What is an Evangelical?

What is an Evangelical? January 26, 2019

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Last week, various people in my feed began retweeting this summary of what makes “a true evangelical” from Dr. Dustin Benge, a lecturer and administrative research assistant at The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies on the campus of Southern Seminary. Benge pulled these twelve points from the book What is an Evangelical? by David Martyn-Lloyd Jones (ML-J):

Needless to say, some evangelicals took issue with some of these points. Most of the backlash I saw was, I think rightly, focused on points 3, 4 and 7. To be fair to Dr. Benge, he clarified that the word “low” in “low view of the sacraments” should be understood in the theological sense—the evangelical view is “low” versus “high,” not “low” versus reverent. The distinction matters. However, some who understood it still registered an objection.

A little historical context might be helpful. The book Benge is quoting is a compilation of sermons by Dr. Jones, given over a span of 35 years from 1942-1977. Interested readers can look at a biography of Jones here. A giant of mid-20th century Welsh Reformed thought and preaching, he became intensely concerned that evangelicalism was slipping away as a meaningful concept. These sermons were his way of planting a flag and bracing against the coming tide of liberalism. In 1966, he urged a hard break of faithful evangelical clergy with denominations he believed had been compromised. This set him on a collision course with John Stott, who admired Jones but took issue with his radical separatist philosophy. Eventually Stott won the day. However, as the ensuing decades have shown, Jones’s concern about the Church of England wasn’t ill-founded.

Fast-forwarding to 2019, Dr. Benge sees himself as carrying Jones’s torch here in the states. Liberalism has found yet new depths to plumb since Jones’s day, and the church has fractured to a level perhaps even he couldn’t have predicted. In our current cultural milieu, the injunctions to be “watchful,” to be “Bible-centered,” to “act upon beliefs” and to “study history critically” feel more timely than ever.

And yet, I share the frustration of evangelicals who took issue with points in this list. My own parents both came out of American fundamentalist evangelical backgrounds. Happily, they outgrew them without the bitterness that typifies the kind of “ex-vangelicals” who write tiresome tell-alls today. Both recognized the immense debt they owed to their own parents and church communities. The intensive training in Scripture and passion for the gospel never left them, even though they might have left particular fundamentalist tenets behind. I think they, like me, would find commonality with Dr. Jones and Dr. Benge on most of these twelve points. But both of them would be surprised to hear that they are disqualified from the evangelical faith for believing reason should be embraced rather than distrusted. They would also be surprised to hear that they are on a slippery slope to liberalism for believing that not everything can be “simplified.”

The question of sacraments is, of course, a long, rich and time-honored debate. At the time Jones was preaching, a sacramentalist evangelical would have been considered oxymoronic. But things have changed, partly through the work of people like Richard John Neuhaus. Socially and culturally, the idea of what makes an evangelical has broadened to include those who hold a more than memorialist view of the sacraments. Many a faithful Anglican and Lutheran holds this in one hand while holding a commitment to the faith once delivered to the saints in the other.

I place myself broadly in this sacramental Protestant tradition, though I have yet to find a denomination whose complete suite of particular tenets I can whole-heartedly sign on to (which basically makes me an Anglican). It seems to me that this enlarging of the tent has, on the whole, been a good thing for evangelicalism. I could understand the frustration better if it were an actual denomination with a specific creedal core. As it is, since the term has always been primarily a socio-cultural one, I see nothing wrong with expanding its use to reflect socio-cultural shift. This is not to disparage evangelicals who have a strongly principled memorialist stance. I merely suggest that if one is looking for dangerous signs of compromise in evangelicalism writ large, one might have better targets than, say, a Missouri Synod Lutheran who affirms the Real Presence.

Benge also offered further elaboration on the point about “distrusting reason.” Let’s have a look:

There’s a particular important sense in which I think this can be true. It can be true in the sense that the academy has become hostile to the evangelical faith, and that this bias informs much of their scholarship. But some evangelicals, cowed by credentialism, have chosen to give shoddy scholarship the benefit of the doubt. I am particularly saddened to see how this has taken shape in the realm of the sciences and the evolution vs. creation debate, as well as historical criticism and biblical scholarship. It takes no small amount of chutzpah to suggest that perhaps an entire cluster of disciplines just is corrupt, particularly when you don’t have the “right” configuration of letters after your last name.

The problem is that in Jones and Benge’s mind, the maintaining of chutzpah and independent thinking in the face of credentialism (good and needed) is conflated with a general distrust of “human reason.” In some Calvinist circles, I have observed secondhand how this manifests itself as an assertion that faith and reason are inherently at odds. This leads to the repression of honest doubts, discouraging both people who ask questions and people who want to give them answers. I don’t know Benge’s own view on apologetic ministry in the church. I can’t find anything he’s written on the topic one way or the other. I wonder whether he would view it as suspicious by virtue of its over-emphasis on “human reason.” This would certainly be a grave mistake.

The precise meaning of “simplify everything” is even more unclear. If Benge means that evangelicals are to not over-complicate that which is uncomplicated, we couldn’t agree more. But “everything” is awfully sweeping. Does “everything” include the question of what to do with Old Testament accounts of slaughtered babies, or young men sacrificed to bring rain in a drought? Does it include the question of how exactly faith and works work together in the salvation process? Does it include the question of what happens to people who die without hearing the gospel? Can all of these things be “simplifed” in a pat, tidy, easy way? I’m not convinced that they can. (And yes, I say this fully aware that Andy Stanley is eavesdropping and ready to swoop in with an “EX-ACTLY! And THAT’S why…” To which I say: Piss off, Andy Stanley. But that’s for another day.)

Despite my critiques, on Schopenhauer’s principle that truth needs vessels to carry it, I salute Benge’s particular brand of Reformed Christianity for functioning as an effective vessel in these times. We don’t have very many vessels left, and we should seek common ground and forge alliances where we can. So here is my question for Dr. Benge: Do you recognize who all of your allies actually are?

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