Wednesday, May 05, 2004

an alternative view of evangelicalism

I don't want to start a blog war here, but I'd like to suggest an alternative view of the distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism than Donald Crankshaw does. I haven't been to an evangelical seminar recently, but I was born on the mission field to parents working for The Evangelical Alliance Mission, so my perspective is perhaps worth something. Donald gives a list of beliefs that he views as fundamentalist but not evangelical: the inerrancy of scripture, being born again, and pre-millennialism. In contrast to Donald, I've always considered the first two of these to be critical marks of evangelicalism. Although pre-millennialism is extremely common among evangelicals, I never considered it distinctive or essential.

In my own view, what distinguishes evangelical doctrines from other doctrines is not the fact that they engage in evangelism, but the fact that they use scripture as the only religious authority. Tradition, feelings, philosophies, and the opinions of religious leaders have no standing in comparison to scripture. This view only makes sense if you view scripture as originally inerrant. Of course this still leaves room for debate over exactly what constitutes scripture and how accurate our current scriptures are. But I view evangelism as a consequence of the primacy of scripture rather than the defining issue. If evangelism were the primary distinction, one could make the case that Mormons and Jehovah's witnesses are evangelicals.

As to being "born again", scripture makes clear (according to evangelicals) that what distinguishes believers from nonbelievers is not what customs and traditions they follow, not what church they go to, not how wise or good or holy they are, but simply that they are a part of the family of God. Being part of that family gives you certain resources to help you be good, but it doesn't make you good. Being born again is simply the act of joining that family, like adoption or marriage. You go from non-family to family in an instant by the speaking of a word. Evangelicals (as I understand it) believe that adoption into God's family is similar and that it is our responsibility to extend God's family as much as possible.

I was surprised to find someone who calls himself an evangelical who doesn't hold this view. By Donald's description, I would be a fundamentalist. He says
However, fundamentalists can be intolerant of those evangelicals who disagree with those beliefs, not considering them faithful Christians, if they consider them Christians at all.
This seems a bit unfair. Just because I hold to a certain set of doctrines I'm more likely to be intolerant?

My explanation for the fundamentalist reputation for intolerance is a bit different. A fundamentalist is basically an evangelical who gives great (too much, in my opinion) weight to tradition and asceticism in their interpretation of scripture. For example, some fundamentalist churches don't allow musical instruments because the New Testament doesn't mention them. Other fundamentalist churches don't celebrate Christmas on the grounds that it evolved from a pagan holiday. Most fundamentalists prohibit dancing, smoking, drinking, swearing and making out. All of these prohibitions are, in my view, really based on tradition and asceticism rather than scripture. The reason they seem more "intolerant" is because that's how you describe an ascetic when he disapproves of your behavior. When you disapprove of his ascetic life, you aren't being intolerant, you are just being critical. For this reason, I think the accusations of intolerance are a bit unfair.

La Shawn Barber has promised to enter the debate and I look forward to her comments (well technically, she didn't promise, but I'll be terribly disappointed if she doesn't. Not that I'm trying to put pressure on or anything).

Donald Crankshaw likes blog wars and I probably would too (I've never been in one). The reason I don't want to be involved in a blog war over this issue is because my sample space is very small and I'm afraid it will turn out that my experience is atypical. Also, Donald says that I'm upset. I hope this was intended facetiously because although I chided him a bit on his use of the word "intolerant", I wasn't upset about it. And although I think I know what "evangelical" means, I'm not particularly concerned with claiming the term or defending it against usurpers. It could turn out that my understanding was wrong, and this won't bother me especially. Donald has a way to go to prove it though.

One more thing. This should be obvious to evangelicals, but may confuse others: by mentioning that my parents were evangelicals I didn't mean that this made me an evangelical. I just meant that I grew up in a family with parents that had a pretty strong claim on knowing what an evangelical is because of their organizational ties. I don't have such ties myself, but my understanding of the word is pretty much what I learned from them.

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