Wednesday, June 06, 2018

On Reformed Piety: Defining Evangelicalism (Part 2)

Defining Evangelicalism [cont'd]

The second pillar of the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Activism, seems to be something that does not actually distinguish Evangelicalism as a separate movement, but rather it is meant to emphasize one major focus of Evangelicalism. In that sense, it seems that Evangelicals of any kind are merely obeying the command of Scripture, which calls us to do good works (Eph. 2:10), at it states that "faith without works is dead" (c.f. Jas. 2:20). Also, Evangelicals note the Great Commission given for sharing of the Gospel in Acts 1:8, where we are all called to be a witness for Christ wherever we are, spreading the message of salvation to all and sundry. Thus, this pillar of the Bebbington Quadrilateral does not seem to be a particular distinctive of Evangelicalism, or does it?

We would all certainly agree that the Scriptures teach that good works are necessary for Christian living (not for salvation), and that a "faith" that works wickedness is not really faith. But in the translation of good intentions to its application to society, to what extent should the church be actively taking a stand on various social ills? Here we see how activism has shifted every so slightly the focus concerning good works. Historically, the teaching of good works and its application to society has always been rather specific. No doubt the largely agrarian nature of much of medieval and early modern European societies aided the direct application of Israel's civil laws to the context of their times. With the advent of the Industrial Age however, the rapid changes in society have made Israel's civil laws less applicable. As Evangelicalism began with the First Great Awakening, along with the revival came a renewed interest in dealing with the problems of society. Unfortunately, there is no obvious blueprint in Scripture for how that is to be done in a modern context. Christians were left with a text that seemed dated, and many did not really wrestle with how to derive sound general principles that are both biblical and applicable to their times. Instead, Christianity intellectual thought became focused on the "spiritual," while Enlightenment philosophy permeates all other fields.

Evangelical Activism thus become tied with expressing the biblical command to do good and to witness for the Gospel. (We will discuss the Gospel witness as we discuss the fourth pillar). And in this command to do good, the failure to adequately wrestle with all that is to be translated to the modern context has resulted in an Activism that is very much informed by the world and her ideas (Zeitgeist). Therefore, in the modern era, Evangelical Activism has been typically split into left-wing and right-wing movements, depending on which movement is currently in vogue among Evangelicals. In a politicized era like 21st century America, that means that Evangelical Activism becomes highly political, either on the right or on the left, as opposed to a faith that will only speak where the Scriptures speak and keep silent where the Scriptures are silent. Therefore, we have both the "Moral Majority" in late 20th century America (right), and the "Evangelical Left" of which Jim Wallies of Sojourners was one such prominent figures, both of them Evangelicals. And in the early 21st century, we have the nationalist Trump supporters on the "right" and the Social Justice Warriors and Critical Race Theorists on the Left.

Bebbington's pillar of Activism, in light of the social history of Evangelicalism, therefore needs to be modified. Bebbington had defined it as "a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission in the world." But in light of Evangelicalism's history, activism should be modified to be "a commitment to participate with God in doing good according to the world's current social notions of doing good, and to witness for God in a way that focuses on the spiritual alone." The latter point we will pick up again as we discuss the last 2 pillars of the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which are where the most obvious differences between Evangelicalism and the Reformed Church are.

[to be continued]

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