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From the November, 2006
issue of Touchstone

 

Back & Forth to the Future by Wilfred M. McClay + S. M. Hutchens+ Russell D. Moore + Gillis J. Harp + D. G. Hart +David Mills

Back & Forth to the Future

A Critical Symposium on A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

Issued in the September issue of Christianity Today, A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future notes that today “the church is confronted by a host of master narratives that contradict and compete with the gospel,” and calls Evangelicals to “strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and the evangelical awakenings.”

The six sections of the Call’s “appeal to live the biblical narrative” describe the Church as “the continuation of the biblical narrative” and its worship as “telling and enacting God’s narrative,” with spiritual formation the “embodiment of God’s narrative.” Most begin with a general description of the Christian teaching and then a call to Evangelicals to embody it.

The Call was convened by Robert Webber and Philip Kenyon of Northern Seminary near Chicago, and had as theological editors Hans Boersma of Regent College, Howard Snyder of Asbury Theological Seminary, Kevin J. Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and D. H. Williams of Baylor University.

The text of the Call and more information about it can be found at www.ancientfutureworship.com.

Back and Forth to the Future:
A Critical Symposium on
A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

What Lies Behind by Wilfred M. McClay
Listen Closely by Russell D. Moore
A Gawdly Proposal by S. M. Hutchens
Born Again Free by D. G. Hart
Antiquity & Absence by Gillis Harp
A Call Too Vague by David Mills


What Lies Behind

by Wilfred M. McClay

Although in the end I come away less than enchanted by this Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, I see a number of encouraging features in it, and it would be unfair and ungenerous of me to fail to acknowledge them. Indeed, each of its principal points is more or less on target, at least in broad outline.

The Gospel account of the world should trump all others in the minds of Evangelical Christians. Evangelicals need to “take seriously” the Church as a visible institution, and be respectful of its sacramental life, of deep and rooted traditions such as the church calendar, and of creedal and confessional affirmations.

Public worship should not be an arid intellectual exercise, nor should it be an exercise in narcissistic individual therapy. Spirituality should be molded and guided by a rigorous traditional catechesis. And the Church should be willing to “recover its countercultural mission to the world.”

Absent a Word

Good observations all. What, one might ask, is there not to like?

Well, in the first place, there is a word that is never used in this document. It is conspicuous in its absence. I kept waiting for it to appear, and it never did. That word is authority. Yes, the Scriptures are here described as an “authoritative” record, but that is merely sending an adjective to do a noun’s work.

There is no locus of authority being proposed here. This omission is especially strange in light of the document’s expression of the “pressing” question: “Who gets to narrate the word?” This would seem to be precisely a question of authority. The document calls on Evangelicals to “restore the priority” of the biblical story in their lives, which the writers insist upon calling “God’s narrative.”

But who is to do the restoring? After all, the story does not tell itself (which is, of course, precisely one of the reasons literary scholars use the verb “narrate”). The history of the Church is a history of all the different, and sometimes violently conflicting, ways of telling the story. I have no doubt that both James Dobson and Stanley Hauerwas could each tell the story convincingly and faithfully. But I suspect their accounts would differ.

In short, there is no escaping from the need for structures of authority in the Church. This same aversion to authority is behind the condemnation of “propositions” as tending to be “reductive.” This is of course entirely true up to a point. But the great creeds the authors are so anxious to affirm are, in fact, more propositional than narrative in character.

One sometimes suspects that the authors are really pushing a variant on an old adage: “doctrine divides, but narrative unites.” If we can concentrate on “telling the story,” to the point that we completely inhabit it, the quarrels and conflicts of the past two millennia will simply evaporate. And isn’t it pretty to think so.

Also, what does it mean to “take seriously” the visible Church? Does it mean a Church that disciplines, rebukes, and even on occasion excommunicates? If not, then what? Does the talk about catechesis mean that Evangelicals will start requiring confirmands to have thoroughly learned, for example, the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism? Why are the authors so much more interested in vague appeals to the ancient Church than in their own Evangelical tradition’s more proximate fathers?

