Challenging evangelical preoccupations: sin, scripture, soul-saving (and some others)

Firstly I must apologise to evangelicals for seeming constantly to have it in for them. Evangelicalism is undoubtedly no better or worse than other forms of Christianity, and within it there are many healthier, more open and generous-spirited elements alongside the more rigid and doctrinaire ones which tend to form the common picture of ‘Evangelical’. I criticise evangelicalism because it’s the form of faith I know best, and it’s the one I’m currently feeling my way out of. Other denominations and streams of Christianity have their share of problems and issues, but I’m not really qualified to talk about them.

In my experience one of the chief problems with evangelicalism is that it tends to see itself as the only true, Bible-believing form of Christianity, often viewing other types as suspect, heretical or even not Christian at all. No wonder evangelical protestantism and magisterial Roman Catholicism have so long been at loggerheads – deep down, they both see themselves as the One True Faith (I was brought up part-Catholic so I can perhaps criticise Catholicism a little as well… 🙂 ).

I too used to think that my evangelical theology and practice was superior to that of Christians from other churches. Increasingly though I now believe that evangelicalism offers as flawed and partial a version of Christ’s way as any other type or stream of Christianity. That doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ or ‘heretical’; just human, like the rest.

In particular there are a number of areas in which I think evangelicalism has got its focus a little wrong, over-emphasising certain aspects of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy at the expense of others which may actually be more important. In true Anglican sermon fashion, these all begin with the letter s.

As I still see myself as a recovering evangelical, I’ll try to use the pronoun ‘we’ throughout.

Sin

It seems to me that, whatever it may proclaim to the contrary, evangelicalism effectively puts sin at the centre of the gospel, with grace and love taking second place. There’s a huge emphasis on sin and repentance, and particularly on what seems to me a very narrow definition or understanding of sin which focuses almost exclusively on personal and particularly sexual morality.

Now I’m not at all denying that personal sin is real or important; I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we do or how we behave. But I don’t think the primary emphasis on sin above love and grace and relationship is healthy or helpful, or indeed truly Christian. I also think that the narrow definition of sin as personal misdemeanour or transgression misses the much broader biblical scope of sin as the brokenness of the world.

The preoccupation with personal, behavioural sin also goes with a predilection for law, for a written and therefore fixed and unchanging moral code. True, Christ does not abolish the law. But what he does is reveal that the written law was only ever a particular manifestation of a deeper universal and divine law, now fully seen in Christ as the law of love. To the extent that we love as Christ models love, we fulfil the law. Christ is the source and embodiment of love; to love truly, we must be filled ever more fully and deeply with him, aligned more with him. The closer we get to him and the more his likeness is formed in us, the more do we embody and reflect his love and the more we fulfil the deep divine law.

I’m not saying that we can or should sin ‘because we are not under law but grace’ (Romans 6:15) or that we should ‘do evil so that good may result’ (Rom 3:8). I’m simply saying that grace means that we can stop focusing so heavily on sin and instead make Christ and his love our primary focus.

Scripture

If sin is an evangelical preoccupation, scripture is something of an obsession. Sola scriptura is the rallying cry of the Reformers that we evangelicals have truly taken to heart. We tend to think that we alone are really faithful to the Bible, but in my view we’ve been as guilty of misinterpreting it as any other Christian group. I also think evangelicals have sometimes exalted scripture to the status of fourth member of the Trinity, in practice often more valued than the Holy Spirit or even perhaps Christ (except his cross).

Again, I’m not saying that scripture isn’t of tremendous importance. It is. But it is not the be-all-and-end-all; it does not and cannot settle every dispute, clinch every argument nor tell us all we need to know about everything that matters. Crucially, it does not present a univocal or unequivocal account, either of history or theology, of doctrine or practice. And anyone who believes that it is textually inerrant is, in my view, just not reading it properly. The very fact that we have four different gospels, which are impossible to unite neatly into a single coherent account, suggests strongly that God does not share our evangelical obsession with literal accuracy; that he even rejoices in loose ends and rough edges.

