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. I wrote that Obama
had a clear evangelical conversion experience.
My evidence for this was the following taken from a 2004 newspaper interview:
So that, one of the churches I met, or one of the churches that I became involved in was Trinity United Church of Christ. And the pastor there, Jeremiah Wright, became a good friend. So I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church.
Did you actually go up for an altar call?
It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, it was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.
How long ago?
16, 17 years ago. 1987 or 88
So you got yourself born again?
Yeah, although I don’t, I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. …
In other words, Obama went through the classical experience as described by evangelicals of committing his life to Christ by responding to an altar call. While I don’t suppose it is only evangelical churches which have altar calls, they are certainly a typically evangelical phenomenon. It is entirely on the basis of this passage that I wrote of Obama’s “clear evangelical conversion experience” – and perhaps a bit on the basis of my memory of John Hobbins’ descriptions of Trinity UCC which unfortunately I can’t find on his blog which is unsearchable in more ways than one. I did not intend to imply anything from these words about Obama’s current beliefs or practices.
Jeremy responded in a comment:
it doesn’t sound as if he’s an evangelical
with which I agreed:
Jeremy, I did not say that Obama was now an evangelical, only that he had an evangelical conversion experience in the past.
He clearly read this comment because he responded to it. But in a later comment he wrote:
I just worry about flat-out assertions that he’s an evangelical. …
I’m not sure why you think Wright is an evangelical
This left me puzzled. Where had he found any flat-out assertions anything like this? Certainly not on my blog. But then just a few minutes later there appeared his own post Is Barack Obama an Evangelical?, which in its original form started as follows:
After having to type in my supposedly remembered personal info twice and resubmit my comment (thanks, Movable Type) I was at last able to object:
Jeremy, please withdraw the lie in your first few words. I have never said that Obama is an evangelical.
and Jeremy amended and expanded the first sentence of his post to:
Peter Kirk takes Obama’s conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he’s definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there’s nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith.
This is how I then responded:
Jeremy, thanks for the correction. But I simply cannot fathom the inference which you claim to be “uncontroversial” but which in fact totally belies your definition of evangelical. If everyone who has had an evangelical conversion experience is an evangelical, that completely puts paid to your definition of “evangelical” in terms of a set of beliefs and replaces it by a definition like “someone who, regardless of their present beliefs and behaviour, has at some time in the past made an evangelical profession of repentance and faith”. Now I can understand the argument that this is the condition for salvation, but not that this is the correct definition of “evangelical”.
It was in response to this that Jeremy wrote:
I don’t think it’s a crazy inference to move from the claim that his conversion experience was evangelical to the claim that he’s an evangelical. 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 yes, I did take you to have asserted by implication that he’s an evangelical, and I don’t consider it a lie to report your assertion as what it implies. But I’ve tried to make your position clearer, since you don’t seem to accept that inference.