Critiques and Possibilities: Evangelicalism Part III

I’ve been working on a series of posts concerning Evangelicalism and when I get to it Quakerism.
Visit my “Series on Evangelicalism” under the Featured page for the rest of the posts on this topic.
In the last post I explained two different definitions which arise, the sociological standpoint of understanding a movement and the propositional way. The second way is to compile the main sayings and practices of a movement in order to identify core values for that group. Within this second way – I offered a definition from Evangelical Historians George Marsden and David Bebbington.

Within these two different sets of definitions there are some really good things and some things that have created trouble for the American church. I want to level two critiques that lay quietly within Marsden’s #1, and #5. Those two are, “The Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible??? and “he importance of a spiritually transformed life.??? I say quitely because when one reads over these things quickly most Jesus following Christians would and should agree. But there are some real problems that underly an Evangelical’s understanding of these things. I limit critiques to the two due to time and space.

250Px-Luther46CAuthority of the Bible
#1 – The Authority of the Bible in Evangelicalism trumps every other kind of authority. Martin Luther’s “Sola Scriptura??? is the foundation for such a belief. To an Evangelical the Bible is and should always be authoritative foundation in a believer’s life. It is a foundation, one that cannot be called into questioned, for all of christianity. In other Christian traditions, such as Quakerism, the Bible is authoritative but it should not outweigh other equally important modes of authority, the Holy Spirit, the Community of Faith and the Tradition of the Church.
In other words for many Postmodern Theologians, I think you could include Nancey Murphy and Wolfgang Pannenberg in this, there are multiple modes authority (I think this is the direction that Quakers must diligently head) in the life of a Christian not simply one. The Spirit plays a primary role in interpreting and helping the community understand the world and the Scriptures together in context. However on a day to day basis, these authorities are all equal, there is no foundation other than Christ and from which all these other modes flow. Functionally speaking they all help interpret, explain, exemplify, make sense of one another.
Sola Scriptura was not the way of the early church, it was a new Enlightenment idea birthed from Luther’s Pen. And like most everything in the Enlightenment, dualisms were created. Sola Scriptura, creates among many dualisms, the separation of believers. In modernity there are those who understand, learn and teach the Word of God, and there are those who listen. Christians are separated between clergy and the laity, the learned and the student. If the Bible is the ultimate authority in a believer’s life then the one with the power to preach and teach the Bible represents and thus embodies that ultimate authority for the church. It is not a stretch to see some Christian Fundamentalist-Evangelicals as committing an idolatry of the Bible. This is a complete back lash of the priesthood of all believers as taught by the New Testament itself. When we welcome the authority of tradition, the Holy Spirit, the community of believers and the Bible then we level the playing field and invite the whole of creation to come and know Jesus.
Viewing the Bible as an Authority, which guides and directs the believer’s life is a strength within the Evangelical community. Reading, learning from and guiding one’s life by the Scriptures is to invite God’s presence into one’s life and enter into the whole narrative of God’s community of people. The Bible is a part of this work, but when Evangelicalism downplays other parts of God’s work in order to elevate the written word they have forgotten that it is the Spirit that birthed the Word, the community and the tradition.

I will cover #5 tomorrow.

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3 responses to “Critiques and Possibilities: Evangelicalism Part III”

  1. Can’t wait for the retreat this weekend. There is a lot we could talk about. The thrust of my dissertation echoes much of what you say here.

    Because I am eager to discuss some of these issues with anyone, and you seem to be one of the few people I know who is bringing them up, I would like to take some time to comment on a few things in your essay. These are not in any way critiques. I am, for the most part, tracking with your line of thinking. I only want to add to and comment on some of the things you say here. Tell me to shut up if you rather I not go on in your blog comments. I guess I could put this stuff on my blog. It just looks better here, as if this really is a conversation.

    To an Evangelical the Bible is and should always be authoritative foundation in a believer’s life. It is a foundation, one that cannot be called into questioned, for all of christianity. In other Christian traditions, such as Quakerism, the Bible is authoritative but it should not outweigh other equally important modes of authority, the Holy Spirit, the Community of Faith and the Tradition of the Church.

