Note: Excerpt from Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News: In Search of a Better Evangelical Theology (Brill 2020). Reprinted with permission. Citations have been omitted.
Evangelical theology has not emerged in a contextual vacuum. As revealed above, a crisis within evangelicalism itself and by implication within evangelical theology stems from the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the prominence (in some cases the actual presence) of European and Caucasian-American cultural influences. For certain, it is important for there to be a reckoning with the way that “I am only trying to convey what the Bible conveys” really means “I am selectively aware of the role of my context in my theological reflection.” Yet there is also an important opportunity that lies within and beneath the commitments that have lead many white evangelicals to struggle with rendering explicit the contextual nature of what is alleged to be simply Bible-based evangelical theology.
One way to think about this opportunity comes by thinking about a circumstance that may seem counter-intuitive to the pursuit of a better evangelical theology. This is a strange truth present amid the misguided assumption of having a theology completely faithful to God. Many evangelical Christians express the desire to be open and submissive to the entire sweep of Scripture without undue privileging of contemporary contexts; this actually reveals a desire to welcome the full implications of the teachings of Scripture. As stated above, this disposition (or at least the aspiration thereof) of openness to scripture as God’s authoritative word indicates the possibility for producing a better evangelical theology because submission and openness to God ought to mean a refusal to close off the possibility of greater understanding of the faith and ongoing refinement of the faith in practice. This includes (or should) greater sensitivity to and recognition of the role of context in one’s approach to the Scripture, which is vitally important for helping expose the ways context can illuminate as well as obscure the full meaning of the text. Put another way, a willingness to have submission and openness to Scripture should entail an interpretive humility that prompts the reader to ask “what might I not be seeing in this text because of my context?” “How might my context distort the text or cause me to resist what is being revealed?”
At this point one could ask if I am taking the risk of leaving white evangelicals in the comfort of a theology captive to a white and Western worldview. The answer to this important question is that the recognition of this opportunity in “typical” evangelical theology is not a decision to call a truce and leave white evangelicals as they are but instead a choice to meet them where they are and hopefully begin to move them toward the “better self” of evangelicalism and evangelical theology. This “better self” yields a theology that is perpetually open to a deeper understanding of the faith and aware of the ways that our contexts can in some cases illumine and in others obscure our perception and grasp of the doctrines and practices that emerge from our encounter with Scripture.
What, and Who, Is Evangelical?
To move toward an evangelical theology able to produce the “better self” of evangelicalism, it is important to attempt to have a clear sense of what I intend here by “evangelical” that includes and in some way goes beyond Bebbington and the brief description at the beginning of this work. I will do this by considering a range of definitions and proposing a way to think about the way the term “evangelical” in light of characteristics that open the way to better theology and practice.
Here are five definitions of the term “evangelical,” “evangelicalism” or “evangelical theology,” chosen for overlapping characteristics but also sufficient distinctiveness:
Timothy Larsen: “An evangelical is: 1. an orthodox Protestant 2. who stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revival movements associated with John Wesley and George Whitefield; 3. who has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice; 4. who stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross; 5. and who stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual to bring about conversion and an ongoing life of fellowship with God and service to God and others, including the duty of all believers to participate in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all people.” [“Defining and Locating Evangelicalism,” p. 1]
Alister McGrath: “Evangelicalism is grounded on a cluster of six controlling convictions, each of which is regarded as being true, of vital importance and grounded in Scripture…1. The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living. 2. The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and lord and as the savior of sinful humanity. 3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit. 4. The need for personal conversion. 5. The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole. 6. The importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship and growth.” [Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, p. 51]
Roger Olson: “I want to argue that evangelicalism is primarily a theological movement that has the following four minimum characteristics: It looks to the Bible as the supreme norm of truth for Christian belief and practice – the biblical message enshrined in its narrative and its interpretations of those narratives; it holds a supernatural world-view that is centered in a transcendent, personal God who interacts with, and intervenes in, creation; it focuses on the forgiving and transforming grace of God through Jesus Christ in the experience called conversion as the center of authentic Christian experience; and it believes that the primary task of Christian theology is to serve the church’s mission of bringing God’s grace to the whole world through proclamation and service.” [“Does Evangelical Theology Have a Future?”]
