Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Reforming the Evangelical Conscience” first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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Reforming the Evangelical Conscience
The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s
reviewed by Hans Boersma
Taking his cue from Carl Henry’s 1947 The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Evangelical scholar J. Daryl Charles sets out in The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism to inject a moral corrective into the life of Evangelicalism. The author’s passion makes clear that he regards the current situation no less desperate than the lack of social concern Evangelicals faced in the 1940s. Where Henry worried about fundamentalism being reduced to a “tolerated cult status,” Charles warns that Evangelicals are in danger of devolving into a “large sect” that is irrelevant to the purposes of God and the needs of culture.
A number of factors have contributed to the decline of Evangelical ethics. Drawing on the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), Charles laments the current alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which, he argues, may well lead to totalitarianism and has already led to a loss of character. The sentimentalism that has elevated tolerance to the ultimate norm is no longer capable of recognizing that to tolerate intrusions of evil onto the public square is a vice: “The strongest advocates of tolerance insist on the idea that the public square is morally neutral. But, of course, as we know, there is no such thing as neutrality, just as we know that those voices screaming the loudest for neutrality are not neutral themselves.”
Furthermore, Evangelicals have bought into the “therapeutic model,” in which subjective feelings consistently trump concern for theology and truth. Appealing to Paul Vitz, Charles argues that therapists have usurped the role of the clergy, so that Americans have effectively installed a new priesthood. Along with this, a biological determinism has eroded Americans’ sense of accountability and responsibility. If genetic makeup determines human behavior, it is impossible to make moral judgments about criminal activity. On this view, “ethics reduces purely to biology and neuroscience. Murder? Well, blame it on the knife.”
Some Evangelicals, moreover, have drunk deeply from the anti-intellectual well of pietism, which combines a distrust of learning with a stress on subjective experience. A final contributing factor, insists Charles, is the Evangelical knee-jerk reaction to anything that is vaguely reminiscent of works-righteousness. Luther’s distrust of the books of James, Jude, and 2 Peter has had the effect of separating theology and ethics, with Evangelicals focusing on the former at the expense of the latter. “Authentic faith,” insists Charles, “must be demonstrated, active and ‘completed’, which is to say, evidenced by attendant works; otherwise, it is not true faith at all.”
As part of his diagnosis of the problems, Charles outlines a number of biblical polarities or paradoxes. In each case, he sees us running into problems when we choose either side of a polarity over the other: We need to affirm both divine transcendence and condescension, holiness and accommodation, justice and mercy, law and grace, truth and love, human dignity and depravity, tolerance and absolutism, freedom and responsibility. To play one against the other is to run into serious theological—and consequently also ethical—problems.
Charles does more, however, than present a lament on the current state of Evangelicalism. His book contains a number of emphases that combine into a medicinal potion meant to restore Evangelicalism’s vibrancy. The first of these is a return to natural law. He considers the eclipse of natural-law thinking a result of the Enlightenment. Without a return to natural law, argues Charles, it is impossible “to equip the church effectively in terms of its cultural mandate.” He appeals to Carl Braaten and argues that ecumenical dialogue on the place of natural law can assist us in countering the deconstruction of the “classical model and legal principles on which Western culture is founded.” Charles also presents a carefully constructed explication of Acts 17:22–31 in defence of his plea for natural law.
A second emphasis is the Reformed understanding of the relationship between law and grace. Taking Matthew 5:17–20 as his launchpad, Charles sends missiles into the dispensational separation between law and grace and insists that the law was God’s gracious gift; that in neither the Old nor the New Testament was it something by which people could earn their own salvation; that the moral law consists of eternal and timeless principles; that the need to do good works continues to be important in the New Testament; and that the Sermon on the Mount presents a private ethic, not a public policy.
In short, Charles wants us to reaffirm the significance of the law as the expression of God’s will for our lives: “Contemporary Protestants have tended to underestimate greatly the value and role of law within the wider scope of divine revelation. The early Christians, by contrast, traced their ethical teaching back to revelation contained in the Torah—a source and ethical standard reiterated by the prophets.”
Closely connected to the place of the law is Charles’s final emphasis: the need for a recovery of virtue. Here the author returns to the topic of his doctoral dissertation: He discusses the catalogue of virtues in 2 Peter 1:5–7 and presents an unapologetic warning that “moral scepticism and cynicism cause one actually to loathe and turn from what was formerly embraced.” While one might argue that this recovery of virtue begins in the family, Charles makes the case that Christian liberal arts colleges and universities have a unique role to play. In his last chapter, he makes numerous practical suggestions as to what kind of readings might inform a university course centered on the twin pillars of a Christian worldview and interdisciplinarity. Christian ethics and character formation should be front and center in such courses, insists Charles, who observes that while Christian colleges tend to ignore moral education in the curriculum, they ironically spell out lengthy behavioral stipulations and prohibitions for students and faculty.