Instead of putting scripture at the centre and using proof texts to settle every argument over theology, ethics, doctrine or church practice, I believe we must again put Christ at the centre. ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39-40). Jesus, not the Bible, is the true and living Word of God (John 1:1); scripture is at best an echo, a refraction, a partial record of a selection of God’s words, not the full and final account.

The evangelical emphasis on codified theology and morality also often leads to our valuing Paul more highly than Jesus, at least tacitly, as Paul’s letters are strong on worked-out theology and doctrine and codes of practice, whereas Jesus’ teaching is frustratingly full of parable, paradox and enacted symbolism. (Incidentally I think that the evangelical reading of Paul is often a misreading or at best a partial reading – Paul, like Jesus, is more of a mystic than we generally give him credit for).

Sound doctrine

The emphasis on sound or correct doctrine follows on directly from the centrality of scripture, as well as from the fear of sin and Satan. Evangelicals are people of the book; we place tremendous value on the written word, and in particular on anything that can be codified, categorised or systematised. So we generally favour neat, systematic theologies, propositional preaching and logical, quasi-mathematical models of atonement (see substitutionary sacrifice below). Sound doctrine – holding ‘correct’, scripturally-based beliefs – is therefore seen to be of crucial importance.

What we often seem to forget though is that, as Paul himself says, ‘the letter kills but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). Scripture and sound doctrine alone are not enough. As Paul also says elsewhere, what matters is a new creation; faith expressing itself in love. ‘Without love, I am nothing.’

We also forget that our doctrines are interpretations and extrapolations based on particular readings of scripture with particular emphases and biases, and are often derived by the application of human logic and reason; they are not God’s Word but merely a particular gloss on it, and other readings are possible and sometimes fit better.

The Bible does not present us with a systematic theology nor with a set of clear and unequivocal doctrines for us to accept. Nor is orthodoxy in theology and doctrine the most important thing that Jesus came to bring. He came to draw us – and the whole cosmos – back to God, to model the way of love and truth; doctrine and theology merely support this, and where they don’t they have ceased to be useful.

Satan

Again, I’m not denying the reality of spiritual evil, nor that this has a personal dimension or aspect. I’m agnostic on whether or not there is a literal super-powerful spirit-being who heads up the fight against God and goodness, but I’ve seen enough to be prepared to believe that there may well be.

It’s just that I think that evangelical Christians (particularly of the more charismatic wing) often have an unhealthy preoccupation with Satan and spiritual warfare, seeing satanic attack behind every headache and setback and temptation. It seems to me that this has a number of negative consequences:

  • It breeds superstition and fearfulness – a kind of spiritual hypochondria; a tendency to believe ourselves to be under attack, which can lead to a persecution complex or a ghetto/victim mentality of ‘us against the world’.
  • It also breeds suspicion of anyone else who holds different theology or beliefs, particularly beliefs that we find threatening. It can lead to a view of other people as ‘heretics’ or ‘apostates’, agents of the devil sent to lead us astray. It makes it hard to listen to or take on board new ideas, for fear these might be misleading false teachings of the enemy. (It can also lead to a suspicion of imagination and the arts, which we fear may bring dangerous ideas or emotions – look at the widespread suspicion about Harry Potter, which I believe to be deeply Christian books.)
  • It encourages not taking responsibility for our lives, conveniently blaming ‘the enemy’ whenever things go wrong rather than looking realistically at our own faults and issues.
  • Finally, ironically it often blinds us to the real spiritual problems in our lives – pride, self-righteousness, judgementalism, lack of love etc.

In the physical realm, our bodies are attacked by various diseases, viruses, cancers and toxins. Perhaps something similar operates in the spiritual dimension of our lives, but if so that doesn’t mean that we need to become hypochondriacs or hygiene obsessives, always on the lookout for spiritual contagion and infection. Instead, as with physical risks, we should seek to be aware of possible hazards, to live as healthily as we can, to take sensible precautions and avoid obvious hazards, and to take specific action when it’s necessary. But our main focus must always be the good, not the evil – Christ, not Satan.

Incidentally, the over-emphasis on Satan also goes with the over-emphasis on sin, because we think that there is this super-being whose main raison d’être is to get us to sin. It also goes hand in hand with the emphasis on soul-saving (below), as part of a theology or worldview in which above all we need to be saved from Satan’s power or rule and from a literal hell.

