Yet Another Manifesto?! Evangelical Leaders Draw the Line

If you haven’t heard by now (I heard from Halden), a group of (select) world renowned Evangelicals got together and compiled their own manifesto (or see the summary). I say ‘select’ because there are certain voices (namely any strongly conservative or liberal ones absent from the group). It’s not that I care whether they have conservatives, moderates, or liberals, involved in the project, but it seems to me that ‘Evangelicalism’ is the very thing that cannot have a manifesto unless is it a ‘select’ Evangelical manifesto. That is to say, the term Evangelical is so contested that at first glance it would seem you need a special theological swat team in order to nail the subject down. And it is firmly nailed down in a number of some areas, Bill Samuel summarizes some of theological stances in his post (and he also has some helpful criticisms here).  Another area where it seems somewhat inflexible is, as Alan Wolf says in his essay for the Guardian, the being, among other things, aimed against Fundamentalists:

One of the most striking features of the Manifesto is the lengths to which its authors go to disassociate themselves from fundamentalism. Protestantism, they write, tends to veer off either in a mainline, liberal direction or in a reactionary, anti-modern one – evangelicalism must be understood as rejecting both. Their critique of the mainline tendencies is not surprising. Their harsh words toward fundamentalism are. Fundamentalism “tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalise the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian.” Jerry Falwell is dead. One wonders, were he still alive, how he would react to other religious conservatives calling him “sub-Christian.”

Now, I don’t care much for fundamentalism (of any sort), any more than the next person (though I’m not sure fundamentalists would like themselves if they heard us describe them!), but why the need to have a document that sets out to do something like this? I’m just not sure why we would take the time to let everybody know who we are not!?  If people can’t tell you’re not a fundamentalist, no manifesto will help you.

But this is only part of the problem, the other (much bigger part) is why try and save Evangelicalism, why try and continue to redefine it, why try and protect it from those who also have a stake in its heritage (i.e. fundamentalists)? Evangelicalism is not a tradition (yet!) in the (MacIntyrean) sense that there are no clear boundary markers, no primary texts (other than Scripture, of course!), no clear set of practices that form good evangelicals, and no clear consensus on what it even means to be one ( for instance, there are many non-conservative ‘Evangelicals’ who have not signed this document). Although, this may very well be a huge move in that direction. The point is, Evangelicalism isn’t Christianity, it isn’t a tradition, or even a denomination – it is a sensibility, movement or possibly “style of theology” among many Christian traditions. Why try so hard to absolutize this movement with something like this? It’s not that I am against Evangelicalism, I’m not, I’ve been brought up within this mindset, and appreciate, and many of the people behind it, so far as it goes. It has many strengths as well as weaknesses. It’s just that I’m confused why we think Evangelicalism is, or ought to be, the vanguard of Christianity? 

A second issue I take with any kind of document of this kind is that it is operating out of a structural hierarchy. The group of people writing a document document like this are not all committed to one common tradition of believers, but rather many different, even (can we say?) incommensurable traditions. The local expressions, and struggles involved in those expressions is often-time null when you compile an all-star team of church leaders and academics to do something like this. When Quakers gather for a Yearly Meeting (when they get together to do business), it is that entire group of local meetings coming together to discern questions that not only face the yearly meeting as a whole, but each of their local congregations as well. They don’t invite the top guns to come down and pen it for them, rather it is the work of all people – even those we don’t necessarily like or agree with. Within this model, there is a rootedness, an accountability to the local expressions of church. There is also a lot of struggle! Accountability often includes working with people who we disagree with fundamentally(!). Thus, with any document of this nature, I think there needs to be a bottom-up structure to it where both the academics and the lay people can come together and work through the issues.  

Not only are the local meetings represented in the yearly meeting, but there is a level of friendship and commitment to one another (for better or worse) where we know we’ll see each other next year and the year after that. This certainly raises the stakes for how others are treated, but helps to create a more fluid (ad hoc?) structure to our documents.  I think that if the “Evangelical Manifesto” were to mirror this, it would have to operate similar to this kind of localized yearly meeting.

