Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What's wrong with evangelical theology?

I read this article by Peter Leithart this morning. I liked this particular paragraph:
Evangelicals entered the mainstream of American life during the late 1970s and "almost immediately" lost their ability to define themselves theologically. Modernity's separation of public and private has limited evangelicals' beliefs "to matters of private experience, increasingly shorn of their distinctive worldview, and increasingly withdrawn from what was external and public." Ultimately, "being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives color to the private aspects of daily life but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary." The theological wheel has turned again in the same circle: "Evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of 'life.'"

Wells find this surprising, given the fact that evangelicals have always defined themselves as a "doctrinal people." On reflection, the real surprise is that it has not happened sooner, for his criticisms cut more deeply than Wells seems to realize. Evangelicalism is, after all, often defined as a branch of Christianity that gives particular emphasis to certain aspects of Christian experience: spiritual rebirth, conversion, and a personal relationship to Christ. Spend a little time among evangelicals, and you are sure to learn about people who believe all the right doctrine but are not "real"-which is to say, born-again- Christians. Long before neo-evangelicalism, long before the rise of the Christian right, long before the "Toronto blessing," revivalism gave American Protestantism its distinctive experiential shape, as wave after wave of anti-intellectual New School, New Light, and New Whatever movements were accepted and, paradoxically, accorded theological legitimation.

Wells notes that evangelicals are drawing "increasingly injurious" conclusions from the appropriate emphasis on a believer's personal relationship with Christ: "They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience." Not only in the use of testimonies but in hymnody as well, evangelicalism is "changing direction to reflect this experience-centered focus." To anyone who has sung nineteenth-century revival hymns with their sentimental lyrics set to syrupy melodies, however, it is scarcely credible that these represent recent developments.


Ring true? False? What do you make of his conclusions?

14 comments:

Ampersand said...

Wow, that is interesting. Not true at all of the evangelical circles that I was in. They were increasing in doctrinal emphasis while I was there and have since, become uber-doctrinal. By that, I mean they seriously study doctrine and apply it to their lives.

Carrie said...

I like Leithart...I named my computer after him. ;-)

Would you see the shift from biblical doctrine to experienced-based faith as a good, bad, or an indifferent change?

I think perhaps both things are going on. What Leithart and Wells are describing is certainly going on.. all over the place. But what Amperpersand is describing is also happening. There are movements from all parts of evangelicalism to a sort of stricter and stricter interpretation of doctine and practice. Hense the continual splintering of the church into more and more distinctive denominations. We certainly experienced that in the ultra-reformed church we went to for several years.

Perhaps the watering down of the biblical distinctives is what is happening in a larger sense, but the backlash from watered-down experiencial faith is certainly still happening. (Although, I really don't hear about it as much in homeschooling circles as I used to. The "Mary Pride" bunch has been diluted for sure, even though theya re still there.)

Carrie

carrie said...

I went and read the whole article! All i can say is I like his thinking. This is a great quote:
From the cultural-linguistic perspective, rites are as important as doctrines in defining a community. Rites, Lindbeck emphasizes, are not mere external decorations but the means through which the interpretive pattern of the religion is exhibited, transmitted, and interiorized. In this perspective the narrative and ritual patterns of Christianity do not merely express prior religious experience but give shape to experience and even form the conditions of the possibility of Christian experience.

This rings true for me, and the idea has spurred much of my own journey.

I enjoy First Things magazine. And I like that their contibuters represent more than one "faith tradition" within Christianity.

Carrie

Ampersand said...

Carrie, I think you are right that both are happening...and that the uber-doctrinal folks are reacting to the "watering-down of biblical distinctives." That is exactly what is happening in my ex-church.

I think that may be part of a larger phenomenom of wanting to be set apart from not only the world, but also mainstream christianity. To be more serious, more dedicated, etc.

but the backlash from watered-down experiencial faith is certainly still happening.

Can you say more about what you mean by backlash?

Dave said...

