Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Francis and Fallwell: What is an "Evangelical"

With the "defection" (as an angry few would see it) of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to Roman Catholicism, and now most recently the passing of Jerry Fallwell, the founder of the religious right, everyone wants to know what "evangelical" means. Is Francis Beckwith an evangelical Catholic? Was Fallwell a fundamentalist evangelical?

"Jon," a commenter on a previous blog, asked a provocative question concerning the Evangelical Theological Society's statement on Beckwith's resignation from their society: What if someone wants to call himself an "evangelical Catholic"? Who has the right to prevent him? I was asked a similar question in an Evangelical / Liberal dialogue at United Seminary several weeks ago by: "Can I call myself an 'Evangelical Liberal'"? The answer is easy: "Of course you can. You can call yourself whatever you want."

If Wittgenstein (*now enticing his fans to my blog*) has taught us anything, it's that words have meaning in context. There's no single, transcendent meaning of words aloof from concrete, historical, social, ideological situations. Thus historical scholarship has disagreed on what, exactly, defines an "evangelical." In fact, there is not quite consensus on how to go about that definition: sociologically? theologically? ideologically? I'm not suggesting we're lost in a sea of relativism, and that anybody can legitimately call themselves whatever they want and expect affirmative nods in their direction. Rather, it is up to communities in historical contexts to shape definitions of themselves, as they engage and interact with others within and outside their communities of discourse and belonging. However, we cannot assume that communities will not shift in their use of and understanding of terms (history suggests otherwise) and thus in the extent to which persons may sense that they belong within that group. In other words, definitional labels are malleable.

So who gets to define the term evangelical? For one thing, evangelicals do. But who are they? Is it Carl F. H. Henry's clan only? Or, more broadly, Donald Bloesch's? Or does it include Francis Beckwith's? Regardless, whoever "they" are, they can't assume that everyone outside their camp will defer absolute right of way to them in constructing a definition. Like it or not, dialogue and engagement is necessary. The evangel is too compelling: lots of people want a piece.


Jon said...

Well said. If being an "evangelical" is open to one's own interpretation, is there any point to even have this discussion? Other then groups that have formal membership requirements (i,e, NAE, ETS), does the label have any "true" meaning? If descriptions cease to offer a description, are they still worth using? Perhaps this is a positive move within the Christian faith to dispense with agreed-upon labels that divide. Now, you can have a conversation with a "liberal" at lets say, Union Theological Seminary, and not have to spend hours defining what you are and what they are. Instead, time can be spent doing constructive theology growing out of points of agreement. Do you propose a "genrous orthodoxy" that negates the need for distinct theological labels?

Jon said...

Which one is you in the picture?

Kyle A. Roberts said...


I think you're on to something here. The softening of distinctions does allow for more creative, constructive dialogue and, dare I say more unity in the body of Christ? Gee...I wonder what Christ would think of that? But I still think descriptive lables are helpful and even necessary. What's important, though, is the concepts that lie behind the word and not necessarily the word itself.

The picture: The pretty one is not me.

Jon said...

What descriptive labels do you think are helpful and necessary?

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Any and all. Let's say I sit down to dinner with Brian MacClaren. He finds out I went to Trinity. Suddenly his antennae are up. I might introduce myself as a "post-conservative evangelical," aligning myself more with Vanhoozer than with Carson. He's no longer afraid I will squash his cheesecake. But, I still have to fill out the story, my narrative, before that phrase has much concrete meaning.

Kyle A. Roberts said...

oh yeah...he still might be afraid I will squash his cheesecake, but he's no longer worried I'll throw it at him.

Jon said...

So, the point is that the descriptions and labels must be agreed on, correct? Brian would need to understand what "post-conservative evangelical" means and know that you know what it means and believe that when you said it you knew that he knew what it meant...for the description to serve a real purpose, yes? So why mess around with that? Why not just sit down with Brian and begin immediately into the personal narrative and story? If you don't mention "Trinity" in the first place (label), you don't need to distance yourself from the Carsonian perspective.

Either way, at least take a bite out of the cheesecake.