Recently, I have realised two things.
First, I often sound like a teacher when I speak or preach–I wonder if this means that I am perceived as far more dogmatic or inflexible than I experience within myself. I wonder if people think I am a Fundamentalist Christian, when I would say, quite clearly: NO.
Second, I think it might help to clarify something that often isn’t clear among liberal or progressive Christians: the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism within the Christian tradition. For myself, I consider myself, for the purposes of this entry, a progressive evangelical.
The difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical at the level of academic practice is fairly simple, in my view.
- People who are Fundamentalist generally believe that they are not interpeting Scripture, and/or that human interpetation is solely the result of Sin; they also tend to be culturally isolationist, because of a belief that Satan can easily contaminate the Church with influences that subvert the Gospel.
- Evangelicals, on the other hand, realise they are interpreting Scripture and/or that the process of interpetation is a good part of the human situation; they also tend to be culturally interactive, believing that though evil exists in the world, the Spirit is working in recognizable ways to bring liberation.
Unfortunately, at a lay level many self-identified Evangelicals are better described theologically and sociologically as Fundamentalists. I realised I was an Evangelical for the first time when I was 18, during my first year of Bible College at an Evangelical Bible school on the Canadian prairies.
Scholar David Bebbington gives a ‘quadrilateral’ of values shared in common by the worldwide evangelical movement: “conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism.” I want to share what how I interpret each core value, and the questions I am asking about each one.
Conversionism, or belief in the necessity of being “born again“, has been a constant theme of Evangelicalism since its beginnings. To Evangelicals, the central message of the gospel is justification by faith in Christ and repentance, or turning away, from sin. Conversion differentiates the Christian from the non-Christian, and the change in life it leads to is marked by both a rejection of sin and a corresponding personal holiness of life. A conversion experience can be emotional, including grief and sorrow for sin followed by great relief at receiving forgiveness. The stress on conversion is further differentiated from other forms of Protestantism by the belief that an assurance of salvation will accompany conversion. Among Evangelicals, individuals have testified to both sudden and gradual conversions.
Though Evangelicalism prioritizes a crisis of conversion–a specific moment where one realises one is a follower of Jesus–I choose (with many Anglicans) to interpret more broadly. One is born again who acknowledges Jesus as Lord and who lives according to that trust, regardless of whether or not one can remember “the moment” of first allegiance. Though “assurance of salvation” can sound arrogant, it seems to be felt (mystical?) experience of trust–if Christ is who Scripture, the Church, and our experience claim he is, why would he fail to save those who put their trust in him?
Biblicism is reverence for the Bible and a high regard for biblical authority. All Evangelicals believe in biblical inspiration, though they disagree over how this inspiration should be defined. Many Evangelicals believe in biblical inerrancy, while other Evangelicals believe in biblical infallibility.
I’m not sure if I revere the Bible, but I do believe in biblical authority. To me, the authority of the Bible derives from the authority of Christ. The biblical library has authority because yes, it is inspired and useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training for justice so that the friend of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16, my translation); even more importantly, it has authority because it is the primary means through which the Church hears the Voice of God in Christ. I believe that Jesus uses Scripture (centred on the Gospels) to teach us about how to live as members of the household and Kingdom of God. If one of the inspired functions of Scripture is to teach us justice, I think it is permissible, in controlled and thoughtful ways, to disagree with parts of Scripture or to prioritize one strand of the biblical tradition over others. (I believe Jesus himself did this.) I deny biblical inerrancy and don’t know what to think about infallibility–but I believe it would benefit all Christians to treat the Bible as the most information-rich source that we have (when read through the ministry of Christ) about the character of God and the meaning and destination of the Divine project that we call Creation.
Crucicentrism is the attention that Evangelicals give to the Atonement, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, that offers forgiveness of sins and new life. This is understood most commonly in terms of a substitutionary atonement, in which Christ died as a substitute for sinful humanity by taking on himself the guilt and punishment for sin.
