Sep 22 2009

Do evangelicals really need a Manifesto?

I just read a post about the apparent failure of “The Evangelical Manifesto,” something I didn’t even know existed.  I guess that would support the idea that it failed.  I skimmed through the post and the Manifesto, and was left thinking, “why in the world do they think they need one?”

Everyone seems to need to define themselves, and these evangelicals are no exception.  This is not a confessional document, although it does make a poor attempt at this.  It doesn’t deal with any specific error.  Rather, it seems merely to attempt to define what makes one an evangelical, or perhaps more accurately, to define what is not an evangelical.  I still wonder why this is needed.

The document, which is needlessly wordy (obviously written by men who are used to taking 45 minutes to deliver a sermon that could have taken 10), identifies three evangelical mandates, the first of which is to reaffirm the evangelical identity:

Our first task is to reaffirm who we are. Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. (Evangelical comes from the Greek word for good news, or gospel.) Believing that the Gospel of Jesus is God’s good news for the whole world, we affirm with the Apostle Paul that we are “not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.

I wonder who they think they are leaving out?   The Manifestites, as the document explains, believes that “right belief and right worship” was restored at the reformation.  They are, therefore, excluding the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics from their definition; they also exclude fundamentalists, liberals and by inference, much of the “emerging” movement.  They claim to want to be defined theologically rather than culturally, however they do not seem to be able to so.

The problem, in my opinion, is that are trying to define a generic term in a specific way.  Martin Luther was the first to use the term to identify himself, but most contemporary evangelicals would not accept his broad definition (Lutherans aren’t usually considered protestant enough for these folks).  The Manifestites claim “Amazing Grace” as their own, which means that they accept some Anglicans as evangelical.  But then again, those they would define as liberal or fundamentalist are out.  Their intent to be restrictive is even clearer in their claim to be “the narrow way.”

Without dealing with the whole 20-page document, here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. There is a sense in the document that contemporary evangelicalism is dead or dying, and this is a last-ditch effort to preserve an ideology.
  2. They cherry-pick historic church teaching by claiming a commitment to “the central axioms of Christian faith expressed in the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church” while disdaining the context in which these arose.
  3. They confess a litany of failures, and “call humbly but clearly for a restoration of the Evangelical reforming principle,” without having really defined it.
  4. They do claim not to represent all evangelicals, just themselves.  In that case, it would seem somewhat arrogant to try to define evangelicalism for everyone; perhaps they should come up with some new term, like the “emergents” did.
  5. The document is incredibly wordy, lacking specificity.

Overall, it seems like this manifesto is a shot in the dark, and looking back it seems to have missed anything worth shooting at; again, I have a sense that this was written with a sense of desperation as Western Christianity becomes more and more post-evangelical.

I remain much more impressed by The Call, a 2006 document spearheaded by the late Robert Webber, which calls the evangelical church back to more historical faith and practice.