I’ve got some thoughts up at Patheos on the future of evangelicalism.

There’s nothing terribly revolutionary in there to longtime readers of Mere-O, though (if I dare say so) it is worth reading all the same.

I had my friend Hugh Hewitt’s essay lurking in the back of my mind as I wrote it.  In it, he suggests that we are  witnessing “the opening of a great era in evangelical Catholicism.”

And if I have anything to do with it, we’ll witness the opening of a great era of catholic evangelicalism that is rooted in the appreciation of church history without giving up any evangelical distinctives.  Timothy George and JI Packer evangelicalism, you know.  Broad, centered upon Scripture, articulated through the creeds, with the emphasis on Bible, cross, conversion, and heaven.

Patheos has replaced Beliefnet as the pre-eminent religion portal on the net now that Dreher has left Beliefnet for more Templetony-confines.  It’s worth checking out regularly.

You can see all the posts released today here.  And check back over the next two weeks, as they have some heavy hitters lined up to chime in.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  1. Matt: This “post-evangelical” enjoyed reading your reflections on the future of evangelicalism. I am encouraged by the signs of renewal that you mentioned. Let me mention another author whose writing has contributed to evangelical ressourcement: D. H. Williams. See Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (1999) and Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (2005).

    Your essay reminded me why I stopped identifying myself as an “evangelical” several years ago. Simply put, evangelicalism––much like the Enlightenment––strikes me as either a faux tradition, thin tradition, or “a tradition without a tradition,” hence the incessant talk about “engaging tradition” and “retrieving tradition.” Within itself, evangelicalism lacks the creeds, theology, and liturgy to adequately nourish the people of God. To use C. S. Lewis’ famous architectural metaphor, evangelicalism can be likened to a hallway in the mansion of Christianity. We can greet each other in the hallway, benefiting from mutual edification and correction. But nourishment exists off the hallway and inside the rooms. Hunger drove me away from my childhood and early adulthood habitation in the hallway. The Reformed and Anglican rooms now provide me with a table of food and fellowship, not to mention a warm fire. Who can ask for anything more?

    I encourage Mere O readers to check out the Nov/December 2008 issue of Modern Reformation. The entire issue was devoted to the future of evangelicalism with perceptive essays from Timothy George, W. Robert Godfrey, R. Albert Mohler, J. I. Packer, David F. Wells, and D. G. Hart. The interview with Michael Spencer (“the internet monk”) was quite interesting, “The Post-Evangelical Option.” My favorite essay is Michael Horton’s “To Be or Not to Be: The Uneasy Relationship Between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism.” Here’s a salient excerpt:

    I have argued that evangelicalism is like a village green, where people, leaving their homes and stores, come to mix and mingle. Or, as C. S. Lewis suggested, it is “mere Christianity”––the hallway where people meet and where non-Christians can hear Christ’s central claims. We were not meant to live on the village green or in the hallway, however, but in the homes and rooms. Evangelicalism is most useful as a meeting place, but disastrous for anyone who tries to make it a home. For a home, we need a church.

    Another superlative essay from Michael Horton is “Whose Orthodoxy?: How to Define It and Why It’s So Important” (Modern Reformation, Sept/Oct 2008). Here’s a salient excerpt that develops Lewis’ metaphor:

    Mere Christianity

    Why can’t we just be “mere Christians”? One of the truly remarkable things about evangelicalism is its enormous success in drawing together Christians from a variety of traditions for common witness to Christ and fellowship. I did not become a Christian when I became Reformed; in fact, I credit my nurture in an Arminian Baptist background with introducing me to the Bible and many of the central truths I still hold today. My pastors, parents, and family friends would not have recognized any formal adherence to a creed, but they held the articles of the Apostles’ Creed with greater commitment than many professing Christians who do, including ministers in denominations who swear before God to defend and teach its truths. It was through evangelicalism’s untidy yet intuitive coalescence around Christ’s person and work that I first became aware of Reformed theology and bumped into other evangelicals who held it. Also in evangelicalism I became familiar with God’s work in other parts of the world, not only through returning missionaries but through the parachurch ministries that attracted people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In this environment, I not only became frustrated with the movement’s captivities to American culture but encountered fellow Christians who agreed.

    Ironically, then, evangelicalism is perhaps the most ecumenical form of Christianity in the world today, as it has been ever since the modern missionary movement. For this reason, Reformed leaders from Bishop J. C. Ryle to J. I. Packer (Anglican), Charles Hodge to R. C. Sproul (Presbyterian), and John Owen to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Congregationalist) could speak of an “evangelical Christianity” that is simply true Christianity-mere Christianity. They could go on to defend the particulars of Reformed theology that distinguish it from other traditions, but they knew they had more in common with a Baptist such as Charles Spurgeon and even a Wesleyan such as, well, John Wesley, than with those in their own communion who departed from essentials of the Christian faith.

