A couple of years ago, Jon Kuhrt posted a fascinating graphic on his blog site to describe his journey of discover as a Christian. Raised as an evangelical, he was nurtured in the things in the blue column as being true markers of Christian faith. But out of a personal commitment to help others, he trained in social work and discovered the things in the red column—and that they didn’t fit very well with his upbringing in the blue column.
The separation of these two sets of concerns Jon describes as ‘tribal theology’, and in a follow-up post he urges us to move beyond tribalism to a ‘dialectical’ tension between these two groups, since they both are signs of what he calls ‘orthodox’ Christianity.
I find it really interesting that Jon declines to label the blue column ‘evangelical’, and equally declines to relinquish the label for himself.
The thing is that I don’t want to reject the tradition I grew up in but I don’t want to be limited by it either. The Christianity I grew up with has given me so much – I don’t want to lose what is important from the blue side of the chart or adopt a label like ‘post evangelical’. I believe that true Christian radicalism involves holding these two sides of this chart together. The gospel of Jesus cannot be divided up: it is inherently personal and social, truth is found in both the atonement and the incarnation, faith involves beliefs and actions, we need to care about both personal morality and social justice and we need to be both tolerant and distinctive.
Notice his use of the term ‘gospel of Jesus’, in Greek the euangel. Both of these sets of concerns are ‘evangelical’ in that they can be found in the New Testament as part of what God has done for us in Jesus and the implications of that for our lives. Within the Church of England, I do in fact think there are other traditions which draw on ideas outside of these. True ‘liberalism’ will actually see reason and experience as independent sources of authority, sometimes to be set over against what we find in the Scriptures, and the ‘catholic’ (better, ‘sacramental’) perspective will look to church tradition as a similar independent source of authority.
But Jon’s characterisation here offers an important insight into the nature of evangelical identity. Some years ago David Bebbington characterised evangelicals as marked by four things:
I think this is quite a good description of the phenomenon of evangelicalism, but I am not sure it can be a definition as such, still less a theology. Evangelicals have often been activist, but it would be hard to defend activism (as opposed, for example, to a more contemplative spirituality) as a distinguishing virtue from the Scriptures taken as a whole. As Jon says, there is in fact a dialectical relation between the two; we are called in some ways to be activist, and in others to be contemplative. And I have always maintained that ‘biblicism’ (in the sense both of having a high regard theologically for the Bible, and of Bible-reading being a key part of devotional practice) can never be simply one feature among many for ‘evangelicals'; rather, all aspects of evangelical belief must be rooted in the Scriptures, if evangelicals are going to be true to their name. In fact, my understanding of being evangelical would come very close to Stephen Neill’s definition of being Anglican:
Show us anything the Bible teaches that we are not teaching, and we will teach it; show us anything we are teaching that the Bible does not teach, and we will cut it out.
That is one reason why I think there is always a potentially very positive synergy between what it means to be evangelical, and what it means to be Anglican—at least in the Church of England. (I think the situation is very different in some other parts of the Anglican Communion.) Bebbington’s description would tend to push being ‘evangelical’ to the blue side of Jon’s columns, but I agree with Jon—both sides actually are true to being evangelical, when this is rooted in the Scriptures, rather than simply being rooted in a (tribal) church tradition which merely labels itself ‘evangelical.’ As it happens, the ‘personal’ emphasis of much evangelical teaching often owes more to modernist indiviualism than it does to Scripture, which is corporate and social through and through.
In my own teaching on evangelical spirituality I have emphasised the ‘both/and’ importance of:
- Cross and resurrection—or, better, the crucified and risen Jesus
- Present assurance and future hope of salvation
- Personal conversion and the redemption of creation
- Personal holiness and life in community
- Evangelism (proclamation) and working for social transformation
But this is also why I don’t go with the idea of different ‘kinds’ of evangelical. Graham Kings, now bishop of Sherborne in Salisbury Diocese, offered a ‘mapping’ of ‘three theological shapes within [evangelical Anglicanism]: conservative, open and charismatic’ which he likens to canal, river and rapids respectively. Whilst, like Bebbington, this is a helpful description of the phenomenon of evangelicals as they are, I don’t think it can ever do as a theology or identity. The danger is that these different descriptions become tribal loyalties, and the preferences within them derive from a tradition, or personality, or temperament, rather than being rooted in responsible reflection together on Scripture. Should I seek to ‘conserve’ the truth of the gospel message? If Scripture says so in these terms, yes. Should I be ‘open’ to other ideas and sources of understanding? To the extent the Scriptures encourage me to do so, yes. Do I need to welcome the ministry of the Spirit? To the extent that the Scriptures set out, of course.
We need to be honest about differences, and dispense with the covert manoeuvrings that too often characterise church politics. But we also need to clear about shared values and commitments. As Jon Kuhrt comments:
The dialectics set out in the diagram are rich resources for Christian thinking and engagement with the world – they are our strength – but too often they become silos of tribal entrenchment that simply mirror the conflicts in the world.