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Evangelicalism and the Post-Truth World

Posted by M.Ferris on

Are evangelicals responsible for the “post-truth” world? A recent NY Times opinion piece by Molly Worthen makes this claim, but that conclusion is far from certain. I think history argues against that – even recent history.  If one lays the blame for giving up on facts at the feet of evangelicals, one of the first data points to consider is there no easy answer to the question, “what is an evangelical?” Worthen’s own work asks this question, and she acknowledges the answer to this far from clear. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she notes:

“The term evangelical has produced more debate than agreement. The word is so mired in adjectives and qualifiers, contaminated by politicization and stereotype, that many commentators have suggested that it has outlived its usefulness.”[1]

By her own observation, then, the term is nebulous and fraught with imprecision. Worthen seems to focus on an evangelical subculture, fundamentalism perhaps as responsible for a disdain for science and other facts as informing their view of the world. To be sure, there have been skeptics of science, but it’s a more difficult claim to make that such a subculture has shaped all of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals, indeed I would say most, do not fixate on the Bible as a scientific text, but are content to answer “undefined” to various questions of natural science. The biblical record is an account God’s dealings with humanity, our sin and failure, and God’s own provision of a savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The unfolding of his plan, and the revelation of God’s glory through Christ are the heart of the narrative. As science may touch on these things, the Bible notes that, but almost in passing; “he made the stars also.” As Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The Scriptures were given, not to tell us how the heavens go, but to teach us how to go to heaven.” The broad swath of evangelicalism I’ve been exposed to has never majored on scientific authority, much less fossils or archaeology as any formative part of the Christian faith.

Worthen acknowledges “evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” But while evangelicals believe the supernatural is real, the fact that others believe only in the natural doesn’t mean they are any less contemptuous of the other side. There is an entire school of thought (aka worldview) that says the Enlightenment certainty about the scientific method and rational conclusions is flawed. Structuralism and Post-structuralism cast these assumptions aside, and with it, one can credibly argue, any certainty about truth. These are the heirs of Nietzsche, not exactly a friend of evangelicals, who said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” That is just as presuppositional an apologetic as Cornelius Van Til or any other Christian may offer. It’s a worldview that is exclusive and rules out all others.

While focusing on a few evangelicals whose embrace of science caused them to run afoul of their Christian institutions, Worthen does not address the treatment of science as a faith in and of itself. It is an objective source of truth, a canon by which its adherents measure fact. One need only look at the numerous revisions to “settled science” to see that as a tenuous claim. In the 18th Century, it was settled science to bleed a patient suffering from any number of maladies. That, of course, is now considered medical hokum. Or more recently, A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong. Our knowledge of science doesn’t represent a static body of doctrine, but something that is always changing. “We might be wrong” is something one hears too infrequently from the scientific community. The mandarins of science today have often coalesced with atheism; Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al, to posit a worldview that is just as dismissive of any view that doesn’t accord with their its orthodoxy. To paraphrase Worthen, they too have one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Science, [that] does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a spiritually-deluded simpleton. There is plenty of truth denial on the other end of the theological spectrum as well. The new definition of gender fluidity contradicts the science of XX and XY, but this didn’t emerge from evangelicalism.

Worthen also observes that Christian academia can become an uncomfortable place for any who would challenge the received orthodoxy, but that goes both ways. It’s long been the case that Christians or others who disagree with the prevalent academic mindset (i.e., left of center) have experienced that kind of marginalization. The claim of the Bible is that there is such a thing as truth, it matters, and it is knowable. That’s actually the opposite of “post-truth.” The truth is preeminently a person, Jesus Christ.  We shouldn’t confuse poor or sloppy handling of the truth with “post-truth.” Atheists and others who share no beliefs with evangelicals have just as firm a commitment that theirs is only correct version of reality. That’s not the provenance of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have a duty to handle the truth carefully, as a trust that we pass on to the next generation. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim that evangelical faith in the Bible as God’s authority has given us the world of “post-truth.” There’s a whole lot of blame to go around for that.

[1] Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 88-95). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.


Caveat Credor: The Hazards of Confessionalism

Posted by M.Ferris on

According to Wikipedia, Confessionalism is “a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.” It is not an unalloyed blessing. Confessionalism arises in times of theological pluralism, as an attempt to define the borders, and to mark the boundaries of orthodoxy. In this sense, the Bible itself promotes confessionalism. The apostolic gospel summary that Paul provides in 1 Cor. 15 is a least common denominator, apart from which one cannot be a follower of Jesus. And at the start of the Galatian epistle, Paul excoriates those who preach a different gospel from the one he previously announced to them. You cannot hold this “other gospel” of justification by works of law and be considered a follow of Jesus. That sort of boundary-marking is Scripturally endorsed, and not problematic. In a day of pluralism, the appeal to mark off what is and is not orthodox is great. But confessionalism can also create an artificial confidence. If you look at the early examples of the regula fidei or rule of faith, you see not detailed explanations of various doctrinal points, but broad outlines of what on must believe to be considered within the Christian faith. When confessionalism moves beyond that, to fine-grained delineations of a faith community, then we encounter the problems of it.

Confessionalism can diminish the mysteries of the faith.

