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Is Evangelical Universalism an Oxymoron? Part 02

This is the second part of a series which evaluates the compatibility between evangelicalism and universalism. In the previous part we looked at the historic use of the word ‘evangelism.’ In this part a working definition conversant with usage today is suggested for the purpose of evaluation.

WARNING: This paper was part of the requirements of a Masters of Theology. It contains some terms that are more difficult than are usually permitted on this blog.

Towards a Definition for Today’s ‘Evangelicalism’

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), which has the same doctrinal statement as the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), sets forth their doctrinal basis succinctly. It is an affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity and the inspiration of Scripture in its entirety entailing inerrancy in the autographs.[1] For clarification on Inerrancy the society refers to the intent and meaning of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy[2] (1978) and states it rests upon the absolute trustworthiness of God and Scripture’s testimony to itself. . . . We reject approaches to Scripture that deny that biblical truth claims are grounded in reality.’[3]

The Lausanne Movement uses its own Lausanne Covenant[4] (1974) and its companion ‘The Manilla Manifesto’,[5] (1989) to assess what ‘evangelicals’ believe. It was formulated at the first International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, which was organised with the cooperation of Billy Graham. It lists seven major areas, including ‘the authority of Scripture; the nature of evangelism; Christian social responsibility; the costliness and urgency of world mission; the problems in culture; and spiritual warfare.’[6]

The two lengthy statements have much overlap, and are comprehensive both theologically and practically. It proclaims a steadfastly compelling message rather than an impelling message; drawn forward by the love of God rather than pushed forward by the wrath of God. It is worth noting here that the urgency therein strongly suggests those beliefs are antithetical to the ‘evangelical universalist’ proposal of Robin Parry. We shall examine this proposal in a later section.

After explicitly excluding religious pluralism and stopping short in excluding inclusivism, The Lausanne Covenant directly addresses the possibility of universalism.

Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. [emphasis mine][7]

However, though the statements that immediately follow at first appear to exclude universalism, a closer reading reveals it stops short of excluding the possibility of universalism.[8] There is therefore much that hangs upon the word ‘eternal’ above.

In discussing the importance of ‘evangelicalism’ as a term in politics Wheaton professor Amy Black notes the ‘textbook’ theological commitments as: the Bible as authoritative, the importance of the story of Jesus as the Messiah, the deity and humanity of Christ and the centrality of his life, death and resurrection. She adds her own distinctives, namely; the personal and individual nature of salvation, that there is only one source of religious truth and therefore exclusivity in salvation, and the emphasis on telling others to spread the news and make converts.[9]

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has seven affirmations in their minimal Statement of Faith, the last on the Resurrection: the lost are raised ‘unto the resurrection of damnation.’[10] This gives a strong emphasis to the judgment of God, yet is not necessarily inconsistent with Parry’s universalism. The interesting thing however is the organisation’s standards for membership. As well as ‘embracing’ only those whose identity and vocation are rooted in historic biblical Christianity, they also ‘celebrate’ diverse practices and theological emphases ‘consistent with the WEA Statement of Faith, recognising the existing dynamic tension between undeniable unity and marvellous diversity.’[11]

The quadrilateral of David Bebbington identifies common hallmarks of evangelicalism: activism, conversionism, biblicism and crucicentricism. Activism is the term used to describe the philanthropic urge that manifests itself not only in the ‘quest for souls’ but also in socio-political causes. Simply stated, it is ‘the expression of the gospel in effort’.[12] Conversionism is the term used to explain the emphasis evangelicals place on the need for an inner transformation and a changed life. Biblicism expresses a ‘particular regard for the Bible’ as the authoritative source for doctrine. Crucicentricism is the emphasis on ‘the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.’[13]

It is beneficial to pay close attention to Bebbington’s quadrilateral, since it is so widely utilised. Praised for its brevity and clarity, it is not intended as a definition for today, listing prescriptive essentials. Rather it is a descriptive list of qualities arrived at inductively through historical survey for Bebbington’s historiographic purpose. He identifies these attributes as a ‘common core that has remained remarkably constant throughout the centuries.’[14] Mark Noll clarifies, ‘[t]hese evangelical traits have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians. But they do serve to identify a large family of churches and religious enterprises.’[15]

Although Bebbington’s quadrilateral is not formulated to demarcate who is and is not an evangelical today, it is interesting to note that when used as a prescriptive definition, it represents a centred set model of theology.[16] Such a scheme is in keeping with Mohler’s distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

One would also be forgiven for thinking from the minimal descriptions above that are usually given, that the four emphasises are divided into half experiential or practical concerns, and the other half theological. This however is a mistake. Bebbington describes each core conviction with detail that underscores the theological emphases within activism and conversionism. For activism he quotes Hannah More (1745-1833) who wrote, ‘[a]ction is the life of virtue . . . and the world is the theatre of action.’[17] The gospel was good news and good news must be shared. To fail to do so was to fail in the Lord’s Great Commission. Bebbington also clarifies ‘[c]onversionism was bound up with major theological convictions.’[18] These include justification by faith alone and assurance of salvation.

