Will Evangelicalism Last? Here’s My Take from The Huffington Post

Will Evangelicalism Last? Here’s My Take from The Huffington Post February 25, 2013

*This article is from The Huffington Post 02.25.20213

Rob Bell has another book coming out, the first since his bestseller “Love Wins” caused an evangelical uproar. Folks who haven’t even read the book yet are already critiquing it based on the marketing material alone. Denny Burk recently called Bell a “heterodox theological liberal,” and further claimed Bell is “no longer relevant to the larger evangelical theological conversation.” Burk predicted Bell’s book will be “greeted with a collective yawn,” a thought which is sure to be news to the good folks at Harper One.

The book’s not even out yet and the truth-police are ready to pounce. They’ll be packing their usual protests: Bell’s a liberal, heterodox, post-modern, weenie who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him in the… well, you know the drill — more blood, more scars upon the body of Christ.

How much longer will evangelicals continue like this?

Some of the most respected voices in our tribe see storm clouds forming. Tony Campolo sees a split coming along the lines of obedience vs. theological orthodoxies. Others like Rachel Held Evans see the split coming along the lines of how we see God: Does love win (Rob Bell)? Or is God looking for some payback (neo-Reformed)? Whatever the subject, there’s more uncomfortable tension in the evangelical family than a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. This has many evangelicals wondering if we have a future together at all.

One thing seems clear: If evangelicalism continues to be defined primarily by a theological center, it will crumble — especially if guys like Denny Burk get to decide who’s in and who’s out.

For the first 1,500 years the church experienced only one major division, the East/West schism of 1054 A.D. When the reformation hit 500 years later, it was as though somebody yelled “fire!” and all non-Catholic Christians scattered in every direction. Now we have hundreds of denominations. The very moment orthodoxy became the central component around which we associated, reformed Christians — and later evangelicals — began to divide, continuing in perpetuity.

It’s laudable to care about the truth. Engaging in conversation about sound doctrine is an important part of sticking together. But these days when somebody in our tribe says, “I’m fighting for the truth,” you just know it’s a ruse.

For one thing “Truth” is not rational abstraction — a concept, doctrine, or idea you can write down — especially not one which you conveniently have right and everyone else conveniently has wrong. Truth-as-a-rational-abstraction constitutes a denial of the incarnation (and big chunks of the New Testament). Doctrines and theologies can point to the truth but they are not themselves the Truth. The Truth has been revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. Truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth.

Even if one keeps the truth-as-a-rational-abstraction account of truth, it still should not constitute the evangelical center. Christians are not meant to believe in a rational account of the truth; we are meant to take up our cross and follow the one who is true; the truth as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. But for the truth-police, Christianity has become analyzed instead of lived.

Most importantly, we must recognize that the fight for truth is nearly always a fight for control. Those who passionately defend the truth are often just grasping for power. It’s a game that only those who have never been transformed by the love of God have the stomach for. Whatever you think of his writing, in all the attacks Rob Bell faced over his book Love Wins he never got ugly or defensive. Bell’s Christ-likeness patiently proclaimed the good news of the resurrection in stark contrast to those who tried to burn him at the stake.

I know the objection. Isn’t the Bible the truth? Again, this is a power play dressed up in a defense of orthodoxy. The Bible is the truthful witness to the one who is the way, the truth and the life. What the defenders of truth really mean when they say the Bible is the truth, is that their interpretation of the Bible is the truth. The only thing that should ever follow the words, “The Bible says…” should be a quotation from the Scriptures in the original languages. Everything else is interpretation.

What’s the alternative? If we refuse to organize around doctrinal statements, if we admit that in the hands of immature people these statements are just a means of power and control, then what can hold us together?

The answer, I believe, is mission.

Mission is this rich confluence of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, where the truth ceases to be a rational abstraction and becomes embodied in concrete communities of action who are able to work together despite doctrinal differences. Mission begins with the recognition that the center of Christianity is Jesus Christ and his mission of redemption. Mission should constitute the evangelical center. I’m talking about justice, mercy, faith and living in allegiance to the Gospel. If we join together around the pursuit of those things, then we will see how much we have in common.

