Monday, November 13, 2023

Evangelical Supremacists?

Ian Paul has posted on the question "What is an 'inclusive evangelical'?" 

When I first looked at the post a few days ago, there were 136 comments. Tonight as I write there are 289.

Behind the question is the now quite complex story of where the Church of England is going, or not going, in respect of blessings (or not blessings, because "only" prayers) for same-sex partnerships, as their bishops (who meet in two differently formulated groups) make a move or three, and their General Synod will, or will not make a decision according to this, or may be that canon, or may be not because the bishops have the power to do ... something which is not completely clear yet. Within that complex story, 600 Inclusive Evangelicals wrote a letter, provoked, it seems, by the Church of England Evangelical Council speaking out ... for evangelicals (some, most, all, not the inclusives ...???).

OK. I am having a bit of fun here but, seriously, it is a complex story and clearly many English Anglicans are frustrated whether because change is not happening fast enough and what change is in the air is insufficient or because any change is being mooted - the matter at hand being an unchangeable doctrine.

With respect to the latter frustration, Lee Gatiss, Church Society, is uncompromising re error, errants being disciplined and ++Justin resigning as he reports on a recent meeting of conservatives with the ABC. (For a contrasting meeting, progressives with the ABC, held on the same day see Colin Coward's report here).

Well, let's not discuss, again, That Topic, but a few thoughts about evangelicalism may be in order. (Please discuss Ian's own thoughts at his site.)

One (I think many evangelicals would agree) is that "evangelical" or "evangelicalism" is tricky to define in a widely agreeable manner. From that perspective an extra adjective such as "inclusive" (or "conservative" or "open" etc) may be useful.

In some Anglican conversations I think we could be forgiven for thinking that "evangelical" means "I don't wish to be identified as anglo-catholic, nor as liberal/progressive on certain issues, though I might be liberal/progressive on how I view adaptations to the agreed liturgies of the church, and the songs I really like are never sung at diocesan occasions because some aspects of their theology are vigorously disputed."

In other conversations, of course, "evangelical" ticks more positive boxes: for the Bible being read, studied and preached; for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; for the enduring value of the insights of Luther and Calvin, expressed Anglicanly in the 39A and the BCP and represented in modern Anglican liturgies where such liturgies clearly stand with the BCP and not differentiated from it.

One thought (picking up from Ian's post, but expressed in my own words) is that evangelicals' sharpest edge in distinction from other Anglican groupings is a commitment to "the supremacy of Scripture." 

I have subscribed to this kind of proposition through much of my life (e.g. as part of the doctrinal basis of the Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship here in NZ). But I think it problematic without some extra words around.

In favour of it is that when many things compete for our attention as Christians - fads and fashions, local traditions and the global Tradition of the Christian faith, theologians and their theologies, interpreters and their interpretations, we must test everything through reading and studying Scripture. Scripture is supreme as the written Word of God before which and by which ideas and thoughts, theories and proposals must be tested. No other book - not a prayer book, not a compendium of Barth/Calvin/Piper/etc, not a catechism - has that supremacy.

But there is a shortfall in the conception of "the supremacy of Scripture": Scripture alone cannot determine which part of Scripture is more important than another part, nor how to understand one part when another part appears to be in contradiction of it, nor what we are to do when Scripture (at least as previously understood) is contradicted by new understandings of the world (the classic example being our understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 in the light of understandings of the creation of the world and of life within it which are not the same as what we thought Genesis 1 and 2 were telling us).

The supremacy of Scripture is a limited supremacy (we might say). Scripture can both settle debates in the church and it can be the catalyst of debates. Luther invoked Scripture as supreme over the errors he detected in medieval Catholicism. But Luther+Scripture couldn't settle debates that a new freedom to engage with Scripture engendered (e.g. debates over the meaning of the eucharist).

One of my questions (from within my experience of evangelicalism) is whether evangelicals have really been honest with ourselves about the limitations of the concept of "the supremacy of Scripture"? Haven't we always found we needed - like Catholics! - a magisterium, a teacher or set of teachers whose interpretations of Scripture settled debates for us? Back in a certain day, many of us (especially evangelical Anglicans/Anglican evangelicals) looked to John Stott; or may be to John Stott, Michael Green, Dick Lucas and various contemporaries of theirs who wrote IVP commentaries and other books published by IVP. Scripture was supreme for us but if a tricky question came up, we looked up an IVP book, starting with those authored by John Stott!

