by C Michael PattonSeptember 1st, 2009 120 Comments
Evangelicalism is not perfect. No informed person should make such a claim. Evangelicalism has its problems—big ones. This is nothing new. But I believe the strengths of Evangelicalism outweigh the weaknesses and present a better option than any other tradition. Otherwise, we would not be Evangelical!
While I often write about the weaknesses of Evangelicalism, sometimes complaining about our shames and blind spots, I want to do something different here. I am going to give a short list of what I believe to be the major strengths of Evangelicalism and why I believe Evangelicalism is still the best option:
1. Evangelicalism can celebrate diversity: in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. This is the dictum of Rupertus Meldenius (often mistakenly attributed to Augustine) which presents Evangelicalism’s celebration of unity and diversity. It means, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Evangelicals, I believe, like no other Christian tradition, can appreciate and celebrate diversity while at the same time adhering to a unifying center. Whether it be in worship style or liturgy, house churches or mega churches, Evangelicals recognize that all people are not alike and that there is room for subjective preferences. Evangelicalism, as a movement, cannot prescribe or proscribe the way people should be in areas that are based in non-essential personal preferences. We can recognize that God has created people differently—and this was intentional. If people have a personality that does not respond well to one style of worship, they are free to celebrate their diversity without feeling the obligation of adapting their style to some traditional norm.
As well, when it comes to non-cardinal issues of the Christian faith such as mode of baptism, belief about end times, views of creation, or even one’s view of predestination, Evangelicalism is not dogmatic. This does not mean that Evangelicals, such as me, do not or cannot have strong convictions in these areas: it just means that we recognize their relative importance in comparison to cardinal beliefs such as the person and work of Christ. Therefore, to be Evangelical is to be able to allow for and even, in many cases, celebrate diversity.
2. Evangelicalism promotes true conviction: Evangelicalism, representative of historic Protestantism, is built upon a distrust of one man’s or one institution’s ability to infallibly be dogmatic regarding truth to the exclusion of one’s personal convictions. In other words, Evangelicals hold to the position that belief cannot be outsourced to any human authority or tradition. Evangelicals believe that truth must be “adduced” by the individual before it can be truly believed. It is not that Evangelicals don’t recognize or respect authorities other than themselves, but that they understand that belief is ultimately an internal act of an individual’s will which requires true personal conviction. Evangelicals recognize the risk of “putting a Bible in everyone’s hands.” We recognize that in doing so we are allowing for the possibility of error and heresy. But we also recognize that the possibility of true conviction necessitates the possibility of error. In this, it is worth the risk. The personal conviction, however, should be fueled and fed from trusted outside sources, but, in the end, those outside sources cannot make the decisions for us. Therefore, in my opinion, Evangelicalism allows for true conviction more than any other Christian tradition.
3. Evangelical allowance of true scholarship: Closely connected to the second is the allowance of true scholarship. (Here is where I am really going to get into trouble.) Evangelicals are not under a necessary mandate to conform to a particular traditional system. The scholarship produced in biblical studies and theology is not an exercise in confirming an established tradition of dogma. If one were simply to enter scholarship to prove what a tradition mandates they prove, scholarship would become an exercise in confirming prejudice. This is not true scholarship.
Evangelicals are free to question, search, deny, confirm, doubt, and change to an extent that dogmatic traditions are not. Again, this is risky, but, in the end, it does not mandate a certain conclusion and can evaluate the evidence more objectively. In other words, Evangelicals don’t have to be lawyers defending a client of tradition, but they are instead investigators of truth. They can be critical scholars. Whether or not we always practice this is a different matter. But the issue is one of allowance. Evangelicals can be critical scholars who are willing to let the evidence take them wherever it leads, not simply to a predetermined destination. Therefore, I believe Evangelicals can practice true scholarship to a degree that other traditions cannot.
4. Evangelicalism is still evangelical. What I mean is that Evangelicalism is still committed to the spread of the Gospel more than any other Christian tradition. Evangelicals, with all their faults, do consistently present the need to have a personal conversion to Christ. I think that Evangelicalism still recognizes the problem and solution better than others. We are sinners who are in need of rescue. The cross is the apex of history, and we must personally have a conversion experience by trusting in Christ as our Lord and Savior. The focus is not the church, liturgy, or traditions.
I think that these reasons provide the basis for why I believe Evangelicalism will always remain strong even in the midst of our weaknesses. Also, please understand that it is the “spirit” of Evangelicalism about which I am speaking, not the nomenclature. In other words, even if the designation “Evangelical” were to go out of vogue (which could be the case), the spirit of Evangelicalism will always remain.
Please understand, too, that I respect other Christian traditions. I love the faith and stance of all those who, traditionally or not, are Christocentric, believing Christ—the God-man—is the center of all things. But, I would hope that everyone might understand that I am Evangelical for a reason. I simply believe that it offers strengths that are stronger than the strengths of other traditions. I also believe that its weaknesses are not as weak as the weaknesses of other traditions.
It is because of this I believe Evangelicalism is still the best option.
- Why I am Proud to be a Protestant
- Why the Evangelical Manifesto Did Not "Work"
- What has Become of Evangelicalism? An Evangelical’s Lament
- Can I Just Start a New Tradition?
- Michael Spencer on the Problems of Evangelicalism