Recently a reader of Gnostic America e-mailed me with a list of questions regarding evangelicalism. Here are his questions and my answers.
Where did the evangelical church come from?
I think evangelicalism has been around for the history of the Church, that is, as a doctrinal orientation. Obviously being “evangelical” is what the Church is and should always be about. But as an orientation, a methodology, or, regarding “first principles,” or a prioris, evangelicalism as we understand it is rooted, I believe, in the tension created by the “extra nos” (outside of us) character of our Savior.
Christianity is the one religion that locates salvation in a physical, “outside of us” personality, a personality who is grounded in history. All the other religions work on the inside. They call you from the inside. They require some sort of intellectual, emotional, or will-based involvement of your person. Christianity is total gift, which means (and necessitates) that the locus of salvation is in a formed, framed, defined, distinguished, outside-of-me person or thing.
Where Jesus is is salvation. This is true for the widow’s son, who had no faith to receive the gift, but was completely passive. It’s also true for the nine lepers who didn’t thank the Lord, or the ones with weak, sleeping, struggling, or little faith (like Peter). It’s also true for the infants brought to Jesus to be blessed. It’s true for the lame man at the pool of Siloam who didn’t believe in Jesus until after he was healed.
In the case of the lame man of Matthew 9, Jesus looked to the faith of those carrying him, not to the lame man’s faith, when he said “Your sins are forgiven you.” My point being, faith as understood in terms of will, emotion, or intellect is not really the issue in the Gospels. The issue is Jesus. And even if your faith is teeny tiny, the object (extra nos) of that faith is always the same.
When you understand that faith is the possession and work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church, all of the above makes sense. On any given Sunday, the Church will be full of weak faith, small faith, struggling faith, doubting faith, and even no faith. Sometimes someone’s faith will be carried by the other’s “Our” in the Lord’s Prayer.
But the same Jesus – the Body of Christ working the faith through the liturgy — is the same. As one of my professors used to say, we don’t do the faith, the faith does us. As a pastor, this allows me to be patient with members. I don’t feel like I have to browbeat them into more “authentic” Christianity, or more “heartfelt” or more whatever Christianity. I just preach the boring old Word and let the gifts do their work.
What is the evangelical church’s problem?
Throughout history, there has been an element in Christendom that wants “something more.” What I describe above seems too rote, too formal, too ritualistic. Again, just as a side note, on this I’d say by way of analogy, when your grandma dies, what are the things people remember most fondly about her loving ways? They usually remember the things she did habitually, the cookies she made, what she did on Christmas, or whatever. They say things like, “I remember how she always used to…” It was the rituals. It was the rote, wherein her love was made manifest.
The same is true of the Lord and His Church. When the darkness of life comes hardest, people LOVE to come back to the church and liturgy of their youth, to hear the Lord’s Prayer, to sing what the church has sung for millennia. It reminds them that they are taking part in something bigger than themselves…and their current dark problems.
In any event, throughout history, there has been that element which believed the above description of the Church created “half Christians” or insincere Christians. That may be true, but where Jesus’ solution to the problem was to simply acknowledge that yes, hypocrites will always be in the Church (see the parable of the sower et. al.) — that this is one of the crosses we bear in the church — there historically has been another solution, and that is to create a sort of “church within a church” of the “truly sincere” or “truly saved.” The Gnostics fell for this, of course, but so did the early charismatics. I would argue the monastic movement began with this vibe.
In the Middle Ages it was the millenarians, Bohemians, and others groups. At the Reformation it was the Anabaptists. Their spirit was taken over by Puritans, Methodists, and in America, the early Evangelical groups. The interesting thing to me is that the “Bible Alone” piety often going hand in hand with this groups is not about the final authority in doctrine. It’s about wresting control of its interpretation from the Church and the tradition.
