Not against heresies – disagreeing with conservatives

Succumbing to a burst of vain curiosity the other day, I googled ‘evangelical liberal’ to see if this blog was anywhere to be found. As so often with the internet, I stumbled on something else that caught my attention instead: ‘Call it a Comeback: Evangelicals, Liberals, and the Problem of Hell’.

Thinking this sounded interesting (I’m odd like that), and fondly imagining it might be Rob Bell-ish, I clicked the link and found myself on a blog called ‘Against Heresies’, which wasn’t Rob Bell-ish in the slightest. It talked of ‘the virulent strains of liberal theology’ and asked the question ‘Whoever then will believe in eternal hell without submitting their reasoning and moral calculus to the authority of God as he has spoken in Scripture?’ (the answer apparently being ‘no-one’).

The author had also contributed articles to the Banner of Truth website defending biblical inerrancy, penal substitution and other evangelical hobbyhorses. He also had an article describing the doctrines of liberal Christianity as ‘poison’. The fact that the author is a leading light in the organisation UCCF (which may not stand for Ultra-Conservative Christian Fellowship but possibly should) answered any further questions I might have had about his theological position. This is Conservative Evangelicalism (CE) at its strongest.

Why I react against conservative evangelicalism

I should record in honesty that my initial responses to reading this material were mixed feelings of anxiety and anger. Anxiety, because deep down I’ve always worried that the uber-conservatives might be right, which would mean that I was completely wrong, and that the real God wasn’t in the least bit like the one I’ve been trying to worship and follow. Anger, because it’s easy to feel angry when your beliefs are threatened; and also because I find the Christianity presented by Banner of Truth and Against Heresies so utterly unappealing.

Everything in me revolts against ultra-conservative evangelical theology. UCCF would probably say that this shows my unregenerate carnality; that I’m merely seeking teaching which is pleasing to my sinful human nature. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m well aware that I have a sinful human nature; I battle against it daily, with varying degrees of success. I’m not seeking theology which allows me to go on enjoying the counterfeit comforts of a carnal life while claiming to be spiritual. What I’m seeking is a genuine relationship with the real, full God of life and love and joy revealed in Christ. And sadly the God of CE theology feels to me like a mere two-dimensional parody of God, one to whom I can’t relate at all – and wouldn’t want to.

The other thing I dislike about conservative evangelicalism is its presentation, which so often comes across as negative, joyless and arrogant. Rather than celebrating Christ’s goodness and life, CEs often seem to concentrate on attacking what they see as non-orthodox doctrines, and those who hold them. The title of the blog ‘Against heresies’ says it all (though the author does assure readers that it isn’t as negative as it sounds). And it seems to me that ‘Banner of Truth’ might be more aptly renamed ‘Sledgehammer of Truth’, battering down ‘errant’ doctrines and any books, churches or preachers who espouse them.

Defending God?

To me, these websites come across as strongly adversarial, even militant; set up primarily to attack and refute ‘false’ and ‘dangerous’ liberal teaching, and to defend CE orthodoxy to the hilt. There doesn’t appear to be any dialogue or real engagement with alternative viewpoints, nor does there seem to be a lot of humility or self-questioning; little sense that CE theology might possibly not be the unassailable full sum of God’s Truth.

I suppose that because CE sees itself as authentic Biblical theology, it believes itself to be defending and upholding the Truth of the Bible, of God’s unchanging Word – and therefore defending God himself. But what I think it fails to acknowledge is that CE theology, like all theology, is a particular interpretation of the Bible relying on a particular hermeneutic, based on a particular set of beliefs about what the Bible is which are not themselves necessarily derivable from Scripture (or at least are not the only ones which could be derived from Scripture with equal validity).

CEs see Scripture as God’s perfect and eternal Word, divinely inspired in its entirety, full stop. This closes all further questions. Either you accept God’s Word in full as a true believer, or you reject it as a heretic and apostate (and if you reject part of it, you reject it all). The trouble is, the Bible is far richer, messier and more complex than that – as I was starting to look at in the previous post on the differing resurrection accounts.