The death on cross of Jesus, with his bodily resurrection, is (with most other Christian traditions) the basis of the Christian faith. I affirm that Jesus was the one crucified on a cross by the Romans, entailing his actual death. (This affirmation means that I cannot affirm one of the core assertions about Jesus in Islam.) I also believe that most ancient Christian writers we have (including Paul and the writers of the Gospels) used the term anastasis (resurrection) because they affirmed that Jesus returned to bodily life again after a period of really being dead (I owe this analysis to NT Wright in his several works on the historical Jesus). If this bodily resurrection is true, for me it raises the question of why it occurred–what does it say about the character of the universe, of God, of Jesus, and of humankind? Though I believe that Christian lay people can struggle with affirming the bodily resurrection (they always have, at least if 1 Corinthians 15 is any indication), I believe that those entrusted with teaching offices in the Church must affirm the bodily resurrection in order to tell the Gospel accurately and helpfully, regardless of how this may seem in contemporary Western culture.
As to the nature of the Atonement, there are many theories in the history of the Church. I am convinced that many of them have value, but the point is not my theory of Atonement, but what I affirm about the character of God. Most Christians throughout the world and its history believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus has “saved” the universe, putting it back on track and giving humankind the ability to cooperate with God in the divine plans. Most Christians would say that we need liberation from the Fall, or Sin, which I would define as “that power that energizes and enables all forms of intersectional oppression and harm.” There is not a single human being in history (save Jesus) who has been human enough to avoid complicity in Sin’s power.
One particular form of Atonement theory that I find wholly destructive is the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (please note that substitution more broadly is not ruled out). I reject the idea that God needed to kill his son in order to placate his anger so that he could love the rest of us unconditionally. (In this form of the story, God has the psychological profile of an abusive parent or spouse–Jesus himself, I am convinced, would not consider this picture of God accurate or healthy! I believe that though the cross was a cruel act of violence upon Godself, God was willing to endure it in order to demonstrate the inexhaustible Divine Love and the emptiness of the cycle of redemptive violence. Perhaps God did not need the death of Jesus to forgive sin (both personal and systemic), but God was willing to subvert the cruelty of the cross in order to forecast the eventual superabundant life and peace of the universe.
Activism describes the tendency towards active expression and sharing of the gospel in diverse ways that include preaching and social action. This aspect of Evangelicalism continues to be seen today in the proliferation of Evangelical voluntary religious groups and parachurch organizations.
I believe in sharing the story of Jesus and the Kingdom of God with everyone I meet, in both words and actions. Given that Christianity is so often a force that cooperates with destructive forces in the world (for example, imperialism, nationalism, philosophical materialism, and globalizing capitalism–not to mention racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia), I am looking for ways to live and speak this Story (which is supposed to be Good News, after all!) in ways that both resist and acknowledge complicity in all of these forces. It is not my job to “convert” anyone or force them to listen to me. My job is to testify to Jesus in ways that are compelling, beautiful, and deeply loving. I believe that the central question that I want to ask people is, “How would cultivating a living relationship with Jesus transform your life and wider situation toward the deep flourishing that is the birthright of/God’s desire for the universe?” And if people answer that question differently than would I, or not at all, I will remain open for conversation, but cultivate a deep trust that Jesus will get it all right in the end. I like to put it this way: “Jesus is a big boy–he chooses his own friends.”
I realise that my summary thus far leaves open many other things I could say (or clarify), but for now I hope it is becoming clear that I do not want to be a fundamentalist, nor motivated by fear in my experience and articulation of the Christian faith generally, or even (God helping me!) my own permutation of it.
A final thought (for now): when I use the term progressive for myself, I mean three things: first, that I want to ‘progress’ toward knowing Jesus better; second, that I believe the universe is ‘progressing’ toward God, not because of human ingenuity or ability but because of God’s faithfulness; and third, that I believe allowing maximum latitude for human agency within a framework of ‘just love’ is better than trying to restrict human behaviour in order to make sure that we don’t get it wrong.
As always, I welcome questions and comments of all kinds. I can’t promise answers, but I’ll do my best to have cogent responses! Besides, I am learning to trust that it’s not whether I have all the answers that is important, but whether the Answer (the Love made known in Jesus) has me.