Can “evangelicalism” include me?

Will twenty-first century evangelicals be able to make their peace with a culture of Christianity characterized as “without inerrancy, with women, without young earth, with social justice”? Daniel Kirk hopes so.

I hope so, too! This would be a great development. But I have some misgivings about the prospect when I consider certain defining characteristics of mainstream evangelicals.

  • Most who self-identify as “conservative” evangelicals, in the U.S. anyway, view the most essential aspect of our faith to be belief in God through Jesus — and not just any belief: right belief. Right belief is then defined as holding fast to the truths revealed in the Bible.
  • Evangelicals are self-consciously “people of the Book”. Every passage of Scripture is affirmed a priori to be accurate and, if possible (and sometimes even when not), taken at face value. Every question, small or large, should be answered by reference to the Bible if at all possible. Faithful Christians are those who believe and do not allow themselves to doubt the truths of the Bible. The leading lights of the movement are those who are most successful and credible at carefully guarding the Bible from critical inquiry that potentially undermines its accuracy.
  • Probably chief among the Church’s responsibilities is to be good stewards of true theology, where “how to interpret the Bible” and “what the Bible says” are defined more or less precisely by how their own tradition interprets it. It is possible to move from one tradition to another and be considered “still a Christian”, but only as long as both traditions affirm all these fundamental assumptions I’m describing, principal of which is “the gospel” defined in their particular way.
  • Specifically, “the gospel” is defined as penal substitution, which is based upon the specific formulation that’s triumphed among Protestant systematic theologians since Calvin. “Being saved” means accepting this understanding of the gospel without question.

My point? These assumptions are all — all based in inerrancy. And that’s the first plank we want to take out!

Every inerrantist knows the stakes: take away inerrancy, and the whole beautiful structure comes crashing down. Structures like exaggerated patriarchal subordinationism, an historiographic reading of Genesis, and a view of justice that emphasizes wrathful punishment rather than extravagant mercy typically cannot stand serious scrutiny once one begins to question that the Bible is a pure chunk of divine revelation. Why, without inerrancy, we might end up with…all kinds of horrible things. Things like women in leadership, a rejection of creationism, and a de-emphasis on doctrine in favor of “social justice”. Bible believers would then have no protection from the compromise of all their carefully constructed beliefs. Rejecting inerrancy changes everything!

And you know what? There’s no sense trying to redefine key terms like “inerrancy”, “infallibility”, or “evangelicalism” just to avoid that assessment. Because inerrantists are right: in every practical sense, rejecting inerrancy changes everything.

Those who embrace inerrancy find non-inerrantist modifications of doctrine to be the primary problem. On the other hand, those who approach the Bible as sacred and thoroughly human literature (rather than as a perfectly accurate and harmonizable set of divine revelations) consider the inevitability of reevaluated doctrines to be a marked but essentially superficial difference between themselves and inerrantists: for them, the fundamental contrast lies in these groups’ views about acquiring and parsing truth. For mainstream evangelicals, most of whom at the very least take a “soft” view of inerrancy that affirms the passages of Scripture teaching doctrine as inerrant, the Bible is The Standard, and challenging the assertions made by any author of Scripture is tantamount to standing in for the serpent in the garden, hissing, “Yea, hath God said…?” For those who, like Dr. Kirk, accept even the more modest deviations from this form of inerrancy, acknowledging theological tensions, contradictions, limited authorial understanding, and outright erroneous assertions, no given passage of Scripture can ever be the absolute standard by which “good” or “bad” teachings are easily accepted or rejected. In certain areas, we must view the Church’s understanding of God’s ways to be a trajectory shaped by but not ending within Scripture.

See, for all practical purposes, rejecting inerrancy seems to yield an entirely different religion qua religion from that practiced by inerrantists. I know, that sounds outrageous on the face of it, but consider that they are separate systems with often dramatically divergent doctrinal focuses, widely variant understandings of their own mission, and, as the linchpin, highly contrastive epistemologies:

  • At bottom, inerrantists believe because the Bible says so; some have an appreciation for church tradition, but usually only as long as it bolsters their own beliefs about what the Bible says. If the Bible’s shown to be wrong, they’d sooner evacuate the premises than pick through the rubble. As goes the Bible, so goes Christianity. Truth is defined as that which is Christian.
  • Non-inerrantists believe because our understanding of God, as shaped (but not bound) by the historical community of faith whose testimonies of God comprise the Scriptures and have affirmed those testimonies in the centuries since, is consistent with and complementary to our broader understanding of history and the world we experience today. Christianity is defined as that which is true.

An analogy that comes to mind is that of older and newer versions of software. There’s a level of “backwards compatibility” for non-inerrantists such that we typically understand and can embrace conservative evangelicals as (misguided) brothers and sisters, but continuing the software analogy, I have to ask, will older versions of the software be able to process us? Sadly, I expect a negative response. Windows XP systems will simply not recognize programs written for Windows 7 as valid software!

I don’t like this schism at all. I want so badly to find a way to bring mainstream evangelicals along and find unity, but given differences this fundamental it’s so very difficult. I can’t wait for a more significant portion of the Church to adopt the culture of Christianity as conceived in Dr. Kirk’s “Evangelical Manifesto”. And I’m sure it will. But when it does, I daresay modern inerrantists won’t want to be considered a part.

I realize that his intent is speak up and say, “Hey wait, this is our religion, too — you can’t just paint us out of the picture!” But by trying to reclaim “evangelical”, we’d end up with two fundamentally different groups trying to lay claim to the same label. The hallmark of “evangelical” is a focus on the euangelion, the “gospel” — but an integral reason for the clash is that most of us can’t agree on the definition of that primary distinctive (nay, shibboleth), much less what living it out would look like. It would take a bloody, contentious coup for non-inerrantists to be able to co-opt the term “evangelical”, and I’m just not at all sure it’s worth the strife.

Unfortunately, knowing human nature, no viewpoint is able to gain any traction among the masses unless it has a catchy umbrella term or label. “We are ‘not-evangelicals’, who don’t believe this…do believe that…” will simply not fly. But our non-inerrantist culture does need a “handle” of some sort , other than the non-descriptive and baggaged “liberal” and the negative “post-evangelical” label that I am fond of using. I’m just not convinced that any attempts like Dr. Kirk’s laudable Manifesto will be enough to wrest this particular term from those currently defined by it!

Am I wrong? If not, what can be done?

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