The edge of evangelicalism

I’m incredibly out of touch on current church affairs in my own country. I spend too much time on the transatlantic internet. Perhaps I ought to take a Christian newspaper or something. But I noticed yesterday that the British evangelical umbrella group, the Evangelical Alliance, had reluctantly expelled an affiliated organisation.

I’m sure that, were I bothered enough to fish around, this act has raised the same kind of accusations of narrowness and intolerance one sees when maverick academics part company with denominational universities in the US (we don’t have such things here), but the plain truth is that all organisations without boundaries cease to be anything at all.

What interests me most, I think, is why people who no longer agree with an organisation, particularly something like a church with a basis of faith, don’t just leave, but try to change the whole thing whilst retaining the label. You may want to quit, or even disband, the Flat Earth Society, but campaigning to get it to adopt heliocentrism and retain its name is odd. You don’t like the Thirty-Nine Articles, but you still want to be an Anglican. You’ve lost faith in the divinity of Christ, but you still want to pastor Trinity Church. Most of the reasons I can think of for this aren’t creditable.

The case I have mentioned has been difficult because the ministry expelled is one of those organisations that cannot really be separated from its founder, a strong and (small “c”) charismatic personality with a strong media presence. So although it was the organisation that was expelled, and not the leader, the issue was one on which he has been vocal, and which the organisation accordingly promotes strongly, and refused to moderate in their publicity at the request of its umbrella organisation.I’ve referred to his first brush with evangelical belief before here.

In a book challenging an entire raft of traditional doctrines, he described substitutionary atonement (an article of the EA basis of faith both before, and since it was updated in 2004) as “cosmic child abuse,” and called on all Evangelicals to abandon it. This led to special conferences, many heartaches, and a large majority who concluded that the teaching is not only biblical, but central to Christianity. As I said in my old post, the offending phrase, and the arguments in favour of it, came not from Evangelical principles at all, but from a feminist theologian whose church’s basis of faith is, in essence, complete freedom to believe what one likes (though apparently not substitutionary atonement).

Fast forward to this very year, and a new article challenged (in a rather parallel way) the very concept that Scripture is a reliable source of doctrine. It is instead (what an unprecedented bombshell!) full of errors. As far as I can see this stuff is very much in the mould of Peter Enns and Co., and it has received the same mixture of rapturous support and criticism as that gentleman did in America. But once more it was written to Evangelicals in the name of evangelicalism to encourage a wholesale change of direction, even though the 3rd point of the EA’s basis of faith is:

The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.

I’ve often said before that all the main historic Christian traditions hold to the divine authority of Scripture (despite the misleading trope, much emphasised in the article, that “inerrancy” is a modern invention – see here). But many denominations, and many churches within denominations, hold to the lower view of Scripture (that is demonstrably the innovation to anyone who’s read any Church history). Only Evangelicals (at least in this country) major on sola scriptura, so the article, in effect, is simply calling for Evangelicals to become like everybody else – indistinguishable, in fact, from liberals. Why not instead just say, “I am now a liberal”?

I note that the author has compared the historic Evangelical attitude to Scripture to the reactionary attitude of the Church when confronted with Galileo and Copernicus – and we all know how historically accurate that is.

An example of the kind of error the article alleges in Scripture is this: wherever the Bible says that God strikes someone dead, then it is a human invention, not divinely inspired. I guess the reason is the usual one from nineteenth century liberalism: God is love, and only desires to save, so simply would not cause any death, especially for sin.

So out of the window would go the death of Achan or the skinheads who mocked Elijah in the Old Testament (and the inspired status of the authors of those stories), and also the death of Ananias and Sapphira, and King Herod, in the New (to the detriment of Luke’s reputation as a canonical evangelist).

But this kind of thing usually has greater ramifications than are immediately apparent. At a stroke it also makes the belief that all our lives are in God’s hands anathema. Our days are all written in some other guy’s book. Then again, Paul was wrong in attributing the death of some in the Corinthian church to abuse of the Eucharist, with his implication that God may sometimes end bodily life to save the spirit. Indeed, Jesus himself turns out to be in error in predicting judgement on Jerusalem, as well as in his interpretation of the death of those crushed by the tower of Siloam as being part of God’s “digging about the fruitless tree” of Israel or humanity.

Not only is Abraham’s participation in God’s deliberation about the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah fictional, but so is the deliverance of Israel from Egypt – the central salvation event of the Bible, prior to the cross – in which God slew the firstborn and Pharaoh’s army both. Likewise the covenant penalties inflicted through Assyria and Babylon for Israel’s apostasy that are, apart from the Messianic hope, the main message of the entire prophetic corpus, are simply bogus. There was no judgement, and the returning exiles like Ezra repented in vain.

As for the Flood, it’s not even symbolic any more, but just a big libel against the character of God. As was the penalty of death promised and executed in the garden of Eden.

Furthermore, of course, if God would never, ever, take the earthly life of a human being in judgement, how much less would he ever pronounce eternal judgement – the second death, as St John describes it – on anybody? The entire theme of final judgement, mainly a New Testament doctrine and far and away most often voiced by Jesus himself, is untrue, interpret it how one might. John the Baptist’s minstry of repentance to avoid the wrath to come was a sham, too.

And so, without going farther than just one category of claim about biblical errancy, this article turns the biblical landscape into a Hiroshima wasteland. Yet its writer still considers himself an evangelical, and wants the whole Evangelical world to adopt the same position.

Sadly, the final break came not on the question of the Bible, nor of atonement, but on that of Same Sex Marriage. No doubt the enemies of Christianity would put that down to Evangelicals obsession with sex (does anybody really take that charge seriously in the world of Miley Cyrus, internet pornography, epidemic sexually transmitted disease and family breakdown?), but I read it more as a “last straw” matter. It’s still unfortunate that was the issue, though.

In passing, one should note that in the UK’s recent furore over SSM, all the churches came out against it except the Quakers and the Unitarians (combined membership <21,000). That includes even the more liberal and heterogeneous denominations with little regard for the Bible. So to be calling on the Evangelical church, of all of these, to abandon its stance is – well – bizarre.

Even more ironic – in the light of the previous article on the Bible and its errors – is the argument used to justify the abandonment of regarding homosexual acts as sinful. It’s the (now familiar) one that the Bible doesn’t anywhere actually teach anything for or against same-sex attraction and relationships.

If it did, of course, it would be wrong.

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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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2 Responses to The edge of evangelicalism

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Oh the slippery slope!
    Can anyone stop sliding after even one step?

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