Sunday, November 04, 2007

Touchstone on Evangelicalism Today

Magazine subscriptions come and go, but I have held on to Touchstone Magazine. Some issues are of more interest to me than others, but the November issue justifies my loyalty. Two stories in particular attracted my attention: Byzantium Yet Fallen: The Critical Lessons for Christians in the Long Shadow of 1453, and Evangelicalism Today, A Symposium: Six Evangelicals Assess Their Movement. The magazine is planning future forums on Catholic, Orthodox and mainline churches. The six contributors are:

Russell D. Moore (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)
Denny Burk (Criswell College)
John R. Franke (Emergent Village)
Darryl Hart (Orthodox Presbyterian Church)
Michael Horton (editor of Modern Reformation)
David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor University).

A number of questions were submitted to the participants, from which a few excerpts follow:

How do you define "Evangelical" in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians?

"...a common confession of faith-one that includes Great Tradition affirmations such as the Deity of Christ and the virgin birth and Reformation distinctives such as justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. The sermon is central, and concludes with a call for unbelievers to identify publicly with Christ and his church." (Moore)

"Evangelicals trace all of their beliefs to the inspired Scriptures, which they believe to be the sole authority for faith and practice. American Evangelicals have stressed the inerrancy of Scripture as a necessary condition of its authority." (Burk)

"What matters is one's personal relationship with Jesus instead of belonging to the church." (Hart)

"Someone who likes Billy Graham." (Horton)


Has Evangelicalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?

"...many of us...have become mired in just what the Fundamentalists warned us we would: worldliness. The carnality in many Evangelical churches is astounding, not just at the obvious level of sensuality, but also at the less obvious (to us, anyway) level of covetousness, love of money, and celebrity worship." (Moore)

"In defining itself against liberal Protestants on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other, much of Evangelicalism has become seriously deficient of ecclesiology and of the Great Tradition in general." (Burk)

"I don't think it has lost anything essential to its nature. If anything, it needs to continue to grow and develop far more than it needs to try to recover some aspect of its past." (Franke)

"What seems to have changed markedly among Evangelicals is a willingness to combat doctrinal error...and the triumph of an impoverished view of tolerance." (Hart)

"...the movement has shown that it is as capable of surrendering its soul to the mall just as mainline Protestantism has largely offered itself to the academy. If Fundamentalism reduced sin to sins (or at least things they considered vices), contemporary Evangelicals seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriage, and happier kids." (Horton)

Are there any fundamental difference within the Evangelical movement today...?

"...while pietism may have enriched the Reformation churches to some extent, the heritage of revivalism represents a counter-Reformation that in many respects went even further than Trent in the direction of Pelagianism...In both faith and practice, Reformation Christianity differs from the sort of Evangelicalism represented, for example, by Charles Finney, more radically than it does with Rome or Orthodoxy....there is the Reformation stream...the revivalist stream...the growing popularity of Anabaptist, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as a fresh appreciation for the heritage of Protestant liberalism...Evangelicalism may increasingly be incapable of theological definition....Evangelicals may show appreciation for a variety of traditions without ever belonging to any one." (Horton)

What does your movement...fail to see that it ought to see?

"...that Jesus did not die for a "movement" but for a church....that the love of money is the root of all evil." (Moore)

"Evangelicals often fail to see the extent to which they are shaped by their culture." (Burk)

"By and large, Evangelicals have accommodated the gospel and Christianity to the dominant cultural assumptions of our society." (Franke)

"Evangelicals have rarely understood that the lowest-common-denominator Christianity they have used to achieve success...does not do justice to the fullness of biblical truth." (Hart)

"Surveys reveal that a huge percentage (some studies have it as high as 80 percent) of those reared in Evangelical churches drop out of church by their sophomore year in college....I think we have failed to see that emotional summer-camp experiences cannot sustain a robust faith through the trials of real life. So, ironically, while Evangelicalism celebrates reaching the lost, it is losing the reached....when the gospel is reduced to simplistic jargon and is taken for granted in the life of the church, the next generation even forgets the slogans." (Horton)

"We entertain, we preach to the choir, we provide creature comforts and go to great lengths to be altogether use-friendly. Meanwhile, the "one thing most needful" has generally suffered among us in inverse proportion to the scale by while our organization machinery tends to focus on all things bigger and better. Another blind spot is an uncritical identification of radical individualism with the Christ-life, and a corresponding resistance to connecting faithfulness to Christ with love of neighbor and pursuit of the common good." (Jeffrey)

What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?

