2016-06-30
Every religious group--perhaps, indeed, every group--defines itself by who's in and who's out. Who gets included is as important as who gets excluded. This is as true of the Spongers, a new cult whose sacred texts are the works of former Newark, N.J., archbishop John Shelby Spong as it is of the Crucified Jesus People, the fundamentalist Christian sect sprung whole from the imagination of novelist William Gibson. (They carry chrome nails in leather neck-pouches and every once in a while crucify someone.) Hence the ongoing debates here and in Israel about who is and isn't a Jew and the sharp disagreement between "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics in the United States over what it means to be Catholic.

A similar struggle has been going on among U.S. evangelicals since the mid-1970s--though historically minded observers might say that the debate began with the birth of evangelicalism in the early 18th century, that it's simply endemic to the movement, which has always been a loose coalition of wildly different groups. Most Americans are familiar with the political dimension of the contemporary debate--the failed attempt by the so-called religious right to link evangelical identity with a particular political agenda. The more enduring theological side of the debate, though, has been little heard outside evangelical circles.

For those of us who call ourselves evangelicals, this business of self-definition is obviously of crucial importance. You can't be born evangelical, the way you can be born Catholic or Orthodox; conversion is necessary. But who decides exactly what that means? Who defines what it means to be evangelical?

A handy entry-point to this debate is "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration" (more simply, "the Gospel Statement"), a "clear, definitive statement of the essentials of the Gospel," drafted last year by a committee of evangelical dignitaries. First published in June 1999 in Christianity Today magazine, it is now being promoted in "This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World," a book launched with much pomp and ceremony in July at the Christian Booksellers Association convention in New Orleans. While the book consists largely of a collection of essays drawing out the statement's implications, it also lists the members of the drafting committee and other signatories.

This list is not an incidental feature. Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, "Left Behind" author Tim LaHaye, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, Luis Palau, and theologian John Stott are all there, with the presidents of a number of evangelical colleges and seminaries, and various others. The list is followed by a "personal affirmation" (name and date to be filled in by the book's owner) by which the reader is encouraged to "embrace this declaration and affirm my commitment to the task of proclaiming this Gospel, and with it my allegiance to Christ himself, to the Gospel itself, and to my fellow cosigners as evangelical believers."

The implication is quite clear: If you're an evangelical, you'll have no problem endorsing the Gospel Statement. And if you won't sign, we're going to need a urine sample, for starters.

Are you in, in other words, or are you out? I, for one, am out. Let me explain why.

American evangelicals are bewilderingly diverse. They may be Korean American Presbyterians with a strong sense of denominational loyalty. They may worship at a "Fire Baptized" urban storefront church. They may be members of one of the nondenominational megachurches that have sprung up in the last 25 years, where you won't see a cross on the building, let alone a steeple.

Within this teeming variety there are some broad categories, such as the distinction between evangelicals in the Reformed tradition (Presbyterians and others who trace their origins to John Calvin) and those who, whatever their other differences, join in rejecting classic Reformed doctrines such as predestination (the idea that God has already "predestined" some of us for salvation and some for damnation). The Reformed wing makes up only a very small percentage of American evangelicals, but historically they have exercised an influence far greater than their numbers would suggest.

In recent years, two leading Reformed thinkers, J.I. Packer and Timothy George, have participated in the unofficial ecumenical initiative known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." In response, Packer in particular was viciously attacked by R.C. Sproul, the bully-boy of the hyper-Calvinist Reformed crowd. (Sproul's followers refer to him as a theologian. If he is a theologian, I am the shortstop of the New York Yankees. He is a skilled polemicist--not anything to be ashamed of, if your polemics are in a good cause.)

Packer, Sproul said, had sold the Reformation down the river in his dialogue with Catholics, compromising the doctrine of justification by faith.

The idea behind the Gospel Statement, then, was to reconcile these warring parties. Had the document been limited to that end alone, no harm would have been done. Instead, the statement, drafted by a committee dominated by Reformed figures and deformed by its origins in an intramural dispute, has been put forward as a "remarkable show of unity" that "affirms the core beliefs about our salvation that evangelicals hold in common."

While I am proud to count Jim Packer and Timothy George as friends, I can only conclude that they and others on the drafting committee cannot see how this purportedly unifying document is in fact an attempt by one faction of evangelicalism to impose its identity on the entire movement. After it was published in Christianity Today, seven evangelical thinkers--Gerald R. McDermott, Nancey Murphy, Alan G. Padgett. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Jonathan R. Wilson, and Nicholas Wolterstorff--sent the magazine a letter saying the statement "serves to needlessly marginalize or alienate fellow evangelicals." Its understanding of the gospel, they wrote, "is not truly representative...of many forms of the evangelical tradition, including Anabaptist, Methodist, Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic, and yes, Reformed varieties."

The published volume does not even acknowledge the existence of such friendly dissent. "You don't like it?" the document seems to be saying. "Make my day."

Consider for example the statement, "The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ." C.S. Lewis would not have endorsed that statement. Neither would I, and I know many other evangelicals who would join in dissent. Only through Jesus' redemptive death on the Cross can anyone be saved. But many evangelicals believe that the Bible does indeed offer hope--hope, please note, which is different from certainty!--that believers in other religions can be saved by Jesus. This is a matter of substantial discussion and debate among evangelicals and orthodox Christians more generally. It is a matter on which we must agree to disagree.

One suspects that this attempt to hijack evangelicalism will fail. Evangelicalism has always been first and foremost an "ecumenical theology of the heart," as a recent book on the Moravian leader Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorff puts it. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and one of the greatest influences on the formation of American evangelicalism, declared, "Let them hold particular or general redemption, absolute or conditional decrees; let them be churchmen or dissenters, Presbyterians or Independents, it is no obstacle.... One condition, and only one is required--a real desire to save the soul."

Wesley's words, in fact, accord with the practice of many of the signatories far more closely than does the Gospel Statement itself. But evangelicals have a longstanding reputation for "pragmatism." Perhaps many of the signatories decided that the statement was a Good Thing, conducive to saving souls--and never mind the details of what it actually says. That too, alas, would be very "evangelical."

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