Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Possibility of Evangelical Theology, or, A Scattered Rant

I get all hot and bothered when I see or hear the word "evangelical." I don't believe Evangelicalism has ever existed. If people say that they are "evangelical," I don't know what the word entails other than that they are in fact Christians, in which case I think they should use the word "Christian". When people write for an "Evangelical" audience it is never clear who that includes; or, rather, it is never clear who that excludes, other than people who don't believe the gospel.

I say all this in the light of Michael Bird's forthcoming book Evangelical Theology. In the time-honoured tradition of commenting on a book one is yet to read, I am deeply suspicious of such a work. First of all, it seems to cater for "students." Ben Meyers has convinced me that theology aimed at students is unhelpful. Barth has convinced me that theologians will be most useful to everyone when they do the work of theology as theologians and for the sake of the discipline of theology. Students don't need books catered to them. They (we) are students of theology, not students of student-friendly theology. When I read that a work of theology contains a "'What to Take Home' section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know" I get upset, and worry about what kind of students will be produced by such books.

Second, while the "centre, unity, and boundary of evangelical faith" may be the gospel, this is not true of the Christian faith. The centre, unity, and boundary of the Christian faith is the God of the Gospel. When Karl Barth wrote his introduction to Evangelical Theology he made it clear that what made it "evangelical" was that it had to do with the God of the Gospel. Barth was a fan of the word "evangelical," because it was for him an ecumenical word, a catholic word. He says that there is such a thing as evangelical Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, in the sense that there is Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology that is concerned with the Christian God. Yet when we put it like this Barth's use of the word "evangelical" is hardly charitable. Roman Catholic or Orthodox theology has always been concerned with God, with or without the adjective "evangelical" attached to it. What, it must be asked, is the difference between an evangelical Roman Catholic and a Roman Catholic? What is the difference between an evangelical Baptist and a Baptist? And if the difference is that the evangelical Baptist has to do with the Christian God, then what the heck does the word "Baptist" mean or do?!

I don't think that the word "evangelical" has the ecumenical potential Barth thought it had. Indeed, a reliable South American source informs me that in at least one of the countries over there, "evangelical" distinguishes someone from "Catholic," rather than being a term that brings everyone together. It is a synonym for "Protestant," which usually functions as a synonym for "Christian" (with the odd "evangelical Catholic" exception). And it is in South America (and other so-called "developing" regions) where "evangelicalism" is said to be flourishing. This faux-tradition is Western Christianity's "gift" to the rest of the world, but it is a gift that comes at considerable cost, because it leaves every tradition that doesn't adopt its label on the outside. No longer is it sufficient to be a Presbyterian. One must now be an evangelical Presbyterian, or a Presbyterian AND an evangelical. Of course don't go joining the actual Evangelical Presbyterian Church, because that wouldn't be very evangelical. Or would it? Who knows!?

The irony of evangelicalism is best captured by Martin Marty:

I often, and gladly, accept invitations to evangelical gatherings, think tanks and schools, where I am introduced as the participant-observer "nonevangelical." I like then to point to a linguistic irony: I am often the only person in the room whose very denomination has "evangelical" in the title and whose confessional tradition was "evangelical" in dictionary senses (gospel-centered, German-Lutheran or Reformed, mainstream Protestant) before the Newsweek version was patented in America.

Of course the word will continue to be used, and continue to refer to something or someone. Personally, I have never thought of myself as an evangelical. If someone were to ask me if I am an evangelical, I would ask them what they mean by that word. If they tell me that it means you believe the gospel, then I would tell them that I do believe the gospel, but that I have a different term for a person who so believes: a Barthian.


  1. Since you finish tongue in cheek; saying you don't believe evangelicalism ever existed is a bit like the old style Irish nationalists who said there were no such thing as Unionists. They were just Irish nationalists who hadn't discovered their true identity yet.

  2. Ha I suppose I do believe evangelicalism has existed as a sort of ecumenical movement. The Evangelical Alliance obviously exists, and claims to now serve the UKs "two million evangelical Christians." My question is, who are these evangelicals? I am now living in the UK. Am I one of them? Are the members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church evangelicals? Obviously they think they are, and they obviously think that other UK Presbyterians are not. Are they right?

    As far as I can tell these are unanswerable questions, therefore evangelicalism is a useless term that doesn't really refer. Of course in South America, for example, it has a very concrete meaning. But that just creates more problems than it solves.

  3. What you say is reminiscent of D G Hart Deconstructing Evangelicalism. He argued for the abandonment of evangelical as a word referring to a separate religious identity due to its vagueness, superficiality, accommodation, schismatic character and the sort of ambiguities that you describe.

    I'm not sure this gets us terribly far though. He wanted a return to sacramental and catholic orthodoxy rooted to a confessional core (If I remember right he's Presbyterian). Fine, but that doesn't guarantee against many of the problems associated with 'evangelicalism'. There are deeply contested ideas and different understandings of 'orthodox', 'catholic' 'Reformed' etc etc or whatever label is used. I grew up in a Presbyterianism that was pretty lifeless and very boring for example. And Barthian is more exclusive than all of them ;)

    Evangelical at its best is emphasing good and important things. If you use the word 'Christian' alone, the discussion will inevitably move on to what do you mean by that word - and so, whether you use the E word or not, you end up (if you are an evangelical :) ) by talking about gospel, grace, repentance, personal faith, new life, community etc. So evangelical is just a descriptor of a particular understanding of what 'orthodox' 'biblical' faith is. In saying this, I have no particular investment in the word. Like you, my primary identity is Christian. (always thought that 'Follower of Jesus' sounds forced and rather conceited!). But i don't want to abandon the term evangelical. For me it still captures a reality of a common experience and a common understanding of 'being Christian' across all sorts of ecclesiological boundaries.

  4. You're right. Just because people disagree over the meaning of a word doesn't mean the word is useless. Still, there have to be points where their can be no contest. For example, people may disagree over various point of Mennonite belief, but surely when someone says that that a Mennonite should fully support state violence then they are no longer speaking properly. Or when a Calvinist says he believes in open theism.

    I know that Bebbington invented the four marks of evangelicalism, but they are just that: an invention by a historian. And what's more, they don't seem to remove any of the vagueness. This may put me in line with Hart, but far better to understand Edwards as a congregationalist and Wesley as an Anglican rather than re-create them as evangelicals. If we play that game we could easily posit the Apostle Paul as the founder of Evangelicalism!

    Also, as this could just be me, but I see "evangelical" as being more than a descriptor. I see it functioning as a value-judgement much of the time, in a way that, say, "Mennonite" or "Calvinist" doesn't. To say that someone is not a Calvinist or not a Mennonite is, in most contexts, purely descriptive. But to say that someone is not an evangelical? You are, quite literally, saying that they are not "of the gospel". That seems to be how Barth uses "evangelical" along with Roman Catholic. Roman Catholic on its own is not very good, but EVANGELICAL Roman Catholic is good. Am I right? Perhaps not, but if I am, is that value-judgement that comes with it a good thing or a bad thing?