Mission fosters the capacious orthodoxy necessary for us to stick together. Mission allows for the generous diversity of thought which is essential to a healthy evangelical gene pool. Biologists teach us the less diverse the gene pool, the more at-risk the species. The more homogeneous our beliefs become the less likely evangelicals are to survive. We need a rich, diverse orthodoxy. As the evangelical truth-police work to silence all minority reports, they are actually working against the overall health of the tribe.

Those who wish to functionally excommunicate Rob Bell and others like him are alienating the very Christians who promise to provide the kind of theological diversity essential to our healthy future. We should be welcoming Bell’s voice, not silencing it. If evangelicals have a future together, it will not be the way of those who cry “heresy” and let slip the dogs of war. It will be with those who unite around mission and prefer a rich theological landscape.

Theological diversity is nothing to fear. The Gospel doesn’t need people who will defend it. The Gospel needs people who will become transformed by it and live it out. That’s mission. And even if it does need defenders, the best defense of the Gospel is not an attack on the heterodox — it is a people who have been transformed by the love of God into instruments of redemption, learning to live in fidelity to God and each other no matter what our doctrinal disagreements. A people who have been formed in self-sacrificial love and theological humility of the one, the holy, the catholic and the apostolic — these are the marks of the church. Where these are absent, the church has ceased to be faithful and will most certainly falter.

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  • Tim Suttle

    I want to make just a quick comment to engage those of you who have blogged about this article, sent me emails, and (strangely enough), a couple of phone calls from strangers. I think these two critiques are important to address & I want to distinguish between the full Postmodern account of truth and what I’m saying.

    In each of these encounters folks were making the same critique, perhaps not coincidentally several citing Tim Keller’s “The Reason For God”: “If you say all truth-claims are power plays, then so is your statement… To see through everything is not to see.” (p.38). This is the standard comeback from those holding to a truth-as-a-rational-statement epistemology.

    The first thing to say is yes, this is absolutely true. To say “all truth-claims are power plays,” is itself a power play. It must be acknowledged as such (and I do acknowledge this in the article). However, to say that the claim “all truth-claims are power plays,” is somehow a false statement since it’s a power play is to engage a logical fallacy (tu quoque, avoiding the criticism by turning the criticism back on the questioner). Just because I’m implicated in my own critique does not means that my critique is negated. I acknowledge that I am implicated in my own critique. I confess this as true. Truth-as-a-rational-abstraction truth claims are power plays, and so is the Postmodern critique of it. However, that doesn’t negate the postmodern critique. In fact it proves it.

    The next move the PM philosophers make is to say, “so all truth is relative.” I don’t make that move, as my article clearly states. The second part of Keller’s critique is meant to address this move. But, again, I don’t make that move. Let me be clear. It is at this point that I have departed from the Post-modernists. (Keller’s critique, I believe, is true of Postmodern thought but not of me).

    I reject the postmodern claim that all truth claims are necessarily and only local and occasional (only embedded in a community), thus all truth is relative. I’m not saying truth is relative. I’m making the classic Christian confession. Jesus is the Truth. This truth claim, I believe, escapes the ditches that lay on both sides of the epistemology conversation: the Modernist power-play and the post-modern nihilism.

    I believe in absolute truth – Jesus Christ is that Truth. I do not believe that your account of the truth is absolute, nor is mine (otherwise we should worship that account of truth). I appreciate your account of the truth and love to hear it. I have my own too, and we can talk about them. We can evaluate truth claims and talk about how they correspond to Jesus. But we must remember the point of all of this isn’t to have a perfect rational account of the truth. The point is to become true (truly human as human was meant to be). This only happens as we come into relationship with the one who is the truth.

