Frank Viola: evangelicalism and beyond

Frank ViolaPopular Christian author Frank Viola (his latest book is Revise Us Again) has today relaunched his blog under the new name Beyond Evangelicalism, and has started to explain the name with his post Beyond Evangelical: Part I.

Much of this post is an exploration of what evangelicalism is all about. I find it a much more satisfactory description of this movement than the flawed one (even as corrected) which I discussed in my post Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally? Viola explains how being Bible-centred is only one of the four main distinguishing marks of evangelicalism, and there is no mention of a requirement to interpret the Bible literally.

Viola starts by clarifying that he is an evangelical. To him, going beyond evangelicalism doesn’t mean rejecting evangelicalism. Rather, it means moving, not to the right as Adrian might want, nor to the left by following Rob Bell, but “forward”. Viola puts flesh on these bones by proposing four new characteristics of beyond-evangelicalism, not replacing but in addition to the four already recognised distinctives of evangelicalism.

One at least of these should appeal to Adrian: Viola adds to cross-centred also resurrection life-centred. I hope he would also agree with adding Christ-centred to Bible-centred. To the rather too individualistic activist-centred Viola is surely right to add as a counter-balance body life-centred. Perhaps most controversial is his addition to conversion-centred of eternal purpose-centred, but I think Viola is right to take the focus away from the currently hot issue of saving sinners from hell and putting it on the following:

God has an eternal purpose, or grand mission, that provoked Him to create. That purpose goes beyond the saving of lost souls and making the world a better place. God’s purpose transcends evangelism and social action (both of which are focused on meeting human needs). The eternal purpose is primarily by Him, through Him, and to Him. Meeting human needs is a byproduct, not the prime product.

(Note that the pairings of old and new characteristics are mine, not Viola’s.)

Viola mentions how Scot McKnight among others has described

the present crisis that evangelicalism faces and the pressing need to reshape it.

Viola’s proposals may provide just the kind of new directions needed for a reshaped evangelicalism to move beyond this crisis and take the world by storm.

Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally?

I had intended to drop the issue of Adrian Warnock versus Rob Bell. But Adrian’s latest post Is Rob Bell a neo-liberal who does not take the Bible literally? goes into a lot more detail about why he refuses to accept Bell as an evangelical. As such it reads a bit like a response to my post Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism, although it does not mention what I wrote.

It is really interesting to see what Adrian considers to disqualify someone from being an evangelical. One of them seems to be speaking to ordinary people and observing the world, and then allowing that to inform one’s theology. Another is to ask questions. Of course Jesus based much of his teaching on what he observed in the world and from ordinary people, and asked lots of questions. Is Rob Bell wrong to follow the same methods?

Perhaps most telling is the apparent claim in the title of his post that anyone who “does not take the Bible literally” is not an evangelical but a “neo-liberal”. More specifically, Adrian’s charge against Rob Bell is that

he no longer takes the Bible literally whenever it is possible to do so.

The problem with this argument is that no evangelical, indeed no one as far as I know, actually takes the Bible literally, even with the qualification “whenever it is possible to do so”. I made this point in one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, at Better Bibles Blog in 2005, Does God have a long nose? Pinocchio by Enrico MazzantiSee also the related post, here at Gentle Wisdom in 2008, Love takes a long thyme, in which I also wrote about

the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!

Well, I am not seriously accusing anyone of that. But I do claim, as explained in those posts, that anyone who does not believe that God has a long nose, literally, does not take literally the whole Bible in its original language texts. This is the clear teaching of Exodus 34:6 in the Hebrew, and it is possible to take it literally, at least as a description of the body of Jesus, God become flesh. Does anyone do so? Not as far as I know. Not even Adrian himself takes the Bible literally. That means that on his definition there are probably no evangelicals at all, and we should all be described with Rob Bell as “neo-liberals”.

Another example: the biblical word for “hell” as place of punishment is literally Gehenna, the name of a specific and literal valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. As it is quite possible to take this literally, why don’t “Reformed” evangelicals teach that their place of “eternal conscious punishment” is physically located in that valley?

