Thursday, October 1, 2015

The central evangelical strength is also its main weakness

The scholarly definition of evangelical is best summarised by Bebbington's quadrilateral: "biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism." Fred Sanders, while introducing the Trinity as understood and expressed by Evangelicals, observes the central weakness of evangelicalism as soteriological over-emphasis (aka "over-realised soteriology") in the beginning of his book, The Deep Things of God: how the Trinity changes everything
"When evangelicalism wane into an anaemic condition, as it sadly has in recent decades, it happens in this way: the points of emphasis are isolated from the main body of Christian truth and handled as if they are the whole story rather than the key points. Instead of teaching the full council of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming), anaemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!). But in isolation from the total matrix of Christian truth, the cross doesn't make the right kind of sense.A message about nothing but the cross is not emphatic. It is reductionist. The rest of the matrix matters." (Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 16)
However this is the essential strength of evangelicals, the focus on salvation, Jesus and the Bible. It's also the main weakness because the context that gives those three topics meaning and significance is lost if you tune up the volume all the way to "eleven". On the one-hand weekly preaching requires a weekly sequence of clear ideas returning to these central themes. On the other-hand, that gets boring and theologically lopsided very quickly. The tonic of course is exegetical preaching where you wrestle with the ideas as they turn up, putting them in their local context, the wider Scriptural context and then the listeners context. While trying not to be Hegelian, it's a see-saw of pushing your evangelical congregation to be enthusiastic about salvation, Jesus and the Bible while all the time challenging them with the confusing, controversial and strange ideas of Scripture.

[From left to right, top to bottom: William Wilburforce, Billy Graham, Christianity Today, Peter Akinola]