Will the Last Evangelical Please Turn Out the Lights?

Deacon Bo at Homebrewed Christianity asks if Anyone Is Evangelical Anymore? He asks because, it seems, C.S. Lewis may have been a secret Bellian — Lewis hinted in one book that maybe people get to leave hell for heaven.  (I’ve long considered Lewis among the most overrated writers and thinkers in all of Christendom.  So sue me.)

Bo writes,

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.

His is a perceptive post, which you should read.  In it, he leans on David Bebbington‘s rubric of evangelicalism:

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

You’ll notice the absence of any mention of hell, or of the penal substitutionary atonement.

Read on for Bo’s progressive recapitulation of these four marks of evangelicalism.

As card-carrying evangelicals continue to take me to task because I’m asking questions, I get Bo’s predicament.  As evangelicalism shrinks smaller and smaller, I think more and more of us are going to be looking for another flag to gather under.

  • Griffin

    I feel like the absence of a certainty of Hell is more dealing with the annihilationist acceptance within Evangelicalism (see John Stott) rather than accepting the universalist.

    Also, I agree that Lewis is vastly overrated, though important in his own right.

  • http://www.travismamone.net Travis Mamone

    Well then, according to this Bebbington person, I guess I’m an evangelical after all. Glad I finally got that straight!

  • toddh

    I wonder about the effectiveness of Bebbington’s quadrilateral. Who did it initially exclude from the evangelical segment of Christianity? Maybe evangelicals had their own special way of believing and practicing those 4 ideas, but show me a Christian of any stripe who doesn’t care about the Bible, doesn’t believe you are converted (at some point, in some process, or in some way), never says or does anything, and ignores the cross. Is it just a nice, scholarly way of saying that evangelicals think you have to make a decision/pray a prayer to become a Christian, tell strangers to pray that prayer, believe in inerrancy, and talk incessantly about what the correct doctrine of atonement is?

  • Lloyd

    I wonder the same thing about Calvinism. I used to think that, surely, everybody was a Calvinist now. Now I find myself asking the same thing as you: Will the last one of us turn out the lights?

  • http://www.livingthequestion.org Riley O’Brien Powell

    I agree about Lewis. Many conservative adorers are ignorant of his actual beliefs…it’s off the topic here, but I get a kick out of him calling Jesus wrong and delusional in ‘The World’s Last Night’.

    “…the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proven to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…[Jesus] shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

  • Dan Hauge

    I don’t know . . . Bo’s post seemed to be more about the possibility of a somewhat more generous expansion of evangelicalism. Definitely the more hard-line conservatives seem to look (and act) more like an embattled island fortress, but there are still plenty of them, and I suspect that anyone pronouncing the death of evangelicalism is as premature and hyperbolic as those who pronounced the death of emergent.

  • Stephen

    Evangelicals, drawn often from communities with limited language for expression, still hunger after denoting the tenets of Christianity, a relationship with Christ, drawn from a book of faith, into a Westernised rationalised ‘simple form’ which can be described in a bullet point list. We are looking at faith still through the wrong lens. It’s a life long journey of fine experiences that is hugely personal and revealed through that personal journey. Even the progressives are looking for reducing their ‘meaning’ to observational facts. We are prisoner still to modern notions of faith. Knowledge today isn’t what knowledge was in the 1st century. If we can listen to the real experience of Christians and their inner thoughts we realise we are a long way from our constructions of Evangelicalism.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    I am still trying to figure out why John Stott got a pass on his dance with annihilationism. There has always been that fork in the road between the fuller and more robust writings of JI Packer (and away from the sectarianism of Martyn Lloyd-Jones) and the more irenic, less controversial but still cross-centered John Stott. But perhaps Stott is proof that us more conservative evangelicals aren’t about crossing t’s and dotting i’s ad infinitum. There is a matrix at work here that points either toward the Bible or away from it. I think Bell might have been given a pass if evangelicals saw other things at work that served as a check on this one issue. I am InterVarsity in background(1960s and 1970s variety) and found in Stott hope for cultural engagement and theological gravity. But perhaps Packer will in the long run have more staying power. I think Bell has already had his high water mark in terms of trust among evangelicals. Is he the head of a new wave that will wash evangelicals into the mainline? Can’t see it. The mid-20th century evangelicals will find a new configuration rather that go out with the tide. My hope is that it doesn’t take us where the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence took them. I have much hope that it will not.

