Monday, January 16, 2006

What is evangelicalism?

My question to readers about Mark Noll has drawn only one response thus far, but what helpful response! I've finally gotten around to reading the link Ian provided. I find the term 'Evangelical' to be frustratingly vague. It tells me very little about the beliefs of the person I am dealing with. The Wikkipeida entry wasn't much help either. This is taken from a review of Mark Noll's Is the Reformation Over? The author, Carl Trueman, a Reform churchman, is not as optimistic as Noll about the prospects for a post Reformation Church:
To cut to the chase: what is evangelicalism? It is a title I myself identify with on occasion, especially when marking myself off from liberalism, another ill-defined, amorphous, transdenominational concept. But in a world where there are "evangelicals" who deny justification by faith as understood by the Protestant Reformers, who deny God's comprehensive knowledge of the future, who deny penal substitutionary atonement, who deny the Messianic self-consciousness of Christ, who have problems with the Nicene Creed, who deny the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's person, who cannot be trusted to make clear statements on homosexuality, and who advocate epistemologies and other philosophical viewpoints which are entirely unprecedented in the history of the orthodox Christian church, it is clear that the term "evangelical" and its cognates, without any qualifying adjective, such as "confessional" or "open" or "post-conservative", is in danger of becoming next to meaningless. And, even when one qualifies the noun in these ways, it is not immediately clear that one is then talking about subsets or modifications of a single, overarching, coherent movement. Indeed, there are many ways in which I, as a confessional, Reformed Christian, have far more in common with many Roman Catholic theologians than others who routinely claim the title of evangelical. After all, there are evangelicals who repudiate almost all the cardinal points of faith which Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation held in common and which were never disputed. Mark Noll is obviously not such, and his own vision of evangelicalism is clearly a gracious, thoughtful, orthodox and in many ways attractive one; but I am not convinced that the definition of evangelicalism which underlies this book is strong enough to enable the realization of that vision or to allay my fears about the movement as a whole, if indeed it is meaningful to speak of it as a single movement. The key to understanding evangelicalism in relation to Catholicism seems to me to lie in part in understanding the crucial difference between the Catholic Church as an institution with clearly defined doctrinal commitments, and evangelicalism as a broad, trans-institutional movement with a vested interest in framing its doctrinal commitments at the level of complexity which the coalition can sustain. The result is that evangelicalism as a movement will always tend towards an ideal of mere Christianity. And that is fine, providing it is understood that this will in turn always tend to attenuate evangelicalism's connection to the past and thus limit its capacity to draw coherently upon that past. In this context, one might add that the current predilection in some evangelical quarters for using the language of postmodernism for revisioning or reconceptualising theology seems less a radical revolution in evangelical thinking and more the appropriation of the latest academic idiom for playing the well-established traditional evangelical game of non-dogmatic, lowest-common denominator, mere Christianity.
This answers why I can find myself in agreement with some who use the term, while being puzzled by others. What do the groups have in common? Well, dissent - but grasping the degree and form of dissent helps understanding tremendously. Both reject the historical church for various reasons, but for some the historical church is an eccesiastical structure, some of whose teaching can be redeemed. For others, it's more like the whole things needs to be reinvented from top to bottom: structure, teachings, all based on present ideas about the past more than real history. It's rather pessimistic view, IMHO. Admissable evidence is defined too narrowly, and faith and reason are simplistically opposed. I haven't read Noll's book but I wonder if he had in mind the former group, while Trueman has the later. Myself, I share Noll's optimism about the first group and Trueman's pessimism about the later group. I also see the radical dissenters as inherently fractious and unlikely allies of anyone, even each other.

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