Is Evangelicalism Ending? 3

Is Evangelicalism Ending? 3 January 2, 2013

What happens, then, to the doctrine of Scripture if David Fitch is right? What happens to what he calls “the Inerrant Bible” model — the model that speaks a polemical and ideological language game as it flows out of the modernist-fundamentalist debate and speaks against the liberal model? In his new book, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions), David Fitch proposes a view of Scripture that is both evangelical and missional.

Fitch’s influences on how to comprehend Scripture in the new model, in a model that gets beyond the ideology of evangelicalism and back into the missional model that Bible seeks to create.

His primary influencers are Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kevin Vanhoozer and Christopher Wright. I can’t summarize all he says with any particularity, but he gets the Trinitarian and christological emphases from Barth — Scriptures extend the incarnation into the church. Balthasar focuses on Scripture are part of Christ himself (135) and our need to embody Scripture.

Vanhoozer, known for his extension of Balthasar’s “theo-drama” into the Scripture being both revelation and in need of performance as a script in order to be seen and proclaimed. And Chris Wright’s emphasis is that Scripture is designed to serve the mission of God in this world.

But this is where Fitch is headed: “These theologians prod us to leave behind the Bible as ‘inerrant according to the original autographs’ to instead understand it as ‘our one and true story of God for the world — infallible in and through Jesus Christ our Lord'” (138).

Here’s the primary model — and this is my idea — of classic evangelicalism: the order is God, revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, authority … and this model of Scripture becomes the epistemic foundation and the first article of theology. But there is room here to move without denying the value of these concepts to see God as Trinity, God as having a mission, God as revealing God in Christ in definitive and final form, and then Spirit as surrounding all of this and then Church as flowing out of the incarnation and pneumatic guidance and seeing Scripture as the primary — prima scriptura — form of expression. Scripture then is the primary “script” of the mission of God in this world.

This leads in Fitch’s view to a major shift in preaching: from expository preaching (which he sees as modernity and also as part of the ideology) to proclaiming the mission of God in Christ through the Spirit and inviting others into that mission. Bible reading is not just inductive and personal but corporate and narratival.

David Fitch contends the ideology of evangelicalism is rooted in three major “master-signifiers”: the Inerrant Bible, Decision for personal salvation, and the Christian Nation. But he contends this ideological set of factors is losing ground because the antagonisms in culture no longer support the ideas, and furthermore the last fifty years have gradually eroded the “politic” that is needed for the church to be what God wants it to be in America. Obviously, these are strong and bold claims … we’ve looked at the Inerrant Bible idea, so today we turn to Decision. All of this is from David’s new book, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions).

Fitch’s big claim is this: the obsession in evangelicalism with making The Decision has cut off Christians from the necessity of personal transformation and from ecclesial robustness. In other words, as long as you’ve had the experience you don’t really have to change and you don’t really have to see your life in the context of a church life.

What happens to evangelism when the gospel message transcends personal transaction and becomes a holistic entrance into the mission of God in this world? [If you examine evangelistic plans, you will see they are shaped by a theology and a salvation theory and an atonement theory and almost never are they sufficiently robust when it comes to calling people to the kind of life the gospel actually calls us to.]

Here Fitch draws on four scholars: Tom Wright’s understanding that justification is more than personal transfer of sins and righteousness because the theme of justification is also about God’s making things right in the world (and not just with me, but surely including me). Second, he examines Michael Gorman’s idea of theosis and shows that justification entails dying to self and being raised to new life personally and corporately — all of which reforms “desire” (David doesn’t develop this much but it’s at work in this chp). We are living out then the new politic of death and resurrection together.

Then he turns to John Millbank’s idea that “gift” entails a life of reciprocity. We are caught up in the Trinitarian life of reciprocity once we are “in Christ.”

