Evangelicalism Today: Crisis and Creeds

Part 1: The Crisis of Creedless Evangelicalism

For Part 2: Confessing Creeds and Evangelicalism LINK

“Evangelicalism” has become a fuzzy and amorphous word. Evangelicalism is associated with revival meetings where believers give more credence to the pronouncements of blessings by visiting ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ than to the plain but transforming teaching of the Bible. Preaching is as much about the good life of consumerism as it is about eternal life. Elsewhere, evangelicalism is seen to be a new manifestation of old-time fundamentalism which rejected advancement in science and associated faith with ignorance of modern knowledge. It is not surprising that many young evangelicals leave the movement when they go for higher studies. Some pastors who go for further theological training even lose confidence in the infallible authority and entire trustworthiness of the Bible after they imbibed the spirit of rationalism that is prevalent in the academy.

The foregoing episodes suggest that evangelicalism is facing a crisis. Some evangelicals may protest that such a judgment is an exaggeration, but there is no denial that doctrinal confusion is pervasive. The movement is reaping the consequence of years of neglect in systematic teaching of the fundamental tenets of faith. If evangelicals are to pledge allegiance to the Lordship of Christ rather than the Spirit of the Age, it is imperative for them to recover a robust and coherent faith founded on the Bible and the historic creeds.
Evangelicals must know their history
Many Christians today have no idea about the whence, whither and wherefore of the evangelical movement. Evangelicals should regain their historical identity since evangelicalism has a long history packed with many distinguished forebears. The Reformers and the Puritans laid the foundation for its doctrinal orthodoxy with striking slogans: sola scriptura (Scripture only) and sola fide (by faith only). The Pietists and the early Baptists stressed the need for personal saving faith and great preachers like George Whitefield were exemplars in the public proclamation of the Gospel. The Wesleyan movement highlighted the need for the conversion experience and social renewal. Evangelicals like William Wilberforce typify social activism that led to the abolishment of slavery and the enactment of new laws that protected children and workers in factories. It has been suggested that the social impact of holistic ministry of earlier Evangelicalism spared England from the disastrous revolutions that struck the rest of Europe in the 19th century.
Evangelicals must maintain integrity in their fundamental beliefs
The British historian David Bebbington suggests four distinctive aspects of Evangelicalism: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Such a broad framework allows for believers from different denominations to identify with Evangelicalism.

But early in the 20th century, Evangelicalism was forced to sharpen its theological identity because of its deadly struggle with theological liberalism. The following tenets of faith became the hallmarks of Evangelicalism in the 20th century:
•    The inspiration and authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and conduct
•    The deity and humanity of Christ, and his work of atonement on the Cross
•    The necessity of personal faith in Christ to receive salvation
•    The Lordship of the Holy Spirit  in conversion experience described as a spiritual “new birth”
•    Necessity of evangelism and importance of mission
•    The importance of Christian community for spiritual nourishment and growth in discipleship.

The defining articles of doctrine is usually kept to a minimum. However, one should not miss the intent of these central doctrines to keep the message of the Gospel at forefront and centre of the movement. Evangelicals who accept these articles of faith are found in all denominations, and are keen to emphasize that they are reviving the historic faith of the Church and the Bible.

It has been assumed that a minimal set of doctrines would suffice to maintain unity of faith by avoiding unnecessary doctrinal controversies. However, the chequered history of evangelicalism displays a series of fragmentation because of disputes over issues like spiritual gifts, social concerns and ecclesiastical authority. More disturbingly, some leading evangelical seminaries are reluctant to discipline scholars who question the infallible authority and entire trustworthiness of the Bible. It is ironic that these critical scholars are exempted from discipline because they claim to uphold the minimalist doctrinal statement of the institutions. It appears that a set of minimum articles of faith is inadequate to ensure doctrinal integrity in these evangelical seminaries.

Evangelicals must accept the Creedal Imperative
Evangelical churches are known for their programmatic activities which include dynamic pulpit preaching, cell groups, evangelism and social concerns. The shared activities are expected to foster close relationships between church members. But shared activities itself cannot be sustained unless the members are strongly bonded by a shared identity based on common understanding and mission.

