Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

What makes a person or theological statement “individualistic”?

April 29th, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

I wanted to put up a quick post to deal with an objection that had been raised to John Shelton’s post over on the main site. In his post, Shelton argued that there is a strong individualistic streak to American evangelicalism and that it is exemplified by a work like the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.

Several folks objected to this description, including Dr. Tom Ascol, one of the statement’s signers.

Specifically they argued that the language of Article V makes it clear that they cannot be individualistic:

WE AFFIRM that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.

The argument, then, is that if individualism means every person is a detached, autonomous being and if the signers say that we are all identified with Adam in his sin, then the signers cannot be individualistic.

But that response doesn’t quite get at the point Shelton is making.

One of evangelicalism’s besetting sins is that we functionally do not have a doctrine of creation. Consider that widely known evangelical tool for sharing the Gospel, the bridge illustration. The bridge illustration knows about sin and it knows about redemption.

But it knows nothing of creation or consummation, which are, of course, the beginning and end of the biblical story. Equating the bridge illustration to Christianity is rather like the person who tries to tell you the story of Hamlet without ever mentioning that Hamlet’s father died before the play begins or that Hamlet kills Claudius in the end before dying himself. There is still something there, but it is incomplete. You won’t understand Hamlet’s madness. You won’t understand what Claudius did. You’ll have a lot of drama, but on a basic level the story won’t make sense.

The signers’ “communitarianism,” is of this same sort. It is good, of course, to recognize that Paul clearly teaches that we are corporately identified with Adam and, through the Gospel, with Christ as well. But to stop here is to miss the full story about human flourishing in the world as it relates to the teachings of Christianity and even as it is suggested by the nature of the Gospel.

Paul is not inventing something new in Romans when he argues that we humans are identified with people other than ourselves and that this fact shapes our lives in profound ways. He is, to borrow from Tolkien, simply drawing our attention to the way that something basic and general in creation is, in fact, a truth about the deepest things in the universe—true myth.

Every person enters this world through community. They would not exist were it not for the community of father and mother and the fathers and mothers that went before them. The Genesis creation text is fairly plain about this too: We see that it is not good for Adam to be alone and then we see that human community does not stop at Adam and Eve, but that human community organically reproduces itself through the fulfilling of the call to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it.

Indeed, it is not merely the relationships we have with our direct ancestors that make our lives possible. Our lives could not be sustained today were it not for the work and love of the various people who provide for our existence. And this is a truth acknowledged not only by the Scriptures, but by historic Christian theologians. Augustine reflects on his helplessness as an infant in The Confessions and Althusius rightly says that no man is naturally endowed with all that is necessary for his existence. The simple fact that we live in the world is a testimony to our communal nature.

By necessity, then, man is a communal creature. So when Paul says that our lives are inextricably tied to Adam’s on so foundational a level that our sin is his sin, this isn’t a surprise or an innovation; it is an affirmation on the deepest possible level of something we all already experience. We are, all of us, affected by and sometimes implicated in the sins of our families. Paul is simply saying that this basic fact extends all the way down to the state of our being before God.

Yet, of course, if we read Paul in this way then much of what is said elsewhere in the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, quotes which Shelton has already flagged in his piece, loses its coherence. The point is not that we are corporately identified with Adam in our sin and Christ in our resurrection and no one else.

The point is that we are identified with other people all the time in every arena of life, all the way down to our standing before God. If that is true, then you cannot make the neat distinctions that the Statement attempts to make between the sins of a community and individual sins, between social injustice and personal unrighteousness.

Obviously we should be careful here; the errors we can stumble into quickly announce themselves. For while we are naturally communal beings, we still have a certain individual selfhood—Hezekiah is not damned because he is the son of Ahaz nor is Manasseh saved because he is the son of Hezekiah. Scripture—and history as well—are full of examples of individual people who follow Christ even when their society has turned its back on him. So there is a sense in which an individual can separate themselves from their community and be held innocent of the community’s sins. But to say that this is always and everywhere true by default, as the statement seems to suggest, is too simplistic.

The point here is not to lose the individual entirely or, as I expect the Statement signers will worry, to lose the significance of individual sin and the need of atonement. One of the frequent themes in Scripture is that God calls people out of faithless communities—and if he calls you in that way, you must respond, even if that means turning your back on your community.

There is complexity here and honoring the complexity requires saying that several distinct things can all be true at the same time: Man is a communal being. Individual people seem to enter the New Jerusalem as members of recognizable nations—and they bring “their glory” into the city with them. And yet while God judges nations and individuals are implicated in that judgment, one is not bound to the fate of one’s nation.

So my argument here is not to wholly dismiss or invalidate the concerns that motivated the drafting of the Statement. It is, rather, to try and honor the full scope of what Scripture teaches us (and what most Christians have historically believed!). And the reason that I have risen against the Statement is precisely because I believe it fails as a statement of Christian truth about the nature of sin, membership, and salvation. Indeed, it fails in a way that mirrors the social gospel supporters that the Statement (rightly or wrongly) thinks it is attacking. There is a way, after all, of being so oriented toward society that you really do lose the individual and the glorious truths associated with individual penitence and restoration to God. But that is not the mistake that young evangelicals are today making, though it seems to be what the signers think we are doing.

What we are actually doing is trying to be faithful to the whole testimony of Scripture while also being attentive to the teachings of historic church leaders who, we think, are trustworthy guides in reflecting on the nature of Christian faith and how it relates to our communal and individual standing in God’s world. This work has, quite often, led us toward a more communal expression of Christian faith and toward an understanding of the faith that encompasses the entire biblical narrative, rather than narrowly obsessing over sin and redemption to the exclusion of creation and consummation. And it is precisely because of that work that we have begun to reflect on the question of social justice.

It is possible, after all, that there is more to the story of church history than an endless sequence of “fundamentalist vs modernist” fights. The conservative critics of the young reformed would do well to remember that.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).