Evangelical Theology


From a recent issue of Australia’s evangelical magazine, the Briefing:

Should I decline to co-lead a Bible study if there are men in the group? Should I cover my head (and if so, would an old towel do)? Should I keep silent during the public question time in church at the end of the Bible talk? To whom am I to submit, since I don’t have a husband—to all men? In everything?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked all these questions (and many more!) as you’ve read parts of the Bible like 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and Ephesians 5. But let me ask you: have you ever genuinely allowed room in your heart and your mind for the possibility that the answer to any of these questions is yes?

No matter what you think of the conclusion drawn by author Emma Thornett, it’s a great reminder of one of the most important evangelical principles: when you read Scripture, be ready for your most cherished principles to be overturned. If you’re not willing to allow that, you’re not treating the Bible as the word of God, but the word of man.

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‘Evangelical is not enough’ is a phrase you hear a lot these days. Ever since a well-known Evangelical, Thomas Howard, published a book with that title in 1984, every time someone wants to point to a mistake some Evangelical is making, the phrase ‘Evangelical is not enough’ is sure to be used. Thomas  converted to Roman Catholicism not long after publishing the book, but the dissatisfaction he left behind is still all over the place, especially among the younger generation of Evangelicals.

I’d be the first to admit that Evangelicals have been messing things up in the Episcopal Church—other denominations no doubt have their own critics—for quite a while, but I want to insist that it is not because ‘evangelical is not enough’.

The word ‘evangelical’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘gospel’, and ‘evangelical is not enough’ is just another way of saying ‘that which pertains to the gospel is not enough’. ‘Evangelical’ is enough, if Christianity is enough. The gospel is that human beings are sinners and cannot be admitted into God’s presence until they have been cleansed from their sin, and in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross God has taken those sins on Himself. Nothing more than this is needed. Until 50 years ago, Evangelicals stood for this, and for nothing else. Evangelical was enough, by definition: evangelicalism summed up what Scripture said was all that humanity needed to be right with God.

The trouble with modern evangelicalism is not that it is not enough, but that it has become too much. Everything that has been added during the last fifty years—emotional experiences misread as manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit, a romantic fascination with mystery and symbolism instead of the common sense application of God’s word written, the appropriation of all that is worst about modern life in the hope of being relevant—must go. Evangelicalism must become less and less, shedding all that it has covered itself with until it is nothing more than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Richard Dawkins, outspoken atheist and critic of religion, may be losing his nerve. He has just refused four British invitations to publicly debate with eminent philosopher William Lane Craig when he visits the UK this October. The requests came from The British Humanist Association, The Cambridge Debating Union, the Oxford Christian Union and Premier Radio.

Dawkin’s refusal to debate Craig has led Oxford University philosopher Dr Daniel Came to write to Dawkins urging him to reconsider, saying his refusal to do so is “apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.”

Dawkins did not reconsider, but according to the English publication Private Eye, said he would not share a platform with anyone who defended God’s command to kill the Canaanites as recounted in Deuteronomy, which Craig has done. When it was pointed out that Dawkins had shared a platform with Craig as part of a panel discussion in 2010, Dawkins replied that at that time he had not known of Craig’s ‘defence’ of the Deuteronomy passage. But, the Eye points out, Dawkins did know, having written an article discussing Craig’s position in 2008. Craig is a graduate of Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, both in Illinois. More here.

One of the sites I visit regularly, ever since our memorial to Mark Ashton was mentioned there, is named for and run by the Vicar’s Wife. For Englishmen of my generation (at least), that phrase starts a train of thought that goes on for a while and meanders through some strange places, and one of the reasons Mrs Vicar, begging her pardon, runs a great blog is that it also starts long trains of thought that end up in some odd corners.

In the latest post, here, she talks about filling in the census form that comes to her address. This turns out to be a tricky issue, because Church of England clergy, unlike American clergy who are both, are neither employees nor self-employed, so that the question ‘At your workplace, what is the main activity of your employer?’ refers neither to the work of the church nor of the minister. ‘If we go with the thought that the Vicar is employed by the Lord,’ she muses, ‘I could have some fun with this: Running the universe. Upholding all things by His powerful word.’ Commenters have added many other suggestions—to add yours there, rather than here, would be the polite way to behave in the cyber-Vicarage.

