The Evangelical Identity - Part 1

Some things that I have read over the last few days have led me to begin what will be a two- or three-part series on the issue of what comprises evangelicalism.

Twenty years ago I wrote this paragraph for our church’s 50th anniversary:

Because of a commitment to the Bible as the inspired and unerring Word of God, 99 believers made the decision in 1936 to withdraw from the [denomination name], and establish an independent Bible-preaching congregation in Roslyn.

There is no paper trail from 1936 that will permit me to navigate through the issues that led the pastor and 98 other Christian people to leave their church property (this amounted to most of the congregation) and begin meeting in the local fire hall. But from all that I have read and heard, the issues that led to this split were not unlike what was happening in other places in our country during the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy” of those early decades.

This controversy is reflected in the doctrinal statement that was adopted by our congregation in its infancy. There are actually two of them. There is a general statement of belief that was apparently standard fare for most Christian churches. But then there is a second in which the points mentioned in the first are clarified. The reason for the inclusion of a set of clarifying statements was due to the fact that while some were using similar terms they did not represent the same ideas that orthodox, historic, biblical Christianity meant when believers used them. Thus terms like “the inspiration of the Bible” came to mean that the Bible contained inspired material, or even that the Bible was inspirational.

Through the intervening decades, especially the 40’s through the 60’s and maybe into the 1970’s, evangelicalism had a clear identity. With few exceptions, an evangelical was identified by certain non-negotiable beliefs.

At my ordination in 1977, I was asked to provide a statement of faith, defend it, and then was questioned regarding different matters of theology. Because evangelicals largely had consensus on most doctrinal points, those who examined me, in addition to being sure that I could articulate evangelical doctrine, questioned me on my doctrinal distinctives. Recognizing that there were differences of opinion among Christians in some areas, they wanted to know my views on eschatology, baptism, election, and church government. The two “hot” issues of the day were the charismatic movement that had burst on the scene (and at that time was minimizing doctrine, embracing anyone who had a so-called “experience” of the Holy Spirit, and shattering congregations) and the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. Harold Lindsell had written The Battle for the Bible and John Warwick Montgomery had edited God’s Inerrant Word. Both books sought to articulate a high view of Scripture. While the issue over inerrancy was significant, there were few other areas – if any – over which evangelicals could not have consensus.

Fast forward to the early 1990’s. Due to a problem in our Christian School, I had been asked to add the role of school administrator to my associate pastor duties. I had served in that role for a number of years when I was invited to participate in an ordination examination for a brother from another congregation. Because of the hours that filling two staff positions involved, I had not been able to attend an ordination council, nor had I been able to maintain an active awareness of what was happening theologically within evangelicalism. As I sat with the other examiners, I was stunned to listen to questions that showed that within almost every traditionally accepted area of theology, some professing evangelicals had begun to “question” what had long been held by professing Christians. I wish I had made a list at the time of new viewpoints and variants (some obviously more significant than others).


Malcolm said...

Hi Peter,

I look forward to your continuing discussion of this issue, as I too am interested in what evangelicalism was, is, and wants to be into the future.

Perhaps you are looking to address this in the following parts. But I, in desiring to interact on the topic, am curious how you would define evangelicalism. I am looking more for a baseline of what you think are the core doctrines, beliefs, etc that define evangelicalism.

I will play my hand a bit. I think, outside of what I preceive as the theological pandering evangelicalism seems to be doing to be accepted by people, the biggest disappointment within the movement, is that a culture of retreat has been the "thus far" end result.

Thus far, instead of actively engaging (translation - being in the world, and not of it to borrow a phrase) we have created a shadow culture that is merely Christianized so as to not upset evangelical particularities.

Thus far, instead of seeking to facilitate true heart change within a person, we have adopted the worlds technique to say that if we merely legislate morality we will have done our job in making this a better world. Without changed hearts, changed laws are fairly meaningless.

Thus far, we are more and more marginalizing ourselves because of the things that we will fight for within our society. granted there was a time when during the Christmas holiday, saying Merry Christmas was considered a polite and normal greeting. This is not the case today. But, I think in a mere effort to capture the good old days, we have made ourselves to be fools by arguing vehemently over someone saying Happy Holidays, and yet cowering when real meaningful issues come to the fore - like homosexuality. When we need to confront that, and confront we must, our credibility is lost because we haven't had the forethought to remember that world hated Jesus and will hate us too. Some things are simply not worth the battle, while others are not worth retreating on.

I am hijaking this post, and for that I apologize.

Again, I look forward to being able to read more of your thoughts on this.

Rev PNo said...

Its either join them or be ostracize! I choose not to join but rather to take my watered-down first century beating like a man! Things have changed but we must stay faithful no matter what the crowd says! Love the post, be blessed!

Peter Bogert said...

Thanks to both of you!