So, the real issue between different evangelicals is which parts of the Bible they take literally. But where does one draw the line? And what exactly does it mean to take the Bible literally?

Surely it is better to accept the current standard definitions of evangelicalism, such as the British Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and the American Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. In these the Bible is described as inspired by God, as authoritative for believers, and in some cases as infallible or inerrant. But these statements do not prescribe that it must always be taken literally, no doubt because the good evangelical scholars who prepared them recognise that this is impossible.

Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism

Before I completely leave behind the debate between Rob Bell and Adrian Warnock, I want to share some thoughts on what this issue can tell us about the limits of evangelicalism.

Premier Christian Radio: The 'Heaven and Hell' DebateThe full debate is available as an online video, courtesy of Premier Christian Radio. This post is based on an extract from it posted on YouTube and also on Adrian’s blog, in a post where he asks, Has Rob Bell demonstrated clearly that he is not an Evangelical any more?, and answers his question with

because [Bell] has a very different approach to the Bible, it is hard to accept him as an Evangelical.

Here is part of that extract from the debate:

AW: To my mind, even in our interview today, you seem to have cast doubt on a very literal interpretation of certain Bible passages, and to me, that causes me problems in recognising you as an evangelical.

RB: … The book is my attempt to be true to the Scriptures and … to give this story its proper due, and to highlight perhaps things that are sitting right there in the text that people haven’t heard. So the idea that somehow I’m dismissing the Scriptures, then why do I spend so much time trying to get out what they really say?

AW: I never said you were dismissing them. I said you had a different approach to them.

But is Bell’s approach to the Scriptures really so different from the standard evangelical one? Or is the issue more with the conclusions that he comes to from it?

A major problem with the whole evangelical enterprise is that the Bible cannot be interpreted for life today without bringing to the text a whole range of presuppositions. Traditional “Reformed” evangelicals bring one set of presuppositions. Adrian brings a slightly different set. I bring yet another set. And then Rob Bell brings his own presuppositions. As evangelicals each of us interprets the Bible using more or less the same principles, but each comes to a different set of answers. The difference between those answers is not because some of us are rejecting the authority of the Bible, nor even for the most part with our approach in interpreting it, but because of our different presuppositions.

Now the “Reformed” camp may want to limit evangelicalism to certain sets of acceptable presuppositions and conclusions, perhaps only the ones Adrian describes as “a very literal interpretation”. Thereby they would exclude Rob Bell, and perhaps myself. Some of them might even exclude Adrian, for example because he accepts the charismatic gifts. But if the definition of an evangelical is someone who accepts the Bible as the inspired word of God, then it certainly includes those like Rob Bell who come to non-standard conclusions from those Scriptures.

I am very glad that at least here in England evangelicalism is quite broad, broad enough to include people like Rob Bell, and myself, who do not always follow the traditions of interpreting the Bible. After all, one of the essential characteristics of evangelicalism is that it puts the Scriptures above human traditions, which include traditional methods of interpretation and traditional conclusions. Therefore I resent the attempts of some, such as Adrian, to exclude from the evangelical camp those who do not follow the tradition which he reveres. The camp can and should be broad enough to include Bell and myself as well as Adrian and his heroes.

Left-brainers don't understand right-brained Rob Bell

There have been some interesting comments on my post Gandhi and Rob Bell, newfrontiers and Hell, which led me to link the frosty response from some quarters to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (which I still haven’t read) with the different ways in which people’s brains work.

Whole Brain ThinkingMy friend Heather France runs a company Whole Brain Thinking offering brain profiling, which “can help in any aspect of life and work”. An adult profile can be done online for £35. Heather has posted on the company blog my story of how having my profile done helped me to find my wife:

Lorenza and I were just friends when we both went to a brain profiling workshop run by Heather France. But it turned out that we had rather similar brain profiles. This meant that we were put in the same small group for a fun exercise. We enjoyed working together on this and started to realise how much we had in common. Soon after this I asked her out. …

I write this here largely to demonstrate that I know what I am talking about concerning left and right brain thinking. For the record, I am a left-brainer but not very strongly so. There is more to the profile than this: for example, in my brain the L1 quadrant, “Analytical and factual”, is dominant – as my readers could probably guess.

