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Am I an Evangelical?

[Reflective rambling alert, to those who prefer more substantive stuff.]

I’ve answered this question before, but it was brought back to me over this past weekend when someone who knows me well enough to know better described me as “a solid evangelical.” Say what? He definitely intended it as a compliment, but I was somewhat surprised.

Then I was reading Adrian Warnock’s blog, on which he has begun to work through Piper’s new book The Future of Justification. Adrian says:

That infamous quote from N. T. Wright and his framing of thousands of years of debate about the imparting or imputing of Christ’s righteousness as ‘muddle headed’ is breathtaking. Either Wright is as much of a lone figure reformed as say Martin Luther himself, pointing back centuries before him to another lost truth that makes Luther as much in error as the Pope of his time, OR Wright, however bright a scholar he is, is very wrong. I believe Piper has shown how very wrong Wright is. Join me over the next few days as we explore how he does this.

When I read something like this from Adrian, surely an evangelical, I have to doubt whether I want the label. It’s not that I think Adrian or Piper are being discourteous. It is just that they split doctrinal hairs down so many times. To me, N. T. Wright is conservative. I understand the differences between him and other evangelicals. I just don’t see the critical importance of the difference in the way Adrian states it. (I will certainly be following Adrians comments, though I doubt that I will read the book.)

In fact, I don’t think the Bible itself manifests anything like the unity in describing human sin, redemption, atonement, and God’s expectations of people that appears in this very tense reformed evangelical theology. N. T. Wright is not, in my view, all that opaque. He’s extremely thorough with impeccable scholarship. And as for Martin Luther, while I appreciate some of his reform efforts, I truly do not think he said the last word on understanding Paul.

Reformed interpretation of Paul has gotten muddle headed and it has done so simply because theological propositions have been given preeminence over an exegesis of the text. In addition, an assumption that the Bible teaches a single theology tends to paper over the differences.

Labels are such slippery things. Any label that manages to acquire a positive connotation will also tend to spread, as people want to claim the label, even when they are not in the center of the definition. “Fundamentalist” has had a bit of a negative connotation, and so it hasn’t become nearly so diluted. The label “orthodox” (lower case ‘o’) is generally very positively perceived in Christian circles. It’s definition started with those who toed the doctrinal line put out by the church councils, and these days very few Christians want to be called “unorthodox.” I like to say that being “orthodox” means you can say the apostles creed without crossing your fingers. Trouble is, of course, that people have very different tolerances for reinterpretation before they feel obligated to cross their fingers.

In my previous answer to this question I mentioned the evangelical commentators on Daniel I have found, including Earnest Lucas who wrote the Daniel volume in the Apolos Old Testament Commentary series. Lucas maintains that one can assert Biblical inerrancy and also a 2nd century date for the book of Daniel. When I mentioned this to an evangelical friend, he said, “Well, that series is published by InterVarsity Press and they’re pretty much just another liberal publisher any more.” Note that Lucas does not exclusively affirm a 2nd century date, but simply asserts that either is possible for one who believes in inerrancy.

So an evangelical commentary on Daniel can assert a 2nd century date, and InterVarsity press can be considered liberal. Such are the wanderings of labels over the conceptual landscape.

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  1. Piper’s book hasn’t arrived yet, so I can’t respond to his arguments. I’ve ready lots of Wright and, like you, have no trouble seeing him as a Christian, Evangelical, etc. Now if being “evangelical” really means bein some variety of Calvinist, then I don’t fit that bill very well myself. If I can be a Wesleyan Evangelical (even UM), then maybe there’s more to it than Piper and others think.

    Of course it’s possible that we’re seeing further unraveling of the evangelical tradition (or non-tradition if you ask D.G. Hart).

  2. The problem is that the “Reformed” crowd are trying to restrict the label “evangelical” to themselves, when historically it never has been so restricted. They then use “liberal” as a pejorative name for anyone else. You and I are not “Reformed”, but that does not imply that we are not evangelical. Meanwhile I am proud to describe myself as “liberal”, if only in politics.

    See also Phil’s comment on Adrian’s post:

    The quote from Piper doesn’t seem to do justice to Wright’s views on justification (follow the link to read a short paper by Wright on it http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Justification_Biblical_Basis.pdf)

    Quote: “Our definition is as follows: justification is not only God’s declaration on the last day that certain people are in the right: it is also his declaration in the present that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the person who believes the Gospel is in the right”

    In other words, if Phil is correct, I’m afraid to say, Piper and Adrian are playing an old evangelical game, misrepresenting their opponents by selective quotation and then destroying their arguments. This is a side of evangelicalism I don’t want to be associated with.

  3. Hey, Henry – you just stole the title of a post I was mulling over! (Although I often get ideas and then never get around to posting them). Ok, I think we’d answer the question very differently, but you’ve added some interesting things for me to chew on. Thanks.

  4. This is all news to me – well, not JUST now, but fairly recently. I sort of thought that being an evangelical meant that you were a supporter and promoter of God’s message.

    Have I been living in a cave??

  5. Yes. I’m following those comments with interest. I may even end up getting the book. I really like N. T. Wright, and I’m afraid it will be hard to convince me that his writing is opaque. It will also be difficult to convince me he’s dumped historic Christianity.

  6. Umm, thanks! I didn’t even realize it was post 1000 until you pointed it out. I don’t think I would have imagined posting this much when I first started this blog.

  7. It is just that they split doctrinal hairs down so many times.

    I’m not particularly interested in having or in dissing the label ‘evangelical’. But I’m definitely finding the ‘war’ being waged on atonement theory to be hair-splitting stuff when it gets down to ‘NT Wright vs The Real Christians (sic)’.

    It’s turning into salvation by correct doctrine, which is a form of legalism, which Jesus lived, preached and lived against.

    Christ lived to teach us, he died for and because of our sin and he rose again. Enough with the obsessive-compulsive-disorder approach to faith.

    P.S. The Resurrection is important too!

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