Monday, February 07, 2005

What is an Evangelical?

During the last few days I have been pondering what it means to be an evangelical Christian. I suppose my reading of Diana Butler Bass's book was part of the trigger to these thoughts that came to a head on Saturday afternoon as I was making the best of the first decent weather day of the year by cleaning our cars! But there have been other triggers.

For example, I saw the results of a poll about who the leading evangelicals are perceived to be, and alongside Billy Graham's name were the usual cast of characters who are standard bearers of the Religious Right. Then yesterday there was review of a book about the Republican Party by Christine Whitman, that quite happily identified the religious component of the GOP as the Evangelicals. This reflects a perception in the media that there is almost a seamless connection between evangelical Christians and those on the political right. This then results in puzzlement when a Jim Wallace comes along claiming to be an evangelical, and also writing and speaking eloquently in contradiction to the political philosophies that prevail in popular evangelical circles.

It is not only in the USA that we are having trouble with what it means to be an evangelical. What I have noticed in the UK amongst Anglican Evangelicals is that they have now become such a large grouping in the church that it is impossible to contain them under one heading. There are now the Proclamation Trust Evangelicals, and the Reform Evangelicals, and the Charismatic Evangelicals, and then there are the likes of me who in UK are often described as Open Evangelicals.

Furthermore, we have a problem in that postmodernity is a post-everything period, and it seems important to ask the question whether evangelicalism in all its shapes and forms is too dependent on the modernist culture for the essence of its genius to carry over into the emerging era. If that is the case, then what are the fundamentals that HAVE to be translated into postmodern speak and philosophy, and what can be jettisoned?

The reason Diana Butler Bass got me thinking along these lines was that she made it clear that she has let go of her evangelical past in favor of an emerging intentional mainline-ism. The question I was turning around in my head was at what point does one cease to be an evangelical? What do you have to either let go of or pick up to begin falling into this category? There is something of this questioning in Brian McLaren, too.

I think in the culture there is this sense that evangelicalism is something for the naive and simplistic, and so reflective people grow out of it. I have had it said to me that like those who yearn for the magisterium of Rome, folks like me need the certainty of an "infallible" Scripture to provide a base and foundation for our believing. Maybe this is so, but that is too easy an attempt to dismiss the power of evangelical Christianity. Besides, having studied theology under rigorously academic evangelical teachers as well as some of the more skeptical liberals of the 1960s, I do not believe that I have avoided dealing head-on with some of the most significant issues of biblical authority and witness, neither do I continue in a mode that pushes them under the rug.

Indeed, it is my contention as I have watched the debate and manouverings of those on the theological left, that there is generally more discipline and rigore applied to study of the faith and the text by those who are in the evangelical and historical mainstream. In fact, what troubles me when I get into theological discussion with those with whom I disagree is how often they try to bypass the process by what might be descibed as wormhole arguing. When unable to deal with a solid statement which is then backed up by theological and textual argument their response is something like, "Oh, well that's your way of reading the text, there are other interpretations, you know."

Yes, I do know that, but the one I am then offered has been picked from the skies of the culture and has little to do with the essence of what is there on the page of Scripture or in the pattern of the church's continuing tradition. Deconstruction has dug itself so deeply into our being that we are prepared to accept vague feelings as if they are as legitimate as that which comes from the richness of Christian catholicity.

I confess that I have found myself in the last few years feeling more and more of an exile in the church as well as in the United States. A person who comes to this country as an immigrant is always going to have the exile's heart because he/she is never going to quite fit. However, I have found that in conservative circles, and among those claiming to be evangelical, I don't quite fit either, whether in or beyond the Episcopal Church.

The essence of being evangelical has nothing to do with politics, nor does it have anything to do with being part of some alliance or other that addresses the culture in a particular way. Neither does being an evangelical have much to do with churchmanship, although I am part of that dying breed of old-fashioned Protestant Episcopalians who eschew too much ceremonial and ritual, and are happy from time to time with the richness of Morning Prayer and Sermon rather than eucharistic-izing everything! I guess this reflects the fact that I come from the Anglican Evangelical stable originally.