With the best will in the world and the best tools of scholarship available, we can’t always be certain exactly what meaning the Bible authors intended to convey in their original context. And at other points, while we can be fairly certain what they meant, we have to hold that in tension with other parts of the Bible which appear to offer a very different perspective or alternative viewpoint. The ‘biblical’ view is far more complex than most CEs allow on matters such as hell, the atonement, scriptural inerrancy, the role of women, and a range of other subjects on which most CEs brook no alternative views. It is not heresy to take a different line on any of these matters; it isn’t even necessarily non-orthodoxy – it just isn’t CE orthodoxy.

Wrong but repulsive?

I can’t help recalling the 1066 And All That definition of the Puritan Roundheads as ‘Right but Repulsive’. It feels to me that something similar could perhaps be said of extreme CEs (in many ways the Puritans’ modern inheritors). It’s quite conceivable that they are doctrinally or biblically right – I obviously don’t think so, but I may well be wrong. The point is though that, even if they are right, to the extent that they’re right in an aggressive and uncharitable way I think they actually cease to be fully right, because they cease to be fully Christlike.

Of course, Christ could be highly rude and insulting at times, and his message was an offence to many people. But as I’ve said elsewhere, he was primarily offensive to those who saw themselves as the guardians of public morals, the upholders of Scriptural truth and the gatekeepers of correct doctrine – in other words, to the religious conservatives of his day. He didn’t set standards of orthodoxy on his followers; rather he called them to follow him in his life of radical self-giving love and goodness.

True fundamentalism

In fairness, I must point out that any extreme dogmatic position is in the same boat as ultra-conservative evangelicalism – whether extreme dogmatic liberalism, atheism, Islam, Marxism or anything else. Any such position effectively closes the question, allowing no further debate. Extreme CEs believe they have the total handle or monopoly on the truth; extreme liberals by contrast believe there can be no handle on truth at all; either way, there is an end to all discussion and dialogue – indeed to all further thought and questioning. This is true fundamentalism, whether it be religious or anti-religious, evangelical or liberal. It is not so much the content of the beliefs held (or rejected) that makes one a fundamentalist; it is the manner in which one holds (or rejects) them.

Again, Christ did of course teach with authority, and he did at times lay down fairly unequivocal instructions and prohibitions. But in terms of doctrine and theology, his preaching tended to open up debate and discussion rather than closing it off. He asked questions at least as often as he answered them; he performed symbolic signs and told stories with multiple layers of meaning at least as often as giving clear and specific propositional teaching. He called for a personal, relational and emotional response from his hearers – whether love or hate, fear or wonder, anger or worship, trust or dismissal – rather than an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines or acceptance of a particular moral code.

We’re all wrong

Of course, I’m aware that I’m actually falling into the same behaviour here that I’ve been accusing the CEs of, responding critically and negatively against them, attacking their views and presentation. I’m reacting emotionally to reading ‘Against heresies’ and ‘Banner of Truth’; that’s how I feel, but I realise it’s not a helpful ongoing attitude or conducive to fruitful dialogue. I need to acknowledge that both the ultra-CEs and I will inevitably be right and wrong in different ways, correct and mistaken about different things. We’re all heretics to an extent; and what matters more than our theological correctness is how Christlike our attitude is – and I fall fairly far short on that.

And however much I disagree with their views, and dislike the tone and manner in which they’re sometimes presented, I need to take up Christ’s challenge to love religious conservatives as Christian brothers and sisters.

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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 Emerging, Fundamentalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Orthodoxy, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Not against heresies – disagreeing with conservatives

  1. Terry says:

    “Hello, can o’ worms,” said Harvey, one fine day. “Let me open you!”

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    • I’ve always been fond of worms. It’s the way they wriggle.

      Cans I’m not so fond of – the ring-pulls snap and the other sort have nasty jagged edges.

      I really don’t know what you mean though – what could possibly be the least bit contentious in what I’ve said? 😉

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  2. Thanks for this. I’m going to follow your blog. I was raised fundamentalist and I have recently realised that, having never associated with any, all I know about liberal Christians is the propaganda from my fundamentalist schoolbooks.

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    • Hi Jonny, great to hear from you and I look forward to reading your blog too. At the moment I call myself a recovering evangelical – I haven’t lost my faith but I just can’t accept a lot of the extreme conservative doctrine any longer.

      I never realised there were actual fundamentalist schoolbooks with anti-liberal propaganda!