    I agree with all of these sentences to some extent, but I do not see how the last one somehow overturns the first two. In order the points I agree with: 1) The Bible is authoritative for an Evangelical (I purposely leave out foundation, I don’t think it’s necessary and it carries too much baggage); 2) The Bible is foundational for Christianity. Again I avoid saying the Bible is the foundation, but I do think it is foundational in that Scripture is a part of Christian identity. We can talk about Christianity existing without the Bible, but the fact of the matter is that Christianity does not exist without it. Scripture and the community’s reading of it are always and already bound up in Christian identity. In other words, as Christians we cannot escape our sacred texts; that is unquestionable. So, in this way Scripture is foundational, identity-forming; 3) For other traditions the Bible is authoritative but it does not outweigh other modes of authority. Much of what I say here hinges on the way Evangelical is understood. With that in mind, I would venture to guess that most traditions of an evangelical persuasion, whether they admit it or not, operate by the same template of authority. For instance, in some ways many charismatic traditions would self-identify as Evangelical, but it is quite clear that the authority of the Holy Spirit is as operative in their lives as the Bible. There is not an Evangelical who has not been influenced by his/her community/tradition. The very notion that the Bible is THE unquestionable foundation for all of life is itself a tradition-influenced conviction. So like Scripture, tradition and community (are the two things really separable?) are already and always bound up in one’s Christian identity. The difference among those being labeled Evangelical and those “other traditions” is nothing more than the self-awareness of the make-up of that identity. And for this reason, Evangelicals need to hear what you are saying.

    I guess we can take up more things at a later time. I really appreciate the thoughtful reflections you have been sharing with your readers. Ultimately, with the idea of the authority of the Bible, you are echoing much of what N. T. Wright is saying. See here (or in an effort not to try to steer traffic to my blog, see here instead).

  2. […] Part I – Reflections on Evangelicalism Part II – What Evangelicalism Is Part III – Critiques and Possibilities – Biblicism Part IV – Critiques and Possibilities – Spiritually Transformed Life Part V – Evangelicalism as a Subculture A critique on the movement as a subculture What I like so much about Quakerism and the Emerging Church (not necessarily both together) is that they both hold values that extend beyond the restrictions of Evangelicalism and modernity. What both Quakers and Emerging Churches hold in common is a desire to transform secular space (see Ryan Bolger’s conversation on this), and see that all is God’s, all is in his realm and that his fingerprints are over everything. This is where the larger Evangelical church loses me and many in our generation. There seems to be a lack of ability to create things new and authentic. I was having a conversation the other day where my friend and I were making fun of those old G.A.P. (God Answers Prayers) christian tees. Now maybe I take that stuff too seriously but we rarely as the church generate ideas worth duplicating, instead we take the ideas of the world and slap some kind of christianese on it. This is the effect of a dualistic disease that sees everything as either Christian or non-Christian. “Gap??? is not Christian but we can make it Christian by rephrasing what it stands for. Some things are not worth saving. The Evangelical church has become a sub-culture, a group of people out of touch with the larger world. It is this part of the church that has largely moved away from the urban centers of the world and into the Suburbs, it is largely representative of Anglo-Americans and has largely represented conservative views on politics and culture. Even if these are only generalizations and don’t fit the whole of the movement, these generalizations in my mind constitute a reason to “listen up??? and “consider thy ways.??? Many of us were told as teenagers to throw, burn, and smash anything that was not Christian. Growing up under this kind of anti-secular sentiment, Evangelicals try and think “what would a non-christian person like to do if he/she came to church??? or “what kinds of songs would they like to sing,??? or “what words can I use to change the way they think about Jesus.??? This is how we “engage??? with the culture. The reality is that there is little interaction from those “on the outside.??? A majority of church growth is transferring memberships from one Evangelical church to another (typically to “bigger??? and “better??? churches that offer more programs and services to me as a consumer). […]