Monday, 19 July 2010

Evangelicalism - not division but dilution?

I'm taking a break from the blog until the end of the month (OK it’s like giving up nicotine, but I’ll try).
However, to keep the interest alive, I want to mention a thought in relation to my earlier post on Evangelical unity, prompted by an e-mail someone sent me.
I’ll quote him in full:
In the late 19th century, Catholics were a rather small and persecuted group, although there were certainly differences over tactics and minor points, they were united in the essentials. Between the wars and immediately afterwards, as it was the most successful thing going in the church, it attracted, er, fellow-travellers. Until the 1950s and 1960s, if you saw a priest wearing vestments and reserving the Blessed Sacrament, that meant [a] certain view and certain teaching. As time has gone on, things have got diluted, Eucharistic vestments are worn by people who think they look nice but do not believe in the doctrine that goes with their use, and Affirming Catholicism has split off, not to mention other groupings..
When Evangelicals were united in the 60s and 70s, they were a powerful force, but when the movement grew and attracted fellow-travellers ………
I remember much the same happening to the Charismatic Movement. In the ’60s and early ’70s, it was a fringe movement with distinctive doctrines which you had to accept in order to belong. By the late ’70s we were all ‘Charismatics’. At the same time, the ‘second blessing’ doctrine and the virtual requirement of speaking in tongues had been toned down.
Alpha threatens no-one (well, almost no-one) and the Alpha ‘movement’ is mainstream. But the theologians now willing to associate with it include Rowan and Jane Williams and Jürgen Moltmann — people I suspect wouldn’t be insisting (as the Alpha course material does) that being filled with the Spirit is distinct from being a Christian who merely ‘has’ the Spirit. Hence Alpha charismatic theology has diluted and will dilute further — watch the St Mellitus* space.
Perhaps the reality is that as Evangelicalism became more acceptable, so more people were willing to self-identify with the movement who would not previously have done so, but whose theology was not that of the earlier, rigorous, Evangelicals.
Thus what took place amongst Evangelicals was not division but dilution.
Discuss (and I’ll try not to join in).
John Richardson
19 July 2010

*  Several key values mark out the training offered at St Mellitus: UNITY IN DIVERSITY: We work with all kinds of Christians and denominations within a generous orthodoxy, drawing on the great tradition of Christian theology through the centuries.
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  1. Despite Alpha's attempts to prevent it a large number of the churches adopting it have toned down - or simply dropped the 'Spirit' content altogether.

    Any term that spans RC Sproul through to Benny Hinn is going to lose meaning. Sadly, unity in evangelicalism has often come by toning down the evangel.

  2. I can remember when Alpha was in itself a divisive force, because it emphasised charismatic theology over traditional evangelical theology. Now it has become a publishing empire, its aims have changed.

    However, I'm planning a sermon for Sunday for our local informal Group of Churches - Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Independents all join in freely, and the thought that always strikes me on these occasions is that the Christian community is so utterly fragmented that it really is no surprise that our voice is not heard.

    We also have a lot of confusion now over the term 'evangelical', split as they are into open, conservative and (for all I know) liberal and middle-of-the-road as well. Is this a useful term any more? Would not 'bible-believing' be a more better? At least it is a theological statement of sorts, rather than an evangelical being defined by what, if any, vestments they wear or how the Gospel is read in their church.

    Dilution - certainly, fragmentation - definitely, and if C of E evangelicals are felling threatened, perhaps our future is with other bible-belivers outside the C of E?

  3. Bible believer? I'm not entirely sure what one of those is. We all look to the Bible for guidance, the problem is that we don't all end up seeing the same thing.

    I'm a strong proponent of female clergy and I see Paul's words in Galatians 3:28 as supporting that point of view. Indeed, if there truly is neither male nor female in Christ's church, not only should we have no prohibition of women bishops, but it also follows that there should be no special measures that relate specifically to women bishops, such as the provisions that were proposed (and subsequently voted down earlier this month) for those who deny the Biblical Truth of Paul's letter to church in Galatia.