Soul-saving

Many evangelicals see their primary purpose as ‘preaching the gospel’ in order to ‘win souls for Christ’. ‘The bottom line is bums on seats in heaven’, as one of my good evangelical friends put it. To me though, this is a narrow evangelism, preaching a partial and skewed gospel. The gospel Jesus preached and modelled is so much bigger and better, so much more all-encompassing and inspiring than just ‘bums on seats in heaven’. It’s about the redemption, renewal and restoration of the whole cosmos, all of creation; it’s about new life in the kingdom of God, the new heavens and new earth. It’s about reconciliation and restored relationships; about love and truth and goodness and hope for all nations and all people.

Yes, our souls do need saving, but so do our whole selves, our bodies, our minds, our world; the whole universe. And being ‘saved’ is not just about escaping hell and eternal damnation, if it’s even about that at all; it’s about life and love, about being made new, becoming the true reflections of the divine image that we were always meant to be.

Substitutionary sacrifice

Jesus’ death on the cross is of course one of the central aspects of the Christian faith. The problem comes when it becomes almost the only thing that Jesus was all about, and furthermore when one particular view or model of the atonement is given precedence over all others. Penal substitutionary sacrifice has become an unquestionable touchstone doctrine for conservative evangelicals – remember the angry reaction to Steve Chalke when he criticised the doctrine in his book The Lost Message of Jesus. Now I do think that substitutionary sacrifice is one aspect of the atonement, but it’s not the only one and nor is it necessarily the best or most important one.

The problem with elevating penal substitution above all other views is that again it reinforces the focus on personal sin and personal salvation above all the other aspects of God, Christ and the gospel. It reduces the gospel to ‘Christ died for your sins so that you could go to heaven if you believe in him’. It also reduces the cross to a kind of financial or mathematical transaction whereby Jesus simply cancels out our sin-debt by paying it himself. Yes, this is one facet of the atonement, but there’s so much more. The atonement is the ultimate victory and vindication and exemplar of Love; it is the utter defeat and confounding of evil. It is God’s ultimate identification with his broken and wounded cosmos and people. It is the great sign of God’s great redemption, his ability to bring life out of death and good out of evil. It is all this and it is more.

So, sin, scripture, sound doctrine, Satan, soul-saving, substitutionary sacrifice… all perfectly valid and even vital elements of a full Christian theology. But if we place these things at the centre of our faith and let them push out other aspects – love and grace, the wider dimensions of redemption, even perhaps Christ himself – then we may just end up with misdirected zeal for a partial and unbalanced faith.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Evangelicalism, Salvation, Sex and sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Challenging evangelical preoccupations: sin, scripture, soul-saving (and some others)

  1. Eric says:

    I like this article a lot. I do have one minor quibble, though (and it is minor and should not be seen as more important than the majority I agree with). Your section on Scripture seems to (perhaps not intentionally) follow the evangelical approach to Scripture but sometimes answer “no” where evangelicals say “yes”. I suspect that the problem is partly with the set of questions. I’m thinking particularly of this section:

    “But it is not the be-all-and-end-all; it does not and cannot settle every dispute, clinch every argument nor tell us all we need to know about everything that matters. Crucially, it does not present a univocal or unequivocal account, either of history or theology, of doctrine or practice.”
    I generally agree with where this takes you – the centrality of the Word made flesh over the words made of ink (a friend of mine once mockingly proclaimed that his copy of Jesus came with maps at the back). However, I think that the reason the Bible does not give us these univocal accounts is because we are asking for the wrong thing.

    The modernist ideal of an authoritative document is a textbook. The Bible is a crappy textbook, as you point out, no matter whether it is supposed to be a history, practice, or doctrine textbook. However, I tend to think that the Bible is actually a very good book. God has not inspired a crappy textbook (“inspired” is a bit of a slippery word but the exact meaning does not change the statement’s truth value) but an excellent book of another type. While a textbook seeks to teach us knowledge, specifically intellectual beliefs to which one assents, the Bible seeks to teach us wisdom, things we know that then transform us.
    Anyway, this is one of my favorite topics to write about myself and I’m interested in your response. Do you see the issue primarily as one of the importance of the Bible or of the “what is the Bible?” variety? Sorry for the length of this rambling thought. I hope it makes sense.

