Recently, I saw someone claim that evangelicalism has no robust centre. I do not remember who said it, or even the exact wording. I remember the idea. And the words have haunted my thoughts ever since.
While in an evangelical seminary, one of my theology professors taught that God has passions. God was said to be passible. And primary theologians of my movement throughout the last decades have affirmed: God is complex, in time, changes, has passions, has eternally existed in a relationship of authority and submission, and so on. None of these beliefs mark Christian orthodoxy. Just the opposite. They are without a doubt unorthodox.
I discussed many of these matters in an earlier article called, Can We Still Trust Evangelical Theology? In the article, I cite a number of Christian philosophers and theologians who argue for unorthodox positions. And many of them are key theologians of my movement (at least in North America). Here, I had argued that we can still trust evangelical theology.
I think I need to revise my argument. I still think we can trust evangelical theology. But I think we can only do so if we do the hard work of creating a theological culture where orthodoxy wedded to charity can thrive.
As I begin, I want to define what I mean when I say evangelical. I specifically mean the socially defined body of people who claim evangelicalism, whose heritage primarily hales from the mid 20th century. Other definitions exist. I do not use them here.
What Makes One Orthodox?
Here is what all orthodox Christians must believe, should believe, and have believed: “God is simple, immutable, impassible, infinite, eternal, and distinguishable through three subsisting persons in one simple essence.” Of course, you can be a Christian without knowing about these words or even affirming these concepts.
But the problem with holding to unorthodox beliefs is that it hurts you and others. It dampens our spiritual vitality. And we often will mislead those whom we disciple. To be a Christian means to trust in Jesus. Full stop. But orthodox belief, because it is true, is what we grow into as Christians—it is the truth of our confession deepened, enjoyed, and inhabited.
This is why I love and deeply appreciate Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, John Feinberg and others. Yes, they have expressed unorthodox views. But despite all of that, they are in Christ. And they are growing like I am. Wayne Grudem has a new systematic theology coming out this year. I will read it, enjoy it, and learn from it. And I probably will deeply disagree with parts of it.
Yet we all trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. That is enough to be a Christian. The subsequent unorthodox beliefs—denying simplicity, immutability, impassibility, while affirming eternal relations of authority and submission are shockingly unorthodox—never break Christ’s love for us.
What sham that would be. Are we saved by precise theological formulations? Or by Jesus? The rub, of course, is that we can affirm things so unorthodox to the point that we create a schism or even fall into heresy. There, a line has been crossed.
Which line is it? What is the precise line in which one moves from saint to sinner, from orthodox to heretic? The obvious historical answer is when someone denies the rule of faith: namely, that the Father created, the Son redeems, the Spirit perfects. It is when someone denies their baptismal confession—their being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
It is when someone denies the Nicene Creed because of what it represents: the rule of faith contained in Scripture and preached by the apostles.
In short, it’s when you deny the Gospel. And most often in Scripture this doctrine involves how we live since Scripture overwhelmingly defines false doctrine as a vicious life.
When the New Testament speaks of false teaching, it points to how someone lives. False teachers are false because of their way of life.
That is simply because doctrine includes not just what we believe but what we do. What we say and what we do intertwine and cannot be separated: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
Our confession binds us to a way of life. Small wonder then that the earliest recorded catechism, the Didache, spends six chapters on how one lives as preparation before baptism! A Christian had to know and to embrace a specific manner of life before he or she could be baptized!
Nobody thought of the Gospel as mere abstract beliefs. It was a full entrance into the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,” wrote Paul, “but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
The cause of Peter’s being out of step with the Gospel was not a malformed doctrine of impassibility but because he excluded Gentiles from the table (Gal 2:14). Confessing the Gospel, Jesus, entails a way of life. It means eating with gentiles because you are one in Christ.
So I find myself unable to condemn those who get simplicity wrong. I find myself with a heart full of love and, honestly, some sadness for those who affirm unorthodox faith. Such teaching robs us of joy and happiness. It hurts others who do not have that either. I grieve. I do not hate. Grace by its nature is a gift, and how can I begrudge someone for not receiving a gift that I myself did not deserve? How could I despise someone who has yet to embrace orthodoxy?
What an anti-christic thought to have? Why should I hate those whom Christ died for. If Paul can call the Corinthians saints despite their wildly sinful behaviour, how can I call someone who affirms divine passibility a hellion? The answer is I cannot, must not. That would be to create a schism; that would be to do great evil.