Of course, the very mention of the word father points to a profound problem in the whole undertaking: the problem of language. If we are to root ourselves in “God’s word as the story of the world,” it will make all the difference what words we use to describe what we are doing. In our choice of language we should try our very best to use God’s rather than ours.

A Text Avoided

The use of concepts like “narrative” and other such academic terms is not necessarily self-undermining, so long as it serves merely to aid and amplify. But when the concepts of “story” and “narrative” appear as frequently and centrally as they do in this document, one cannot help but conclude that they are being used as a way to evade questions about what is actually there, behind the story—about the actual referents of the Christian faith, the things that the story is about.

Nor is the language of “narrative” the vocabulary with which the biblical God narrates. There is no glimpse here—not a one—of the actual and authoritative language of Scripture as generations of Christian worshipers in North America have known it and experienced it and proclaimed it.

Arguably the single greatest strength of Evangelical Christianity is its reverence for the Word, its lively attention to the text, its loving embrace of the actual words and verses of Scripture. But we don’t get any of that here. Instead, we are being offered a boatload of stale seminary talk: the “story” of “Creation, Incarnation, and Re-creation,” the notion of “Christ’s recapitulation of history,” worship that “enacts God’s story,” and so on.

As I read the document, I found it curious that the authors repeatedly spoke with such abstractness of the “Triune” or “Trinitarian” character of God. Then it dawned on me why. They were doing so to avoid using the inflammatory word Father—another word that never once appears in this document. Nor do they ever use the masculine personal pronoun for God.

The authors have done this self-editing skillfully, even tastefully. You might almost not even notice. But they have done it quite intentionally, and their doing so shows why they have not yet come to grips with what is entailed in appropriating the authority of the past—which means the whole history of what the Church has been, and not merely what has been going on in a few North American seminaries since 1968.

If one radically edits the past before appropriating it, then it is no longer the past that one is appropriating, but a version of the present. Language matters, and the preference for academic over Scriptural language in this document is powerfully indicative of which worldview actually gets to do the trumping.

How will one utter the Nicene Creed when the word Father has been proscribed? But if one substitutes some other term— Creator, or Mother, or Dominatrix, or whatever word is in fashion this week—how is one doing anything other than rejecting the past, and extending the sway of the status quo? That indeed is what I would call a very serious form of “cultural captivity.”

Otherwise in Vain

As I said, there is much to commend here, and I want to underscore that fact. But the authors will need to give a better answer to the problem stated in the preceding paragraph, and to the more general question of authority. Otherwise, their enterprise will be in vain, and may in fact only make things worse, by turning “tradition” into another consumable in the religious marketplace.

Indeed, I wish I didn’t have the feeling, reading this document, that I was reading about the roll-out of a self-consciously “retro” new-model car, a sort of ecclesiastical PT Cruiser, which thinks itself “ancient” because it can play Gregorian chant on its sumptuous audio system.

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Listen Closely

by Russell D. Moore

There is almost no proposition in A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future with which, at face value, I (or almost any other Christian) could not agree. The framers are correct that biblical narrative is essential to Christian existence and that American Evangelicalism is impoverished by a neglect of the storyline of Scripture.

One need only listen to so much Evangelical preaching that neglects Old and New Testament narrative for an almost solitary attention to the New Testament epistles or that translates every narrative and every psalm into a Pauline-sounding epistle before preaching it, point by sub-point by sub-sub-point (easily diagrammed above the preacher on PowerPoint) to see their point. As the framers rightly put it, Evangelicals must “recover the truth of God’s word as the story of the world,” and “make it the centerpiece of Evangelical life.”

Unchurched Evangelicals

The Call also resonates when it points to a rejection of Evangelical attitudes that “disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the church.” That Evangelical Christians must see their spiritual heritage as older than the Madison Square Garden Billy Graham Crusade of 1957, or even the revivals of the Great Awakenings, is a certainty.

