realize you are writing from a different perspective, but the title of your book reminds me of ‘Evangelical is Not Enough’ by my friend Tom Howard. It echoes my own book ‘More Christianity’ which explains how my own quest to go ‘beyond Evangelical’ took me to the Catholic Church.

The fact is: Many Christians, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, don’t know what it means to live by the indwelling life of Christ (by their own admission) nor is the understanding of God’s eternal purpose as the grand narrative of Scripture taught much in our time. So these aren’t new, but they are resurgining in a way that’s fresh among some Christians. Seeing a widespread longing for the encounter with God fills me with hope.

All told, those who have moved beyond evangelical aren’t anti-Catholic, which was your main question. Unfortunately, I’ve received criticism from some evangelicals (on the Right) because I quote Catholic writers in “Jesus Manifesto” and “Jesus: A Theography.” And this just underscores the fact that so many Christians are disaffected with the evangelical Right . . . as well as the Left for other reasons. I understand. There are not very many who hate Catholicism, but there are very many who hate what they think Catholicism is.

My post “Warning: The World is Watching How We Christians Treat One Another” underscores the problem. I think you and your readers may find it of encouragement.

I’ll be asking you my question in January. Thanks for your friendship! I look forward to it.


About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://frankviola.com Frank Viola

    Dwight. Thanks for your reply. The scourage of exerpts and blog posts. Several points made in the book, Beyond Evangelical, which address your points:

    1. what I’m calling beyond evangelical or post evangelical (which some have called it) is not a movement nor a monolith. Just a description for a trend among *some* Christians today. I think people like Roger Olson, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and the late Michael Spencer articulated some of the same themes. We are evangelicals, but we don’t fit the Left or the Right and we emphasize certain themes neglected in Protestant Christianity today.
    2. since it’s neither Left nor Right, the majority of Christians don’t resonate with it right now. so it’s not even large enough to call a movement, let alone the fact that it’s not organized and doesn’t have a leader.
    3. as I say in the book, “Beyond Evangelical,” the themes aren’t new. In fact, I don’t know anything that’s really “new” in Christianity right now. It’s all been said before. You can find many of what I articulated in writers like A.W. Tozer, T. Austin-Sparks, and Watchman Nee. What’s new is that these themes are coming together in a fresh way for a younger generation.

    The fact is: Many Christians, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, don’t know what it means to live by the indwelling life of Christ (by their own admission) nor is the understanding of God’s eternal purpose as the grand narrative of Scripture taught much in our time. So these aren’t new, but they are resurgining in a way that’s fresh among some Christians.

    All told, those who have moved beyond evangelical aren’t anti-Catholic, which was your main question. Unfortunately, I’ve received criticism from some evangelicals (on the Right) because I quote Catholic writers in “Jesus Manifesto” and “Jesus: A Theography.” And this just underscores the fact that so many Christians are disaffected with the evangelical Right . . . as well as the Left for other reasons.

    My post “Warning: The World is Watching How We Christians Treat One Another” underscores the problem. I think you and your readers may find it of encouragement.

    I’ll be asking you my question in January. Thanks for your friendship!

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thanks for your clarification! I’ll add it to the dia-blog…

  • Julie C.

    Excellent!

  • Mark

    Rock Solid Father.

    Well done.

  • http://www.deegray.com Dee

    Love the dialog – it is very refreshing.

  • Paul Rodden

    I very much sympathise with what Frank Viola’s saying, yet paradoxically, the ones I know who best fit the category of this ‘new breed’ of Christians he describes, are what I would term ‘old-school Evangelicals’ who are ‘stayed’ in the past (and the same congregation for the past 50 years). I say that from outside the US, and would suggest that the British experience is culturally, very different.

    That is, before c. 1980 Evangelicalism – in Britain – was relatively ‘untainted’ by ‘American Fundamentalism’, and it wasn’t ‘anti-Catholic’ in any overt sense as congregations mostly kept themselves to themselves.

    However, it became stronger when ‘Christian Bookstores’ started appearing selling 95% American ‘Christian’ books, ‘merchandise’, ‘branding’, etc., which were very narrow in one sense yet strangely diverse theologically in another (to an anti-liberal!). In fact, there was no theology, only the Christian equivalent of what you find in the ‘Spirituality’/Self-Help sections of secular bookshops, suitable for ‘Sunday Supplement minds’, as Lonergan called them. What’s more, many of my co-Evangelical friends started reading them and becoming ‘weird’ as their faith had become something ‘personal’, based on what looked like ‘feelings alone’, overtly anti-Catholic (proselytism), and where the proof-text ‘Bible verse’ became the justification for any moral peccadillo or remonstration.
    Many left their ‘churches’ (where they had worshipped all their lives) and started, or joined, ‘house churches’ with pastors of dubious pedigree. ‘Ecclesioclasticism’ had arrived on British shores.

    It was this that started a real crisis for me and made me begin to question Christianity itself: that Christianity might be simply a cultural construct, and I was deluded believing in God. He might just be a projection, contrary to my ‘experience’. In essence, it seemed my friends had become ‘Americanised’, as their faith was now culturally alien. They ‘talked’ as if they had had a personality transplant.
    In other words, it seemed the ‘new Christianity’ they had adopted depended upon the adoption of a complete cultural expression and worldview too, and that undermined Christianity being something credible for me. Was my sense of God’s presence merely wishful thinking or just a mental state?
    So, I think that to say that ‘Evangelicalism is in ruins’, as Frank does in his previous reply, is actually to state nothing more than ‘business as usual’, except it’s so extreme now it can no longer be ignored.

    But thankfully, by the grace of God, I rediscovered my Baptismal faith, otherwise I don’t think I would be Christian today. Catholicism brought something physical and outside the cartesian (faith alone) prison of my Evangelicalism: Sacraments. Earthy, real world events which didn’t depend on my mental state (faith alone) but God’s action (and how often God works that way in Scripture once one’s willing to see it). God really came to me, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in my brokenness, in my lack of faith.

    But, most importantly though in relation to the first reply of the discussion, in November the guys over at calledtocommunion.com comprehensively addressed Frank Viola’s ‘tu quoque’ – ‘you, too’ – argument that the Catholics are just as divided as Protestants, except they just stay in the same boat:
    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2012/11/the-catholics-are-divided-too-objection/

    I would also point to another excellent post by Bryan Cross, one of the co-founders of calledtocommunion, titled, Ecclesial Deism:
    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/07/ecclesial-deism/

    Where he says (to answer the Francis of Assissi/Martin Luther point):
    …So when the Mormons claimed that a great apostasy had overcome the Church by the time of the death of the last Apostle, I had no ground to stand on by which to refute that claim. The Mormons believed that the true gospel was recovered in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Smith. I believed, as a Reformed Protestant, that the true gospel was recovered in the early sixteenth century by Martin Luther. But we both agreed (to my frustration) that the early Church fathers and the councils were suspect and not authoritative in their own right. Over the course of our meetings with the Mormon missionaries that summer I realized that, with respect to our treatment of the early Church fathers and ecumenical councils, there was no principled difference between myself and the two young Mormon missionaries sitting in my living room.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bartonbreen Bart Breen

    I’m late to this party and I really appreciate this conversation. I describe myself as post-evangelical and I’ve explained why here on my post and it tracks very close with what Frank Viola is saying and also echoes Michael Spencer.

    http://bartbreen.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/why-do-i-describe-myself-as-post-evangelical/

    Maybe it will help some in some way.

    blessings,

    bart


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X