Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why are Evangelicals Getting a Bad Rap?

Here in America, Evangelicalism is in decline. Their reputation in our current cultural landscape has been much maligned. It is often the case to find negative stereotypes furthered in the media, politics, and academia depicting Evangelicals as narrow minded, stupid, bigoted, and arrogant. One reason for this is obvious. The stances that evangelicals take are antithetical to an Enlightenment style, secular understanding of the world. But, to state this is the only reason for these attitudes would be a superficial analysis at best.

Why Evangelicals Have a Bad Rap
Another reason for this ominous reputation is the lack of transformation from the lives of too many Christians. This was one of the reasons that the Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi and the atheist philosopher of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche rejected Christianity. Gandhi, for example said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Maybe this is the paramount reason why there is so much hostility leveled at Evangelical Christians today. Friedrich Nietzsche echoed this sentiment when he said, “If Christians want me to believe in their redeemer, they need to look more redeemed.” Obviously this was not the only reason for their rejection of Christianity; after all, the human heart is wicked and naturally rebels against the idea of surrendering to God. However, I am sure this reason was significant in their rejection.

Inerrancy of Scripture
Part of the problem, I believe, is that Evangelicals, for the most part, only go so far in their commitment to Scripture. They rightly assert they the Bible is inerrant, (at least as a faith commitment), meaning that the Bible is completely true in all it says. However, as this stance has become more politicized over the years, the meaning of the term too often has been relegated to mean that one is simply not a liberal. In fact, this stance says very little about one’s commitment to God’s Word. The threat made in the earlier part of the twentieth century during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy regarding the modernist’s attack on the Bible has been won.

Sufficiency of Scripture
A fewer number of Evangelicals, however, adhere to the sufficiency of Scripture, and this issue in under attack. In light of the successes of modernity, the Bible has been relegated to mere beliefs, and the real facts are gleaned from secular sources. Enlightenment secularism finds its epistemological source in rationalism. The Reformed epistemologist John Frame “defines rationalism as any attempt to establish the finite human mind as the ultimate standard of truth and falsity. This establishing of the autonomous intellect occurs within the context of rejecting God’s revelation of himself in both nature and the Bible. A rationalist, in this sense, states that the human mind is able to fully and exhaustively explain reality.” This is the modus operandi of the secularist position. Frame goes on to argue that the goal of establishing an autonomous intellect is found throughout the history of non-Christian intellectual pursuits, and too often Christians are being impacted by such thinking.

The result is that fewer and fewer people hold to the belief that the Bible is inerrant but not sufficient. Jeff Noblit of First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama says that the “holding to the inerrancy of Scripture without at least an equal passion and commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture (for all faith and practice) is sheer idolatry. It is a love for a position on the nature of the Bible without a genuine love for the God of the Bible.”[1] One of the hallmarks of the Southern Baptist Convention, a point that I greatly admire, is their hard fought stance on inerrancy. This is a battle that they, for all practical purposes, have won. However, in another way they have lost. Noblit gives further insight in the movement’s shortcomings when he states, “one way to view the inerrancy controversy that it was fought and won in our denomination is that we changed the convention’s mind but did not change the heart.”[2] What is most shocking about this statement is that the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the most committed to God’s Word of all the major Christian denominations. If this is true within the SBC, how much more true is it among the Evangelical church as a whole?

Transformed by Scripture
However, I contend that there needs to be another step in the spiritual lives of Evangelicals if this movement hopes to make a real impact again. What is needed is something more than a commitment to the authority of Scriptures and its relevancy to all of life. This is a minimum requirement. The Bible must go beyond simply information to be believed. It must be seen as the vehicle God uses to change lives. Thus, one must be committed to God’s Word’s transformational purpose as well.

The reason for the lack of transformation in the lives of Evangelicals is, I believe, that the fundamentalist reaction of the early part of the 20th century against liberalism (and it needed to take place) has fostered a love for the truth of God and not necessarily a love for the God of truth. To remedy this situation, there needs to be a deep engagement with God’s Word that results in the transformation of the believer. As the writer of Hebrews makes clear, the Word of God is powerful, and sharper than a two edged sword. God’s word is more than just a revelation where we simply apply the Bible to our lives. According to Eugene Peterson, “These words (the Bible) are intended, whether confrontationally or obliquely, to get inside us, to deal with our souls, to form a life that is congruent with the world that God has created, the salvation that he has enacted, and the community that he has gathered.” Consequently, our commitment to the Bible must go beyond a commitment to inerrancy and sufficiency and also allow the Bible, working in tandem with the Holy Spirit, to transform us as we submit ourselves to the ministry of the Word.

Since transformation is needed, what would be a good plan to adopt to allow transformation to take place in the lives of believers? One must first understand that the Word of God must not just be received by the brain it must also be digested so it can change the heart and nourish the soul. I would even go so far as to say that it is even possible to over emphasize the rational element of Scripture reading at the expense of hearing God through His Word. In approaching the Bible like this, we run the risk of drowning out the voice of the Spirit, not to mention the Bible’s relational aspect. As Jesus warned, “If anyone has ears, let him hear.” Looking at the Bible as just a source for information prevents God from doing a transformational work.

The type of tenacity with which God intends His children to approach God’s Word is beautifully captured by Peterson in his illustration of a dog and a bone. In this illustration, the dog “gnawed, enjoyed and savored his prize”, which was the bone. Similarly, believers should approach God’s Word the same way. Meditate on God’s Word and allow it to “enter our soul as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness, love, and wisdom.” Digesting God’s word is necessary to nourish the life of the soul. Without it the same things happens to our souls that happens to our bodies when it is not nourished properly. Weakness, sickness, and even death occur. How much more should we nourish our souls with the food that God has given? When we do, real transformation takes place. Evangelicalism must get back to taking seriously God’s Word and letting change them from the inside out.

Works cited

Clendenen, Ray and Brad J. Waggoner, editors. Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2008.
Peterson, Eugene. Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2006