Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Evangelical Crisis, Again.

If Rob Bell's latest book has told us anything about the state of evangelicalism in North America today, it is that it is a very polarized entity.  The Gospel Coalition's virulent rejection of Bell as heterodox, Richard Cizik's dismissal as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals over his stance on homosexuality, and countless blog posts from disenchanted young evangelicals all suggest that evangelicalism is headed for yet another split.  This is, of course, nothing new.  Since British-American evangelicalism began in the eighteenth century, it has distinguished itself by its tendency to split, form a new group, and then split again. 

By looking at the present divide between what he calls "Meliorists" and "Traditionists", Gerald McDermott helpfully sizes up the present tension, warning of the inevitable outcome if the situation persists:
If history is a guide, the present divisions between Meliorists and Traditionists will widen. In another twenty years, Meliorists may not be recognizable as evangelicals, and, like the liberal Protestants they resemble, will likely have trouble filling their pews.[…]  If the evangelical movement does not learn from that experience, it will risk disintegrating into ever more subjectivist and individualistic sects, many of them neither evangelical nor orthodox.  (From "Evangelicals Divided", First Things, April 2011.)
I think McDermott is right.  The question that continues to persist is why this is the case.  What is it about evangelicalism that dooms it to this cycle?  He may be onto something when he points out that, "sola scriptura is a necessary but not sufficient principle for maintaining theological orthodoxy."  The problem with the present situation, and similar past situations, is that both sides appeal to the text, but do it with subtly different assumptions.  As in the case of Schleiermacher, the vocabulary remains the same but the meanings shift in seismic ways.

6 comments:

david gentino said...

The why of our cyclical splitting is a great question. Sounds like a thesis coming together.

I wonder if evangelicalism has now wandered too far into postmodernism to witness a "split" that even remotely resembles the Reformation or fundamentalism.

I think of the emerging church - remember when that title had the terrifying force of Y2K? It flaked and fizzled. Maybe that is McDermott's point, that the splitters don't have staying power.

P.D. said...

Poking fun at Rob Bell is something I always delight in. I still think about making a good youtube parody video that goes viral then it goes shown at youth specialities...

Personally, I don't use the word evangelical at all. It seems to be informed neither by practice or text.

Furst, where do the snake handlers fit in?

Jon Furst said...

David,
Yes, ultimately I think that it is true that they will "flake and fizzle" eventually, unless something intervenes, but this can be a very long process. Today's mainline was yesterday's evangelicalism, and it's still hanging on a hundred-odd years later in spite of dwindling numbers (they do still hold the major university seminaries by way of huge endowments). The emergent church faded so quickly for other reasons, perhaps mainly because it didn't have any kind of firm ideological core.

PD,
I'll go to bat for evangelicalism. I think it still has currency, but it could stand to be recovered a bit.

Snake handlers? I think they'll join the United Methodists eventually.

P.D. said...

Furst I'm curious why think Evangelical is worth retaining? I understand it's literal meaning, but it has no tie to anything other than vague historical mood swings.

John Paulling said...

I sometimes think we overstate the schismatic disposition of Protestantism. Its true that the blogosphere is awash with inter-evangelical backbiting, but I rarely experience that on a personal basis. I find most non-Presbyterian Evangelicals rather easy to get along with, and to worship with.

There's probably quite a few reasons for this. At least one reason is, contrarians write great blogs and Phd thesis' but its hard for them to make great friends.

Also, probably David is correct. Tolerance, and egalitarianism inhibits anything that actually has lasting ecclesiological ramifications.

I distinctly remember when I was 4 or 5 years old my mom saying to one of her friends, "Bill says if we weren't Baptist we'd be Presbyterian", I immediately burst into tears and screamed to my mom, "I don't want to be a Presbyterian". That was, of course, before Rorty and Fish had exercised their impact on my life, and I lost my childhood innocence.

But seriously, I think evangelicals are pretty unified in the grand scheme of things.

Jon Furst said...

John,
That is probably the best comment I have every read on a blog. I'm sorry that you've backslid into the Presbyterians.

PD,
It may just be like "Fundamentalism" which initially had plenty of good value, but quickly lost it. "Evangelicalism" has not gone quite that far, and I think it can be salvaged. On second thought, maybe we just need to set our sights on unsoiling the Christian name.

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