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    • Hi Eric, thanks for your very interesting comment. I think you’re right – the Bible is a fantastic book, but too often we approach it with the wrong questions or assumptions, expecting to be something it’s not. In my view that’s particularly true for evangelicals, who ironically tend to believe that they (we) have the best understanding of the Bible and are most faithful to it!

      So as you say, if we’re trying to use it as a science or history textbook, or as a book of divine answers or set doctrines, then we’ll probably not get the most out of it. If we can learn to approach it on its own terms and let it speak in its own voice, without imposing our own agendas or frameworks upon it, then we can perhaps start to hear the voice of God through it more clearly. But that can be surprisingly hard to do!

      So I do see the Bible as tremendously important, but in practice I’m a bit jaded from having read it for so long through evangelical and modernist spectacles. I’m hoping I can learn to start afresh but the old habits and filters don’t die easily.

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  2. Eric says:

    I very much hear you there. I spent a long time not reading my Bible because let’s be honest, I’d read it once and I have pretty good retention. However, over discussions with some friends and some good books I’ve found a better way to read. Now I find myself intensely frustrated by the standard evangelical approach precisely because I find the Bible so rich. When someone says, “Matthew gives us this genealogy because we need to know that Jesus is the son of David to fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah,” I find it irritating because I can (and recently have) had half-hour discussions about how Matthew presents the genealogy to make points about both who and what the Messiah is. (Whereas I know plenty of Christians who wouldn’t even realize that you could ask the “what is the Messiah?” question or that it might make a difference to us now.)

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    • Yes, it’s great when you come across completely fresh insights in passages of the Bible you’ve read a hundred times and thought you knew all about. I’ve always tended to skip the genealogies or read them without paying much attention, but as you say even there you can find fascinating things.

      For several years I read from the Bible every day and completely stopped enjoying it or deriving anything positive from it – it just left me frustrated and confused, even angry. Now I’ve had a break of a few months and I hope that when I do take the book up again I can approach it with fresh eyes.

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  3. dsholland says:

    Interesting post as always. Its kind of funny that I am going “soul winning” tomorrow for the first time in more than a score of years. I guess that’s the tension between the accurate appraisal of flaws in our practice and the need to practice. Just like the Bible is not a weapon but can and should be used as a sword.

    I really like the discussion on sin. Sexual sin gets the headlines but I think that’s just because its an easy hunger to manipulate (if you happen to have that job ;-). Sin is really the selfishness that makes you put that hunger ahead of what you know to be a better choice. Once you get a feel for just how broken we are, individual sins are less significant (as you say, not that they don’t matter, just compared to what, and isn’t that comparison basically sinful too? – yup, broken).

    I’m confident your re-acquaintance with the written Word will be less than you imagine and more. One of the things that keeps me is that what I imagine isn’t how it works and how it works is so much more than I imagined.

    Warmly,
    David

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    • Thank you David, as always.

      I very much hope your ‘soul-winning’ endeavour goes well. How are you going about it, out of interest?

      I’m certainly not anti-evangelism, but in practice – as with Bible-reading – it’s something I’ve let lapse of late, as my previous efforts and attempts have always been rather unsuccessful and painful for all involved. If and when it happens now it’s something I haven’t planned and prepared and agonised over, it’s just something that happens, and always rather to my surprise.

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      • dsholland says:

        It went rather well. One of the guys in my church has an annual booth at a local faire. There are rides and vendors hawking all sorts of things on the fairway. We gave away walking sticks with a set of colored beads that key off 5 touch points – sin, sacrifice, redemption, new life and eternity. My feeble attempts at writing helped me to focus on saying one thing – keeping the message short but rich enough to say something of substance.
        It was a beautiful day and people had time to waste walking the fairway so they would stop and listen for the stick.
        Everyone was gracious and most listened intently frequently saying thank you for the message more than the stick. It was a great day.