‘HMRC’, by the way, is English for ‘IRS’.

Or, ‘Canonical Reading’ v ‘Private Judgement’.

First, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, from here: ‘in the formative years in which Christian doctrine attained its classic shape in the Creeds, the debate was not about ideas in the abstract but about the interpretation of scripture… In Athanasius’s first volume Contra Arianos… the extended discussions there of Psalm 45, Psalm 110, Hebrews 1 and so forth are the very lifeblood of the doctrinal argument. And what emerges, not only in the form of the Creed of Nicaea, but also in the revised and consolidated form that was approved in 381—you realise that what’s going on there is the Church saying, “this is how you read the Bible, this is how we corporately read the Bible in a way which honours the full divinity of Christ and not otherwise”.’

Second, Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle, from Knots Untied: ‘The principle laid down is this: “Prove all things by the Word of God;—Measure all by the measure of the Bible.—Compare all with the standard of the Bible.—Test all in the crucible of the Bible. That which can abide the fire of the Bible, receive, hold, believe, and obey. That which cannot abide the fire of the Bible, reject, refuse, repudiate, and cast away.” This is private judgment. This is the right we are bound to exercise. We are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said by Popes or Cardinals,—by Bishops or Priests,—by Presbyters or Deacons,—by Churches, Councils, or Synods,—by Fathers, Puritans, or even Reformers. We are not to argue, “Such and such things must be true, because these men say so.” We are to prove all things by the Word of God.’

For a moment Rowan Williams sounds right, almost biblical, but what he is saying is that once the church authorities, whether General Council or General Convention, have agreed on the meaning or application of a particular passage of Scripture, it is binding on all members of the church for ever after. No second examination is necessary, or even permissible. ‘This is how we corporately read the Bible’—love it or leave it. This is, of course, a contradiction of the Articles of Religion (Book of Common Prayer p 872): ‘General Councils… may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.’

Evangelicals say the Nicene Creed because it expresses the truth found in Scripture, not because it is an official policy of the church. To accept it simply because the church says it would be a dereliction of duty. Ryle, once more: ‘God requires every Christian man to use the right of which I have just spoken;—to compare man’s words and man’s writings with God’s revelation, and to make sure that he is not deluded and taken in by false teaching.’

“Romans 8.29: ‘God has predestined [His people] to be conformed to the image of His Son’: that is, to become like Jesus. We all know that when Adam fell he lost much—though not all—of the divine image in which he had been created. But God has restored it in Christ. Conformity to the image of God means to become like Jesus: Christlikeness is the eternal predestinating purpose of God.

“2 Corinthians 3.18: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.’ So it is by the indwelling Spirit Himself that we are being changed from glory to glory—it is a magnificent vision. In this second stage of becoming like Christ, you will notice that the perspective has changed from the past to the present, from God’s eternal predestination to His present transformation of us by the Holy Spirit. It has changed from God’s eternal purpose to make us like Christ, to His historical work by His Holy Spirit to transform us into the image of Jesus.

“1 John 3.2: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now and it does not yet appear what we shall be but we know that when he appears, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ We don’t know in any detail what we shall be in the last day, but we do know that we will be like Christ. There is really no need for us to know any more than this. We are content with the glorious truth that we will be with Christ, like Christ, for ever.

“Here are three perspectives—past, present and future. All of them are pointing in the same direction: there is God’s eternal purpose, we have been predestined; there is God’s historical purpose, we are being changed, transformed by the Holy Spirit; and there is God’s final or eschatalogical purpose, we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. All three, the eternal, the historical and the eschatalogical, combine towards the same end of Christlikeness. This, I suggest, is the purpose of God for the people of God. That is the biblical basis for becoming like Christ: it is the purpose of God for the people of God.”

From John Stott, on the Langham Trust website, here.

From his sermon outline on the Nativity of Christ:

“By him all who believe have peace with God (Isaiah 12:1, Romans 5:1); he plants peaceable dispositions in the hearts of his subjects (James 3:17); his government promotes peace in the world (Hebrews 12:14); and when the nations of the earth bow down to him, and acknowledge him as their Sovereign, they shall learn war no more (Isaiah 2:4).”

May the Prince of Peace establish his peace among us this Christmastide!

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