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Deconstructing evangelicalism (2)

February 2006 | by Jonathan Stephen

Massive cultural shifts within Western society have resulted in what might be called the deconstruction of ‘evangelicalism’. This time-honoured and once comprehensible term for New Testament Christianity has been forced to bear new and often contradictory meanings, as we began to see last month.

Then I considered ‘traditional evangelicalism’ and ‘pragmatic evangelicalism’. This month I complete the picture by contrasting ’emergent’ evangelicalism and ‘Bible-centred’ evangelicalism.

Emergent evangelicalism

The ’emergent church’ is a movement (its proponents prefer to call it a ‘conversation’) which aims to be a Christian response to the increasingly post-modern culture of the world in which we live.

It claims to be evangelical but rejects both the traditional and pragmatic forms of evangelicalism already considered. It demands a fresh start – a return, as its advocates see it, to the simplicity and authenticity of pre-Constantinean Christianity; a return to the period before the ‘purity’ of the early church is supposed to have become corrupted by the patronage of the Roman Empire.

Key emergent concepts are relationship, tradition, narrative, community, worship, aesthetics and tolerance. Emergent churches can differ enormously from one another. Some are small and meet in a home or a pub. Others meet in large warehouses or public buildings – where a mixture of high technology, art and liturgical symbols are used to conjure up an atmosphere of mystery and awe.

‘Emergent’ is largely a protest against the irrelevance, sham and hypocrisy it sees elsewhere in evangelicalism. It writes off traditional evangelicalism as rationalistic and cerebral – the victim of modernist, Enlightenment thinking.

It also rejects pragmatic evangelicalism, rightly recognising the futility and falsehood of selling Christianity as a commodity. However, as Carson repeatedly points out in his excellent assessment,

Becoming conversant with the Emerging Church(Zondervan, 2005), its portrayal of both modernism and post-modernism is crude and reductionist. Neither term is sufficiently nuanced, nor is there any subtlety in the basic conclusion reached – modern is bad, post-modern is good!

Damaged

More serious, however, is the fact that the post-modern presuppositions of the emergent movement have fatally damaged its ability to accept the truth-claims of the Bible. A false antithesis is constantly drawn between our ability to know

perfectlyand our ability to know anything.

Because we can know nothing perfectly, argue emergent thinkers, we cannot be sure of anything at all. This is not only disastrous for those who wish to know the truth as it is revealed in Scripture – it is also patent nonsense!

So why I am wasting your time with such absurdity? Because the post-modern mindset which drives emergent thinking has gained a powerful foothold in Western evangelicalism.

Probably the best-known apologist for emergent theology is Brian McLaren who, when it comes to the Bible, tells us he rejects both liberal relativism and conservative absolutism for something in-between.

Don Carson critiques what he calls ‘Two significant books’. One is McLaren’s

A generous orthodoxy(Zondervan, 2004) and the other is Steve Chalke’s The lost message of Jesus(Zondervan, 2003). The theology of both books is very similar.

Although Chalke largely avoids ‘post-modern’ and ’emergent’ terminology, Carson unhesitatingly tells us, ‘Chalke is the most prominent figure in the corresponding movement in the United Kingdom’ (

BCEC,p.158).

Atonement

We haven’t time to go into the theology now, but it is not just a matter of their shared rejection of penal substitution – which Chalke calls ‘cosmic child abuse’ (

LMJ,p.182) and McLaren calls ‘divine child abuse’ (The story we find ourselves in, Jossey-Bass, p.102). Both think of the cross as a statement of the powerlessness of love.

Since neither has any concept of the sinfulness of sin, they find any idea of the wrath and condemnation of God repugnant. Atonement, therefore, cannot involve salvation from judgement but must be mainly about the restoration of a lost relationship with God.

Chalke tells us that he believes in man’s essential goodness (p.67) and that repentance is therefore merely a call to model yourself on God (p.121). McLaren doesn’t believe in a personal devil, refuses to talk about hell and does not believe the Bible condemns homosexuality.

We could go on, but Carson concludes: ‘I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel’ (

BCEC,p.186).

Inconclusive

Yet in his paper at the symposium called to discuss Steve Chalke’s controversial views on the atonement (held in July 2005 at the London School of Theology) Prof. Howard Marshall (who otherwise takes an essentially orthodox view of the matter) could still refer to Chalke as a ‘conservative evangelical’.

