On Being Uncertain, on theological issues

In a comment on a recent post here Robert Kan asked me,

How certain are you that a particular teaching in scripture is not relevant for us today because “times” have changed?

I think I surprised Robert with my reply, because he made no further comment on that post:

… The answer is: not at all certain. Christians come to different conclusions on many of these matters, and I don’t think one is objectively right and the others objectively wrong.

In practice each of us finds our own footholds on the slippery slope. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if we use it as an excuse to break Christian unity or start condemning others for choosing different footholds. Paul outlines the principles of the strong and the weak, and I think they may well apply here.

A clarification here: as the broader context shows, I am not denying objective truth in matters of fact, but rejecting only the objective status of positions on issues of ethics and morality.

In a further comment on the same post, Iconoclast helps me to unpack further Paul’s teaching on the strong and the weak, and how it applies in this case.

Austin and Allison FischerProbably independently, Austin Fischer has written a guest post at Roger Olson’s blog Certainty Not, in which he criticises the theological pretension (not “pretention” – Fischer mixes up the two spellings) of “young, restless and Reformed” neo-Calvinists:

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention, especially theological pretension, feeds on certainty. We become pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we could be wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.

Indeed. Sometimes it is good to be confident that we are right, especially concerning central matters of the Christian faith. But even here we need to avoid the kind of pretentious certainty which only repels others and divides the church. Probably more often we need to recognise that our own conclusions are provisional, based on our own limited understanding of the issues and of the relevant Bible passages.

And that implies that we should treat Christians who differ from us on these issues not as enemies to be defeated or as apostates to be shunned, but as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Concerning our attitude to them the world should be able to say, in the words quoted by Tertullian in the 3rd century (see also John 13:35),

See how they love one another.

Beyond Evangelical streams: a historical perspective

Frank ViolaTwo days ago I asked Am I one of Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicals? This was based on Frank’s description of four major streams in today’s evangelicalism: Systematizers, Activists, Emoters, and Beyond Evangelicals.

Since then I have given some more thought to this subject, and I have come to realise that there is nothing much new here. In fact, these four streams can be traced back at least a century. So here is my historical perspective on this. I must admit that I am more familiar with some of this history as it has happened here in the UK, but I hope that my insights are also applicable in North America, the prime focus of Frank’s work.

19th century evangelicalism was, I tend to think, relatively uniform. Certainly there were issues within it, but not ones which are of great concern today. But by the early 20th century this monolith started to crack. One major cause of this was the growth of liberal theology within many formerly evangelical denominations and ministries. Liberalism was not new at this time, but this was when it grew rapidly.

In reaction to this many evangelicals became obsessed with preserving sound doctrine and separation from the “world”, and so was born the movement known as Fundamentalism.

Meanwhile on the fringes of the evangelical church another new phenomenon was growing: Pentecostalism. At this period it was not accepted within existing denominations, and so specifically Pentecostal denominations were set up.

Through all this a main stream of Evangelicalism persisted, avoiding Liberalism and rejecting Pentecostalism, but also refusing to follow Fundementalism into the ghetto.

These four streams persisted right through the 20th century. Traditional Liberalism and Fundamentalism both had their day and then started to decline, but their basic perspectives live on. In the second half of the century Pentecostalism began to be accepted in some traditional denominational churches, and so the Charismatic Movement arose. And mainstream Evangelicalism survived, and in some places thrived.

So how do these older four streams relate to the four streams which Frank sees today?

Frank’s Systematizers are basically neo-Fundamentalists. Michael Clawson has today posted at Roger Olson’s blog an excellent essay Neo-Fundamentalism, so I won’t attempt to repeat this material. Michael shows clearly how the people he studies have the same kind of agenda as the original Fundamentalists.

It would be too simple to say that Frank’s Activists are Liberals – especially as this would be read by some as a pejorative comment. Activists are not necessarily people who have abandoned biblical authority in the way typical of liberal theology. But they have left behind some traditional evangelical interpretations of the Bible, and have put more focus on other passages, perhaps on the teaching of Jesus more than of Paul. They would recognise that the Tea Party Jesus is not the real Jesus.

Clearly, Franks’ Emoters are the Charismatics, and the Pentecostals who have now often become indistinguishable from them.

