As observers of evangelicalism, few are better positioned than Mark Galli, a senior editor at Christianity Today. And what he sees is a movement divided into factions, but united by the nature of our solutions to the malaise we have all bemoaned. Galli examines the spiritual disciplines movement (Dallas Willard), the social justice movement (Sojourners), and the movement to rescue the church from its cultural captivity (Soong Chan-Rah) and points out that our solutions are not properly theocentric. Writes Galli:
“For now we should note that the diverse solutions seem to share a common methodology: If evangelicals divorce too often, preach that they should not. If evangelicals are individualist, tell them to be more communal. If evangelicals are privatistic, tell them to get involved in social justice. If evangelicals are worldly, tell them to start practicing the spiritual disciplines. And so on.
In short, we frame the problem horizontally. We focus on what we fail to do, and then talk about what we should do differently. To be fair, such solutions often start with a strong vertical dimension: that is, a sense that we can address the horizontal only by first looking to God. But our practical and activist sensibility—one of our movement’s stellar attributes—tends to undermine the vertical. “
Galli doesn’t say it, but by framing theology within the context of our ecclesiastical struggles, we run the risk of discovering in the vertical what we set out to find. As Dr. Fred Sanders once pointed out, in recent years evangelical discussions about the Trinity have largely been motivated by gender issues. We find in God precisely what we hope to see, a trap that might have ensnared the missional movement and its minimization of the inner life of the Church. The vertical becomes a support our preferred solutions, rather than a good pursued for its own sake. J.I. Packer’s admonition seems particularly relevant in this context. We might begin with theology in the order of writing, but it is not clear it leads us in the order of knowing.
Galli goes on to argue that the balkanization of the evangelical movement is nothing less than the judgment of God, as at Babel. Again, Galli:
Is it any wonder that we reside in the midst of Babel, finding it increasingly difficult to hear and understand one another? I contend that the cacophony we hear is nothing less than the judgment of God. It is not a judgment only against the other parts of our movement, as if our part has learned to live in the grace and obedience of the gospel! Neither is it a judgment only against those Moralistic Therapeutic Deists in our midst, those who need to be reformed to become like us. No, it is a judgment against every strand within the evangelical movement, and every individual therein. It is a judgment against our making the horizontal an idol, against the “weightlessness” of our faith in God.
It is this judgment, though, that is the context for the reversal that occurs at Pentecost. But that is not where the Church stands. Instead, Galli locates the Church in the shadow of the Cross:
Thus, we stand in the place where the cacophony of Babel can become the miracle of Pentecost, when we hear each other again, where we do not see incomprehensible foreigners in our midst but a variety of charisms, callings of the Holy Spirit.
It is where the incessant hectoring and nagging, the doing and striving, can be transformed into acts of love motivated by inexpressible gratitude. It is where our scatteredness can become the fulfillment of God’s mission in the world. It is where the horizontal can become not a denial of the vertical but the expression of it. Where we stand, in short, is Golgotha, under the shadow of the Cross, a sign of God’s judgment on our pretensions and God’s forgiveness of our sin.
Galli gives us only the starting point for his particular reform proposal:
The first thing to do when we confront the dysfunctional horizontal, then, is not to address it as a horizontal problem. That would be to deny the word of the Cross; it would be to pretend we can, of our own wisdom and strength, attend successfully to the problem. The Word of God says the way to start working on the horizontal is to look up, in particular, at the one hanging on the Cross. The place to begin is not more feverish doing but a type of non-doing, acknowledging the complete inadequacy of any doing and the utter powerlessness of the horizontal to fix the horizontal. It means to allow oneself to be borne up by the Word of grace.
Notice that Galli’s suggestion is that it is the word of the Cross that we need to encounter. While Galli rightly points to Jesus as the Word made flesh, this focus allows him to ground the traditional evangelical emphasis on Scripture and preaching.
Galli’s essay is undoubtedly evangelical in its orientation. But I worry about his choice to locate the church at Golgotha, looking up to Jesus on the cross. While perhaps only symbolic, our formulation of the vertical will significantly alter the resources we have to bring to bear on the horizontal. And how we structure these issues matters, a point Galli clearly agrees with and uses against those who are advocating spiritual formation. But the Church does not look up at Christ on the cross, but rather looks up to the ascended Christ. By positioning the Church at Pentecost rather than Golgotha, we preserve and maintain the Church’s distinctly pneumetological character, a distinction that it might be said is particular to evangelicalism and our emphasis on the contemporary working of God through conversion.
Galli’s piece functions as a kind of prolegomena for a newly redesigned and refocused Christianity Today, and he promises that they will unpack the pragmatic aspects of this message in future issues. But given his start, I wonder why he feels obligated to do so, as it seems to acquiescing to the problematic methodology he is critiquing. If the problem is as Galli says, then evangelicalism would be better served by a refusal to be co-opted by the horizontal through relentlessly pointing at Jesus and saying with Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
My response to Mark Galli’s recent editorial for @ctmagazine on the balkanization of evangelicalism and its deep unity http://bit.ly/20FpxF
This comment was originally posted on Twitter
Matt, I agree with your emphasis that we have to go beyond the working of the cross to its result (victory over sin, the fulfillment of God’s purposes among men etc.) in order to really understand the church’s character and purpose in this fallen world.
However, what do you mean when you imply that Gali is wrong to “ground the traditional evangelical emphasis on Scripture and preaching?”
Yes, the “Church’s distinctly pneumetological character” is important – vitally, inextricably important. The living, active Spirit of God has always been the means whereby God transforms lives, both before and after the cross. In addition, the Spirit began to work in a distinct (and previously veiled way) at Pentecost.
