The Unfortunate Consequences of the Game of the Name

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I have a short piece coming up on Counterpoints next week, questioning the usefulness of a term I have myself used in the past and which Albert Mohler uses in the new book from Zondervan, Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism: confessional evangelicalism.  That piece will focus on the adjective`confessional.'  Here I want simply to note once again the problematic nature of the term `evangelicalism' but also to draw new conclusions from the fact it has no doctrinal or given ecclesiastical reference.

That the term `evangelicalism' is used in connection with various adjectival qualifications (in the book, confessional, generic and postconservative) would at least seem to imply the existence of an ideal evangelicalism in which these other particular forms participate.  The problem with that, as D G Hart never tires of pointing out (and on which point I am indebted to him), is that evangelicalism really only exists as the loosest of institutional coalitions whose sinews are sometimes little more than a common institutional or ecclesiastical ancestor.  there is no further given doctrinal content which appears to bind the family of evangelicals together these days.

The practical problem this then entails is that the particulars of church life (confessions, governance, sacraments etc) are inevitably seen as making particular Christianities somewhat mediocre when compared to the higher ideal.  This is unfortunate: it creates a gravitational pull in evangelical circles to look to the parachurch as the place of real leadership and agenda setting.  This might be attractive to those in mixed denominations or who are Congregationalists or Baptists and who thus look further afield for fellowship with kindred spirits; but it is highly problematic for confessional Presbyterians and the Reformed because it always threatens to trump the biblically established church leadership structures and to prioritise general, mere Christianity type statements of faith over the more elaborate confessions of particular ecclesiastical bodies, even if such mere Christianity statements are `Reformed' in the sense of being simply `anti-Pelagian, as is the common usage these days.

There are numerous problems here, from the arguably ineradicable complexity of Christian doctrine, such that a church (as an institution - I am not here talking of personal, saving faith) needs elaborate creeds and confessions to maintain doctrinal stability, to the murky authority and accountability structures of parachurch organizations.

To put this in a blunt form: it creates a situation where power and overall agendas can be grabbed by non-ecclesiastical groups who then operate in a quasi-ecclesiastical way but with no biblical structures of accountability.  It is one thing to have a parachurch co-belligerent group for, say, encouraging the preaching of the doctrines of grace - such is the Alliance, as I understand it, or the Proclamation trust in the UK; or a seminary for the training of men to fill pulpits.  In both cases, the difference between the task of the church and that of the parachurch can be made clear, with the latter clearly subordinate to the former.  But when one creates a culture which pushes towards mere Christianity, even cast in an `evangelical' form, or which sees coalition organisations as somehow the places where the real action takes place, there is a problem because the established offices of the church are trumped by the self-appointed or, at least, the non-ecclesiastically appointed.

This is not a question of the niceties of polity; it is actually a question of the basic structures of accountability and thus of the well-being of the church.  When a leader of such a group makes a heterodox statement, what does one do?  Who holds him to account?  How can the churches respond in a way that does not look as if they are being small-minded or hindering outreach and evangelism?   To whom should one complain or ask for clarification?    If only we could see evangelicalism and its organizations as subordinate to the church, we might be able to answer these questions.  But as long as we maintain the notion, implicit in the way the term is typically used, that evangelicalism is a higher, purer form of Christianity than any of the particular manifestations of Christianity in particular denominations, we are vulnerable to precisely such unaccountable power grabs and unaccountable teachers.

And this is before we even engage with all of the brutal internecine wars concerning who does and does not belong in the world of evangelicalism.    If evangelicalism really has no doctrinal or ecclesiastical existence, then these battles are worthy of the withering riposte of Henry Kissinger to the question of why academic debates are so fierce: because the stakes are so small.   

Posted September 13, 2011 @ 2:02 PM by Carl Trueman
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