So what is Frank’s Beyond Evangelical stream? And what happened to the original fourth stream, the main evangelical stream? Clearly many things have changed and continue to change within this mainstream. No doubt some of the younger generation have left it for the other streams. Perhaps the main channel is drying up. But it seems to me that Frank is trying to revitalise this mainstream, and claim its leadership for himself, by dropping outdated and unhelpful practices and by giving it a new name: Beyond Evangelical.

Very likely this strategy of Frank’s will meet with some real success, by attracting those disillusioned with the other streams as well as by bringing the best out of those who have remained within the mainstream – and hopefully also by bringing in new believers, as it continues one of mainstream evangelicalism’s defining practices, active evangelism. But Frank should not suggest that his streams are something new which he has identified for the first time. What is new is the name, and perhaps the strategy which goes with it. On that basis I wish it well.

Am I one of Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicals?

Frank ViolaFrank Viola may have broken some kind of record by starting his series Beyond Evangelical with part I on 5th May last year and continuing it only today, more than eight months later, with Beyond Evangelical: Part II. But it was well worth the long wait to read more of what Frank has to say on this important subject.

Frank’s basic point in Part II is that there are “four major streams within evangelicalism”, especially among “Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s”. These are:

  • “Systematizers” – largely Calvinists, including the “young, restless and Reformed”;
  • “Activists” – more politically left leaning evangelicals, some in the “Emerging Church”;
  • “Emoters” – charismatics;
  • “Beyond Evangelicals” – the group for which Frank is a spokesman.

Frank sees his “Beyond Evangelicals” as a “fourth stream [which] flies under the radar of establishment Christianity because it is not part of it.” But this stream, he claims, is large and growing, as people come out of the other streams and join it. Their defining characteristic:

“Beyond Evangelicals” are in pursuit of a Person above and beyond ideas (stream 1), activities (stream 2), or feelings (stream 3).

This could, I suppose, look a bit like a “motherhood and apple pie” definition, something which every Christian group would claim. But I think Frank has identified a real fourth stream here. As for how significant it is, perhaps only time will tell.

Where do I stand in all this? Well, I am not in my 20s, 30s or 40s, and not North American which is presumably Frank’s focus here. So it is not surprising that I don’t fit clearly into any one of the streams. As a young Christian I was a Systematizer, but have definitely left that behind. In some ways I am closest to the Emoter stream, but not entirely at home there. I also have a lot of sympathy with the Activist stream, and politically I fit in best there.

So should I identify myself now as a Beyond Evangelical? I would fit well with most of Frank’s description of this stream, but not with “tend to be apolitical, believing that the local ekklesia (body of Christ) is the new polis.” Also I don’t want to reject the charismatic movement, while being aware of its imperfections.

One thing I am sure of, that I want to read more of Frank’s series, which will I hope continue rather more quickly.

Kierkegaard: an Evangelical born before his time

Søren KierkegaardRoger Olson has just completed an interesting series Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? – part 1, part 2, part 3. In fact by the final part of the series he has dropped the question mark and changed the title to “Kierkegaard as evangelical”.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Søren Kierkegaard has certainly been a controversial figure among evangelical Christians. As Olson notes in his part 2, influential evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer and John MacArthur have denounced Kierkegaard as “a pernicious influence” and “Adrift on a sea of subjectivity” – apparently on the basis of very limited acquaintance with his works.

Olson, who has studied Kierkegaard’s works in detail, gives a very different picture. He presents a Christian thinker whose views, while provocative, fit within the bounds of modern evangelicalism – although more Arminian (like Olson) than Calvinist. Here is part of what Olson writes in part 3:

My own reading of K. has led me to believe he was what I consider an evangelical–a person of passionate faith in Jesus Christ–even if not a typical one by contemporary North American standards.  …

What made K. an evangelical?  His absolute determination to find and live authentically according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now, for those who define “evangelical” in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, K. never (to the best of my knowledge) denied any tenet of orthodox Christianity.  He did try to show that they are beyond comprehension and are paradoxes–as a sign of God’s transcendence and humans’ sinfulness.  He perhaps over reacted to the dead orthodoxy and rationalistic religious philosophies (especially Hegel’s) of his day.  But that doesn’t make him non-evangelical in my opinion. …

K. was not an irrationalist about Christianity.  True, like Tertullian, he sometimes referred to what Christians believe (e.g., the incarnation) as absurd, but he MEANT by secular standards of rationality. …

K. wrote much about the church and most of it was negative.  That was not because he disdained church but because the only church he knew (in his context) was the Danish Lutheran (state) Church. … But the point is that K. did NOT reject church in favor of a totally atomistic understanding of Christianity.  What he rejected was Christendom–the church as synthesized with society such that belonging to the society made one a Christian and vice versa.

