I just started reading the book “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy” which presents a range of opinions on the topic of inerrancy, with some healthy and polite back-and-forth between five authors/theologians with rather different understandings.
One thing that struck me immediately as I read Al Mohler’s section – the first chapter in the book – was an overwhelming focus on the defense of evangelicalism itself. This stood out, in many ways, far more strongly than any idea that Christianity, or the Bible, or the church needed to be defended.
In fact, the very first sentence of Mohler’s section reads “An affirmation of the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible has stood at the center of evangelical faith as long as there have been Christians known as evangelicals.”
So right away, in his opening statement, Mohler establishes evangelicalism as a faith of its own, before perhaps grudgingly admitting that some Christians, not all, are evangelicals.
Continuing on that first page, we have
- “center of evangelical faith,”
- “Christians known as evangelicals,”
- “evangelicals have simply affirmed,”
- “evangelical Christianity,”
- “all who would call themselves evangelical,”
- “the evangelical movement,”
- “evangelical consistency,” and
- “Evangelical Theological Society.”
The next page continues
- “evangelical statement of inerrancy,”
- “calling for evangelicals to abandon the doctrine,”
- “for the evangelical movement,”
- “more essential to evangelicalism as a movement,”
- “distinctly evangelical witness,”
- “the evangelical movement,” and finally
- “evangelicals first sought to define.”
And the evangelicalism onslaught doesn’t let up for the entirety of 29 pages.
By contrast, in those first two pages, the words “Bible” or “Biblical” appear 12 times – three times fewer than “evangelical.” In fact, “Christian” or “Christianity” appears only 3 times: Mohler is referencing evangelicalism five times more than Christianity!
The interesting thing is that this book, and the questions that Mohler was asked to answer for his chapter, were not meant to be about evangelicalism at all. It’s about the specific doctrine of inerrancy. But Mohler makes it all about evangelicalism. In fact, on the third page is this gem: “I will make my position plain. I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy. Given the pressures of late modernity, growing ever more hostile to theological truth claims, there is little basis for any hope that evangelicals will remain distinctly evangelical without the principled and explicit commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.”
Don’t miss the thrust of this assertion: Mohler is not talking about the holy catholic or universal church. He’s talking specifically about the need to preserve the “evangelical faith” he mentions in his opening statement. And in his mind, the worst possible thing is that evangelicalism would be harmed by not protecting the doctrine of inerrancy.
The way I read this is that he’s primarily interested in the evangelical faith, not the Christian faith.
The Broader Discussion
Stepping away from the specifics of the book “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy,” I had several discussions this week on doctrinal topics, and in each case, there was a deeply aggressive and passionate defense of evangelicalism, and the nature of the rebuttals in each case was “you don’t sound like an evangelical.” That came before “you aren’t saved, because you don’t believe these doctrines.”
So I see the same general focus in much of the doctrinal discussion about evangelical matters as I see in Mohler’s chapter. It truly does feel as if what must be defended is the set of markers specific to evangelicalism, even more than those of Christianity in general. It’s an absolute determination to maintain the integrity of the entire evangelical framework. Those defenses are often coupled, in fact, with appeals to Mohler’s teaching, as well as a few other key evangelical preachers or theologians – almost identifying Mohler as a high priest of evangelicalism.
This is somewhat surprising to me. Historically, until quite recently, I didn’t see this level of antagonism about maintaining the integrity of a package of beliefs in any protestant denomination. Catholicism does this, which is not surprising for a fairly self-consistent and self-reinforcing group which really does function as its own religion apart from protestant Christianity; it appeals to a central authority in the Pope.
But it’s surprising that a distributed, decentralized, pan-denominational structure like “evangelical” would also try to police itself so strongly. Even Catholicism does still seem to allow some amount of internal dialogue about doctrine, and even the Pope himself surprises people with doctrinal shifts from time to time. And more concerningly, it seems like evangelicals have a very strong determination to try to take over the entire protestant world with their particular brand of the faith.
So in essence, what I’m perceiving seems to be a determination to standardize and consolidate evangelicalism, even though it’s historically actually been a very varied thing, hard to pin down and define.
The History of Evangelicalism
Evangelicalism is fairly new on the scene of Christianity, well less than a tenth of its age. Wikipedia says “Its origins are usually traced to 1738, with various theological streams contributing to its foundation” and “The movement has long had a presence in the Anglosphere before spreading further afield in the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries. The movement gained great momentum during the 18th and 19th centuries with the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and the United States.”
It goes on to define evangelicalism: “One influential definition of evangelicalism has been proposed by historian David Bebbington. Bebbington notes four distinctive aspects of evangelical faith: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, noting, ‘Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.’” That’s typically referred to as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”
Catherine Brekus writes in “Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America” that “Although many people associate evangelicalism with modern religious leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren, its roots can be traced back to the eighteenth century. In response to social, political, economic, and intellectual transformations that were transatlantic in scope, eighteenth-century Protestants throughout the Atlantic world gradually created a new kind of faith that we now call evangelicalism. The word itself was not new, and its roots stretch back to the Greek evangelion, meaning ‘gospel.’ The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers used evangelical to emphasize their reliance on the gospel message they found in scripture. Yet during the eighteenth century the word became increasingly identified with revivalists who emphasized a personal relationship with God, the joy of being born again, and the call to spread the gospel around the globe.”
