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Do Benedict and Rowan have a point?


The Bishop of Rome recently divulged his thoughts concerning the growth of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity around the world:
'Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon . . . poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?'
Benedict XVI, Erfuhrt, Germany, 23rd September, 2011

Benedict admits the 'missionary dynamism' of what he looks at as 'a new form of Christianity', yet he goes on to bring a major critique.

His Anglican counterpart in Canterbury has also given his view of Evangelicalism:
'It is something that I think became very important to me at one or two points when I needed it as a kind of corrective to what can be a slightly precious and elitist anglo-catholicism. Sometimes you just need to sing Blessed Assurance and hit a tambourine. You just need to know that there is something profoundly simple about what an evangelical would rightly call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that nothing substitutes for that.'
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,cited by Gary Williams

Both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury critique evangelicalism for being too simple. Rowan Williams might be trying to say something nice about evangelicals, but at the same time it seems that it's too simple to substitute for his anglo-catholicism. 'Sometimes' is the key word. Benedict (as ever) is much more direct in his critique: pentecostalism and evangelicalism are, in his view, 'a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.' To sum them both up, we evangelicals are just too simplistic.

The question is, though, do Benedict and Rowan have a point?

It would be hard argue that there aren't plenty of examples of 'little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability' within the evangelical world. The concept of schism has been virtually excised from our collective memory. It almost seems that these days anyone can start their own church or denomination, or appoint themselves pastor, archbishop or apostle. And ecclesiastical empires can be built around a man. Surely that's evidence enough of a lack of institutional depth.

As for lack of stability, how often do fads not come and go? How often do we not leap from one latest thing to the other? How often are we not told that God is doing a new thing? And the lack of dogmatic content is regularly seen when the popularity of a preacher is more important than whether or not he believes in the Trinity; when statements of faith make much of prosperity and nothing of the Atonement; when preachers proclaim the American dream rather than Christ crucified.

Yet, this isn't the whole of evangelicalism. It isn't even representative. This is the fringe. And even Catholicism, both of the Roman and Anglo varieties, has its unrepresentative fringe. (Yes, unrepresentative was the most charitable word I could think of.)

True evangelicalism is full of dogmatic content, for true evangelicalism is rooted in the Evangel. The Evangel, the Gospel, is, after all, the very heart of Christian dogma. And that evangelical dogma isn't limited to a simplistic concept of a 'personal relationship with Jesus'; rather such language is shorthand for being united to Christ in His death and resurrection by His Holy Spirit, who works faith in us and so having the sinless life and atoning death of Jesus Christ credited to our account, being received as sons of God by adoption, and being conformed more and more to the image of Christ. Even that's just the briefest of summaries. True evangelicalism has profound dogmatic depths.

And dogmatic depth brings with it stability. Christ has given gifts of men to His Church 'till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting' (Eph. 4:13-14). It is growth into the unity of the faith that brings stability.

Institutional depth isn't beyond us either. While we may not see (nor would we wish to) the complexity of institution of the Roman Church, true evangelicals have, since the Reformation, held that the visible church is known where the Word is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and church discipline duly exercised. The last of these three marks particularly guards against the perpetual schism and the ecclesial empires of the 'unrepresentative' fringe. Evangelical belief doesn't necessitate independency.

So do Benedict and Rowan have a point? Yes and No. Yes, there are all too many examples of what they lament. But no, that's not true of all evangelicals, nor should it be. No, that's not the heart of evangelicalism. No, that's not the necessary implication of what we believe.

The gospel is a simple message. Faith in Jesus is a simple trust. But none of it is simplistic.

The challenge for us as evangelicals and pentecostals in the world today is not to drift off to the fringe. Not to allow pragmatism to invade and transform us into something overly simplistic. But rather to wade deeper into the depths of the dogma, to dive into the profundities of the gospel, to 'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest' the Word of God in all its fullness.

Tambourines and Blessed Assurance aren't the content and extent of our evangelical faith. They're simply the unburdened expression of the joy that the depths of the Gospel brings.

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