Charles is convinced that his medicinal potion will only work if Evangelicals do something about their amnesia and come to a genuine appreciation of history and the Great Tradition. Quoting D. H. Williams’s recent book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, at some length, Charles makes the point that Evangelicals need to appropriate not just their own past, but also the formative apostolic and patristic eras: “Only by means of persistence and creative energy that [is] anchored in an abiding tradition can we faithfully transmit the Christian deposit to the next generation.”
It is illustrative of the strength of this book that it continually raises questions in the reader’s mind. In this review, I have chosen to focus on two of them. The first concerns the author’s understanding of the place of the law in the New Testament. Charles’s elaborate presentation of Matthew 5, although carefully argued, leaves me unconvinced. I suspect that this has to do not only with exegetical questions surrounding the Sermon on the Mount, but more broadly with Charles’s attempt to defend a Reformed understanding of the law as a counter to the Lutheran and dispensational emphasis on discontinuity.
I was surprised not to find any discussion on what has become known as the “new perspective” on Paul. Names like E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright are notably absent from the book’s index. These authors underscore Paul’s appreciation for the Old Testament and the Torah as a divine gift of grace and as life-giving in character, which would also fit with Charles’s insistence that righteousness and good works are neither optional nor limited to the period of the Old Testament. Most important, perhaps, taking the new perspective into account would give Charles additional tools for arguing in favor of a realignment that would see Evangelicals and Catholics come together on soterio-logical issues.
To be sure, the incorporation of the new perspective on Paul would necessitate a reappraisal of some of the emphases that are dear to Charles, such as his plea for the continuation of the role of the law (though there is no unanimity on this score among the proponents of the new perspective) and his argument that mercy can never remove the requirements of justice and that forgiveness doesn’t deny the need for punishment. Tied into this, of course, is the Calvinist understanding of penal substitutionary atonement, where justice and mercy, punishment and forgiveness, are viewed as coming together in Christ. I would want to nudge Charles and ask him to consider viewing mercy and forgiveness as forms of justice, so that punishment and retribution, while they have their place, can take on a less prominent role.
My second question concerns the viability of the Reformation model of the relationship between faith and works. Charles rightly insists that works are essential to the Christian life and that Evangelicalism has tended to ignore this. I am less than convinced, however, that a reassertion of the traditional Reformed position on justification will do. Charles repeatedly makes the point that he is not advocating works-righteousness in the sense that we can earn our own salvation. I suspect that he is making these comments in the direction of Evangelicals who are suspicious of his emphasis on works. And it is probably judicious to make clear that we don’t earn a place of favor with God. But this begs the question, of course: Who exactly is arguing that we can earn our own salvation? As Charles is well aware, this is not the official position of the Catholic Church. It would have been good, especially for suspicious Protestants, if he had made clear that—regardless of differences in definition as to what exactly “justification” means—there is a great deal of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals on the issue of faith and works.
Again, I believe that the new perspective on St. Paul would have been helpful here. If the entire faith-works antinomy in the Pauline letters is largely a figment of our imagination, and if the real issue in these letters is that of church boundaries and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, then we don’t need to return to Calvin for an appreciation of the virtuous life (whatever positive things Calvin undoubtedly said about this).
Calvin, after all, insisted just as vehemently that justification was by faith instead of by works and that works were the mere evidence of faith. In true Reformed fashion, Charles likewise insists repeatedly that “ethics validates authentic Christian faith.” This in itself may already be a healthy antidote to Evangelicalism’s neglect of morality. But to refer to the moral life as only “validating” or “evidencing” the faith that justifies would still be to separate faith and works. My question for Charles is whether that is indeed what he wants to do. Would it not be possible to understand faith as already constituting the beginning of obedience? Isn’t faith the first of the Petrine list of virtues (2 Pet. 1:5) and as such included in the obedient virtuous life of Christians? All of this would be in line with much of Charles’s own thinking and would contribute further to his desire to bring Evangelicals and Catholics to the same page. What is more, because of some of the insights of the new perspective on Paul, it is the very insistence of Evangelicals that we mine the scriptural understanding of justification that gives the continuing impetus for such a re-evaluation. Evangelicals could hardly ask for more.
Hans Boersma is Associate Professor of Religious and Worldview Studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, where he has taught since 1999 after serving as a pastor for many years. His essays have appeared in such journals as Modern Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and Theology Today. He has written two books on Richard Baxter, and his Hospitality, Violence, and the Cross: Contemporary Explorations in Atonement Theology is forthcoming from Baker Academic.
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