It seems to me that in many ways Kierkegaard, as presented by Olson, was a very modern, or even postmodern, Christian. He took the Bible as authoritative, but was wary of the traditional teachings of the church. Perhaps he should have been born in the late 20th century instead of the early 19th. If he had been, he might have got on well with Rob Bell. But then perhaps today’s Christianity would not have been the same thing if Kierkegaard had not been one of the first to challenge the over-intellectual tradition in theology which is still so strong among “Reformed” Evangelicals.

I can’t help thinking that Kurt Willems might consider Kierkegaard to be an evangelical reject. He has certainly been rejected as evangelical by people like Schaeffer and MacArthur. But, for the same reasons that I wrote in response to Willems I’m an Evangelical – don’t let them steal the name, I agree with Olson that we should accept Kierkegaard, posthumously, as a brother Evangelical.

Meanwhile I still don’t know if the story Flying like wild ducks which I posted here last year is genuinely by Kierkegaard. If anyone reading this can enlighten me about that, please comment on that post.

Real Evangelicals are not anti-gay extremists

Are Evangelicals unthinking extremists, filled with hate for homosexuals and others they don’t approve of, as often portrayed by the popular press? Roy Clements argues that real Evangelicals in fact “occupy the middle ground”.

Roy ClementsIn my post last week Do Evangelicals have to condemn gay sex? I linked to an article by Roy Clements What is an Evangelical? This was written in 2005, and so after he resigned as a pastor and a council member of the Evangelical Alliance and “came out” as gay.

It is hard to find a picture of Clements, despite his once high profile. The one I give here appears at a couple of websites, and appears to be dated 2002, but I cannot confirm that this is the right man. Note that I refrain from calling him “Dr” because his Ph.D. in Chemical Physics gives him no special authority relevant to this post.

Clements writes, without clarifying who apart from himself he means by “we”:

We have always regarded ourselves most emphatically as “evangelicals”, and our theological position has not changed in anyway. But we have been denounced as “liberals” because we do not accept the purported “evangelical view” on the gay issue.

There seems to be a determined attempt, at least by some within the evangelical camp, so to embed a particular view of homosexuality within the evangelical identity that there is no room left for dissenters like us. Indeed, the very existence of “gay evangelicals” has been conspicuously ignored in the entire debate. It seems, therefore, an appropriate moment to ask: “What is an evangelical?“. …

In much of the press coverage of the current debate, evangelicals have been portrayed as blinkered and intolerant extremists; and it must be admitted that the recent moralising pontifications of some self-appointed evangelical spokespersons have tended to encourage such a negative image. However, I want to suggest that, when they are true to their tradition, evangelicals are not extremists at all. On the contrary, they occupy the middle ground on these two key axes of Christian debate. It is only those who are currently trying to hijack the evangelical wing of the church and turn it into an anti-gay bandwagon who are extremists. And it is doubtful whether they deserve to be regarded as true evangelicals at all.

Clements goes on to explain how Evangelical identity ought rather to be determined by their stance on “these two key axes”. The first of them is “reason and the Bible”:

Evangelicals are, of course, first and foremost “Bible people”. … However, it is nonsense to suggest that evangelicals take their stand on the authority of the Bible in defiance of human reason. This has never been their position. True evangelicals have always sought to demonstrate that reason and the Bible are in harmony. When conflicts have arisen along this axis, evangelicals have always sought to hold on to both, even if this involves accepting a high degree of intellectual tension or uncertainty. The classic example of this, of course, has been the debate about creation and evolution. Thinking evangelicals … have recognised that it is no part of Christian discipleship to turn a blind eye to discoveries of science which indicate the earth is millions of years old.

Here Clements makes a contrast with “fundamentalists” who “adopt a blinkered literalism toward the Bible which science is not permitted to challenge” as well as with “liberals” who understand the Bible as a fallible witness. He is right to insist on this against the “fundamentalist” party which often tries to claim the Evangelical label as exclusively its own.

