We who are historically evangelical know what sound doctrine is. These are the theological points that define who we are. Some will state these points in terms of Reformation creeds coupled with the church fathers. The Solas, that is, plus the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. Others might look to something simpler, something easier for the average person to pick up on. The Anabaptists lean toward using the Beatitudes and the fundamentalists toward The Fundamentals. Both of these might be labeled a more “primitive” approach though both certainly remain roundly orthodox. Still, both would acknowledge the place of the Reformation teachings regarding faith and repentance.
For the most part, the broader evangelical camp does and has generally gotten along well. We play nice. Of course, there have been a few exceptions. But you would always find the most fundamental (probably the most self-isolating of the evangelical heritage) sharing in the ministry of Theodore Epp, an Anabaptist, or giving due heed to the defense of inerrancy by the late R. C. Sproul. We respect each others’ evangelists, from Whitfield to Wesley, to Moody & Spurgeon & Graham. We study each others’ theologies and practice each others’ apologetic approaches.
That’s who we are. We define ourselves. The distinctiveness of each sub-group doesn’t remove them from orthodoxy. Some of these raise questions but for the most part, those are intramural questions. Only a minority of them make any difference to what it means to be evangelical.
It’s not at all an idyllic relationship, not by any means. Still, we’re not out there suicide-murdering each other or sending in tanks to kill innocents. In this age where political theory is used to define everything, there are some, and it’s pretty much leftists, who define evangelicalism in political language.
What does the left really think about evangelicals? Why is their narrative so slanted? In a recent partisan, an even racist hit piece, Timothy Gloege provided evangelicals with a perspective on how the narrative machine of the left recreates us into their image. At the beginning of this piece is something disturbing to read from a historian:
As a historian of evangelicalism, I find it troubling that a group of media-savvy evangelicals is poised to dictate the terms of our national conversation. Insiders, not scholars, now determine who “counts” as an evangelical. But their proffered definition reflects a religious agenda rather than a careful analysis.
The first issue is this: Where’s the beef? Where is his link to this group of evangelicals? Got name? Got substance? If nothing else Gloege is setting up a masterful straw man. We don’t know or see the opponent. All we see is a complaint against the ever-elusive “they” that always goes unidentified. This is not scholarship. It may be persuasive but it is not scholarship.
In some circles, self-identification is celebrated. Perhaps that is the right of the self-described evangelical that Gloege writes off as troubling.
Mr. Gloege gets his history wrong. Completely wrong.
When the Scopes Monkey Trial made William Jennings Bryan a laughingstock, respectable evangelicals disclaimed leadership in the fundamentalist movement they helped create. It’s not us.
I am an evangelical. I also hold to the tenets of the fundamentalist movement but do not call myself a fundamentalist. Why? Because the fundamentalist movement found its origin in its reaction to the boom of theological liberalism in the early 20th century. It is a reactionary movement. There were evangelicals who did not join the movement. J. Gresham Machen did but Cornelius Van Til did not. Yet they were not divided theologically. Evangelicals in Mennonite circles were also not a part but are just as evangelistic and biblical in their approach as fundamentalists.
The movement was independent of broader evangelicalism though might be identified as a subset of it. Still, I wonder who that specific “leadership” was that he points to. After all, the fundamentalist movement began as a movement in the north-eastern US. The South and West were not originally part of it. In that light, it seems a stretch to put them all under one simplistic and obtuse banner of headship.
Mr. Gloege politicizes his definitions.
This is no surprise. Whether he’s addressing the Trump vote or something else it’s always politicized. As he employed David Bebbington’s definition of “evangelical” he addressed the second point of evangelical distinction, “Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible.”
“Biblicism” functions similarly. Imagine a political scientist defining Republicans as “those who take the Constitution seriously.” Who would accept this transparently partisan statement? And yet many people today accept that evangelicals are “biblical,” while everyone else…isn’t? This is how former megachurch pastor Rob Bell and popular author Rachel Held Evans ceased to be evangelical: not because they quit the Bible, but because they came up with “wrong,” (thus “unbiblical”) answers about hell and being gay. “Biblicism” is evangelical gerrymandering.
Biblicism is just another name for Sola Scriptura. That is, that the Bible is authoritative. Everyone teaching Christian theology (in an informed fashion, that is) knows what this means. This thing with a technical name — hermeneutics — is how we read the Bible. It’s a system and we read according to a system.
All of us read everything according to systems. If you’re a liberal-minded person you may give more weight to criticisms of President Trump simply because you bring that frame of reference to your understanding of those criticisms. Conservatives read news about President Obama in the same way. That’s just how the human mind works. We all do it at some level.
Theology is simply taking a frame of reference and filling in more of the missing points of connection between ideas that we read. It’s how the Bible makes the most sense to people.
When Rachel Held Evans went to Monkey Town she abandoned any sense of special creation and the doctrinal implications it holds. Of course, not all evangelicals are “6000-year-old young earth” (YEC) creationists. But all see special creation even withing good science. (That’s no surprise, except perhaps to the uninformed.) Rachel made her choice. She was not gerrymandered out of a club. She chose Reason over Revelation. She made her own explicit and considered choices.
To be brief, Mr. Gloege is lying through his teeth. He may be doing so intentionally or he may be uninformed. But in either sense, he is lying.
Mr. Gloege is manipulative with his language.
Throughout the piece, and in some he cites, is the persistent reference to “white evangelical” as though the category is something we use to define ourselves. It is, in his circles, allowable that people self-identify. Perhaps he will grant the evangelical Christian that opportunity.
There are many, many black evangelical churches. He could probably find a number of them if he were to look. Unfortunate there are not as many as there used to be, but that’s also somewhat true of white evangelical growth.
This political statistic (white evangelical), a very popular measuring stick for the past three or four decades, has become a moniker of sorts. The church where I fellowship is one that he would classify as such even though there is a strong non-white presence. From the make-up of most evangelical churches in my background, it’s a meaningless term with respect to any particular fellowship. The use of the language has been over-extended.
And over-use it he does. By altering his statistical language to become one of social description he is now free to brand white evangelicals as potentially racist. Not that that bothers him. It is the narrative of the left. Of course, there are racists within evangelical circles just as there are racists within leftist circles. Has he ever gone public with a question about Obama and the Democratic Party about anti-Semitism? Doubtful. But it is an argument with merit. And it is one what liberals/leftists would generally dismiss rather than confront. From personal experience. Nobody really likes to have their idols critiqued.
This sort of scholarship, like this, we don’t make fun of. That’s too easy and it accomplishes nothing. Several more pages could easily have been added to deal with the piece. The material is shallow and shoddy enough that few will take it seriously. But like the low-hanging fruit of the new atheists, it does require some basic confrontation.
All of us who are evangelical — pentecostal, fundamental, reformed, Anabaptist — we all share in something that lets us fellowship. Of course, we don’t agree on all of it. But we do share in Christ and common core truths.