Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Battle for the Soul of Evangelicalism

I have a lot of thoughts flitting about my head at the moment and am trying to get them into some sort of order. It will probably take a couple of blog posts to do it. So this is Part 1, I guess.

Let me start at the beginning. A couple of months, wait, let me go further back. About 6 years ago, as I was preparing to enter the Church but still quite involved with Evangelical activities (it was a strange yet very fruitful transitional time), I was chatting to the then-President of the Sydney University Evangelical Union, Andrew. We had just finished a small group Bible study and were talking about books we were reading. He pulled one out that he had nearly finished and started raving about it to me. It was called "What Saint Paul Really Said" and was by a fellow called N.T. Wright, whom I later discovered to be the Anglican bishop of Durham. Intrigued, I went out and picked up a copy and began to read it. I was a bit put off by the title (seemed a bit presumptuous to claim to know what Paul meant with the implication that few others did) but I was impressed by the content. The perspective was fresh, the methodology refreshingly free of prooftexting and several of the conclusions mirrored things I had been thinking about justification myself (eg. imputed righteousness as a misreading of Paul).

As time went on, I became aware that there was a theological movement going on in Evangelicalism that had similar emphases and conclusions, called the New Perspective on Paul. But by that point I was in the Catholic Church, so these were like rumours from a distant land. Evangelicalism has fads like this and they come and go (eg. dispensationalism was huge in the 70s and 80s- well do I remember Hal Lindsay and companions- but doesn't seem to be nearly as big these days).

Fast forward to about a month ago. I happened upon a book review on the blog of an acquaintance of mine (and dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law) from Glenmore Park Anglican, who is presently at Moore College (the Anglican seminary in Sydney, for those who don't know). The review was of "The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright" by John Piper. John Piper, if you haven't heard of him, is one of the big names in Evangelicalism. He is the pastor of a Baptist church in America and has written dozens of books. A number of small groups at Glenmore Park Anglican have been working through one of his books over the past several weeks, in fact- I had a look through it at the behest of my (other) brother some time ago and found it to be pretty solid. In other words, Piper is a popular writer, not a polemicist. If he has "A Response to (insert individual's name)" as the subtitle of one of his books, something's going on. Curious at the fuss in high and influential places, I did a search to see if N.T. Wright had written a response to this response to him. As it turned out, he had (once again I thought, hmm...something's going on here- bishops, especially modern Anglican ones, are also not usually given to personalised polemics).

So I went out and purchased both books. I began with Piper's. This afternoon I finished Wright's.

I want to blog more on specifics over the next few days, not least to get my thoughts in order and to gather up my margin notes into something a bit more coherent. But for the moment, some initial impressions.

Firstly, having just plowed through both books in a matter of about two weeks (and they are pretty dense), I find myself reeling from the experience. This is not least because it has been not unlike finding oneself in a Godzilla movie. Piper and Wright, whatever else one may say about them, are giants. These are theologians and biblical exegetes at the top of their game. Neither man is sloppy in his reasoning, neither misrepresents his opponent's ideas, neither is uncharitable to his opponent but neither compromises his own view. These are two men who have no interest in polemics for its own sake, who take deadly seriously their responsibility as pastors and who have total reverence for the Scriptures. Yet their views on Paul's meaning are, in many aspects, diametrically opposed. Not so much in the particulars (although they are sometimes that) but in the whole way they read the Epistles (and indeed the whole Bible). Both are what would be called conservative in doctrine, yet each comes at the Pauline epistles and, thus, a good deal of Christian theology, with a completely different way of reading and understanding them (and it). For this reason, it has been quite a spectacle.

Secondly, there dawns over me the distinct impression that the views represented by these two men are not a side-issue, another theological fad (like dispensationalism was). In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion (which I'm still mulling over and testing against reality) that this is the battleground over which the future of Evangelicalism is going to be fought over the next 30-40 years. That's a big claim, but let me set out my reasons for this growing suspicion.

Obviously, its more than just Piper and Wright. On the one hand, you have, arrayed out behind Piper, the Reformed/Calvinist line. The Calvinists have been making a comeback over the past couple of years. When I was at Sydney Uni, Arminianism seemed generally taken for granted. I recall at Annual Conference 2004 that the doctrine of free will was held up as a non-negotiable. I also recall the doctrine of total depravity being held up as something we should believe, but not in the Calvinist sense that "man is utterly depraved and can therefore neither desire nor do any good of himself" but rather "there is no human faculty that has been left untouched by the influence of sin", which is a perfectly Arminian and, indeed, Catholic way of understanding total depravity. Since then, I have noticed many of my Evangelical friends and acquaintances here in Sydney take a much more Calvinist line. I am aware that the Anglican archbishop here is a Calvinist. I also note with interest that several of the more popular writers and speakers among Evangelicals in the past couple of years have tended to be Calvinists. John Piper, of course, is one example. Another notable is Mark Driscoll, who seems to be quite popular (though I hear rumours he's not as solid on Limited Atonement as some would like him to be). This is a relatively new thing, I should point out. Not that long ago, the Evangelical pillars were all Arminian- Billy Graham, John Stott, etc. So there is a definite trend here, and I think the more Arminian Evangelicalism, whose forebears were people like the Wesleys and George Whitefield, is on its way out. There do remain those that wouldn't dream of questioning free will. When I was talking about this with my parents, they were horrified to think there were people (much less Evangelicals) who genuinely believed that God predestined some to perdition. I fear, however, the time of such horror is drawing to a close.