The second axis which Clements identifies is that of church tradition and individual conscience, and again he claims that evangelicals hold the centre ground, against “conservative catholics” who rely heavily on the institutional church and “radical protestants … who demonstrate little or no submission to the Christian community”. Now I’m not sure that the latter label is a fair one: radicalism does not imply individualism or a lack of commitment to the local church. But Clements is right to note that Evangelicals “have always tolerated diversity on a wide range of issues which they accept should be regarded as matters of private opinion.” And he is right to complain that Evangelicals are being pushed towards the conservative catholic position of uniformity on controversial issues.

Clements, for obvious reasons, then focuses on one particular controversial issue, homosexuality. He notes that

only a fundamentalist would suggest that, because the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation, that this modern psychological understanding of what it means to be “gay” has to be rejected.

and that

Only a very conservative catholic would try to force all Christians to follow a single line on an issue by appeal to the decisions of synods or the edict of popes.

Then he concludes his essay as follows:

Yet, for some unaccountable reason, evangelicals are not willing to keep either their minds or their options open over the question of homosexuality. Instead, they are allowing themselves to be aligned with conservative catholics and fundamentalists on the issue. It is, I say, a tragic abdication of our distinctive heritage. There will, of course, always be Christians around who perceive the wisdom of humbly holding the middle ground on the crucial twin axes we have discussed. The question is, will they for much longer want to call themselves “evangelicals”?

Roy Clements raises some very important issues here which need to be heard. Evangelical identity is under serious threat, both from those who want to impose uniformity on controversial issues, and from fundamentalists who want to reserve the name for themselves. Clements probably hasn’t been heard as clearly as he would otherwise have been because of his personal history. But he certainly should be heard.

Do Evangelicals have to condemn gay sex?

Benny Hazlehurst of Accepting Evangelicals, in a comment on my post I’m an Evangelical – don’t let them steal the name, raises the issue of whether one can be an Evangelical and not condemn homosexual practice. He does so by linking to a post at the Accepting Evangelicals blog by Jeremy Marks, Why I am an Evangelical gay Christian…

Jeremy MarksJeremy Marks is the founder of Courage, “a UK-based … evangelical Christian ministry” primarily for “Gay and lesbian Christians who are seeking a safe place of friendship in which to reconcile their faith and sexuality and grow towards Christian maturity”, and which also seeks, among other objectives, “to dialogue with our brothers and sisters in churches who find homosexuality difficult to understand or accept”.

In his post Marks explains how and why Courage moved from “the traditional view” to a position of encouraging “embracing our true God-given sexual orientation”. He also links to a 2005 article by Roy Clements on the Courage website, What is an Evangelical? Clements is the former pastor of Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, and council member of the Evangelical Alliance, who resigned from both in 1999 and “came out” as gay. Clements makes some important points here about Evangelical identity, including this:

Evangelicals, I say, occupy the middle ground between the fundamentalist and liberal “extremists”.

There is a story here in which the Evangelical Alliance does not come out as well as I suggested in my previous post. The article Cast Out by Roy Clements, on the Courage website, includes as an Appendix a 2002 press release from the EA explaining why it asked Courage to resign. The EA’s official position on homosexuality is given at the end of the press release:

1. The Alliance affirms that monogamous heterosexual marriage is the form of partnership uniquely intended by God for full sexual relations between people

2. We affirm God’s love and concern for all humanity, including homosexual people, but believe homoerotic sexual practice to be incompatible with his will as revealed in Scripture

3. We call upon evangelical congregations to welcome and accept sexually active homosexual people, but to do so in the expectation that they will come in due course to see the need to change their lifestyle in accordance with biblical revelation and orthodox church teaching.

4. We repudiate homophobia insofar as it denotes an irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals. We do not accept, however, that to reject homoerotic sexual practice on biblical grounds is in itself homophobic.

This is taken from the EA’s 1998 publication Faith, Hope and Homosexuality, still recommended on their website.

Personally I would accept this position. However, I would not make it a condition for being accepted as an Evangelical. I would not want to expel from the EA all Christian ministries which fail “to welcome and accept sexually active homosexual people”, not least because not many would be left inside. Nor would I want to expel all ministries which do not make explicit “the expectation that [sexually active homosexual people] will come in due course to see the need to change their lifestyle”.

The Alliance took issue mainly with Courage’s “New Approach” according to which

while homo-erotic sexual practices cannot be actively commended there are certain circumstances in which it would be inappropriate overtly to condemn them.