Nevertheless, I do see good in this document, especially if it is meant to be a teaching tool within churches that are committed to the moniker Evangelicalism. There will be many in the church who might benefit from it’s moderate theological leanings, and its criticism of the left and right – a move I admire. I do appreciate that they stress the person of Jesus Christ, and recognition of the political extremes within the church, and the trouble that’s created for everyone.

But nonetheless criticisms abound as they should. James K. A. Smith’s two critiques of the documents go further into some of the more specifics of the document:

What are your thoughts on it? Do you see it as helpful and in what ways? What do you find unhelpful about it?

13 responses to “Yet Another Manifesto?! Evangelical Leaders Draw the Line”

  1. I think you are spot on, Wess. I read the Manifesto last week and had many of the same feelings. It was just odd to see this academic work which seemed to have the express purpose of distancing moderate Evangelicals from other Christians of different traditions and leanings.

    It also bothered me that it is not just a tool that will be used in churches. It is a public document that I read about in secular papers. It’s like advertising the divisions of the Church. Is that really necessary? Doesn’t the world already know how divided we are?

    C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”

  2. Great post. Mostly I’m commenting to say that the flickr video you’ve got is awesome. I didn’t realise they had set that up. I’ll have to copy you.

    I think we’re in trouble when we start defining ourselves by what we’re not. Jim Wallis did that a short while ago in Christianity Today. What’s worse is that I not only understood why he was saying that, I felt the need to write a post saying I agreed with him.

    Not good.

  3. Yawn. I can’t possibly see what the point of such a thing is, nor for that matter the point of ‘evangelicalism.’ Oh well…I can’t stop them from playing their little games.

    “even (can we say?) incommensurable traditions” — No, Alisdair, you can’t say incommensurable traditions!

    Hope you and yours are doing well.

  4. @Daja – yeah, I do agree that while their attempt is, at least in part, to “clear the air” about Evangelicals they may in fact be doing just the opposite. Interesting quote by Lewis, I hadn’t remembered that one. I should revisit Mere Christianity, it’s been too long.

    @Johnny, I agree that describing ourselves by naming what we are not is problematic. I found in this document a lot of “we’re not
    like the left,” “we’re not like the right,” type descriptors and it seems to me going about it this way always leaves one’s identity too much in the mercy of others positions on things. Plus, it’s just not that helpful in getting to the core issues on the matter.

    @Dan – This was my first reaction to, and I thought about not posting, for sake of drawing the yawn out, but just couldn’t help myself. And thanks for calling me Alisdair – you get extra points as a commenter for that. 🙂

  5. Though playing with you, my point was serious. MacIntyre’s whole notion of tradition is an argument extended over time. Thus, you couldn’t, at least on his terms, use argument alone as the basis for demarcating rival or incommensurable traditions. Anyway, a noticeable drop in talk about incommensurablity takes place after “After Virtue.”

  6. I’ve still yet to take a close look at it. I read the summary, which at the time I thought was good though not entirely groundbreaking. I don’t think of the manifesto as anything like the Barmen Declaration, i.e., something we will read and refer back to for years to come. I’m impressed by the breadth of signatories, however, even if those on the strong left and the strong right are not represented. I know some conservatives have been upset that the manifesto discusses the Bible as authoritative and not inerrant. I appreciate the middle ground.

    I have no qualms with it being a public document given that it is a manifesto for Evangelicals’ involvement in the public square. It appears to have two audiences in mind: Evangelicals and the general public. Therefore, while I’d prefer we focus on what unites us first, I don’t have issues with the fact that the manifesto distinguishes its writers and signatories from mainline liberals or fundamentalists. The quotation Wess cites from Alan Wolf mentions Jerry Falwell, who, when he was alive, liked to speak on behalf of Evangelicals and I believe many non-Evangelicals have seen him as a prototypical Evangelical. For much of the general population, I gather that the terms Evangelical and Christian Fundamentalist are synonymous. Why else would Jim Wallis, who has been doing his work for decades, seem so shocking in the general public now that he’s been getting broader attention? Some redefining of terms seems necessary.

