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The Bottoming Out of the American Evangelical Church

October 5th, 2021 | 12 min read

By Hannah Nation

The long shadow of 2016 continues to stretch over the church. I recently attended a social event held outdoors. Masking was the most immediately visible demarcation of political lines among a large group of professing Christians; but behind the masks, every debate over race, gender, the police, scripture, ecclesiology, and authority that I’ve witnessed this group of people argue over came to mind. These were the people I thought of when I read Graham and Flowers “The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism,” and here we still were, stumbling through the social fallout of what many now recognize as a reshuffling of American evangelicalism.

I’ve been reading and learning a lot in the last five years. Who hasn’t been? But two things I’ve read this summer have helped me to start to land the plane. The first was Graham and Flowers’ aforementioned article. Though not the first piece I’ve read trying to systemize the fracturing of American evangelicalism, it was the first I agreed with. Whereas others have centered the problems consuming the white American church or have reduced the question purely to that of power dynamics, Graham and Flowers created categories that truly seem to span the breadth of American evangelicalism in all its various ethnic, racial, and social forms. I remain deeply grateful for its assistance in understanding the problems besetting us.

The second important read of my summer, though, has given me a way to move beyond understanding to actually begin responding. And thankfully, the response it has led me to is compassion.

This summer I read Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross and it led me to one big realization: almost everything we are fighting over is a fight over our understanding and definition of the law. I’m sure someone else has also had this realization in recent years, and probably written about it, but if I were pope of the Western world for a day, the one act I would decree is putting Forde at the top of every pastor and pundit’s reading list.

I can’t think of one fight consuming the church today that is not about a correct understanding of God’s law. The law is nothing less or more than God’s manual for what humanity is supposed to be. It is God’s word to us, beautifully and precisely explaining what both human individuals and human societies ought to be. Even those outside the church live with the law in their hearts. As C.S. Lewis observed, “…it is no more possible to invent a new ethics than to place a new sun in the sky… New moralities can only be contractions or expansions of something already given.”

The #MeToo movement and the various responses to it are nothing more or less than an attempt by the world to re-examine what humanity sexuality and power ought to be. Black Lives Matter and debates surrounding reparations are only debates about what “the law” tells us concerning humanity’s communal relationships. Debates over Trump and evangelical voting priorities are debates over what the law tells us regarding our leaders. In every sphere, I hear people discussing these topics (and homosexuality, the pandemic, immigration, etc. etc. etc.) as problems with the church. But that’s not exactly right. These aren’t issues about the church per se; they are issues about the church’s understanding of the law. It’s an issue of the church’s understanding of how God has told his people to be, to exist, to live.

But the law cannot save.

The law is good. Scripture declares this loudly. We need to know how God created us to live. Understanding correctly how God tells us to live individually and with our neighbor is an important and vital part of the Christian undertaking.

But the law cannot save. It cannot save people. And it cannot save the church. For the last five years, we’ve been shouting at each other over definitions of the law, peddling a more correct understanding of the law as the answer to all of the church’s problems. But as Luther and Forde so astutely teach us, it is only tightening the law’s death grip on our hearts. No one can actually pursue any good because we are consumed with the task of defining and defending our righteousness.

Forde’s discourse unpacks Luther’s terms “theologian of glory” and “theologian of the cross.” These do not refer to theologians as we commonly conceive of them, but rather all people who reflect upon salvation and how to find it. The theologian of glory rests upon the law for her righteousness, whether conservative or liberal. Forde writes:

[The theology of glory] operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works. Of course our theologian of glory may well grant that we need the help of grace. The only dispute, usually, will be about the degree of grace needed. If we are “liberal,” we will opt for less grace and tend to define it as some kind of moral persuasion or spiritual encouragement. If we are more “conservative” and speak even of the depth of human sin, we will tend to escalate the degree of grace needed to the utmost. But the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power. It will always, in the end, hold out for some free will. Theology then becomes the business of making theological explanations attractive to the will.

As Forde argues, the question here is not about the problem of evil works, but rather the efficacy of good ones.

Forde describes humanity as addicted to the law, and like the addict, we are deluded. We resort to optimistic appeals and weak self-estimations to satisfy our addiction to self-justification. This is a global phenomenon, too, as a more recent, non-Western theologian, named Wang Yi has highlighted. He wrote, “We are addicted to declaring ourselves righteous, addicted to moral self-reliance, addicted to distinguishing ourselves by being good people. We are addicted to mediocre self-evaluation. Moralism makes us addicted to our own righteousness…”

In Forde’s discourse, the individual’s addiction to good works is the primary subject. But it doesn’t take much to extrapolate out to the societal level. All of the “isms” presented to us are simply human attempts to identify and deal with real brokenness. Capitalism is nothing more than an attempt to systemically address the corporate sin of humanity’s sloth and apathy. Feminism is nothing more than an attempt to systemically address the corporate sin of misogyny. The “isms” help Christians to see what is broken in the world; they help push us to deeper and better understandings of the law of God, how he intends humanity to exist. In this sense, the “isms” do not need to be feared by the thoughtful Christian. “Isms” are opportunities for the church to respond to what the world identifies as broken.

