John Richardson goes in search of the Evangelical Mind
EVANGELICALS love marriage. They think marriage is a good thing, certainly preferable to being unmarried. Evangelical churches are suspicious about vicars who are single. Married clergy with children are presumed to be safer. And of course evangelicals think sex outside marriage is definitely a bad thing. Living together really is ‘living in sin’. The trouble is that Evangelicals are just not quite sure why they hold any of these views.
This surely explains the fact that at the recent Chelmsford Diocesan Synod which debated the Scott-Joynt proposals, many Evangelicals spoke in favour of remarrying divorcees as a matter of course, and very few of them supported a supplementary motion putting some biblical limits on the criteria under which divorcees should be considered for remarriage.
The quality of evangelical thinking involved was revealed by one person who said afterwards that he could not vote for the supplementary motion because although we know what Jesus did say about divorce from the gospel record, we don’t know what he didn’t say. Jesus may have been happy to allow remarriage on other (unrecorded) grounds as well, so who are we to restrict it to cases of adultery?
There comes a point where arguing with people becomes simply wearisome. However, what the debate and such subsequent conversations revealed (once again) is that in a crisis English Evangelicals can be relied on to vote with the feelings in their stomachs rather than with the thoughts in their heads. And the root reason for this is that they don’t do systematic theology.
In case we should see this simply as a failing of evangelicals, it is worth noting the example (pointed out by Colin Gunton) of Edward Pusey. Apparently, early in his career Pusey wrote a book on German theology which engaged with both Hegel and Schleiermacher. Later on, however, Pusey not only repudiated his own work but sought to destroy all existing copies of the book. The explanation, according to Gunton, is that Pusey felt modernism could only be defeated by pietism, not intellect. Henceforward, Pusey sought a pure authority in the Church Fathers, but leapfrogged all subsequent theological development before his own age.’
Be that as it may, English Evangelicalism has for many years seen theology as the Continental shelf leading into the dangerous waters of Liberalism; witness the numbers of evangelical preachers who are still happy to declare from the pulpit, ‘I am not a theologian’. The Sydney evangelist, John Chapman, suggests we should shout back, ‘Shame!’, but unfortunately the practice does not seem to have caught on. Instead, the English Evangelical avoids theology in preference to ‘pure Bible teaching’. But then as anyone who has heard the average English Evangelical teach the Bible, there is a big difference between pure and profound.
This is not to say that an evangelical analysis of marriage is unavailable. David Atkinson’s To Have and to Hold (London: Collins, 1979), for example, contains a clear and concise presentation of a biblical view (pp 70-98). Atkinson wrote then,
The marriage covenant … is the commitment of a man and a woman to each other into an exclusive relationship of moral ‘troth ‘which is intended to be permanent, and to be patterned on and in its turn display the meaning and character of God’s relationship with his people, Christ’s with his Church.
Clearly this is not a sacramentalist view of marriage in the classic sense. But for previous generations of Evangelicals the implications were similar. The notion of permanence is inherent, for example, because of the recognition that human marriage follows (rather than merely illustrates) a divine pattern -‘God’s relationship with his people’. It would also be quite straightforward to explain from such an understanding of marriage why divorce is wrong, or why sex outside marriage is immoral.
The problem with the above definition for the modern Evangelical, however, is ‘too many words’. Publishers must surely know that books for Evangelicals fall into two categories – the academic and the simplistic. Evangelicals get very upset when Liberals accuse them of being naive, but frankly this is hard to refute when one considers the quality of input on offer to evangelical Christians. Of course, there are many excellent evangelical publications and teachers available, but there is a great gap between production and consumption – and if one asks how this gap is sustained, my own answer would be (unfortunately, since I often seem to be knocking them) ‘by the Charismatic movement’.
However, this is the only explanation I can see for why the English evangelical movement has failed to grow up in the last forty years, in spite of its increase in numbers. Why does the reading list of the average Evangelical – if the best sellers published each week in The Church of England Newspaper are anything to go by – still consist largely of experiential and anecdotal books accompanied by the occasional devotional work? Is it because as Evangelicals mature they go on to read a wider variety of books, which therefore do not register in the charts? Or is it, as I suspect, because the phrase ‘evangelical maturity’ is currently an oxymoron?
Sadly, the typical progress of many who undergo evangelical conversion early in life is to pass into the Charismatic movement and thence into one form or another of Post-evangelical Liberalism. Dave (sic) Tomlinson still provides one of the clearest published expositions of this transformation, and his views on marriage are instructive. He writes, Evangelicals join many other conservative sections of the church in seeing the preservation of traditional family values as a primary social cause [… ] The big question is, what do we mean by family values? In my view, what is meant by values is not really values at all: it is a particular model of family which is being singled out and placed on a pedestal.’
Tomlinson’s grammar may be opaque, but his conclusion is clear: evangelical family values are simply those middle-class values which ‘form the dominant cultural norm in most evangelical churches’ and ‘function in a similar way that judaizing [sic] did in the early church’. Consequently, once the evangelical ‘culture’ is rejected, the moral values are also lost because there was simply no theology undergirding them. In their place comes a catalogue of Liberal values -just as ‘theologylite’, but now without any pretence at respectability. Thus on cohabitation, Tomlinson describes the evangelical view as ‘ridiculous’ since ‘there are plenty of couples co-habiting … who are quite evidently as committed to their relationship as any formally married couple’.
What is disturbing about Tomlinson’s approach is the apparent lack of any need to reassess any former theological viewpoint. Perhaps this is not surprising from one who can write, ‘there is no evidence from the Bible that [theology and doctrine] is of ultimate importance’ . But this surely validates Gunton’s assertion that ‘English theology tends to reflect the weaknesses of English thought in general: a suspicion of intellectuals of all kinds, allied to a tendency to naturalism and moralism’ (Gunton, p. 492). The Post-evangelical seeks to retain some doctrinal links truth, including the truth about marriage. with evangelicalism, but adopts an alternative moralism as firmly (or not) as he previously held ‘evangelical’ views.
When I first told a friend I was writing this article his response was that it really couldn’t be done because there is no longer any such thing as ‘the evangelical view of marriage’. Rather, there are views which not only are liable to shift, but which owe nothing to anything which could be defined as evangelicalism in a theological sense.
Such a response is, perhaps, too pessimistic. There is, after all, a discernible biblical view of marriage which some Evangelicals succeed in discovering. But many others are either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with such dogmatism. In the short term, whilst Evangelicals continue to be sidetracked into seeking God through the weird and wonderful, rather than through grappling with the word of Scripture and its application to the world, a steadfast evangelical line is unlikely to emerge. In the future, we may hope that as the Charismatic movement releases its grip on the evangelical scene, a positive, though penitent, evangelicalism may emerge to champion a more vibrant and profound understanding of truth, including the truth about marriage.
John P. Richardson is the author of God, Sex and Marriage (The Good Book Company/MPA Books)
C. Gunton, “An English Systematic Theology?” in The Scottish Journal of theology, 46, 1994, pp479–496
D. Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical (London Triangle, 1995) 34–35