    Of course, opponents of my position would immediately point me to 1 Timothy 2:12. They would explain how Galatians 3:28 shows that men and women are of equal worth within the Church, but it does not imply that they are both equally suited to every role within the Church. Thus, they would say, it is not they who are denying Biblical Truth, but I.

    You simply have to accept that Christians are always going to argue about what Biblical Truth is and in the end, that makes a term like "Bible-believer" completely meaningless.

  4. I don't quite see how it follows that because St Mellitus college stresses unity in diversity, the theology of Alpha will be further diluted. OK so St Mellitus has a base at SPTC, but it is neither governed by Alpha/HTB exclusively not does it have any influence whatsoever on the content of Alpha.
    I think I can hear Phil Ritchie exploding from here!

    Also, btw, according to canon law, vestments have no doctrinal significance. I was interested to read of an evangelical implying that they do have some.

  5. "Also, btw, according to canon law, vestments have no doctrinal significance. I was interested to read of an evangelical implying that they do have some."

    I don't think the implication was that they had any significance, more that they were once a useful marker for a certain doctrinal view.

  6. I am not quite sure what the point being made in this post is. It seems like this: "That it is a pity when united group gathering around a single belief or (relatively) simple set of beliefs becomes a larger group less sure of what unites it and with more disagreement in its midst than at the beginning."

    But there is another way to look at life in the church: new insights and ways of expressing faith in Christ (e.g. rise of Anglo-Catholicism, Alpha) arise, initially attracting a small group of proponents, then over time widening and deepening influence through a broad swathe of the church locally and globally.

    What's not to like? Why deprecate the spread of renewal movements with terms like 'dilution'?

    I am a better evangelical Christian (i.e. gospel-transformed sinner) for my learnings from Anglo-Catholicism, Alpha, the charismatic movement, various streams of evangelicalism, and (believe it or not) liberal theology.

    Part of being a "better" Christian is that I am better prepared for heaven where there will be many saints whose stairway to heaven has not been carved out of one narrowly conceived approach to understanding the transforming work of Christ.

  7. St Mellitus' college Dean has some fascinating and quite wrong things to say about what he terms "pneumatology".

    I never liked Alpha anyway - seriously, I didn't. I couldn't adequately express it when it first appeared, but is seems they are expressing it fantastically themselves now!

  8. Yes Alpha has been adapted to the local situation by many users, or diluted if you prefer. I think the broadening of the HTB message is at the centre. They seem to delight in guest speakers who are not normally regarded as evangelicals and then these are reported in Alpha News. I see similarities to the development of Greenbelt.

  9. To respond to Richard's comment first, the term "bible-believing" originates from America and carries certain connotations that I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to express in detail. But I think it's fair to say that it's associated with a specific approach to faith that not all evangelicals would want to be associated with. Labels are such dreadful things!

    More generally, I would agree that it's much easier for a minority movement to have a well-defined (one could say closely-guarded) focus. I've read other observations saying that 50 or so years ago, anglican evangelicals were such a tiny group that it was easy for them to stay united. Also the Stott/MLJ split brought the anglican evangelicals together and forced them to define their own way, in isolation from other churches.

    However, we have to be careful here. A reading of history indicates that evangelicals have never been a homogenous grouping. Back at the reformation, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli couldn't work together. Later on, Wesley and Whitfield parted company acrimoniously. In this century, Billy Graham rejected separatist fundamentalism and effectively created a new philosophy called neo-evangelicalism. And the brethren churches, despite their claimed rejection of organisation, also suffered many splits. I'm sure there are plenty more examples.

    I share Peter's view that God cannot be put in a tiny theological box - we all have an incomplete understanding of him, and we can all learn from others, including those we might have huge differences with. I can say this from personal experience. It's also been my experience that that conservative evangelicals are probably the most resistant to learning from others, as they tend to regard their way as being the only right way. The crazy thing is, of course, that conservative evangelical distinctives are not uniform themselves.