Is it time to find another phrase than "the supremacy of Scripture" as part of accurate description of one evangelical distinctive?


Dr. Bruce Atkinson said...

When we cannot see the forest for the trees, we need to back up and see the big picture. When we cannot see the trees for the forest, we need get down into it with our magnifying glasses. But so much of what I am hearing here (and there) regarding this examination of evangelicalism, that is, the inclusive vs. exclusive question… reminds me only of monkeys throwing fruit at each other in the jungle.

We need to examine in more depth both the inclusivity and the exclusivity of the gospel itself. This I did… all the way back in 2014. But not many were listening. Let me invite our listeners today:

Anonymous said...

Whither evangelicalism? A quartet of voices from Christianity Today and Outreach explored the question in the Lanier Theological Library a few nights ago--

At points, this panel contrasted the evangelicalism of a *centered circle* known by its innermost life with that of a *bounded circle* known by contrast with the society around it. That metaphor illumines the tensions about which Ian writes.

David Runcorn’s evangelicalism means to be “inclusive” in that its participants define their circle by the Center that loves them, not by firm opinions about the length of its reach or about who is within or outside its circumference. Leaning to the experiential side of evangelicalism, David has long been skeptical of faith with a rationalistic core that requires continual defense at the periphery. In past correspondence, he has shown a retreatmaster’s dexterity in the devotional reading of the scriptures.

Ian Paul objects to the contrast. That is, he sees fog at the center where sentries do not watch gates and guards do not patrol walls. Like many evangelicals (cf Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason) Ian leans to a rationalism less explicitly concerned with personal spirituality than with personal apologetics in the face of a hostile world. That project needs and enforces a theory of the scriptures as a map of the parapets and the gates.

This polarity is perennial, at least in England and America. Reading David and Ian, one could be reading the “spiritual brethren” and “intellectual fathers” in Janice Knight’s fine study of C 17 Puritans, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts. Can either tendency recognize the other's use of the scriptures?


Here, Canadian evangelical Carey Nieuwhof interviews Russell Moore on the links among the culture’s drift from faith, dissension in today’s churches, how bad actors co-opt good churches, and much more --


Anonymous said...

Bowman, do you lock your home at night? Do you have Ring or some other CCTV on your front door?
If yes, why? Don't you trust people 'out there'? Do you really think there are burglars and potential home invaders? Why do you bother with 'parapets and gates'?
Similarly, why do you think Our Lord warned against "sheep in wolves' clothing" and "false prophets"? Was He being alarmist?
Why did He talk about "the narrow way that leads to life" and "the broad way (Broadway! Ha!) that leads to death"?
What could that possibly mean except an uncharitable desire to control and exclude the range of acceptable religious opinions?
Why did St Paul tell St Timothy to "guard the deposit of faith"? Why did he want a 'continual defense of the periphery', as you put it?
Because he was a control freak? Or a realistic apostle of Christ?

And why contrast "rationalism" with "personal spirituality"? What is "rationalism" for a Christian other than trying to think correctly in the light of Christian revelation? "Personal spirituality", if the expression has any worthwhile meaning, simply means the subjective sense of a believer living his life before God (in an 'I-Thou" dialogue), and it is only worthwhile to the extent that it is based on objective truth and personal honesty. There are plenty of recent cases of "personal spirituality" trumping objective Christian teaching - Ravi Zacharias, Jean Vanier, Anglican Bishop Peter Ball of Gloucester, Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland, charismatic youth leader Mike Pilavachi - the list is long and dreary and usually to do with sex.

In other words, "personal spirituality" is just as capable of being self-deluded as any of the beliefs we have, or even more so, when it is a cloak for our own desires. None of us, except some exceptionally rare mystic (and I have never known one in my life), has a direct and unmistakable experience of God speaking directly to one's soul. All religious truth is mediated to us in this earthly life (the Beatific Vision still lies ahead of us), and this is where the divine gifts of reason (= 'thinking correctly'), Scripture and God's appointed teachers play their vital role.
The alternative is to fall into a swamp of subjectivity, when faith becomes little more than psychology, and prayer is just talking to oneself, as Sheldon Cooper would say.
And one should not be disparaging of "apologetics" either. If the Christian faith is true, that is first of all because of certain things that happened in Judea and Galilee 2000 years ago. 'If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain.' That means these assertions have first of all to be investigated as claims of history. Reason, in other words.
St Thomas Aquinas understood all these things in his Summa Theologiae: reason, Scripture and Natural Law all stand together in a beautiful symphony of truth, with Scripture supplementing what natural reason cannot attain by itself.

