Thursday, December 1, 2016

What Does American Evangelicalism Believe?

The title is not a trick question.  What do evangelicals believe?  Can we nail this down?  Some might point to the multi-volume The Fundamentals edited by A. C. Dixon and later by R. A. Torrey.  The 90 essays contained therein provide a thorough understanding of Scripture in early twentieth-century evangelicalism, but can we consider the work to be accurate today?  What about a pared-down list similar to those found on websites or the following list of essentials by Matt Slick at CARM:
  1. Deity of Christ
  2. Salvation by Grace
  3. Resurrection of Christ
  4. The Gospel
  5. Monotheism
  1. Jesus is the only way to salvation
  2. Jesus’ Virgin Birth
  3. Doctrine of the Trinity
With these essentials in hand, are we any closer to determining what American evangelicals actually believe?  I have often quipped that the belief system of any local assembly can be reduced to a mathematical function: f(x) = x + 1.  In other words, for any number (x) of congregants, there is x+1 number of belief systems or opinions.  And if they actually compare notes with one another, the number grows exponentially: f(x) = (x+1)y where y is the number of interactions.  Overt facetiousness aside, how accurate is this?

With the prevalence of postmodern thought in Christianity, personal belief systems have increasingly become the norm.  In October of this year, I referenced a recent article illustrating heretical beliefs held by self-professed evangelicals.  Believers have taken a pragmatic approach to doctrine that resonates with their current situation.  Individualized Christianity runs rampant.

Church leadership is not without fault.  In March of this year, in an examination of evangelical response to the presidential election, Marsha West of Berean Research summarized a series she wrote in 2011 with the following:
Several years ago I penned a piece that I hoped would help explain the downgrade in the Church. I thought supermarket shopping would be a clever way to paint a word picture. In my piece I pointed out that there’s a “diabolically inspired supermarket of truth and error in the postmodern Church.” So take a stroll with me, once again, up and down the aisles as we shop for the ingredients to make Syncretism Stew….
Aisle 1-Mysticism Madness;
Aisle 2-Charismatic Confusion;
Aisle 3-Pentecostal Pandemonium;
Aisle 4-Enlightened Emergents;
Aisle 5-Purpose-driven Pragmatism;
Aisle 6-Secular Strategies…to suck in seekers;
Aisle 7-Twelve-steps…to “group think”
Aisle 8-Preposterous Pop Psychology
Aisle 9-Discernment Disintegration
Aisle 10-Predatory Pastors.
On and on it goes.
And I added this reminder:
The Body of Christ trusts its Shepherds to feed them healthy nutritious foods, yet many of them are literally starving their sheep to death! A diet of “Bible Light” does not nourish the soul – it causes spiritual malnutrition! A shepherd’s job is to lead the flock in Christian life and faith. (Source)†
One byproduct of this shift has been an adherence to other or additional sacraments.  Within Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic systems, there are seven well-documented sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony).  Evangelicalism is known for two ordinances (baptism, the Eucharist), but in practice this has changed.  American Evangelicalism also has what have effectively become seven sacraments: praise & worship, decision, self-help, service, quiet time, small groups, and clean living.  Matthew Garnett at In Layman’s Terms introduced these some time back and rebroadcast them on his podcast of October 16 this year.  In a nutshell, Garnett helps us realize that though some of these things are not bad, they have become the metric by which spirituality is measured: if you are not actively involved in all these things to an arbitrary satisfactory degree, then you must not be spiritual.  You may not even be a Christian.  The only solution is a Protestant purgatory wherein well-meaning pastors and parishioners pound you with the Law into you fall in line with the group standard.  The result is that you become twice a son of the devil as they, shipwreck your faith, or cope by inventing your own spirituality—all commonplace occurrences.

Whatever initiated the maelstrom, it has continued largely unabated, dragging whomever comes close into the abyss.  There are multitudinous metaphors to help us understand that there is something solid on which we can depend—foundation, rock, anchor, tower, bulwark to name a few—promised by the only One with power and authority to save and keep—I Am, Ancient of Days, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He Who promised is faithful.  What the Bible says, believe, teach, and do.

I cannot tell you how many times pastors and teachers have altered Bible quotations and definitions of Greek and Hebrew terms to fit their theology.  I cannot tell you how many times believers are confronted with Scripture and say they do not care.  Just stop.  Stop being relevant.  Stop being nuanced.  The solution is obvious yet must be constantly repeated.  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, neither nonchalantly nor with glitz, glamor, and funk.  Pray for daily bread and daily forgiveness, not seed offerings and audacious faith.  Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, not the pastor’s vision and 10-year plan.  Make disciples by baptizing and teaching, not by bait and switch.

Maybe rightly dividing the Word of God and preaching Christ and Him crucified are out of vogue, but there is no other solution to our need.  It is the one given to us.  Teach and learn the creeds.  Teach and learn a catechism.‡  Stop sipping at the shallow rivulet of new and trendy, but instead imbibe at the deep waters of what has been tested and tried that we might run the race and finish the course, looking to the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

*  I am uncomfortable with the primary/secondary designations he gives.  They can be misconstrued, and the latter three can be subsumed in the former.  However, he carefully defines his use of the terms.

†  I recommend reading that series: “Purpose Driven dismantling of Christianity” (part 1, part 2, part 3).

‡  I did not specify which catechism because of the diversity of my readership, but I gladly recommend both Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms.  You also would do well with the Heidelberg Catechism.

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