To get back to Rob Bell, the issue came up in comments by Robert Slowley. I discern that Robert is left-brained from his detailed analysis of the NIV 2011 update, which I used in my post on that version. In fact this probably means that his dominant quadrant is L2, “Organised and detailed”. Robert wrote:

That’s what I find frustrating about Bell, he’s not clear at all about what he really thinks.

Later he wrote:

I think Bell has far more defined answers than he’s clearly indicating publicly on these issues, and as such I wish he’d just plainly reveal them.

Despite my attempts, I could not convince Robert that Rob Bell may simply not have any firm and fixed position on the matter in question. Bell may simply be unsure whether Gandhi or indeed anyone at all is going to hell. After all, the matter is left somewhat ambiguous in the Bible. Yet Robert cannot accept that Bell’s answer, if pushed, might genuinely be “I don’t know”.

Now I don’t want to pick on Robert Slowley here. His is simply one example of the thinking commonly found among more conservative evangelicals, especially those in the Reformed camp but also among fundamentalists and dispensationalists. Many of these people show by their words and actions that they are left-brainers.

The following is adapted from my comments in response to Robert Slowley’s:

I can understand the frustration of some, especially those from a more Reformed background, at being unable to pin Bell down to a specific position. But surely this is the right attitude to take about a matter which God has not made completely clear in his revealed word. While liberal Christians may go too far with this doubting and questioning approach, evangelicals are often obsessed with finding and defending to the death definite answers to questions which God has not clearly answered. Rob Bell has rejected this obsession, but that doesn’t make him a theological liberal. And didn’t Jesus often teach by asking searching questions rather than giving definite answers?

I’m not saying that this kind of reluctance to be pinned down depends on one’s theological position. It probably depends more on personality type. Left-brainers want definite answers and so tend towards Reformed or fundamentalist teaching which offers these definite answers. Right-brainers prefer to leave things more open and so are more attracted by liberal Christianity. Thus the correlation between theological preference and frustration with Rob Bell does not imply a causal link.

I suspect Rob Bell is a right-brainer. My suspicion is confirmed by what I read in Adrian Warnock’s post about meeting him. Very likely his R1 quadrant, “Strategic and unorthodox”, is dominant. That makes Bell reluctant to commit himself to any one position, especially on a matter which is not left unambiguous in the Bible. He is not being dishonest, just non-committal. But that doesn’t make him a liberal.

Yes, Bell tends towards one side of the argument rather than another. But he does not, I suspect, have a settled and definite position on it – and he doesn’t feel the lack of it. It’s a bit like me on the Rapture: from my past posts on the subject it should be clear that I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least not in the classic (but actually modern) Hal Lindsey and Left Behind way. But I am not going to come out straight and say that it won’t happen, because Scripture is not completely clear on this, and so we won’t know until it happens, or its time is past. Rob Bell is wisely saying something similar about hell: he may not think anyone will go there, but he won’t say this as a definite position because only God knows. If someone pushes him to say what he thinks, he’ll probably say “I don’t know”.

In fact Adrian Warnock, a psychiatrist who surely understands different personality types and how to work with them, has pushed Bell for answers, and reports that

on at least a couple of questions I got some straight answers out of him!

It will be interesting to hear what those answers are, though sadly I will probably not be able to do that live on Saturday when Adrian’s interview is broadcast (on air and on the Internet) on Premier Christian Radio.

How evangelicalism can live

In my post last night The death of evangelicalism? I dealt only with John Richardson’s post relevant to this topic and with the first part of the paper of his own which he linked to in his comments there. I didn’t discuss the remainder of the paper because my post was already rather long, and because it was nearly midnight.

In a comment John rightly took me to task for not dealing what he wrote about J.C. Ryle’s position as well as about J.H. Newman’s. He denied abandoning Newman’s second approach in favour of his first one, and wrote:

Rather, I have laid out two approaches – Newman and J C Ryle’s – each of which has something to commend it (Newman in his negatives, Ryle in his positives) but each of which is also problematic (Newman in his positives and Ryle in his negatives).