All of this leads to this very important claim by David Fitch:

“The call for conversion, however, is no longer ‘Have you made the decision to receive Christ as your personal Savior?’ It is, ‘Have you entered into the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world?'” (150). So the offer is an invitation to enter into the kingdom vision of Jesus, and I’d like (shamelessly) to mention here my newest book: One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, and I’m encouraged by how many students and campuses are now reading this book.

Finally, he appeals to Dallas Willard’s emphasis on kingdom living that leads to transformation into the mission of God in this world

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  • Fascinating. Presumably, Fitch isn’t saying that inerrancy isn’t incompatible with the “one true story of God for the world infallibly fulfilled in Jesus”, but that they represent different emphases? Vanhoozer affirms both (and so do I), but with the stress on the mission-story-Jesus side of things (and I think Chris Wright might as well, although I’m not sure). Fitch’s language of “leave behind” and “instead” frames an implicit dichotomy, but I assume he’s talking about primary emphasis there. Is that right?

  • Inerrancy *is*, not isn’t, incompatible in the first line. Alas.

  • “you don’t really have to see your life in the context of a church life.”

    Fighting this battle will ensure that failure of Evangelicalism’s quest to renew itself. We have been given the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of church.

  • gingoro

    ‘Have you entered into the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world?’

    Very well put and true.

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, that “Vanhoozer…” sentence is hanging, no?

  • Er … “Vanhoozer affirms both [of these], and so do I, but with the stress on this bit.” If I had to parse my statement, that’s how I’d do it 🙂 Anyway, on the wider question – is Fitch saying they’re incompatible, or is he distinguishing emphases?

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, David may weigh in himself, but I think he would say “Inerrant Bible” is a modernistic construct and that a narratival/missional approach to Scripture would not get into that category to explain/label it’s approach to Scripture (or Scripture’s approach to us). “Inerrant Bible,” in other words, emerges from a worldview.

  • Intriguing. Great article. Thank you.

    Do you think that this perspective also works to tear down the typical trappings to move toward power over and above of love? (not just an Evangelical problem, obviously)…. I’m thinking of Henri Nouwen and his thoughts on leadership as a possible nifty companion here.

  • For what it’s worth, here’s Vanhoozer on inerrancy. And he’s a contributor to the forthcoming multi-view book on the topic (from IVP?).

  • I have posted a few short blogs on my website, that I believe speak to this idea at large,(I believe that by and large that to many people are telling people to many ways to read scripture and hence the confusion sets in on the overwhelming majority of people, an analogy might be that we have the top 2 percent telling the other 98 percent how to read, can we agree on a set way to read or will we continue to perpetuate this idea of mass hypocrisy that we continue to see played out in our political system.
    It just seems as though we treat this as a game of “who’s right”.

    I wrote a few short blogs that I hope speak to this:

    One in Christ,
    Pastor Gary Lynch

  • I’d like to leave inerrancy behind, as I think it’s quite unhelpful. But another subject today.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with the general point here. I can see from this that evangelicalism, even in its classic, original form is in need of some change, if not a complete overhaul. Maybe something like an emphasis on growth in Christ-likeness within community in mission to the world. Something like that. Maybe more of a tweeking?

    Good, thought provoking series.

  • Cal


    I’m curious on Andrew’s remark. I agree inerrant is a term coined for a particular battle and is not used elsewhere in the non-American english speaking world. However, that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t true in a wider net. Scripture is trustworthy and authoritative when it speaks because it is the Lord Jesus Christ speaking on every page through His Spirit in human authors.

  • Bev Mitchell


    A reaction from the pew. This works for me – and especially the fine beginning. A lot of this (perhaps all of it) is also very like T.F. Torrance.

    “…..God as Trinity, God as having a mission, God as revealing God in Christ in definitive and final form, and then Spirit as surrounding all of this and then Church as flowing out of the incarnation and pneumatic guidance and seeing Scripture as the primary — prima scriptura — form of expression. Scripture then is the primary “script” of the mission of God in this world.”

