Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 2

Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 2 January 29, 2013

Review of “An Evangelical Manifesto” Part 2

Although I find myself generally favorable to the Manifesto, I have qualms about the way in which it identifies “evangelical.” According to its authors and signers “We Evangelicals are defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.” I agree that we are not defined “politically, socially, or culturally.” It’s the emphasis on “defined theologically” that troubles me.

According to the Manifesto, “a particular set of beliefs…make us who we are.”

Now, I agree that evangelicals have generally shared certain beliefs, but two questions occur to me about the Manifesto’s emphasis. First, is anyone who does not share one of the stated beliefs not an evangelical? Second, can someone who shares the stated beliefs but does not even claim to have a “born again experience” or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” be an evangelical?

I prefer to talk about a rough doctrinal consensus of most evangelicals rather than define evangelical faith doctrinally. Perhaps the writers of the Manifesto agree with that, but the wording is ambiguous. It could be interpreted as setting doctrinal boundaries rather than identifying a doctrinal component as part of the center of the evangelical ethos.

I also prefer to define evangelicalism spiritually as well as, if not more than, theologically. I agree with my late friend Stan Grenz that we evangelicals must move beyond “fixation with theology” such that “The primary statement to be made about evangelicalism cannot focus on doctrinal formulations. Rather, ‘evangelical’ refers first of all to a specific vision of what it means to be Christian’.” (Revisioning Evangelical Identity, 30-31) What Grenz meant is that “the evangelical understanding of what it means to be Christian focuses on a distinctive spirituality.” (31) He labeled that spirituality “convertive piety” (a phrase he borrowed from Donald Dayton). (23) I have called it “conversional piety.”

Grenz made abundantly clear that he was not dismissing theology as unimportant; he was simply attempting to place experience alongside or even above doctrine in terms of defining what is distinctive about evangelicalism (as an ethos). Yes, to be sure, evangelicals have mostly been Protestants of generally conservative doctrinal persuasion (compared with liberals). But we stand out from other orthodox Protestants as those who insist that authentic Christianity necessarily includes a born again experience and a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Now, let me be clear: the Manifesto does not deny such evangelical experience. My only complaint is that it does not put it above or alongside doctrine in terms of defining evangelical identity. In fact, especially in the full version of the Manifesto the authors go out of their way to include devotion and Christian living as essential aspects of being evangelical. My complaint is about emphasis. (However, nowhere in the Manifesto do I see conversion described experientially as I would describe it. I worry that a person might be able to agree with and sign the Manifesto and embrace only a sacramental spirituality with no belief in a “born again experience” involving decision-conversion.)

I know that some of the members of the steering committee of the Manifesto worried about Stan’s and my (and other evangelicals’) emphasis on spirituality (“conversional piety”) as the essence of evangelical identity. One of them chided us publicly for it asking “Isn’t anyone else worried about Schleiermacher?” We thought he did not understand what we were saying about experience. Schleiermacher did not believe in conversion-regeneration with decision enabled by supernatural grace as Grenz spelled out and I agreed. Nor were we denying the importance of doctrine.

Now I’ll turn to the way in which the theological identity of evangelicalism is spelled out in the Manifesto. Generally speaking, I’m pleased with it. It rightly begins with Christology: “Jesus, fully divine and fully human, as the only full and complete revelation of God and therefore the only Savior.” That is where I would begin as well—as opposed to beginning with Scripture. To me, one of the key differences between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalist evangelicalism is that fundamentalists tend to begin with a certain commitment to Scripture rather than with Jesus Christ.

Also, the Manifesto’s list of key evangelical doctrines does not include inerrancy. It says “The Bible [is believed] as God’s Word written, fully trustworthy as our final guide to faith and practice.” I can just imagine the fervent discussions that must have surrounded that wording. I know some of the steering committee members and their commitments to inerrancy. I know others and how they would object to making it essential to evangelical identity. I’m glad the latter won!