    The Christian traditions have multi-faceted accounts of the truth. There are many theological schools (a Roman Catholic version, an Anabaptist version, Orthodox version of truth, etc.), & they should all have a voice and a seat at the table. But when you start to say, “Mine is right and yours is wrong,” especially to a person who confesses Jesus as Lord, then we’ve got a serious power problem.

    I think this is what has happened to Rob Bell. Anytime we center the Christian faith in a rational account of truth we have co-opted God, usurping the lordship of Jesus & placing our own rational account of truth on the throne. That is idolatry. We do not worship our accounts of truth, we worship Jesus.

    My whole thesis comes from this: Evangelicals have taken Jesus off the throne and put rationalistic (truth-as-a-rational-abstraction), Christianity on it. If we take rationalistic Christianity off the throne and put Jesus on there again, then we stand a chance of stopping this pattern of constantly dividing over theological arguments.

    I’m proposing that we put Jesus & his mission of redemption front and center. That we should give ourselves unreservedly to the one who is the truth, and thereby to live truly as he lived truly is the gospel.

    One last critique to address: Isn’t the claim that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the truth a power play?

    Yes, but it’s a radically different kind of power play because Jesus relinquished his power. This sets Christianity apart from all other faiths. Jesus is the truth, and the truth has taken on a posture of powerlessness. The truth gave up his power, thus proving that he was the Truth! This is the Christ-hymn of Phil. 2:6-11. That’s the radical difference. The mind of Christ, and the mind of all of us are meant to take on (mind here is Phronesis, a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting), is powerlessness! Although he was God, he emptied himself of this and humbled himself. The truth did not grasp power but emptied himself of power. Those who cling to Jesus do the same (which is Paul’s whole point in that passage).

    This is the great mystery of the cross. (It should be clear that I’m channeling both Stott & Moltmann at this point). The one who is true, who possesses all power became powerless. This is why we call him the truth. Because he was and is true! (truly human as God intended – fully God fully man).

  • I loved the article. And it IS as if all the non-catholics screamed fire, and everyone ran. I laughed out loud, but its true. The evangelical church is splitting, hence the progressive Christians.

  • As an evangelical Christian with some background in biblical languages and philosophy, the following has got to be one of the most idiotic things I have ever read:

    “For one thing ‘Truth’ is not rational abstraction — a concept, doctrine, or idea you can write down — especially not one which you conveniently have right and everyone else conveniently has wrong. Truth-as-a-rational-abstraction constitutes a denial of the incarnation (and big chunks of the New Testament). Doctrines and theologies can point to the truth but they are not themselves the Truth. The Truth has been revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. Truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth.”

    Seriously? I mean, like, I shouldn’t wait for a punch line?

    I know that deconstructionists have been playing word games like this since at least the 1960s, but when did pastors (who should know better) start using John 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life”) to befuddle the conversation and addle the brains of anyone in it.

    Ah, yes: let us take all figures of speech in the Bible and absolutize them! Let us go back and re-commit every single error of medieval exegesis, and then add a few of our own!

    So now, following this “logic,” we can no longer speak of the “truth” of “2 + 2 = 4,” because, as we read here, “‘truth’ is not rational abstraction,” but rather it is “Jesus.”

    OK, I get it! Truth IS “Jesus,” thus ALL truth is “Jesus!” So now it is obvious that we should speak of the “Jesusness” of “2 + 2 = 4,” rather than the “truth” of that,…uhm…er…non-abstraction. (Because, you know, truth isn’t an abstraction, it’s an…uh…person…you know…)

    So I guess, since Jesus also calls Himself “the way,” we can no longer think of the concept of “way” in that way (no pun intended) either. Unless Jesus meant us to understand that he is the “way” in a totally different sense from the way in which he is the “life” (grammatically unlikely—but then maybe grammar doesn’t apply in this alternate universe), then “way” cannot be an abstraction either but must be identified with Jesus. So now we should no longer say, “Which way should I go?” but, because Jesus IS the way, we should say, “Which Jesus should I go?” But then, we can’t really say that, either, can we, because if Jesus is THE way, then there’s only ONE way, and that renders the question unaskable (i.e., there exists no choice between different “Jesuses” that we should take to get to our destination, even if it’s Cleveland). (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the Greek word for “way” [hodos] basically means “road,” thus reducing all pavement to “Jesus!”)

