Fault Lines in Evangelical Theology
In his perceptive analysis of contemporary Western culture, Lesslie Newbigin points out the inescapable limitations of understanding something from the inside. “If you want a definition of water,” Newbigin remarks, quoting a Chinese proverb, “don’t ask a fish.” 1 This is a needed reminder within the notoriously amorphous movement of evangelicalism and its never-ending identity crisis. Whether the issue is ethical, theological, or ecclesiological, evangelicalism seems to have a very difficult time finding the resources for meaningful evaluation and critique.
Subterranean issues—theological “fault lines”—have been revealed as evangelicalism has engaged significant cultural shifts over the last several decades.
As part of a recent course at Bethany College, the present authors attempted to reflect on current issues in evangelical theology through an examination of two traditions that might enable this necessary evaluation and critique. 2 These traditions are the Anabaptist tradition and the British evangelical tradition. Both of these movements share significant theological convictions with much of contemporary North American evangelicalism, yet they have arrived at these convictions by way of different historical tracks. While it is impossible to offer a comprehensive summary of the historical development of these two traditions, it is hoped that a brief survey of some significant theological contributions from within them will prove fruitful within the current conversation about the role of the Mennonite Brethren within contemporary evangelicalism.
What emerged from engaging with these theological contributions was a strong sense that current evangelical theology rests on several “fault lines.” A geological fault line is a crack in the earth’s crust that gives evidence of relative movement. It is not necessarily a sign of disaster but rather an indication of stress or tension that is worth paying attention to. While the evangelical theological tent is broad and any generalization risks oversimplification, subterranean issues—theological “fault lines”—have been revealed as evangelicalism has engaged significant cultural shifts over the last several decades. The following discussion addresses four of these: evangelical identity, biblical authority, theological vision, and mission.
JOHN HOWARD YODER: ECCLESIOLOGY AS IDENTITY
A continuing challenge in the face of evangelicalism’s inherent diversity is the quest for a meaningful evangelical identity. The label, “evangelical,” generally functions in three, not always overlapping, senses: first, as a conceptual description of Christians who profess a core set of doctrinal beliefs (typically four or five); second, as a dynamic movement that reflects parallel denominational traditions that share a common heritage; and third, as an interdenominational fellowship or parachurch coalition. 3 Anabaptist historian, theologian, and ethicist, John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), suggests that the assumptions underlying these ways of defining evangelical unity will become increasingly untenable.
Yoder observes that the attempt to define evangelical identity in reaction to an adversary, such as either fundamentalism or liberalism, reflects a tactical alliance that remains superficial because it does not address the real differences that exist within evangelicalism itself. 4 In order to maintain a sense of unity, evangelicals typically identify a core set of “essentials” that must be held in common, and which are distinguishable from “nonessentials,” the varied beliefs and practices concerning which Christians may appropriately differ. Mennonites are welcome at the evangelical table because their traditional pacifist stance has been relegated to nonessential status.
This distinction between the essential and the nonessential, Yoder argues, is “actually deceptive and theologically questionable”; since if what is essential does not need to be contested or even examined and it is also used to defend almost any theological position, then the difference is in effect verbal rather than substantial. 5 Yoder, furthermore, wonders why it is only doctrinal beliefs that are labeled essential while issues of church order and ethics, often the very points of historical Christian division, are set aside as nonessentials. 6 If the differences among evangelicals are held to be true only for a particular group, then these “nonessentials” are really not worth the trouble of maintaining, let alone of separating denominations from one another. 7
Yoder’s challenge, in the face of the quagmire surrounding evangelical identity, is to shift the focus away from an abstract definition requiring only cognitive assent toward a functional characterization of what it means to be evangelical. You are an evangelical if you confess to be commissioned by the grace of God to proclaim the good news of the gospel. 8 Yoder recognizes that this evangelical commission must be centered in the confession of Jesus as Lord, which defines the gathered Christian community, the church. 9 Through its witness to the person of Jesus Christ, the church represents the embodiment of his continuing presence and activity in the world. Thus the evangelical task cannot be reduced to an individualistic undertaking but must emerge out of the call for the church to be the church before a watching world.