Pax et bonum
William Greenhalgh

Peter Carrell said...

Hi William
Sure, all those possibilities for things going terribly wrong exist at any point in time, and terrible wrongs have actually occurred. But possibilities also exist for things to go well as a “rational” approach is informed by a [my preference for terminology] a “pastoral” approach.

Maybe we could also talk about “law” being informed by “grace.” (And, of course, “grace” being informed by “law.”)

Are not the Matthean Exception and Pauline Exception re marriage/divorce/remarriage examples from within the Scriptures of Jesus’ own words (likely best captured in Mark/Luke) being reformulated to offer a way forward for people ejected from a marriage through no fault of their own? Cue, through the centuries, pathways taken by RCC, EO and Protestant churches to offer further way forwards (often challenged by those on the “rational” side of this sensitive matter).

Anonymous said...

Hello, Peter -actually it is quite 'rational' to consider whether a person who entered marriage with their fingers crossed behind their back properly understood or really intended the vows they were about to make. I know the annulment system sometimes has a bad rap ('divorce for rich Catholic Americans who can afford lawyers') and sometimes deservedly so, while the theological-sacramental reasoning that gave the adulterous Boris Johnson a Catholic wedding the third time round perplexed and scandalised not a few people.
Some people are indeed abandoned, deserted or ejected from their marriage, or are the victims of infidelity and cruelty, and pastoral faithfulness should recognise this fact.
But the Church has always been in an impossible situation in the world: damned if she does, damned if she don't.
Did you know that that famous a la carte Catholic, President Joe Biden, is married to a divorced woman whose husband is still alive, and Biden started dating her while she was still married?

The cricket was a terrible shame, too. Is there any good news in the world right now?

Pax et bonum
William Greenhalgh

Anonymous said...

"...evangelicals' sharpest edge in distinction from other Anglican groupings is a commitment to "the supremacy of Scripture…"

A national church in the love of the Son should pray that “edges in distinction” will soften to “overlaps in understanding.” Peter Ochs and David Ford got Jews and Muslims as well as Christians to study diverse sacred texts together. Surely all kinds of members of the Church of England can read the same canon together in the Son.

"...evangelicals... Scripture."

Other Anglicans either speak after Richard Hooker of the self-evident *primacy of scripture* or just point to Article VI as the Church of England's clearest definition on the matter. These seem to be sufficient.

"Is it time to find another phrase than 'the supremacy of Scripture' as part of accurate description of one evangelical distinctive?"

Yes. It is not the book that is supreme in the church but the Son. Mere “groupings” should not speak of their “supremacy” with respect to the *lectio divina* of other Christians. Finally, the old Reformed phrase buries the lede: traditional evangelicals hear the canon as divine speech testifying to them personally about the divine Son saving their souls. If a tag is needed, ‘The testimony of Scripture’ is more true to centuries of evangelical experience.


Anonymous said...

“shortfall in the conception”

Taken as a historical given, Evangelicalism can be admired as a devotional practice within Protestantism, just as one might admire Franciscan piety in Catholicism or Hesychasm in Orthodoxy. But the magisteria of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox address problems of dogmatics etc that do not arise and cannot be solved in their respective pietist movements.

With respect to the scriptures, the “shortfall in the conception” is that the practice of Evangelical “gospel people” (Michael A Bird) occupies a cosmos somewhat smaller than say Romans viii. Therefore when problems arise from the greater whole of the canon-- often problems of ecclesiology or sacramentology-- they necessarily turn to some more comprehensive tradition like the Lutheran or Reformed for answers that comport with the fullness of revelation.

Along the lower Mississippi River, say, Southern Baptists know from their Reformed ancestors that Evangelicalism means grape-juice memorial communion four times a year. But their Missouri Synod neighbors know from their own Lutheran forebears that Evangelicalism means the Real Presence every Sunday. The Southern ethos of bible-centered laicism and scriptural moralism is common to both, but they connect to different branches of the great tradition. Or they lose their way.

Some Anglicans speak as though Evangelical devotion can bear and is bearing the whole weight of magisterial Protestant tradition. But for all its many amiable qualities, it is too small to be doing that. Rather like those Southern Baptists, it is often solving its problems by appeal to Reformed motifs like “The Supremacy of Scripture.” Then other Anglicans who are firmly post-Reformed find Evangelicals annoying and vaguely disloyal to the whole project of a national church.