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        • Really glad it went so well, and it sounds like it helped a lot of people, probably yourself included. It’s good for me too to hear stories like yours, when I’m feeling a bit jaded with the whole evangelical ‘soul-winning’ enterprise.

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  4. Rosie Edser says:

    Really really like Eric’s point about text book approach to Bible study leading to intellectual knowledge versus richer transformative wisdom… tell me more? YOu can get that stuff out of a genealogy in Matthew? Haven’t had that sense pf my heart burning within me while scripture was explained for years and years..

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  5. Theothedog says:

    To my mind the blog is simply terrific: insightful, thoughtful, honest, and above all charitable – which many things written on this kind of subject aren’t (so often the pain still talks). I also like Eric’s words about the Bible, and take the point particularly about the need to be very careful what questions one asks of it.
    The only theological point I can make is simply to re-emphasize the importance of grace – a classic evangelical Protestant concept if ever there were one, but one which tends so often to get subsumed under concerns about sin, the Devil, ‘correct doctrine’ (whatever the hell that is) and, yes, bums on seats. But grace, properly understood and placed as the starting-point of theological refelection, surely ‘covers’, indeed renders ultimately irrelevant, all those other things. A powerful God who loves us is in charge, for goodness’ sake!
    Other than that just a quick pastoral point. A major reason why I deeply mistrust any tendency to see one’s own understanding of Christ, ‘as the only true, Bible-believing form of Christianity’ is the damage it so often does to people and their relationships. By their fruits, boy, by their fruits. So often people are afraid of ‘coming out’ as, for example, unsound liberals, simply because, say, they may have developed a taste for a different style of worship, have begun to find greater spiritual comfort in sacramental religion, or (most commonly of course). have started to ask new questions of God. Any of those things can be interpreted as ‘falling away’ and, yes, can cause tremendous wholly unnecessary tensions between colleagues, friends, even spouses. If Harvey’s blog encourages anyone just to ‘get real’ and use a bit of commonsensical charity about this kind of thing, it would make the whole thing more than worthwhile. i just hope lots of people read it!

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    • Greetings good Theophilus! I hope that the real ‘Theo the dog’ has settled back into a life without beaches and three long walks a day.

      Thank you very much for bothering to seek out my blog, let alone reading it and commenting so generously and graciously. I’ll freely admit that I’m heavily indebted to you for inspiration for this particular article. You mentioned that in your experience evangelicals tended to have a preoccupation with sin rather than with grace, which set me thinking…

      How was Bruckner no. 8?

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  6. James Pruitt says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and the responses and the responses to the responses. But your post begs this question: in what sense are you still an evangelical? Your self-description is that you are a recovering evangelical and “currently feeling my way out of” evangelicalism.
    That’s fine but it begs another question: does your web page need another name? I would suggest a more accurate one would be the Christian Liberal. Yours is, in my view, a blog that promotes diversity within the Christian faith and generally adheres to liberal political orthodoxies.
    We’ve debated the latter in the past. For now, I’d ask you: is your current name accurate any longer?

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    • Jim, you raise a good point as ever. I agree that it seems odd for me to continue calling myself ‘evangelical’ in any sense given some of the things I’m writing. However, I still stand by my decision to call this blog (and my screen avatar) The Evangelical Liberal, for a number of reasons:

      • I’m still an active member of a broadly evangelical Anglican church, and I continue to worship in a broadly evangelical/charismatic style;
      • while I’m a ‘recovering’ evangelical and ‘feeling my way out of evangelicalism’, it’s really a particular kind or expression of evangelicalism that I’m feeling my out of, not necessarily the whole thing;
      • though I’m critical of many aspects of modern evangelicalism and evangelical theology, I believe that there is much good in historical evangelicalism – the evangelicalism of, for example, Wilberforce and the 18th century abolitionists, which carried a strong social and practical dimension;
      • though I’m currently exploring a more ‘liberal’ theology, I still see the importance of retaining my evangelical roots. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to reform my Christian faith from within. That means not entirely rejecting where I’ve come from, but rather redeeming and renewing it.

      In the end, I don’t really want to be ‘evangelical’ or ‘liberal’, but to retain the good of both, while hopefully transcending camps and factions and labels. ‘Evangel’ simply refers to the good news of Christ and ‘liber’ to freedom; my aim is to integrate both aspects.