    And, of course, since he’s also the “life,” I guess we need to recognize a paradigm shift in biology, not to mention career and retirement planning…

    I realize that Tim Suttle is not the first person to pawn off this pseudo-theological spew as the pinnacle of spiritual insight, but it just keeps sounding more stupid each and every time it’s repeated.

  • Tim Suttle

    Hey Ron, I’m reluctant to engage your comment because your tone seems so dang condescending. It’s a perfect example of the attitude which is tearing evangelicalism apart. Nevertheless, I feel a defense along the lines of one critique could help others who are genuinely trying to think this through.

    To say truth is a person is not language game based erroneously on John 14. It’s much larger than that – paradigmatic to the NT & characteristic to the Johannine corpus. (Keep in mind that I wrote was a newspaper article, not a scholarly journal. Brevity is essential, and John 14 is the most well known example).

    Take 1 John 5:20-21, for instance. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

    Here the author distinguishes between the one who is true (alēthinos) and the gift of understanding (dianoia). The point is not to know a rational account of the truth, but to know him who is true. The word alēthinos, as I’m sure you know, is a contrast to partial truth. It’s like saying, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Jesus is the alēthinos. Our truth claims about Jesus (rationale accounts) belong in the category of understanding (dianoia). They are necessarily partial – contingent upon the one who is true. Not that they are unimportant – they are, but they are not ultimate.

    It’s interesting that the writer asserts our goal is understanding, not simply knowledge. The word for understanding (dianoia), is a feminine noun – much as sophia (wisdom) is feminine. Needing more than simply rationalistic truth categories (which by the way are foreign to the Jewish mind, and thus Jesus’s mind), any truth is unintelligible if it is not embodied. Truth is not construed as a concept in first John, but a person, “him who is true.” This fits nicely with Paul’s paradigmatic claim that we are “in Christ,” or we are “in the truth,” which we find also in 1 Jn. 1:5-10.

    Then we are warned against idolatry. Rationalism is an obvious modern idol. That it is an idol is made obvious by the fact that you are ready to burn me at the stake for challenging your allegiance to it. The warning in 1 John tells us that we should not worship our accounts of truth (as important as they are), but worship the one who is the truth alone. It is not a stretch to take this to mean that unless we are willing to surrender our rational accounts of the truth (read idols), for the truth as it is embodied in Jesus who is the Lord, then we ourselves cannot know the truth. To know Jesus is to know the truth. Everything else is (albeit very essential and important) interpretation, an attempt at understanding which can never become ultimate. The moment it does it is idolatrous.

    One more. Take 1 John 3:18-20 as well. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us.” Truth (alēthinos), here is connected to an action, a via, a way of being, v.18. The grammar works such that truth has ontology. It’s not rationalistic. As persons we can know we are from the truth, and can be reassured before him who is truth. John makes the same move calling Jesus the way (Jn 14), and God the way (1 Jn. 1:5-10) – in each case then connecting to the concept of God as the truth or that which is true. Truth is an ontological category that is reserved for God. Truth is something humans can follow, live out, believe in, even becoming true. But, rationalistic accounts of the truth (again, as important as they are – I’m writing in theology, keep in mind. I love this stuff.), they are always and only ever contingent upon the one who is the truth, the one who is true, the one with whom we are called into a relationship with that will produce in us the ability to live truly.

    • Nathan


    • Will

      I think you guys should definitely argue about this kind of thing, and really at length. I mean, get into it, hash it out. People love windy debates about mythology. While you’re arguing about how to “worship the one who is the truth,” I’m gonna keep working with the caring, rational people of the world to crush your social agenda into the ground until your elderly base is gone and younger people wouldn’t be caught dead in your church. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s going swimmingly. I sincerely appreciate it. Now, back to the arguing over nonsense!