On the other hand, arrayed behind Wright, is the New Perspective, Sanders, Dunn and the like. Here we have a whole new way of reading Scripture, based on covenant theology and what we know of actual Judaism during the Second Temple period. This view is adamant that Scripture must be read in its context with attention paid to the whole of the author's meaning, undiluted by later theological accretions and uses to which these texts were later put. The New Perspective regard the covenant with Israel as foundational to how one understands what Paul says about soteriology, ecclesiology and everything else. They tend to focus much more on a cosmic (rather than individualist) soteriology, accept a more active role for the Holy Spirit and are big on participationism. They prefer to leave behind sixteenth century categories, inserting their own (which may or may not be Paul's own, depending on whether you agree with them). This view is becoming popular in many quarters. As I said, I was first recommended Wright by the E.U. President. I have met others who find themselves ascribing more and more to this methodology and its conclusions. Also, I noted with interest that Wright was interviewed sympathetically in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney outreach programme "The Christ Files", aired on public television (!) during Easter 2007 ( a terrific programme, I must say, which put us Catholics to shame with regards to presenting society with the gospel- although we made it up the following year with World Youth Day).

Both movements have their thumb firmly in the Evangelical pie. And neither can be easily dismissed by your average Evangelical churchgoer as theologically liberal or unbiblical. Now let me describe a couple of reasons why I think the future of Evangelicalism must lie with one or the other.

The fact that it cannot lie with both seems clear. Their ways of reading Paul (which is what Evangelicals usually mean by 'reading the Bible') are incompatible with each other. There could be compromise on particular doctrines, but these are whole theological narratives that are at stake.

Each view has certain advantages. The Reformed/Calvinist side has the advantage of history and (ironically) tradition. Forensic justification, imputed righteousness, faith alone; these are Protestant bread and butter and have been for centuries. To the average Evangelical today, these were the battle-cries of the Reformation (I remain sceptical that that was in fact the case, but let us leave that for the moment). And the Reformation is, of course, the foundational event of Protestantism. Call that into question and what is left (-a lot, of course, but none of that stuff is really on the radar unless the Evangelical in question is talking to a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian)? Piper (and others) appeal to this a lot. Their theology has the venerable and holy names of Luther and Calvin attached to it. To question what seems to most Evangelicals to be the centre of their theology seems to put one outside of Protestantism altogether. On the other hand, to uphold it is to continue to defend the truth that the Reformation was begun to defend, and therefore to place oneself side by side with those brave and noble Reformers. One questions the foundational narrative of one's culture at one's peril. One upholds it for the good of all. The Calvinists see themselves as doing the latter, and they regard the salvation of individuals to be at stake. That's something worth fighting for.

On the other hand, the New Persective actually has a lot going for it. It appeals to perennial Protestant instincts: the inclination to go back ad fontes, to the sources; the reverence for Scripture and the desire to strip away extraneous traditions and get at what Scripture actually teaches. These are very deep desires in the Protestant heart, and the New Perspective appeals to them in a big way. To those who ascribe to this view, the Calvinists appear to be clinging to human traditions and muzzling the Scriptures. The New Perspective also see themselves as taking on the mantle of the Reformers, but by tearing down fallacious and misleading philosophical and theological edifices and getting back to the pure doctrine of the early Church.

I may be wrong on this, but I get a greater and greater sense that this is going to be the Evangelical battle over the next couple of decades, and that the Evangelicalism that emerges will look rather different to what comes before, the same way the Wesleys looked quite different from both the Reformers and the Puritans. I shall say more of each side, and of my thoughts on specific arguments and exegeses, in future posts over the next week or so. Suffice to say, for the moment, its a battle not to be missed.


Kiran said...

Of course, foundational narratives aside, what one gleans from reading the whole debate over Mark Driscoll is that it is a debate over anthropology and morality. Is the future of Evangelicanism supposed to be antinomian, or wedded to a kind of "divine positive law" idea of morality, or to some kind of defensible rational morality? At root, the debate is about what men are. If men are so totally depraved that they are incapable of anything but a perpetual external "covering-over", then Christianity can only be a kind of hypocrisy. I am saved. You are not, unless you accept what I say. And there is nothing more to my being saved than that God counts me as righteous. There is also the additional problem then of Christianity (and particularly Christian marriage) as effectively male oppression: There is no reason for it, except Divine Positive Law, which is completely arbitrary. And there is the problem of rationality: If man is only externally covered over, and no longer retains the image of God in any sense except as it is imputed to him, then rationality effectively has to go out the window. Everything just is, on the Calvinists' say-so.

Although I must admit I come at this from a long way off: I never was comfortable describing myself as a Protestant, even as an Anglican, and even today, I wouldn't like to describe Keble, say, as a Protestant, properly so called: One recalls in this regard that the Oxford Movement at large, refused to subscribe to the martyrs' memorial.

matthias said...

I was never a Calvinist and when asked if i am an Evangelical i am tempted to say "I think that it is an interesting comment that you mkae regarding Calvinists "muzzling " the Scriptures,because I have always had this view. I wonder where John 3 verse 16 sits in all of this? T
I also found refreshing NT Wrights comments,regarding Life after Life,which was commented on at Schutz's blog.