Some of us, even in the “separatist” ecclesial communities denounced in the manifesto, always have had an “older” view of ourselves and of the Church, but a disregard for the “oldness” and “wideness” of Jesus’ Church is indeed an Evangelical besetting sin. Just this week, I heard a young preacher within my denominational family refer to Jonathan Edwards as an “early Christian divine.”

The Call is also correct to call Evangelicals to a more robust church life, encouraging reflection on life together and for “the church to recover its counter-cultural mission to the world.” To this I say “Amen.” The free-floating project of parachurch Evangelicalism, in which Christians identify with movements rather than with particular churches, has been a disaster.

After World War II, conservative Protestants fled oppressively liberal mainline denominations and formed parachurch mission boards, seminaries, and publishing houses, as a matter of survival and faithfulness. As they did so, however, they downplayed their ecclesial differences to the point that establishment Evangelicalism forgot there really was anything important about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or, sadly, the Church itself.

A liberal ethicist in my denomination denied in the 1970s that Southern Baptists were Evangelicals, replying famously that “Evangelical is a Yankee word.” Perhaps he feared biblical orthodoxy, but he also feared the homeless, rootless mush of flash-in-the-pan parachurch Evangelicalism.

Now, after a half-century, we see Evangelical parachurch institutions and ministries almost indistinguishable in their broadness from the mainline institutions for which they were created as a conservative alternative. Fuller Seminary is the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary of the 1940s, except more gay-friendly. Christianity Today is the Christian Century of the 1940s, except with better graphics. InterVarsity Press is the Judson Press of the 1940s, except that IVP publishes feminist and postmodernist material that would have been too stout for the mainline publishers of our grandmothers’ day.

The Call hits exactly on some of the reasons for this: a hyper-confident Evangelical movement that thought it could win the world to Christ apart from his Body. Inasmuch as the Call directs us to reconsider the Kingdom communities of our churches, as opposed to databases of donors, we should listen.

Ancients Afoot

And yet, there’s something else afoot here. After reading through the Call a time or two, nodding our heads in agreement, ultimately we must ask: what is it about the ancients these Evangelicals want to reclaim?

After all, the sponsors of this document include Northern Seminary, InterVarsity Press, and Baker Books—all of which are firmly committed to an “egalitarian” view of sex roles foreign to the mind of the ancient Church. Robert Webber, the primary author of the document, has endorsed—and Baker and InterVarsity have both published—the “open theist” books of theologian Gregory Boyd, in which God doesn’t stop evil because he doesn’t even know, much less can re-direct, the future decisions of his creatures.

Are these Evangelicals repenting of such notions, returning to a more ancient, creedal understanding of God and man (excuse me, humanity)? Are they wishing to return to a patriarchal God, whose power and majesty are inexhaustible as described in the ancient creeds? Are they calling us to the kind of stout doctrinal parameters set by Irenaeus in Against Heresies or Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew?

Or do they wish to have a variously interpretable narrative, untroubled by “mere propositions” and “mere intellectual knowledge,” although the Fathers themselves insisted on interpreting the Christian narrative with very specific propositions? The vagueness of this statement’s exposition of “the consensus of the ancient church” suggests this. It seems they’re as ancient as they want to be.

This current “Ancient/Future” project is in direct continuity with Webber’s 1980s-era “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” project, which met with extraordinary success. It would have been quite odd a generation ago to find so many Christianity Today writers and Wheaton College faculty members worshiping in Episcopal churches. Now it is relatively unusual to find one worshiping at a Baptist, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist Bible church.

But the Canterbury trail rarely led to Thomas Cranmer or to J. I. Packer (though it sometimes led to John Henry Newman). It usually led to a more sophisticated Evangelical: one who preferred Bach to Gaither, the Book of Common Prayer to Chick tracts, liturgy to revival services, the Lenten season to Vacation Bible School. The Canterbury trail provided a more antique pedigree for American Evangelicalism.