      All the best
      Harvey

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  3. johnm55 says:

    If God of the universe ( I’m not 100% sure that he, she or it actually exists, but we’ll leave that to one side for the moment) is the God as described by the Extreme CE’s then we should not be worshiping him. All tyrants must be opposed. We should be activley fighting against him, even if it does lead to our certain destruction.

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    • I agree with you – interestingly Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) said a very similar thing though sadly I don’t have the quote to hand. The thing is, all reason militates against the idea that the God behind or beyond the universe would be a cruel and tyrannical dictator. Where would reason, love, beauty, truth, goodness come from if the ultimate source of all were evil or horrible? How would we even know what goodness is? It’s far easier to see how evil can arise as a corruption of ultimate good than to imagine that goodness could arise from something less than itself.

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      • johnm55 says:

        Strangely enough I am currently re-reading Moby Dick. I shall give you chapter and verse when I find the quote.

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        • I don’t think that quote’s from Moby Dick unfortunately. But I did write a long essay for my English degree about how the whole of Moby Dick was a disguised attack on the Calvinist god that Melville had grown up with and now rejected, represented by the great white whale. See if that makes any sense as you read the book!

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    • Cindy Brown says:

      I wouldn’t have it any other way! The unfortunate thing though is – they just won’t care. Their feelings won’t even get hurt – their church leaders must have brainwashed their feelings out of them.

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  4. Eric says:

    I agree with your general reactions against extreme conservatives. I really do think a lot of it is a matter of style. However, I don’t mean that as a way to dismiss the criticism of the style. Instead, I think the style suggests something about how this branch of Christianity functions deep down. I believe that our hermeneutic must be lived out – that only by living into faith can we understand it. When someone presents me with a nice, logical, packaged defense and says, in effect, “There’s Christianity, nicely summed up without need for human experience or anything but logic,” I’m automatically suspicious. Are they really reading the same Bible as I am? The one that’s mostly narratives and partly poetry?

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    • Thanks Eric – I think you’re absolutely right. One of the reasons I react against extreme conservatives is because I don’t often see that consistently lived-out hermeneutic (and because I can barely recognise the God of their theology). Having said that, I’ve met a fair few ‘fundies’ who are very kind and generous individuals and are far better than their theology!

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  5. Theothedog says:

    I think your last point is very important: I too have over the years come across a good few ‘Banner of Truth’ adherents who have been better than their theology (as well as some who haven’t!); and that’s quite a challenge to someone like me, whose theology is for certain a good deal BETTER than his character or lifestyle. What bothers me almost more than anything else about ‘Banner of Truth’-style Calvinism (with which, I’m sure, quite a few CEs or UCCF people wouldn’t agree) is that it seems completely, and un-self-critically, stuck in a time warp. In the sixteenth century, sure, your main spiritual enemy probably was the Catholic down the street or the Lutheran in the next town; and it would not normally be regarded as offensive to lay into that perceived heretic with bellicose, indeed violent language. But NOW!! I find it hard to imagine that members of any other small minority ideological group can address each other with such vehemence and contempt as many Christians still do. If you want to attack a set of ideas, surely you should go for atheism, consumerism, self-aggrandizement, etc., rather than fellow members of that 5% of the population with whom you share 95% of your beliefs? In theological terms the attitude seems to me to bespeak a deficient conception of the Holy Spirit and his works. Surely the Holy Spirit has been behind, or involved in, many of the remarkable improvements in mores, social behaviour, racial and gender equality, scientific discovery, etc., etc., that comfortably postdate the Reformation? I’ve been quite enjoying the thought recently of challenging a ‘spirit-filled’ theological conservative evangelical on his unduly low view of the moral activity of the Holy Spirit. But I probably shouldn’t listen too much to the unregenerate side of my complex carnality. I couldn’t identify more, to be honest, with your deep-down fear that ‘the ueber-conservatives [Umlauted ‘u’, please, if you must use the phrase…] might be right, which would mean that I was completely wrong, and that the real God wasn’t in the least bit like the one I’ve been trying to worship and follow’. Incredible how persistent that can be. But in retrospect I think I only really began truly to be myself when that partcular anxiety finally, gradually went away.

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    • James Pruitt says:

      Harvey,

      I’m always fine with liberals attacking fundamentalists while representing themselves as evangelicals but I always ask them to forthrightly answer these questions (Forgive me if you have answered them in earlier blogs.):
      • Do you believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin? If so, do you believe that was the case? (My own answers: yes and no.)
      • Do you believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead? If so, do you believe that was the case? (My own answers: yes and no.)