When it comes to biblicism, Bebbington gives little more than the minimal description of ‘a particular regard for the Bible.’ He says this is based on the belief that all spiritual truth can be found there. He does however note the agreement that all generations of evangelicals agree on the inspiration of the Bible, but that ‘[w]hen it came to determining the implications of inspiration, however, there were notable divergences.’[19] These divergences were on views such as verbal inspiration, inerrancy and the insistence on literal interpretations.[20] Given the breadth of these divergences, it is not expected any definition that encompasses the broadest range of evangelicals would make the determination that extra-biblical doctrines are unacceptable.

Most important to take note of are the doctrines Robin Parry calls crucial for Christianity and identifies evangelical essentials. These are; the Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, the return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.[21] It is interesting that Parry does not list some type of commitment to Scripture, even though the context does not give us cause to regard list of essentials as exhaustive or the omission as deliberate.

In these examples above of popular definitions and institutions of evangelicals there emerges a common core of theological beliefs. I therefore propose the following definition of ‘evangelicalism’ today, which is a minimal theological description to ensure it is immediately recognisable to the broadest range of evangelicals possible, without compromising the historical continuity of how the term has been understood. Evangelicalism is that transdenominational and transnational movement committed to the Scripture as the source and norming norm for all theological beliefs, the Triune God, the centrality of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross, and justification by faith alone. Evangelicals show their commitment to these beliefs with a transformed life and certain practices, such as worshipping together, evangelism and the advocacy of social justice.

Footnotes:

  1. ‘The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.’ See “ETS Constitution,” n.p. The Evangelical Theological Society [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.etsjets.org/about/constitution#A3
  2. “The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978),” 7 pages. The Evangelical Theological Society [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.etsjets.org/files/documents/Chicago_Statement.pdf
  3. “Membership Requirement,” n.p. The Evangelical Theological Society [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.etsjets.org/about/membership_requirements
  4. “The Lausanne Covenant,” n.p. The Lausanne Movement [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.lausanne.org/covenant
  5. “The Manilla Manifesto,” n.p. The Lausanne Movement [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.lausanne.org/manila-1989/manila-manifesto.html
  6. “Statement of Faith,” n.p. The Lausanne Movement [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.lausanne.org/about/statement-of-faith.html
  7. See “The Lausanne Covenant,” n.p. The Lausanne Movement [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.lausanne.org/covenant
  8. ‘To proclaim Jesus as “the Saviour of the world” is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God’s love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith. Jesus Christ has been exalted above every other name; we long for the day when every knee shall bow to him and every tongue shall confess him Lord.’ Ibid. It is possible that the intended implication is exclusion of universalism. I maintain however that ‘not to affirm’ is not the same as a denial, thus universal salvation is consistent with the Lausanne Covenant.
  9. ‘Evangelical Christians are going to be much more, I think, in unison telling you that Christianity is the truth, and it is the way to eternal life, and it’s not one of multiple options. So if you believe Christianity is truth by definition, from an evangelical perspective, it means that other understandings of the divine are false.’ Amy Black, “Interview Amy Black,” n.p. The Jesus Factor [cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/interviews/black.html#ixzz1QYfDtFof.
  10. “Statement of Faith,” n.p. World Evangelical Alliance [cited 12 July 2011]. Online: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/aboutwea/statementoffaith.htm
  11. “Members,” n.p. World Evangelical Alliance [cited 12 July 2011]. Online: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/members/
  12. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 3.
  13. ‘To make anything other than the cross the fulcrum of a theological system was to take a step away from Evangelicalism.’ Ibid., 15.
  14. Ibid., 4.
  15. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 11.
  16. Paul G. Heibert, “Sets and Structures: A Study of Church Patterns,” in New Horizons in World Mission: Evangelicals and the Christian Mission in the 1980s: Papers and Responses Prepared for the Consultation on Theology and Mission, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, School of World Mission and Evangelism, (ed. David J. Hesselgrave; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 217-27, 237. See also Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 48; “Does Evangelical Theology have a Future?” Christianity Today (9 February 1998): 40-646; Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
  17. Quoted in Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 12.
  18. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 6.
  19. Ibid., 13.
  20. It was the overriding aim of early evangelicals to encourage the devotional use Scripture rather than develop a doctrine of Scripture, but the later Evangelicals disputes over disputes over this doctrine almost caused a schism in the 1920’s. See Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 14.
  21. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2006), 6.
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