    At the same time, these Reformed leaders actually lived in their “own rooms” (as C. S. Lewis describes it): not only the larger common area of Reformed faith and practice but in the particular spaces of Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches. As difficult as it is to find the proper balance here, it is crucial in my view that we recover their example at a time when there is increasing polarization and evangelicalism itself seems to be losing its focus on Christ and therefore the intensity of its consensus.

    Evangelicalism, especially today, has become in many ways a tradition in its own right that nevertheless refuses to acknowledge itself as such. Prior to the 1950s, evangelicalism was mostly a loose coalition of people who banded together in defense of the gospel, but who actually “lived” in their particular churches. They lived and moved and had their being in a particular confession that (ideally, at least) shaped their faith and practice over many years. Since the neo-evangelical movement, however, a constellation of parachurch institutions has arisen whose networks often replace the distinctive faith and practice of churches. Especially given the pietistic and revivalist heritage of the movement, it seems increasingly difficult to participate in the evangelical coalition unless one is willing to keep his or her Reformed or Lutheran slip from showing. To the extent that a Presbyterian church thinks of itself as evangelical more than Reformed, it sounds, looks, and acts more like a non-Reformed church. All cats become grey, as a generic set of lowest-common-denominators rather than rich confessional commitments define the shape of our doctrine and church life.

    At the other end, partly in reaction to this phenomenon, many confessional Protestants are ready to opt out of “mere Christianity.” True Christianity is really found only in the Lutheran confession, some assume. In my own circles, we commonly refer to the Reformed faith. But we were baptized into Christ, not into Calvin. There is no such thing as a Reformed faith, but only a Christian faith to which our Reformed confessions bear witness. I for one believe that these confessions bear the clearest and soundest witness to our common faith, but it is the latter that takes precedence.

    It was this conviction that motivated C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Lewis imagined that the Christian family is like a great house with many rooms, where inhabitants sometimes mingle in the hallway. The hallway is “mere Christianity.” Lewis introduces his remarkable book by clarifying this point:

    I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds [confessions] of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

    So while the danger on more confessional sides is to ignore C. S. Lewis’s invitation to “mere Christianity,” the opposite danger is toward a shallowness that loiters in the hallway and never lives in any room.

    There are many reasons why we should not give up the hallway. First, it gives us a place to stand-together. There is a time to articulate our distinctive formulations of Christian teaching and practice, and there is a time to join brothers and sisters in the hallway to meet and greet strangers to God’s promises as most of us once were ourselves. Even on these points such strangers will be likely to hear different accents, but the focus is on the most evident, explicit, and central emphases of the New Testament. Even if the stranger does not adopt our room, we are glad enough that they have taken up residence in the house.

    Second, it gives us a place to listen to one another. If the tendency of evangelicalism is to ignore the treasures in the various rooms by supposing that the hallway is the house, my own tendency is to ignore the hallway where my brothers and sisters mingle and enrich my own understanding of the faith we share in common. At seminal points my own growth in appreciation for Christianity generally, as well as Reformed convictions, has been spurred on by lively interaction with believers from other traditions. In many cases, I have not only become more aware of where our differences lie but of where my own caricatures or half-truths about other views lie. In the process, I am often amazed by areas of agreement I never knew existed because we use different vocabularies. Each tradition has a tendency to ride hobby-horses that obscure other important truths, and by engaging with other Christians we often find ourselves recovering emphases that were latent in our tradition but that we have ignored because we were content to talk to ourselves. The “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” is a body, with ears as well as mouths. Mutual edification and correction can occur not only formally, within our own churches, but informally through interaction. Listening in the hallway not only includes other Christians but the strangers who do not yet embrace our common faith. If we stay holed up in our rooms all the time, we are faithful neither to our evangelistic calling in the world nor to our own spiritual health. Ignorant of the pressing questions our neighbors are asking and objections they articulate, we become self-satisfied and our churches spend their energies on introspection, which easily turns to family quarrels of secondary or tertiary matters. Spending some time in the hallway has a way of waking the sleep from our eyes.

    Third, it gives us a place to speak. Not only benefiting from the insights of others, I want to spend some time in the hallway because I believe that Reformed theology offers the best interpretation of Christian faith and practice. We can’t just put up a sign on the door with our denominational label and expect other Christians, much less non-Christians, to come knocking. We were called to “go into all the world,” not to hide our light under a shade in our cozy quarters.

    In my view, the danger of confessional Lutherans and Reformed Christians is to ignore “mere Christianity,” partly in reaction against the opposite danger. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds still provide us with the best definition of orthodoxy. These creeds do not say everything we want to say, of course, but therein lies their strength. In spite of the important differences between Christian churches, there is a place to stand together-like Athanasius-against the world for the world.