I responded to John with a long comment. But it was so long that it probably works better as a post of its own. So I am now publishing it again, slightly edited, as a new post.

Ryle’s position is indeed much more acceptable to me than Newman’s. But I read John Richardson as accepting it only “In the wider world of human inquiry” but rejecting Ryle’s words

You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said … by Churches, Councils, or Synods …,

stating instead that we should not

set our private judgement against the Church’s collective witness.

I could have gone on to express my shock (anticipated by John) that a Protestant and self-declared evangelical could write:

it is entirely appropriate for any Church to operate something like the Roman nihil obstat—a declaration that a work contains nothing contradictory to its doctrinal standards.

I take John’s point about how publishing houses in effect do this. However, publishing houses are mostly independent and people can choose which to buy their books from. This is quite different from the entirely un-Protestant, un-Anglican approach which John proposes of giving some kind of a power of censorship to a body of

those charged with guarding the Church’s teaching ministry not just for its skill but for its orthodoxy.

To whom would such a body be answerable? Would it too be expected to have

the humility to say to other Christians, “Do you think I have got this right?”

It is this attitude of John’s which makes me think he would be more at home in Rome.

Let me go on to this question which John asks:

What is the point of being a denomination if the disagreements amongst ourselves are greater than our differences with those outside our supposed ‘boundaries’?

What indeed? Is there any point in being a denomination? It still seems to me that there are two logical positions here, the same ones Newman outlined. One is to follow the authority of tradition which leads to Rome, or perhaps to Eastern Orthodoxy. The other is to follow the authority of sola scriptura which leads, whether we like it or not, to the kind of free for all which Robbie Low caricatured.

There is, it seems to me as it did to Newman, no logically tenable middle way by which, for example, we reject the authority of the church up to 1517, accept the right of a few Reformers to their private judgment, and then imply that suddenly in about 1611 or 1662 everything changed and we have to abandon sola scriptura and follow the authority of a new Protestant magisterium and inquisition.

Then we have to ask, is Robbie Low’s caricature really a fair one? Yes, I know that there have been cases of individuals setting themselves up as “a pope in his own parish or in his own front room”. But since John and I agree that “gospel unity cannot be preserved by legal impositions” we cannot stop this happening.

What we should look at instead is how for nearly 500 years since the Reformation, and in a smaller way even before that, there have been (at least where they have not been persecuted out of existence) successful more or less informal associations of more or less independent congregations which have got on reasonably well. Sometimes they have been nominally within denominations but have remained at arm’s length from formal denominational structures and doctrinal standards – as for example the majority of evangelical and many other congregations of the Church of England. Most Protestant churches in the UK and in North America more or less fit this picture.

It is of course very sad when these informal groupings start bickering in public, and they should be encouraged not to. Nevertheless the system is not disastrously bad. Of course some of them have come off the doctrinal rails. But this is where the Gamaliel principle comes in: in most cases congregations which have become seriously liberal gradually decline and die, even though Anglican system tries its hardest to keep these dying congregations alive. The congregations which grow and divide are almost always those which are faithful to the word of God.

So, to summarise, while the current system has its problems, it isn’t completely broken. So let’s stop arguing publicly about second order issues, like the details of the Atonement or ordination of women, show love to one another, and get on with proclaiming the gospel.

The death of evangelicalism?

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.

Seeing red about red letter Bibles

Clayboy, alias Doug Chaplin, is right on the ball for once with his attack on red letter Bibles. In the first of three posts he called this practice of printing the words of Jesus in red The worst evangelical heresy? (complete with question mark). In the second post he answered an objection about quotation marks. Today he completed his trilogy of attack on the incarnadine text (and to save you looking it up, as I had to, “incarnadine” means “Of a fleshy pink colour” or “Blood-red”) with a summary of the discussion. See also the discussion and links at Evangelical Textual Criticism, and, from that site last year, Peter Head’s Defence of Red Letter Bibles.