    Great series. Two more books to read. Happy New Year!

  • dopderbeck

    I think Fitch is exactly right on all these points. Here is my question though: why remain Protestant _at all_ if Fitch is right? Other than the NPP, all of Fitch’s sources — including Vanhoozer — draw on the Church Fathers. The work that newer “theological interpretation” evangelicals like Vanhoozer are doing now mostly consciously or unconsciously draws on the Catholic nouvelle theologie — hence the heavy references to Balthasaar.

    Even the NPP’s emphasis on the “corporate” dimension of “salvation” and “justification” is in some ways a re-working of Patristic — i.e., non-Protestant — themes. What the NPP adds to Catholic and Orthodox thought on these themes is the specific historical context of the Second Temple Period and some deeper reflection on Paul as a Jew — very valuable, but not truly novel.

    For Fitch, I think the answer “why remain Protestant” probably lies in his Anabaptist political theology. But is that enough? There are, though a minority, pacifist Orthodox and pacifist Catholics.

    Maybe put another way: can you hold together a more communal view of “salvation” and a more active view of “justification” without the robust ecclesiology and sacramentology of Catholicism or Orthodoxy or High Anglicanism?

  • scotmcknight

    dopderbeck, good comments and questions. I’m not so sure, however, that the corporate stuff is not Protestant. Yes, it is not 20th-21st Century evangelical but the emphases of Luther and Calvin, not to ignore the Anabaptists, were not individualistic. They were clearly much more corporate than modern evangelicalism. I have at times myself equated evangelicalism and Protestantism and read the former through the lens of revivalism. I don’t think, though, even this comment gets my colleague, David Fitch, entirely off the hook.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot good point on the more “corporate” identity of the Magesterial Reformation and even the Anabaptist groups. But, the Magesterial Reformation contained the seeds of individualism in the other elements Fitch touches on: particularly sola scriptura and the disdain for Patristic exegesis in favor of a “plain” reading of the “perpiscuous” text. Yet it is precisely back towards Patristic modes of exegesis that evangelicals looking for an alternative to literalistic inerrancy are turning. “Spiritual” or “theological” interpretation _is_ Patristic exegesis, though with less fanciful flights of allegory. And this sort of exegesis / interpretation implies an ecclesiological and sacramental context that runs counter to many Reformational instincts.

  • Kurt Peterson

    Thanks for posting this, Scot. Fitch is RIGHT ON in so much of what he is saying. Evangelicals so desperately need a dose of historical consciousness. As long as one rests comfortably with the knowledge that every other position is historically constructed except for oneself, there is no way to have meaningful dialogue. Evangelicals live happily with the myths of God’s nation and moderntiy’s scientific certainty, often refusing to recognize that these are historical and epistemological constructs that inhibit more than enhance the cause of the gospel.

  • T


    I love seeing your thoughts. I agree that Fitch’s argument undercuts a great deal of what protestants “protest” against, but I don’t expect too many to line up for the next mass. Even though I, like you, buy many of Fitch’s arguments, I don’t see Catholicism as the answer. We do need a more robust soteriology (and ecclessiology, and pneumatology), and while I see the Catholic and Orthodox as tremendously insightful in many ways, I don’t see them as the only or even the best options on any of those fronts. As just one example, the restriction of “the priesthood” to single men would be more difficult to deal with in many respects than issues re: justification.

  • I have only your summaries here (and prior), Scot, to go on re. Fitch. But the sense of what he’s saying I see as healthy and an advancement for traditional evangelicalism (and its related traditions focusing on substitutionary atonement and personal election and/or responsibility for a salvation “decision” — thusly, I’d include both Calvinistic and Arminian strains).

    Working from that helpful summary statement “Have you entered into the salvation…?”, I’d continue it not with “begun in Jesus…” but with “… MODELED AND ACCELERATED by Jesus Christ…” This better preserves what I consider the reality of God’s Spirit being present everywhere in everyone, past, present and future, and thus expressed often powerfully and helpfully in other religions, including ones as diverse as some forms of Buddhism.

