On not being “evangelical” (or “liberal” or “progressive)

apostolicThere is a strong tendency for all differences in the modern Church (in almost all its historic denominations) to polarise along an “evangelical”/”liberal” divide. This makes me very uncomfortable since I am unable to identify with either “party”. Each, of course, is a broad term covering a wide range of positions but each carries connotations and establishes expectations that I just can’t accept. I’ve written before on why I react negatively to the term “progressive” (here) and now I want to say a little about my problems with “evangelicalism”.

I have never felt comfortable talking about this wing of the Church because it is so unfamiliar to me. When I joined the Church in the 1990s it was the mainstream liberal Church to which I was drawn and it is in this part of the Church that all my experience has been. Coming to Christianity from a scientific and philosophical background I began with a set of ideas quite close to the rationalist and modernising tendency represented by people like Don Cupitt or Richard Holloway (who baptised and confirmed me in 1998). During my preparation for baptism and confirmation by a Scottish Episcopalian priest I asked for and received helpful reassurance that some of my doubts did not preclude the Church from accepting me.¬†Evangelicalism was deeply “other” at the churches in which my Christian faith was nurtured and our reading groups naturally looked at books by Cupitt and Marcus Borg.

Over time I moved towards more orthodox or traditional ways of understanding what Christ means to us and would not now describe myself as a “liberal”. I am clear that the resurrection is central to our faith, that the trinity is non-negotiable, that indeed the Niceme-Constantinopolitan creed is essential to my understanding of what it is to be a Christian (as explained here). The primary authority of (all of) the Bible, the secondary authority of the tradition (especially of the ecumenical councils), the relevance of the concept of heresy, all this marks me as, in some real sense, “Catholic” and “Orthodox”.

I am clear, too, that I could never describe myself as “evangelical”, for some of the same reasons. Insofar as I understand what the modern term “evangelical” means it has its historical roots in the eighteenth century and refers to a number of key beliefs and practices:

  1. it places a primary emphasis on the direct relationship of the individual Christian and the person of Jesus – hence it has a tendency towards individualism and to seeing the Church as a secondary phenomenon grouping those who each have their own connection to Jesus
  2. it regards this relationship of the individual believer and Jesus as coming out of a “conversion” experience, a moment in time where Christ enters the heart of the person
  3. it elevates the authority of the Bible to a unique place, insisting that it is self-interpreting and infallible, requiring no authoritative interpretation other than the individual encounter with it under the direct inspiration of the Spirit

In all of these regards I think evangelicalism is profoundly mistaken, indeed that these positions are incoherent and impossible consistently to maintain, being deeply untrue to the experience and formation of any conceivable Christian.

We all encounter Christ in community and through tradition. Each and every one of us came to know and love Jesus and the Bible in and by means of our experience of the Church. The Holy Spirit made use of the Church to create and define the Bible itself, after all. The contents of the New Testament were written in and for the early Church and the post-apostolic Church (under the Spirit’s guidance) discerned which of the apostolic writings were properly described as Scripture. During the very formation of the New Testament it was determined that the apostolic tradition would be normative not only in determining which writings were to be in the canon but how they should be interpreted.

A Christianity that is separated from the apostolic tradition departs from Christ (although the question of how to determine such separation is by no means straightforward I believe that it is possible).

Thus I could never describe myself as an evangelical since I think evangelicalism so radically underestimates the importance both of the communal life of the Church and of the apostolic tradition as to put in danger the life-blood of the faith itself. Without the living historical connection to Jesus, through the Church, we lose something absolutely essential.

This is not to suggest the evangelical have actually lost this connection. They have not, their practice is much better than the theology they use to express it. That, in a sense, matters very little. In fact I think many evangelical are far too attached to merely traditional forms and ideas, especially in regard to the ethics of sex and reproduction.

What does matter is that their under-theorised dependence on the tradition means that they lost a good deal of flexibility and can be a block to aspects of the Church’s engagement with contemporary culture. On the other hand they and their cousins in the charismatic and pentecostal churches are the growing tip of the Church, enabling it to grow and thrive in ways the liberal church cannot match.

Thus, while refusing the label “evangelical” I find much to value in this tradition. The Church needs its diversity but it also needs all its fragments to develop a habit of theological self-reflection and a generosity and openness to one another. None of us can claim to be the Church apart, we are Christ’s body only in communion with all his people.

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1 comment
  1. Richard Landon said:

    I have been an evangelical Christian for about 50 years, and URC minister for 40 years, subscribing to such statements of faith as those of UCCF, FIEC and Affinity, and valuing wide fellowship with fellow evangelicals in several denominational and independent church groupings. But I too would be unhappy with evangelicalism if the three key beliefs and practices which you mention were a fair representation of what evangelicals believe.

    Specifically,

    1. Although I hope that all Christians would place high value on their relationship with Jesus (without that you wouldn’t be a Christian, let alone live as one), evangelicals regard belonging to the church (local and universal) as indispensible biblically. It was through a church that most became Christians, it is a great joy and privilege to meet together with fellow-Christians for worship, teaching, fellowship and all kinds of Christian service. It is the body of Christ to which all true believers belong.

    2. Although everyone who is a Christian must at some point have been “converted” r else they would still be a non-Christian, and although many Christians can describe a specific moment when they repented and believed, and became aware of their new relationship with God through Jesus, many evangelicals (incuding me) cannot identify any moment, and no evangelical (in my experience) would require it or hold that it is required biblically. (Is the expression “Christ enters the heart of the person” biblical?)

    3. Although the Bible does have unique authority – for evangelicals it is the word of God in written form – I do not know of any evangelical who believes that it is “self-interpreting”, except perhaps in the sense that much of it can be understood simply as what it says. Otherwise only academically trained teachers could really understand it, and we would not encourage “ordinary” Christians to read it! But that does not obviate the need to for there to be “worker(s) who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Any serious evangelical commentary (e.g. IVP Bible Speaks Today, Tyndale and Pillar commentaries) would immediately demonstrate this. The assistance of the Holy Spirit is essential as I imagine every Christian, especially a Christian teacher, would agree, and as 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 seems to show.

    In the remainder of your post there is much that I would agree with, except perhaps that the relationship between the church and the canon of Scripture needs to be examined more carefully (the church was built on the foundation of apostolic preaching and teaching as reported in Acts and as circulated in the letters); and evangelical concerns about sex are largely a response to what has been thrust upon us over recent years on the basis of what Scripture appears to us to teach (we believe we must resist what amounts to a re-definiton of sinful behaviour, as well as of fundamental human relationships according to our Creator’s purpose).

    I enjoy reading your blog. It’s always good to see oneself as others see us, and I hope you find my comments helpful.

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