  10. I used the term 'bible-believing' because i thought it might tell us what we're all about, rather than 'evangelical' - a term that appears to me to have lost its meaning. As for being American (perish the thought), the compilers of the 39 Articles (much quoted here recently) would have understood the term when they wrote Article 6 (Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation).
    As for closed minds that can't learn from others - I have found those in all parts of the theological spectrum.

  11. "St Mellitus' college Dean has some fascinating and quite wrong things to say about what he terms "pneumatology"."

    Do you have any links to this material? And suggested critiques?

  12. Any yet you still cannot understand what the problem is here, Richard. Liberal Christians do not look at the Bible and say to themselves things like, "Pfff, what a load of old rubbish. I'm sure if Jesus were here now, he'd have no problem whatsoever with gay people. Let's not bother with what this so-called 'Bible' says." Do not fall into the trap of presuming your own infallibility. Recognise that Christians with beliefs that differ from yours look every bit as closely as you do to Scripture, it's just that they discern a different truth from yours.

    And in a Church where it's clear that not all of us discern the same truth from the same Bible, choosing to call ourselves "Bible believers" and, by inference, identifying all who disagree with us as "Bible deniers", is breathtakingly arrogant and provocative.

  13. Not division, nor dilution; but delusion. Waiting for the arrival, on the scene, of a proper evangelical has been like Waiting For Godot.

  14. James, I'm not sure which bit of the term 'bible-believing' you don't understand. Neither am I sure what Liberal Christians (and I'm assuming that's a label you would claim) do do with the Bible, as you've told me what they don't do.

    Are you prepared to go along with the Ordinal for example - 'be you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word.', or chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession on the nature of the authority of scripture, or article 2 of the Jerusalem Declaration (2008), each of which stresses the authority of Scripture as a given.

    If we can agree on these, then we can agree on the nature of authority - it's right, even if you don't always like what it says.

  15. But you don't simply believe in the Bible, do you? You believe in the infallibility of its authors, its copyists, its translators. You believe in the infallibility of those who selected the books and letters that make up today's Bible. And most of all, you believe in your own infallible ability to understand the Bible. Would that it were a book of brilliantly unequivocal commandments! Then we'd be able to split the believers from the non-believers. Maybe we'd only have one Christian denomination rather than tens of thousands.

    But I read the Bible and see many ambiguities and even things that seem to be contradictions. It's a real problem for me trying to reconcile 1 Timothy 2:12 with Galatians 3:28, for example. Sometimes I struggle to understand what exactly God's word is, to be honest. And consequently, I struggle to understand which "strange doctrines" actually are "contrary to God's Word".

    It seems to me that you have constructed for yourself a delusion in which you can look at the Bible and see a clear, simple, unambiguous answer to every question. In this imaginary world, the only reason why anyone could ever believe anything different from you is because they have wilfully and knowingly chosen to go against the clear instruction of the Bible. You think, for example, that when these liberals ask themselves, "Is it right to have women bishops?" they look in the Bible, see that it says "no" and then say, "Well sod that, it seems that to forbid women from becoming bishops is unfair, so I'm just going to go completely against what the Bible says, and support women bishops anyway."

    I cannot stress the point any more fuller than this: that is not what goes through the mind of a liberal Christian. I "believe" in the Bible. I look to it for guidance. I look to it to provide evidence for theological positions. I truly believe that it was written by people who were genuinely inspired by God. But I'm not going to ascribe qualities to the Bible that the books themselves do not assert they have, because that's just superstition.

  16. Canon Andrew Godsall21 July 2010 at 08:27

    Thank you James67 for some clear teaching about an Anglican approach to scripture. I am also a bible believing Christian.

    Let's take Peter and Paul as examples. Let's assume they are the authors of the Epistles bearing their names - which of course is a whole other argument - but we might assume they had a hand in them. Those apostles were clearly, and by their own admission, fallible people. Did they simply become INfallible and INerrant when they put pen to paper?
    As James67 says, we can believe that the bible is the inspired wold of God - I have no doubt about that - but I'm not going to ascribe qualities to the books that even the authors would not give them.