In his summary Doug has three main points about red letter editions, of which one which especially impacts evangelicals like myself:

it [the incarnadine text?] overthrows any strong evangelical doctrine of Scripture, and therefore undercuts the whole basis of evangelicalism. I admit I write this as to some extent at least, an outsider. But if the whole of Scripture is in some sense (acknowledging that evangelicals can disagree about the precise sense) either God-breathed (as the NIV has made fashionable) or God’s Word written (as older formulations had it) then singling out the words of Jesus implicitly invites people to believe they are more important, more the word of God, than the bits for which ordinary black type will do.

Indeed. It is quite wrong to take the words of Jesus as somehow more important or authoritative than his deeds, or than the words of the apostles.

In case anyone worries that I am following a liberal Catholic like Doug (well, I’m sure some people describe him as such) rather than good evangelical scholars, I can quote Don Carson on my side. He starts by referring to

what Tony Campolo now approvingly calls ‘red letter Christians’. These red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they take the words of Jesus especially seriously (they devote themselves to the ‘red letters’ of some foolishly-printed Bibles) and end up being more concerned than are other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a ‘canon within the canon’ to bless my preferred brand of theology. That’s the first of two serious mistakes commonly practised by these red letter Christians.

The other is worse: their actual grasp of what the red letter words of Jesus are actually saying in context far too frequently leaves a great deal to be desired; more particularly, to read the words of Jesus and emphasize them apart from the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’s redeeming death and resurrection, not only has the result of down-playing Jesus’s death and resurrection, but regularly fails to see how the red-letter words of Jesus point to and unpack the significance of his impending crosswork.

So, we evangelicals should unite with more Catholic Christians like Doug in calling for an end to these distortions of the word of God.

The Coming Evangelical Collapse?

Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, makes interesting predictions of The Coming Evangelical Collapse (1) (2) (3). He denies they are prophecies, but to me they have a prophetic edge, not as infallible predictions but as a prophetic call to the church to take note of what is likely to happen in future, and to act accordingly. I have not read the large number of comments on these posts. Thanks to John Meunier for the links.

Michael starts part 1 as follows:

I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”

But it seems to me that here Michael is really talking about the US scene. In the rest of the West the collapse he is predicting has already taken place, more gradually. Perhaps it already has also in less conservative parts of the USA. He seems to be suggesting that the evangelical church in the US Bible belt will soon become much more like it currently is here in the UK and elsewhere in traditionally Protestant northern Europe. Here we already have “a de-church culture where religion has meaning as history, not as a vital reality.”

From a global sociological perspective the continued high level of evangelical church attendance in parts of the USA is an anomaly in the century old trend towards the secularisation of the West. I believe that the church can buck this trend if it really relies on the power of God to do so. But if it retreats into conservatism without real substance, as seems true of so much US evangelicalism, it becomes a movement of reaction which will not outlast the current generation.

Michael suggests in part 2 that the beneficiaries of the collapse of traditional evangelicalism will be “the pragmatic, therapeutic, church growth oriented megachurches”, as well as “An evangelicalized Catholicism and Orthodoxy”. But I feel he is too negative about these megachurches. They may not preach “the Biblical Gospel” in the traditional way, but that does not imply that those who attend are not genuine Christians. Indeed “Core beliefs will become less and less normative and necessary in evangelicalism”, but salvation is not by “core beliefs” in doctrinal propositions, but by a living faith in and relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To the extent that megachurches do promote this (and some certainly do) I don’t think it is right to criticise them.

Michael also predicts that

A small portion of evangelicalism will continue down the path of theological re-construction and recovery. Whether they be post-evangelicals working for a reinvigoration of evangelicalism along the lines of historic “Mere Christianity,” or theologically assertive young reformed pastors looking toward a second reformation, a small, but active and vocal portion of evangelicalism will work hard to rescue the evangelical movement from its demise by way of theological renewal.

This is an attractive, innovative and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches. But I do believe many evangelical churches and schools will benefit from this segment of evangelicalism, and I believe it will contribute far beyond its size to the cause of world missions.

Again this reminds me of British evangelicalism, small and not always conservative but generally more active than the US variety and with a worldwide influence disproportionate to its numbers.

