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.

0 thoughts on “The death of evangelicalism?

  1. Amen. Well put, Peter. And besides, we do have the Holy Spirit given to all believers, which will “teach us all things” in accordance with God’s wisdom as revealed in His Word.

    I don’t believe it is by accident that Paul wrote “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The word is a tool of the Spirit, not of the Church.

  2. Peter, I’ve lost count (quite literally) of the number of times you’ve invited me to leave the Church of England, but this is the first time you’ve suggested I do it in order to go to Rome! The trouble is, you seem to have read the essay, but not digested it. Otherwise you could not write, in response to my quoting Newman, that “the way to rescue the second approach [private judgement] is not to abandon it for the first one [put forward by Newman] …”. At no point do I suggest it is.

    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).

    The underlying question in all this is not, however, the future of evangelicalism but the nature and basis of unity. In the BCP we beseech God, “to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord.” Those three things go together, and as evangelicals we ought to be united in the truth so that there is concord amongst us. That, however, is palpably not the case, whether you take this exchange or the ‘spat’ between Fulcrum and FCA.

  3. John, your first sentence was exactly what I expected! I accept that for the sake of brevity, and because it was nearly midnight, I did not go on to examine in my post the second half of your paper.

    Ryle’s position is indeed much more acceptable to me than Newman’s. But I read you as accepting it only “In the wider world of human inquiry” but rejecting his 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 you) 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 your 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 you propose 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 yours which makes me think you would be more at home in Rome.

    Let me go on to this question which you ask:

    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 we 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 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.

  4. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » How evangelicalism can live

  5. Peter,

    In advocating your ‘second approach’ you seem to be making a common mistake in popular accounts of the reformation – assuming that ‘sola scriptura’ is in practice equivalent to ‘private judgment’.

    If you read the section on the latter, in Calvin’s Institutes, you will find that private judgment is the freedom a Christian ought to feel in matters of secondary importance. Even that freedom ought to be open to scriptural correction and Christian discipline.
    Sola Scriptura, on the other hand, is most certainly not a slogan which justifies the individual in holding to beliefs which he or she has formulated as a result of private scripture reading. Sola Scriptura was an affirmation that scripture is the sole authority for the church – not that it was be be interpreted in isolation from church history or other believers.

    It was his ability to cite the church fathers from memory that first brought John Calvin to the recognition of the international magisterial reform movement – his affirmation of sola scriptura was, as John has taught, about final authority – not private interpretation. Private interpretation was the preserve of the radical reformers.

    If you want to understand the way reformed Christians have related sola scriptura to ecclesial interpretation, you could do worse than read Tony Lane’s book ‘Calvin and the Fathers.’ It demonstrates that the views John Richardson argues for are those of John Calvin – they flow from Geneva and certainly do not lead to Rome!

    God bless,


  6. Of course, one of the problems with sola scriptura is ‘Who decides which books constitute scripture?’ If scriptureis seen as being in opposition to tradition (as is often the case in evangelicalism), then what do you do about the fact that the list of books which are included in scripture is itself an item of tradition?

  7. Tim, I am aware of this issue, but I don’t think this comment thread is the place to discuss it.

    Peter, thank you for your interesting comment. I was interested in your summary of Calvin’s thinking on this, which appears to be sola scriptura on secondary issues but accepting the authority of the church and the Fathers above Scripture on the important matters of the faith. So it seems that Calvin only went half way from Rome, and joined with Rome in persecuting those, called radicals, who followed Reformation principles to their logical conclusion.

    I am not saying that Scripture is to be “interpreted in isolation from church history or other believers”. But I am saying that its interpretation is not to be limited to what is acceptable to any one institutional church, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, or one particular historical school of interpretation. Of course we do well to interpret the Bible in the light of how great thinkers of the past, such as the Fathers and the Reformers, have interpreted it. But there is a difference between taking proper account of the teaching of others and being constrained not to differ from it. And it is the latter which John Richardson seems to recommend.

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