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6) Defining Evangelicalism: Open or Closed?
Another issue the book raised in my thinking relates to evangelical identity. Should we define evangelicalism by what it is for or what it is against? Or, as Al Mohler puts it in his 1989 dissertation on evangelical appropriation of Barth, should evangelicalism be a boundaried or centered set of theological convictions? Should its identity be forged positively, from the center, or negatively, at the fringes? Marsden continually highlights how both tendencies have played themselves out in fundamentalist-evangelical history, with very different results. From the introduction: “(the evangelical) heritage pointed in two conflicting directions. Part of it, more clearly anticipated in the New School tradition, was open and expansive, emphasizing positive evangelism. Another part, shaped by fundamentalist wars against modernism, was closed, cautious, and defensive” (7).
The dangers of an entirely negative sense of identity, which is constantly drawing new lines and retreating into itself, are obvious. I want my identity to be fundamentally positive, rooted in the gospel, leaning towards, not away from, other orthodox Christians. At the same time, reading Reforming Fundamentalism made me more aware of the danger of losing all negative identity markers. An identity established exclusively in positive categories can be in danger of minimizing important differences within a larger concern for unity and influence. Sometimes sharp lines of distinction are necessary to clarify the truth, to convict of sin, to guard the gospel, and to protect the sheep. The gospel, it seems to me, calls for both denunciation as well as affirmation.
So how do we establish an identity that is both fundamentally positive and appropriately negative? What can we do to avoid imbalance? Its so hard not to veer too far to one side or the other. 5 distinctions that I think are helpful to make:
(1) We must distinguish between the gospel and secondary points of doctrine. Our fundamental sense of loyalty should be all who love the gospel, not just those in our particular denomination, church, network, or circle. We should strive to make the gospel the most important emotional factor in how we regard other Christians.
(2) Among secondary, non-gospel issues, we must distinguish between differing levels of importance for different doctrines, and different ways in which those issues are important. Some issues are just plain unimportant. Others are always important. Others are important in some respects and unimportant in other respects. For example, ecclesiological issues like baptism and church membership will be less important among those planting a seminary together than among those planting a church together, because they will effect how the church operates day to day, but not the seminary. And so on with various different issues. We must constantly be asking not only, “is this true?” but “how much does this matter?”
(3) We must distinguish between doctrinal issues and various political, cultural, attitudinal, or applicational issues. So often what divides Christians is not so much different positions as different mindsets – a different stance toward a controversial church leader, a different posture towards drinking alcohol or reading Harry Potter, a different perspective on a political issue or candidate, etc. I saw this again and again in Marsden’s history. Huge amounts of convictional overlap can be drowned out amidst such differences. We must strive to be objective about our own mindsets and policies, and submit them continually to Scripture where we have gone beyond what is written.
(4) We must distinguish between different kinds of unity and partnership. Serving together as elders in a local congregation is one kind of partnership. Speaking at the same conference is another. Participating in a pro-life rally is yet another. My standards of unity are going to be fairly strict for the first; fairly loose for the second; and extremely loose for the third. If we don’t make these distinctions, we’ll approach very distinct shades of gray (the complexities of life in a diverse world) through a black-and-white grid (“are they on my team or the other team?”).
(5) We must distinguish between helpful and unhelpful aspects of our own traditions and histories. For example, both inerrancy and premillennialism were identity markers for fundamentalism and early evangelicalism. They were both symbolically important, but they are very different in terms of theological importance, for much more is at stake with inerrancy (as least in my view). We need to be willing to submit our own traditions to criticism and drop those aspects of it that are unhelpful without losing those aspects of it that are helpful. I think a greater depth of knowledge outside our own tradition is the best aid for getting more objectivity and perspective. That relates to my interest in doing doctoral work in Anselm. More on the role of pre-millennialism in #8….