evangelical blessings and curses

David Bebbington described Evangelicalism (as opposed to Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy) as characterised by these four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.  In this post, I want to reflect on what may be some strengths and weaknesses in these distinctives, as expressed variously throughout Evangelicalism.

Biblicism is a posture that gives priority to Scripture as a guide for Christian faith and practice.  The other sources for theology (from the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’) tend to be Reason, Tradition and Experience.  The central strength of this priority is that without the scriptural story forming our thinking and acting, we can create versions of faith that look suspiciously like us.  The content and themes of the Bible, climaxing in the person of Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God, keep us from being blown around by current fashions, interests and trends.  The weakness comes when the priority of the Bible is seen to be not only over but against things like Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Systematic theology, for example, uses reason to formulate statements of doctrine that are as logically coherent as possible.  Church tradition keeps us accountable to the insights, interpretations and experience of the past, not so we cannot change, but so that when we do, we are aware of how and how much and in what way we are doing so.  Experience likewise comes to the table, both to call our thinking and acting to be practical and practice-able, but also generates new questions for us to consider.  So the best kind of biblicism is a humble biblicism that is integrated with and draws from Tradition, Reason and Experience.  Evangelicalism can benefit from other traditions here.

Crucicentrism focuces on the Atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place for our sins.  The strength of this is that it prevents Christ from being reduced to a mere moral example.  Luther also saw the cross as normative for all Christian thinking about God, seeing the suffering, forgiving Christ as the perfect revelation of God, as opposed to the high and lofty ‘theologies of glory’ that may be intuitive to reason and imagination, but nonetheless utterly reframed by the Cross.  The weakness comes when the Cross is not only central, but overshadows the birth (Incarnation), ministry, temptation, resurrection, ascension, Spirit and return of Christ.  Overly focusing on the Cross can reduce the gospel to being mainly or only about sin being forgiven, which leaves other themes panned out of frame, such as the cosmic redemption of all creation, Jesus’ identification with our trials and temptations, his wisdom, his victory over death, empowering presence and coming judgment.  So the best kind of crucicentrism will have a Cross that is integrated with the rest of the Gospel story.  Again, other traditions than Evangelicalism have strengths to offer.

Conversionism is characterised by a passion to see as many individuals as possible hear, respond to, and be transformed by the ‘good news’ of Christ.  The strength here is that conversionism guards against Christianity being reduced to effectively a social programme or soup kitchen.  Christians believe that the real way to change society is (as Miroslav Volf has said in sociological language) to create transformed social agents, or (as traditional Christian language would put it) to call people to repent of their sins and join Jesus’ kingdom project to transform the whole world.  The weakness here comes when efforts to convert individuals leads to the neglect of meeting other human needs.  If indeed the kingdom of God is about the healing of the whole creation, then this needs to be an essential part of Christian ‘evangelism’ or ‘mission’.  Once again, evangelicalism will do well to take cues from other traditions here.

Activism is characterised by a passion to bring Christian values and ethics to bear upon actual life.  The strength here is that it guards against Christianity being effectively a set of ideas and beliefs.  Christianity is an active, prophetic faith, that must be courageously acted out in all of life.  The weakness comes when our activism is either impatient or lazy.  Impatiently, we can ‘force’ our views and values upon people, rather than doing the hard intellectual and relational work for our words and actions to be heard or accepted.  Lazily, we can narrowly focus in on or take action about the same issues that we feel most confident or comfortable with.  Evangelicalism has in recent times known for damning, voting, rallying and otherwise acting ‘against’ a few (predictable?) things, and we need the wisdom, passion, breadth, and resources of other traditions to make our activism better.

full gospel

Some presentations and presenters of Christianity are, in my view, overly obsessed with the Death of Jesus such that they over-emphasise it, and end up marginalising the Incarnation of Jesus, the Ministry of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit of Jesus.  It probably wouldn’t be fair to use any label for the flavour of Christianity I inherited in my early years as a Christian.  Whatever label is used, this version of Christianity is too prevalent.

In this version I inherited, the only reason Jesus was born was to die for our sins.  His ministry seemed like just some time-filling activity before he died.  The Resurrection is like icing on the cake after the ‘main event’, his Atoning death.  The Ascension is basically ignored altogether.  And the gift of the Spirit is basically about empowering people to tell others that Jesus died for their sins.  The New Testament, and the study and explanation of it over Church History, however, contains a Gospel that is much fuller than this version I inherited (and which most of our modern and quite a few of our older worship songs tend to focus on).

The Incarnation of Jesus is not a mere stepping stone to the Cross (though it is not less than that).  It is the Creator entering and uniting to the Creation in general, and human nature in particular.  This, the Eastern Orthodox rightly emphasise, is itself a saving act.  All creation participates in the salvation that Christ effects.

The Ministry of Jesus does not merely fill time until the Cross.  Jesus life and ministry is an enactment and fulfillment of genuine humanness.  Everything that humans were meant to be and do, which was focused in the call of Abraham and his people ‘Israel’, Jesus achieved and demonstrated in his life.  He finishes the race we could not.  This is a saving act.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not a mere happy ending to the Cross.  Whereas the Cross entails Jesus taking Death (and Evil and Sin) onto himself and extinguishing it, the bodily transformation and translation of Jesus, the Resurrection, enacts and achieves the defeat of Death (and Evil and Sin).  It also achieves a kind of ‘beachhead’ (or ‘first-fruits’) into New Creation, the ultimate destiny and intended goal for all Creation.  This is a saving act – for all creation – including humans.

The Ascension of Jesus is not an undoing of the Incarnation (which would be a huge heresy), where the Son of God strips off his humanity and reports back to the Father that the atoning death was accomplished (and thus the body no longer needed!).  It is about the enthronement of Jesus to the place of ultimate authority – which among other things, entails a denial of any other entities claiming such ultimate authority.  This is a saving act, saving us from false authorities.

The Giving of the Spirit of Jesus is not simply a bit of personal motivation to tell people about Jesus dying for us (though it is not less than that!).  It is the gift of the ongoing personal spiritual presence of Jesus, enabling us, correcting us, leading us, empowering us, shaping us to become more like Jesus.  It’s not just about ‘evangelism’ (or exciting private experiences), but about becoming more human – more like the true human, Jesus.  The Spirit of the true human, Jesus, makes us truly human.  This ‘humanisation’ (or ‘re-humanisation’) is a saving act; it’s what salvation is all about.

And that’s the “full gospel” that the New Testament communicates.