Well, surely the EA’s call for “evangelical congregations to welcome and accept sexually active homosexual people” implies that their sexual practices are not always to be overtly condemned. But the real point seems to be that Courage

refuses to take a clear position on homo-erotic practice

- and presumably the only acceptable position would be against it. I guess it was a step too far in 2002 for the EA to allow a member simply to refuse to take a clear position on this controversial issue. Quite likely other members would have left if Courage did not. I wonder if things would be different in 2011?

In a second comment on my previous post Benny Hazlehurst makes a distinction between

‘gay-affirming’ and ‘gay-accepting’ Evangelicals.

I am happy to declare myself ‘gay-accepting’ in the sense that, in Benny’s words,

although I may not agree the theology of openly gay Christians, I do accept their Christian integrity.

But what does it mean to be ‘gay-affirming’? If this means to take the position that homosexual and heterosexual practice are entirely equal in God’s sight, I would have trouble accepting that as Evangelical. But if it means what Courage seems to be saying, that gays and lesbians should be accepted as Christians and not condemned for their lifestyle, then I would accept this as a possible Evangelical position although not one that I fully share.

I’m an Evangelical – don’t let them steal the name

I’m an Evangelical, and I’m proud of it. I believe that the Bible is the authoritative guide to truth about God and to the Christian life. I believe, in Roger Olson’s words, that “authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of regeneration and that faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and repentance for sin are necessarily included in that”. I accept without reservation the Basis of Faith of the Evangelical Alliance here in the UK – although I do have reservations about some American definitions of evangelicalism which define the Bible as inerrant. I’m also a Charismatic, but that’s a separate story.

But my right to call myself an Evangelical seems to be under attack from all sides at the moment.

A few weeks ago I discussed here how Adrian Warnock seems to accept as Evangelicals only those who take the Bible literally. His reasons for not accepting a particular person, Rob Bell, as an Evangelical also include him

speaking with people who had problems understanding what God is like. Hence he looks at what it sees in this world and then formulates a theology … he sees life then tries to interpret Bible.

John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, wants to put a different kind of restriction on being Evangelical. In a post yesterday Episcopal appointments – from subtle exclusion to overt discrimination he discusses when “the last Evangelical appointment was” of a bishop in the Church of England. The answer he gives, 1997, shows that what he really meant was the last appointment of an Evangelical opposed to the ordination of women – a point clarified in a comment by Beryl Polden.

Dave Warnock, a somewhat liberal Methodist minister unrelated to Adrian, offers an outsider’s perspective on the limits of evangelicalism. Phil Whittall posted about the sad story of Gordon Lynch who lost his Christian faith, largely, it seems, because of abuse by power-hungry Evangelical church leaders. In comments in response to this Dave offer a rant (his word) against Evangelicals, which he repeats in a post on his own blog. Here is part of the rant:

a) The number of Evangelicals willing to engage in critical thinking on these issues is close to vanishingly small.

b) The number of Evangelicals willing to trot out proof texts, anger and aggression on this issues is huge.

c) I know many women who have articulated the response they have got from trying to engage with many Evangelicals on issues of power and gender. Evangelicals do not come out of this well at all. …

In his response to my comment about this, Dave clarifies that he is

addressing the “hard Evangelical position”, in other words the Evangelicals who take a hard line on issues such as gender and sexuality and who eagerly condemn those who disagree with them.

But what he originally wrote makes no such distinction. He seems to be putting about a stereotype of typical Evangelicals characterised by his five negative points, of which I quoted three above. He accepts that there are thoughtful Evangelicals like me but implies that our numbers are “close to vanishingly small”.

Then for a North American view: Joel Watts writes I’m a Evangelical Reject I reckon based on a post by Kurt Willems You Might Be An Evangelical Reject If… It seems that Kurt and Joel both consider themselves to have been put outside the Evangelical pale because of a number of attitudes and positions that they take. I share with them most of these attitudes and positions. But I do not accept that these make me an “Evangelical Reject”. I don’t care too much if others reject me, but I won’t accept their labels. I know that I still stand within the fold of historic evangelicalism, and it is before God, not before men and women, that I stand there.

Roger Olson has written on Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical”. I’m not sure I agree with him that the media are to blame for the distortion of the term, at least here in the UK. I put the blame on other Christians like the ones I have quoted in this post. But I stand with him in this:

All labels have their problems and, to be sure “evangelical” is fraught with them.  But I am not giving it up.  Instead, I will fight for it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that the Bible is an inerrant source of facts which its authors could not have known or understood.