  17. The above comments illustrate well the problem with labels such as "bible believer".

    I'd find it really helpful if others could try to clarify what the difference between an evangelical and a liberal is.

    As an evangelical, I take the view that the main meaning of a passage of scripture is what it would have meant to the people to whom it was originally written. I also adopt a literal hermeneutic - I reject allegorising the Bible unless this is clearly indicated by the context. But I'm not really sure if liberals take a different approach - can anyone enlighten me?

    Incidentally, on the subject of "strange doctrine contrary to God's Word" - I see plenty of this in the CofE, including the conservative evangelical wing. Does Rev Richardson wear a frock from time to time? That's definitely a strange doctrine!!!! Plenty of Christians see infant baptism as equally unbiblical... But John is happy with this and it's the official position of his church (which is also my church), then why is he so concerned about the church deciding that women bishops are also OK?

  18. Ian,

    As an attempt to clarify what a liberal is, I would say that a liberal approach to the Bible is one that treats it as a human testament of religion rather than being a divine record of revelation.

    To a liberal therefore, the Bible itself is fallible because humans are fallible. Doctrine has a similar character because it is a human byproduct of the former. Such an approach will be progressive with time shaped by secular and subjective thought and will necessarily lead to quite a different interpretation of Christian expression.

    I do not think that liberalism should be confused with differences in doctrine within evangelicalism. I tend to regard this as like the 'error bars' that you get within graphs that contain the range of values but all within a common line. This is what evangelicals tend to squabble about. In the case of liberalism then they are plotting a different graph altogether.

    I fully agree with you that the main meaning of a passage of scripture is what it would have meant to the people to whom it was originally written. To my mind that always has to be the starting point for a true evangelical hermeneutic.

    The so called 'plain meaning of Scripture' may not be so plain when it is subject to this kind of analysis. While there are many noted evangelical scholars who do this I have found that it is lost on many of the evangelical rank and file for whom it is too much like hard work.

    Chris Bishop

  19. @James67,
    You wrote:

    "But I read the Bible and see many ambiguities and even things that seem to be contradictions. It's a real problem for me trying to reconcile 1 Timothy 2:12 with Galatians 3:28, for example. Sometimes I struggle to understand what exactly God's word is, to be honest."

    Then you are in good company. As Ian has pointed out, it is important to understand what these verses would have meant to those for whom they were written.

    There are a number of explanations for the apparent disparity:

    Paul prefaces his command
    (in verse 12) with 'I do not permit...'. He does not say
    'A woman must not teach...', but, 'I do not permit a woman
    to teach...'.

    There is not space to go into it here but there are good reasons to suppose that Paul said what he did in order not to to bring the church into disrepute in the context of the cultural norms of the day. The argument that it alludes to the 'created order' is another possibility of course, but the key is to discover what it would have meant to the hearers.

    This means uncovering the cultural landscape and mindset of Timothy and Paul and how they viewed this. This is often difficult but not always so. Good Evangelical scholarship will always take this into account when determining the meaning which may not always be the 'plain' one.

    I am not much of a scholar myself to be able to point you to sources that objectively research passages like these although I am constant researching them myself. However such an appraisal in no way mitigates against the inspiration of Scripture and its trustworthiness.

    As an evangelical if something in the Bible appears to contradict itself then it is because I have not understood it sufficiently well and not because I think it is erroneous.

    Sometimes understanding can be some time coming!

    Chris Bishop

  20. @Dominic, if you're going to say in public that a college Dean is "wrong" you're going to have to back up your statement with a reference or at the very least an anecdote. I suspect that I disagree with your opinion, but in order to refute it I (?we) need to know what you are actually talking about.
    I look forward to hearing from you on here

  21. @ Chris Bishop,

    I really appreciate your comments (both of them) and share your views.

    I thought that the last paragraph of your comment to me was very telling. Evangelicalism likes to proclaim "truth" and so the suggestion that there may be multiple interpretations of the bible and that it isn't always clear which to choose does not fit well with this mindset. I wasn't quite sure who you meant by "rank and file" - if it was just laity, I would suggest that clergy should also be included.

