Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Rebuilding Evangelical Unity

I have posted an article-length comment on the Stand Firm discussion thread following on from the Guardian Comment is Free question of the week, What Should Evangelicals Believe?:

... Evangelicalism here is much more fundamentally divided than is often realized, but people don’t see it because they believe that the rallying points which were sufficient in the past remain so today.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, for example, evangelical Anglicans were united around the ‘authority of scripture’. This distinguished them in large measure from liberals. However, when they used this phrase they meant not just ‘that Scripture is authoritative’ but (less consciously, but more significantly) ‘that Scripture authoritatively says certain things on which we are agreed’.

Thus, substitutionary —indeed penal substitutionary —atonement was generally accepted amongst evangelicals as ‘what Scripture says’. The old illustration, using a Bible to represent sin and transferring [it] from one hand to the other to show how God took it off us and laid on his Son, was accepted without qualms as a valid summary of the work of the cross. Evangelicals, in short, had not merely a view of Scripture, but a shared systematic theology.

All this changed in the sixties and seventies, as classical evangelicalism came under pressure from three directions.
Read the rest here.

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  1. John,

    How would you define the difference between Conservative Evangelicals and 'Fundamentalist Christians'. You refer to 'Classical Evangelicals (which I think is a much better term to describe CEs BTW).

    Does there exist such a creature as a 'fundamentalist evangelical'?

    Chris Bishop

  2. Hi Chris,

    As I recall, "classical evangelical" or CE was a phrase coined by Oliver Barclay. It is certainly more helpful than Conservative, although the initials remain the same!

    The problem with 'fundamentalism' is how to give a useful definition at all. The 'media' definition is clearly quite useless, and the historical definition is anachronistic.

    From a practical point of view, the difference seems to be in the attitude to reading and interpreting Scripture.

    Oddly enough (or perhaps, 'unsurprisingly') CEs are often accused of a 'flat', unsophisticated reading of the Bible. What people have in mind, though, is, I suspect, more typical of modern fundamentalism, which may tend to ignore the literary nature of Scripture and insist on a 'literal' interpretation which doesn't first ask what kind of literature this is.

    I was trying to explain this to someone the other night, by saying that taking a joke 'literally' doesn't mean thinking there were really three men who went into a bar, but laughing at the punchline.

    A fundamentalist, to my mind, is in danger of worrying that if you don't think there were really three such men then the joke isn't as good.

    Clearly there are fundamentalist evangelicals, but I wonder how many of them think there is any other kind.