      The reason I highlight these is not to put some sort of faith test. It is to try to show that you may have some important things in common with the fundamentalists and, if so, ought to be able to reach a consensus which will help build Christian unity.
      The resurrection was, I know, the subject of one of your recent posts.
      The bodily resurrection has powerful proponent s right in your own country. Here are two: CS Lewis and NT Wright. CS Lewis discounts the purely visionary concept of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a full chapter in Miracles, published in 1947. In that chapter he writes: “We have thought (whether we acknowledge it or not) that the body was not objective: that it was an appearance sent by God to assure the disciples of truths otherwise incommunicable. But what truths? If the truth is that after death there comes a negatively spiritual life, an eternity of mystical experience, what more misleading way of communicating it could possibly be found than the appearance of a human form which eats broiled fish?” See CS Lewis, Miracles Copyright 1947 in The Complete CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers First Paperback Edition, 2007) 433. Wright, near the end of a seven hundred page book published in 2003, describes first a visionary view of the resurrection and second an actual bodily resurrection (albeit with a new body) and then states: “I find this second option enormously more probable at the level of sheer history.” See Wright 608-611. I regret it if I have misstated Lewis’ or Wright’s point of view.
      I recommend a 1922 sermon to you by the American pastor and writer Harry Emerson Fosdick:
      http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5070/

      Note: I had not heard of “Against Heresies” but you have to admit it shows a certain amount of historical knowledge. They are reaching back to Irenaeus.

      Cheers.

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      • Hi Jim, I’m sure you don’t mean to be rude but occasionally your comments do come across that way to my sensitive English ears! ‘Liberals attacking fundamentalists while representing themselves as evangelicals’ sounds to me like quite a strong implication that I’m either setting out to deceive – which I can assure you is not the case – or else that I’m deceiving myself, which of course is always possible.

        I’ve explained my position to you several times already, and I’m not going to rehearse it again except to point out that I’ve chosen the moniker Evangelical Liberal – ‘liberal’ being the noun, ‘evangelical’ the adjective. If you take that at face value, I’m not claiming to be an evangelical, but a liberal with some evangelical qualities or views. More accurate would be Evangelical/Liberal, implying both and neither. I don’t have a fixed position on these matters, and I don’t really want one. I’m in the process of working out what I believe, which I suspect will have many elements of both.

        To answer your direct questions:
        – I believe that Matthew’s gospel (and nowhere else in the Bible) teaches the virgin birth. I personally am agnostic about it, but if you pushed me to a definite answer, I’d say yes, I believe it.
        – I believe that the Bible teaches Christ’s bodily resurrection, and I also very strongly believe in that view.

        So on both of those counts, yes, I do hold broadly ‘orthodox’ views. As I said, my main point of dissension with fundamentalists is not the content of their beliefs but the manner in which they present and expound those beliefs, labelling those who do not share their views heretics. It’s hard to have unity with a group who will not acknowledge you as fellow-believers. However, as I also said, I’m aware that I need to show more love and understanding towards my conservative brethren – and I do see them as fellow-believers.

        Thanks
        Harvey

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    • Greetings Theo! Methinks you hit the nail on the head again. I very much like your idea of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in ‘secular’ developments/improvements across the full range of social, scientific and moral spheres. And I completely agree that Calvinistic ultra-conservatives seem to be stuck in a 16th-century mode of internecine warfare. I remember as a teenager being shocked by the anti-Catholicism in Matthew Henry’s commentary, but to see the same attitudes alive and kicking in present-day evangelicalism is far more troubling.

      By the way, I did want to umlaut-ise ‘u(e)ber’ but I couldn’t find the necessary character within WordPress!

      I look forward to the disappearing of my anxiety about the fundamentalists being right… maybe one day…

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  6. James Pruitt says:

    Thanks. You sound like an evangelical to me. Cheers, Jim

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    • Thanks Jim – and sorry if I misinterpreted your previous comment. I’d say that I’m broadly evangelical on some issues such as the resurrection and Christ’s divinity, and broadly liberal on others such as biblical inerrancy, hell, and homosexuality. But I’m not all that sure how helpful the evangelical/liberal labels are most of the time.
      All the best,
      Harvey

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