      • as our culture and nation slide further into the abyss of corruption…

  • Bo Juttara

    A nice article. I think what you are trying to say is that our semantic arguments must be placed in the context of serving Christ…A sort of less talk, more action kind of thing. That’s not to say theological discussions or a more thorough understanding of truth or an understanding of relativism should not be debated, but these debates should not tear us from our friendship and common pursuit of serving neighbor as a means to serve God.

    I do not read religious books, but I intend to read Mr. Bell’s and Mr. Weigel’s recent issues. I hope they can help shed more light on my own struggle in how to live my mission.

    Thanks again.

    • jdens

      I realise this is meant to be a complimentary comment, and I’m sure no offense was intended (and probably none taken), but the phrase, ‘I think what you are trying to say’ seems so insulting. I mean, he said what he was trying to say, and he said it very well. You know?

    • Truthfully, reading Eric Ludy’s Bravehearted Gospel would serve you better.

  • Edo

    “The Gospel needs people who will become transformed by it and live it out. That’s mission. And even if it does need defenders, the best defense of the Gospel is not an attack on the heterodox — it is a people who have been transformed by the love of God into instruments of redemption, learning to live in fidelity to God and each other no matter what our doctrinal disagreements. A people who have been formed in self-sacrificial love and theological humility of the one, the holy, the catholic and the apostolic — these are the marks of the church. Where these are absent, the church has ceased to be faithful and will most certainly falter.”


  • jdens

    ‘But for the truth-police, Christianity has become analyzed instead of lived.’ Yes. Really good stuff in this post. I’m not really part of evangelical culture anymore, but I admit the temptation to analyze rather than live extends to the rest of us, too. It’s just so much easier!

  • A.

    -the sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting. Ps 119:160
    -be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Tim 2: 15
    -contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. Jude 1:3
    -In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, James 1: 18a
    -Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Heb 13:8

  • sg

    “This has many evangelicals wondering if we have a future together at all.”

    The sad thing about spending a few hours reading a Rob Bell volume is that you could have read a volume from a profound Christian thinker who actually is a part of the tradition of Christian unity and a great father in the faith. Christian book stores need to stock and promote more writers like St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, etc. Before you read Bell, be sure to take some time with these edifying authors who lovingly point the confused erring sinner to true hope in Christ.

    Consider our past together as a way of considering our future together.

  • Will Travis

    Not to be confused with ^ will, I really think that this article is an illustration of the relativism that has gripped society as of late. It’s just religious subject matter (even in spite of the authors disclaimer). I do think acceptance of theological diversity, followed out to its natural end is chaos. It is one thing to say, but the nuts and bolts of how faith in “the Truth” is lived out, (what love is and is not, what mission is, etc, blah, blah) ends up subject to ones own interpretation. Sadly our interpretations are disfigured by our own sin and weakness and we end up with radically opposing views which cannot all be true. It is a run out of the “I hate religion but love Jesus” platitude. I see it a lot. Did I say a lot? Yes, a lot.
    There is another position. One besides trying to justify the sad state of divisions in the church by embracing theological diversity as okay or even as desired…or by denouncing it as “religion”. That one position is true, as in given by Him who is the Truth.
    I believe there are 2 lies that are accepted as truth without challenge. I say lies, because I believe they are from the father of lies. The first is all the christian churches have some/most of truth, but nobody has it all. The second is that nobody can know all of it for sure because some problems (contraception, abortion, etc) are not explicit in Scripture and that is the only rule of faith. By the acceptance of these two positions, any thought of unity or desire for unity ends up with a “it doesn’t matter anyway” …theological diversity position.
    Hear me out, your position is right correct only as long as the truth-as-rational-abstraction differs from “the truth as a person. Jesus. If a denomination teaches authentically what Jesus taught directly in the 4 gosples, and indirectly through his Apostles (the early church), and…stay with me…and even now through their successors… If somehow, by the grace of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit… They got it all right. Not because of their personal holiness but because of Gods perfect love. Precisely because He knows our weakness!