Here, I walk into a seeming contradiction. I am more perturbed at someone who splits Christ’s body due to disagreements over advanced theological speculation than I am at one who gets that speculation wrong! Why? Jesus did not save us because we were smart and could figure everything out or because our church has the best theology around.
Schismatics are those who split themselves from others because knowledge puffs up, while love rightly builds up the body of Christ.
Christ saved us because he loved us. And we love him. And we love each other. And we know that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). We are saved by faith in Christ Jesus, not by advanced theological notions.
So away with the schismatics! I cannot stop you from separating into smaller and smaller circles. I cannot stop your hasty advance into pain. For my part, I see no good reason to split with someone over unorthodox beliefs. John Frame argues that God somehow changes and comes into time (with considerable nuance). I think this is incorrect, unorthodox even.
But what do I do with this? Shall I throw him out the door? Never. John Frame has done so much good, taught so well so many other things, and has faithfully done his bit for the kingdom that I would quite the hellion myself to dismiss him!
A Robust Centre?
So what has my movement inherited? Unorthodox bleeding hearts? Do we love each other at the expense of truth? Do we simply give up? Does orthodoxy matter? Here, I confess I may become a little more aggressive than I usually am. And I hope my above affirmations will ameliorate some of the strength of my words here.
But if someone denies simplicity, they are not orthodox. There is no “but….” It is what it is. There is no orthodox way to deny eternal generation. There is no good way to affirm eternal relations of submission and authority. These positions are wrong. There is no nuance here that would make them acceptable to any church father, medieval, or early reformed theologian.
More than that, they are unbiblical. They flow from the so-called surface grammar of Scripture. God repents, the Bible says. So he must change, the argument goes. Every Arian and Socinian would smile with a knife behind their back if they heard these arguments.
We must approach Scripture according to its nature and its subject matter to prevent such harmful readings of it. In the first place, Scripture is a creature of God. It is alive, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12). It is a creature of God who testifies to the Being and work of God. The subject matter of Scripture is God, and more particularly God in Christ. It therefore has a centre, a real context that determines its meaning.
We must read Christ according to Scripture. Which I take to mean, that Scripture accords with Christ as its telos or end. In these last days, God speaks through his Son as Hebrews 1 tells us. Then it goes on to show how. The author of Hebrews cites Scripture, that is the Old Testament, over and over; and we hear the triune God speak in and through the Old Testament. It is about Jesus. It always has been. It always will be.
Scripture itself tells us its rule, its own pattern of understanding. It begins with God and puts the spotlight on Christ. The Gospel is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection according to Scripture (1 Cor 15).
So this tells us something about the theological context or subject matter of Scripture. It tells us that we cannot read the Bible according to its local context alone. The Bible must be read canonically (i.e., across each of the 66 books). And it must be read according to its rule (see the Gospel summaries in the NT, the Nicene Creed, etc.).
And the above means that what some call the surface grammar of a text (its local meaning without considering the factors I have mentioned here) cannot lead to the clearest truth of Scripture.
I cannot read Psalm 24 as anything but the ascension of the Lord. And why should I read it anyway else? God speaks through the Son, and the Son speaks through his Spiritual sword, the Word.
The centre which I am here describing is the centre which can hold the ship steady. The only way forward is to go backward, deep into our history and deep into our theological reflection by the Spirit of God’s Word.
We have to candidly admit that we have received a bad hand as evangelicals. We received an unorthodox faith when it comes to the doctrine of God and of Christ. Yet we have always had the Gospel and the priority of the Bible. We still do. That’s a heritage worth cherishing.
And in so cherishing this heritage, we must reform our movement before it pitter-patters out. Having a shallow centre, we have tried everything from seeker-sensitive churches to house or cell churches. We keep trying new things.
We do not need to. We have the old thing that is an ocean wide and centre-of-the-world deep. We have 2,000 years of the Spirit’s work growing the church through its meditation on the truth that we can retrieve.
Our robust centre is not in prophecy conferences of the earth 20th century nor the theology of the 80s and 90s. It is in Paul, Ireneaus, Athanasius, Augustine, Maximos, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and Turretin (among others!). The Spirit was not at rest; Christ built his church by the Spirit just as he promised in the Gospel.
We don’t have to rely on our immediate inheritance. We have a convoy of robust theology, exploding from the first century up until the present time. So I affirm a robust centre for evangelicalism. I don’t think it’s in our recent past, however. It’s much deeper than that. But it is there, and it is for us and for our salvation.