As someone born and raised in the evangelical church, I take a special interest in the future of evangelicalism in America. But what exactly is an evangelical, anyway?
Today that is precisely the question. In its most basic sense, an evangelical is someone who believes the gospel—the good news about salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although the term is biblical, it was first used to describe a group of people during the Protestant Reformation in Germany. In America it is generally used to describe Christians who believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, who defend orthodox doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ (especially his deity and substitutionary atonement), who hold that a person must be born again to be saved, and who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These are some of the central doctrines of the evangelical church.
However, in recent years there have been more and more disputes about the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy. Who counts as an evangelical, and who doesn’t? Who’s in and who’s out? The very fact that we are having these debates is a sign that evangelicalism is losing its way.
From time to time I have pointed out some of the doctrines that are now under attack. I fear that some evangelicals are losing their grip on biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible does not and cannot err. Others are relaxing their stand on Jesus as the only way to God. Still others are starting to downplay the importance or even deny the validity of the evangelical doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Then there is a fresh assault on the doctrine of God. According to the view commonly known as “open theism,” God does not have complete foreknowledge of the future.
It is in this context that we are confronted with a new theological statement called “The Word Made Fresh: A Call for a Renewal of the Evangelical Spirit.” The document is signed by dozens of Bible scholars and theologians from leading evangelical colleges, seminaries, and publishing houses, including prominent leaders in the movement sometimes known as post-conservative evangelicalism.
These men and women are trying to push the biblical and theological boundaries. Fortunately, they oppose “unfettered theological experimentation and accommodation to culture that threatens the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Yet their primary concern is to make sure they have the freedom to explore creative new directions in theology and to “challenge received evangelical tradition.” They prize “genuine diversity and fresh reflection.” They favor dialogue and debate that will lead to “constructive theological proposals.” To that end, they “deplore a present tendency among some evangelicals to define the boundaries of evangelical faith and life too narrowly.” “Some claimants to the evangelical heritage,” they say, “appear to be falling back into some of the more onerous attitudes of fundamentalism.” Thus they warn against “condemnations and threats of exclusion” that disrupt Christian community and quench the Spirit.
It would be interesting to know exactly whom they have in mind. Who is making these threats? Who is propagating what the writers disparage as “rigid definitions of evangelicalism” that result in alienation and exclusion? Possibly these remarks are directed against the opponents of open theism. At present there is a movement with the Evangelical Theological Society to deny fellowship to members who advocate the open view of God. But maybe “The Word Made Fresh” has someone else in mind, like evangelicals who criticize the new gender-neutral Bible translation known as the TNIV: Today’s New International Version. Possibly they object to the rigorous Reformation theology promoted by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Or maybe they have someone else in mind entirely. I’m not sure. The statement is short on specifics, so it’s hard to tell.
The question is whether evangelical theology needs greater clarity, as I believe, or greater openness to new directions in doctrine. The problem with “The Word Made Fresh” is that rather than stating what it is that we believe, it advocates theological innovation. Noticeably absent is any clear statement of evangelical essentials. True, the statement refers broadly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. But nothing is said about the Trinity, biblical inerrancy, the substitutionary atonement, the new birth, or many other cardinal tenets of evangelical theology. Instead, it is all about “the exploration of new ideas” (which are left unspecified).
This is very different from what we find in the New Testament, where the most important theological task of the church is to defend Christian orthodoxy from error and novelty. The apostle Paul was forever saying things like “keep the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13), and “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14). For the apostles, the important thing in theology was not coming up with new proposals, but proclaiming the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).
I find myself in agreement with what “The Word Made Fresh” says about having theological discussions that are “characterized by an irenic, Christlike spirit of love toward those with whom we disagree and a cautious openness to the reform of tradition as the Spirit leads us to fresh understandings of the Word that are even more faithful the entirety of God’s revelation.” Yet I find myself in disagreement with what the statement says about what the church needs today. In my view, what the evangelical church needs is not greater ambiguity about the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, but greater clarity. The church can only fulfill its mission when its pastors and teachers have a firm grip on their doctrine of Scripture, their doctrine of God, and their doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This is one of the reasons why the church needs its creeds and confessions. These summaries of biblical truth guard us against the temptation to be trendy in our theology. Without them, we are vulnerable to all kinds of doctrinal change that will lead to error. With them, we know where the boundaries are. And boundaries are both useful and necessary. They are not arbitrary, but have been established by the church’s careful reflection on the Word of God. Observing them is an exercise in theological humility.
Of course we need to study God’s Word, and of course this will lead to fresh theological insight. But we can and we must do this without blurring the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy.
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