Now, it turns out, Canterbury isn’t old enough, so it is off to Antioch. But still Webber and the new Evangelicals seem to want the doxology without the constraints of the orthodoxy.

At the end of the day, the “Ancient/Future” Evangelicalism is a natural extension of American Evangelicalism’s besetting sins of faddishness and consumerism. That’s the reason it is fanned (as so many Evangelical winds of doctrine are) by publishing houses. This project comes to us just as Evangelicalism is in the throes of an infatuation with the so-called emerging church, which is also fueled by publishing houses (the sellers of youth ministry curricula) and which is also enamored simultaneously with postmodern cynicism, egalitarianism, doctrinal flexibility, and ancient-seeming worship.

The emerging worshipers and the ancient futurists want to borrow some of the trappings of a time when Christianity was countercultural (dark rooms and candles simulating catacombs, for instance) while embracing primary aspects of contemporary cultural libertarianism (including feminism and pluralism).

As much as I agree with the propositions found in the Call, I wonder if I can agree with them as they are situated in what one could call the document’s “narrative context,” the story the Ancient Futurists find themselves in. Do I hear the story of Hebrews 11 here, or is this just George Lindbeck and post-liberalism, again?

Truly Ancient

A truly ancient Christianity doesn’t need to assert how ancient it is—or how countercultural. An ancient Christianity that takes seriously the faith of the Fathers will cause a stir in the culture and in the cubicles at InterVarsity Press—if for no other reason than because it says things such as the faith of the “Fathers.”

It will believe the storyline of Scripture and judge the present order—all of it—against a Spirit-breathed norm. It will create a counterculture of people who aren’t counterculturally hip, on stage with Bono for the latest global warming consciousness-raiser, but who are countercultural because they, well, counter the prevailing culture.

If the Ancient/Future Evangelicals wish to counter this culture, they will be forced to do so in more than the generalities they’ve outlined. To take on consumerism, do you dare take on the dual-income family structure of contemporary Americanism? To take on the “culture of death,” do you dare speak bluntly about welcoming the gift of children, about the personhood of the embryo, about the way in vitro fertilization turns a child into a means?

To speak against “civil religion,” do you dare call for public prayers in the name of Jesus? To speak against “political correctness,” do you dare say that only in Jesus Christ is salvation found, thus fueling the evangelism of the world religions, including the Jewish people?

The roots of Halloween, we’re told, date back to a time when villagers sought to ward off evil spirits, witches, and ghosts by mocking them with mimicry. A bloodthirsty demon would retreat, it was thought, when he saw someone dressed in ghoulish costume. When reading documents such as A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, it is hard not to wonder whether this is not what’s going on among these Evangelicals: keeping the ancient Christian witness at bay by mocking it with mimicry.

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A Gawdly Proposal

by S. M. Hutchens

Here is a manifesto full of fine and praiseworthy notions. It speaks principally of something called “God’s story”—of the Church as the continuation of it, of the Church’s worship as enacting it—as opposed by legalism, mere intellectual knowledge, narcissistic preoccupation with personal experience, and other nasty things. Who could oppose this? Who, indeed, even among the intended targets of the barbs?

It depends upon who this “God” is. We need to be able to identify him. Not once in this piece is God named as Father or Son. Not once is a masculine pronoun used to refer to him. (See “This reduces God’s story of the world to one of many competing theologies and impairs the unified witness of the church to God’s plan for the history of the world,” for example.)

As Wilfred McClay notes in his response, it is an extraordinarily neat piece of work in this regard. It almost sounds natural—almost as though no one was trying to avoid anything.

The grammar of this piece is an unmistakable sign that we are dealing not with the story of the God we recognize, but rather an outreach program of someone I prefer to call “Gawd,” the deity of the Egalitarians. Gawd, being in fact a demon, has many noble parts, for it, like other demons, was born a god, and can play its old self quite well. But anyone with an orthodox cell in his noggin would have to be, at this stage of the game, pretty dull to be taken in by its proposal to tell anyone’s story but its own.

