John Richardson probably didn’t intend to do this with his post at The Ugley Vicar What hope for Evangelicalism?, but at least in the comments he seems to have managed to announce the death of evangelicalism.
In the post itself he is explicit about the serious problems it faces, at least within the context of the Church of England. He writes of how at a recent meeting
it became increasingly clear to me —and I suspect to others —that evangelical unity is a façade, and a very poorly-preserved one at that.
No wonder, since we have the sight of evangelicals condemning other evangelicals (at least, both sides claim that name) with terms like “unbiblical”. John is certainly right to quote Paul writing to the Galatians:
“If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
John sparked off my interest when he wrote in the post:
One of the tragedies is that some of these issues have been worked over (and, one would have hoped, worked out) at the Reformation, but of course one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken.
To this I responded in my first comment:
One of the most serious failings of the old evangelicalism is a refusal to critique the Reformation or to allow for the possibility that it might even in part be fundamentally mistaken. This presupposition that the Reformers must have been right is an abandonment of the principle of Sola Scriptura, which has rightly been addressed and reversed by what you call “‘new’ evangelicalism”.
In a further comment I wrote:
I would say that the only hope of achieving unity on doctrine is to go back to the Bible and seek to understand it, without presupposing that any historic interpretation of it is correct.
Then John wrote:
Peter, it can’t be done. Even if we agreed to abandon the historical creeds and start from scratch, we don’t have a ‘from scratch’ from which to start. On the contrary, we come with our understandings and our history. Even our rejection of historical conclusions is conditioned by those conclusions.
Here is my response to that:
John, you may be right that it can’t be done, but that does imply an abandonment of sola scriptura, and its replacement by Scripture plus “our understandings and our history”. That sounds to me like abandoning evangelicalism in favour of relying on tradition. Is that what you want? It’s not what I want.
I certainly cannot accept as fellow evangelicals those who try to impose on me their particular tradition, calling it “our understandings and our history”, especially if they also condemn others as “unbiblical” for having different “understandings and … history”.
Do you mean to proclaim the death of evangelicalism? Because that’s what it sounds like you are doing.
In response to this, John pointed me to a paper he presented in May this year at Oak Hill School of Theology, downloadable (PDF) from here. This paper is certainly an interesting read, but also a very worrying one. There is of course a very real concern in the words John quotes there from Robbie Low:
In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room.
John then examines the principle of sola scriptura:
The difficulty, of course, is in deciding what Scripture says. Does Scripture, for example, support penal substitution? Some say yes, some say no. But simply saying we all believe the Bible is not enough.
And in this regard sola scriptura was understood by the Reformers to involve an important corollary, namely that the ultimate arbiter was not what the Church said Scripture says. …
Who, then, is to decide what Scripture says, if not the officials or the councils of the Church? Typically, the Protestant answer has been that we must rely, ultimately, on private judgement. I want to suggest, however, that far from being the solution, this is part of the problem.
So far, so good. But then, very worryingly, John invokes and quotes John Henry Newman:
Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other; —to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more?
Indeed these are two quite different approaches. Newman took the first approach, and followed the logic of it into the Roman Catholic Church. I respect him for that. But the evangelical approach based on sola scriptura has always been, at least in principle, the second of these.
Yes, of course this second approach has its problems if taken to its logical conclusion, just as the first leads by reason to the unreason of accepting the infallibility of an ordinary mortal man. But the way to rescue the second approach is not to abandon it for the first one, “to believe simply what a living authority tells you” having selected this living authority by private judgment. If evangelicalism abandons this principle of interpreting Scripture for oneself for reliance on some authority located in the church, then indeed evangelicalism is dead, has committed suicide.
John, if you really want to take Newman’s first approach, follow its logic as Newman did and go over to Rome. Then leave the rest of us evangelicals to our sola scriptura. We won’t find perfect unity of doctrine through our private judgments. But if those who harangue us for not always agreeing with the Reformers leave us alone, we will achieve sufficient unity to put vain arguments behind us and credibly proclaim the gospel to a world which is perishing.