Is all that we see or seem.....
So wrote Poe, words that have a peculiar relevance, given all the oohing and aahing about the profile of Al Mohler in Christianity Today. Some have felt the need to make it clear that Dr Mohler does not represent them as evangelicals; others have pointed towards the Janus face of contemporary evangelicalism, narrowing on the one hand, broadening on the other, and seemingly heading for a major schism.
I would like to suggest an alternative take, one intended neither in a mean nor chauvinist spirit: maybe evangelicalism, as some kind of abstract ideal in which all us `evangelicals' participate, does not really exist. Maybe it is now (even if it has not always been) simply a construct which lacks any real doctrinal identity (and claims to be `gospel people' simply will not do here, given that the Catholics and liberal friends I have also claim the same title). Maybe it is to be defined institutionally, not theologically. And maybe, therefore, it is not worth fighting or fretting over.
As in the debates between realists and nominalists in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that evangelicalism only exists in particulars, in highly qualified forms such `Confessing Evangelical', `Open Evangelical' etc. The essence of evangelicalism is elusive, and, I believe, illusory. After all, it is surely an odd term that implies a Reformed Calvinist has more in common with an open theist than a traditional Dominican. That, by the way, is a merely descriptive remark.
If this is so, and we can come to acknowledge such and act upon it, many of the current battles might well be defused. We will not be fighting, after all, over ownership of something that does not really exist. We could all be free to be ourselves (Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anabaptist and so on). No-one would get their knickers in a twist over who was speaking for whom (for example, I speak for no-one but my institution, my church and myself). No-one need worry if the movement (singular) is being narrowed or broadened unacceptably because there is no `movement' (singular) to undergo such change. And ecumenical dialogue, free from the need to fight over a meaningless label, might perhaps become truly meaningful -- truly ecclesiastical -- as we can all see where we are situated on the landscape and how we differ and how we resemble each other. Nobody has to surrender cherished identities before coming to the discussion table,
OK, the last two sentences are perhaps a naive aspiration; but it is surely a lot more attractive than competing to make ourselves the normative examples of what constitutes the real, unqualified, pure, ideal evangelical. That is rather like arguing about what weapon is best for hunting unicorns.