Julie, did you see my response to Matt's "Pascal wager" post on the email list? In it, I raised some of the same issues that you and this excerpt brought up:

"I think the survey that finds most Christians practice "Golden Rule" religion is on to something here. The Christians who say that faith in God and adherence to key theological doctrines are the most important thing in Christianity say that because that's what they've been taught is most important (istm.) I don't see how doctrines can assume such a place of pre-eminent concern in the minds of people unless they've
been on the receiving end of some serious pressure to think that way.

While few evangelical/Protestant Christians would come out and say
"good works are the way to get into heaven" (because that kind of
thinking is taboo) it makes sense to me that in our daily life, such
priorities would be emphasized and they also offer us the most
significant sense of comfort, of doing the right thing and making the kind of difference that pleases God. There's something hollow and unnatural about putting "accurate ideas" ahead of "concrete actions" as spiritual disciplines. We intuitively know that, even though many of us as Christians have been taught to distrust or even consciously
repudiate that intuition.

That might explain some of the disconnect that's going on in the
church between teaching leadership and people who are struggling to
accept or agree with what they are hearing."

Dave said...

Thinking a bit more about this...

Evangelical theology is constrained a bit by its need to serve as a tool for proselytizing. This influence creates a competitive tone into the mix - their theology has to be "the best" if its going to push back the challenges of other ways of believing. In a society where ideas and principles are highly esteemed, the struggle takes place on an intellectual battleground. If experience, results or appearances are top priorities, the theology will shift to address those concerns.

Since our society is characterized by fads, gimmicks, sales pitches, trends, the latest big things, competitive aggression, etc. it only follows that theology aimed at appealing to people like us will take on similar qualities. Like our popular entertainment, it's fun and feels good and satisfying for awhile, but in retrospect, it seems campy, trite, dated and a bit embarrassing to think that we got caught up in all that.

Wells has a problem though too, in that assurance of faith based on "objective truthfulness" is not nearly as satisfying or sustaining for many people as it apparently is for him.

Who is Wells anyway? Obviously not the hefty carousing pitcher who got famous pitching for the Yankees years ago and most recently took the hill in a Padres uniform...!

Carrie said...

Ampersand..

Can you say more about what you mean by backlash?

Just what you were saying.. the backlash results in getting more and more doctrinally "pure" so that you aren't tainted by the world. It can take the form of more legalistic or more narrowly defined beliefs. It can take the form of isolationism. (Like separating yourself from the world.. wearing only certian types of clothes, headcoverings, homeschooling, no TV, no internet...etc. Not to say everyone who does these things is reactionary, but some are.) the "backlash" of the "experiencial" faith is to tighten up those doctrines so that everything is (hopefully) clear. The upshot can be loss a of mystery as well as rigidity and judgementalism. God in a box.

I have been, and still am, a conservative believer. I still see the Bible as God's inerrant Word (as it was first written). The changes I've made involve how much I can be sure of. ;-) I am more reluctant to limit God to my set of beliefs these days. Not that I don't have my boundaries. But I try to live true to what God has revealed to me, and give others the grace to do so as well. I'm not always successful because my beliefs do bump up against the beliefs of others at times, and that continues to be a problem I don't know how to solve.

Carrie

Carrie said...

I did it again! I'm sorry Ampersand.. It sould be- the backlash in reaction to experiencial faith...
Is that clearer? Carrie

Ampersand said...

Thanks, Carrie, for the expansion of the idea.

I thought I was getting you, but wanted to make sure.

But I try to live true to what God has revealed to me, and give others the grace to do so as well. I'm not always successful because my beliefs do bump up against the beliefs of others at times, and that continues to be a problem I don't know how to solve.

It is a conundrum to live one's own beliefs with sureity but allow for for some level of respect and understanding of others. I don't know how to solve that problem either, other than to use a lense of what meaning the beliefs hold for the individual, rather than rightness. Even that is not always enough to reach understanding.

julieunplugged said...

