Volume 22 - Issue 3

A Supplementary Word

By Stephen N. Williams

We asked Dr Alister McGrath to write a brief piece for us on evangelicals and evangelicalism today, taking special account of recent work, as he has done in the article in this volume. However, he himself has contributed at least two volumes to the literature. It would have been eccentric to ask him to survey his own writings, so I am adding a supplementary word on Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity(London/Sydney/Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994) and A Passion for Truth: the intellectual coherence of evangelicalism (Leicester: Apollos. 1996). What follows is not a review, and due to the circumstances of writing this short piece, I am not going to engage in critical comment (not that the author would mind if I did). But we are certainly indebted to Dr. McGrath for both these volumes.

The former is more general and diffuse, surveying the big picture and leaving a detailed defence of evangelicalism to the second volume. McGrath is upbeat about the future of evangelicalism; liberalism has run out of steam; it ‘may stimulate the mind; it cannot sustain a church’ (p. 95). Indeed: ‘Perhaps the most significant contribution that evangelicalism can make is to force others to realize that the liberal experiment has failed, and that the future of Christianity lies in returning to the New Testament, and rediscovering the appeal of biblical Christianity’ (p. 188). Not just the New Testament; a note is consistently struck to the effect that we must retain or recover our rich heritage. The upbeat note, however, is balanced by warning. Evangelicalism has a dark side, including its fissiparous dogmatism and personality cult. It vitally needs to develop a rich spirituality that, for example, moves beyond a potentially barren and, in the contemporary world, unrealistic over-emphasis on the Quiet Time.

But what is evangelicalism? McGrath views it as the standard-bearer of orthodoxy, and lists six fundamental characteristics. These are (i) the supreme authority of Scripture, (ii) the majesty of Jesus Christ, (iii) the lordship of the Holy Spirit, (iv) the need for personal conversion, (v) the priority of evangelism and (vi) the importance of the Christian community. Where these characteristics are formally shared with non-evangelicals, McGrath tries to knit them together with the others into a coherent description of evangelical fundamentals. It is worth pointing out, here, that on this account, Roman Catholicism can emerge in a rather more positive light than the Anabaptist tradition. There are ‘justice and peace evangelicals’ who pick up the ‘radical political agenda’ characteristic of sixteenth century Anabaptism (p. 111f.), but note the firmer place given to ‘Roman Catholic evangelicals’ (p. 78) overall (though, in fairness. McGrath does not at all emphasize this). It may be here that some readers will detect an Anglican spin on the interpretation of evangelicalism.

A Passion of Truth, in contrast, aims to show directly the coherence and credibility of evangelicalism, in an attempt to promote the evangelical mind. First, McGrath deals with the uniqueness of Christ and the authority of Scripture. He takes the postmodern emphasis on the particular, rather than universal, in our reason and thought, to be in some respects hospitable to the Christian claim to the uniqueness of Christ. Yet it is a claim that must be maintained in its traditional form, a universal truth that does not bend in the postmodern wind. The polemical aspect of the book, in its relation to the positive, is brought out in the discussion of Scripture. Scriptural authority is contrasted with rival claimants—culture, experience, reason and tradition. These can not deliver liberating truth, if viewed as rival sources of authority. It is along these comparative, rather than doctrinally specific, lines that McGrath outlines the nature of biblical authority.

Three significant ‘isms’ then enter the lists, to stand square alongside the principal ‘ism’, evangelicalism. These are postliberalism, postmodernism and religious pluralism. The first is a broad movement, brought to special prominence in the work of George Lindbeck, which repudiates attempts to find a common core to religious experience, returns us to the particularity of the Christian account, but avoids thinking of religious belief primarily in terms of assent to propositions. The second, rather difficult to define, is the opponent of beliefs in a universal form of rationality and of rationalism (McGrath agrees here and criticizes evangelical rationalism), but equally the opponent of all totalistic claims to truth. The third is not just a description (there are many religions) but an ideology (Christians ought to believe in the validity of different paths to knowledge and salvation). McGrath basically seeks to sustain the main perspectives of the early chapters on Christ and Scripture in the teeth of these contenders.

Reason was given earlier for the decision to stick at report of this literature. That is not a tacit indicator of disagreement; on the contrary. I am in substantial agreement with much in these two volumes which are gladly recommended. However, let this be added. Alister McGrath’s work should be read as part of a wider, and sometimes concerted, effort, to revitalize the Christian mind. That means not just evangelical doctrine, but evangelical thinking over the whole spectrum of issues. The American-based journal, Books and Culture, is an important expression of this. It is vital that we stand back and consider two things in relation to this project. What follows is certainly not obliquely directed at any of the specific contributions mentioned hitherto; it is an addendum.

The first is the question of ideas. No doubt ideas are important. They have played their part in shaping culture and history, and appropriate ideas about God inform the authentic Christian life. But exactly which ideas are important? How important? How do they exert their influence? How are they disseminated effectively? There is an acute danger that we develop good and coherent ideas, along with a vigorous and penetrating analysis, and yet fail to make much social impact. At the end of the day, we can either be talking to those with whom we agree, or we can be talking to those who, like us, move in the world of ideas but, like us, find the pursuit of ideas more interesting than the quest for obedience. Times of spiritual ferment throw up ideas, but times of intellectual ferment do not necessarily generate spirituality, at least not of a positive kind. And, given the unquestionable importance of ideas, the question remains of how we should map the highways and by-ways of their social influence.

The second is the question of material resources. Ideas cost ‘phone calls, faxes, computer software and hardware, travel and conference expenses in a big way. The material outlay is given justification as the means justifies the end, the end being the indubitable good of the glory of God through the faithful mind. If, however, it turns out that the means reflect unsanctified attitudes towards Western material privileges, the ideas will not produce expected fruit, for the end has been compromised on the way. We are in danger of promoting the Christian mind from a base in an indulgent body. Those whose economic conditions are less privileged are the first to confess that they themselves, who observe how the West has become materialistically ensnared, find our luxurious theological style attractive. Neither of these points are meant as an indictment of others; this author finds himself guilty all too often on both of these counts. But we must surely bear them in mind.

The theological scene is very fragmented these days. Few, if any, theologians capture the common and sustained attention of the worldwide theological community. The same is true of evangelical leadership. We certainly need cross-cultural input, and we have unparalleled resources for international communication. Even so, the separate, diverse, humble communities on the ground, throughout the continents, have a key role in the divine dispensation for visible witness, and not just verbal proclamation, of Christian truth. Let’s always keep it in mind.

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.