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Christopher Benson


Generic Evangelicalism

In Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism , John G. Stackhouse, Jr., professor of theology and culture at Regent College, argues for the position of generic evangelicalism, which he unabashedly calls "the most authentically evangelical of the four positions represented in this book." Stackhouse reminds me of the mischievous speaker in Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," questioning Keith T. Bauder (fundamentalism) and R. Albert Mohler (confessional evangelicalism), who say "Good fences make good neighbors," while challenging Roger E. Olson (postconservative evangelicalism), who sees little need for fences. Generic evangelicalism, as Stackhouse defines it, recognizes that some doctrinal fences serve the vital purpose of demarcating orthodox territory from heretical, and therefore demand routine maintenance. Other fences, however, needlessly promote strife between evangelicals and their Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox neighbors. Stackhouse calls for a friendly but responsible neighborliness, which cautiously inquires like the speaker in the poem: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense."

The wall of generic evangelicalism permits "gaps even two can pass abreast," as Frost puts it. Therein "communion is made fruitful by the exchange of gifts between the churches insofar as they complement each other," according to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Following George Marsden's cue, Stackhouse names those gaps transdenominationalism—the fifth characteristic he adds to David Bebbington's well-known quadrilateral. Here is Stackhouse's summary of generic evangelicalism:

  1. Crucicentric. Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ's salvific work on the cross.
  2. Biblicist. Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God's Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.
  3. Conversionist. Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must trust Jesus as Savior and follow him as Lord; and (2) everyone must cooperate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.
  4. Missional. Evangelicals actively cooperate with God in his mission of redeeming the world and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel and making of disciples.
  5. Transdenominational. Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the kingdom of God.

To Stackhouse's credit, he makes an important point about the word "evangelical," contrasting ethos versus movement: the evangelical ethos has ecumenical application, as long as the person or church adheres to the above criteria (as a set), whereas the evangelical movement is restricted to Protestant heirs and proponents of the 18th century Anglo-American revivals.

Two caveats are in order: one is grammatical, and the other is historical. First, I propose that the distinction between ethos and movement will be clearly upheld if we observe that the former denotes a peculiar way of being Christian and warrants a lowercase spelling ("evangelical"), whereas the latter denotes a variegated subculture within global Christianity and warrants an uppercase spelling ("Evangelical"). Alas, my editor insists that we must maintain the house style here. For now, let me suggest a helpful analogue: the word "catholic." Different spellings alter its meaning: lowercase "catholic" means universal, as evoked in the Nicene Creed ("I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church"), whereas uppercase "Catholic" refers to the historic Roman Church. A person may adopt the ethos without belonging to the movement. The rub concerns whether a Catholic or Orthodox person can genuinely affirm biblicism (or sola scriptura) when Tradition, putatively, assumes an equivalent role of authority to Scripture.

Second, I fault Stackhouse's historical description of the movement because it mistakenly argues that evangelicalism (or "Evangelicalism," as I would frame it) is normatively revivalist when, in fact, it is also normatively Reformational, deriving from the magisterial Protestant heritage of the 16th century. Authentic evangelicalism hinges on a contest between the Pietist paradigm, with its accent on experience (orthopathy), and the Puritan paradigm, with its accent on beliefs (orthodoxy); both paradigms are concerned with practices (orthopraxy).

Keeping these caveats in mind, I embrace Stackhouse's definition of generic evangelicalism—as far as it goes. The definition is specific enough to rule out anyone who does not affirm the Bible as their "supreme written guide for life," which disqualifies quite a few Christians who follow other formal principles (sola ratio, sola experientia, or sola traditio), but capacious enough to include a diversity of acceptable, though not necessarily correct, viewpoints within evangelicalism. If we imagine evangelical Christianity as an amalgam of the Republican and Democratic parties, we get a sense of the spirited disagreement within its ranks on such issues as theology (Calvinism/Arminianism), origins of life (creation/evolution), Christian cooperation (ecumenism/separatism), eschatology (millennialism/nonmillennialism), evangelism (exclusivism/inclusivism), gender roles (complementarianism/egalitarianism), homosexuality, Scripture (inerrancy/infallibility), and theism (open theism/classic theism). Unlike Bauder and Mohler, who have made any number of the above issues a litmus test of evangelical orthodoxy, Stackhouse exhibits a refreshing tolerance for disagreement because he recognizes a common starting-point. We might say generic evangelicalism tries to find, in the words of Rowan Williams, "a language in which to disagree rather than speaking two incompatible or mutually exclusive tongues." Revision on one question does not entail "wholesale doctrinal or ethical relativism."