I’m an Evangelical, and I am allowed to let my theology be informed by what I see, and what scientists see, in the world which God made.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe in a worldwide flood within the last 10,000 years.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that God the Father punished his Son for sins he was not guilty of.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that nearly everyone in the world, including anyone with homosexual inclinations, is going straight to everlasting torment in hell.

I’m an Evangelical, and I am free from behavioural rules of conservative Christianity such as “no drinking” and “no dancing”.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that women cannot exercise leadership.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can believe that I should live in the world, as a good Christian, and not separate myself from it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can believe that God is interested in social justice and in protection of the natural environment.

I’m an Evangelical, and I don’t have to believe that the world is inevitably going to get worse and that all Christians are soon going to be miraculously raptured out of it.

I’m an Evangelical, and I can work towards the Kingdom of God in this world while I wait for Jesus to return and bring in the fullness of that Kingdom.

Evangelical AllianceI applaud the Evangelical Alliance for its largely successful efforts to keep UK Evangelicals together, under a broad umbrella which can include people like myself as well as all but the most extreme fundamentalists. They have weathered storms like the Steve Chalke controversy and emerged stronger. I trust that they will continue to maintain this unity despite efforts to break it from inside and out.

I accept the right of other Evangelicals to disagree with me on some serious issues, as long as they don’t compromise the basic gospel message. Healthy debate, on blogs and elsewhere, is a good thing. But please let’s all be more careful about divisive statements, even in throwaway comments, suggesting that some other person or group is not Evangelical.

Frank Viola: evangelicalism and beyond

Frank ViolaPopular Christian author Frank Viola (his latest book is Revise Us Again) has today relaunched his blog under the new name Beyond Evangelicalism, and has started to explain the name with his post Beyond Evangelical: Part I.

Much of this post is an exploration of what evangelicalism is all about. I find it a much more satisfactory description of this movement than the flawed one (even as corrected) which I discussed in my post Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally? Viola explains how being Bible-centred is only one of the four main distinguishing marks of evangelicalism, and there is no mention of a requirement to interpret the Bible literally.

Viola starts by clarifying that he is an evangelical. To him, going beyond evangelicalism doesn’t mean rejecting evangelicalism. Rather, it means moving, not to the right as Adrian might want, nor to the left by following Rob Bell, but “forward”. Viola puts flesh on these bones by proposing four new characteristics of beyond-evangelicalism, not replacing but in addition to the four already recognised distinctives of evangelicalism.

One at least of these should appeal to Adrian: Viola adds to cross-centred also resurrection life-centred. I hope he would also agree with adding Christ-centred to Bible-centred. To the rather too individualistic activist-centred Viola is surely right to add as a counter-balance body life-centred. Perhaps most controversial is his addition to conversion-centred of eternal purpose-centred, but I think Viola is right to take the focus away from the currently hot issue of saving sinners from hell and putting it on the following:

God has an eternal purpose, or grand mission, that provoked Him to create. That purpose goes beyond the saving of lost souls and making the world a better place. God’s purpose transcends evangelism and social action (both of which are focused on meeting human needs). The eternal purpose is primarily by Him, through Him, and to Him. Meeting human needs is a byproduct, not the prime product.

(Note that the pairings of old and new characteristics are mine, not Viola’s.)

Viola mentions how Scot McKnight among others has described

the present crisis that evangelicalism faces and the pressing need to reshape it.

Viola’s proposals may provide just the kind of new directions needed for a reshaped evangelicalism to move beyond this crisis and take the world by storm.

Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally?

I had intended to drop the issue of Adrian Warnock versus Rob Bell. But Adrian’s latest post Is Rob Bell a neo-liberal who does not take the Bible literally? goes into a lot more detail about why he refuses to accept Bell as an evangelical. As such it reads a bit like a response to my post Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism, although it does not mention what I wrote.

It is really interesting to see what Adrian considers to disqualify someone from being an evangelical. One of them seems to be speaking to ordinary people and observing the world, and then allowing that to inform one’s theology. Another is to ask questions. Of course Jesus based much of his teaching on what he observed in the world and from ordinary people, and asked lots of questions. Is Rob Bell wrong to follow the same methods?

Perhaps most telling is the apparent claim in the title of his post that anyone who “does not take the Bible literally” is not an evangelical but a “neo-liberal”. More specifically, Adrian’s charge against Rob Bell is that

he no longer takes the Bible literally whenever it is possible to do so.

