I wish to thank Gerald McDermott for his response to my opening First Things blog . Rather than addressing what he says in a straightforward manner, in part because I recognize agreement on the basic thrust and do not wish to quibble over the details, let me propose a way forward.
First, I think my analogy of two wings holds even if, like all analogies, it breaks down in certain respects. Also, my proposal is less about McDermott’s points and more about the broader context of evangelicalism within which I place them.
Here are three suggestions that may help us learn to fly together:
1. Lets agree to a moratorium on using ideal types to trap one another
Confessionalists have tended to utilize heresies as ideal types to critique evangelicalism as a whole, but usually in reference to the revivalist wing. I know this has a venerable tradition beyond evangelicalism, but it obscures more than it clarifies. Sometimes these types are used to reference intellectual heresies as Mark Noll does when he claims the revivalist wing is the problem.
Other times they are used in a more straightforward manner to say that revivalists are not fully in line with mainstream evangelicalism. The Strange Fire Conference of John MacArthur is an extreme version of an all-too-common phenomenon.
So, no more pelagian, semi-pelagian, gnostic, docetic, manichaean—-you get the picture.
Revivalists have tended to utilize forms of paganism as ideal types to critique evangelicalism, but usually in reference to confessionalist positions. Another venerable tradition within Protestantism usually employed for maximum effect against Catholics. It was wrong then; its wrong now.
Sometimes these types are used in alliance with criticisms about Constantine and Nicaea as essentially importing pagan practices or ideas into Christianity. More often, however, it is in reference to ideas about God and the use of Greek philosophy. One of Clark Pinnocks favorite moves was to reclaim the biblical mantle by calling the paleo-Reformed essentially pagan in their views of God.
I like hanging out with pagans and heretics as much as anyone, but very few of them can be found in evangelicalism even though some evangelical writers seem to think otherwise.
This does not mean we should cease all forms of critique. Renewal of any kind requires a healthy tradition of self-criticism ( semper reformanda, semper renovanda ). But lets be more precise and judicious in our criticisms. Lets not go nuclear on one another by launching strikes that attempt to take out an entire wing with a single label or set of labels.
2. Lets resist the urge to utilize slippery-slope arguments
This is another strategy I have noticed by various evangelical authors. The claim goes something like: If you hold position A, you will invariable slide into unorthodox position Z and take us all with you.
Slippery-slope arguments are a species of historical argumentation. Sometimes they are spot on; more often, they are not. Unless they are carefully spelled out in light of the complex nature of historical events, slippery-slope arguments can reduce history to a single or a handful of causes. I know it’s cleaner and simpler to go from position A to position M to position Z, but there remain a host of letters in between that we should not leave out.
As an example, note the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate: Wayne Grudem has suggested that egalitarianism will lead to the introduction of a kind of feminism that is liberal and therefore destructive of evangelicalism. This argument tends to dismiss much of the evidence from the holiness and pentecostal movements. My own great-aunt Emma was licensed to minister in the late 1930s, preaching and performing the sacraments alongside her husband until their retirement.
Phoebe Palmer argued on the basis of the pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit that women should be allowed to teach and preach in The Promise of the Father (1859). Women have been preaching, teaching, and pastoring in those movements since the middle of the nineteenth century at least. This was long before the second wave or third wave of feminism and its impact on womens ordination in Mainline Protestant denominations. The historical variables are just too complicated to claim some slippery slope.
My plea is for caution before we utilize slippery-slope arguments.
3. Lets agree to allow each side to use its own language to come at the controversies in our midst
In bilateral ecumenical dialogues usually each side attempts to understand the other on its own terms before attempting any act of translation into the language of the other. It’s called these days “receptive ecumenism” and it’s based on an exchange of gifts between the parties involved.
McDermotts appeal to the recent ecumenical agreements between the Oriental Orthodox and the Catholic Church moves in the right direction. The agreement between the Coptic Church and the Greek Church allows each one to afffirm Chalcedon through their own language. In other words, the Copts can retain the use of one nature language and are not required to affirm the language of Chalcedon in order to affirm the intention of Chalcedon. The theology at the heart of the creed is what matters more than the language of the creed itself.
Both revivalists and confessionalists can, at times, be overly literalistic in their appeal to language. There is a tendency to compel one another to use a precise phrase in order to affirm a theological position.
A good example is the soaking prayer movement associated with Catch the Fire Ministries (formerly known as the Toronto Airport Vineyard). This is a movement among charismatics to recover contemplative prayer and incorporate it into the spirituality of the charismatic movement. It draws on ideas from Madame Guyon, Francis Fenelon, Brother Lawrence, and John of the Cross. It has come under attack, however, as incorporating meditative practices that are foreign to evangelicalism by some who do not seem to know much about the mystical traditions. One gets the impression sometimes that if the Puritans aren’t guiding spirituality, then it’s not really evangelical.
Evangelicals should stop requiring one another to affirm language alien to the other. This is where my point about penal substitution still holds. Too often the revivalist claim, for example, of healing in the atonement was made to fit this position when it does not, with the result that they simply did not measure up to orthodoxy.
If were going to utilize the tradition, then lets use all of its language.