Cutting the Cack

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Cutting the Cack

  1. Gregory says:

    Congratulations on both fronts, Jon!!

    Most importantly, of course, for your daughters wedding and marriage!

    But also, and not insignificantly, for distancing yourself from ‘evangelicalism’.

    At the end of the day, linguistically speaking, ‘evangelicalism’ (as properly distinguished from ‘evangelical’) is and always has been yet another ideology. ‘Evangelical Faith,’ however, may yet return to the true Church, built on the rock of Peter (Matthew 16: 18) [that is, unless you trust in Dan Brown’s version of the story]. And that by far doesn’t mean ‘Peter Enns’ and American neo-evangelicalism!

    In case you go beyond English language, Jon, I’d suggest you start looking east, instead of west, if American evangelicalism, e.g. BioLogos, has fed you up. There’s only so much cack to go around coming from America!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Why thank you, Gregory – and a Merry Christmas to you too.

    In the end of course the only valid faith is “evangelical”, “catholic” and “orthodox”, but wheat and tares being what they are the categories are likely to remain somewhat muddled until the parousia.

    I take your point about the US, but currently by the quirks of the Internet it seems to be as much my mission field as anywhere. Outside that activity, however, I do maintain links with Christians as far east as Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Jordan and Tatarstan where the conversation is far more about faith than science.

    Even this blog claims to have readers from (in descending order) Germany, Italy, Canada, Poland, Japan, Holland, Brazil, Russia … they can’t all be spammers, surely???

    It would certainly be interested to get a feel for how Christians in science across the world integrate evolution into their theology, or not. Language, alas, is still a real barrier.

  3. James says:

    Hi, Jon. Merry Christmas to you and to all your commenters.

    I think that it’s *sociologically* true that “evangelical” in North America has come to mean something different from what it meant to Luther and Calvin. In North America it’s very common to hear a Christian described as “very evangelical” — meaning not primarily that the Christian propagates the orthodox Gospel faith, but that the Christian actively *propagates* — stands on street corners waving pamphlets at passersby, sings songs of his conversion at coffee-houses, invites non-Christian students to his university dorm room for Bible studies, etc. The emphasis is on *spreading* the “good news” rather than on the *contents* of the “good news.”

    There is a negative consequence of this, as can be seen by analogy with political parties. In the case of political parties, to win elections, you don’t actually need a large number of people in your party who actually understand policy issues; what you need is a large number of people who are committed to dropping off leaflets, telephoning party members for cash donations, knocking on the doors of strangers and asking for their vote, etc. Political campaigns are thus often staffed by a majority of people who are aligned with the philosophy and policies of a party, but who couldn’t converse in depth about that philosophy or those policies for more than 15 minutes.

    Where “evangelicalism” places more emphasis on communication than on substance, you get a similar situation. You get an army of lay Christians, often recent converts (who, being recent converts, are the most fired up by zeal and ready to spread what they’ve just learned), and often people with little or no theological training, running around university campuses, or neighborhoods, or the world, trying to convert people to a very crude and sometimes mistaken understanding of what Christianity is. And, whereas in political parties, there are often controls on what the communicators can say (for example, the local party office often tells the campaigners not to try to answer detailed questions of policy, but to refer members of the public to the headquarters for further information), in Christian evangelism, which is supposed (in North America, anyway) to be a “democratic” activity, it would be considered improper to restrain the “campaigners” from giving their own personal understanding of their faith, and so you get a thousand different Christian theologies being preached by a thousand different “evangelicals.”

    The answer would seem to lie in Christian education. If new converts were put into a sort of training program, during which they learned the Bible and some of the more basic and accessible writings of the Church Fathers, Luther, Calvin, etc., and some basic history of the Church, there would be more control over what such new converts eventually taught when they were loosed upon the world.

  4. Cal says:

    The whole business of language is difficult. When hit with the question of “What’s your religion?” or “What’s your faith?”, I wanted to just say “Christian” but at that response I am queried for a denominational affiliation or believed to not take it seriously.

    I started saying “I’m a Jesus-Follower” to spark questions, maybe I’ll go with “I’m evangelical, catholic, orthodox and apostolic” and weird people out. Who knows.


    PS. Congratulations on your daughter’s wedding!

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James

    What struck me about my daughter’s people was just that they seemed what I call “well taught”. Not that they had academic theology training, but that their church not only taught them “stuff”, but the basis of that “stuff”.

    My approach to preaching/teaching was always to get the people to learn how to handle the Bible, so they could arrive at what I taught them themseleves even if they forgot what I said completely. And in doing that to relate everything to Christ, and arouse faith and love as well as the intellect. Of course, I always failed!

    But on that template, it does sem that many of those interacting on the fora are not, as you suggest, “well taught”. I agree that needs remedying, and it can be done in any ordinary church willing to commit to it.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Thanks for the congrats! We’re looking forward to the couple visiting here for Christmas.

    I agree that it’s usually most helpful to avoid self-descriptors, because they get so quickly perverted nowadays. “Born Again” used to mean something just a few decades ago, but then we had “Born Again Rapists” and even “Born again VW Golfs”.

    I like your fourfold conversation starter – even then, I can imagine some savvy person saying, “Oh, you’re an Ecumenical – I agree, it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you love Jesus, whether you’re Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox or … what was that other denomination?”

    I guess we just have to talk to people…

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