But the working of the Holy Spirit among His people can never be separated from the preaching and teaching of Scripture. The inscripturated words of God are the sum total of his revelation to mankind, this side of eternity. The Holy Spirit does not add to this revelation, he illuminates our understanding of what God has already given us.
The reason I bring this up at all is because I wonder if you are implying that evangelicals have overemphasized the preaching of Scripture and, as a result, have lost sight of the pneumetological character” of authentic Christianity.
If we have lost connection with the working of the Holy Spirit, is the de-emphasis of Scriptural preaching the solution?
Thanks for the comment. I should clarify: I didn’t necessarily mean to disagree with the emphasis on preaching and Scripture per se. I have worries about that, though for other reasons (i.e. why them exclusively?). But I don’t in any way want to diminish the role of preaching and of Scripture.
However, it does seem like locating the Church at Golgotha (even in his presentation) cuts us off from the locus of power that ought animate our preaching and our reading of Scripture. In that way, I completely agree with you that the two cannot be separated–the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, after all. My worry is that Galli’s positioning unintentionally sets us up for the sort of legalistic approach to preaching and scripture that he decries in the piece.
Does that help clarify my thoughts? Apologies for the ambiguity.
Matthew, thanks for the careful reading and reaction to my piece—and, of course, for bringing it to the attention of your readers. One reason I follow this blog is it’s willingness to do more than drive-by shootings, but to engage more deeply and thoughtfully in issues before us.
I hardly think my take is the only nor necessarily the most incisive, but I think it is true as far as it goes, and more conversation about the issue (short of navel gazing) should prove helpful. A few points of clarification and/or further discussion:
“Galli doesn’t say it, but by framing theology within the context of our ecclesiastical struggles…”
I would not call such struggles “ecclesiastical” (though I wonder if the word meant is “ecclesial”). To my mind, evangelicalism is not in whole or in part a church; it is a movement of like-minded Christians who come out of a variety of church traditions. As such, the later concerns about “the Church” I don’t find germane to this essay.
Thus I am not trying to locate “the church” but only us as individuals and as members of one sub-movement or another at Golgotha. Given the point of the piece, the Cross—vs. the Ascension, Pentecost, and so forth—has to be at the center of the piece because I’m trying to draw out a Lutheran/Barthian paradox that right now we evangelicals stand on the razor-edge of both judgment and grace.
In some ways this is, as noted, “only the starting point” but Matthew’s inclusion of the word “only” (perhaps inadvertently) suggests one problem I’m trying to address—grace as assumption, an “of course,” a given, a mere prolemgomena, something we can acknowledge and move on from to get to more substantive matters. If we do not grasp that this “starting point” is also the middle point as well as the end point—the “impossible possibility,” a supernatural miracle which leaves us dumb struck and in awe—well, all the pnuemetological character of the faith will become nothing but abstract mysticism.
As for the supposed “obligation” to attend to the “pragmatic aspect” in future issues: since I’m talking about grace, I am implying faith, and in implying faith, I am implying obedience. Instead of “acquiescing to the problematic methodology” I am critiquing, it may be that I am trying to follow the biblical teaching that indeed there is no faith without works. The issue is not the horizontal as such; it is the idolatry of the horizontal.
In fact, there is no evangelicalism without the horizontal: evangelicalism is a movement of like-minded pietistic activists. We have never left our respective rooms and gathered in the “mere Christian” hallway (to use the image of C.S. Lewis) to merely worship and bask in God’s grace—but always to do something. We simply cannot not talk about the horizontal. The horizontal is the movement’s charism. But it becomes “empty works,” idolatry, “works righteousness,” and even Pelagianism if Christ-centered grace does not precede, sustain, and conclude its activism.
This Christocentricism must be a regular feature in our life together. And so the closing admonition is a good one—as is the larger theological vision of the Ascended Christ and the role of the Holy Spirit. Our activism, our works, our transforming work and our transformation, should point like John the Baptist in Grunewald’Crucifixion, to Christ.
Does this make sense, or have I missed some crucial point?
Thanks for the kind words, and the clarification. They are both much appreciated.
I’m still working through many of these issues, and you’re much further down the road theologically than I am. I really appreciate the clarification that your not concerned with ecclesiology in your essay. I misread you on that, and I apologize.
In fact, thank you for the gracious smack-down. It’s not often that I read a critique of something that I write and find myself nodding in agreement as much as I did here.
That said, while I was clearly interpreting “evangelical” in such a way that it had ecclesial connotations (under the mistaken notion that ‘ecclesial’ and ‘ecclesiastical’ could be used interchangeably), I wonder whether the fact that you used it strictly of individuals is at the core of the problem you are identifying. Grace must be experienced and articulated in an ecclesial context if it is going to maintain its vitality and evangelicals are going to avoid the traps that you identify. But you hint at that when you discuss the preached Word and our inductive Bible studies, which is (perhaps) the source for my misreading.
Additionally, I still have a few worries about where we stand when we look at the cross, even as individuals. In the Episcoaplian liturgy of Holy Week, for instance, they extinguish the Christ candle on Good Friday so that we can identify with the disciples. I think that practice is problematic, as the subsequent reality of the Resurrection and Pentecost definitively change the way we look at Christ. We can’t stand at Golgotha, at least not the Golgotha represented in Grunewald, as the only means we have of accessing the death of Jesus is in and through the resurrection power of the Spirit.
Our Christocentrism, then, needs to be of a different sort than Luther or Barth’s (or the medieval Catholics). It needs to be pneumatologically powered, a point which while present in Luther and Barth, seems to often get pushed to the background (at least in my understanding). Calvin and Wesley are much better on this issue, I think.
I think, though, that there’s probably not much real disagreement here except on matters of presentation. But those matters…matter. :)
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