Yoder’s location of evangelical identity within an ecclesiological context provides a very profound challenge to current conceptions of evangelicalism in which the absence of the church is disturbingly evident. Two implications are worth highlighting. First, evangelicalism’s aspiration for visibility and power through its identification with the state as a means for achieving influence in North American society reflects the continuing Constantinian temptation. Yoder’s caution is that in the potential abandonment of the vision of the church as a visibly identifiable Christian fellowship that models a “new kind of human community,” evangelicalism no longer represents the church seeking to relate to the world. 10 The hope of the world, Yoder proposes, is not dependent upon the social order or the effectiveness of government but upon the faithfulness of the church as the incarnation of the gospel.
A second implication addresses the issue of evangelical unity and diversity. If evangelical identity is recast as ecclesiological in nature, then the question of how to establish and maintain relationships with those who confess Jesus as Lord is significant. When evangelicals encounter different or even contradictory claims regarding doctrine, church order, or ethics, they have an obligation to engage in ongoing mutual conversation with Scripture as the standard of appeal. 11 To do any less is to ignore “the promise of the Spirit to lead the Church ‘into all truth.’ ” 12
N. T. WRIGHT: RECASTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY
Evangelicals have always placed allegiance to the Bible near the center of the broad theological unity that ties them together. Yet while something like a consensus may exist around basic evangelical loyalty to Scripture, there is far less agreement about the precise role that the Bible ought to play in theological reflection and the life of the church. Postmodernity has challenged many of the rationalist assumptions that lie behind traditional evangelical conceptions of biblical authority and while there is growing sense that this challenge was necessary, there is some uncertainty about what will come next.
A powerful voice in the midst of this uncertainty has been New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright (1948- ). Widely known for his effort to understand both Jesus and Paul in terms of the Jewish worldview of the first century, Wright has also invested significant energy into the question of the evangelical understanding of biblical authority in the aftermath of the postmodern critique.
Wright argues that evangelicals have been guilty of coming to the Bible with a well-defined notion of what “authority” is and then conforming the Bible to that image. We would come to a very different conclusion, Wright argues, if we allowed the Bible as we have it to shape our ideas of what God’s authority looks like. “Authority is not the power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes . . . . Nor is the Bible, as the vehicle of God’s authority, meant to be information for the legalist . . . .” 13 These are the notions of authority that Wright sees as part of the evangelical heritage, notions that treat the Bible primarily as either rule or reference book. These are both based on definitions of authority that owe more to modern assumptions than to biblical or theological consistency.
Instead, Wright argues, we need to allow our definition of “authority” to be shaped according to how it is actually conceived and exercised in the biblical narrative. Here we find that God does not use his authority in order to organize the world according to his desires. Instead, with Scripture as our evidence, God seems to use his authority in less coercive ways. “God’s authority vested in Scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.” 14
It is here that Wright makes the explicit connection to the narrative content of Scripture. For Wright, the function of a narrative is quite simply an invitation to participate; a reminder that the story told in the Bible is our story, a story that offers us a different view of ourselves and our world. But how exactly can a narrative function as an authority in the life of the church? He likens narrative authority to a five-act play where the Bible provides the first four acts and the church lives in the middle of an as-yet unfinished fifth act. 15 The first four acts provide the characterization, plot, and forward movement that demand an appropriate conclusion in the fifth act, yet the “actors” have the freedom to work out for themselves exactly what that looks like. They are not bound to an endless repetition of the foundational narrative, but they are bound to perform the fifth act in ways that are consistent with and faithful to the first four.
