Christopher Benson

Generic Evangelicalism

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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."

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