I believe the essence of evangelicalism is to do with the authority that is given to Scripture within the continuum of the church's life. I believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments more than contain God's Word, but are truly "God's Word Written." They need to be read as God speaking to us down through the centuries, as well as individually to each of us today. We have to be extremely careful in the manner in which we interpret the Scriptures, because the deconstructionist impulse is eager to project onto the Bible our own foibles and presuppositions.

Evangelicals should be Christians who are thoroughly committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every facet of their lives, and this Jesus who they serve is the One who is met in the pages of Scripture, not another who might be imagined up within this particular period of time and social context. We are people whose lives belong to the Father, through the sacrificial death of the Son upon the Cross, and who are then vivified through the resurrection power of his Holy Spirit -- the One who teaches us and leads us into the truth that is laid out in the pages of Scripture.

Evangelicals are people who are very much at home having been invited by Christ into the fellowship and community of the Trinity. They are also people of the Cross. Certainly they accept the rich variety of ways of understanding what happened on that first Good Friday, but what distinguishes them from many other Christians is that they are firm in their belief that Christ's death was substitutionary -- he died there for me to take away my sins and to enable me to live the resurrection Kingdom life.

It was from one of my old mentors, Max Warren, that I learned another distinctive of evangelical Christians, and that is that they have an assurance of faith. Yes, Christ died for me that I might live eternally, and I am sure that if I am his and he is mine then this is a bond for all eternity.

True evangelicals believe in a lot more than justification and assurance, they also believe that life is a process of sanctification -- being made holy, the reflecting this holiness in word and deed. This is a continuing process and requires our fullest cooperation with the God who gives us the Spirit of holiness, but also expects us to make decisions about thoughts, behavior, and attitudes. Where so much of what passes for evangelicalism is lacking is that it has become a justification machine with very little understanding of sanctification.

Evangelicals are also people of prayer, believing within the context of the rich varieties of prayer that God has given to us, but also that when we make intercession to the Father in heaven, the Father in heaven will lead us, guide us, protect us, bring us through the dark valley, and so forth.

Furthermore, evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will return again with great power and glory to reign eternally. This is one the great doctrines of the church that has been hijacked by a particular group of evangelicals, who hold a 19th Century interpretation of Scripture that wants us to believe along the "Left Behind " lines. Scripture has a far richer doctrine of Christ's coming again than ever the premillennialists have figured out!

Evangelicals are at their heart missional. This is that believing Jesus Christ to be the only way, truth, and life, that we are obligated to share that message to all persons everywhere that they might respond to God's call on their lives. I would go further than saying that to evangelicals it is an obligation, I would say it is our greatest privilege. Mission is not just proclamation of the Good News, but taking Jesus Christ into every facet of a needy word that is broken and sin-sick, whether healing those in warzones or arguing the case for a just and humane society in the halls of Congress.

These are, I think, some of the high points of the evangelical faith, and are right in the heart of historic, catholic Christianity. Evangelicalism, as such, was an approach to being orthodox that worked in the industrialized, Enlightenment-shaped, modern world, the question is how we carry these truths over into the postmodern world.

I would add as an Anglican Evangelical that I place high value in the visible church, especially the ordering of the church that includes the episcopate, the presbyterate, the diaconate in the historic ordering. I do not believe that bishops are of the esse of the church, but they are of its bene esse -- although our circumstances today truly stretch my commitment to this doctrine! It is because I believe in the visible unity of the church that I have real problems with those evangelicals who are bailing out of ECUSA rather than working within it to bring about repentance and reform.

In addition, I am a sacramental person, believing that we enter the covenant family of faith through baptism, and then are fed in that faith at the Lord's Supper in the sharing of the bread and wine. I guess you would say that my theology of the eucharist is high church Calvinist, but there is are so many legitimate ways of understanding communion that it is hard to believe there is one perfect theology of the great eucharistic feast, the foreshadowing of the moment when we will share the Lamb's Wedding Banquest in heaven.

If all these are the essence of evangelical Christianity, then a lot that gets passed off as evangelical is little more than adiaphora, peripheral. Those of us who are evangelicals are obligated to work out how to rework this historic approach to being Christian within such a fluid and changing cultural setting.

1 comment:

kendall said...

Richard, nice post, I put up a response.