If Wright is correct, the fallout from the postmodern critique of rationalism will provide evangelicalism with a fresh opportunity to remind itself of what it means to live under the authority of the biblical narrative in a way that is authentic to both the content and means by which God has chosen to reveal himself.
JAMES WM. MCCLENDON JR.: THEOLOGICAL VISION
The recognition that the story of God’s people portrayed in Scripture must be related to the present experience of the church is often undermined by evangelicalism’s preoccupation with propositional theology. This modern rationalistic approach contributes to the pervasive perception within evangelical churches that theology somehow is aloof if not even irrelevant to the pragmatic concerns of daily life. James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), who spent the last ten years of a long career teaching theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, suggests a way forward that holds promise for evangelicals attempting to integrate theology with life lived in a postmodern setting.
McClendon recognizes three historic expressions of what it means to be the church community—Catholic, Protestant, and baptist—which are incapable of absorbing each other. 16 While not identical with self-identified evangelicals, the small “b” baptist people, reflecting the Anabaptist tradition (without the pejorative “ana”), share a common heritage, a similar way of reading Scripture, and comparable communal practices. 17 McClendon proposes that a “baptist vision” can serve both as “the touchstone by which authentic baptist life is discovered and described, and also as the organizing principle around which a genuine baptist theology can take shape.” 18
The baptist vision is essentially a biblical reading strategy, represented by two hermeneutical motifs: “this is that” and “then is now.” 19 The church is only able to interpret its present experience appropriately when it sees itself in the narrative frame of the New Testament church and, at the same time, it looks forward to see itself standing before the Lord Jesus Christ at the end of time. 20 The baptist vision articulates the perceptual link that relates the biblical narrative to the ongoing story of the church’s journey of faith.
In so doing, the baptist vision also guides “the discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.” 21 This dynamic process is what McClendon defines as theology. The subject of theology is not abstract propositions detached from church life, but the convictions of the church community; that is, the shared persuasions and beliefs that guide its thought and shape its experience. 22 McClendon insists, “the content of Christian faith or for that matter any faith that must be lived out, not just thought out, is best expressed in the shared lives of its believers; without such lives, that faith is dead.” 23
McClendon characterizes Christian doctrine as the “church teaching as she must teach if she is to be the church here and now.” 24 Thus, doctrine in actual practice reflects what the church teaches not only by what it says, but also by what it is and by what it does. 25 McClendon identifies primary theology as the church’s engagement in Scripture reading, discernment, and teaching, while secondary theology signifies the theologian’s task of critically monitoring and examining the church’s teaching. 26 Theologians cannot do their work without presupposing and supporting the church’s self-involvement in the discovery and interpretation of its own convictions.
McClendon’s challenge for many evangelical churches within the baptist tradition is to rediscover the relevance of the guiding vision that has already shaped their faith journey. McClendon’s comprehensive and coherent outworking of the implications of the baptist vision disputes the common perception that Anabaptist theology can only offer a limited, perhaps even truncated, portrayal of the Christian faith.
At the same time, McClendon calls evangelicals to recognize the nature of the church’s convictions in the task of doing theology. Theology cannot be extracted from the life and practice of the church. His holistic depiction of doctrine implies that evangelical churches must develop a greater awareness of what they are actually teaching through their practices, attitudes, and values.
LESSLIE NEWBIGIN: EPISTEMOLOGY AS MISSION
The history of evangelicalism is, among other things, a history of epistemological crises. From the Reformation challenge to papal authority to the fundamentalist reaction to theological liberalism and scientific rationalism, evangelicalism has invested significant energy into the vexed question: How can we know? This epistemological anxiety has been heightened as evangelicalism has struggled to communicate the gospel within the maze of Western pluralism and postmodernity.
Few theologians have done more to address this struggle than the English missionary, ecumenical leader, and bishop, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998). Newbigin spent the bulk of his life, some thirty-five years, working as a missionary in India, but it was his “retirement,” to what seemed to him to be an entirely different England than he had left, which provoked the bulk of his writings. Newbigin’s enduring contribution to evangelical theology is the result of what he noticed upon his return.
