Two recently published items illustrate the “evangelical” problem — David Wells’ grumpy summary screed of his four volumes that, for over a decade, have attempted to reveal how superficial evangelicalism is and the generously-spirited Evangelical Manifesto. What is happening? Let me explain it this way:
There are too many today who want to usurp control over evangelicalism by demanding uniformity in theology. Evangelicalism never has been and never will be uniform in theology. Three groups today threaten to destroy the fabric of historic American evangelicalism:
The Religious Right, which seems to think all evangelicals have the same political views;
The Neo-Reformed, who think Calvinism is the only faithful form of evangelicalism; and
The Political Progressives, who like the Religious Right think the faithful form of evangelicalism will be politically progressive.
Let me offer a peace offering into this unfortunate turn of events. I believe the threat of complete disintegration is far more serious than many today seem to realize.
Evangelicalism has always been ecumenical for the sake of the gospel.
Evangelicalism has always dropped theological distinctives (confessional level statements of faith) for the sake of the gospel.
Evangelicalism’s approach has always been more like George Whitefield than Jonathan Edwards.
Now a few words of explanation:
Evangelicalism is essentially “gospel ecumenism” instead of “theological conformity.” Evangelicals unite around the gospel but tolerate all kinds of diversity theologically. Thus, from the time I’ve been around this theological issue — and I began reading this stuff in the 70s and have not stopped — evangelicalism has agreed to agree on the basics — the gospel — but has been willing to let theological confessions be what they are: church confessions for local congregations. Instead of haggling over theological confessions, evangelicals have agreed to agree on the gospel.
It is essentially “cooperative” rather than “confessional.” Yes, evangelicals — as Bebbington and Noll have made so abundantly clear (see M. Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism and Bebbington’s The Dominance of Evangelicalism) — there are four hubs of thinking in the center of evangelicalism: the Bible, the cross, conversion, and active Christian living.
What alarms me is that some of those today most concerned with taking over evangelicalism, namely the Neo-Reformed and the Southern Baptists, seem to have forgotten the last fifty years of evangelical history: Many in the Reformed camp didn’t think and still don’t think evangelicalism is their kettle of fish. Thus, Hart’s book is a good example of this (see his Deconstructing Evangelicalism). And the SBC was at best a distant “member” of the early rise of the neo-evangelical movement shaped by Billy Graham, Wheaton, and the likes of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, Harold Lindsell and others.
To be sure, a robust Reformed faith or a clear commitment to the SBC way of life were more than welcome, as long as the cooperative spirit of a commitment to an ecumenical gospel was what guided the participation. Today many seem to have forgotten this.
Hence, I love what I’m reading now in An Evangelical Manifesto.
1. It welcomes a universality to the presence of evangelicals throughout the world (p. 2).
2. It believes the word “evangelical” is worth saving (2-3).
3. It embraces a world setting where co-existence is paramount (3).
4. It defines “evangelical” by “gospel” (4) and theologically (4).
5. There is some humility to this statement: “We do not claim that the Evangelical principle … is unique to us” (5). We illustrate our own doctrine of sin (6).
6. There is a healthy balance of theology and praxis in this document.
7. It affirms classical christology, salvation, Holy Spirit, Scripture, discipleship and evangelism and social action, return of Christ, and also discipleship for all. [Could be more Trinitarian and have a deeper ecclesiology.]
8. Evangelicalism here is defined as larger than, deeper than, and older than Protestantism (10).
9. It bemoans failures among evangelicals (11ff).
I could go on … this is historic evangelicalism. It’s the kind I embrace.
Jamie Smith, unfortunately, has decided to use all the cliche-right words to critique the document but has, in my estimation, misread the intent and the thrust of this document.