Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Carl Trueman on the Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Carl Trueman's article in the latest Nine Marks Journal is well worth the read.

We live in strange times. Hardly a year goes by without some conference on the future of the evangelical church somewhere having at least one speaker, or sometimes even a slate of speakers, who arguably represent precisely the kind of theology that has emptied pews, castrated preaching, and disemboweled commitment to the gospel.

I saw a flyer for just such a conference recently, honoring a great evangelical thinker and critic, where one of the keynote speakers represented precisely the kind of slippery theology which the honoree had devoted his life to debunking. Strange times, indeed.

What is going on? Why this craven need for acceptability by the wider world?


I suspect there are a number of reasons for this problem. First, the context of evangelicalism lends itself to just such confusion. Evangelicalism really does not understand what it is. Is it a movement based on an experience (the new birth), or on theological commitments, or on parachurch institutions? Yet here's the rub: The first (experience) will degenerate into mere subjective mysticism if not connected to the second (theological commitments). The second is now highly disputed among evangelicals, who cannot even agree on the answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?" And the third (parachurch institutions) too often either forms part of the problem of defining the second, or, in the USA in particular, becomes less a ministry and more a vehicle for a cult of personality, vulnerable to the kind of criticism made by Eric Hoffer, who said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and ends up as a racket. Evangelicalism is a sorry mess, neither pure nor simple.

Second, if a movement does not understand what it is, then it cannot make any really satisfactory determination on who belongs and who does not. The boundaries of a movement are ultimately revealed by the person who comes closest to belonging but who nonetheless does not. Arius is a good early church example. As high and exalted as was his view of Christ, he could still only regard Christ as a creature and not fully God. The boundary was drawn and he was outside of it. Combine the problems of defining evangelical identity with the current cultural penchant for not excluding anybody and you have a heady recipe for total disaster. Say nice things about Jesus, have a warm feeling in your heart when somebody lights a candle, and be kind to your grandmother and—hey presto!—you belong; you too can be an evangelical. Thus we have deniers of penal substitution, of any meaningful notion of biblical authority, of the uniqueness of Christ for salvation, of justification by grace through faith, of the particularity of salvation. No matter: just stress that Jesus was a jolly good bloke, mouth a few orthodox sounding phrases, speak with a bit of engaging passion, and you too can get a membership pass and a speaking gig. And, if the conferences I mentioned above are anything to go by, we fall for such ruses every time.

Third, there would seem to be a pervasive evangelical inferiority complex. This means that, while we do not wish to exclude anybody, we dread being excluded ourselves. Indeed, for the evangelical academic, in a world so ill-defined, it is always tempting to cut just a few more corners, or keep shtum on just a couple of rather embarrassing doctrinal commitments, in order to have just that little bit more influence, that slightly bigger platform, in the outside world. This is particularly the temptation of evangelical biblical scholars and systematicians whose wider guilds are so utterly unsympathetic to the kind of supernaturalism and old-fashioned truth claims upon which their church constituencies are largely built. In so doing, we kid ourselves that we are doing the Lord's work, that, somehow, because we have articles published in this journal or by that press, we are really making real
headway into the unbelieving culture of the theological academy. Not that these things are not good and worthy—I do such things myself—but we must be careful that we do not confuse professional academic achievement with building up the saints or scoring a point for the kingdom.

It remains true (as James Barr pointed out years ago) that evangelical academics are generally respected in the academy only at precisely those points where they are least evangelical. There is a difference between academic or scholarly respectability and intellectual integrity. For a Christian, the latter depends upon the approval of God and is rooted in fidelity to his revealed Word; it does not always mean the same thing as playing by the rules of scholarly guild...

Years ago, Mark Noll wrote a book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he argued that the scandal was that there was no such thing. When it comes to evangelical scholars and scholarship, I disagree: the scandal is not that there is no mind; it is that these days there is precious little evangel.
Read the entire article HERE.

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