This week, I propose a new word, or category, if you like: Evanliberalism.
My intention is to combine the best of evangelicalism and liberalism, whilst leaving out the worst.
What? I hear my evangelical colleagues say; is there a good side to liberalism?. Yes there is.
Say again? I hear, when the wheels start to grind and engage; is there a bad side to evangelicalism?. Yes there is, and in recent weeks I have run into it on a number of occasions.
Kindly allow me to explain.
My starting point is the person and work of Jesus Christ, as described in the canonical Bible. For better or for worse, I have decided that He is the way, the truth and the life, and no-one has access to the Father except by Him, just as He claimed in John 14:6. To me, this is not simply an intellectual proposition, but something that provides the script by which I live my life. I have adopted this perspective of Jesus because this is how the Biblical authors describe Him, and they should know better than I, having enjoyed a closer proximity to the historical person of Jesus.
(That’s a posh way of saying “they were there, dude, listen to what they’re saying”).
Expanding this further, I believe firmly that Jesus taught a Gospel of Grace, followed by Paul and the other authors of the New Testament, though they each had different ways of expressing it. Jesus framed it in terms of the Kingdom; Paul framed it in terms of justification. Both railed against the sense of self-entitlement that arises when we rely on something other than the Grace of God, even in part.
For example, in Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8, Jesus says to the Pharisees and Sadducees And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. I believe that Jesus’ point here is that they were relying on their Jewish ancestry to justify their inclusion in the People of God, and hence their access to God.
According to Genesis 12:2-3 and Genesis 15:19, God entered into a covenant with Abraham and his children, to be their God for all time. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew this, and they knew they were Abraham’s descendants (they had the genealogies), so they thought they were “set”. However, as Jesus points out, they weren’t. The reason, according to Jesus, was that they didn’t rely on God’s Grace, but on their own qualifications. They believed they were entitled to God because of something they had, and Jesus rebukes them for it. He refutes their claim to be Abraham’s children, despite the geneaologies, because they didn’t do what Abraham did (John 8:39), and if there was one thing that marked what Abraham did, it was his faith (Genesis 15:6). They relied on themselves, not on God.
Paul later wrote For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9). I am of the opinion that by “works” Paul does not strictly mean “moral good deeds”. What he has in view, broadly, are “religious” works. This makes sense because he equivocates between “works” as something we do, and “works” as something done to us, particularly in his letter to the Romans.
Consider the “works” that made a Jew a Jew; circumcision and breeding (things done to him) and “moral good deeds”, rites and festivals (things done by him). What Paul argues is that, as fully qualified Jew, he cannot use these works to get God to save him; if he could, then he would have something to boast about but he says he doesn’t. From Paul’s perspective, the re-centering of the legacy of Abraham on faith restores the divine mandate; we are Abraham’s children if we share in his faith, and this is what justifies our claim to the covenant of God.
Incidentally, this also opens the Gospel up to the gentiles – those of us who cannot claim to hold some of Abraham’s DNA – because we can become his heirs if we enter into the kind of faith he had, despite our gentile heritage.
Please forgive the apparent digression, but I hope to have demonstrated how crucial this Gospel of Grace is to the message of Jesus and His followers. It is rooted deep within the Biblical tradition and the Christian Church, at its best, has clung to it fiercely (for a brief review of what the Church Fathers taught, see here - though the website is “JustForCatholics”, I cannot think of any evangelical who would baulk at any of these statements).
I acknowledge that the Gospel of Grace can be explored in a variety of ways, but at it’s core, as I hoped to have demonstrated, is the impulse that we do not merit our privileges to God by anything that we have. Our access to God rests exclusively and solely on the work and person of Christ Jesus. We need faith to make the connection, but faith is what happens when I reach outside of myself to Him and I put my reliance on what He has. Put another way, we do not pre-qualify for God’s mercy and there’s nothing we can do to improve or increase it. (If anything, we pre-qualify for His wrath.)
I have found that evangelicalism, at its best, is rightly proud of maintaining and fostering this tradition, expositing it from the Bible, from which it gets its authority. However, there are elements within it that have become the very thing it contends with. These elements need to be challenged, and this is where liberalism, at it’s best, should be allowed to speak.
For example, this week I caused something of a rupture among the Evangelicals posting on MRM by suggesting that the Documentary Hypothesis had some merit. To me, this is a discussion about the authorship of the “Books of Moses”, or the Pentateuch (the first five books in the Bible - Genesis to Deuteronomy). It is not a discussion about the historicity of the stories in the Books of Moses, or the theology that they convey.
