This has been the big weekend of the year for our family – my daughter’s wedding. We parents had no part in the planning. Although it was held at the Anglican church in our village, daughter and fiancé organised everything, and we were just delegated organisational roles and speeches. And bills, of course.
What was so gratifying to a father was that it was a truly Christian, even an evangelistic, wedding, and particularly wonderful because that came entirely from the couple themselves. My daughter was converted long after she left home, and has run her spiritual course since completely independently of us, though I did have the privilege of baptizing her. Apart from the truly international flavour of the event, with bridesmaids from Germany, Canada and England and a whole contingent of guests from my daughter’s old home in New York, a bunch of people came from their church in London, including their minister, who led jointly with ours here.
What struck me, apart from the very unfashionable commitment of our kids to building their marriage for God’s glory (you’ve no idea how much that impressed both sets of world-weary parents) was the way in which in which the service itself, the prayers organised by their friends, the lessons and the conversations afterwards – even as far as the best man’s speech – all testified to a supportive fellowship of intelligent, natural and honest young people living at ease within the “fold” of orthodox biblical teaching.
It made such a contrast with the evangelical scene we encounter in the science-faith world (mainly in the US where “cack” is probably unintelligible – hence my title). Sometimes there the main aim seems to be to minimise the content of Christian commitment, and mock it as naivety in others. In those discussions “evangelical” seems mainly a sociological term, whereas for myself, my daughter’s fellowship and, I believe, a large proportion of UK Christians it is a doctrinal one. That’s why the discussion a few posts back about my links to Anglicanism seemed so confusing to some “overseas” readers. “Anglican” can seem to indicate a very British kind of theological fudge, neither Catholic nor liberal nor evangelical. And yet the Church of England’s roots, and its doctrines, are firmly in the soil where the word “evangelical” was first coined, that is in the teachings of the Magisterial Reformers.
Take, for example, the church canon (A5) that describes the basis of Anglican doctrine:
The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teaching of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.
Some of the General Synod may have forgotten that, but it’s still the official foundation. I can’t resist expanding that with some quotes from the Thirty Nine Articles:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church. (VI)
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. (VII)
Contrast that with all the stuff on BioLogos (and in the US evangelical blogosphere generally) about the recent origin of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or the incarnational nature of inspiration that claims the word of God (if that term itself is not rejected as bibliolatry!) to be tarnished by human error, as opposed to the human writers being rendered holy by the Spirit of God. It’s as if Jesus did not cleanse lepers, but was made unclean by them, or as if the altar was polluted by the offering rather than making it holy. Add to that the reformulation of the whole nature of God, the artificial separation of Christ from his word, the redefinition of sin and atonement, the rewriting of Christian morality, the primacy of personal conviction over divine truth and so on and you have what is in effect a different religion. Or at least, no less so than, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On a current BioLogos blog, author David Williams defends, against a closet Catholic I believe, the lack of any definable “evangelical” position:
“Evangelical” is a broad, vague term that covers a variety of strains of Protestantism … There are no agreed upon evangelical procedures for making theological decisions, evaluating authors, or even deciding who’s evangelical and who isn’t.
Generally speaking, evangelicals’ primary theological source is the Bible, but that doesn’t tell us much. Evangelicals disagree with one another about the nature, interpretation, and role of the Bible. Is it infallible or inerrant or neither or both?
And so where once “Evangelicalism” stood very specifically, and not at all “vaguely”, for the sound biblical doctrine that would enable individuals to come into a personal relationship with God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in America (and increasingly in the UK, sadly) it has come to mean to seminary graduates like Williams, if anything at all, merely a personally-orientated style of religion. And that is frequently understood as “my-own-peculiar-belief-about-God”. Every man his own Pope. It’s “broad” in the same sense that Adolph Hitler can be considered a Catholic, or that “Fundamentalist” may mean both “a believer in Christian fundamentals” and a radically politicised Muslim. It’s a word without significant content. That is, make no mistake, an innovation. As Michael Horton wrote in 2008 in an excellent review article:
For centuries, members of Reformed and Presbyterian churches have thought of themselves as belonging primarily to a movement of catholic Christianity that was reformed in the sixteenth century through the ministry of such pastors as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox. Luther’s followers first called themselves “evangelicals” (from “evangel,” meaning gospel), and the term became virtually identical with adherence to the key tenets of the magisterial Reformers, in distinction from Rome and Anabaptism.
I suppose that words do change their meaning over time. If G F Wright or Charles Hodge had lived through till today, they would perhaps have ceased to call themselves Fundamentalists to distinguish themselves from the Taliban. Yet it would seem a bit hard on those guys and the colleagues they worked with on The Fundamentals to steal their word and despoil it of its meaning. In the same way, I feel humanly a bit resentful that, having been an Evangelical convert for half a century, had Methodist grandmothers and great-uncles proud to be Evangelicals in the nineteenth century, and (as I’ve vaingloriously trumpeted before) being descended from an Archbishop in Queen Elizabeth I’s time who would have classified himself as an Evangelical, I now have to distance myself from the term because it’s been hi-jacked by some postmodernist neo-liberals with no sense of history.
But distance myself I must, at least to the extent of saying that “evangelicalism” as now widely understood is not what I believe in, since it shares very few of the distinctives of historic Evangelical faith. That’s not to say I would deny the former’s inclusion within “mere Christianity”, any more than I would Roman Catholicism, the Coptic Church or the Exclusive Brethren. Some of those, indeed, might sometimes have more in common with apostolic faith. I’ll still have to use the word, I guess, in both senses, just as common usage defines “fundamentalist” as a psychological state whilst there is no other word for an adherent to The Fundamentals. But don’t pin too much content on the word if I use it loosely, will you.