      I love paradox; I’ve said elsewhere that my favourite book titles are ‘The Orthodox Heretic’ (Peter Rollins) and ‘The Christian Agnostic’ (Leslie Wetherhead). But for me, the tension I need to resolve – or just to live in – is that of Evangelical and Liberal, the two poles in my own faith. So I remain The Evangelical Liberal.

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      • Theothedog says:

        Another response to Jim’s (I agree, very valid) might be that what you are objecting to in the blog are almost entirely CONSERVATIVE evangelical positions.; So often ‘evangelical’ and ‘conservative evangelical’ are used as synonyms; but the liberal evangelical (for whom you have obvious and understandable sympathy – or empathy?) is surely a similarly real but rather different animal? And anyway I’m struck that your title ‘evangelical liberal’ rather implies that you’re essentially a liberal with evangelical sympathies rather than vice versa, You could, after all, have used ‘liberal’ as the adjective and ‘evangelical’ as the noun. And anyway, surely, we’re all, at least by instinct, part evangelical and part liberal, part Catholic and part Protestant, and so on. Certainly the church as a whole needs a wide range of positions on these spectra.

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        • Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There are many species and shades of evangelical, as there are of liberal; I tend strongly towards the more ‘open’ end of evangelicalism, and to the more biblically-rooted varieties of liberalism.

          I did think about reversing the order and being ‘The Liberal Evangelical’, but that didn’t quite feel right; it just seemed to convey a somewhat pale and attenuated evangelicalism, implying that I felt I was just going a bit soft, woolly or dodgy. ‘Evangelical liberal’ had a stronger, more intentional ring, as well as a pleasing hint of oxymoronity (I don’t think that’s a word but never mind). I’m not becoming dodgy; I’m just becoming more free. At least, that’s what I hope.

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  7. James Pruitt says:

    I hope that the Body of Christ is continually built up and I agree that it is diverse. For these reasons I continue to appreciate your blog. But I must say that that at some levels I find your answer on this one unsatisfactory. I am very inclined to think of you as an evangelical because that is what you call yourself and I believe that I should defer to you on that, but I just don’t see you as one.
    To elaborate: I suppose that I could call myself a:
    • Catholic because I believe that Christianity is universal.
    • Jehovah’s Witness because I sometimes tell people what I perceive of God.
    • Latter Day Saint because I am a Christian in these times we could designate a “latter.”
    But I’ve never been a member of any of these churches so wouldn’t that be sort of a tease?
    I think you are what we call here and perhaps elsewhere a Red-Letter Christian.
    No matter: we are brothers in Christ. As a side note I think our religious beliefs are quite similar and our political beliefs quite dissimilar and I would find your linkage of liberal with freedom too clever by half.

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    • Well, Brian McLaren’s book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ – which I like very much – does indeed carry the rather lengthy subtitle ‘Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian’.

      I was raised by a liberal Roman Catholic father and a traditional High Anglican mother; in my early 20s I re-found faith in a strongly charismatic evangelical context. Since then I’ve been moving away from the more fundamentalist elements of that evangelicalism, and re-discovering some of the liturgical and contemplative elements of anglo-catholicism. But all these parts of my faith journey remain with me and form part of my identity. I still have strong evangelical elements; as I say, I still worship (indeed I ‘lead’ worship) in a broadly evangelical church, using charismatic/evangelical forms. When I criticise evangelicalism I therefore hope that I’m doing so from within, in a self-reforming way rather than from outside in a sniping way. In this blog I do tend to express my liberal side more, but that’s because the liberal aspect is what I’m currently discovering and exploring, whereas the evangelical side is where I’m coming from.

      I don’t think I’m being too clever by half in linking ‘liberal’ with ‘freedom’ – it’s simply the original meaning of the word, and I’m consciously trying to reclaim both ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’ for their original purposes and meanings, rather than the politicised and connotated forms that they’ve become.