The Documentary Hypothesis holds that the “Books of Moses” were probably written by a number of authors and not by Moses alone, or even by Moses at all. The basic reasons for this are that the text is uneven (it speaks with several different “accents”); some statements are anachronistic (e.g. the Chaldeans might not have been in Ur at the time of Moses – see Genesis 11:28, 11:31 and 15:7); and there is nothing in the text itself that compels us to believe that Moses wrote it, though he frequently speaks in first person, particularly in the closing sermons at the end of Deuteronomy.
As some have rightly pointed out, Jesus believed that Moses was a historical person (they even had a conversation at Jesus’ Transfiguration, see Matthew 17:1-12, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-38), and he associates the giving of the law with Moses’ story. But, He doesn’t downright say that Moses wrote the entire compilation. Even Jesus does not compel us to believe the authorship of Moses throughout these books.
The responses I got from evangelicals were varied, but mostly negative. Some were willing to concede that Moses might have incorporated earlier traditions within his composition; others recoiled at the prospect that I had swallowed the Graf-Wellhausen theory in its entirety (which I haven’t – it postulates that the religion of Israel started out with folk polytheism and was later recast to fit the monotheistic agenda of the Temple Cult, as evident from the postulated JEDP redaction of the Scriptures). The worst reactions suggested that I could not possibly hold to a faith in Christ, whilst querying the authorship of Moses in these books.
Actually, I am quite open to discussing the merits of the case, one way or another. I don’t discount the possibility that Moses wrote the “Books of Moses”, but it looks like he didn’t (at least, not in their entirety). The notion that he did comes from an extra-Biblical tradition, and evangelicals are usually dismissive of what they perceive as extra-Biblical traditions.
The problem with the more extreme reactions, in my opinion, is that they are self-defeating. They were posted in the context of trying to get Mormons engage the evidence, particularly the known history of Joseph Smith and the history of the movement. Yet, here were evangelicals who could not hold themselves to the standards that they expected of those on the other side of the table – their reaction to the evidence was to deny it.
Worse, they had conflated a discussion on the authorship of the Books of Moses with the theology of faith in Christ. They questioned my faith in Christ because of it.
Hold on there, didn’t we previously say “saved by grace alone through faith alone”? Now, it seems, I can only be saved by believing in Christ and by believing that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.
This is where I get very worried about evangelicalism.
As soon as we put the ”and” in, we open ourselves up to all sorts of silliness (this is one of my chief criticisms of Mormonism). We slide into believing that we are saved by Christ and our strictly traditional interpretation of scripture; or Christ and our membership of a certain Church or tradition; or Christ and our baptism; or Christ and my successful marriage and family life. All of these additions, and it doesn’t matter which formula you use, ultimately give us something that we could boast in; they provide us with a foundation upon which we can claim some kind of entitlement to God. Ultimately, then, they defeat the Gospel of Grace that evangelicalism has so rightly held forth.
Liberalism has something to say in this context, and it is this; the Bible (which I believe is the word of God) is literature. Until it becomes something else, it is therefore entirely appropriate to treat it as such.
As a work of literature, it spends a significant amount of its time conveying its message by story; story makes up about 40% of the Bible. In other words, it is an important feature of what we believe to be the Word of God.
This feature ought to be welcomed by evangelicals because it provides a highly robust response to those who get tangled up with issues such as interpretation. What I mean is, it is easy to see the grace of the father welcoming back the prodigal son, for example, no matter what variations of words you use.
As I have tried to explain earlier (clumsily), the Bible invites us to live in these stories, and if we're solely concerned about affirming their accuracy or historicity, then we've lost the plot. I took some flak over that one, to the point of refusing to publish the more noxious posts.
I’m a big fan of the Bible. I like to describe myself as a Bible-fan and hopefully not a Bible-basher. It’s a book with a message that deserves better treatment than it usually gets. When I think of the poor treatment dished out on it, I think of the silliness of the skeptics on one extreme and the silliness of those who don't get what "story" is about.
The Bible might be Divinely Commissioned, but it still invites us to engage it within its own context in a meaningful way. It begs us to wrestle with it, just as God wrestled with Jacob until daybreak at the Jabbok ford in Genesis 32:22-31.
When Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16), I don’t think He expected them to arrive in an orderly, subdued and dead-serious manner. I believe He expected them to jump all over Him, climbing on Him, prodding Him and tickling Him as kids do. It was His disciples who tried to defend Jesus from this boisterous onslaught, and He rebukes them for it. Since when did Christians start to believe that they have to defend Christ by shepherding honest inquiries away from Him?
I believe that when we scrutinize, probe, query and, yes, wrestle with the Bible, we actually uphold and honor the tradition in which it was written. This is what some elements of evangelicalism appear to deny, and if that’s the case, you can call be an evanliberal.