    Also, to jump on the tradition train, Evangelicalism and Protestantism have tended to define themselves by what they are not. Again, I’d prefer more positive statements and I think the manifesto does have those.

  7. @Dan -very true argument alone will not get us there. I was just referring to the fact that we have Quaker Evangelicals, Mennonite Evangelicals, Evangelical Presbyterians, Evangelical Catholics, etc. And that these traditions without the adjective, may not be compatible in certain ways (Yoder would say Pacifism and Voluntary Membership as examples), unless the tradition is willing to suffer a great loss to its own practice and theology. You’re right though, incommensurable may be too strong of a word to use, but I was attempting to use it properly. And I guess we’d have to decide whether we thought sub-traditions within the Christian tradition can truly be incommensurable.

    @Tyler – “Jerry Falwell, who, when he was alive, liked to speak on behalf of Evangelicals and I believe many non-Evangelicals have seen him as a prototypical Evangelical. For much of the general population, I gather that the terms Evangelical and Christian Fundamentalist are synonymous.”

    Great point. And I do agree – I think there is a level at which reconciliation and repentance is involved in this document. A kind of saying, “All Christians do not behave this way,” and we want people to know that — but then again coming out and just saying something like that may be more beneficial than going after those you don’t agree with. But I do like your point, if you’re going to try and maintain some kind of Evangelical identity (something I question) and unity (?) then you do need defining terms and you need to show who you, which will include, whether positively or negatively stating it, who you are not.

  8. Wess, if this doesn’t take us too far off topic, could you fill out what you mean when you say you question trying to “maintain some kind of Evangelical identity”? I’m just curious. Because Evangelicalism has so many different people and groups within it, it does seem strange to discuss it as monolithically. I’m for broad definitions of Evangelicalism given its inter-denominational assumptions. I believe Mark Noll has said evangelical may serve better as an adjective than as a noun.

  9. Hey Tyler,
    This is a big conversation, I was just checking out Scot McKnight’s post on this topic. I think you should check it out if you haven’t already, he’s far more charitable to it than I am. He also goes after Jamie Smith, who has some interesting comments down below.

    You’re right Evangelicalism is much better to be thought of as an adjective, I completely agree, and I think that since it is so pluralistic now (so many different people, groups, theology, etc) that it may no longer be all that helpful. The (specialized use of the) term originated in the late 18th century, if I recall, and as Noll points out in “America’s God,” it has always been tied up with the very structure of American(ism) and politics. It was “small r republicanism” back then, and now it is largely “capital R Republicanism.” Of course this is a huge generality, given Wallis, McLaren and others now, at least from time to time, call themselves Evangelical, but it is nonetheless one of the the points of Noll’s book. In either case, it is an old term, tied up with American establishment, and may no longer be helpful.

    I also do wonder if it the term itself, or those who fall under it, can have any legitimate critique of American politics, culture, and society because it is such an integrated part of it – is it capable of distancing itself or is it structurally bound to operating within and alongside American Establishment (as Jamie Smith points out there is no critique of capitalism, or any of the other ills in our contemporary American culture).

    Another part of my criticism comes from being a part of a Radical Reformation tradition (as does the first one against establishment). McKnight in his post discusses how Evangelicalism is ecumenical (which I is why I was critical of the manifesto excluding certain people) and makes this point:

    “Evangelicalism has always dropped theological distinctives (confessional level statements of faith) for the sake of the gospel.”