At the request of the editors, all the contributors to the book were asked to weigh in on three hot-button issues. Stackhouse greets evangelical cooperation with Catholics favorably, even though he doubts whether the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement accomplished much doctrinal clarification, especially on the thorny questions of justification, faith, and works, and decries the Manhattan Declaration as "empty windiness" compared to humanitarian and educational projects that "manifestly get things done." He gives open theists a fair hearing: "They are just wrong evangelicals. They have mistaken beliefs, in my view, about the nature of God and a number of related matters. So their views deserve respectful and vigorous engagement, in hopes that error will be reduced, truth will predominate, and everyone involved will be edified thereby." Finally, he declares, not without some contradiction, that while "substitutionary atonement is a nonnegotiable part of the Christian understanding of salvation", one can diminish or deny the theory and still be an evangelical.

Wall-builders perceive the gaps of generic evangelicalism as vulnerable to all sorts of heresy. An impregnable wall, they imagine, keeps theology safe from trespassers in the night. They claim there is no such category of "wrong evangelicals but genuine evangelicals," as Stackhouse allows. Wrong evangelicals are not evangelicals, period. If such persons are found in their midst, they are thrown over the wall—doomed to wander the labyrinthine forest of error. I regard this besieged mentality as depressing because it shows a carnal impatience to eagerly "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) and dangerous because it turns "non-essential" issues into "essential" issues, thereby perverting the freedom of Christ into pharisaical religion. I was raised in a denomination—Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)—that adheres to Richard Baxter's wise maxim, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, freedom; in all things, love." An authoritarian policing of the wall results in lovelessness, not neighborliness. Imagine how a Latino heard the words of Republican primary candidate Herman Cain, who rallied xenophobic voters by his proposal to build an "electrified barbed wire" fence with a moat full of alligators that would kill Mexicans illegally crossing the U. S. border. Imagine how a theistic evolutionist hears the words of Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler, who repeatedly drives a wedge among Christen brethren on the subject of evolution, over which he says the integrity of the gospel is at stake. Neither messenger demonstrates neighbor-love; they betray a fear of "the other" and insecurity about the guarded property.

I applaud Stackhouse for permitting "gaps even two can pass abreast." In contrast to the wall-builders he reveals a steady confidence that Jesus Christ is the founder and builder of the church. If "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt. 16:18), then we should not worry that ecclesial blessing of same-sex unions or "prosperity" teaching will weaken the church—however egregious. Christ fortifies its walls. Yes, those gaps in the wall risk the possibility of heresy, so we must actively protect orthodoxy from heretical incursions. But too often, in keeping a close watch on the teaching, we forgot to keep a close watch on ourselves, as Paul instructs his understudy (1 Tim. 4:16). Self-vigilance is an awareness of our sophisticated capacity to deceive ourselves about what is sacred and profane, right and wrong, godly and diabolical. Opportunities for neighborliness are created when the electrified fences are neutralized and eventually dismantled through charity—in utrisque caritas. Here is an evangelicalism that I can get behind:

May I exhort my fellow evangelicals to be careful not to wall ourselves into a compound of fretful or, worse, chauvinistic conservatism such that we cannot learn anything from our neighbors—and even from our own theologians who have been cowed into mere correctness for fear of being tossed over said wall …. So let's be wary of building any walls that are too thick to alter, let alone move.

The transdenominational character of evangelicalism, Stackhouse rightly claims, equips it to "tolerate peripheral challenges and even benefit from dealing with external influences so long as the core remains sound." Assuming the hortatory voice once again, he says: "Let's be sure to recognize the creative possibilities that exist on the edges as we encounter the rest of the world. Here are new stimuli and new resources by which God can give us yet new gifts."

