Deconstructing “Evangelicalism”

Deconstructing “Evangelicalism” April 29, 2016

Deconstructing “Evangelicalism”

Recently I had the privilege of hearing George Marsden speak. Marsden is widely considered the “dean” of evangelical historians. That is, he practically pioneered and led in the study of the history of the evangelical movement. He taught at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School and retired from the University of Notre Dame (where Mark Noll succeeded him). Marsden helped many of us, in our callow years as budding evangelical scholars, distinguish between “evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism.” The lecture I heard, just recently, was about C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity—a phenomenon that continues to grow in influence and not only among evangelicals.

Hearing Marsden, and meeting him for the first time, reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago that never was published. If I posted it here, I have forgotten that. So here it is:

“Deconstructing Evangelicalism”

What is “deconstruction,” anyway?  Well, I’ve been reading a lot about that and it turns out it’s not at all what I had been told.  It’s not “destruction” but rather has a positive agenda–to expose idols for what they are and help institutions and movements (etc.) improve themselves by becoming more open, more just and more flexible.

A basic presupposition of deconstruction is that all ideologies are idols because they usurp the place of God (for Christian deconstructionists) and/or claim to be what no human system can be–totalizing, monolithic, all-encompassing explanatory schemes that function as God (for secular deconstructionists).

According to Peter Rollins (How [Not] to Speak of God) (depending largely on Christian philosopher Merold Westphal) there are at least two principles of deconstruction: the principle of finitude and the principle of suspicion.  These, along with some other possible deconstructive principles, serve as critical tools for exposing idols.

Today some are making an idol out of “evangelicalism.”  They are doing that by insisting that it is a closed system, exclusive of all but themselves and those who think just like them, always the same (impervious to change and development), absolutely and objectively true (unbiased, without perspective) and bounded by identifiable boundaries (propositional truths) impervious to outsiders or new ideas and established by “the received evangelical tradition.”

Of course, few evangelicals would put it this way, but one can easily detect this notion of evangelicalism by reading some of its self-appointed spokesmen.

My intention is not at all to critique authentic evangelicalism, although it is always improvable, but rather my intention is to deconstruct the concept of evangelicalism being promoted by some conservatives.

My first deconstructive move is to demonstrate the aporia of a movement with boundaries.  I’ve written about this here before, but it bears repeating.  Evangelicalism is a movement and a movement, by definition, cannot have boundaries.  Thus, it is simply ridiculous to think of or to talk about evangelical boundaries.  Evangelicalism would have to have a magisterium to have boundaries; it has no magisterium.  It is a people’s movement stemming from the Reformation, the Pietist renewals, the first and second Great Awakenings, the conservative reaction to liberal theology (early fundamentalism) and dissatisfaction with fundamentalism.  Evangelicalism has always been tremendously diverse.  All within it have similiar concerns and interests, but the moment you try to put your finger on something that could serve as a boundary (rather than a center of attention and interest) it slips away because someone within the movement has already violated it!

Along the same lines (exposing an aporia of this concept of evangelicalism): evangelicals have always valued the Scripture principle stemming from the Reformation (sola scriptura).  They have interpreted it in many different ways, but it stands at the center of the movement (which is a centered set but not a bounded set).  Yet, many of those promoting this new, narrow, almost idolatrous notion of evangelicalism seem to violate sola scriptura even as they identify it as a boundary of the movement.  They violate it by solidifying tradition and raising it to a level of authority functionally equal with Scripture.

Real affirmation of the Scripture principle manifests in openness to correction of all systems and traditions from Scripture itself.  Where that openness is missing sola scriptura is receiving only lip service at best.

Moving on to the deconstructive principle of finitude: Evangelicalism is historically allergic to idolatry of any kind and yet idolatry appears wherever and whenever something finite, human, is elevated to God-like status.  Anything treated as immutable, absolute, incorrigible, all comprehensive, completely objective and exclusive of insights from others (beyond God’s own self-revelation) is an idol.  No theological system or doctrinal confession or tradition can be any of those things because they are all finite creations of humans.  That is not to say they are false; it is only to say they are less than absolute and, if they are to avoid idolatry, must be held open to correction.  Thus, to the extent that people treat evangelicalism as a regime of truth incapable of improvement through criticism and correction it is becoming an ideology rather than an expression of the gospel and therefore an idol.

What about the principle of suspicion?  Anyone who has been intimately involved in studying and participating in evangelicalism for a long time can easily see that there is tremendous gain to be had in terms of power, prestige and even money by controlling evangelical thought.  Some evangelical spokesmen (always self-appointed, of course) jockey for status as pontiff of evangelicalism in public opinion.  Such people sometimes change their views in order to gain greater support.  Whole groups of evangelicals attempt to throw others out of the movement by marginalizing them, often by misrepresenting their views.  (I can prove that has happened to me and I know of others to whom it has happened in the most cynical ways.)  Evangelicalism has become respectable and prosperous and worldly in terms of power and prestige and whoever has the ability to convince the movers and shakers of evangelicalism (administrators, publishers, etc.) that he is its true representative wields great power.  Evangelicalism began (at least in modern times) as a movement of the margins.  In some circles it is in danger of becoming a movement of elites who delight in marginalizing other evangelicals to prove they have the power to do it.

Finally, I will add the principle of obligation to the “other”–the principle of alterity.  Postmodern deconstructionism elevates obligation to the “other”–the outsider, the outcast, the invisible–as a primary ethical norm.  Ideologies are belief systems that create otherness and thrive on exclusion under the guise of providing an all-encompassing explanatory scheme.  Evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf writes about “willingness to embrace” the other–a Christian version of postmodern Jewish philospher Levinas’ obligation to the “face” of the other.

In the aftermath of the 20th century–a century of genocidal ideologies–we all need to be careful not to create or embrace or follow new ideologies that exclude and refuse even to hear the voices of those who do not fit in or who disagree.  These days conservative evangelicalism is a monologue, a choir singing only in melody without harmony, a movement aiming at conformity.

Not long before he died I corresponded with conservative evangelical theologian (to many the “dean of evangelical theologians”) Carl F. H. Henry about inerrancy and other matters of concern.  I mentioned to him that evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch, in his developing Foundations series, denied inerrancy except in the broadest sense possible.  Henry dismissed Bloesch as a “mediating theologian” by which he clearly meant “not evangelical in true sense” (as defined, of course, by Henry).  Anyone who knew Bloesch knows what a great evangelical spirit he was.

Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.  In some cases this lack of value placed on alterity borders on violence.  Not physical violence but spiritual abuse which is another kind of violence.

The upshot is that today’s self-appointed (but very loud and influential) establishment evangelicalism is in danger of turning the liberating evangelical movement that is gospel-centered, generous and loving into an ideology and thus an idol.  There is the danger of God being effectively pulled down out of transcendence and made into a prisoner of a propositional system (and perhaps even a servant of a political agenda).

The great German pietist Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf often said that whoever puts Christianity into a system kills it.  He didn’t mean, of course, that doctrine is bad.  He was a great defender of basic Protestant orthodoxy, but he recognized the grave danger of giving too much importance and power to human systems of thought that imprison the Spirit of God who always transcends our humanly constructed houses of authority.



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