But we must recognize that there is also a danger with the “isms.” They are often beautiful, complex, meta-temptations for Christians who remain addicted to the law. They are societal level attempts to repair the world’s brokenness with good works. In the words of Forde:

The misuse of the wisdom of law is a matter of bondage. The sinner does not preside over this matter nor can the sinner make a free decision not to misuse the law and its wisdom… So we could not simply say that this or that “correct theology” or proper instruction will remedy the matter. It is rather the burden of this thesis that without the theology of the cross we misuse the best in the worst manner. That is, unless we see everything through suffering and the cross and are led thereby to speak the truth, unless we are “brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering,” we cannot but misuse and defile the gift of God in the worst way. Without the theology of the cross we will of necessity take credit for works ourselves and place trust in them.

Whether it be feminism, racism, nationalism, conservatism, (dare I say “reformed-ism”?) the American church today is treating the “isms” not as ways to understand what is broken according to God’s will, but rather as systems which will make the church and the world better. The “isms” have become our collective theologies of glory.

Like the addict, according to Forde, what we need is a “bottoming out.” We must let the law crush us and the cross kill us. Only after death can resurrection happen. Our churches cannot be brought back to life by pursuing the law. They can only be brought to life when they wake up to the truth that the law has been given a false throne in our houses of worship and only the gospel of death with the crucified Jesus can breathe life into souls. As Forde writes, “…humans have no active capacity to humble themselves but only a passive capacity. They can be humbled. Thus… humility is always something done to us. The instrument of this doing is the law and wrath, God’s ‘alien work,’ not our pious posturing. Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”

Graham and Flowers listed six factions forming within the evangelical church; apart from any factions which might end up denying orthodoxy entirely, the question which looms in my mind is where within any of our evangelical factions the theology of the cross is being demonstrated. I suspect, that in reality, within each faction, there are those who live as theologians of glory and those who live as theologians of the cross.

The way to maintain relationships across the divisions is not to look for common definitions of the law; it is to look for those who have the common experience of “bottoming out” in their lust for the law, who live common cruciform lives of repentance. As Forde writes,

So to die in this connection means to experience the very presence of death, to reach that point where the final intervention occurs, where one has ‘bottomed out.’ The theologian of glory finally is ‘frightened to death,’ if one may so speak. The terror is in the fact that the end of sin has come and the Old Adam and Eve can no longer survive. Then one is a candidate for being born anew. That is the gateway to being saved by the creative righteousness of God.

Can the gospel of the cross be found in our various factions? Could we agree that our efforts to better understand the law are only useful insofar as they lead us to die with Christ? According to Forde, this is what it looks like:

The righteousness that avails before God is a being claimed by the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is not like accomplishing something but like dying and coming to life. It is not like earning something but like falling in love. It is not the attainment of a long-sought goal, the arrival at the end of a process, but the beginning of something absolutely new, something never before heard of or entertained.

The first of Luther’s 95 theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The evidence of the law fulfilling its purpose is not Christians in churches in perfect agreement with each other about what the law consists of. The evidence of the law doing its work is Christians who acknowledge they are hopeless before the law, are struck dead by the humility of the cross, and are raised to life in Jesus, living lives of repentance. Any “ism” which reduces the free and frequent repentance of the believer individually and of the church corporately is a theology of glory. But where the saints are marked by entire lives of repentance, where churches are known for their corporate and public repentance, we can trust that the theology of the cross is at work.

Forde concludes by telling us that the law “simply cannot bring into being what it commands.” All the “isms” of the world can tell us what our problems are, but they cannot produce the holiness they desire. As so many people have begun to observe, shame cannot compel righteousness; in fact, it usually produces exactly the opposite. “…Grace, instead of demanding love, simply gives it unconditionally,” writes Forde, “It is simply, ‘I love you.’” The power to do good does not lie in all of the things we’ve been shouting about. The power to do good comes in the pronouncement that everything has already been done and therefore all that remains is God’s creative action in us.

Luther writes, “…the love of God that lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong.” The fruit of the Spirit working in the various factions listed by Graham and Flowers will not be better understandings of the law. It will be the love of God compelling each faction to love its enemies — those it sees as sinners and fools. If we are to agree with Luther, then the creative work of God in the lives of “social justice warriors” won’t necessarily be a change in the ethical principles to which they hold; it will be laying down their lives for the unvaccinated Texan pastor. Likewise, the creative work of God in the lives of the Trump supporters will be compassion and denial of self on behalf of the social media influencer deconstructing the faith of their childhood. For only the bottoming out in the face of the law as described by Forde can create the kind of repentant hearts that would cause someone to see themselves as so wretched that they could love those reprobates across the aisle.

This is why I now feel compassion. Not because I’ve been able to finally parse out the nuances of each side and determine which one correctly interprets God’s law. But rather, because I’ve come to feel the compassion I feel for the addict for the people of God.

In Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s protagonist researches addiction in lab mice in the hope of one day understanding her brother’s opioid overdose. She observes,

What’s the point? became the refrain for me as I went through the motions. One of my mice in particular brought those words out every time I observed him. He was hopelessly addicted to Ensure, pressing the lever so often that he’d developed a psychosomatic limp in anticipation of the random shocks. Still, he soldiered on, hobbling to that lever to press and press and press again. Soon he would be one of the mice I used in optogenetics, but not before I watched him repeat his doomed actions with the beautifully pure, deluded hope of an addict, the hope that says, This time will be different. This time I’ll make it out okay.

God’s people in America today are pressing that lever over and over and over again — believing that with just a little more understanding, we can get the Christian life right, get the church right, get our presence in the culture right. This time will be different. But we are to be pitied. Thankfully, the God we worship does not sit in heaven, observing our hopeless addiction like a scientist and a lab rat. No, he is already at work upon us, taking our bottomed-out souls and communities and beginning an act of redemptive life within us.

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