My theological shifts and refinements in the past few years lead me to ask whether I’d still call myself an evangelical Christian in the current climate.
For Evangelical Theology 1833–1856, written as a response to 19c. Tractarianism and its heirs, Peter Toon proposes this definition:
An Evangelical Anglican has a strong attachment to the Protestantism of the national Church with its Articles of Religion and Prayer Book. He believes that the Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and conduct and is to be read individually and in the home as well as in church. He emphasises the doctrine of justification by faith but with good works and a specific (holy) life-style as the proof of true faith. He claims to enjoy a personal relationship with God through Christ, the origins of which are usually traced not to sacramental grace but to a conversion experience. And he sees the primary task of the Church in terms of evangelism or missions and so emphasises preaching at home and abroad.
I’m unabashedly Protestant; I believe the Bible’s the supreme authority in the Church, so to be desired and so to be trained for among the laity that it’s read individually and in the home; I emphasize justification by faith over against any notions that curve us inward upon ourselves in a quest for salvation from within; I enjoy a personal relationship with Christ in the Cross, one that the Father initiates in the election of his people and the Holy Ghost administers covenantally in the sacraments; evangelism is crucial for mankind to know the Lord, but I see it sometimes given disproportionate influence that sometimes sacrifices the integrity of the gospel message.
The need for individual faith I should hardly deny. No one can be saved by another’s faith without a faith of his own. Even I, every morning that I don’t forget, get up from bed and stand up and say the Apostles’ Creed in declaration of my allegiance to the faith (without placing my self before who God is and what he’s done), then kneel for the Lord’s Prayer to ask the grace that I need. More important than my mental state, however, is what God has done in the sacraments to make me one of his own.
What bothers me about Evangelicalism – well, one thing that does – is the emphasis on individual experience, especially a conversion experience, which for many becomes the real place to look for salvation, especially where Arminian theology reigns supreme. ‘In common parlance,’ says Philip J. Lee in Against the Protestant Gnostics, ‘it is accepted that a born again Christian is a Protestant who has had an experience of some sort and who takes his or her religion seriously, unlike the ordinary folk who have merely been baptized, attend Sunday services and call themselves Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans or Baptists’ (164). As Lee argues, this emphasis is elitist and breeds no good.
So great is this puritan or pietistic tendency, and so pernicious, that I’ve heard some people deride expository preaching: they prefer that preachers speak instead on their experience. Here, at this reduction of the faith to my experience and your experience, is where I can say that evangelicals and liberals are the same at root: both become voluntary parties where everyone, even in preaching and evangelism, is sharing his experience or his thoughts on holy Scripture. God forbid that preaching be so gelded! The ground of preaching is the objective and universal truth of the gospel, not the mystical experiences of any man: even Paul boasts not about his (admittedly mystical) third-heaven experience but about his weakness, by which he can boast about Christ crucified.
If this is what makes an evangelical Christian, let me not be numbered in that number. But if it’s possible truly to combine Evangelicalism with respect for sacramental grace as a work of the Holy Ghost, and with a high doctrine of the Church as the one Catholic and Apostolic Body of Christ, whose history is our heritage, maybe we still have something going.
‘We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.’