Evangelical Modernism

Perhaps I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself here, as I’m taking topics discussed by Webber out of order; however, I was reading a blog post this morning that got me thinking along these lines, and it seemed fitting to comment while my thoughts were fresh (their shelf-life isn’t that long anymore). I am thinking out loud, for the most part, so take that into consideration as you read.

It seems to me that one of the major issues with the Evangelical church (“Evangelical” in this sense referring to post-reformation churches, even though Luther used the term to refer to his movement) is that it is completely and solidly rooted in Modernism. One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

Years ago I had a friend who was a Greek Orthodox priest, born and raised in Greece. One day a few of us were dialogging on matters of faith, and another friend of mind tried to get Father Nick to explain the Orthodox position on some hot theolgical topic. I was intrigued so much by Father Nick’s response that I have never forgotten it. He was somewhat frustrated with the conversation, and merely said, “We don’t think that way.” When my friend couldn’t believe that the Orthodox Church had no position on Biblical inerrancy, he replied, “we’ve just never questioned it.” He went on to try to explain his frustration with the Western way of picking things apart into little pieces, and how he felt more in common with a Muslim raised in the East than with a Christian from the West, because of the extreme differences in worldview. Who is more correct? What’s your criteria for deciding?

The Church of the West, especially the Evangelical church, presupposes that the Modern approach to theology and spirituality is necessarily better than what came before, that our perspective has been able to identify errors of the past and better refine the issues. It’s progress. Now, I won’t dispute that some discoveries of earlier manuscripts have allowed for a bit of Biblical fine-tuning, however, these things have been fairly minor. However, I think I am correct when I say that people like Augustine and Martin Luther would consider most if not all of the Evangelical church to be heretical. Is it progress, or simply a 200-year deviation?

Another issue with the Evangelical church today, which is in part a result of that “progressive arrogance,” is its lack of knowledge – or even interest – of anything outside of Evangelicalism. Some have a very loose understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, and Calvin’s been updated to fit some modern Reformed theology, but very few have even a mediocre grasp of what I will call Liturgical Christianity – the Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox. Infant baptism, for example, is argued against by people who really have no clue as to its theological and anthropological basis. Consequently, the resulting discussion is meaningless from a pre-Evangelical point of view.

Part of the problem is that Evangelicalism is largely an experience-based religion, and most Evangelicals have never experienced – or felt it necessary to experience – anything else. They were raised or converted in Evangelical Churches, and were also born and raised (for the most part) into Modernism, or converted from liturgical churches into Evangelical churches as having a more “modern” theology (more on this in another post). There are no catechism or church history classes, the creeds are not taught, and it’s lucky if these people even know the Lord’s Prayer. There’s a big emphasis on “Bible,” but only as interpreted by their own pastor or group.

The result is a perpetuation of a movement which may, in fact, be heretical. (As I mentioned, it is, by pre-Evangelical thinking.) Those indoctrinated into Modernism and Evangelicalism may now be reacting with some incredulity at this comment; that would be the arrogance I mentioned, that sense of needing to be “right.” It’s okay, it’s natural. I know, as I experience it myself; but, I’m trying to get over it.

This was not, by the way, a summary of Webber, just some of my thoughts as I’m reading a variety of things. I will outline some of Webber’s thoughts in the next few days.

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5 Responses to Evangelical Modernism

  1. Pingback: aldenswan.com » Blog Archive » An atheist who understands the importance of epistemology

  2. steve martin says:

    Good post.

    I agree with you on Evangelicals being Modernists.
    They cannot get away from reason. Whenever there is a tension..it must be resolved. To me, they are very ‘man centered’. The whole enterprise (Christian faith) starts with you (your decision) continues with you (your sanctification process) and ends with you(now I qualify to hear “well done good and faithful servant”).

    They nail everything to the floor and their Biblical legalism keeps them on this ‘me centered’ trajectory.

    I cannot remember hearing (and I’ve heard a lot of ’em) a single sermon from an Evangelical church where the preacher didn’t rip the gospel back out of your hands (if he even gave it to start with) by shifting the focus back to you…and what you should, ought, or must be doing.

