Essay / Misc.

Emphatic Evangelicalism

Christians have a lot to say, but to proclaim the gospel you can’t just say every Christian thing that comes to mind: you have to put the emphasis on something in particular.

Protestant evangelicals stand in a great tradition of Christian faith and doctrine: we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism —the things that make Christianity Christian. No matter how defective your contemporary evangelical church experience may be, you can start there and pick up a trail to the great, confident evangelicalism of the nineteenth century, follow it back through the Wesleyan revivals and the Puritans, to the Reformation and its grounding in medieval Christendom, and behind that to the earliest church fathers. All this is ours. Evangelicalism, in all its denominational manifestations, is an expression of that great tradition. But it is an expression that has a distinguishing feature: it is emphatic. It has made strategic choices about what should be emphasized when presenting the fullness of the faith.

Evangelicalism, the trans-denominational movement that dares to name itself after the gospel (evangel), has always been concerned to underline certain things within the Christian message. We have a lot to say about God’s revelation, but we emphasize the business end of it, where God’s voice is heard normatively: the Bible. We know that everything Jesus did had power for salvation in it, but we emphasize the one event that is literally crucial: the cross. We know that God is at work on his people through the full journey of their lives, from the earliest glimmers of awareness to the ups and downs of the spiritual life, but we emphasize the hinge of all spiritual experience: conversion. We know there are countless benefits that flow from being joined to Christ, but we emphasize the big one: heaven.

The Bible, the cross, conversion, heaven. These are the right things to emphasize —I freely admit that I am asserting this without proof, and if you disagree with the assertion, what follows will be less meaningful. But in order to emphasize anything, you’ve got to have a larger body of truth to select from. For example, the cross of Christ occupies its central role in salvation history precisely because it has Christ’s incarnation and ministry on one side, and his resurrection and ascension on the other. Without these, Christ’s work on the cross wouldn’t accomplish our salvation. But flanked by them, it is the cross that needs to be the focus of attention to get the gospel. The same could be said for the Bible when it comes to revelation, conversion when it comes to religious experience, and heaven when it comes to the benefits of knowing God. Each of them is the right strategic emphasis, but only stands out properly when it has something to stand out of.

When evangelicalism wanes into an anemic condition, as it sadly has in recent decades, here is how it happens: the points of emphasis are isolated from the main body of Christian truth and handled as if they are the whole story rather than the key points. Instead of teaching the full counsel of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and second coming), anemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross the cross the cross). But in isolation from the total matrix of Christian truth, the cross doesn’t make sense. A message about nothing but the cross is not emphatic; it’s reductionist. The rest of the matrix matters: the death of Jesus is salvation partly because of the life he lived before it, and certainly because of the new life he lived after it. And shouldn’t the Holy Spirit be mentioned as more than an afterthought?

Emphatic evangelicalism (yay!) can transform into reductionist evangelicalism (boo!) in less than a generation. People who grow up under the influence of reductionist evangelicalism suffer, understandably, from some pretty perplexing disorientation. They are raised on “the Bible, the cross, conversion and heaven” as the whole Christian message, and they sense that there must be more than that. They catch a glimpse of this “more” in Scripture, but aren’t sure where it belongs; they hear it in the hymns but it is drowned out by the familiar; they find extended discussions of it in older authors, but those very authors also reinforce what they’ve been surrounded by all along: that the most important things in the Christian message are the Bible, the cross, conversion, and heaven. Inside of reductionist evangelicalism, everything’s right but somehow it’s all wrong.

That is because when emphatic evangelicalism degenerates into reductionist evangelicalism, it still has the emphasis right, but has been reduced to nothing but emphasis. When a message is all emphasis, ONE OF THE PROBLEMS IS THAT THE MESSAGE IS ALL EQUALLY IMPORTANT AND YOUR POWERS OF ATTENTION SUFFER FATIGUE FROM THE CONSTANT BARRAGE OF EMPHASIS. The other problem is that a gospel reduced to four points ceases to make sense. “The Bible says Jesus died so you can get saved and go to heaven” is a good start, the right emphasis, and a recognizable statement of the gospel, provided it is securely lodged in the host of other truths that support and explain it. The comprehensive truth of the Christian message needs these points of emphasis to be drawn out, but these points of emphasis need the comprehensive truth of the Christian message.

A blade is not all cutting edge; in fact, the cutting edge is the smallest part of the knife. The rest of the knife is solid metal heft and handle. Considered all by itself, the cutting edge is vanishingly small —a geometric concept instead of a useable object. Isolated from the great storehouse of all Christian truth, reductionist evangelicalism is a vanishingly small thing. It came from emphatic evangelicalism, and it must return to being emphatic evangelicalism or vanish to nothing.

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