Perhaps the post-moderns are right, and words

don’t mean anything any more! Most of the papers from this predictably inconclusive symposium are published on the Evangelical Alliance website: www.eauk.org

What does the future hold for ’emergent’ evangelicalism? The future appears bright! All the current heresies and errors – including, notably, ‘open theism’ and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul – fit easily into emergent’s ever-shifting portfolio of beliefs and opinions.

This movement may well be well attuned to the spirit of the age, but how dreadful to be consigned to be ‘always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth’ (2 Timothy 3:7)! Surely there must be a better alternative.

Bible-centred evangelicalism

All three categories of evangelicalism discussed so far allow cultural considerations to hinder gospel faithfulness. Traditional evangelicalism is influenced too much by the culture of the past. Pragmatic evangelicalism is influenced too much by the culture of the present. Emergent evangelicalism is influenced too much by (what it perceives to be) the culture of the future.

Thankfully, there have always been Bible-centred churches which have managed, by God’s grace, to live and proclaim the unchanging gospel in a way that engages and yet challenges the culture of the age.

The truly Bible-centred church may look in some ways like the traditional evangelical church. It may even follow practices which at first sight might be more at home in the pragmatic or emergent models. The vital difference is that all these elements will have been subjected to the scrutiny – and controlling culture – of the Word of God.

There are no short-cuts for those who wish to be truly Bible-centred. In an era of great societal change, the church must resist the easy option of freeze-framing itself in any particular cultural setting.

One holy church

After all these centuries we can still, perhaps, best describe what we mean by Bible-centred evangelicalism in the terms of the Nicene Creed (as revised in Constantinople in AD 381). It declares: ‘I believe in … one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. These are truths which we must constantly strive to make more evident to the world.

We believe in one church, not many. There is ‘one body’, but we must ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 3:3-4). Those of us committed to the certain truths of Scripture, and who feel compelled to reach the godless around us with the only gospel, must declare and demonstrate our oneness to the world.

This is no luxury. It is the command of Christ. It is one of the greatest tasks the church faces in the third millennium. It is, as you know, what Affinity seeks to promote.

We believe in one holy church. The true church is set apart from the world. How vital it is to learn the difference between cultural engagement with the world and spiritual separation from it!

Pragmatic and emergent (and even many traditional) evangelicals have little understanding of the dangers of being ‘yoked together with unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). How the world needs God’s church to be holy! May we be a pure people, a spiritual people, with a deep and authentic reliance upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives!

Universal and apostolic

We believe in one holy catholic church

. ‘Catholic’ speaks not of Rome but of the church universal – drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9). It is the opposite of ‘parochial’. It demonstrates that the Christian church is not culture-bound (like Islam) but is adaptable to the needs of all.

A truly ‘catholic’ church will seek to demonstrate the

reconcilingpower of the gospel, so that those of every race, class, culture and background can worship and serve together. What a challenge for the truly Bible-centred church in the global village of the twenty-first century – to demonstrate where the multiculturalism which the world so vainly seeks may genuinely be found!

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. The true church is ‘God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:19-20). In other words, it is ‘Bible-centred’ – constantly referring and deferring to God’s written Word in order to learn how it must live to God’s glory. The early church ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship…’ (Acts 2:42).

Finally, the apostles were ‘sent out’. An apostolic church is mission-minded. And the message we are to take with us and proclaim is the once-revealed, authentic, apostolic gospel of Christ.

What does the future hold for Bible-centred evangelicalism? Well, if we have characterised the true church of God, then the future is glorious! Christ ‘will build [his] church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it’ (Matthew 16:18).

Conclusion

Of course, many churches do not fit neatly into any of the four categories of evangelicalism we have been considering. There are plenty of ‘hybrids’ around. For example, there are numerous traditional churches that have adopted pragmatic methodologies – often out of desperation and without sufficient discernment.

Bible-centred churches will be keenly aware of the need to ensure that what they are doing has not slipped into another category.

Nevertheless, this brief survey does, I trust, show how professing evangelicalism has become a wide ocean over the last half-century. Some very strange creatures inhabit its depths and it has become a dangerous environment for the unwary.

In effect, the term ‘evangelical’ is now so broadly interpreted as to be largely meaningless. David Hilborn, Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance, virtually admitted defeat during his opening address at the atonement symposium mentioned earlier.

He said that the ‘intrinsic diversity of evangelicalism inevitably dilutes attempts to exercise pan-evangelical doctrinal discipline’. In fact, it renders such attempts impossible.

Please continue to pray for the work of Affinity in its continuing commitment to be a ‘Church-centred partnership for Bible-centred Christianity’.

This article and its precursor are based on a seminar held at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Aberystwyth Conference on 10 August 2005.