Saturday, September 26, 2009

Challenge of Evangelical Theology

The more self-designated evangelical theology I read the more issues I realize I need to contend with in constructing an evangelical political theology. Issues like a theology of scripture, that is very murky water to have to wade into. The issues of competing theologies from the Calvinist versus the Methodist traditions, the reality is that I will never solve that debate for folks and I'd be a fool to try (but I can definitely land somewhere). That debate hints at one of the issues that is most problemmatic - the evangelical obsession for boundaries. Grenz deals with this quite well in chapter 5 of Renewing the Center. The reason for boundaries is specifically to say who is in and who is out - a good example is this critique of the emerging church. The obsessive how far in or how far out of that article struck me as rather odd. The big question is who sets the boundaries. This chart really sets up a false schema, in fact I'd argue if you had to do a boundary diagramme a Venn diagramme is better suited - in my estimation Patton fails to allow for any cross over between fundamentalism and emerging church - why? What presuppositions allow him to make that claim? What allows him to define who is where, or wears what label? Such efforts really only serve one goal - a desperate attempt to define boundaries. Indeed, this might actually be one of the truest defining characteristics of evangelical theology. If that is true then I think my project is, at the very least, in for a very uphill battle!

But NO! I don't believe we should allow anyone else to define who we are for us. If evangelicalism has it's roots in coalitions (as Grenz point out) then the boundaries are not for exclusion, but for helping people choose inclusion. There are two reasons I believe this should be the case: 1) it is the most evangelistic position to take and 2) it is hopeful in a way narrowing can never be.

The real roots of evangelicalism in North America are really found in a convertive piety. This is still recognized in that one of the chief definitions of evangelicals is a strong commitment to individuals being converted to Christianity. Now certainly there are a number of ways this plays out. But if the thrust is outward in an effort to draw women and men to Jesus how can we twist that into a social club disconnected from the world God so loves? In terms of evangelical identity, are we not doing the same thing? Are we not saying who is and isn't welcome to the discussion that is evangelical theology? Would we not better serve our apologetic tendencies to have more people in the conversation than just those who agree with us? You can't save the lost if you aren't willing to go to them (and even invite them to the table like Jesus modeled!) Boundary setting is counter-productive to the gospel. It says we are seeking our comfort (not being challenged) rather than God's glory. It says we are more concerned with our club not being infiltrated than with God's Spirit leading us to shape the discussions that lead the willing into a deeper understanding of their faith and the identity of evangelical.

This narrowing shuts down possibilities for evangelicals to have a positive impact on the world. It closes doors for us to participate in ecumenical and societal events. And so it prevents us from bringing the hope that is in us to those situations. But it also corrupts our vision of what that hope looks like. In my estimation many evangelical theologies have a very weak understanding of grace. We see this most evidently in how we use decline readings of scripture to justify building theological enclaves, fortresses really, that focus on the call to be separate ignoring the equally valid call to be in the world. So we imagine God will whisk us away and hurl vengeance at the world God so loved that Jesus laid down his life for? The disconnect is painful. It is not hope that this evokes, but utter and complete fatalistic despair. And why? Again it is the itching ears that want to feel like they have it right. They have the corner on truth and everyone else has to measure up to their standards. This completely misses any historical reality of our religion (or even Judaism for that matter). The Church was birthed in plurality. Evangelicalism was birthed in plurality. Unfortunately it quickly took on the cause that has tripped up the church so often in the past - plurality is seen as the evil that threatens to destroy us. This might just be one of the best lies ever launched against the Church. Plurality is our strength. Plurality means those who need to be strengthened, encouraged, challenged - even saved, that they are in on the conversations where that will happen. I, for one, would rather be an evangelical in that fashion, opening my arms, than one who has become so blinded that they are no longer able to fulfill the command of Christ in this world. I wish we could all have a mount of transfiguration moment, the boundaries are not the point - Jesus is. God, open our eyes to see Jesus alone.

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