An Evangelical Manifesto?

[I’m here just mirroring my original post at Generous Orthodoxy.]

So what do folks make of the recently unveiled “Evangelical Manifesto” (download the pdf)? On the one hand, I think it is in the spirit of a “generous” orthodoxy of the sort that motivated this blog from its inception. In general, I think it rightly criticizes trends on both left and right, and problems both internal to evangelicalism as well as external challenges (e.g., the public policy impact if the “new atheism” gained a foothold). Most of the time, I thought it sounds like David Wells or Don Carson–that is, sort of a grumpy Reformed take on evangelical “therapies” of various persuasions–but this certainly isn’t the only voice.

On the other hand, I find it a strange document. Now, some of the steering committee and charter signatories include some of my friends, whom I respect a great deal. So I’m not registering any radical dissent. But I found myself struck by several things while reading it:

1. Well, there’s that whole problem of knowing just what “evangelical” means (or, as they insist in the only footnote, Evangelical–as if evangelicalism has the weight of Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Orthodoxy). I have to confess that I find the term less and less helpful. And while this document demands that it be defined “theologically” (and not “sociologically”), I find the defintions offered here (e.g., believing in Jesus) a bit fuzzy. In short, I’m not sure why the authors are so convinced that “the term is important” (p. 2). For who? For what?

2. Related to (1), I always get a bit nervous when folks begin emphasizing evangelical “identity” (and this document explicitly takes up such identity politics, despite the “grave danger” [p. 4]). Why does the concern to assert “evangelical” (sorry, Evangelical) identity always feel like an exercise in boundary-drawing with an ominous sense that Catholic-bashing is just around the corner? Now, I’m not saying that this document does this–and many of these signatories are, in fact, involved in Catholic-evangelical dialogues. But you can see that this issue is always lurking around such projects when they assert, “Our purpose is not to attack or to exclude” (p. 5). Hmmm…methinks thou doth protest too much? I guess my question is: what does the term “Evangelical” get you that the term “Catholic” doesn’t? When folks give me answers to that question, I find they either offer me something I don’t want, or proffer some caricatured understanding of the Catholic tradition. Or, to put it otherwise, when they list the “distinctives” of evangelicalism (pp. 5-6), is there anything on there that Catholics wouldn’t endorse? If someone says “sola Scriptura,” then we’ve got other problems (see [3] below).

3. I guess what I was most surprised to see–given the theological heavyweights behind this–is what I can only describe as a rather naive hermeneutic. Take two examples: First, after affirming that “Evangelicals adhere fully to the Christian faith expressed in the historic creeds of the great ecumenical councils” (though–dirty little secret–vast swaths of evangelicals are rabidly anti-creedal), the Manifesto then asserts: “We have no supreme leader [why does this sound like some B-grade martian movie?], and neither creeds nor tradition are ultimately decisive for us. Jesus Christ and his written word, the Holy Scriptures, are our supreme authority” (p. 7). Seriously? Are we really entertaining a notion that Evangelicals are those Christians who have some sort of pristine, tradition-free access to “what Jesus really said”? I thought F.F. Bruce had debunked this sort of naive Scripture/tradition distinction for evangelicals years ago. As if there isn’t a massive and complex evangelical tradition of reading Scripture (for more on this, see chapter 5 of my Fall of Interpretation). Second, in the same vein, the Manifesto claims that “Evangelicalism goes back directly to Jesus and the Scriptures.” Really? C’mon.

4. I think the Manifesto is at its best when its critical finger points backwards at evangelicalism itself (pp. 11ff), for instance when it chides evangelicals who have “become cheerleaders for those in power and the naive sycophants of the powerful and the rich” (p. 13). So, too, when it points beyond single-platform politics of abortion or marriage and raises the issue of “conflict” (why not just say “war?”), racism, corruption, poverty,” and more (p. 14). It is interesting to note what’s not named in here though: e.g., militarism? capitalism? nationalism?

5. The document sort of goes “Greg Boyd” in a final section where it laments the error of “politicizing” faith, either on the right or the left. This, of course, sounds clear enough, until you start to ask just what “politicize” means–indeed, what does “politics” and “the political” refer to here? Just the machinations of the state? When they say that “Evangelicals see it as our duty to engage with politics” (p. 15–really, by the way? A duty? Of what sort? On what basis?), it seems to me that they mean evangelicals have a duty to participate in the machinations of the given state. Maybe. But I would just register that it’s not quite that easy; that’s not the only way to “be political.” I always find evangelical discussions on these matters are quite content to let “politics” function as a black box. It seems to me that they might mean a “party-izing” of the faith. But I’m worried that lurking in there is actually some sense that “politics” is “outside” faith, and then we have to figure out how to get “faith” into connection with politics. And that would seem to assume that the faith is not “political” in itself, which I think would be another naive assumption.

6. Finally, when I got to the end, I kept hoping that I would figure out just why this Manifesto was released. Why now? What’s the hook? On this point, I remain a bit befuddled.

Do we need an “Evangelical” Manifesto? Is it “important” to “keep the term?” I remain unconvinced, particularly if keeping the “distinctives” of “Evangelical” means buying into some rather simplistic hermeneutical moves. And at the end of the day, I would rather be part of a Manifesto that can be affirmed by “mere” Nicene Christians rather than “Evangelicals” alone.

Your turn.