    My Evangelical freids ask me why I don’t go to their church with great big crowds and rock bands and no altars and a preacher that wears a Hawaiian shirt.
    I tell them that there is way too much religion going on at their church. Religion being ‘that which we do to ascend to the divine’.
    They think the opposite is true (of course).

    When you take away the liturgy, and the creeds, and the vestments, and the altar, and the sacraments…you can and do end up everywhere else. And the everywhere else usually revolves around ‘me’.


  3. Pingback: More from Alden Swan « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist

  4. me says:

    Josh, you’re right, of course, about heresy being relative. The question is, “relative to what?” Then we have to decide whether the ancient church is the standard, or something later. The development of the creeds in response to heresies popping up in the first few generations give us some clue (besides the writings we have of the early Church fathers).

    The Reformation does show some signs of early Modernism, but pre-dated the whole Enlightenment thing. However, Luther taught against reason as a basis for truth, but did use reason to work his way through theological issues. And, of course Luther found the RCC of his day to be heretical, using the teachings of prior popes to support what he was teaching. I would agree with you on their take on Mary, etc., and some other issues, including Apostolic Succession. And, on areas where they differed with the remainder of the Church, I tend to side with the Orthodox branch, which had less of an Aristotelian influence.

    I’ve held both sides of the Infant Baptism issue at various points in my life, eventually going back to what is essentially Lutheran (and prior) theology. I won’t bore you with that now, but I’ll probably deal with that at some point. The Vineyard, by the way, has allowed for infant baptism, leaving the individual church practices pretty much up to the church leadership. Ken Blue baptized 2 of my kids as infants.

    Hey, thanks, I appreciate the discussion. I’m counting on grace, too, as I’m pretty convinced that I’m at least partially wrong on every opinion I have.

  5. Josh says:

    To me, heresy is relative. Are the things performed in our church heretical? To the Roman Catholics, definitely. To the Lutherans, probably. To the Methodists, maybe.

    Now if you want to say that they are heretical to Scripture, then that would be one thing, but very difficult to establish. There you encounter the hermaneutics which blur the lines between the cultural and moral. Then you have different questions of what applies: does the Old Testament apply? The Epistles? Only the Gospels? How about Revelation? Different methods of interpretation and different criteria for application will create differences.

    If a practice in the church is clearly opposed to the Word and has no foundational basis in scripture, it is pretty easy to spot it. I feel that if something is truly off, and irreconcilable to the Bible, someone will call our pastors and church leaders on it.

    I have debated infant baptism with Lutherans and Catholics, primarily based on the examples of believers’ baptism in Acts and the Pauline Epistles. What I came to realize is that for everything intended by Catholics and Lutherans with the process of baptism then confirmation–the Evangelicals have a similar thing, dedication then baptism. Some of the implications of faith in both cases are different, and some Evangelical denominations don’t do dedication (Vineyard hasn’t, I have noticed), but the process is there. Is one the right way and the other abhorrent to God?

    Now for me, Marian prayers are heresy. Transubstantiation and refusing to offer gluten-free communion wafer because somehow it’s the wheat in the host that turns into Jesus’ body is heresy (More on that). Preaching vegetarianism (SDA) is heresy if it is a requirement for a Christian life. Legalism in itself is heresy.

    You state that anything post-Protestant Reformation is characterized by Modernism. I would say that the Protestant Reformation itself was modernist in nature. Luther wasn’t saying “I don’t know whether or not this new belief system is better than the old one.” He was unabashedly spreading his conviction as the correct way, or at least condemning the old way as the wrong one. It would also be impossible to say that Luther did not reason his way to the conclusions he made about the Church. Luther is the biggest heretic there is (according to the Church that came before him). Augustine himself said that we should not take Scripture literally if it tells us something about nature opposite from what we know of science–perhaps he found truth through reason as well?

    As for the need to be right, that’s true for most everyone I think. Atheists need to be right because if they aren’t, there are serious implications for post-mortality. Christians feel that they need to be right because if we are not, then we are somehow failing God. If God is capable of forgiving all, then certainly he can forgive the fact that we bollocks this whole Jesus-thing up sometimes.

    …a lot of the time.

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