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  8. James Pruitt says:

    Very interesting and helpful. Given my preoccupations I would be more interested in exploring the term liberal. (Conservatives heroes like Reagan and Thatcher thought they stood for freedom in the classical liberal sense and their opponents were more statist.) But I think from past experiences that I stray too far from the purpose of the blog when I get into political issues. Thanks as always for your answers to my questions. At least

    Cheers

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  9. Theothedog says:

    I spent a year in America a while back and never really understood what people meant when they used the word ‘liberal’. I suppose it’s another example of two countries being divided by the same language. That’s said, and it’s for Harvey to say rather than me, I guess that what a ‘liberal’ attitude tends to mean in UK contexts such as this are things like: an openness not just to the Spirit but to the full spectrum of Christian traditions; a commitment to theological exploration and discovery, rather than a sense that what’s already known is enough; and a high view of the capacity of human reason (especially when Spirit-inspired) to question and if necessary modify accepted truths. My sense is also that people who are liberal theologically TEND to be quite conservative (for example in the matter of liturgy) in their worship. Maybe all Christians, indeed all people, like a mixture of rigidity (hence also structure and predictability) and freedom; and if this is true, one of the main differences between conservative evangelicals and liberals is that they look for that freedom and rigidity in different places! By the way, my own understanding (such as it is) of liberal chiurchmanship in the British context was greatly heloped a few years ago by reading Brian Mountford’s ‘Perfect Freedom’, which I’d recommend.

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    • I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what the word ‘liberal’ means, though I think Theothedog’s definition is a very good one! It seems to be one of those terms whose meaning changes radically depending on the context and on who’s using it.

      If a British evangelical describes a church or person as ‘liberal’, it’s usually meant as an insult, implying things like wishy-washy beliefs, compromise with the ‘world’, moral laxity, syncretism etc; essentially an abandonment of scriptural roots and ‘sound’ doctrine. However, those who call themselves liberal will more likely say that they are following in the footsteps of the liberating Christ, who placed love and freedom and human kindness way above orthodoxy, doctrinal correctness or a particular view of scripture or the atonement.

      There are of course many types of liberal Christian, with a huge range of views and practices. Some are, as Theo says, liturgically very conservative; others far less so. Last month I went to Greenbelt, which is essentially a liberal Christian arts and music festival, and the range of different types of people and belief represented was astonishing. But I think that’s a very interesting point that most people look for some kind of balance between rigidity (or structure) and freedom / liberty.

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  10. Ian G says:

    I enjoyed reading this article.

    Whilst I am no theologian, I do consider myself a recovering charismatic.

    My lived experience is that an almost obsessive focus on sin and biblical infalibility was of no value whatsoever when I experienced a ‘dark night of the soul’ where all my securities and certainties were stripped away, nor did they help me when I came face to face with my mortality during heart surgery.

    When I came to the end of my own resources, (and the resources of those around me), my ideas, structures and assumptions, God was there where He’d been all along.

    It was that undefinable quality of faith and trust in the Love, Mercy, Grace and Compassion of the Living God which called me onwards during these times, comforting me and those I share life with.

    I don’t think the Body (not bodies) of Christ was ever meant to split as it has into ‘specialisms’, and I believe that is at the root of this struggle. I once heard the church described as a many faceted diamond – when the facets are divided they become see through and unable to reflect the Light. A good friend recently lent me Michael Mitton’s book, Restoring the Woven Cord, and this too seemed to describe this pretty well.

    We need reconciliation now more than ever – seeking to understand and heal rather than condemn and criticise.

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    • Hi Ian – thank you very much for your comment, and it’s really good to hear your story. I totally identify with your point that it’s the reality of God that sustains you through these dark times, rather than any theology or set of doctrines. I’ve come to know and trust God far more deeply through my own episodes of darkness, even paradoxically while experiencing his absence.

      I also totally agree that reconciliation is of tremendous importance. I realise that sometimes in this blog I’m guilty of attacking evangelicalism, Calvinism and fundamentalism, which isn’t really very helpful. Overall I hope to explore and put forward more positive ways of being a Christian, but at times I find I’m just pushing back against the kinds of theology and religious practice that I feel have constrained and damaged both me and many others. You’re right though, we need to forgive and seek reconciliation within the church.

      Thanks very much
      Harvey

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