Pervasive interpretative pluralism, sociologist Christian Smith has recently pointed out, must be accepted as an intractable reality of evangelical life because we are interpretative creatures all the way down. The Bible, it bears repeating, is inerrant—not our interpretations of it. Mulish pride lies behind the hermeneutic absolutism exercised by some institutional gatekeepers (organizations, ministries, schools, publishers) who hold the power to issue or revoke what Stackhouse calls "an evangelical membership card." Much of evangelical handwringing, he frankly admits, does not concern a jeopardized gospel, kingdom of God, or church: "No, it is institutional evangelicalism over which we contend." In the absence of a magisterium, some evangelicals try to occupy a papal office, dictating who is "in" and who is "out." The best way to deal with evangelical disagreement is not to prematurely shut down the conversation or to banish sheep from the flock but to accept the dialectical tension between faithfulness and creativity, as Stackhouse mentions: "… evangelicalism will continue to be a vibrant and effective part of Christ's church precisely as it is neither bellicosely conservative nor blithely innovative, but faithful in both senses: to be loyal and to be effective." Evangelical leaders who cannot live with that tension exasperate me. They mask the lust for power with the good intentions of saving biblical religion from its internal enemies. Consequently, rancorous disunity has become a hallmark of the movement. We need more breathing room.

Earlier I said I embrace Stackhouse's criteria of generic evangelicalism "as far as it goes." I qualified my praise because, however much the definition contains an inner logic, I am still restless with "evangelical" (uppercase, in my reading) as a descriptor of my own religious identity. That restlessness owes to what I perceive as the cultural captivity and politicization of the movement during my lifetime. Add to this "the anointed" authority structure, pointless heresy hunting, institutional weakness, ad hoc liturgy, anti-intellectualism, middlebrow aesthetics, and flaccid theology ("moralistic, therapeutic deism")—and you will begin to understand the winter of my discontent. (There are exceptions to the above generalizations, but apologists often make too much of those exceptions.) Some of my evangelical contemporaries have found vernal promise in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I investigated both traditions and could not be at home there for theological reasons.

So, where shall a person like myself go? The answer, I believe, is toward post-evangelicalism—not to be confused with ex-evangelicalism or anti-evangelicalism. A post-evangelical can retain the ethos (lowercase) while leaving behind the movement (uppercase). C. S. Lewis famously exhorted such a move. Using a decidedly Protestant metaphor for Christianity, he compared the religion to a house: "mere Christianity," which might as well be evangelical Christianity due to its ecumenical reach, is the hall—"a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in"—while the confessional traditions are rooms off the hall. Post-evangelicalism is a return to confessional Protestantism—or what Robert Webber calls "ancient-future faith." For too long I have tarried in the hall, reluctant to enter a room where "there are fires and chairs and meals." Lewis distinguished between waiting in the hall, which God uses for our own good, and camping, which is a refusal to commit because of pride, taste, or prejudice.

A species of pride may account for my reluctance to knock on the door—pride that expects perfection where none can be found this side of heaven. If the true church is "a congregation of faithful men [and women], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance" (Article 19 of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion), then I have not found that church in a single room because, in my estimation, the Reformed room succeeds in its ministry of the Word and its correlate of theology, whereas the Anglican room succeeds in its ministry of the Sacraments and its correlate of liturgy. Lewis furnishes sound advice to hallway-campers like myself: continue to pray for the light and ask: "Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?" At bottom, my restlessness with evangelicalism is sensible because a protest movement should never be "put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions." Lewis goes so far as to say "the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable" to living in the hall. Generic evangelicalism is just too damn generic for deep discipleship. Whatever my ecclesial future holds, this much is certain: "evangelical" will only be the adjective to the noun of "Christian."

Christopher Benson is a writer in Denver, Colorado. He earned degrees from Wheaton College, Missouri School of Journalism, and St. John's College. His work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, The Christian Century, First Things, Christian Scholar's Review, and Image. He blogs at Bensonian .

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