If you’ve been paying attention to this blog for a while, it will come as no surprise that I identify myself as an evangelical Christian. But it does surprise me a little… or at least it would have about six years ago, when I graduated from an old-fashioned liberal mainline Protestant seminary. Back then, I was pretty sure I wasn’t evangelical.
But I’m not bashing my seminary (the Candler School of Theology at Emory University). In reality, it was my seminary education that dropped little bread crumbs that eventually led me back to the evangelicalism in which I grew up.
My most formative seminary experience in this regard was my systematic theology class. My professor, a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel, emphasized apologetics as a necessary component of our theological task. In modernity (or post-modernity), we can’t simply profess belief without being able to justify that belief. No “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion” here, thank you—even among those of us who accept the authority of scripture.
To my surprise, as Dr. Lösel argued, two core Christian beliefs pass intellectual muster: The first is the bodily resurrection of Jesus—by which I mean that the resurrection was both physical (Jesus had a body that could eat and drink, touch and be touched), and more than physical as we understand it (Jesus could also disappear and reappear and walk through locked doors). His resurrected body was in continuity with the body he had before his death, but transformed.
The second core belief is the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. This is not to say that God isn’t revealed at all in other religions: how could he not be, given the pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s just that, given what God was up to in the plan of salvation that culminated in the cross and resurrection, it makes no sense to talk about multiple paths to God. If human beings are saved, they are saved through faith in Christ.
Obviously, belief in the historicity of the resurrection settles or at least diminishes the importance of many secondary questions—though you may notice that I enjoy arguing about many of these secondary questions on this blog. Nevertheless, if the resurrection of Christ really happened, then it becomes relatively easier to accept other traditional doctrines of the Church. And so I do.
Anyway, that’s a little bit of my journey… I’m pleased that Dr. Roger Olson has described the “hallmarks,” or emphases, of evangelicalism on his blog, which I happily accept. They are as follows:
1. Authority of scripture. He (or the other historians he cites) calls this biblicism, a “general regard for Scripture as the uniquely inspired, written Word of God.” These days, this may be enough in itself to separate evangelicals from many mainline Protestants, but he goes further to say: “It’s not just sola scriptura in a formal sense. It’s a very close, personal relationship with the Bible as God’s message to us, our means of knowing God in a personal, intimate way.”
In my opinion, this automatically excludes Roman Catholics from being evangelicals (despite some loud protests to the contrary) because of the Roman Catholic Church’s dual emphasis on the authority of both scripture and tradition. Catholics usually say it’s both/and equally—except when scripture comes into conflict with tradition, guess which authority always wins? How could it not, unless the authority of scripture were primary?
2. Conversion. “In contrast to sacramental spirituality, evangelicalism, as a spiritual ethos, believes that a right, reconciled, transforming relationship with God begins with a decision of repentance and faith.” Olson points out that evangelicals may disagree about how conversion happens. As a Wesleyan, I emphasize conversion as a process.
3. The cross as God’s objective means of dealing with sin:
Evangelicals cling to the cross of Jesus Christ in faith. We sing about it. We preach it. We celebrate it. We re-enact it. Evangelicals disagree about theories of the atonement, although by far the majority of self-identified evangelicals have historically affirmed something like satisfaction or penal substitution or the governmental theory—all objective views of the atonement as having an effect on God and not just on people.
I view multiple theories of atonement not as contradictory but complementary: the Bible has many pictures of how the cross reconciles us to God. But evangelicals say loudly that God did something objective through the cross to bring us to God. This is not to say that Abelard was all wrong when he gave us his “moral influence” theory—that God’s love, so powerfully demonstrated by the cross, softens our hearts to God and the gospel. But God better have also done something through the cross that doesn’t depend on my subjective response to it, or else I’m in serious trouble!
4. Evangelism and missions.
This fourth emphasis, on spreading the gospel, follows naturally from the first three. Where the first three are underemphasized or disregarded, as is often the case in mainline Protestantism, so is the fourth.
Olson adds a fifth emphasis that I, as a Wesleyan Christian, also strongly endorse:
5. Respect for the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.
The authority of this tradition is subordinate to the Bible but nonetheless important: We stand on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us when we read and interpret the Bible. One problem with recent “Young, Restless and Reformed” evangelicals is that they tend to subordinate the Bible to the tradition of 16th-century Reformers and the five-point Calvinists who followed in their wake. Where the Bible demonstrates that they, too, got it wrong, we should say so. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer would want us to, right?
Olson quotes N.T. Wright from his book Justification in this regard: “God has always more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word. …. [i]f the light comes, and can be shown to come, from the Word, from Scripture itself, there is no tradition so strong, venerable or previously fruitful that it should not be prepared to learn from it.”
So… Are you an evangelical?