If we value Evangelicalism in Anglicanism-- and I do-- then we should not place more weight on its mere “grouping” than it can reasonably be expected to bear. It can be a respected practice; it should not be a partisan *ecclesiola in ecclesia*. And rather than letting a partiality for the Reformed strain the bonds of koinonia, we should resume the traditional *via media* between Wittenberg and Geneva that is, after all, our tradition.


Anonymous said...

"If we value Evangelicalism in Anglicanism-- and I do-- then we should not place more weight on its mere “grouping” than it can reasonably be expected to bear. It can be a respected practice; it should not be a partisan *ecclesiola in ecclesia*. And rather than letting a partiality for the Reformed strain the bonds of koinonia, we should resume the traditional *via media* between Wittenberg and Geneva that is, after all, our tradition."

Bowman, you are still talking as if it were the 1970s. You are not paying attention to what is happening under your nose. US and Canadian Episcopalianism is DYING. Parishes are disappearing, dioceses are merging, children and converts are not replacing the dying. In most of the US and Canada Anglicanism will be like the tiny sects of Swedenborgianism or Shakerism in 15 years.
Are you aware of the latest attendance figures and age profile of TEC?
And now most of global Anglicanism has rejected Canterbury's assumed colonial leadership. So all these detailed historical taxonomies won't deal with the future.
And to be honest, I've never met an evangelical who understands or cares much about 'sacramentology' - unless it is a convert who thinks he or she should be re-baptised as an adult.

Pax et bonum
William Greenhalgh

MsLiz said...

In my evangelical past the term was authority of scripture

My search results for the phrase turned up an article in CT by Russell Moore titled The Authority of Scripture Is Not the Problem [April 19, 2023]

"The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as one who startled the crowds because he was teaching “as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22). This is the sort of authority that, yes, could dispel unclean spirits and calm storms, but it was also an authority that spoke to human hearts, saying, Come and see and Come follow me." ~Russell Moore

I thought this a beautiful insight! and consistent with +Peter's.. Maybe we could also talk about “law” being informed by “grace.”

Peter Carrell said...

Hi William
You and I continue to read Bowman differently!
I read him as probing the contours of definition and meaning of evangelical/evangelicalism (through the centuries, across forms of Christianity today) - helpfully, illuminatingly, and (for my own thinking, at least) fruitfully.
You seem to read him as ignoring something he is not talking about (the state of TEC etc).

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Commenters
For unknown reasons a couple of comments above (the first two made) were published, then lost, and now, I hope, published-and-remaining-so!

MsLiz said...

Thanks +Peter! Now I've seen the panel discussion BW referred to..
--Nicole Martin near the end (soon after 1hr16m), if I may share:

"...and is your love of God going to allow you to be what some sociologists call the centered set and not the bounded one.

Centered set means I can believe what I believe and know what I know and I can still associate with people who don't believe or know what I know.. because I know who I am.

A bounded set says if you don't believe what we believe, if you don't know what we know, then you're out.. and I think that's where we are today but we can shift.. we can shift because we serve Christ at the center who invites us and others in a way that is really transformative for our world today"

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Liz

Evangelicals, at least in the US, were once plausibly seen as a sensible middle between Fundamentalists, who kept the faith but avoided the world, and Mainliners, who fidgeted with the faith because they could not extricate themselves from the worldliness.

The refounders of C20 Evangelicalism here rightly saw faithlessness in both directions, but sought to combine the best of both on a middle ground defined, not by the Fundamentalist lifestyle, nor by the tangle of creeds and confessions dividing the Mainline, but rather by a minimal agreement that the Bible tells the truth.

When that works, you get Fundamentalist certitude with Mainline engagement --Wheaton College, Christianity Today, Intervarsity, and Billy Graham. Alas, when it fails you get trolling and sedition with Fundamentalist hostility to the world and Mainline captivity to worldly politics.

Anonymous said...

Whether circles or sets, Nicole Martin's metaphor explains the difference.

Where having faith is internalized as simply defending a boundary, it is as ungrounded in Christ as the worst of the Mainline (eg when the WCC was sympathetic to revolutionary violence in the '60s). Either way, worldlings do not know who Christians are apart from some relationship to non-believers, and their slope to warlordism and nihilism is slippery indeed.