Christian Today writes “Evangelical in our sense traces its origins to the great religious revival of the 1730s, what is known as the Great Awakening in America, and more prosaically as the evangelical revival over here. At the centre of this were the preaching ministries of Massachusetts preacher Jonathan Edwards, Gloucester-born evangelist George Whitefield, and future founder of Methodism John Wesley. What did they preach? They preached the Gospel – which in a Christendom context of cradle Christians was often a radical move. To people who had grown up thinking they were Christian but didn’t necessarily attend church often or engage much on a personal level, they preached the fundamental importance of every individual experiencing for themselves a personal conversion to Jesus Christ through a deep and genuine repentance. This repentance was understood as a response to understanding the meaning and power of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Such a message found a ready audience in both colonial America and post-Restoration England, and many thousands came to hear these men speak and discovered for themselves through their words a lively new faith.”
And the National Association of Evangelicals writes that there are “four statements to which respondents must strongly agree to be categorized as evangelical:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
Given the first of those four bullets, it’s not surprising that someone like Al Mohler would defend inerrancy.
But this brings me back to my main point: the increasingly aggressive defense of evangelicalism.
Here’s the problem, that seems obvious at least to me: evangelicalism has become an idol of sorts. As demonstrated by Mohler’s 15-to-3 ratio of evangelical-to-Christian references, even for those who are simply defending one or more of those four tenets of Bebbington’s quadrilateral, they’ve ceased defending Christianity to those around them, and have taken to “gatekeeping” their own definition of Christianity, their own faith, “the evangelical faith” as Mohler calls it. And the very explicit target of these defenses – which appear most often as attacks against opposing understandings – is fellow Christians.
Did Jesus call us to attack each other? No. In John 17:20-23, He prayed the following:
20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (Legacy Standard Bible)
When one sees evangelicalism as its own faith, even when they may dimly recognize that “Christians known as evangelicals” (to quote Mohler) are by definition a subset of Christians, then they will tend to consider non-evangelicals to be outside their faith. That conflation of evangelicalism with Christianity means that they now consider those who don’t follow a given tenet of evangelicalism to be a non-Christian.
So what is a Christian, anyway?
For centuries, the definition of “Christian” was usually that people agreed with the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed, or both.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
Neither of these creeds say a single explicit word about the four elements that Bebbington identified. Yes, there are echoes of those elements, and to some extent if you really believe the creeds, then you might naturally be drawn to those elements of the quadrilateral, such as spreading the good news to those around you, or believing that the Bible which teaches these aspects of the Creeds is truly trustworthy. But there seems to be a great distance between these classical, ancient definitions of Christianity, and the less than 300 year old definition of evangelicalism.
So my conclusion is that, exactly as Mohler has identified, and as he staunchly defends, evangelicalism truly is its own faith. It’s closely related to Christianity – or more precisely, derived from it – but it’s definitely taken on its own emphasis and self-identification.
And I won’t even bother discussing how lately a modern American evangelicalism is more a political undertaking than religious.
When one has begun to perceive evangelicalism as the only true faith, it’s not a stretch to become more interested in defending their chosen doctrine than in the unity of the holy catholic (universal) church. And this leads to a very real problem: crusades. As has happened so many times before, creating ‘others’ out of our brothers and sisters leads to all manner of evil being perpetrated against them, in the name of doctrinal purity. As a very short list:
- Ugandan Christians just passed a law to execute homosexuals.
- In Germany in the 1930s Christians committed atrocities against Jews and other minorities.
- In the 1910s and 1920s, the Ottoman government committed genocide against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians.
- It happened in the 1600’s against European Christians, who fled to America.
- It happened in the 1500’s and 1600’s against Roman Catholics in England.
- It happened in the 1000’s against Muslims and Jews.
- It happened against Christians in the first century after Christ.
- It happened against Jesus Himself by the religious leaders of His day.
And it’s happening now in America, as the evangelical right wing (formerly known as the Republican Party) has launched a crusade against whatever it perceives as impure or unholy – even if the broader Christian church disagrees with those conclusions. Given the recent calls to execute queer people from certain popular right-wing pastors, it’s not much of a stretch to believe that violence won’t result here in America too.
None of this – even the persecution of non-Christians – looks like what Jesus told us to do to ANYBODY. He taught non-violence for those not in authority, and spoke (more strongly than on any other topic) against those in authority abusing those under their care.
A lot of the rhetoric being used in evangelical churches today – almost to the level of being a fifth leg of the quadrilateral – is that Christianity is under attack and Christians are being persecuted today.
I saw an interesting quote today on Twitter by @KatelynBeaty: “Never attribute to persecution that which can be adequately explained by Christians being complete goobers.“
Aside from being a gloriously funny quote, I think it’s a perfect assessment of the situation: Evangelical Christians are acting quite inappropriately, not honoring the teachings of Jesus in dramatically obvious ways, and yet acting surprised when the world turns on them and calls them to accountability to their own scriptures.
So I’ll leave you with this thought: What’s more important: the preservation of evangelicalism, or accurately representing Jesus to a very closely watching world? I’ll take the second choice.