A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation
Reviewed by William B. Evans, Erskine College and Theological Seminary
This volume emerged from a moderated eCircle sponsored by The Colossian Forum and involving 26 regular contributors along with other commenters. Author Harold Heie and many of his interlocutors are convinced that Evangelicalism today is conflicted and combative and that a balance of commitment and openness will lead to fruitful conversation. But while this is in a sense a book of conversations about the need for conversation, it is also very much Heie’s book, and at points he expands substantially on his contributors’ comments.
The conflictedness of contemporary Evangelicalism, Heie argues, stems in part from its diversity, which flows from its genetic origins in a wide variety of groups and denominations and makes a description of evangelical identity difficult. This very diversity has led some to try to impose doctrinal coherence on the movement. But, following contributor John Franke’s suggestion that such diversity is “a gift from God” (5), the author views evangelical diversity as a blessing, and he suggests that “believers embedded in different streams of Evangelicalism have much to contribute” (6). The question, then, is how this diversity can be managed and what the unifying elements of Evangelicalism are. Here Heie appeals to Roger Olson’s notion of evangelical identity as shaped by “centered-set” thinking rather than fixed boundaries, in which the discussion has more to do with proximity to the center than with who is inside and outside the circle (7). This “center” is then defined in terms of the quadrilateral of evangelical identity (conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism) proposed by British historian David Bebbington, and further conditioned by the notion of participation in “God’s project of reconciliation” (15). Whether this proposal provides a thick enough basis for evangelical unity is a question I will pursue below.
The author is deeply concerned about the conditions necessary for “respectful conversation.” He calls on Evangelicals to exercise humility (rooted in recognition of our finite grasp of God’s truth), patience, and love (16-17), and he repeatedly calls for the creation of institutional “safe spaces” where people can speak freely.
Heie then explores a series of areas where respectful conversation is needed. In a chapter entitled “Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity,” he defines the question as “whether conscious awareness and knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel is necessary to be positively and redemptively related to God” (24). He views traditional exclusivism as resulting from the cognitive/propositional emphasis of earlier Evangelicalism (25-26), and what emerges here is a sort of Christian inclusivism that leaves the question of who is saved in God’s hands and simply bears witness to one’s own experience of grace (27). Some will question whether this stance provides a sufficient basis for an evangelistic imperative.
Heie then turns to the relationship between Evangelicalism and the modern critical study of the Bible. While he uses the term “inerrancy,” Heie rejects positivistic notions of it that fail to do justice to the interpretive dimension, especially genre considerations and the human aspects of Scripture—for example, the way that conventional ideas such as ancient cosmologies are used by the human authors (37-39). Instead, he argues that the Bible should be viewed as “truthful in all that it says” or “affirms.” Ironically perhaps, Heie here cites contributor Molly Worthen’s contention that Old Princeton was responsible for the rise in Evangelicalism of positivistic notions of inerrancy as excluding any “factual inaccuracies or discrepancies” (36), when, in fact, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in their famous 1881 article “Inspiration” spoke of the Bible’s authority in terms of its “affirmations,” or what is taught, and they were careful to recognize the importance of the human dimension. Heie also calls for a synthesis of modern historical criticism and evangelical belief, but one contributor (Peter Enns) suggests—correctly, I think—that “such a synthesis might threaten the very structure of Evangelicalism to the breaking point” (45).
In the chapter on “Evangelicals and Morality,” the author focuses primarily on matters of social or corporate justice, and he argues that evangelical thinking on these matters has been conditioned by false dichotomies—private charity vs. activist government, individual morality vs. social morality, and so forth. Here again he argues for “conversation” and for an ethic in which Christians see themselves as building God’s kingdom and as agents of reconciliation (61-65).
On the topic of “Evangelicalism and Politics,” Heie follows contributor Amy Black in viewing politics as a matter of seeking the “common good,” in contrast to the way that the politics of self-interest have created a toxic environment for political discourse (68-69). He contends that some Evangelicals have withdrawn from national politics, while others have sought to dominate political discourse by imposing their view of “living rightly” on others (73). Rather than withdrawing or seeking to dominate, Heie argues, Evangelicals should seek to participate in a conversation (74). In this context Heie rightly decries the way that Christians have often behaved uncharitably and been co-opted by outside interests, and with Amy Black he calls upon Christians to demonstrate “the fruit of the Spirit and with awareness of the limits of politics” (78).