Would you see the shift from biblical doctrine to experienced-based faith as a good, bad, or an indifferent change?

Good question! I can see how the shift had to do with making what felt like dead orthodoxy become vibrant again. I find the shift away from experience back to "sound doctrine" as one of those inevitable course corrections. Seems a hard balance - keeping doctrine central while encouraging an experiential faith. Leithart addresses this further on in the article when he zeroes in on the cultural-linguistic aspect of ritual.

For me, I think what has become increasingly strange about my former attachment to evangelical culture is that in its zeal to promote experiential faith, they adopted theology that was often unsound (as in, based more on an ad hoc study of the bible than any appreciation for the history of doctrine).

On the flip side, I can't quite reconcile the ritualistic side of faith with the kid of Gospel I see in the message of Jesus. That confuses me no end! It's something I'd like to write more about and hope to.

julieunplugged said...

Dave, I remember this comment on pomoxian. I especially liked this:

There's something hollow and unnatural about putting "accurate ideas" ahead of "concrete actions" as spiritual disciplines.

That's true. I think the emphasis on "demonstrating fruit" is an attempt to ensure that the heavy emphasis on experience is backed up by lives that match the theology of morality if nothing else.

Wells has a problem though too, in that assurance of faith based on "objective truthfulness" is not nearly as satisfying or sustaining for many people as it apparently is for him.

LOL! You know, I think once you get past the first blush of salvation, the way on is to delve more deeply into what this "truth" constitutes. That's why there is such emphasis on Bible studies, accountability, devotional times, exegetical sermons and the like.

But to join up for that? I think that is not what leads people in. I agree with that.

What I find more interesting today is what people do when the truth they thought they were certain of becomes an uncomfortable fit. Leithart seems to say that the rituals provide a kind of cohesion that doesn't get mired in either experience cut free from doctrine or lifeless doctrine.

Carrie, you said this fits you a bit at this point. Is this close to what you're talking about? A way of connecting doctrine to experience that creates a community and culture that adds value and meaning to your faith?

Julie

Bilbo said...

Dave asked who was Wells?....I suspect the author was referring to David Wells who was a well known prof at Gordon-Conwell who wrote a number of academic leaning books back in the late 80's and early nineties on what Evangelicals believed, their theology, and relationship to the modern world. He was never a "well known" author but he was considered a heavy weight Evangelical scholar back in the eighties.....

Kansas Bob said...

I like what Michael Lee says about Evangelicaism at Addison Road:

First, let’s clear some brush. Evangelical is not a political movement, it’s not a formula for church growth, and it’s not a hairstyle. It’s not a publishing slogan, a conference circuit, a musical genre, or a brand of SUV.

I am (still) an Evangelical, even though I have to parry and dodge assumptions whenever I use that term. I am (still) an Evangelical, because of the great hope to which the movement aspired at it’s founding. I am (still) an Evangelical, because, at it’s root, Evangelicalism is an ecumenical movement: an attempt to erect a large tent in the ground between the cultural withdrawal of fundamentalism, and the withering incredulity of theological liberalism.

Carrie said...

Carrie, you said this fits you a bit at this point. Is this close to what you're talking about? A way of connecting doctrine to experience that creates a community and culture that adds value and meaning to your faith?

I think that's close. There remains a tension, one I can't resolve yet, between the importance of doctrine and the vast amount we simply don't know about God and how He works. Ritual, for me, represents the mystery of how God works. It validates two things: that God has the power and the will to work personally in the lives of people and that experience is important. People are sensing, experiencial beings. Rites and rituals allow for that part of us to be validated. When I go up and am blessed by the priest while others take the eucharist, I feel blessed. He touches my forehead, makes the sign of the cross on it and asks for God's blessing. Is this the only way God can bless me? Of course not, God blesses me daily in more ways than I know. But this moment provides a physical connection to God in that moment. It connects my beliefs (God is personal and desires to bless His people) with my experience (right now God is using the priest's touch to bless me).

Make sense?
Carrie