  • Ewen Butler

    I have not thought this through enough but while I agree with the direction Fitch is taking regarding the narratival/missionaal approach to Scripture, I wrestle with the connection between that position and the need to abandon calling for decision. Jesus obviously called for decision to follow him even if those who did may not have had a full heart transformation at the moment. Paul the Apostle sure had a transformative experience and Luther, Wesley….. I find it hard to buy a Christianity that does not call for radical decision and transformation. I suspect we will find that few of the next generation will buy it either. Biblical faith involves more than modelling Jesus. Otherwise, we end up with a very weak theology of the Cross.

  • dopderbeck

    T (#18) — I hear you. And there are many other possible sticking points re: Catholicism (Marian dogmas, contraception, indulgences, perhaps gay marriage, etc) and Orthodoxy — not least being that they each claim to be the one historical church and making that historical determination between them alone seems impossible.

    But — nevertheless, the approach to scripture Fitch advocates (and I agree with) implies a visible, historical, and to some degree authoritative interpretive community. And that, in turn, implies that there may well be positions or practices that I personally don’t “like” but that nevertheless I have to inhabit as part of that community. Otherwise, it’s just the extreme of the Reformational principle of sola scriptura and a multiplicity of private interpretations — isn’t it? Absent mere private interpretation, the alternative to a Magesterium (Catholicism) or a broadly authoritative tradition (Orthodoxy) or an implicitly authoritative extra-Biblical tradition (high confessional Reformed) is to make the scriptures perpiscuous, objective, proposition-oriented and self-sufficiently inerrant — all the Evangelical distinctives Fitch wants to reform.

  • T


    On this: “the approach to scripture Fitch advocates (and I agree with) implies a visible, historical, and to some degree authoritative interpretive community. And that, in turn, implies that there may well be positions or practices that I personally don’t ‘like’ but that nevertheless I have to inhabit as part of that community.”

    The thing is, I see what you’ve described above in every community, even the lowest-church variety, even at the family level, it just gets worked out in different ways. For that and other reasons I don’t see the options you listed as the only ones, what’s more important, though is that those options can only deliver, as you say, “some degree” of the simultaneous unity and depth of interpretation and authority we’re discussing. For instance, Catholic “unity” (it’s greatest strength?) is hollow in many ways, as is its supposed ‘authority’ over its own people, as it inevitably must be. And too much of the ‘wisdom’ of its leaders and interpretations is obviously folly. Just as on the other side, for the lowest of the low churches, sola scriptura remains an impossible dream, whether it is acknowledged or not (and it often is not), and traditions of men (of select kinds) plays as strong a role there as anywhere.

    I keep thinking there are prescriptive and descriptive realities here that keep getting confused.

    Additionally, while the supremacy of church or scripture keeps getting batted around in the search for almost utopian certitude and/or unity, I always feel like the Holy Spirit, who is the ongoing source and means of authority and power for both Church and scripture, gets overlooked. It is He who does not rescue us from all bad exercises of Church authority, or all scriptural ambiguity, yet continues to sustain and work through both (human) Church and (human) scripture by choice and design. It is also He who does not feel bound to confine his working to authorized Church leaders and members, or to the written scriptures. It is also he who seems to keep hiding things from the most wise and prudent of us in all our respective camps, but making them obvious to children.

    In that vein I often feel like the ideologies being discussed (whether evangelical, Catholic, charismatic, or whatever) are somewhat exclusionary statements about the Spirit (about how and where and through and for what or whom He will work) which are, to say the least, difficult. At their best they function as signs and invitations to join God where and how he is assuredly working. At their worst, they function as power plays intended to bring people in line and give “our” camp something to boast about. The Spirit seems ever-ready to simultaneously, somehow, facilitate the former and frustrate the latter, for all of us.