Everybody interprets the Bible. The historic and traditional way of interpreting it in the Church led to infant baptism, the real presence in the Sacrament, and other sacramental aspects of the church like confession and absolution. As the Lutherans attest to, you can be a “Bible Alone” church body in terms of doctrine and still retain all these elements from tradition. (In fact, based on the Bible Alone I’m amazed how everyone is NOT Lutheran.)
To me it clearly teaches the sacraments, confession/absolution, and yes, even the liturgy, but that’s for another conversation.) Rather, the issue for the evangelicals throughout history is cutting out the “middle man” in terms of interpretation, the middle man being the Church, it’s ministers, its formal principles (creeds and confessions), its traditions, its liturgy, etc.
In a nutshell, I would say that evangelicals’ biggest problem is acknowledging the role of the Holy Spirit in the creation and sustainment of the Church. They sort of cut out this part and act as if God dropped down a Bible after Jesus ascended, and now its up to us to take the Bible and come up with a church. This necessarily leads to personality cults and cult figures.
Once you re-introduce the Church into theology, you can dialogue in and with the Church through history, you can see the emergence of the Creed as a good and spiritual thing, you can embrace the liturgy not as man’s tradition, but as the work of the Holy Spirit. True, you have to deal with new issues, like, “Whoa, is the Roman Catholic Church the logical end of this way of thinking? Or the Greek Orthodox?” If so, so be it. Truth is truth. But I personally don’t believe you have to take that route.
How can the evangelical church fix it?
How can the evangelical church fix it? I hate to go Emergent here, but we need to keep the discussion and conversations going on. I was thinking this morning how strange things are in today’s church. I can wake up to a short text/blurb from a Texan Christian due to an article I posted in The Federalist in Washington D. C. because of a book I had churned out from my office in my little ghetto in Toledo. And now we’re talking this stuff. And what’s guiding us always? Both the Scripture and creed, the centrality of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection for us, and the mystery of His leaving behind the Holy Spirit in the Church and what this means. That means, as far as first principles go, we’re at least on the same page. Jesus says “Seek, and you will find.” We are seeking, both of us, and Jesus promises we will find.
By way of analogy, the historic Church is like the ocean liner, loaded with fuel, enough fuel to get from point A to point B. The fuel is the Holy Spirit, the Word, the Creed, the liturgy, all the “spiritual stuff” that carries us to that final day. The ocean liner lumbers slowly on.
Evangelicals are like people on the boat wanting to go on jet skis. Jet skis are more fun. They go quicker. You can dart here and there. Chase squirrels. You can also go far ahead of the boat and see what’s on the horizon. You can go over to an island you think is on the horizon and set up shop there (the millenarians). You can also run out of gas if you go too far from the ocean liner. Then you’re out of luck.
Some evangelicals (like certain Emergents) go flying out far from the boat and run out of gas. They get to the point where they’re saying things like “Why need the name of Jesus? Jesus is abstracted love. To love is to follow Jesus. Etc.” They run out of gas far from the boat, and now they go adrift wherever the cultural currents take them. They become either atheist, full-fledged gnostic, or whatever.
Some evangelicals dart far ahead of the boat. They have a keen, almost prophetic grasp on where the Church is headed, the cultural currents its entering and so on, and when their evangelicalism runs out of gas, at about that point they realize how important the historic Church was for their ride – that’s where all the fuel is! The boat catches up with them and they join a more historic creed like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Reformed, Anglicanism, or Lutheranism.
Now, here’s where things get fun regarding the historic creeds. The Roman Catholics would say, “See, that’s why the captain of the ship is so important. He guides us to our destination.” The Anglicans would say, “No, there are a lot of people trained to be captains, all of whom can steer the ship.” The Lutherans say, “Anyone can steer the ship so long as you have a simple manual and some basic shipping skills. Aim for the destination and steer the ship. It’s the ship that’s most important, the construction and security of it. So long as that’s in place, you’re good. Besides that, the captain is drunk.” The Orthodox say, “Why did the captain allow the jet skis on board the ship in the first place? What’s wrong with him?”