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Christopher Benson


Generic Evangelicalism

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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:

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