Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Evangelicalism: Is It Merely a Sixth Grade Version of Christianity?

Over at Contemplative Christians Peter Traben Haas has embarked on a series of posts which he has entitled "Seven Steps to Leaving 'Evangelical Christianity' without Losing Your Faith." These posts serve as a manifesto, of sorts, for a Post-Evangelical form of Christianity more attuned to the oft-neglected contemplative dimension of faith that hides unnoticed in clear sight. He doesn't stop at this, however. Indeed, he explicitly charges Evangelicalism with being but a preparatory stage of spiritual development: foundational, to be sure, but intended to be transcended by further development on the Christian's "journey" of spiritual discovery:

Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study. No one who wishes to grow stays in grade school. Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding. This is a fact. And I don’t assume I have reached the deepest level of learning either. That doesn’t happen in this lifetime. Everyone living is still on a journey of discovery. We are all open systems capable of further growth,development and indeed transformation.

Haas has listed the seven stages in his journey away from Evangelicalism to the present stage of his spiritual development (as of this writing, he has blogged only on steps 1 through 4):

– Step #1 “It’s OK to see God differently”
– Step #2 “It’s OK to see the Bible differently”
– Step #3 “It’s OK to see salvation differently”
– Step #4 “It’s OK to see the earth differently”
– Step #5 “It’s OK to see prayer differently”
– Step #6 “It’s OK to see sex differently”
– Step #7 “It’s OK to see your destiny differently”

Haas, who is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and is now a pastor at a PCUSA church in Waterloo, Iowa, touts his Evangelical credentials in a way reminiscent of other former or chastened Evangelicals like Frank Schaeffer and Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer (for both of whom I have the utmost respect): the offspring of 1960s-70s Jesus People, "converted" at the age of 17 during an altar call at an "Evangelical" resort in New York's Adirondack Mountains, a graduate of a flagship "Evangelical" institution, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, indeed a "Pharisee of the Pharisees."

Indeed, some of his experiences resonate deeply with me, in particular, the almost comical futility of hit-and-run "evangelizing" of people in Chicago in order to fulfill MBI's required "witnessing" quota. For, you see, I had an identical experience at my own Christian college in Philadelphia in the mid-'70s, my failures only exacerbating the feelings of guilt inculcated by the Fundamentalist environment I then inhabited. When reading Haas, I am tempted to emulate my hero, St. Paul, when he ironically touted his own impeccable Jewish credentials to trump those proudly claimed by Jewish Christians he contemptuously labels "dogs" and "mutilators" (Philippians 3:1-11). For I am the offspring of an Evangelical Christian theologian, preacher, and professor; I have consciously been a Christian as long as I can remember; I attended and actively participated in the ministry of a large IFCA church in Havertown, Pennsylvania; I attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran Day School for grades 1-4; I graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University), where my father was head of the Bible Department; I have both a Th.M. and a Ph.D. in New Testament from the flagship Evangelical (not Fundamentalist) dispensationalist school, Dallas Theological Seminary; I am a member of the Evangelical Theological Society; I have taught Greek, New Testament, and Theology at the self-described "Evangelical" Lancaster Bible College. And, most important of all, I lost my position at that college, not once, but twice—the first time for failure to be a "cultural fit" with the school's ultra-conservative ethos, the second time because my "favorability" to the views of N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" offended a key "Reformed" member of the Bible Department.

The upshot: not only are my Evangelical credentials impeccable; if anyone has the right to grouse about the narrowness and intellectual stultification of what often passes for the Evangelical movement, it is I. Yet I am not one to throw in the towel on Evangelicalism. At least not yet. That does not mean, of course, that I have no criticisms of the state of the movement. I have written in that vein in the past, and will not continue to do so in the future. At least in the public perception, Evangelicalism is associated with anti-intellectualism and the narrow politics of the Religious Right. As a result, I have often contemplated dropping "Evangelical" as a self-designation. But what, I always end up asking myself, is a viable alternative?

Therein, I believe, lies Haas's problem. His definition of "Evangelicalism" is almost entirely determined by his experiences at Moody, and the complaints he enumerates are all related to the worldview and practices of the most conservative elements of the movement. In short: Haas's beef is with those who today describe themselves as "conservative Evangelicals," but who in reality are (often unreconstructed) Fundamentalists (for my discussion of this issue, see my post here). The term "Evangelical" originally was used to designate the churches of the Reformation who adhered to the New Testament "gospel" rediscovered by Luther, Calvin, et al. In the 1940s, however, it was co-opted by a number of Christian thinkers who were desirous of coming out of Fundamentalism and developing a more intellectually rigorous and culturally relevant version of conservative Protestant Christianity. Such Evangelicalism is often seen to rest on four "pillars," as articulated by University of Stirling historian David Bebbington: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. In broad strokes this is fine. However, as Gordon College Professor Harold Heie has demonstrated, each of these "marks" is amenable to narrower and broader understandings, which has unfortunately led to the definitional quagmire Evangelicalism finds itself in today.

Needless to say, the Evangelicalism to which I adhere and which I articulate is not the Neo-Fundamentalism against which Haas has (rightly, at least in part) reacted. It is the Evangelicalism of the late F. F. Bruce, who in his tenure at the University of Manchester demonstrated that a lively personal faith in Christ and largely conservative theological and historical conclusions can co-exist with a rigorous utilization of the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible. It is the Evangelicalism of PCA Pastor Tim Keller and the late John Stott, who resolutely maintained that the soteriological and social dimensions of the gospel message fit hand-in-glove—or better, that they are twin dimensions of the gospel of the Kingdom that must be kept together. It is the Evangelicalism of the venerable Anglican theologian Jim Packer, who understood that faithfulness to Scripture and to the God who inspired it demands a conservationist stance toward the earth's environment. It is the Evangelicalism of the aforementioned N. T. Wright, whose faith in God and Scripture is such that he refuses to hide behind the fortress of tried and true viewpoints, preferring to let history and exegesis lead where they may despite the obloquy that has been directed toward him by fearful traditionalists. Most of all, it is the Evangelicalism of my own late father who, despite the Fundamentalist context in which he largely operated, was above all a disciple of the Apostle Paul, who lived each and every minute of his life by the grace in which he stood (Rom 5:2) and understood, like no one else in his circles, the freedom for which Christ set his people free (Gal 5:1, 13).

I understand the shortcomings of Evangelicalism. Likewise, I recognize the value of the contemplative dimension to spiritual growth advocated by Pastor Haas. It is one I freely admit has been one of my own shortcomings. But such caveats do not gainsay the strengths of Evangelicalism which, at its best, seeks to ground all Christian belief and practice in a historically- and theologically-sensitive interpretation of the biblical text. And this is where I have serious problems with what Pastor Haas has written. In particular, his "Step 3" ("It's OK to see salvation differently") needs major qualifications and corrections. It is to make these qualifications and corrections that I hope to write two further posts in the next week or two.

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