"Most Evangelicals...are going to make quite poor Catholic or Orthodox churchmen...many of them become Catholic or Orthodox because they are tired of dealing with sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Evangelicals...[and] seem to think all Catholics are Walker Percy or Richard John Neuhaus or that all Orthodox are Maximos the Confessor." (Moore)

"The current rot within Evangelical subculture does not accurately reflect the richness of its theological heritage. Fundamentally, the Evangelical faith is rooted int he solas of the Reformation, which are themselves rooted in the confessions of the ecumenical creeds, which are themselves rooted in the inscripturated apostolic witness to Christ." (Burk)

"Both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions maintain that the authority and grace of God are mediated through the agency of the historical and institutional church. For Evangelicals, the genuine significance of the church in the economy of God does not in any way imply that the church has been fully entrusted with authority or given control over the dispensation of grace in the world. These belong to God and God alone." (Franke)

"Evangelicals contemplating the other Christian traditions need to think carefully about how they are right with God and the nature of the redeeming work of Christ. The Protestant Reformers answered such questions in decidedly different ways from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. So to switch Christianities may be more of a change than frustrated Evangelicals are prepared to accept." (Hart)

"Starved for mystery, transcendence, maturity, order, theological richness, liturgy, and history, many young Evangelicals are discovering Reformation Christianity. Yet for some, it is only a rest stop on the way to Rome or Orthodoxy. Here’s how I would counsel such a person: Start with the gospel. The gospel creates and sustains the church, not the other way around....That is what the Reformation was all about, and it is why we need another one....Reformation Christianity is catholic and Evangelical." (Horton)

"...institutional infamy for clerical abuse..." (Jeffrey)


What has Evangelicalism to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

"Christ and him crucified." (Moore)

"...the salvation that results from this gospel by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone so that the sinner can have assurance now that God is no longer against him but for him because of Christ." (Burk)

"...this passion for the gospel is our particular gift." (Franke)

"Evangelicalism has more energy, creativity, and zeal than is typically found in other Christian traditions....Even so, Evangelicalism’s best attributes may not be as desirable as commonly assumed. Evangelicals may be at a point where they need sobriety about themselves and the God they serve more than they need enthusiasm." (Hart)


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Clearly, I have some differences with these guys, but I really admire their candor and self-criticism. By and large, their comments were startling in their objectivity and freshness. Hardly a triumphalist note was sounded. From my position on the outside, looking in, I do have a few observations, which I hope will be as charitable as theirs.

First, I find the Evangelical allegiance to Scripture to be all-important--but what is really meant is limited to interpretations of scripture since 1500: Reformed, revivalist, pietist, anabaptist, restorationist--it all must begin there. To the extent that Evangelicals buy into the concept of being on a spiritual journey, their trek is along a trail that must twist through Wittenburg, Geneva, Edinburgh, Boston, the American frontier, and for some, even Nashville, Dallas, Los Angeles and Colorado Springs. Non-evangelicals might suggest that there are other paths that are much older and straighter, where the destination is not only always in view ahead, but all around you as you travel.

I found Hart and Horton the most hard-hitting. Horton made an excellent point about how far removed contemporary Evangelicals are from the Reformation leaders. He contends that Luther was infinitely closer to the Pope or the Patriarch than he would be to 19th century Evangelicals, much less those of today (think Joel Osteen). And herein lies the problem, in my book. The whole construct will not hold water, but becomes weaker and weaker over time. Of course, Horton contends that a new Reformation is needed (Lord help us!).

The writers were at their weakest when answering the question as to what Evangelicalism had to offer the world that it could find nowhere else. Their response was "Christ and Him crucified." Of course, this is the right and best answer, but certainly not one unique to Evangelicalism. The good Catholic or Orthodox would answer the same way.

Nor did I think they knew what to do with the question about Protestant converts to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Jeffrey makes a cheap shot about the institutionalized Catholic clergy abuse. Moore is unconvincing in his response and--if indeed he actually believes this--totally misses the attraction that the Apostolic churches hold for Evangelicals. He is a bit dismissive, concluding that church members leave because of the hypocrisy and small-mindedness of their fellow Evangelicals. Leaving Protestantism for Orthodoxy or Catholicism is not the same thing as say, moving your membership from First Baptist to Calvary Fellowship because you were mad at Deacon So-In-So. It's on a different plane altogether. I have yet to run across a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy that left for such a reason, or who had such naive expectations of Orthodox believers. I believe Evangelicals leave because of the thinness of the doctrine, worship and faith expounded--seeking the fullness they can find in liturgical churches, a yearning, if you will, for closer communion with Christ. Often they find this, and much more. The other contributors, by and large, urged caution for those comtemplating swimming the Tiber or the Bosphorus--to hang in there and rediscover their own rich theological heritage.

Again, I commend these Evangelicals, primarily Horton and Hart. Hopefully, the future installments featuring Catholic and Orthodox writers will be equally forthcoming.

1 comment:

David Bryan said...

Thanks so much for this. Impressive in their candor, you're right about that.