Just a pointer here to some wise thoughts posted recently by Steve Holmes, at his blog Shored Fragments. Having opined in public previously on the question of what makes evangelical theology evangelical, he reports a recent breakthrough in his own thinking: It’s not so much a set of doctrines that identify the movement, as it is a shared set of decisions about how important those doctrines are.
Holmes says, “The distinctiveness of evangelical theology is not so much its doctrinal content, as its shape. Evangelicals are people who see different things as central, when compared to other Christians.” As evidence, he points to the way a pan-evangelical movement emerged around the end of the eighteenth century, “a calculated and deliberate attempt to put to one side, almost as adiaphora, the then-decisive questions of church order and the doctrines of grace in order to embrace a shared focus on the power of a broad protestant theology to change society for the better.”
Holmes is right. The move from doctrines on the one hand, to decisions about their relative weight on the other, doesn’t get him out of all the necessary fights, of course, since one of the main things Christians disagree about is how much we disagree about. But drawing a circle around those ranking-decisions seems more promising in determining what Holmes calls “the shape” of evangelical thought.
And (one last thing for what was going to be a link-only post) it reminds me a little bit of what J. C. Ryle, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, said when he tried to identify just exactly what he was fighting for in the Church of England. First he presented a list of the various doctrines which characterized the evangelical side of the Anglican tradition: the supremacy of Scripture, the depth of sin, the importance of the work of Christ, and the necessity of both an inward and outward working of the Holy Spirit. But second, he admitted that many Anglicans who were “outside the Evangelical body, are sound in the main about the five points I have named, if you take them one by one.” What was missing, according to Ryle, was the emphasis:
Propound them separately, as points to be believed, and they would admit them every one. But they do not give them the prominence, position, rank, degree, priority, dignity, and precedence which we do. And this I hold to be a most important difference between us and them. It is the position which we assign to these points, which is one of the grand characteristics of Evangelical theology. We say boldly that they are first, foremost, chief, and principal things in Christianity, and that want of attention to their position mars and spoils the teaching of many well-meaning Churchmen. (Knots Untied (1885), p. 8.)
Again, it’s about that set of core doctrines, but it’s even more about the fact that they are at the core, getting the “prominence, position, rank, degree, priority, dignity, and precedence” that they require. Or, as Ryle goes on to say, somewhat more feistily and less irenically, “a religion to be really “Evangelical” and really good, must be the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel, as Christ prescribed it and expounded it to the Apostles; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; the terms, the whole terms, and nothing but the terms,—in all their fulness, all their freeness, all their simplicity, all their presentness.”