Evangelicalism on the Slippery Slope: Part 2 of The Context of the Excalibur Affair
Evangelical Christianity in the United States has evolved in my lifetime, emerging from or alongside of what had been called “Fundamentalism” in the early twentieth century. By mid-century it had become a term that described many Protestant denominations and various movements within denominations that were not “evangelical” in their core identity. One might say it was an authentic ecumenical movement organized around shared theological affirmations. Seen from the perspective of American culture, though, evangelicalism was lacking in sophistication and lagging behind the curve as modernity was transforming American society. Evangelicals were a drag on cultural developments for the reason that they held to long-standing traditions and more literal religious beliefs. That perception has changed over the past sixty years as Evangelicals in America have shown more sophistication and been able better to integrate into American life. This trend is not without its dangers.
One of the great discoveries of the twentieth century was “culture.” The word was not new; it simply took on a new and useful meaning that bent it toward requiring recognition of differences among peoples and their ways of living. Previously, culture operated in the realm of the intentional shaping of living things—plants, animals, humans. This original concept of culture derived (indirectly) from God’s mandate to Adam and Eve to be underlords or stewards of the created order. Thus we have agriculture, horticulture and domestication and intentional breeding of many of the animals. In this vein, for humans to be cultured was to be developed (including by the self) to understand, appreciate, and enter in to the good and valuable things of life. More than a century ago anthropology borrowed the term to describe the ways of living of various peoples on the face of the earth arising out of their material conditions and shared imaginations. As anthropology came to be one of the stellar academic disciplines of the mid-twentieth century, the academic world conspired to make a fetish of “culture” (pun intended). Thus the concept of “culture” came to dominate the consciousness of the West in the latter part of the twentieth century the way that “society” had in the previous decades.
Evangelicals have absorbed—uncritically—current values, meanings, and applications that this concept of culture has required of us. The more this concept of culture is absorbed into human consciousness, the more it becomes evident that there are no absolute values, only culturally determined means and ends in human life. As culture relativized human endeavors, it also left humans with a single identity—that of one’s supposed culture. This larger issue of how culture came to dominate our times and shape current values should be examined in depth but here I wish to apply it to one particular habit that Evangelicals have developed over the past decades: the application of cultural relativism to the interpretation of Scripture. The hermeneutical principle that is often employed goes something like this: “We must separate the cultural assumptions and practices of the times reflected in a particular passage of Scripture from the essential Word of God.” This principle should not be dismissed or ignored! But it is often employed in situations where modern sensibilities find a particular scriptural injunction disagreeable. In 2019 many Evangelicals have found much more of the Old and New Testaments to be in tension with their values and practices than Evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century.
This is where Excalibur comes into the picture. The contributors to the issue that came out in February of 2018 appeared to me to be inviting members of an Evangelical Christian community to consider some of the big issues of our time by looking carefully at Scripture and working at clarifying how we should understand each of them and act on that stance. Granted, a person might hear strong judgments made by the contributors and another person might be put off by the contributors’ identity as conservatives. But if there are two signature elements of the American Evangelical tradition: they are the issuing of clear strong judgments, usually based on interpretations of Scripture, and a strain of conservatism (not necessarily political).
Remember that Solzhenitsyn informed his Harvard audience at the outset that many of them would find his address not to be so much the truth they want to hear but a bitter truth that they need to hear. The modern world finds more and more of the truth that comes from the God who made them hard if not impossible to digest. What is most alarming from a Christian perspective is that Evangelicals are likewise finding the truth that comes from the God who made them to be hard to digest. One reason is that all too easily they determine that, when current “cultural values” conflict with scriptural injunctions, the latter most likely reflect cultural practices of biblical times and are not binding in our enlightened, progressive age.
In the twentieth century—especially the first half—Evangelicals tended to insulate themselves from the society at large. It was possible to live apart from general cultural influences because mass media had a much more limited effect on communities that chose to live apart. Evangelicals, like other subcultures that chose to live apart, could do so. But that possibility was in the process of being reduced by the twin forces of media proliferation and higher education as the century unfolded. With respect to higher education, more Evangelicals sought a college education with each decade. Many were inclined to seek it in Evangelical institutions but others went to private and state-supported institutions. Thus the rise of Evangelical parachurch campus ministries like Intervarsity and Campus Crusade dedicated to both nurture believers and bring the gospel into such institutions.
Traditional Evangelical institutions of higher learning, mostly Bible colleges and four-year liberal arts colleges saw considerable growth and had to respond by recruiting faculty who came largely from graduate programs that do not see the disciplines of knowledge arising from a creational theological perspective. And fewer had the opportunity to learn and study Scripture in depth. So, having been trained in a discipline in which almost all of the framework and most of the premises derive from the spirit of the age and contemporary ideologies, it is no wonder that many faculty arrive at an institution with an unconscious double-mindedness. One side of the mind is committed to the Christian faith but the other is constructed with elements of contemporary intellectual and cultural values and premises that also become commitments to which they feel bound. Fidelity to the latter often predisposes a person to have to employ the cultural relativity hermeneutic when Scripture and current cultural values seem to conflict. In these circumstances, prophets become necessary to bring about clarity, to separate the spirit of the age from the Word of God.
One of the themes of Mark Noll’s well-known The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind written twenty-five years ago is that the Evangelical mind is more predisposed to and better at absorption of ideas than critiquing and shaping them. As Noll points out in the book, Evangelicals in the early and mid-twentieth century came to adopt a nineteenth century view of science, particularly an inductive method marshaling particular facts into general principles and explanations. This positivism tended to characterize both a hermeneutical approach to Scripture as well as arguments about how to approach applications of Christian teaching to practical matters of life. I would argue that Noll’s observation about the tendency of the Evangelical mind to absorb continued through the twentieth century into our own but exchanged positivism for the primacy of culture in value determination and a ready use of cultural relativism as an explanation for why a passage of Scripture might not be applicable in our time.
Thus evangelical colleges and universities find themselves dealing with divisions within their respective communities—particularly among faculty members and administrators—that originate outside of the community of faith but where they feel that the current ideas and values generally embraced by elites in our society are as fundamental to their Christian commitments as the theological propositions that govern the community. These commitments derive from political, social and ideological sources and are easily fused with (and confused with) biblical and theological beliefs. In cases where Scripture might collide with a particular social or political tenet, the cultural relativist hermeneutic can be employed to lessen the cognitive dissonance. Those of us who consider ourselves Evangelicals find ourselves at a crucial historical moment. We must be willing to engage in the process of critiquing the Spirit of the Age that is competing with our loyalties to the Word of God—both the living Word and the written Word. This is particularly relevant to evangelical institutions of higher learning. In order to undertake such a critique, we must be willing to allow a pruning of our social, political and ideological commitments by means of a fresh investigation of the whole counsel of God found in the Old and New Testaments.