    This is true enough and is part of my beef with Evangelicalism. I see it as a modern attempt to break away from tradition, place complete authority within a foundationalist reading of the Scriptures, and lose all distinctives in the name of the Gospel (all the while following the universalizing tendencies of Enlightenment reasoning). That said, my own personal problem with Evangelicalism comes in the fact that it has, in my opinion, greatly (and ironically) diminished the Christian voice within the Friends tradition. At the cost of distinctives, pacifism, plainness, truth-telling, open worship, social activism etc – a good portion of the Friends church has become Evangelical (of course, please be aware, I’m using big generalities again). I see Evangelicalism as being the thing some Quakers got really committed to over and above the things that made the Friends Church has such a rich tradition – whipping those things clean in the name of the Gospel – which in turn looks a lot like conservative, and yes, sometimes even Right Wing Fundamentalist, Christianity.

    In my reading of Quaker history, there were a lot of splits taking place during the 19th century within our church; it was Enlightenment philosophy in all instances but sometimes in the form of Liberalism and sometimes in the form of Evangelicalism (and Fundamentalism) that disturbed the relative unity within the church. This is why I’m not only critical of both sides, but am also trying to positively name something else. This is why I don’t think hanging onto ‘Evangelical’ as an adjective is all that helpful. Not only did it do this among Friends, it’s played this leveling role within most traditions.

    So, for what that’s worth, that’s some of the context behind my own feelings about it. Given that, Scot McKnight’s post is helpful and far more charitable. I’ll give some more consideration to some of the points he’s made.

  10. I finally got around to reading McKnight’s post. I thought it was fair and I agree with much of it.

    I’ve had a strange relationship with the term Evangelical. I used to accept it wholeheartedly in my much more Christian Right upbringing, but as I moved away from some of the political stances and theological views (e.g., conversion largely meaning going to Heaven when a person dies), I used the term to describe myself less and less. When I came to Fuller, however, I saw people using the term in ways that resonated deeply with me. The professors there defined and espoused an Evangelicalism I could agree with easily. It wasn’t a theology wedded to America in particular or the state in general, and I believe this version of Evangelicalism corrected some of the foundationalist presuppositions of Scripture that you’ve rightly criticized. Scripture still holds authority, but tradition also plays a large part. Just to locate myself, I have found a home in the Evangelical Covenant Church, so obviously my issues with the term Evangelical aren’t deal-breakers for me.

    I find Alister McGrath’s four characteristics of Evangelicalism helpful and they give a lot of room to play. Clearly these markers are less confessional than other traditions, as McKnight points out, and they focus broadly on larger matters. In trying to be ecumenical, specifics have been left undefined. I’m actually comforted that there is much diversity within the tradition. As we’ve said, I think Evangelical works better as an adjective than as a noun. Perhaps we could call Evangelicalism as a tradition within traditions. That is, I don’t see why the four markers of Evangelicalism should supersede the theology found in our faith communities and traditions. In fact, I find that Evangelicalism’s markers bolsters various confessions and practices with a renewed focus.

    I would like to see more ecclesiology discussed so that just as some Evangelicals have developed a more robust view of Scripture, Evangelicals could also develop a more exciting view of traditions and the Church.

    Evangelicalism may have its roots in America, but it is certainly bigger than that now. I doubt McGrath, Miroslav Volf, or Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen — non-Americans who label themselves Evangelicals — would view their faith as tied up with the American establishment.

    I agree with McKnight that those three groups (Religious Right, Neo-Reformed, and Political Progressives) affect Evangelicalism in dangerous ways. These groups are trying to box in Evangelicalism as a tradition that does not span denominations. This move is not faithful to the broader ecumenism built into Evangelicalism.

  11. […] The recent Evangelical Manifesto is an interesting window into the problems that evangelicals face today and a worthwhile statement of the theological issues they need to address going into the future. If you are an evangelical, or have considered yourself an evangelical at some stage in your journey, you will probably find it to be an “edifying??? read. (Also, Wess at GatheringInLight has written a great review) […]