As Newbigin examined the core assumptions and values of late twentieth-century Western culture, he came to the conclusion that the post-Enlightenment Western world had undergone a profound epistemological conversion that had never been properly understood by the church. At the heart of the modern (and now postmodern) epistemology was a deep-seated dichotomy, rooted in the Enlightenment confidence in autonomous reason, between “facts” and “values.” “Knowledge” came to refer to the world of empirically verifiable facts while “belief” came to denote an inferior sort of enterprise that worked with the metaphysical bits of life that remained.
For Newbigin the triumph of “fact” over “value” lay at the heart of contemporary Western culture. “The way the concept of ‘facts’ functions in our culture is . . . the centrepiece of the plausibility structure by which our culture seeks to sustain itself. It is, if you like, the center of the temple, the ultimate object of veneration.” 27
This epistemological shift drew a fundamental distinction between public truths that all are expected to believe and adhere to (facts) and private ideas whose worth is based purely on the consolation they provide (values), and, while postmodernism has rejected the cheery Enlightenment vision of progress, the dichotomy between knowledge and faith remains a persistent feature of the contemporary Western worldview. In this kind of an intellectual climate the Christian gospel is not explicitly rejected, it is simply filed under the category of “values” and evaluated, not in the language of truth and falsehood, but personal significance and meaning.
So how should the mission of the church be pursued in this kind of a world? Newbigin argues that the church has largely conceded the truth of this fact/value dichotomy and accepted the status of a broker of religious goods and services for interested individuals. The church has largely failed to address the more fundamental issue of the proper relationship between knowledge and belief, and it is this issue which is, for Newbigin, central to the missionary responsibility of the contemporary evangelical church.
Newbigin’s response is to reaffirm the role of faith in epistemology. All knowing, he argues, is faith-based; it is dependent upon assumptions that cannot be proven. Even the scientific worldview functions as a “plausibility structure” and requires adherents to inhabit and adhere to a narrative based on certain rock-bottom assumptions that function axiomatically. 28 Belief, then, is an essential prerequisite to all understanding, and this reality has been profoundly obscured by the fact/value dichotomy that falsely divides “belief” and “knowledge.”
So the heart of mission in the twenty-first century may be found in the unlikely field of epistemology. Our task, according to Newbigin, is not to prove the rationality of the gospel but to offer the gospel as the one true starting point, accepted by faith, which will help us to understand and interpret all of life in a more truthful way. “If the biblical story is true, the kind of certainty proper to a human being will be one that rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower. It will be a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust.” 29
Contemporary theologians within both the Anabaptist tradition (Yoder and McClendon) and the British evangelical tradition (Wright and Newbigin) offer valuable insights in the attempt to assess the current state of North American evangelicalism. Several fault lines within evangelical theology emerge as a result of their contributions.
One point of tension is whether an evangelical identity can be formed apart from the church, the body of Christ. Another stress line raises questions about how to understand the authority of Scripture within a postmodern world that has rejected modern rationalism. A third cause of strain is the struggle over how to integrate the church’s theological reflection with its present experience. Finally, the church’s call to engage in mission within a pluralistic world feels the pressure of epistemological uncertainty. Along each of these “fault lines” we see North American evangelicalism challenged to be more consistent and more faithful in its endeavor to follow Christ in a postmodern world.
Mennonite Brethren in Canada and the United States have not always been clear about their relationship with contemporary evangelicalism. 30 It often appears as if Mennonite Brethren are willing to concede their particular heritage and theological distinctiveness in favor of a generic evangelical identity. However, it is this generic evangelicalism which may be in need of reform. Mennonite Brethren would do well to mine the resources of their own Anabaptist tradition as well as those of evangelical traditions that could provide a fresh perspective on their North American context.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 21.
