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?