Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Evangelical Moment

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Evangelical Moment

Article excerpt

In the many worlds of evangelical Protestantism today there is enormous vitality-including theological vitality. That makes possible substantive conversations, such as the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). Nobody has contributed more to that conversation than Dr. Timothy George, a Baptist who is dean of Beeson Divinity School and who will also deliver our annual Erasmus Lecture in October. In the June/July issue we published "The Pattern of Christian Truth," in which George argues that, despite evangelicalism's emphasis on the authority of the Bible, evangelicals "too often construe its authority as a kind of divine reference book, a sort of inspired manual, that can be understood quite apart from the Christian heritage of Bible-based theology and wisdom across the centuries." There is, he says, a propensity for reading the Bible apart from, and sometimes against, the history of Christian orthodoxy, which results in novelties that are, in the precise sense of the word "heretical," when we remember that the Greek haeresis means "choice."

In my last years as a Lutheran I published a book titled The Catholic Moment. Turnabout is fair play and Kenneth J. Collins, a professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, has now brought out The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion (Baker, 288 pp.). It is in many ways a useful book, especially in its description of the various forms of evangelical Protestantism: historical evangelicalism, reformational evangelicalism, Puritan and pietistic evangelicalism, awakening evangelicalism, revivalistic evangelicalism, charismatic evangelicalism, and fundamentalist/neoevangelicalism.

Members of these many groups and their subgroups may dispute Collins' depiction of their "distinctives," but all would likely agree with his claim, shared by almost all who write on this subject, that evangelicals are marked by four characteristics: commitment to the authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ, the necessity of personal conversion, and the imperative to evangelize others. A problem, of course, is that a quarter to a third of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and oldline Protestants in America also answer to those characteristics. The result is that Collins never quite gets beyond the widespread perception that an evangelical is a Christian who is negatively defined as being not Catholic, not Eastern Orthodox, and not a liberal Protestant.

In recent decades, evangelicalism has been further torn by heated disputes over the "inerrancy" of the Bible, meaning that the Scriptures, at least in their original texts, are literally true in all matters they address, including chronology, biology, and geography. Collins suggests that the "battle for the Bible" is now over, with 40 percent of the members of the Evangelical Theological Society having abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy.

One may wonder how this progressive reading would sit with the millions of members of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention. Collins also endorses the view that evangelicalism is moving beyond the foundationalist theology of the past and into what is commonly described as a postmodernist understanding of truth. He quotes the very prolific and influential British evangelical, Alister McGrath: "The time has come for evangelicalism to purge itself of the remaining foundational influences of the Enlightenment, not simply because the Enlightenment is over, but because of the danger of allowing ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel to exercise a decisive influence on that gospel.... We have been liberated from the rationalist demand to set out 'logical' and 'rational' grounds for our beliefs. Belief systems possess their own integrities, which may not be evaluated by others as if there were some privileged position from which all may be judged."

Collins has very decided views also on evangelicalism and feminism, to which he devotes a long chapter. …

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