Thursday, May 8, 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto

I’ve long been unsure whether or not to consider myself an Evangelical. As I have been an active member in no less than five very different denominations, and have worked with a couple dozen more, I usually just called myself a “Christian” and avoided any further labeling. But my roots are in Evangelicalism, and I’ve never completely lost them. Even as I’ve developed a deep appreciation for other Christian traditions, including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, this is still where I feel most at home. I have many times felt shame and disappointment over the actions and beliefs of those who bear the name Evangelical, but always with the sympathy of an insider, not the derision of an outsider. And yet, as my views have changed, I’ve wondered whether I still qualify as an Evangelical, or whether my rejection of inerrancy and other popular views exclude me from their ranks.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I read the Evangelical Manifesto which was published yesterday by a group of Evangelical scholars. The media is reporting it as a response to overly-politicized segments of Evangelicalism, and to a certain extent it is that, but it is also much more. It is a wide-ranging attempt to clarify what it means to be Evangelical, an affirmation of how Evangelicals have often failed to live up to this, and a proposal for living it out. In spite of myself, I’m impressed, and can find very little in it with which to disagree. Though this document represents just one view of Evangelicalism, it provides a compelling vision of what the movement could be.

A detailed summery is provided by Justin Taylor, who also has an interview with Os Guinness (who helped write it), but I recommend taking the time to read the whole 20 pages (available in pdf here), as I’ll only be highlighting a few points for comment. First:

Nothing is more natural and necessary than the human search for meaning and belonging, for making sense of the world and finding security in life. When this search is accompanied by the right of freedom of conscience, it issues in a freely chosen diversity of faiths and ways of life, some religious and transcendent, and some secular and naturalistic. Nevertheless, the different faiths and the different families of faith provide very different answers to life, and these differences are decisive not only for individuals but for societies and entire civilizations. (pg. 3)

I especially appreciate this recognition of the inevitably pluralistic nature of a free society, combined with a firm affirmation that what choices we freely make nevertheless have profound consequences not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. Freedom demands that we respect the rights of all people to choose what to think and how to live, but it also requires open and civil discussion of the truth and value of these beliefs and actions. The Manifesto’s repeated emphasis both on the important separation of church and state (against those who would seek to impose a theocracy, or who would equate Evangelicalism with any one political party or issue), and on the importance of public religious discourse (against those who would relegate faith entirely to the private sphere) is precisely correct.

We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation. We believe it is our calling to be good stewards of all God has entrusted to our care so that it may be passed on to generations yet to be born. (pgs. 13-14)

If we can take seriously their earlier rejection of using state power to impose it on those who disagree, this platform is sensible and biblically sound (including even the more “partisian” views on abortion and marriage, so long as these are not allowed to overwhelm the rest).

Finally, I would like to discuss briefly the two issues I was most nervous to see how they would handle: the doctrines of scripture and creation. Regarding the first, they include among seven defining features of Evangelicalism an affirmation that:

Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice. (pg. 6)
While I am not entirely comfortable with this statement, it is better than I expected. I’m especially glad they chose not to expand this into the extreme view seen, for instance, in The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, nor claim that the Bible is the only “rule for faith and practice.” More directly, “Total truthfulness” seems a much better term than “inerrancy” (which defines scripture as a negative), though I'm not certain precisely what they mean by it.

As for creation, I’m thrilled that they did not include creationism (much less the young earth variety) among those seven distinctives of Evangelicalism. I could not expect them to reject creationism outright, but I’m thankful they neglected to embrace it, and I fully agree with their rejection of those who would pit faith against science:

All too often we have disobeyed the great command to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, and have fallen into an unbecoming anti-intellectualism that is a dire cultural handicap as well as a sin. In particular, some among us have betrayed the strong Christian tradition of a high view of science, epitomized in the very matrix of ideas that gave birth to modern science, and made themselves vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith. By doing so, we have unwittingly given comfort to the unbridled scientism and naturalism that are so rampant in our culture today. (pgs 12-13)

In short, in firmly rejecting the extremes of both fundamentalism and radical liberalism, I find this Manifesto very encouraging. Indeed, the only significant objection I’m tempted to raise is that it presents a vision of what Evangelicalism should be but often isn’t. There are plenty of people who call themselves Evangelicals who embrace views this Manifesto explicitly rejects (James Dobson, who explicitly chose not to sign it, is an obvious but influential example). But the document’s authors are not ignorant of this, and take pains both to affirm that, as Evangelicalism is inherently non-hierarchical, they can only speak for themselves, and to admit that Evangelicals often have not lived up to these ideals.