Michael Bird: “What we need, as a matter of pastoral and missional importance, is an authentically evangelical theology – that is, a theology that makes the evangel the beginning, center, boundary and interpretive theme of its theological project. Such a project is justified by the observation that the gospel is the cause and criteria of authentic evangelical existence.” [Evangelical Theology, p. 21]
Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer: “The chief task of evangelical theology is to say, on the basis of Scriptures, what God is doing in Christ, and then to indicate how to live it out. Stated differently: the purpose of evangelical theology is to help make communities of disciples, people who come to understand and correspond to the reality of the gospel – people who become ‘little Christs’ and thus fulfill their vocation to live as images of God. The hope of the gospel impels us to look forward (always renewing); the knowledge that present-day Christian are not the first to receive the gospel urges us to look back and learn from the past (always retrieving). Evangelical theology is both hope and heritage” [Theology and the Mirror of Scripture, p. 45]
Central to these definitions is an emphasis on the authority of scripture, not merely as informative content but as a God’s communication to us. This communication is intended to convey God’s good news for his world that culminates in Christ’s work. The good news (“gospel”) in scripture is not only a matter of passive reception but also includes active response to our Triune God. Culling from these definitions, Larsen helps us to see that to be “evangelical” is not limited to the United States or Europe but instead to be part of global Christian networks and to be open and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit. McGrath includes the important language of the majesty and prominence of Christ in His person and work. Olson gives attention to an emphasis on mission that brings God’s grace via proclamation and service. Bird provides language of gospel centrality as the core of genuine “evangelical” existence. Treier and Vanhoozer highlight the purpose of evangelical theology as the formation of disciples on the path toward greater expression as divine image bearers.
A Modest Proposal
My attempt at a summation that opens a way forward: evangelical theology aspires toward faithful understanding and practice of the good news in Christ, characterized by humble openness to the triune God, steady responsiveness to divine revelation and imaginative pursuit of the global mission.
To move forward also requires reckoning with/including one other dimension essential to the identity of those under the label “evangelical” (including those who may not use the label but fit the description): evangelical theology at its best should be the ongoing product of the collective effort of those from the diverse ethnic, denominational and traditional backgrounds that intersect at the common set of beliefs that comprise evangelical identity. Here, it is important to consider whether evangelicalism as a movement needs to be distinguished from evangelical theology because of the challenges within the movement for minorities. Put another way, does the dominant influence of whiteness in the evangelical movement strongly suggest the pursuit of a better theology ought to take place beyond the movement and its culture/institutions? In my view, while in some cases it is helpful to make this distinction, and while the struggles have been beyond exasperating for many, the primary aspiration of a pursuit of a better evangelical theology entails, even requires, the emergence of a better evangelical movement. This hoped-for better movement (considered as constituencies and leaders of communities of faith, organizations and institutions) would be a context of generosity, hospitality, theological imagination and humble piety; it would be the context for the collective effort of diverse contributors that yields a better evangelical theology. For this reason I keep the movement connected to the theological project, in spite of past failings. The renewed theology includes renewal within the evangelical movement.
This proposed evangelical theology is to be an ongoing product because Christian beliefs are confessed and put into practice in a variety of times and places; perennial questions may be present, some questions may emerge, fade and re-emerge, and some questions may emerge uniquely from particular contexts. This is not a threat to the faithful stewardship of orthodoxy but a perennial effort to convey the fullness of orthodox faith and practice with clarity, sensitivity and wisdom as it spreads through history and across a variety of contexts. As noted above, part of my goal here is to bring part of the diversity from African-American tradition to the practice of evangelical theology, along with drawing on aspects of the legacy of “mainstream” evangelical theology.