This writer can only see the piece as an invitation for Evangelicals to press further with their re--imagination of Christianity along the baleful lines indicated by the proposal’s neutered grammar, a call to deeper error, deeper and more pervasive idolatry—not to join the Church, but infect it.

S. M. Hutchens is a librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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Born Again Free

by D. G. Hart

A funny thing happened to Evangelicalism on the way to religious popularity. It has become enormously successful, but many of its adherents are not happy with the way born-again Protestantism turned out. Last year, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom raised the question of whether the Protestant Reformation is over, thanks to all that Roman Catholicism can teach Evangelicals. Randall Balmer, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis have complained about the way the religious right has become the doormat of the Republican party.

Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids tapped several of these developments at its 2005 conference, “After Evangelicalism,” where various speakers questioned whether born-again Protestantism was sufficiently coherent to constitute a meaningful whole. These critical voices echo significant objections raised almost fifteen years ago when David Wells wondered whether Evangelicals still believed in the importance of theology and when Mark Noll followed with a fairly scathing indictment of Evangelical intellectual life.

A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future is the latest sign that, at least among its chattering class, Evangelicalism has run out of steam. (What is going on at the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Focus on the Family or in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a different matter.)

Constructed Tradition

Any Evangelical who has participated in a liturgical worship service and marveled at its dignity and reverence can understand this call for a greater awareness of the past, even if the idea of an ancient future is disorienting (is this like low-fat ice cream?). But Evangelicalism has thrived on the Christian expressions least friendly to tradition, ordination, liturgy, and ecclesiastical authority.

The authors and endorsers of this statement, however, do not see the relationship of Evangelicalism to ecclesial Christianity (whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Magisterial Protestant) as quite so antagonistic. The giveaway here is the prologue’s assertion that Evangelicals need to recover “the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and the Evangelical awakenings.”

This construction of Christian tradition is troubling on several levels, from the notion that Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism are each equal in guarding the faith, to the idea that the ancient Church provides the blueprint for Christian unity. These expressions of Christianity are divided on several substantial points and do not regard the others to be equal guardians of the faith—hence the division between Eastern and Western Christianity, and among the Western churches.

At the same time, doing an end run around the historical developments that led to these divisions—those in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and those in the modern era among the Protestant denominations—has its obvious appeal. But it also implicitly trivializes the points at issue that have defined Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Reformed Christianity (not to mention Puritanism, Methodism, and the several denominations to emerge from those traditions). Christian history is a messy affair, and a call to reverse the past is akin to putting the genie back in the bottle.

But the point not to be missed is the Call’s elevation of the Evangelical awakenings to a tradition on a par with Constantinople, Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury. Just to mention these cities is to expose the problem. Evangelicalism does not have a capital city; in the United States, Wheaton was an unofficial one, but then Colorado Springs rose up to be a more active hub of parachurch activity.

The reason for such rootlessness is Evangelicalism’s suspicion of the forms that define ecclesiastical bodies, such as creeds, liturgy, and ordination. George Whitefield spoke volumes when, in 1739, while preaching in different pulpits and to mixed audiences, he said, “It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it.”

Indifferent to Form

As the latest historical scholarship has shown, this indifference to form was essential to the Evangelical movement. It stemmed from a conviction that mediation of any kind, whether Catholic or Protestant, posed a barrier to direct communion between God and the individual Christian. Ecclesial forms, the logic went, could be faked; they could result in nominal Christianity or dead orthodoxy.

Evangelicalism, accordingly, sought authentic or genuine faith, unencumbered by rites, dogma, and clergy. As such, born-again Protestantism is a new and highly modern form of Christianity, one that regards dependence on churchly mediation, whether through catechesis or creedal subscription, sacraments or ministerial blessings, pastors or priests, or councils of bishops or presbyteries, as in tension with rather than constituting a personal relationship with Christ.