The problem with this argument is that no evangelical, indeed no one as far as I know, actually takes the Bible literally, even with the qualification “whenever it is possible to do so”. I made this point in one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, at Better Bibles Blog in 2005, Does God have a long nose? Pinocchio by Enrico MazzantiSee also the related post, here at Gentle Wisdom in 2008, Love takes a long thyme, in which I also wrote about

the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!

Well, I am not seriously accusing anyone of that. But I do claim, as explained in those posts, that anyone who does not believe that God has a long nose, literally, does not take literally the whole Bible in its original language texts. This is the clear teaching of Exodus 34:6 in the Hebrew, and it is possible to take it literally, at least as a description of the body of Jesus, God become flesh. Does anyone do so? Not as far as I know. Not even Adrian himself takes the Bible literally. That means that on his definition there are probably no evangelicals at all, and we should all be described with Rob Bell as “neo-liberals”.

Another example: the biblical word for “hell” as place of punishment is literally Gehenna, the name of a specific and literal valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. As it is quite possible to take this literally, why don’t “Reformed” evangelicals teach that their place of “eternal conscious punishment” is physically located in that valley?

So, the real issue between different evangelicals is which parts of the Bible they take literally. But where does one draw the line? And what exactly does it mean to take the Bible literally?

Surely it is better to accept the current standard definitions of evangelicalism, such as the British Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and the American Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. In these the Bible is described as inspired by God, as authoritative for believers, and in some cases as infallible or inerrant. But these statements do not prescribe that it must always be taken literally, no doubt because the good evangelical scholars who prepared them recognise that this is impossible.

Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism

Before I completely leave behind the debate between Rob Bell and Adrian Warnock, I want to share some thoughts on what this issue can tell us about the limits of evangelicalism.

Premier Christian Radio: The 'Heaven and Hell' DebateThe full debate is available as an online video, courtesy of Premier Christian Radio. This post is based on an extract from it posted on YouTube and also on Adrian’s blog, in a post where he asks, Has Rob Bell demonstrated clearly that he is not an Evangelical any more?, and answers his question with

because [Bell] has a very different approach to the Bible, it is hard to accept him as an Evangelical.

Here is part of that extract from the debate:

AW: To my mind, even in our interview today, you seem to have cast doubt on a very literal interpretation of certain Bible passages, and to me, that causes me problems in recognising you as an evangelical.

RB: … The book is my attempt to be true to the Scriptures and … to give this story its proper due, and to highlight perhaps things that are sitting right there in the text that people haven’t heard. So the idea that somehow I’m dismissing the Scriptures, then why do I spend so much time trying to get out what they really say?

AW: I never said you were dismissing them. I said you had a different approach to them.

But is Bell’s approach to the Scriptures really so different from the standard evangelical one? Or is the issue more with the conclusions that he comes to from it?

A major problem with the whole evangelical enterprise is that the Bible cannot be interpreted for life today without bringing to the text a whole range of presuppositions. Traditional “Reformed” evangelicals bring one set of presuppositions. Adrian brings a slightly different set. I bring yet another set. And then Rob Bell brings his own presuppositions. As evangelicals each of us interprets the Bible using more or less the same principles, but each comes to a different set of answers. The difference between those answers is not because some of us are rejecting the authority of the Bible, nor even for the most part with our approach in interpreting it, but because of our different presuppositions.

Now the “Reformed” camp may want to limit evangelicalism to certain sets of acceptable presuppositions and conclusions, perhaps only the ones Adrian describes as “a very literal interpretation”. Thereby they would exclude Rob Bell, and perhaps myself. Some of them might even exclude Adrian, for example because he accepts the charismatic gifts. But if the definition of an evangelical is someone who accepts the Bible as the inspired word of God, then it certainly includes those like Rob Bell who come to non-standard conclusions from those Scriptures.

I am very glad that at least here in England evangelicalism is quite broad, broad enough to include people like Rob Bell, and myself, who do not always follow the traditions of interpreting the Bible. After all, one of the essential characteristics of evangelicalism is that it puts the Scriptures above human traditions, which include traditional methods of interpretation and traditional conclusions. Therefore I resent the attempts of some, such as Adrian, to exclude from the evangelical camp those who do not follow the tradition which he reveres. The camp can and should be broad enough to include Bell and myself as well as Adrian and his heroes.