Evangelicalism’s Crisis: The Defensiveness of Our Doctrine, Its Cracking, Rob Bell, and “Other” Things

Mars Hill Graduate School’s The Other Journal has just posted an interview with me. In the interview I talk about several themes that have become important to me in the past year. I talk about how our doctrine has become defensive. The way we articulate our beliefs has turned against us – from shaping our life together into Christ to instead organizing us in hostile fashion over against the world God has called us into. In the interview I discuss two of these doctrines, a.) our doctrine of the authority Scripture (popularly known as Inerrancy) and b.) our doctrine of salvation (popularly know as the Decision for Christ). Here are the questions and answers.

TOJ: You claim that the evangelical belief in the “inerrant” Bible has not really been about the truth but about “being in control of the truth.” It appears that just as evangelicalism continues to fracture into different hermeneutical camps, large church personalities have effectively replaced denominations in defending doctrine. Over this next decade, how do you see the fight of inerrancy shaping up?

DF: There’s a splintering of evangelicalism, and strangely, I would say that the majority of evangelicalism realizes that “inerrancy” is an apologetic strategy whose time is over. It is a strategy that in fact undermines Scripture by defining its authority via a reference point outside itself, by what is an “error” and who gets to define “error,” as opposed to what Scripture is in its relationship to the Incarnate Christ. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if the New-Reformed movement among evangelicals makes inerrancy once again a shibboleth to determine who is a true evangelical. Once this happens, I think we’ll all be energized to expose the defensiveness in this move and move on to a true faithfulness.

TOJ: Another hallmark of the evangelical is the “decision for Christ,” but you write that this decision has effectively been “separated from one’s embodied life.” Could you explain that further, particularly how such a deep and personal decision has found such tragic separation?

DF: I refer to it as a separation because speaking of a decision for Christ doesn’t mean anything anymore. I am sure that is an overstatement. But what I try to show in the book is that the decision for Christ has become a master signifier that creates a fantasy, as if to make a person feel good for what he or she has done. Yet it demands nothing of this person. In essence it does what any good master signifier must do—it enables us to “believe without believing,” in Žižek’s famous words. It allows us to be Christians without it meaning anything material to our embodied existence. Nonetheless, conversion is at the heart of Jesus’s call to follow him. We need to recover conversion. I go much deeper into this whole phenomenon in the book (The End of Evangelicalism?)

Tim Soerens, the interviewer, also asks for my observations on the Rob Bell episode of last month. He talks about the percieved split within evangelicalism and American Christianity as a whole. He asks what my take is on a third way alternative place for theological discernment beyond the Neo-Reformed and Emergent Christianities that have been so prevalent the past ten years in publishing and media. I think it’s a good question.

TOJ: You mentioned earlier that there is a growing desire for a third way beyond the Neo-Reformed organizations and what were the emergent organizations. I’m curious what role context and, specifically, place should have in this conversation. That is, how can we avoid having just another abstract theological battle that’s fought over blogs, conferences, and books but has no grounding in the reality of particular people, places, and cultures?

DF: I am convinced that the problem with the way the church is currently led theologically is that it lacks a sense of place, an understanding that theological issues are best worked out in real life on the ground. I cannot tell you how central I think this is! We in the United States (less so in Canada) work out our conversations over disputed theological matters in the media, via publishing empires, through grand provocations meant to elicit interest and sales of books. We hold conferences and invite superstar pastors and authors, many of whom have theological habits driven by pragmatics. As a result, our theological disputes do not bring us together. They polarize. In essence they do nothing but solidify the battle lines and inhibit our witness in the world.

In addition, there’s no sense of urgency to our theological conversations because they are not directly related to an actual situation being lived out on the ground. We therefore find ourselves going on and on, talking about the issues of pluralism or same-sex relations and never coming to a resolution. We can afford to do this because there are no hurting tragic situations awaiting direction. As a result, the conversation never resolves. It goes nowhere. This kind of theology talk is disingenuous and it’s a luxury that is only possible for people who have money and extra time without the urgency of ministry itself being the immediate pressing concern.

For both of these reasons, our theological development is stunted. Yet the issues of pluralism, salvation, hell, same-sex relations, and I could go, are absolutely essential and must be addressed within the theological orthodoxy of the church if we are ever to engage our culture for the mission of God.

The Anabaptist impulse leads us to work these things out on the ground in real life issues. The Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder wrote only occasional papers for most of his life, meaning he wrote papers in response to specific moral and cultural issues his church, and many times his local church, was confronted with. This is the way we must do theology: on the ground. The result of this work then moves into the wider church, but always from the individual location first. I cannot guarantee that this incarnational method for theological development will become part of this third way we’re talking about. But I aim to bring this Anabaptist emphasis to the effort that some of us are working on to create an alternative place (and I am calling it most often a place) for hammering out what it means to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The polarization and lack of resolution will lessen once place, actual church location, and real situations drive the way we talk and do theology.

You can read the whole interview here at the Other Journal. And of course you can buy the book :) by following the directions given here at a 40% discount for one more month.

Of course I’m interested in your take on these questions. Have you noticed the way evangelicalism’s doctrines have turned defensive? Do you see a need for an alternative third place for theological conversation, development and discernment for those of us who wish to see a new faithfulness for evangelicalism?

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David Fitch
David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.