    In your comment to James67, I would add that the translation issue also affects our reading of the text and an understanding of the original languages is important in any serious exegesis. I also recently read that a biblical description of something does not necessarily amount to a prescription for all time.

    Needless to say, everything you said is very relevant to the question of female clergy/bishops...

  22. Wouldn’t the adoption of the label “Bible-believing Christian” (and its high-church counterpart “tranditionalist Christian” too, for that matter), suggest some very unwelcome things about how we conceive our Christian identity? We are not made Christians by believing in the truth of the Bible (or the traditions of the institutional Church), but by our discipleship, personal and corporate, to Jesus Christ. The fact that Scripture and tradition are the authoritative witnesses we need to come to this discipleship is incredibly significant, but surely it must come after that fact that Jesus is our Lord, if the object of our worship is to be Christ, not the Bible or the Church? In short, shouldn’t we affirm our identity as “Jesus-believing” Christains before we speak of ourselves as “Bible-believing” Christians?

  23. Isn't there a problem here? We only know what 'Jesus-believing' is after we have been to the Bible and found out. And if you really can't believe what you read there, you might have a problem believing in one whose existence you can't substantiate.
    Alternatively, you pick and choose. You might say that the Gospels paint a true and accurate picture of the historical Jesus, but that old curmudgeon Paul was so weighted down by his prejudices that you are going to pick holes in everything he says, believing that he was only reflecting the cultural norms of his day, unlike the Gospel writers, which weren't, apparently.
    How, then, do you choose what to believe in the Bible and what not to believe? If the answer is that you don't disbelieve any of it, then surely the term for you is a 'bible-believer'.
    And if you live, as the Anglican Church does, under the authority of scripture, how does that authority work itself out?

  24. I think there’s been a misunderstanding here – I’m not advocating what you would call a “liberal” attitude to the Bible, nor am I arguing for the dismemberment of Scripture. I do believe that the whole Bible is true, and that Christian discipleship can only develop in the light of the authoritative witness to Jesus which the Bible provides, both in narrative and in teaching (that is what I understand by “living under the authority of Scripture”). All I am saying is that it is that discipleship which distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian, rather than the approach to Scripture which helps them to arrive at it.

    The strength of the term “evangelical” is that it puts the Gospel front and centre –focusing on the Good News which Jesus brought us, which was recorded in Scripture and which leaps off the page in the lives of Christians today. The term “Bible-believing” implies something else – that the true and authoritative medium of the Gospel is more significant to us than the Gospel itself.

  25. Not being an intellectual my understanding of evangelical is vague. I have spent much time trying to discover what it is.
    I am sure Alpha is not a program that helps as it is so weak in its content that really it is a first stepping stone for people who have very little knowledge of the Christian faith or Scriptures. So surely Alpha can't be held as an oracle of what Evangelical is.

    From many of these comments it becomes even more confused and hard to pin down.

    One reason I search for clarity on the 'evangelical' is that the word and feeling of Judgement seems to always come in very close proximity.

    Perhaps then this is why as you say in the post
    'Perhaps the reality is that as Evangelicalism became more acceptable, so more people were willing to self-identify with the movement who would not previously have done so, but whose theology was not that of the earlier, rigorous, Evangelicals.
    Thus what took place amongst Evangelicals was not division but dilution.'

  26. I prefer the term 'Bible-driven' rather than bible believing to describe a truly evangelical work. It isn't just a matter of signing up to some doctrines as biblical, like I had to before I became a college Christian Union leader, but of being determined that the people involved will study what the bible has to say and shape their work around what God teaches them as they study it. The programme and the way it is delivered should be generated and shaped by God's word in the bible: in some instances, I think 'evangelical' endeavours are carried out by people who are self-confessed bible-believers but who aren't actually letting the bible drive what they do and the way they do it in practice.

    Peace and love,
    Jonny Kingsman
    Cambridge, U.K.

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