If real antagonism exists between Evangelicalism and ecclesial Christianity, then why do born-again Protestants who desire historically grounded expression of the faith remain Evangelical? Why not simply join one of the other communions that guard ancient Christianity?

One suspects that the reason has something to do with the advantages of being rootless. Without an Evangelical identity, a born-again Protestant would have to choose one of those other traditions, join it, and reject the others. With an Evangelical identity, he can take the best from all Christian expressions without having to come under the discipline and restraint of a particular church’s ministry, authority, and tradition.

If this is so, then the Evangelical future called for in this statement is more modern than ancient, because it is more voluntary than received, more liberated than restrained, more tolerant than exclusive. Without becoming part of a historic Christian communion, Evangelicalism’s ancient future will yield merely the trappings of antiquity minus its churchly substance.

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Antiquity & Absence

by Gillis Harp

It is difficult to evaluate a document whose intended targets are so ill-defined. But a slightly clearer picture—a sort of vague composite portrait—emerges when one gathers a few of the alleged errors this statement identifies with some important realities it omits.

First, the errors the Call identifies. The authors bemoan a “resurgence” of “rationalism” in American Evangelicalism (something I confess I hadn’t noticed) and the “modern theological methods” that are “reducing the gospel to mere propositions.” Evangelicals are supposedly adhering to “forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect.” Some of these rationalists evidently “disregard the . . . legacy of the ancient church.”

There is some truth here, but rationalism or intellectualism is not the primary problem of the modern Evangelical movement—rather the opposite. And what all of this means for Protestant confessionalism is at any rate unclear.

Second, what is left out of the Call. The most striking omission here is any treatment of the relation of Protestants to the teaching and practice of the sixteenth--century Reformation. There is a single reference to the -Reformation as one of the -“guardians” of the faith catholic, but this is not developed. The catholicity of the magisterial Reformers (presumably a relevant subject here) is nowhere mentioned or explored.

Throughout the Call, Protestants are blithely encouraged to leapfrog over 1,500 years of church history to recover some exceedingly vague and romantic model of the early Church. Although American Evangelicals are excoriated for their lack of historical consciousness (an argument one could certainly make), the statement’s own case is, in fact, strikingly ahistorical in its fanciful and selective invocation of the Church of the ancient Fathers.

Regarding the doctrinal or ethical, er . . . -propositions championed by those very Fathers, this document is consistently hazy. Its “motherhood and apple pie” exhortations are hard to dispute. For instance, we need to return to the “biblical narrative” summarized as “Creation, Incarnation, and Re--creation” (redemption being curiously absent), but specific instructions in how we are to return to the early Church are mostly absent—though Evangelicals are notably told to “attend to the Christian year.”

Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). Although his background is evangelical Anglican, he and his family are currently worshipping in a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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A Call Too Vague

by David Mills

A few months ago, we received a draft of A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future from someone associated with the project, though we never found out whether he meant it as an FYI or as a way of gauging our interest in supporting the enterprise. We were immediately interested, because bringing to our readers the riches of the shared Christian tradition, especially the doctrinal and moral tradition formed by the Fathers, is what we do, and many of us know and admire the men involved in writing it.

Upon reading it, we decided to offer a forum of responses. As you will have seen, our Protestant editors responded to the Call with “Yes and no, but alas, most fundamentally no.” My response, as a Catholic in an ecumenical enterprise, was less “Yes and no” than “What?”

Impractical Call

The Call is, despite its abundant good intentions, much too vague to be fruitful. My reaction to almost every sentence was “But just what does this mean?” The claims rarely have a concrete connection to anything in the real world, that is, they offer the reader no clear and binding way to get from the statement to practice. This would not be such a fatal problem, were the Call not intended to change what American Evangelicals do.

The words are suggestive, if the reader knows the code. One can guess that “forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect” means a certain sort of rationalist preaching often associated with Presbyterians. But from that phrase I could not discern whether a particular doctrinally oriented sermon deserves their condemnation. I could recognize the extremes, of course, but a criterion that identifies only the extremes does not help much.

