What's Wrong with Evangelical Theology?
Peter J. Leithart
Evangelicals entered the mainstream of American life during the late 1970s and "almost immediately" lost their ability to define themselves theologically.
Modernity's separation of public and private has limited evangelicals' beliefs "to matters of private experience, increasingly shorn of their distinctive worldview, and increasingly withdrawn from what was external and public."
Ultimately, "being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives color to the private aspects of daily life but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary."
The theological wheel has turned again in the same circle: "Evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of 'life.'"
The perspective here I wouldn't argue with though I would deepen the critique beyond the late 20th century. I have recently picked up Righteous Empire by Martin E. Marty published in 1970. I am struck that with all the conversations about the current state of affairs in the States, and of Evangelicalism in particular that Marty's analysis of the development and position of American Protestantism throught the history of the U.S. is rarely refferenced. What is described here in these exerpts is simply the reality of an American form of Protestantism that has existed since the days of the Revolution. Granted in many ways the Emergent Church movement simply caries these over to the degree it doesn't allow itself to examine the syncritism that is American Protestantism. However, I do see the beginnings of this critique in the movement. It is not all pervasive, but the willingness to "borrow" from the RC and Orthodoxy is a sign of that critque of American sycritism.
Evangelicalism is, after all, often defined as a branch of Christianity that gives particular emphasis to certain aspects of Christian experience: spiritual rebirth, conversion, and a personal relationship to Christ. Spend a little time among evangelicals, and you are sure to learn about people who believe all the right doctrine but are not "real"-which is to say, born-again- Christians. Long before neo-evangelicalism, long before the rise of the Christian right, long before the "Toronto blessing," revivalism gave American Protestantism its distinctive experiential shape, as wave after wave of anti-intellectual New School, New Light, and New Whatever movements were accepted and, paradoxically, accorded theological legitimation.
Following Marty I think we must also see here the way in wich American Protestants both embraced and undermined separation of Church and State and the way in which the public private dichtomy both created a private sphere but also made American Protestants very much activists and reformers. Revivals have always been about both the change of the individual soul and the world through the individual soul. This cult of the new is American, it is the spirit of the American Empire. Again the Emergent Church is both the expression of and critique of this Americanism in the Evangelical Protestant movement. Again, I see the "borrowing we have been speaking of as an implicit critique in the movement of this Americanism and cult of the New.
...evangelicals are drawing "increasingly injurious" conclusions from the appropriate emphasis on a believer's personal relationship with Christ: "They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience." Not only in the use of testimonies but in hymnody as well, evangelicalism is "changing direction to reflect this experience-centered focus."
...evangelicalism oscillates between...emphasizing assent to propositional truth one moment, then insisting on personal experience of the new birth as a (perhaps the) central reality of Christianity.
Evangelicalism, however, has little sense of the "cultural-linguistic" dimension of Christianity... In this approach, religion is not merely a system of propositions nor a symbolic expression of natural and universal religious experience; religion is instead a comprehensive interpretive scheme, embodied in narrative and ritual, which structures human experience and thought. From this viewpoint, Christianity is indeed seen as a "life," but as a communal life that includes not only a system of ritual and worship and a way of living, but also a way of speaking and thinking.
Doctrine and theology can take a very high profile in a cultural- linguistic approach, but doctrine would not be the sole mark of true Christianity.
An evangelical understanding of theology and church life in a cultural-linguistic mode could avoid the intellectualist extreme of a cognitive approach as well as the irrationalist extreme of the expressivist model.
A cultural-linguistic conception of Christianity highlights the need for evangelical sacramental and liturgical theology.
Evangelicals well understand how doctrines and moral standards shape and define a community, but their instinctive anti-ritualism leaves them bereft of the theological tools required for understanding how rites mold, sustain, and nourish the Church.
Again, I would say that the Emergent Church movement addresses these (though not necesarily as cognizantly as one would hope) issues. In a sense I see Emergent as in part attempting to both find a more genuine protestantism which is also leading them into the watters of the apostolic faith as a broad historical reality. Not only that they are beginning to see that the either or of "dead dogma" or "living fiath" might be addressed by sacramental understanding of the faith and liturgical theology not as mere externals but central to the Christian faith. Again, not all in the Emergent church speak this way, but in my expreince this is not insignificant. What I see "emerging" is a protestantism seeking to shake off both
American syncitism and primitivist notions. Thus, who are much closer to Luther and Calvin who were seeking not some primitive faith but the faith of the Church while protesting the excesses of Rome (during the 16th century) which they believed to more or less completley obliterate the truth of the Gospel. We can disagree with the absoluteness of Luther and CAlvins ultimate assesment and the theological mistakes they made because of it. However, their goal was always the apostolic fiath and to be the Church. Thus I see in the emergent church movement some of what needs to happen if Protestants are to regain the true meaning of Protestantism.
Emerging/Emergents attempt to force the round peg (a rite from a non-Protestant confession)into the square hole of evangelical Protestantism (the latest "hip" incarnation, that is).
They want and need the "cultural linguistic" dimension to their faith, the rites "through which the interpretive pattern of the religion is exhibited, transmitted, and interiorized" but they take the rites that exhibit, transmit and interiorize Orthodoxy NOT protestantism in any form!
Will the borrowing of our rites change them into Orthodox or will they change our rites into some bastard form of protestant expressiion?
This critque assumes that Protestantism is esentially something opposed the the Church. while I can understand why an Orthodox position would assume this, it is not the assumption the Emergent folk I am in contact with assume. American Protestantism certianly saw itself as the church opposed to RC and by implication the Orthodox(though I do not see much evidence that American Protestants have ever had much awareness until recently of Orthodoxy. But, this ecclesiology that names Protestantim as the church or the true church regained, does not seem to be held by the Emergent folk. It may be why many more traditional Evangelicals are critical of the Emergent and have removed emergent thinkergs from their congregations.
I guess my point I keep returning to is that I sense something truely ecclesial and not merely "Protestant" or "evangelical" in it. Of course being still Protestant I do not see it as turning them Orthodox, though I do see it as bringing Protestants, RC and Orthodox closer together. That is I see in the Emergent Movement the unifying work of the Spirit of Christ.