    There is a lot of wisdom in Lewis’s vision. In this view of orthodoxy, we have to be on guard against two misinterpretations: to eliminate the hallway, assuming that our room is the only one in the house; and to eliminate the rooms, mistaking our room for the hallway. Eventually, both extremes lead to the same outcome.

    Reply

  2. “Within itself, evangelicalism lacks the creeds, theology, and liturgy to adequately nourish the people of God.”

    I understand the motivation to call oneself a “post-evangelical.” However, it doesn’t help me with anything, as it’s simply a negation. Better just to call yourself Reformed, Lutheran, etc.

    But everything that you write above follows from that claim, which is–needless to say–one that I find myself in happy disagreement with.

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

    1. Matt: I’d really like to hear your engagement with Michael Horton’s argument because it’s relevant to your essay’s hope about evangelicals and tradition. Bottom line: are we better off living in the rooms (traditions) rather than the hallway (evangelicalism)?

      Reply

      1. Matt: I should add that the essay by Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, and Collin Hansen, “The Evangelical Reformed Movement: A Comeback,” encouraged me because it’s a renewal of the hallway from the Reformed room.

        Reply

  3. I appreciated your appeal to evangelicals to recover and reincorporate the church’s history and traditions, “the gold and jewels that have been lost or buried,” as you wrote. Evangelicalism was afraid of becoming irrelevant, I think, and so it abandoned anything that seemed old and rebranded itself as hip and contemporary and accessible. It went on a diet and came out svelte and tanned, but in the process seemed to lose all seriousness. Beauty, awe and mystery in worship were replaced by shallow emotionalism and seeker-friendly services. Discipleship lost out to spirituality.

    All of this dieting and plastic surgery has made the church fragile. By forgetting our historic connection to centuries of church life and practice before us, and by uncritically embracing every new fad to come down the pike, I think the church has weakened itself. The way back is through serious self-examination and a re-commitment to discipleship, the spiritual disciplines and sacraments, and a careful re-establishing our historic roots in the church of the past and what those men and women who came before us might be able to teach us today.

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  4. Christopher,

    Yay for rooms. I don’t think anything I wrote disagrees that we should live there.

    I think Horton’s reduction of evangelicalism to “mere Christianity” is not quite right. It has theological distinctives of its own that have significant overlap with the doctrinal system Lewis expressed by the phrase, but that are different from it directly.

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

  5. Matt: A few follow-up questions:

    1. Do you agree or disagree with Horton’s claim: “Evangelicalism is most useful as a meeting place, but disastrous for anyone who tries to make it a home. For a home we need a church”?

    2. Do you agree that we should prioritize our confessional and ecclesial identity over our evangelical identity so that “evangelical” functions as an adjective rather than a noun? For instance, I am content to call myself an evangelical Anglican/Reformed but not an Evangelical.

    3. Since I have known you, I am not aware of your habitation in a particular room. Which room(s) do you live in?

    Reply

  6. Not to butt in here, but the very Lewis passage under consideration is discussed at length in an interview here with Jim Belcher, so it’s worth listening in.

    Very helpful essay here. Hewitt’s as well.

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  7. Matt: Since you wrote the Patheos article on the future of evangelicalism, I was inspired to write an Evangel post, “Reformed Christianity: The Gadfly on the Sluggish Horse of American Evangelicalism.” I got a comment that I would like to share with you here, and ask how you would respond to someone who contends that an evangelical recovery of the Great Tradition is only possible by joining the Orthodox Church. Here is the comment:

    Not at all to be argumentative, but to relay a fourth option in earnest: one might also join the one, undivided, ever canonical and visible Church Christ established, namely, the Holy Orthodox Church.

    Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Department of External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently expressed the Orthodox sentiment on this matter quite plainly (see below). I relay his comment in earnest, reminding the reader that it has been some time since the Orthodox voice has been heard in the West (so we’re not used to hearing it), on account of the decimation of many of its structures by communism, and of the harvest of so many Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, and lay martyrs (more than at any other time in Church history) through the 20th century. It is good, though, I think, to at least hear this voice on such an important matter. Mtr Hilarion:

    “The Protestant understanding is that all the existing confessions are actually branches of one tree, that the Church in itself is not visible, representing the totality of various confessions (‘the theory of branches’). The task in this case is seen in attempts to gradually unite them all to make the invisible Church visible. It is a heretical understanding, and the Orthodox Christians by no means share it.

    “We believe the Church exists and has visible boundaries, and the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, which we confess in the Creed, is the Orthodox Church, and we are its members. In dialogue with other Christian confessions we set ourselves first of all the missionary task. We bear witness before the Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics to the Tradition of the early undivided Church and say that the way to unity lies through the return to this Tradition, and there is no other way. All the novelties that have appeared in history, all the heresies that have emerged in the second millennium should be overcome. Our non-Orthodox brothers should reject them so that they may be united with the one undivided and ever canonical Church. In this lies the meaning of our dialogue with non-Orthodox Churches.”

    Reply

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