- The authors coteach the course “Issues in Evangelical Theology” at Bethany College. We wish to express deep appreciation to the 2006-07 class for their interest and engagement in theological reflection. In particular we wish to acknowledge those students who responded to an earlier draft of this paper: Tim Baerwald, Nick Boschman, Jeff Peters, and Ryan Smith.
- See George Marsden, “The Evangelical Denomination,” in Evangelicalism and Modern America, ed. George Marsden (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), vii-xix.
- John Howard Yoder, “A Critique of North American Evangelical Ethics,” Transformation 2 (1985): 31.
- John Howard Yoder, “The Contemporary Evangelical Revival and the Peace Churches,” Mission and the Peace Witness: The Gospel and Christian Discipleship, ed. Robert L. Ramseyer (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1979), 98.
- Ibid., 98-99.
- Yoder notes that the “ecumenical problem” creates a paradox for Christians: “if our brother can be a Christian without knowing and doing these things [which we hold as true], continuing to go his way, then so could we. Our beliefs are not true if they are not for the brother.” See John Howard Yoder, The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church, Focal Pamphlet no. 3 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1958), 18.
- John Howard Yoder, “ ‘But We Do See Jesus’: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 55. See also John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy 9, no. 3 (1992): 290-92.
- See John Howard Yoder, “Why Ecclesiology Is Social Ethics,” in The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 108-9; also idem, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992/2001).
- John Howard Yoder, “The Racial Revolution in Theological Perspective,” in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 114-15.
- Yoder, The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church, 36.
- See John Howard Yoder, “Is There Historical Development of Theological Thought?” in The Witness of the Holy Spirit: Proceedings of the Eighth Mennonite World Conference, ed. C. J. Dyck (Nappanee, IN: Evangel, 1968), 386-87. The biblical allusion is to John 16:13 (KJV).
- N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32; www.mhbcmi.org. Important works by Wright include Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996); Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006); The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God—Getting Beyond the Bible Wars (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); and Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
- Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” 9.
- Ibid., 10-11. Wright’s use of this metaphor for the relationship between the present church and the biblical narrative emphasizes both the freedom of the contemporary church to “innovate” in its appropriation of Scripture within the “fifth act” while maintaining the need for consistency with the plot of the story as established in the first four.
- James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 344.
- James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 19, 26. Even though McClendon acknowledges “there is no single, distinct body of people” called “baptists,” he does provide a list (on pp. 34-35) which includes “Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ, Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, Adventists, Russian Evangelicals, perhaps Quakers, certainly black Baptists (who often go by other names), the (Anderson, Indiana) Church of God, Southern and British and European and American Baptists, the Church of the Brethren, perhaps some Methodists, Assemblies of God, assorted intentional communities not organized as churches, missionary affiliates of all the above, and . . . hundreds of other bodies.”
- Ibid., 28.
- McClendon, Doctrine, 343. See also p. 408 where McClendon points to Peter’s appeal to the prophet Joel in Acts 2:16 as an example of the use of this interpretive strategy in the New Testament.
- Ibid., 343-344.
- McClendon, Ethics, 23 (emph. in the original).
- McClendon defines a conviction as “a persistent belief such that if X (a person or a community) has a conviction, it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.” See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, rev. ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994), 5.
- McClendon, Ethics, 110-11.
- McClendon, Doctrine, 28. The conclusion of McClendon’s three-volume work (with Nancey Murphy) is Witness: Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000).
- Ibid., 34. See also McClendon’s Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1974).
- Ibid., 33.
- Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 17.
- Newbigin repeatedly points to the rationality and contingency (causal relationships) of the universe as significant examples of these kinds of assumptions.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 28. Other important works by Newbigin include The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989); A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994); and The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
- For example, see Walter Unger, “Evangelicalism: ‘Growth Without Depth’: Do Mennonites Really Belong?” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 15 December 2006, 12-14.