Overall, the description of evangelical theology in the Manifesto could rightly be called “generous orthodoxy” (a phrase not coined by the author of a book of that title but by Hans Frei). The one element I would not include were I to make up such a list is “The death of Jesus on the cross, in which he took the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God” (italics added). In the complete version of the Manifesto the authors make clear that they consider the penal substitution doctrine of the atonement essential to authentic evangelical faith. I consider it traditional and normal, but not absolutely essential or normative. I wonder what they would say about someone who believes in the governmental theory, like many in the Holiness tradition? Can they be authentically evangelical anyway? I would certainly say yes.

I don’t want to make too much of these areas of disagreement. They are only qualms. But they are not merely quibbles or absolute lines drawn in the sand. They concern me without making me reject the Manifesto.

Next, in the final part of this review, I will address the issue of political-social engagement and involvement as reflected in the Manifesto.

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  • gingoro

    “The death of Jesus on the cross, in which he reconciled us to God” This is a piece of theology that we experience and if someone were to deny it I would not be willing to have fellowship with them or be allies in some social or political effort. Would you? By fellowship I am not referring to things like sharing a meal but to things like welcoming them to communion.
    Note that I would have said that “I would not consider them an evangelical” however, that is irrelevant as I no longer consider myself an evangelical.

    • rogereolson

      That’s not the statement I referred to. Rather, the Manifesto says that a “foundational” doctrine for all evangelicals is that on the cross Jesus “bore the penalty for our sins, credited us with his righteousness.”

      • gingoro

        I know that what I quoted is not the statement you objected to BUT my point was that ultimately there is some dogma that if we deny it then we are not an evangelical. Assume you would agree with me wrt my revised statement.

        • rogereolson

          I would have to scratch my head very hard and wonder and worry about any evangelical who denied any objective view of the atonement and interpreted the cross as nothing more than a martyrdom, however great an example of love that might be.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Well said Roger. Why is it, apparently, so hard to stick to this as the starting point in so many corners of evangelicalandia?

    “a particular set of beliefs…make us who we are.” Not to put too fine a point on it, isn’t it the Work of Christ through the Holy Spirit who makes us what we are?

    Just today I had a long chat with a good friend who is agnostic (at best). He was wondering how Christians could be sure of their theology, given that they seem to have quite a wide range of theologies. The answer, of course was that we can’t be totally sure of our theology, we must depend on a self-revealing God who reveals himself by his Spirit – basically it’s an experience first, not a theological position of which there are indeed many. His interesting response was “that’s the rub, isn’t it.” He accepted, or at least understood, this experiential explanation where he would not accept any argument from a purely theological stance.

    • rogereolson

      I think many mainstream evangelicals (including perhaps some of the steering committee members of the Manifesto) are uncomfortable with anything they consider “subjective.” I have found that it’s like pushing a button. If I say “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” they say “Schleiermacher!” Why not “Calvin!”? When my late friend Stan Grenz gave a paper on “Confessions of a Pietist with a Ph.D.” at our first “Word Made Fresh” conference one of the distinguished panel members (who is on the steering committee of the Manifesto) asked “Isn’t anyone else here worried about Schleiermacher?” I was stunned. Stan wasn’t talking about some universal “God-consciousness” or even “Christian God-consciousness” a la Schleiermacher; he was talking about the Holy Spirit and the change the Spirit brings about in a person’s life and mind that makes him or her able to “see” the truth of the gospel. That’s comes first. That’s “first-order.” Doctrine comes second. It’s the “second-order” language of the church. Without Holy Spirit transforming us doctrine is of little value. In fact, it can and often does become just another tool of “religion.” What I wonder is why these people so quickly charge “Schleiermacher!” instead of “Calvin!” or “Kierkegaard!” A Christian epistemology of the Holy Spirit did not begin with Schleiermacher! And his took it in a different direction that any of them or than Stan (or I).

