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.
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.
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.