The question of What is Evangelicalism? rages on. For me, David Bebbington’s by now classic “quadrilateral” definition – in which the defining features of Evangelicalism include its biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism – remains an adequate starting point. However, so many other variables come into play, which lead to disputes, even among those who can agree on these four elements, about what else is requisite to an evangelical identity. I want to suggest what might be called a pentecostal or renewalist spin on these Bebbingtonian characteristics. (I use “pentecostal,” “charismatic,” and “renewalist” synonymously in what follows and in the rest of this blog series.) Such a twist, as will be clear, does not negate these central markers but is indicative of their evolving character. Read the rest of this entry »
Posts Tagged ‘evangelicalism’
From “Empowered Evangelicals” & “Radical Middlers” to … ? The Society of Vineyard Scholars and the Renewal of the VineyardMonday, April 22nd, 2013 by Amos Yong
These past few days I have been privileged to have been a guest at the fourth annual conference of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS). As a renewal movement in its second generation, the Vineyard as a whole is both confronting the various challenges attending to and also embracing the many opportunities opened up by charting a way forward that builds and expands on the legacy of its charismatic founder John Wimber. A number of observations stand out for me as someone who is an outsider to the Vineyard but one sympathetic to its quest, at least as played out in the SVS, for a robustly charismatic and renewalist theological identity and self-understanding. Read the rest of this entry »
Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005. 294 pp. $34.95
For Witherington, Evangelicalism—that “many-splintered thing” (ix)—has three main tributaries: Reformed theology, which contributes the emphasis on soteriology, Dispensationalism, which renews the focus on eschatology, and Wesleyan/Pentecostalism with its stress on the experiential (3). Important for Witherington, in their distinctive elements, each of these systems is “only loosely tethered to detailed exegesis of particular texts” (6).
Witherington applauds the Reformed tradition for its high Christology, its Trinitarian emphasis, its belief in the atoning death of Jesus and its omnipotent God (3–89). It is its TULIP that is dead and ought to be thrown out (167–68). It is not God but human response that limits the atonement: “God’s grace is resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).
Dispensationalism (93–168) is certainly not Witherington’s favorite form of Evangelicalism, wed to “the all-too-American gospel of success and wealth” (93). He draws some no-holds-barred-conclusions. “There will be no Armageddon between human armies . . . all divine solutions to the human dilemma descend from above . . . . One should not look to the modern secular state of Israel as some sort of fulfillment of biblical Israel;” from the Christian point of view, all OT prophecies are fulfilled in or by Christ, not apart from him or the church (109). Also: “Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth, there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the NT anywhere” (130). For Witherington, much of the Dispensational system collapses.
“Mr. Wesley Heading West” (169–237) focuses attention on Wesleyan concepts. As a cradle Methodist, Witherington admits the difficulty of criticizing his theological parent. Not surprisingly, he is more restrained in his criticism, declaring that to him there appear fewer weaknesses in the Arminian approach to biblical texts than in other systems (171). Witherington concedes that Wesley’s notion of sinless perfection has imperfectly followed the text of the NT. An encounter with the perfect love of God may have a profound effect on a person, but there is no suggestion that perfection, in the full sense of that term, will result (214).
In a glance at “The People of Pentecost” (216–222) Witherington takes issue with consequence or subsequence, which he argues cogently is weakly based, and in some cases distorts the biblical text (218). On the question of there being any particular gift Christians must manifest to demonstrate being Spirit-filled, Witherington is clear: “absolutely not” (220).
In the final part, “The Long Journey Home—Where Do We Go from Here?” (225–54), Witherington argues that the story of God’s people is to be read starting from Jesus. This would involve not only reading the OT, but also ourselves and our non-Christian neighbors, through the lens of Jesus. Indeed, the foundation of Evangelical Christianity, at present apparently a Book, needs to be replaced by a Person, Jesus. For, if we read the Book carefully it points us beyond itself to the incarnate Person. Though, even Jesus is not the ultimate object or, as Rowan William says somewhere, the terminus of our faith.