      • James Petticrew

        Or Wesley!

  • John Metz

    Roger, you make some very good points in this part of your review. Of course, you realize, more than most I am sure, that the authors of the Manifesto had an almost impossible job to do, that is, to please most, include most, and exclude some.
    I would ask further, (and I may be missing something), what if one fits with the theology but does not live a life worthy of the gospel.

    • rogereolson

      Fortunately, the Manifesto does emphasize living a life worthy of the gospel as part of evangelical identity. But it highlights correct doctrine in a way that makes me uncomfortable–as if orthopathy and orthopraxy are secondary to orthodoxy.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    I know this is off topic (so my apologies), but I wasn’t sure of another way to ask this question. Can you recommend a recent theological treatment of prayer? As a pastor, though I appreciate my tradition’s strong devotional style emphasis on prayer (e.g., E. M. Bounds), I don’t think I’ve read anything yet which has good theological depth.

    • rogereolson

      I have often recommended The Struggle of Prayer by Donald Bloesch.

  • Roger,

    Yesterday I had a nice dinner with a very legalistic Pentecostal pastor and we began discussing our disagreements about some issues. Long story short: He said I should record a few Bible studies and/or write some material in which I give a thorough presentation about some of the topics we discussed. He said he would sit down and listen to it.

    My problem is that I don’t know of any books that can give me a thorough understanding of some issues. Can you help me? I love to read so whatever books you recommend I’ll find and devour them. Here are some of the issues I want to gain as much understanding on (Some are silly but unfortunately matter to the Hispanic Pentecostal church that makes a big deal out of them)…

    The history of women wearing pants and how/why Pentecostals made a big deal about this.
    What is Pentecostal theology and where does it come from?
    The history of make-up and what it means culturally (if it has any significance)
    Make-up, hairdos, and clothing in Bible times
    The history of Pentecostalism in America and Latin America.

    Stuff like that. Any help?

    Thank you so much

    • rogereolson

      Wow. That’s a tall order! I don’t know of any book that explains all that (between two covers). (And, of course, it isn’t only Pentecostals who have forbidden women to wear pants, make up, etc.) I’m just a historical theologian, so I can only recommend books that deal with Pentecostal theology and its history. The most exhaustive volume was by a Swiss Pentecostal-turned-Presbyterian named Hollenweger. His magnum opus was The Pentecostals (1972). Harvard religion professor Harvey Cox (theologically liberal Baptist) wrote Fire from Heaven that deals a lot with Pentecostalism in the Global South. I’ll invite others to jump in here and recommend good books that might contain answers to your questions. Just know that the matters of dress and hair and make up are not unique to Pentecostalism.

      • David Martinez

        Thank you. This is very helpful information. I’m going to read those books.

        I really do wish someone addressed the history of how the “no pants, make-up, jewelry, etc” thing got into the Pentecostal church even if it’s not unique to the Pentecostal church. I just wonder if the first Pentecostals taught that or who it was that began to teach that nonsense. I can’t begin to tell you the negative affects these teachings have had on the Hispanic Pentecostal church. I feel really sad as I try to gently help some Hispanic Pentecostals to stop putting dress-code in the category of “Dogma”.

        Perhaps I’ll have an experience like the one you had when God surprised you at that old bookstore with that book you needed. 🙂


  • Terry

    Roger, I too am glad that the first line of doctrinal commitment wasn’t to a particular view of the Bible. For some time that has also been a frustrating starting point to me. However, you said you were glad they started with Christology. I can appreciate that, though I have held that the place to start is with the nature of God as expressed in the Trinity. So, when I have begun, I have begun with God the Father, then God the Son, and then God the Spirit. Any thoughts as to why one view or the other might be more preferred? How are congregations written statement of faith, in fact, has three sections Father, Son, Spirit, with all else falling under one of the three areas… Scripture, church, et cetera.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know anything about the Father or the Holy Spirit that isn’t best revealed in Jesus.