I am also encouraged by the prediction that

Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism.

But Michael is right that this strand, as well as others in evangelicalism, needs to put its house in order concerning leadership and avoiding heresy.

It is also interesting that he picks up the possibility of “a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community”. British evangelicalism has already benefited a great deal from input from African, Asian and Latin American Christian leaders. If the US church accepts this kind of mission it will also benefit greatly.

I must also agree with Michael’s last point in this part,

it is long past time for westerners to use their resources to strengthen work within a nation and not to just send Americans to the mission fields.

Indeed – and include Europeans here.

In part 3 Michael asks if all of this is a good or a bad thing. He writes that

there is something fundamentally healthy about accepting that, if the disease cannot be cured, then the symptoms need to run their course and we need to get to the next chapter. Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.

But not all; not by any means. In other words, the question is not so much what will be lost, but what is the condition of what remains?

Michael sees a good number of hopeful signs in the different parts of the church he has already looked at, but also sees in each of them conditions which may or may not be fulfilled.

But it is impossible to not be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.” Christianity has flourished when it should have been exterminated. It has conquered when it was counted as defeated. Evangelicalism’s heyday is not the entirety of God’s plan.

I think we can rejoice that in the ruins of the evangelical collapse new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. New kinds of church structure, new uses of gifts, new ways to develop leaders and do the mission- all these will appear as the evangelical collapse occurs.

But again many of the new ways he predicts, such as house churches and the abandonment of the seminary system, have long been a matter of course in some church strands here in England. In certain quarters I have heard that the US church is several years ahead of the UK one, in its good and bad aspects, and in some ways that is true. But I can’t help thinking that in other ways, good and bad, British evangelicalism is decades ahead of the American variety.

Can Christians fall away? The examples of Bentley and Obama

Every time I write about Todd Bentley, as I did on Monday, there is a huge jump in traffic to this blog. So I feel justified in writing on a subject in which there is a lot of interest. Or is this just tickling my ego? Whichever may be true, here is another post about him, and about Barack Obama. To be more precise, it is about the way we evangelical Christians react to people like these two.

What do these two have in common? It is that they were both at one time doing what good evangelical Christians should do, and now neither of them is doing. Obama responded to an altar call and had what I have called “a clear evangelical conversion experience”. Bentley started with this and went on to become an international evangelist with a major (but controversial) healing ministry. Obama, at least to some extent, rejected evangelical theology and became something of a universalist. Bentley’s rejection was in a different direction, a fall into sin from which he has not yet repented.

As an evangelical I might say that these two have fallen away from the true faith, in very different ways. But can a true Christian do this? Jeremy Pierce seems to deny it, when he writes, in a comment here concerning what I called Obama’s conversion experience, that

Obama seems to me not to have had such an experience, and if he had then I think he would have a very different attitude toward scripture (for one thing, actually believing it and following it when his inclination is to reject it as making God too cruel).

In other words, Jeremy seems to be claiming that Obama’s low view of Scripture and generally liberal theology is proof that he never had been a genuine evangelical Christian. I find this an astonishing claim, in the light of the evidence that many former evangelicals have drifted into liberal theology.

Let’s first detach this claim from the issue of whether such people will ultimately be saved, which I have discussed here before – something which cannot be known in the present, especially as there presumably remains a possibility of them repenting of liberal ideas and fully returning to the evangelical fold.

But what are the implications of Jeremy’s claim? If tomorrow the pastor under whose ministry I was converted, or who baptised me, or from whom I regularly receive communion, turns away from his faith and professes liberal ideas, where does that leave me?

I can’t help wondering if Jeremy would also hold that Bentley’s persistence, for the moment, in sin is proof that he too never had been a genuine evangelical Christian. There are certainly plenty of people around who cite this sin as evidence that his ministry was never genuine and the whole Lakeland outpouring was some kind of fraud. But does such reasoning make sense? I don’t think so.