Take, as an example of the Call’s characteristic vagueness, the first section, titled “On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative.” It begins:

We call for a return to the priority of the divinely authorized canonical story of the triune God. This story—Creation, Incarnation, and Re-creation—was effected by Christ’s recapitulation of human history and summarized by the early church in its rules of faith. The gospel-formed content of these rules served as the key to the interpretation of Scripture and its critique of contemporary culture, and thus shaped the church’s pastoral ministry.

This is not meaningless, but it is not exactly meaning-ful either. The “rules of faith” point to a set of statements we have, but, as far as I know, no Evangelical denies them. The Call seems here to apply only to liberals, modernists, and skeptics, people who deny that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God or assert a modalist view of the Trinity, or some heresy of that sort. I assume the authors have some particular Evangelical problems in mind—that “return” conveys this—but because they write so vaguely and generally, one can’t tell.

Having said this, the statement calls Evangelicals

to turn away from modern theological methods that reduce the gospel to mere propositions, and from contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God’s story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning. In a world of competing stories, we call evangelicals to recover the truth of God’s Word as the story of the world, and to make it the centerpiece of evangelical life.

This is even closer to meaningless than the first half, precisely where greater clarity is needed. What exactly are these methods and ministries? What kind of propositions do Evangelicals need when they have avoided “mere propositions”? (I assume they are not rejecting doctrine entirely, since they promote the ancient rules of faith.) What in the world does it mean to “recover the truth of God’s Word as the story of the world”? What would life with such a story made the centerpiece (not the right metaphor) look like? I have no idea what any of this means.

At this point the reader, however sympathetic he is, if he is a careful reader who tries to see what such a statement really means, grinds to a halt. The other five sections are not much clearer.

A Failed Call

A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future therefore fails as a call. It is as if a general, his troops under fire, gave his commanders a general pep talk about military virtues and the necessity of victory, when they need to know where to send which tanks when, and which troops to move forward and which to hold back, and where to call in air strikes.

What exactly is anyone who signs this Call to do? What are the exact errors it is meant to correct? What does it require of its signers in regard to all the test cases of the day, like the nature of the Church (the papal claims, for example), women’s ordination, contraception, remarriage after divorce, open theism, the status of Mary, our relation to the saints, the meaning of inerrancy, in vitro fertilization, war and peace, “inclusive” language, even abortion and homosexuality?

And what, not to put too fine a point on it, does it require of its signers in regard to all those matters on which even the earliest of the ancients thought differently from Evangelicals? On the Eucharist, for example, and sanctification? And how is the signer even to distinguish which ancients to follow, and particularly how late to date them?

If asked, I suspect, the writers would restrict their appeal to the first four centuries or so. That is, they accept the ancients up to the point at which the ancient consensus varies too greatly from modern Evangelicalism—on Mary, for example, or icons. This is perfectly defensible, but it requires of them a theological argument they have not articulated, since the ancients they reject believed themselves to be the faithful heirs of the earlier ancients they accept.

The writers intend good things, I know, and as a member of a communion that claims a certain proprietary interest in the ancient Christians, I am cheered when my Evangelical brethren turn to them. But after 2,000 years of Christian life and reflection, the questions of what they say to us and what they demand of us are all sharp and clear.

The words of the Call are suggestive, as I said, but not definite in the way such a statement must be: as is, for example, “begotten, not made” and “was made man,” or as is “Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous” (this from the Westminster Confession) and “If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake . . . let him be anathema” (this from the Council of Trent).

Any call to turn to the ancients must be as sharp and clear as the Westminster Confession and the Council of Trent, for the way to recapture the faith of the Fathers is to struggle through our divisions, and A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future does not.

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Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.


D. G. Hart works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (www.isi.org) and is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Studen't Guide to Religious Studies (ISI Books) and John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P&R Books).


S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.


Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina) and A Student?s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.


David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.


Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. letters@touchstonemag.com

 

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