What Is Evangelicalism?
Paul uses the analogy of containers in his kitchen pantry to provide an apologetic for why we should not resist theological labels:
One member of our family (who shall remain nameless) has a thing about Tupperware, so several shelves of this pantry have neat rows of containers, all carefully labelled. It is actually very useful—when you need to find something, there it is in front of you. Kitchen life would be a good deal more complicated if we had to lift the lid of everything before we knew what was in it.
Paul then explores the ontology of Tupperware containers – is it labels that create contents, or contents that create labels?
The rice and the pasta sitting on our pantry shelves are not distinct because we have labeled them; the labels help us recognize the differences that are already there. My theological differences with others don’t arise because I own a different theological label; my label is simply a recognition that I have particular convictions about faith and theology, and not everyone is going to share these convictions.
This is a neat analogy, but if I may extend it, the trouble is that when I open the container labelled ‘evangelical’ I can’t be sure whether I’m going to find rice, or pasta – or nothing! – inside. It’s like the stag-night game of tin-can-roulette: everyone gets a can, but with the labels removed. Will it be peaches? Or might it be cat food? It is this problem that has led to some trying to abandon labels altogether, while others expend effort finding alternatives to ‘evangelical’ (bible-believing, reformed & charismatic, etc.); or at least qualifying the term (open-evangelical, conservative-evangelical, post-evangelical, and so on). But these efforts are of only limited help: before I get out the tin-opener I still want to know what to expect in the tin.
I’d been thinking about this anyway, as last week I read Rick Kennedy’s biography of Cotton Mather, The First American Evangelical, and this week I have read Gregory Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism – a synopsis of the teaching of Carl F.H. Henry. If Mather represents the budding of what would become a distinctive evangelicalism, Henry represents it’s full (and short-lived) flowering.
Henry is hardly a fashionable figure in contemporary theological circles (I have to confess to never having read a word of his before) but Thornbury engages with important current issues, through the lens of Henry’s writing. He begins with a highly engaging – and often humorous – chapter on ‘The Lost World of Classical Evangelicalism’, and then follow five chapters about areas that mattered to Henry (all of which would be good names for blogs!): Epistemology Matters, Theology Matters, Inerrancy Matters, Culture Matters, and Evangelicalism Matters.
Thornbury provides a slogan which he considers to define evangelicals in the twenty-first century: “Anything you can do, we can do later. We can do anything later than you.” Rather than the high hopes of the likes of Henry for a movement “consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy that would appeal to the intellectual class of the day and spawn new work across the disciplines of human inquiry in the arts, psychology, science and politics,” evangelicalism has become a feeble thing, that adopts other theological models, just as those models are themselves abandoned by the academy.
Thornbury laments the way in which the philosophical approach of Henry’s generation of theologians has been abandoned by contemporary evangelicals. As a case in point he cites Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in which “The entire basis for doing evangelical theology was missing. Gone was a discussion of definitions of theology, philosophical criteria, considerations of arguments for the existence of God, and so forth.” This has practical effects. As Thornbury observes, “These days, countless conferences attract pastors, church leaders, parents, and college students to a wide range of crucial theological, social, and ministry agendas. But they all run the risk of an elephant-in-the-room dilemma. Is this stuff actually true? How would we know?” Ouch.
These epistemological concerns are then worked through in the chapter on theology, in which Thornbury articulates Henry’s convictions about God’s revelation: “Revelation is a divinely initiated activity, God’s free communication by which he alone turns his personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of his reality.” In staking out this ground Henry was wrestling with theological and philosophical giants – Karl Barth, Immanuel Kant, Hans Frei. This makes this chapter fairly hard schlepping, but it’s worth digging through. The point is that there is objective truth, revealed by God in scripture, that all will be held accountable to.
It is in this chapter that Thornbury engages with “arguably current evangelicalism’s leading theologian,” Kevin Vanhoozer. He questions “the notion of theodrama”, and observes its origin in the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin and John Searle, who were “entirely naturalistic”; with Searle committed to the view that the universe “consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles.” Thornbury queries whether such a theory offers a better approach to understanding divine revelation than classical evangelicalisms understanding of “God’s speaking in intelligible sentences and paragraphs that yield logically sound and yet biblically faithful confessions of belief.” I think that is a well observed point. (And I doubt Henry would be any more impressed by David Bentley Hart.)
Henry’s confidence is that the Bible contains objective, propositional truth,
The first claim to be made for Scripture is not its inerrancy nor even its inspiration, but its authority. Standing in the forefront of prophetic-apostolic proclamation is the divine authority of Scripture as the Word of God.
For Henry language is always symbolic, but this does not mean it “cannot convey literal truth.” So he argues for inerrancy on the basis of the authority of scripture and the truth of its propositions – just as have most Christians from the apostolic age on. This doesn’t mean that Henry “confuses inerrancy with mechanical dictation” but he does argue that without seeing scripture as inerrant “the entire enterprise of historic Christianity begins to crumble.” This confidence in scripture as the Word of God is what gives impetus to evangelical social engagement. It is confidence in the Word that forms a church able to “approximate God’s kingdom in miniature”, and churches that engage “with the concerns, ails, joys and sorrows of the planet around them.” This is a confidence that has the power to lead to cultural engagement and transformation,
And so, for example, when a nonbeliever walked into a celebration of the Lord’s Supper at a Christian gathering in the early centuries, he or she witnessed a remarkable phenomenon taking place. Members of the privileged classes, for example, would be serving the agape meal to members of the slave class – a very powerful image that repudiated the hierarchical class structure of Roman society.
In recent years I may not have gone the full Nicky Gumble, but I have often felt a hesitation about the evangelical label, because of the lack of clarity about what is actually in the tin. Reading Thornbury on Henry (as well as Kennedy on Mather) has provided me with a more robust definition of evangelicalism, one that if embraced offers solid ground on which to stand.
The question, though, is whether many of us will be prepared to stand this ground. My concern is that the currently dominant evangelicalism-lite (an evangelicalism that dare not speak its name), gives us no solid foundation. Without a return to the kind of robust theology espoused by Carl Henry I fear that both an apparently thriving HTB – as much as a struggling Tiddly-on-the-Marsh Free Evangelical Church – will, in two or three decades, find it is not the centre of anything, with nothing to be the centre of. As Thornbury soberly concludes,
What I am convinced of is this: if the philosophical foundations are not taken seriously once again, if our explanations of the gospel are not rooted in reality, we lose. We lose big. We come up short because we live in an age of ideology that does take these matters seriously. The disciples of Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, and Lacan stand at the door and knock. They wait for our university students to invite them in, for they would be more than happy to sit down and explain how everything works at the level of theory behind all that we see, say, and support.
A sober thought indeed.