Let’s remind ourselves that the church rejected Donatism, the sectarian teaching that ministers of the gospel who denied the faith could not be restored, that their repentance could not be accepted. My own Church of England clearly teaches, in Article XXVI, that the ministry of even the most sinful ministers is valid. This article directly contradicts any suggestion that baptism by an apostate or backsliding pastor or exercise of spiritual gifts by a sinning Todd Bentley is invalid. It even more clearly rules out any conclusion that baptism by a pastor who later becomes an apostate or backslider or exercise of spiritual gifts by Todd Bentley before he fell into sin is invalid.

So how should we relate to a Bentley or an Obama? Both apparently started well but then went astray. There are plenty of biblical examples of this, such as: King David, at the time of his adultery; King Solomon; the Galatians as addressed in Galatians 3:1-5; Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:19-20. In none of these cases is there any suggestion that these people were not at first genuinely following God’s way. Now I admit that that suggestion is made about the “antichrists” of 1 John 2:18-19; but I hope no one is going to suggest that either Obama or Bentley is the Antichrist! The biblical response to such people is not to condemn them or write them off. It is, as demonstrated by Nathan and by Paul, to call the backslider to repentance, which may involve what Paul calls being “handed over to Satan”.

At least in the case of King David this process actually led to repentance. So this can happen. My pastor told a story of how he was visited by a pastor who had been suspended from ministry for an adulterous relationship, together with his lady friend, also a Christian. They maintained to my pastor that their relationship felt so right that it must be good and holy. He asked them if they prayed together. They, with some embarrassment, said “no”, exposing to themselves that they still felt shame about their relationship. He suggested they should pray together. Shortly afterwards they realised that their relationship was wrong and repented, and the man was eventually restored to ministry.

So this restoration can happen. Let’s continue to pray that it happens with Todd Bentley, and quickly. As for Barack Obama, we can pray that his eyes will be opened to more of the truth of the gospel, and of course, in line with the verses immediately following the ones about Hymenaeus and Alexander, that he will turn out to be a good President who will make it possible for his nation and the world to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”.

Obama: not a matter of "once evangelical, always evangelical"

The usually meticulously logical philosopher Jeremy Pierce (whose blog is very hard to comment on, so I am bringing the discussion back here) seems to have got his logic seriously confused, in his comments on my post about Barack Obama’s faith and in his own post on the matter. The problem came when I wrote that Obama

had a clear evangelical conversion experience

and Jeremy understood me to be claiming thereby that Obama is an evangelical. But Jeremy seems confused about how to define who is an evangelical.

In his post Jeremy offers an outline of what it means to be an evangelical based on a set of theological views, mentioning some doctrines held by conservative evangelicals but questioned by some who he would consider to be on the fringes of evangelicalism. I would not agree with all the details, but that is not my point in this post. But I note that the definition given is entirely in terms of views on theological and moral issues. There is nothing here about giving one’s life to Christ or having an ongoing relationship with him, nor even about faith except in the sense of intellectual assent. Well, perhaps that is a reasonable way to define “evangelical” as the word is generally understood.

The problem only arises when in a comment Jeremy implies a totally different definition:

Conversion experiences are nearly definitional for most evangelicals. A genuine conversion experience, to most evangelicals, means that God has initiated a work in your heart, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh and transforming you into Christ’s likeness. A genuinely evangelical conversion experience produces a genuine evangelical.

So, Jeremy, which is it? Is an evangelical defined by intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, or by the fact that “God has initiated a work in your heart”? The only way to rescue any kind of consistency in your definitions is by making an assertion that any person in whose heart God has initiated a work therefore necessarily believes for all eternity in the full set of evangelical doctrines. It also implies concerning any person who has apparently undergone a conversion experience but after that even temporarily wavers in their intellectual assent to evangelical doctrines, that God has not even initiated a work in their heart. That would actually include myself as I went through a period of serious doubt after my conversion experience. It further denies the possibility that people like Obama, apparently, can undergo some kind of genuine conversion experience if they do not then become fully theologically committed evangelicals.

Jeremy, is this what you intend to teach? Should we believe “once evangelical, always evangelical”, which implies “if not now evangelical, then never has been evangelical”? Or are you just being completely inconsistent? Or have I somewhere missed the point?

Here is a fuller record of our conversation. Continue reading