The shared identity for Christians in biblical times was rested on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). The early church soon found its unity of faith threatened by heretics like the gnostics who feigned belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible. In reality these heretics were twisting scripture to suit their spiritual fancies when they rejected the incarnation of Christ and relied on esoteric knowledge of mysteries rather than the cross to gain salvation. Tertullian and Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD recommended a “Rule of faith” or canon of truth comprising a condensed summary of the key-points of the Christian revelation that would enable the early Christians to test and differentiate authentic Christian doctrine from heresies.

Irenaeus confirmed that the Rule of faith was guaranteed by an unbroken succession of bishops going back to the apostles themselves, and that this rule was universally acknowledged as authoritative for all Christians in the early church. The apostolic tradition of faith was already clearly formulated when the apostle Paul expected believers to confess their faith publicly, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom 10: 9-1), and exhorted the church to “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 1:13-14). It is significant the deposit of faith was transmitted in a pattern, hypotypōsin ( Ὑποτύπωσιν), a recognized form of sound beliefs.

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus testified that they were merely transmitting a set or pattern of teaching inherited from the apostles. Tertullian writes in, De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 13,

Now, as to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is that we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that he is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through his own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called his Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in divers forms by the patriarchs, ever heard in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of God the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, lived as Jesus Christ; thenceforth he preached a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was crucified, and rose again the third day: he was caught up into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father; he sent instead of himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; he will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no questions except those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics [emphasis added]. See, J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337 (SPCK 1987), p. 165.

 

Likewise, Irenaeus testifies,

For the Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the incarnate ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord and God and Saviour and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess to him, and that he should execute just judgement towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and came into a state of rebellion together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into the everlasting fire; but may, as an act of Grace, confer immortality on the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. See, J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337 (SPCK 1987), pp111-112.

 

Irenaeus confirms that there was universal acceptance of the Rule of faith,

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching, and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth… For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able to discourse at great length regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say little, diminish it. See, J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337 (SPCK 1987), pp. 112.

 

The testimonies of both Irenaeus and Tertullian refute the claims of recent critical historians that there was no universal confession of faith or orthodoxy in the early church. On the contrary, the Rule of faith was universally applied as a means to judge if any contemporary teaching was sound and acceptable as orthodox teaching.

The Rule of faith was then expressed in succinct creedal form, as in the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. More recent authoritative creeds or confessions may include the Lutheran Book of Concord, the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and the Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith.

It has been fashionable for some Christians to decry the creeds of the church on grounds that creeds are rigid, antiquated and irrelevant today.  On the contrary, the task of teaching and defending the fundamental tenets of faith in a sound pattern or creedal form has become more urgent than ever in contemporary pluralistic society, given the cacophony of competing truth claims outside the church and distortion of faith within the church. Church leaders are mindful of the pervasive spirit of anti-authoritarianism, but it is this spirit that precisely results in confusion and loss of belief among young Christians. As Paul noted, “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1Cor 14:8).

 

Perhaps, it is time for the evangelical movement to take seriously the historic creeds as a means to foster unity of faith essential for coherent mission.  That the task of articulating the truth embodied in the creeds in a fresh and relevant form in new contexts is an ongoing duty of the church goes without saying.

Continue with Part 2: Confessing Creeds and Renewing EvangelicalismLINK

One Comment

  1. Nelly van Kampen says:

    Thank you for this helpful and critical analysis. Maybe because so many Christians in Malaysia are first generation Christians (which, in itself, is a great blessing to see the church growing!) there is not much awareness that the church is a movement which has lasted for almost 2000 years and that we are part of a great tradition in which many treasures have been handed over to us. We could benefit so much from this creeds, from the saints that have gone before us. We are not the first to believe in Jesus! others have experienced Him in a marvelous way and we could learn from their wisdom and from what the Holy Spirit has taught them. It our task to ‘translate’ the truth embodied in the creeds in a way that is relevant to the Malaysian context, as you say in your last sentence.