Of course, like all attempts at balance and moderation, this Manifesto will be attacked from both sides (for instance, see opposite critical responses here and here), but if such a perspective can win the day, I may find myself proud to be an Evangelical after all.


Carmen Andres said...

thanks for the heads up on this. my heritage rests in evangelicalism and anabaptism, and this will make for some good reading. for what it's worth, one of the things i've heard folks lament on the journalism side of life is the lack of strong definitions or characteristics of evangelicalism, i hope this helps.

also, if you have the time and don't mind, could you explain (in a dumbed-down way for my limited capacity for complex thoughts, heh) what you mean by inerrancy and why you reject it? if you've already got a post on this, just point me in that direction (if it's not one of those brain-bursting posts, heh).

mike rucker said...

nice analysis. i think i originally had some of the same hesitations and misgivings before reading the document, but was actually quite impressed and invigorated after taking in the whole of what it addressed.

i, too, am glad they chose not to say that creationism and inerrancy were non-negotiables. for the first, there's very little biblical justification behind whatever the latest flavor of anti-natural selection is being put forward; for the latter, somehow we can admit that we cannot prove the existence of God, but goshdarnit we have this golden egg this unprovable God laid right here. kind of stupid when you think about it ... not that thinking is a pre-requisite in any of these endeavors.

more than anything, i was motivated and energized by the very positive nature of the piece - that it wasn't yet another "here's everything we're against" rant but an effort to make the gospel again a message of "good news." that's what American Christianity has lost as it has embraced the Republican Jesus bobble-head doll.

mike rucker
fairburn, georgia, usa

Ken Brown said...

Your point about lack of definitions is a good one, and in their absence the media creates them for itself. It's amazing how easy we can come to think that our own church or community must be an exception, since all we ever hear about from elsewhere are the crazies.

As for inerrancy, I don't have a post on it, but I really should. The short answer is that inerrancy is the belief that scripture is entirely accurate in every detail, even matters (like science, history, etc.) incidental to the point of the text. I don't see anywhere in scripture claiming this about itself, nor do I think the Bible lives up to such a claim. Examples of errors (incidental or otherwise) are trivially common: how many times did the rooster crow before Peter denied Jesus? How many angels were at Jesus tomb when Mary arrived? etc. For an inerrantist, each of these requires exegetical contortions to escape the plain meaning of scripture, whereas I don't see why such incidental details should be given such prominence - they are not the point.

Thanks for your comment! I too appreciated their largely positive approach, but I'm glad they also included the direct rejections (of anti-intellectualism, political pandering, etc) that they did. And "Republical Jesus bobble-head doll" LOL I love it!

Super Churchlady said...

YES!!! Can I get an "AMEN" people?? This is long overdue in my opinion. I think the word "evangelical" has been hijacked.

I totally agree with your statement:

"I have many times felt shame and disappointment over the actions and beliefs of those who bear the name Evangelical, but always with the sympathy of an insider, not the derision of an outsider."

Once again, Ken, you are able to articulate things in a way that I only wish I could.

Anonymous said...

The Christian Fundamentalist's response to this past year's election cycle highlighted the need for this call to common sense. Christian leaders, and I use the term loosely, endorsed candidates with little or no Christian conviction and often candidates who held views on abortion and gay marriage that are at odds with scriptural mandates. Too many looked like garden variety politicians who seek power at any ethical or moral cost.

I rarely am willing to sign off on anything, but I will be a signer of this Evangelical Manifesto.