Here I offer my contribution to the Evangelical Channel’s Theme: Why I am (Still) Evangelical.
In graduate school, I minored in theology. During my time there, the theology department was unabashedly progressive–at least by evangelical standards. Most students considered Jürgen Moltmann too conservative, and virtually no one had read Carl Henry. In spite of this (or maybe because of it), I thoroughly enjoyed my theology courses and look back at them with fondness. Despite my persistence as an evangelical (and Southern Baptist at that), I was treated with respect and courtesy in nearly every instance. Even so, I emerged as an enigma to some of my colleagues. During a seminar break one afternoon, one of them queried me, “How did you get so far in theological education and remain conservative [theologically]?” He did not intend to disparage me, rather he expressed genuine befuddlement mixed with a bit of playful curiosity. To my friend, who had himself once been evangelical, progress in theological education paralleled an abandonment of evangelical commitment. For me, the opposite was true.
I grew up in a liberal denomination. Even so, my mother had one foot in neo-Pentecostalism. As a result, when Richard Roberts–yes, that Richard Roberts–held a revival in a nearby town, she took me to see him. That night, as I sat in the balcony, the gospel became real to me. Although I had understood the basic facts for a while–that God sent his Son to be the savior of the world–that night I recognized the seriousness of my own sin and my personal need for a savior and I experienced an evangelical conversion as I responded to the invitation. Evidently, it “took.”
When I was a teenager, my family joined a local, charismatic-tinged Southern Baptist Church. There, I encountered smart, devout people whose lives had been changed by the same gospel message that transformed me. Although I failed to recognize it at the time, the anti-intellectualism described by Mark Noll permeated the evangelical subculture in which I spent my teenage years. At the same time, so did an authentic and sincere piety that nurtured my affection for Christ and grew my reverence for the Scripture. I carried that with me to college.
At the University of Virginia, I landed in Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). University life fanned my predisposition for learning while my participation in Cru nourished my faith. In my last year, I encountered some of the smartest people I had ever known in Robert Wilken‘s Early Christian Ethics class. Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose and others invigorated my faith and intellect and I began to understand that the two might comfortably reside together. Sensing a real call to ministry and simultaneous desire to “love the Lord [my] God with… all [my] mind (Luke 10:27, NIV),” I pursued more education, first at a denominational seminary, then at Vanderbilt University.
At Southeastern Seminary, I completed my Master of Divinity degree in a confessional, spiritually-rich environment that emphasized evangelism, local church ministry, and biblical exposition. At the same time, I delved into the Bible, theology, church history, and other disciplines as taught by professors with doctorates from Aberdeen, Chicago, Hebrew Union College, and Brandeis. There, learning and spirituality came together, deepening and reinforcing one another. As I developed a love for church history and a desire to pursue a vocational career in academics, I continued to read the Bible.
When I moved to Nashville, I kept reading the Bible. As I did, an evangelical understanding of its overarching narrative made more and more sense–and my theology courses contributed to this. I found my theology coursework challenging, yet intellectually invigorating. Contrary to the experience of many, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, Harnack, Schweitzer, Newman, De Lubac, Bultmann, Barth, Moltmann and others strengthened my evangelical commitment. Schleiermacher helped me acknowledge the unmediated nature of our encounter with Christ, Kant pressed me to think more clearly about the limits of knowledge, Newman challenged me to think historically about doctrine in light of my Protestant commitment to sola scriptura, Moltmann pressed me to think about oppressive political structures as a manifestation of fallen-ness–and the list could go on. Through struggling with these authors, my own thinking was sharpened and my own evangelical faith deepened.
And so, that day in the seminar, when my friend asked how I could remain theologically conservative in spite of my great learning (not as great as he gave me credit for, by the way), I replied somewhat glibly,”I kept reading the Bible and it kept talking about me.” Although I certainly simplified the matter, the truth was that as I read more, learned more, and thought more, the evangelical understanding of the biblical narrative of creation–fall–judgment–redemption impressed itself upon me, continuing to recount the story of my own life while making sense of the world in a way that nothing else that I studied did. I knew that my own life was peppered by self-deception and sin and needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Further, I saw a world populated with human beings who regularly and vigorously sinned against one another. They too needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Finally, as my more progressive colleagues helped me to discern, there were (and are) sinful structures of oppression the permeated the world. Those caught in them–as either oppressed or oppressor–need the grace of God offered in Christ, while the structures themselves need the perfect king to come in righteous judgment and tear them down. In the end, all other explanations regarding the troubles of this world seemed insufficient, while all other solutions regarding how to address them seemed utterly inadequate. And thus I remained (and remain) evangelical.