When I use the word mysteries, I am not equating that with mystagogy. It is not hocus pocus (hoc est corpus meum – this is my body – morphed into hocus pocus by those who viewed transubstantiation as some magical transformation of Christ’s body.) Nor do I mean the biblical definition of a truth that was keep hidden in the counsels of God, but later revealed to us. (“which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”) I mean those theological paradoxes, or putative paradoxes that we, by our nature want to solve, but which remain unexplained in Scripture. How can God have planned from eternity past that Jesus would be put to death on the cross, and yet hold mankind responsible for this? “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) Or the perennial example of how God is sovereign over all his creation and creatures, and yet he has given them choice and will to act. Attempts to solve these paradoxes have resulted in confessionalism, which while defining the borders, nonetheless can reduce the counsels of God to what we understand. We are uncomfortable with a prolonged – perhaps lifelong – tension between these things. Paul writes at the end of Rom. 11, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Confessionalism in some way says, “we have searched his judgments and at last found out his ways.” In some areas, I still feel the need to say “I don’t know.” Be careful that confessionalism isn’t back door hubris about the things of God, a different way of saying “there are no ambiguities.”

Confessionalism can be a pretext for division.

I tread carefully in this area because it’s exceedingly important to note that the truth does divide. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52) But the division Jesus speaks of is between those who accept him, and those who reject him. This is a division between the children of God and the children of the devil. Distinction and division of this kind is important. That is not what I refer to.  Elsewhere the Twelve come to Jesus saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40). The one casting out demons was doing so in Jesus name, and Jesus says do not prevent him. The objection was, “he does not follow us.” He is a follower of Jesus, but not in our group. I don’t think it’s difficult to see a warning of when confessionalism could become sectarianism. I should add that I think it’s proper for a church to require consistency among leaders. (But we easily come into issues of membership, constitution, by-laws, and other things about which Scripture does not speak). If a leader holds strongly to a premillennial position, but the church as a whole does not, it may well be right that this leader not teach his view from the pulpit, in classes or home groups. And before coming into leadership, those discussions should take place. What I’m speaking of is more general, perhaps restricted to one’s attitude. Confessionalism may arise when one joins a local church, but even if one signs on the line in such an instance, (and I don’t say this is wrong) it need not mean that you are taking your input only from denominational or confessional sources alone. Indeed, it should not mean this.

Confessionalism can stunt theological understanding and engagement.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if confessionalism is shaping your view of Scripture in potentially unhelpful ways. Do you read books, or listen to sermons and podcasts only from your confessional camp? It’s important to engage with opposing viewpoints on big theological issues. Confessionalism can lead to an echo chamber, which leaves you with an impoverished understanding. Creeds are general and non-specific, but confessional documents get to more detail and if those documents are elevated to authoritative status, it is a warning sign. The same holds true for our theological heroes. Do you disagree with your theological champions on anything? The collected writings of (fill in the blank) are never the final word on anything. If you find yourself agreeing with everything a person wrote, that, too is a warning flag.

Confessionalism appears to offer certainty in a time of confusion. When those around us are abandoning fundamental doctrines of the faith, then the attraction of planting our flag with a particular community is real. Evangelicalism is in a state of flux if not crisis, and many are casting about for something definitive. But one should be careful when your sole input is from one confessional viewpoint. One can learn a lot from confessional documents, but if you are tuned to one channel only, turn the knob once in a while.


Whither Evangelicalism?

Posted by M.Ferris on


An article at Religion News Service on the Future of Evangelicalism in America examines (once again) the questions of what lies ahead for an admittedly amorphous movement. The article is really just a teaser for the book the same name, and I say once again because this has been a topic of discussion and research in the recent past. Molly Worthen’s Apostle’s of Reason: the Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is a good piece of both history and journalism, and chiefly because Worthen squarely faces the question of “What does the term evangelical mean?” Her answer, and that of several others: not much.

Mark Silk, who coedited the book, mentions David Bebbington’s “Evangelical Quadrilateral” in the article, but only to say that his co-editor wanted to stick to that as a working definition, while admitting the “movement” may have outgrown the designations. Much of what Bebbington identified as essential elements of evangelicalism is absent from its current forms. And that is why I agree with Worthen that the label has really come to have no meaning. For many, “evangelical” has more significance to identify a voting block, rather than core theological convictions, and that is a sad fact of evangelicalism’s current state.

Growth in numbers may mean a certain demographic is on the rise, and for evangelicalism in its American forms of today, that’s about all one can say. Numbers are rising in various churches, (“demographically, evangelicalism is holding its own. It has supplanted the Mainline Protestantism as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America.”) but how has the substance changed?  I wrote previously about evangelical heterodoxy, and I’m sorry to say I don’t see this trend changing. Nor is mysticism or sacramentalism the answer. No matter what moniker we want to wear – evangelical, protestant, seeker – if we aren’t moored to Scripture and to its authority, any future we have won’t much matter.

These concerns aren’t new, but Christians always need to be reminded to hew close to Scripture, and to keep mining the riches of the word of God. It’s only in the word we learn about the Word, Jesus. The need for the Church today is the same as it’s always been. Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, Christ. I recall early in my Christian life, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. “Good preaching, good music.” I said. This brother answered me in a way that has stuck with me ever since. “How about Christ-centered?” I had never thought of that before, but it made immediate sense. Evangelicals are no more immune to drifting away from their foundation than anyone else. Mature believers know they never outgrow their dependence on the Bible, which properly read, will continually lead them back to Christ.