Witherington also argues that we should “do our theologizing in the very same manner as Jesus and the biblical authors—using stories” (239). However, so far as I can see, the theologizing that comes to us from the NT was not only done “out of various paradigmatic stories” (240). The gospel is neither limited to nor embodied in a message: Jesus did not simply tell stories. A case can be made that he only told stories because something had already happened both in his coming and in his ministry. Without the coming of God in him, without the expression of the coming of God’s powerful presence in his activities (not least the miracles), Jesus would have had no stories to tell. Yes, the early Christians told stories of the Jesus event, but they were also compelled to connect that story with their own stories. For, the power of his Spirit, manifest in events (including the miraculous), required new stories.
If this is right, I would suggest that the way forward in re-conceptualizing (Evangelical) theology is not in finding new ways to do hermeneutical tricks with old stories. Instead, as we look carefully at those stories, I suspect we will want to find new ways to allow the powerful presence of God access to our present. The result would mean—as it did for Jesus and his early followers—that we would then be obliged to explain what was happening, as well as retell the Old story about the One whose powerful presence was being experienced. In short, theologizing is not done merely by interpreting paradigmatic stories. Theology is describing and interpreting God, including both his speaking and acting, in relation to present experience.
Does such an approach put theology at the mercy of experience? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that, from a biblical perspective if there is no experience there is no theology, only history. But no, in the sense that just as contemporary stories (our words) do not replace the message of Jesus—they can reflect on, enliven and enlighten it—so contemporary experience (healings, tongues, prophecy, miracles) does not replace or eclipse the activities of Jesus but, like the stories, can give them contemporary expression and significance as it did for the early Christians.
The problem with Evangelical theology is certainly in the distinctives having poor exegetical foundations. But, if the devil is in the distinctives, the heresies are in what we hide with our present theologies: the person of Jesus and his ongoing powerful presence among us through the Spirit.
Recently, Thomas Bergler, a professor at Huntington University in Indiana, released a book in which he argues that American Christianity has been largely co-opted by youth movements during the latter part of the twentieth century. He has also summarized the main arguments in a piece for Christianity Today.
As a product of the Marsden-Noll “school,” Bergler’s arguments remain largely historical with some analysis in the final chapter of the book. His arguments have also received positive endorsements from other historians of American religion, such as John Turner who blogs at The Anxious Bench.
What Bergler attempts to do is track an important trend in twentieth-century evangelicalism (mostly) and its impact, positive and negative, on worship practices, doctrine, church structure, and other features of evangelical Christianity. The argument is sophisticated and should be taken seriously. I find much to agree with, and yet, there are some nagging suspicions I have and from which I cannot escape. My suspicions cause me to wonder about, in Paul Harvey’s words, the rest of the story. . . .
As you probably know, President Obama has found himself dealing with a volatile issue lately—and I’m not talking about the economy. I’m referring to his proposal to re-imagine and re-draw the Israeli-Palestinian border along the 1967 armistice lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Given the loaded and tenuous history of these “peace and land talks” in the Middle East, I don’t envy the president for one second—especially after seeing how House Democrats and Republicans applauded Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress which unabashedly spurned the president’s plan.
Needless to say, many evangelicals have since derided the president’s peace proposal as well. Why? For starters, many evangelicals are Republicans who voted for McCain and probably would have a difficult time praising Obama for anything he does right. (I even know some Christians who are covertly upset at the timing of Osama bin Laden’s demise because it means that President Obama will get the credit for it.) Second, American evangelicals, by in large, adore Israel and love its people. As a result, any policy that disadvantages Israel must have its origins in a dark place with fire and lost souls.
As with others, I have recently been tracking a healthy conversation about the relationship between natural law and evangelicalism in the blogosphere. I say healthy because it strikes me as the correct way to dialog about such philosophical and theological divergences, especially in the face of the Rob Bell “storm.”
Evidently, Matthew Lee Anderson touched off the conversation with an article in Christianity Today. Jordan Ballor weighed in on the conversation by pointing out Protestantism’s focus on voluntarism, which I find helpful. This prompted some reflection at the First Things’ site by Joe Carter and Joseph Knippenberg. I like, in particular, Knippenberg’s comment about a division among evangelicals between those who are “together” with Catholics and those who talk incessantly about world views. Finally, I would note Vince Bacote’s weighing in on the matter by pointing out some possible connections with Abraham Kuyper.
Since this is largely a conversation among Reformed evangelicals and Catholics (with a sprinkling of Lutheran perspective here and there to add just the right flavor), let me offer the perspective of a Classical Pentecostal. Read the rest of this entry »