­­A Plea and a Warning for “Evangelicalism”

“I’m surprised people are still even trying to run in those circles.”

That’s what my colleague—a New Testament scholar who signs up to all the ecumenical creeds and staunchly defends the inspiration of Scripture—said to me. And by “people”, he was specifically referring to Bible and Theology Profs running in conservative evangelical circles.

It’s simply assumed—and one sees it again and again in practice—that if you get the academic training, you will find life in many evangelical churches difficult, if not impossible.

But why? Why do most Bible scholars and Theologians say: “I give up. I’m exhausted. It’s time to go Anglican/Episcopalian/Methodist/Presbyterian, etc.?”

Is it because higher ed necessarily makes you liberal? Is it because academic theology beats the Christian commitment out of people? Is it because, to be a card-carrying academic, you have to disavow conservative Christian commitments?

No. Not really.

It’s because so much of evangelicalism—with respect to philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics—is at least 30 years behind the curve. And I’m not talking about “progressing” with the culture. I’m not talking about the complex gender and sexuality debates.

I’m talking about things like (just to name a few):

  1. Young-earth Creationism
  2. Women in ministry
  3. Equating neo-Reformed Calvinism with “orthodoxy” (while not caring about the ecumenical creeds)
  4. Equating all social justice concerns with pandering to liberals and/or an uncritical and naïve acceptance of Marxism.

The sad thing is, most Biblical scholars and Theologians I know—many of whom are conservative or moderate and deeply love the Church and care about its future—agree: The brand of evangelicalism that exists in many conservative evangelical churches has about 30 years of life left. Its national influence has been waning for decades.

It buys more life by sacrificing the next generation on the altar of a past generation’s fundamentalism.

A couple of points in this regard:

  1. Training is important. You should not sit under a pastor who has no serious biblical or theological training (and there are, of course, many different kinds of training).
  2. MacArthur, Sproul, Piper, etc., are not reliable Bible scholars or Theologians. There’s a reason why they’re almost universally regarded in academia as unreliable biblical or theological guides. It’s not because “academia is liberal”. It’s because most of the experts recognize that folks like this—however much good they have done for the kingdom of God—don’t demonstrate the necessary competencies to handle complex historical, biblical, and theological issues with skill and nuance. There’s a reason why many have flocked to Wright, McKnight, Bird, etc. It’s not just because they’ve found in these scholars a tasteful balance and nuance. It’s because they recognize a requisite competency.
  3. Rediscover the great ecumenical creeds of the church as the markers of genuine Christianity. Stop making your church’s doctrine number 89 a “gospel issue”.

And this is, for me, a plea and a warning. There are some merits to a “Mere Christianity Evangelicalism”. But it must beware of falling prey to some of the worst of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Reformation.

The priesthood of all believers does not entail the “scholarhood” of all believers. And that’s something with which Luther would have emphatically agreed.

And, if you want to retain the specifically Reformed influence, I would say this:

More (e.g.) Vanhoozer, Moo, and Schreiner, and less MacArthur, Sproul, and Piper, etc.

But, better yet, more Wright, more McKnight (and now Barringer!), more Richter, more McCaulley, more Bates, more Edwards (Dennis, not Jonathan), more Warren (Tish, not Rick), and more Bird, just to name a few.

Chris Kugler (@chrisryankugler)

Assistant Professor of Theology

Houston Baptist University