Friday, September 05, 2008

Evangelicalism's Greatest Failure Redux

Several friends and even one daughter-in-law took offense at my indictment of evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, I did not intend for my earlier posting to dismiss the evangelistic intentions or pragmatic effectiveness of any of the evangelical leadership of today. They are, and have been consistently, quite adept at presenting the Gospel in a winsome and attractive way as witnessed by the geometric growth of some of their ministries (regardless of our intramural differences over tactics or style). Nor do I quarrel with their expansion to speak about Christian action in the arenas of poverty, injustice, or illiteracy. Most of the great social improvements of the 19th century (e.g., the abolition of slavery, establishment of hospitals and retirement communities, etc.) came through the sacrificial efforts of Godly evangelical leaders who saw their mandate as involving more than "church work."

My concern is not that evangelicals are unable to stage large scale evangelistic efforts, creative programs, or innovative small group/video campaigns. This is obviously one of our strengths in the evangelical wing of the church. However, if you will audit some of the sermons preached in evangelical churches today that are dealing with anything other than evangelism per se, I believe you will find a shocking misuse of Scripture, tendency to psychologize the message for the goal of "relevance," and moralistic readings of Biblical texts.

Despite what anyone might say, the purpose of the Noah narrative is not to tell us to love animals and avoid inflicting pain upon them. That may be true enough. However, such a "reading" of Genesis is wrong, not because the "moral" is not a true statement, but because it misses the clear point the biblical author is presenting to us.

Luther's greatest contribution is often taken to be the rediscovery of the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone. Luther, however, thought otherwise. He always opined that his greatest theological contribution was the differentiation of Law and Gospel, the Do and the Done. I am certainly more Calvinist than Lutheran and do not employ the Lutheran homiletic in my own preaching. However, his point is quite valid.

When we forget Luther's admonition, we will end up with a focus on feelings and good works. Schliermacher, father of modern liberalism, even defined true religion in terms of the interior life of the individual and the "sense and taste for the infinite" consisting primarily in feeling in Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith). When the liberals of the 19th and early 20th century following him left the grand theme of God and Gospel they ended up making it all about man, losing the Gospel in favor of Law. For them the "Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man" meant that our access to God is through our good works done in the service of our neighbor.

The fundamentalist explosion in the early 20th century objected that if religion were merely about "religious feeling" and our good works, it was no longer Christianity. J. Gresham Machen, in one of the most important books of the century, contended that liberalism was no longer Christianity at all but another religion entirely.

Against the control of the denominations by liberal scholars, the so-called "five fundamentals" put forth by the nascent "funamentalist" movement of conservatives held:

1. The Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-9).
2. The Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27).
3. The Blood Atonement (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12-14).
4. The Bodily Resurrection (Luke 24:36-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 15:14-15).
5. The inerrancy of the scriptures themselves (Psalms 12:6-7; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20).

Another twist came in the 1940s when Carl F.H. Henry and Harold John Ockenga proposed the term "evangelical" (actually neo-evangelical) as a way of keeping the core of the faith in continuity with the Reformation and Puritan tradition while eliminating the anti-intellectual and judgmental elements of American fundamentalism. The founding of Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell, and the National Association of Evangelicals was part of their effort. Again, the emphasis was certainly "evangelistic." However, the content of the Gospel determined the message of the evangel.

In contrast to some of my gloomy prognostications in the last post, theologian Allister McGrath has painted a fairly rosy picture of the future of evangelicalism. He observes that we come from three interacting historical traditions: Reformational Christianity, Pietism, and the Puritan movement.

My concern is that in recent times, the first and last are relegated to the dustbin of history and we follow an almost exclusively pietistic and subjective compass for navigating the troubled waters of modernity and post-modernity. In a pellmell haste to "get back to basic Christianity and to ignore all of the traditions," we have tended to forget the crucial elements of our evangelicalism that are made up of sturdy Reformation doctrine and the experiential Calvinism of the Puritans, accepting largely uncritically an unconscious acceptance of the pietist tradition.

My concern with much contemporary evangelicalism is not with our evangelistic sermons or programs. It is when we are talking about almost ANY thing else than "getting saved" that we tend to become adrift. Preaching law will be either painfully judgmental or will inevitably degenerate into moralism. And, moralistic preaching is what I was objecting to in my original piece.

Enough with self-help how-to bromides and platitudes. Hurting people sensing that they are drowning in their troubles need something sturdier and more stable on which to hold than a plank of pious good wishes and a life preserver of the latest evangelical self-help “classic.” Only the bold declaration of the grace of a Sovereign God towards us sinners, the mercy he shows to us in the atoning death of Christ, and the confident peace that comes from him as the Provident One who will sustain his creation (and us) will enable us to cross these rapids of post-modern waters safely to the other shore.

When a preacher reduces the message to a list of pointers on how to vet a presidential candidate, we have missed a golden opportunity to declare that the redemptive historical metanarrative of the Bible points to a reality larger than Caesar, even these current applicants for the post. Helping Christians think through concrete decision-making is a worthy enterprise and should be part of a sermon's application, not the substitute for it.


Bob Wilson said...

While we may come at some questions differently, I find your central challenge prophetic. We evangelicals need to focus more on the good news about God and the Gospel, and less on moralizing and law. That's what has transforming power. I'm still old fashioned enough to wish for more real exposition that wrestles with and proclaims the meaning of the Bible's text and story. Thanks for voicing your perception of this.

Jerry Graham said...

It i swith great interest that I read your blog and find myself agreeing with you. Too many times we miss the essential elements of our faith. I hear more and more of a "bettering of our world and ourselves" from the church than I do the truth that it is Christ who, through His death AND resurrection gives is the gift of life and His Spirit to transform us. And so the gospel becomes a social cause more so than an action of love and redemption. By the way neither candidate to my knowledge (I haven't been able to listen to the full dialogue) mentioned the resurrection. THAT is the most essential part of ur faith is it not?

Jerry Graham said...

By the way- love the picture