Heie then turns to the relationship of evangelical faith to science. He notes that some quarters of Evangelicalism pit faith against science and observes that issues involving cosmic and human origins are central to the discussion. Especially salient here are questions about the historicity of Adam and the theological connection of this issue with the origin of sin and death (99). One contributor, for example, denies the historicity of Adam and maintains that the Apostle Paul was mistaken in attributing sin and death to an historical Adam. Heie argues that such a position does not fall “outside the pale of evangelical belief” when that center is defined in terms of Bebbington’s quadrilateral (101), and that it does not violate the principle of “biblicism” because such disagreements are merely about interpretation and not biblical authority (103).
The chapter on “Evangelicalism and Higher Education” is both the longest and the most interesting, probably because Heie speaks out of his own extensive experience as a teacher and administrator at four evangelical institutions of higher learning. He contends that “the quest for certainty is misplaced” and leads to a dogmatism that undermines the “conversation toward Truth.” In its place he calls for an epistemological pessimism consistent with “soft postmodernism” that will facilitate humility and a communal learning endeavor (109-111). This communal endeavor will consist of four expanding circles of conversation: within individual evangelical institutions, across evangelical institutions, with non-evangelical Christians, and with non-Christians (112-114).
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to conversation at evangelical schools, according to the author, is “the tension between the quest for truth and institutional core theological commitments” (120), a problem often exacerbated by the imposition of additional “implicit constraints” out of a desire to placate key constituencies (123-125). Heie argues that both denominational and non-denominational evangelical institutions should frame minimalist doctrinal statements that allow considerable leeway for the quest for truth (128). Here Heie revealingly admits that he now finds “orthodox institutions” (that is, schools that require all faculty to subscribe to a doctrinal statement) too confining: “it is not realistic to think that an orthodox institution can create a safe space that welcomes a variety of alternative views regarding a current core theological belief” (133).
There is much that is good here in Heie’s call for a “kinder, more generous, and gentler Evangelicalism” (142). Humility, patience, and love are virtues that all evangelical Christians should seek to demonstrate, and the book’s clarion call to civil conversation is certainly apposite. Nevertheless, some comments must be made. First, the discussions summarized in this book seem to be primarily (though not exclusively) a center-left evangelical conversation, and one wonders what the book would look like if a wider range of evangelical voices were represented. As it stands, the book provides a valuable and engaging snapshot of the concerns of the contemporary evangelical center-left, but it is perhaps less useful as a roadmap for the future.
Second, although the worthy theme of civil conversation pervades the book, the goal of such conversations is not entirely clear. For example, the goal of political activity is not simply to have a conversation, but to influence decision making and effect change. Such an emphasis is not surprising coming from a professional educator such as Heie—after all, a primary goal of our classroom activities is fruitful conversation—but more needs to be said.
Third, it is not at all clear that Heie has really succeeded in reconciling the tension between commitment and openness. While claiming that “believers embedded in different streams of Evangelicalism have much to contribute” (6), he also clearly believes that too much doctrinal specificity is a threat to conversation and the quest for truth, and so he persistently argues for doctrinal minimalism. It seems to me that Heie cannot have it both ways.
Fourth, Heie’s commitment to doctrinal minimalism itself raises questions. Of course, Evangelicalism has long had a tendency toward doctrinal minimalism, but in practice Heie’s version of it appears to be minimal indeed—it is not clear that it would exclude anyone who self-identified as an “evangelical.” His deployment of Bebbington’s quadrilateral seems to be largely formal, and some of the categories (biblicism in particular) have become exceedingly elastic. In other words, this is not a thick description of an evangelical “center,” and Heie’s proposal raises the uncomfortable question of whether the notion of “Evangelicalism” now has much content at all. Perhaps, as historian D. G. Hart has argued, it is simply a post–World War II construct created in order to make sense of the web of institutions within which many conservative Protestants worked.
Could it be that much evangelical defensiveness and unpleasantness today stems, not from too much doctrine, but from too little, and from a subliminal fear that Evangelicals are not playing with a particularly strong theological hand? Interestingly, aspects of the present volume implicitly suggest this. For example, John Franke contends that evangelicalism is not a “tradition” per se, but rather “a general movement within various traditions” (2). Consistent with this, I would argue that Evangelicalism is primarily a movement emphasizing Christian experience that draws much of its theological content from other sources. If this is the case, then trying to find some minimalist theological “center” for evangelicalism may be beside the point. Perhaps the answer to what ails Evangelicalism is not more doctrinal minimalism, but rather a return to the great patristic, medieval, and classical Protestant resources that have long enriched evangelical thought, as Reformed, Baptistic, Wesleyan, and Anabaptist evangelicals speak winsomely and with confidence to the broader community out of the best of their own traditions.