Evangelicalism is a movement among various churches rather than a single ecclesial body like the Catholic Church. The history of evangelicalism in America is replete with defections from one church to another or the initiation of new denominational bodies. For this reason, there have always been inherent risks in being evangelical. Such risks derive from belonging to a theologically conservative Protestant subculture for the sake of a common witness. By identifying with a larger movement, denominations and individuals with distinctive theological and ecclesial identities chance losing those very identities. Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and Reformed embrace the name evangelical at the hazard of sacrificing what makes them Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Reformed. A good recent example is the community-church trend in which denominational and theological distinctives disappear behind a name with geographical or cultural significance (Three Oaks Community Church, Connections Church, etc.).
A common temptation in the face of such risks is to attempt to redefine the evangelical community in the image of a single theological or ecclesial stream. Numerous critiques of evangelicalism have been written that decry its capitulation to this or that cultural trend. The theologically astute reader recognizes the subtext in many such critiques that evangelicalism should become like a particular theological stream.
Doctrinal pressure points more clearly reveal the temptation corresponding to these risks. When someone hits a pressure point, apologists for various camps unleash a volley of criticisms in order to maintain or recover the “evangelical” position. The recent uproar over Bruce Waltke’s video on this site exposed again how much the doctrine of creation has become a pressure point because of its relationship to scripture and the question of how to resolve seemingly competing authorities: theology and science.
To release the pressure, evangelicals must openly acknowledge the risks of belonging to this movement and seek to discover afresh what it is that holds us together. I suggest that the doctrinal center of evangelicalism is a theology of conversion grounded upon the balance of Word and Spirit that has implications for its doctrine of creation.
The Risks of Evangelicalism
As a movement, evangelicalism attempts to hold together various theological traditions and ecclesial bodies. Even in attempting to describe these groups one has to make a choice between utilizing theological descriptors (Wesleyan, Reformed, etc.) or ecclesial ones (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.).
The challenges of maintaining an evangelical identity exacerbate the tensions between traditions and Tradition (Reformed, Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal). Within each Tradition, there are interpretive traditions that fork out like tributaries from a larger river. Not only do these streams draw strength from one another, they also compete over how precisely to define the Tradition to which they all belong. They question one another as to what it really means to be Wesleyan, Reformed, or Pentecostal, and, in the midst of such questioning, sometimes the theological interpretations connected to a particular stream become wrongly associated with the Tradition itself. The questioning is valuable because it is one of the ways reform (semper reformanda) occurs; or, as I would put it, renewal happens. Problems arise, however, when one tributary asserts that it is the only legitimate expression of the broader Tradition.
When one moves back up the river into the great lake that is the source of the “evangelical” movement, with its inherent risks of dilution, the competition can become even more fierce. The revivalist tradition in America and its preference for mass meetings—whether these are conferences, camp meetings, evangelistic crusades, etc.—is the concrete expression of the great lake. Some evangelicals swim together by minimizing doctrine and maximizing piety. This approach generally irritates those who wish to maximize doctrine as a way of participating at a distance that gives them a sense of safety and security from the threat of theological and ecclesial dilution. And then, there is the ever-elusive quest for a doctrinal center from which all the rivers flow: something that will endure and is flexible, yet stable enough to keep all rivers connected to the great lake while allowing distinctive theological and ecclesial impulses to coexist.
Recognizing the risks of dilution is an important starting point when dealing with doctrinal pressure points, but beyond this, evangelicals should seek the center.
The Doctrine of Creation and a Possible Evangelical Center
If the revivalist tradition is the concrete expression of evangelicalism—the place where evangelicals debate, discuss, and worship together before returning to their respective churches—it may point toward a possible center. A theology of conversion grounded upon the balance between Word and Spirit can function as this center. The gospel of Christ is preached in the power of the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit generates the affective movement of faith that enables the individual to rest in Christ. This initial affective movement unleashes the affections so that love, hope, joy, etc., all spring forth by faith alone (sola fide). From the personal union created by the Spirit, Christ shares his own alien righteousness as the basis of justification, and the Spirit gives rise to an intrinsic righteousness through the reordering of human affectivity and desire. The Word forms the pattern while the Spirit shapes the individual accordingly. Salvation, broadly construed, is a movement from disorder to order sustained by Word and Spirit who together justify and sanctify.
Ancient Christianity debated whether God created the universe all at once or through successive creation. In the twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor sought to reconcile these views by postulating an initial creative act followed by a progressive unfolding in which God transformed being into beautiful being. This was Hugh’s way of affirming creation ex nihilo and the Genesis account of successive development. For Hugh, God’s purpose was pedagogical. Through the book of creation, God intended to show humanity that it must grow and develop into beautiful being in the same way that God beautified formless matter within a succession of “days.” Likewise, the book of creation reminded fallen humanity about God’s plan to move them once again from deformity to the beauty of form. There was no contradiction between God’s two great books, creation and scripture.
The evangelical theology of conversion corresponds to a doctrine of creation in which Word and Spirit work together. The Logos is the pattern for all living things and the one in whom they take shape (Colossians. 1:17). As John Polkinghorne notes, there is a pattern-forming propensity to the universe. The Spirit is the love that operates at the edge of chaos, breathing life into all things, binding them together, and creating order (Genesis 1:2). Evangelicals can still debate the particulars, but do so within the common framework of Word and Spirit that acknowledges creation as both event and process in the same way that conversion itself is both event and process.
The way to relieve doctrinal pressure points is not for one tradition to attempt to redefine the whole in its image. To do so is to make the whole captive to one part. Rather, it is to acknowledge the inherent risks in a common movement and to attempt to find what holds evangelicals together. It may be that a theology of creation grounded upon Word and Spirit can supply that which will endure and is flexible, providing the stability needed to keep all the individual rivers connected to the doctrinal center of the great lake.