Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another Evangelical crisis?

Check out this post that, if you follow the links, will lead you to ongoing blog discussions about the roles of men and women in conservative evangelical culture. Michael’s post assumes lots of insider knowledge about Reformed Evangelical culture. However, I think the overall point is clear – and it is something that I’m only just beginning to realise – there is a cultural war within conservative evangelicalism.

This war is not a direct confrontation between two well-defined camps. But it is a consequence of something that Mark Noll describes in his book Between Faith and Criticism. In this book – perhaps Noll’s most undervalued work? – you find a discussion of how evangelicals in America have treated the Bible in academic terms. Noll tells the story of how American and British scholars created an evangelical Biblical scholarship over the late 19thC and most of the 20thC. This movement wrestled with the consequences of critical study of the Bible carried out by non-evangelicals. But it also wrestled with popular views about the inspiration of the Bible. Evangelical scholars have always worked within a strong popular movement that held on to traditional ideas – ideas that are probably cultural as much as they are biblical or theological.

Noll describes two approaches – he acknowledges necessary caveats, but maintains his distinction: ‘The major division lies between those who tie the belief in biblical inspiration tightly to traditional interpretations and those for whom this bond is somewhat less secure.’

I think we are seeing this division in a number of issues that are being discussed in evangelical circles. The debates over sexuality. The discussions over the doctrine of justification, and the New Perspective on Paul. The rumblings over the role of men and women in church ministry. These are the big three debates that I can identify in conservative evangelicalism at the moment. They are by no means the only problem areas, and they are probably all secondary issues. But I think they all point to a deep unease about what evangelical Christianity is or is not. No tradition provides a safe haven, or an obvious unifying motif or creed. There is a cultural fragmentation within evangelicalism that leaves many of us unsure about our role as evangelicals. Is any battle worth fighting any longer?


Peter Slomski said...

Did I read you correct - justification is a secondary issue? I can only agree with Luther that a church stands or falls on the issue of justification; not only that, but ones very salvation.
(The other two issues I see as primary issues as well).
Sorry, if I have misread you.

David Shedden said...

Peter, thanks for this post that helps me clarify my thinking, and thanks for reading the blog. I suppose I didn't mean to minimise the importance of any of these issues, but I think our current Reformed evangelical culture is just in melt down - that's my main point. One big problem is the issue of theological language and truth - is there a framework within which Christians can work out the application of their faith? For example, no-one believes in the church anymore (why, if they do, the ever increasing number of parachurch organisations, usually led by 'churchmen'?)

Any 'doctrine' that touches on the nature of salvation is primary - so, yes, justification is primary. I think it is very interesting that we are seeing a consenus emerging about imputation being a theological construct rather than a New Testament teaching (I know that you will react strongly against this - but, on Michael Bird's blog you can read an article - Incorporated Righteousness(?) - where he reviews the justification debate - his conclusion is frustratingly vague on the relation between NT studies and confessional statements. My point is simply that there is a gap between believing New Testament study, and systematic theology.)

You suggest that all three issues are primary - in your opinion, are any issues secondary?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the reply by email & blog. You raise quite a no. of issues, so here are a few quick, brief, uncoordinated thoughts.
I don't know if I would say Reformed evangelical culture is in 'meltdown'; perhaps I would describe it as 'under siege' from without and within. (The danger that many are falling into is that this idea of unity without truth. So you have the debacle of Steve Chalke and the EA and in the US Clark Pinnock and others).
A framework?- you will have to expand here. One of the problems with the church in Britain is simply that it's not doing its job so in 'desperation' people set up these parachurch orgs.
Re. justification,you raise some issues here particularly regarding NT teaching and systematic theology. Without discussing in more detail, I may be in danger of misunderstanding terms. The 'simple' point I would make is I believe both NT teaching and systematic theology agree on justification, but then you might say, I am reacting strongly against what you have said.
Yes, you're right , a doctrine that touches on nature of salvation is primary. I would perhaps also say doctrines that touch on nature of Biblical authority. What do I mean? Issues such as sexuality or men/women roles or clearly taught in Scripture but are challenged not because people have interpreted by the analogy of faith, scirpture by scripture, but because they have brought their own private desires/prejudices. People try to claim it is all about Biblical interpretion, but this is a red herring. The reality is it is about Biblical authority, but in our sinfulness we do not want to submit to it.
Secondary issues? - yes, I would say doctrines such as baptism, church government and views on Christ's second coming. These do not challenge Biblical authority, but are a matter of Biblical interpretation.
As I say these are thoughts I have just shot out. Perhaps we will talk more in detail.

David Shedden said...

Peter, thanks for this. My question about secondary issues was a leading question. Both baptism and church government have historically been primary issues - they are now secondary issues in the eyes of most people because they cannot be resolved within any current 'framework'. People are not free - myself included - to read the Scriptures and publicly change their opinions. (At the moment I am bound by my church to be a paedobaptist.) Go to my archives for March2006 and read my essay on BBWarfield and baptism - Warfield can barely defend his confessional position - his doctrine of baptism is defined by his confession rather than biblical and historical evidence!!

Let's chat soon - it's been too long.