Finally: evangelical theology

Posted on December 6, 2009

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This is a slightly embarrassing confession to make, but I have just last week come up with a definition of ‘evangelical theology’ which I find convincing. As I have written articles on the subject for significant reference works, intervened publicly in controversies over evangelical identity, and chaired the theological commission of the Evangelical Alliance for the past couple of years, this might seem slightly late in the day – hence my embarrassment. For reasons some will know, I have had to be thinking about defining the boundaries of evangelicalism once again in recent weeks, and I think that I have seen something new (to me at least) and helpful (to me at least).

Perhaps some story would help to explain this. I joined the Evangelical Alliance when I was a student, a recent convert to Christianity via a CICCU mission (if this starts sounding like a re-write of Phil. 3:5, apologies…). A friend was encouraging all of us to join, and I did so without much thought (I think I remember who it was, but he is now quite well known in academic theological circles, and probably not wanting to be reminded of this bit of his past journey). Quite quickly, I went to train for ministry at Spurgeons; for my time there, and for some years afterward, I kept up my Evangelical Alliance membership, but deliberately donated by cheque each year – I was conscious that this was something I wanted to be forced to think through every so often, mainly because I was not sure at the time what ‘evangelical’ meant. I became comfortable owning the label sometime around 2001; this was not, as far as I can see at this distance, any shift on my part, so much as a belief that¬† I did finally understand what the word meant, and was happy that it was a word I could identify with as describing my own spirituality.

I choose the word ‘spirituality’ carefully: my conviction then was that evangelicalism was better understood as a cultural reality than as a theological system. The way I prayed, the songs I sang, the way we lived church, unspoken dress codes, patterns of speech, … I realised that I was (and am) evangelical in much the same way as I was (and am) English middle class – while both labels include some broad patterns of belief, most of the decisive things are more about patterns of living than about commitment to certain doctrines or concepts.

Since then, studying evangelical identity has been a minor, but repetitive, part of my research agenda. The most generally-accepted definition is the Bebbington quadrilateral of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism; of these, the latter two suggest, not specific doctrinal commitments, but areas of doctrinal concern; the former two are about spirituality: the narration of spiritual experience and patterns of devoted living. Mark Noll essayed a definition in terms of communities of conversation – an explicitly sociological/cultural account, which is very helpful in understanding some of the hard cases. Tim Larsen has recently (in the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology) offered a five-fold list, which begins by asserting that an evangelical is ‘an orthodox Protestant’, but moves on to historical location (‘stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revivals…’) and spirituality (‘has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life…’) before returning to hover on the boundaries of doctrine and spirituality (‘stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross … stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual…’)

At most, these definitions gesture towards certain theological emphases as being necessary to, but not sufficient for, evangelical identity. A Calvinist is defined by the doctrines she believes; an evangelical not so. Until now, I have been fairly happy with this pattern of definition; now I think I can make an advance and sketch the broad shape of an explicitly evangelical doctrinal commitment. This requires, however, reflection on something a little more complicated than just belief in certain doctrines.

Theologies have a certain shape, as well as a certain content. Typically, the unreflective theology of (say) a new undergraduate student in the discipline is rather flat – more-or-less everything is equally important. This is dangerous and brittle; a particular view of church order (say) is just as much to be contended for as sola fide salvation; doubting the historicity of the Jonah narrative is as threatening to faith as doubting the historicity of the resurrection narrative. More mature theologies are shaped differently – they are not flat. Some things are foundational, or central; others are peripheral. And we can disagree as much about the shape of theology as about the content: Calvinists do not, historically, believe very differently (in content) about predestination to Catholics or Lutherans; but they regard the topic as far more central; today, debates of ordination (whether of women or of sexually active gay men and lesbians) are not just about who should be ordained, but about how much that matters. (Most conservative evangelical Anglicans were – and are – opposed to the ordination of women, but did not – and do not – see it as church-dividing; most of them do seem to see the gay debate as church-dividing, however.)

So, my proposal: the distinctiveness of evangelical theology is not so much its doctrinal content, as its shape. Evangelicals are people who see different things as central, when compared to other Christians. Let me offer some evidence.

In the eighteenth century, there are already debates about the shape of theology. Most people believed that a pattern of church order was central – presbyterians unchurched episcopalians, and vice-versa, for no other reason than this difference. In the historic denominations in Britain, there was disagreement over the centrality of doctrines of grace: the Baptists were formally divided over the issue, and Presbyterians were thoroughly committed to Calvinism, but the Church of England managed to tolerate both Calvinist and Arminian wings. Some denominations saw Trinitarian doctrine as unimportant; others took a stand on it.

Amongst the early evangelical leaders, there is debate also. The Wesleys are both very committed to episcopal government (when John finally at the end of his life gives in and ordains some preachers for the American mission, Charles’s response is astonishingly vitriolic), and to Arminianism; Whitefield is episcopal and Calvinist, but not very interested in either as defining points; Edwards is prepared to shift on church government (he is Congregationalist, but suggests he would be happy to become Presbyterian at one point in a letter), but is profoundly committed to Calvinism. For all of them, however, soteriology becomes a central doctrine, in particular, as it relates to sanctification. The Wesleys are convinced that the defining doctrine of their movement is punctiliar entire sanctification (see John’s, Plain Account of Christian Perfection, or Charles’s ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ – a confident prayer for the gift of sinless perfection that seems to be sung remarkably often by people who would object quite strongly to that doctrine). For Jonathan Edwards, the defence of the Awakening turns on the visible lived experience of sanctification, as when he tells his wife Sarah’s story in Some Thoughts concerning the present Revival of Religion.

With the birth of pan-evangelicalism around 1800, however, comes a definite decision concerning the shaping of theology: questions of church order, including who may ordain or licence to preach, and the proper mode and subjects of baptism, and the Calvinist-Arminian debate, are alike consciously relegated to be secondary issues. The primary issues are the atonement of Christ, the primacy of Scripture, and the possibility and necessity of both personal and social transformation. The Bible Society, the Society for the Reformation of Manners, the Anti-Slavery campaigns, the London Missionary Society – and something like three dozen other organisations – are founded as a calculated and deliberate attempt to put to one side, almost as adiaphora, the then-decisive questions of church order and the doctrines of grace in order to embrace a shared focus on the power of a broad protestant theology to change society for the better.

So, an evangelical theology is not merely a conservative protestant one – in the eighteenth century there were many who were more conservative than the evangelicals, but who nonetheless opposed the ‘enthusiasts’. An evangelical theology is, within certain fixed limits, determinedly irenic and ecumenical, refusing to allow doctrinal differences to interfere with a shared commitment to mission aimed at personal and social transformation.

Scotland still knows extremely orthodox presbyterians who however have no evangelical spirit at all; indeed, the Evangelical Alliance has always been regarded with a certain suspicion within some sectors of the Scots churches, it seems, because it is explicitly soft on Calvinism (and on presbyterian government). But this softness is a decisive part of what it is to be evangelical, I think – to regard Calvinism as more important than personal conversion or social renewal is to espouse a non-evangelical theology.

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