  • http://Missionaltheology Jim

    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, 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 in his book “The End of Evangelicalism?” shows us what can happen with paradigms like those Bebbington and Noll have constructed; how over time they become redefined “Master Signifiers” which people gather around to claim identity and form walls. Fitch’s arguments are compelling, and have the potential to launch evangelicalism quite far down the road toward renewal. But still, as much as I agree with him there’s still this bent to “preserve” evangelicalism.  It still seems to lack the sort of holistic re-ordering of the Christian social imagination and theological paradigm…I may be wrong. But can evangelicalism – even the sort of transformed evangelicalism that Fitch envisions – still produce in a post-Christendom West?  

  • http://www.alexgamble.blogspot.com Alex

    What if the absence of a flag is the new flag to gather under?

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Alex, are you channeling Peter Rollins?

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    Sort of like nothing is something????

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

    Tony, this is really a difficult time we find ourselves in. Bo’s point in his article was well received. I’ve been wrestling with the ramifications of what one’s identity / affiliation is within the church having become an “Evangelical Reject.” There are lots of us out there apparently who are not apt on rejecting evangelicals, but the culture (which is less open minded than even some of its more “progressive” leaders) continues to reject us, leaving questions about unity and mission that seem almost overwhelming. Thanks for being a voice in the wilderness in many ways bro. It will be interesting to see where the various movements within the church end up in the next 10 years. Question: I wonder if you and those involved in the earliest “emergent conversation” would have imagined the intense polarities within the church today more than 12 years later?

  • Jonathan

    Tony, when you say Lewis is overrated do you really just mean Mere Christianity is overrated? Because most of Lewis’s work is profoundly underrated in Christendom. When I first started studying medieval poetry at a secular grad school, the first book the told me to read was “Allegory of Love.” “The Personal Heresy” is the precursor to, and far superior to, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous “Authorial Fallacy,” and “An Experiment in Criticism” is miraculously good.

    Even in fiction, “Till We Have Faces” is deeply unappreciated among evangelicals. And his poetry? How can it possibly be overrated when nobody reads it?

    Anyway, it’s weird that Bo seems to think him the “quintessence” of evangelicalism. I’ve always understood him to be a bit of an odd duck, categorically.

  • http://mpzrd.blogspot.com Marshall

    For my money, the central point of Evangelicalism is the the “Good News” is directly accessible to each person. It’s a good word, and I intend to stick to it. We (people like me) insist that “the Bible itself is central” in an attempt to undermine centuries of contingent (generally self-serving; at best, historically situated) interpretation. It gives us a somewhat tamper-proof common, seriously underdetermined (many possibilities) ground for our discussions. The really-o truly-o central thing is the fact & content of Jesus’ ministry, that it was actually lived in the world.

    I think the point of “you must be born again” is not so much “individual salvation” but that revelation always comes to individuals; therefore it as individuals guided by the “good counsellor” that we work to achieve the Kingdom and bring salvation to the whole world. For the purpose of Orderly Worship we let ourselves be guided by our Caesars, but for God’s Will each person must look inside, not towards any corporate body.

    • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant


    • nathan

      What about Revelation coming to members of a community that collectively is the presence of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit?

      or are you writing in shorthand here and not intending to valorize the individual without the Church?

  • nathan

    It’s a riot how American evangelicals have this big man-crush on a guy that wouldn’t ever self identify as one. He’d probably go running and screaming from the label.

    Then again, with the desire to be so “consistently big-tent” evangelicals now let people at the table who, once there, would love to excuse everyone else, it’s no wonder there’s a decline. The people fighting for “the big tent” are going to fight for their own inevitable “excommunication”. They are fighting, admirably, for a principle that will be used in their own demise.

    Once you have liars like Mohler, etc. claiming that all neo-evangelicals originally were really “Reformed” in their identity and then marginalizing everyone at the table “evangelicalism” is really only going to end up meaning “Neo-Puritan/Soteriological Calvinism”. It’s really sad for evangelicalism and it’s really sad for the actual “Reformed” folk too.

    All that we’ll have left is Reformed, Pseudo-Reformed (John Piper, etc.), Ana-baptists, the old main-line, RCC, orthodoxy, and the dissenter free-churchey house/alternative communities.

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