But when Evangelicals experience faith as grounding in a Center, their independent identity in the Lord is a base from which they can "plant a demonstration plot for the Kingdom" without losing their minds in godless hate and violence. They have and we all see, not only faith, but hope and love.

Anonymous said...

Several voices from as many corners have offered astute and charitable criticisms of the C20 dream of founding collaboration in the Lord's vineyard solely on *the Bible tells truth*. In his OP, + Peter offers two most common ones: the Bible is neither self-interpreting nor self-implementing. Evangelicals have shown that the canon can tug some ecclesiological freight, but not all of it.

But why should that be necessary? Benedict XVI was not the first to note that canon, creed, and episcopate arrived together in a single breath of the Spirit. Not so many years ago in Otago, Robert W Jenson offered an irenic Protestant account of their braided authority.

Nowadays Evangelical scholars are more keen on creeds than they once were. Eerdman's, Zondervan, and IVP all sell worthwhile books on theological exegesis that uses them. But bishops?

A very modest proposal: two centuries after Wesley, his "figures of unity" in a "connexional polity" are the proximate model for consideration. Fist-shaking at Rome is an evasion of facts on the ground worldwide, not an argument.

More broadly, Evangelicals need an ecclesiology. Perhaps that needs roots in the free church traditions. But it seems that they can only be watered by something somewhat like the ecumenism that many Evangelicals avoided in the C20.


MsLiz said...

"Mainline captivity to worldly politics."

Might you please clarify this, BW? Too many things crowding my mind! Christians on the left and right engage in politics, there's also extreme Dominionist / Christian Nationalist types, and also Black Church and politics.. perhaps having some similarity with +Peter's Tanzania (thinking of the close relationship between community and church). And while I know nothing much about it, I get the feeling church synods are surprisingly (to me) political.. with energetic canvassing and attendant 'political' pressure! So what's in your mind when you say Mainline captivity to worldly politics.

Anonymous said...


Liz, what Sir Humphrey Appleby famously said of British newspapers is broadly true of American denominations as well. The classic study of that was H. Richard Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), but it was also explored in several witticisms passed along in the small town South of the 1960s.

Today I'm remembering an old Methodist man who opined then that he could see the visible unity of the Body of Christ at the grocery store: the Baptists unload the trucks and stock the shelves, the Methodists run the departments, the Presbyterians in the office order the products and pay the bills, and the Episcopalians come at closing time to collect the money. But others told jokes that were more risque.

At one point, the analogy fails: the Rt Hon Peter Hacker PC found that nearly all of his newspapers were talking about the same things, but this is only occasionally true of denominations. There was a year when the burning issue at the General Convention of TEC was the location of the American embassy to Israel. The matter is not unimportant, but churches that did not have a constituency of senior diplomats did not see it as a religious problem. Likewise, those hardworking Southern Baptists were then agitated that their young men were growing their hair too long in plain defiance of the inerrant word of St Paul, but denominations more indulgent of youth saw that as an inconsequential fashion trend. One could say that denominational magic turns class prejudices into religious verities for the credulous.

When people speak of "captivity"-- an old religious bestseller was entitled The Suburban Captivity of the Churches-- it is not this mild hocus pocus relativism that concerns them most. It is rather the difficulty of getting a church to do anything for a merely theological reason if no interest of its social class is at stake. That inertia always frustrates the pure in heart who will just one thing (Kierkegaard), but more occasionally it inhibits response to a competing religion or a grave social crisis.

The late Clayton Christensen framed this as *the innovator's dilemma*. Organizations normally thrive by catering to best customers who love their brand and will will pay more for added features. But this renders an enterprise vulnerable to competition from an upstart that takes away its voters, donors, or customers with some new offering that changes what the great majority of people want. If you are a CEO leading an organization with such a competitor, then you face the innovator's dilemma: do you keep your best customers and lose everyone else or do you risk alienating your friends by changing their beloved brand to compete for an adequate share of the market?

All organizations occasionally face this dilemma, but denominations find it particularly hard. In the 1960s and again today, churches humming along on their several class solidarities have suddenly faced publics, different in different places, that want something very different.


MsLiz said...

Ah! I see.. brilliant clarification! Many thanks, BW.

Anonymous said...

The brilliance is all from Appleby & Hacker.

Wishing you blessed holidays and a happy new year!


MsLiz said...

In case I'm not going to hear from you again before then.. blessed holidays and a very happy new year to you too, Bowman! Thank you!