    What then? I am making a hypothetical scenario for discussion, but one that I hold as true. The idea behind I love Jesus but hate religion and its derivatives should be restated i love Jesus but hate his weak, sinful, blind, scattered children. It is a people problem. The lack of unity and the splintering of the church can be traced mostly to sin. I’m just a lay missionary and not an academic, you guys are a lot more schooled than I am at this stuff. I just want to challenge your assumptions which are the very foundations of your positions.
    Tim, I totally agree with your last paragraph! The 4 marks of the Church will always be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Pray for unity, that we might all be one.

  • kalimsaki

    Consider this: in the world of humanity, from the time of Adam up to now, two great currents, two lines of thought, have always been and will so continue. Like two mighty trees, they have spread out their branches in all directions and in every class of humanity. One of them is the line of prophet-hood and religion, the other the line of philosophy in its various forms. Whenever those two lines have been in agreement and united, that is to say, if the line of philosophy, having joined the line of religion, has been obedient and of service to it, the world of humanity has experienced a brilliant happiness and social life. Whereas, when they have become separated, goodness and light have been drawn to the side of the line of prophethood and religion, and evil and misguidance to the side of the line of philosophy. Now let us find the origin and foundations of those two lines.

    The line of philosophy that does not obey the line of religion, taking the form of a tree of Zaqqum, scatters the darkness of ascribing partners to God and misguidance on all sides. In the branch of the power of intellect, even, it produces the fruit of atheism. Materialism, and Naturalism for the consumption of the human intellect. And in the realm of the power of passion, it pours the tyrannies of Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Shaddad on mankind.12 And in the realm of the power of animal appetites, it nurtures and bears the fruit of goddesses, idols, and those who claim divinity.


  • Frankly, I think it comes down to epistemology. Historic evangelicalism has always been based on the principle of “Sola Scriptura.” This is not to say that the object of our faith is a book; it is not. The object of our faith is Christ. But the book is God’s book, a revelation from Him, our only means we have of knowing God’s will.
    Sadly, there are many self-identifying “Evangelicals” who feel free to redefine the faith at will. But that implies a standard of truth other than the Bible. And I think we need to call it for what it is: theological liberalism. It is essentially what Schleiermacher advocated 200 years ago. And liberalism will inevitably drift with the surrounding culture.
    The split will come. As the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to Christianity, professing Christians will have to make up their minds whom they wish to follow? Will they follow Christ, or accommodate their faith to the mainstream culture?

  • Nick Gotts

    For the first 1,500 years the church experienced only one major division, the East/West schism of 1054 A.D.

    Srsly? I suggest you learn a little about Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism (the Nestorian church spread east as far as China), the Celtic church… But then, according to the postmodern hogwash you espouse, the falsity of your claim doesn’t matter, because “I’m sitting in front of my desktop computer” is a power claim. Pfft.

  • What a wonderful debate. You that think you have a handle on the truth, conceptually, should spend a few months of real quality time with Nietzsche. His “Genealogy of Morals” is a good point of departure. Some exposure to non-Christian religions would also do you good — Huxley’s “Perennial Philsophy” offers a Christian-friendly place to start. When you realize how provincial your appeals to scripture are– and how superficial your ridicule sounds –you might have a chance of really understanding the distinction between “the Truth” toward which/Whom we can point and all those “logical, mathematical, and empirical truths” which are such, only by analogy). “The map” should not be confused with “the territory” — nor should the word “water” be confused with the substance that quenches our thirst. Until you realize this, you are part of the problem, not the solution. I ask you:

    Are you aware of awareness? Are you walking in the light? Do you lean into this moment? Do you know the living Christ? Or are you simply stipulating to a set of “beliefs” about Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible?

    “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).