Gerald Bray visited the Evangelical Anglican Leaders Conference and found himself starved of decent exegesis
The second annual Evangelical Anglican Leaders Conference was held over two days at the beginning of January, and represented quite a contrast from the first gathering the year before. Then the emphasis had been very much on bishops, and on the need to present a united front in order to exercise influence in the wider Church. But in 1996 bishops took a back seat as leadership passed to the academics. Little was heard this year about the wider Church, but instead of that, internal Evangelical divisions were given much greater attention.
What emerged was scarcely new, but it was expressed with a clarity which has perhaps not been attained until now. After EALC 1996 it will be obvious to all that there are at least two main groupings within the contemporary Evangelical movement. One of these may be characterised as “conservative” or “traditional”, and in many people’s minds it is identified with Reform. The other would probably want to call itself “open”, and would include most of the organisers and principal speakers at the EALC. What was interesting and important about this year’s conference is that the differences between the two groups were shown to be rooted in profound questions of Biblical interpretation. The first group reads the Bible primarily as the infallible Word of God, whose clear and unchanging message is a direct challenge to unbelievers – in this as in every age. The second group thinks of the Bible more in terms of “story”, bearing witness to God’s ongoing action in the world. It does not deny the need for personal conversion, but puts much greater emphasis on the community aspects of the Christian faith.
Talk of “story” recalled the debates about “myth” which were all the rage in the late 70s. Then as now, the buzz word did not mean what most people assumed it to mean, but finding a precise definition which could command general assent proved elusive. It was however, established that the main difference between an Evangelical story-teller and his non- Evangelical counterpart is that the Evangelical regards historicity as important. This provides a link between him and other Evangelicals, but it is doubtful whether that is really as significant as most people at the conference were trying to make out. We may all agree that the Resurrection was a historical event, and that certainly sets us apart from the more extreme liberals, but historicity by itself does not answer the more important question – what does this event mean to me?
Here the “story” side takes over. According to this way of thinking, the Resurrection of Christ turns out to be the end of Israel’s exile, the beginning of a new human community, etc. The conservative insistence, which is that after the Resurrection, Christ’s claim to be Lord and Saviour of my life acquires a new urgency which must be pressed upon every individual, is not denied, but it is not particularly emphasised either. All the stress is on moving away from the personal to the corporate community. Of course, to a large extent this is a matter of degree, rather than of substantial opposition between the two Evangelical groups. But it is important to recognise why the different emphasis is there, why it is felt to matter, and what that means for the wider Evangelical identity.
What the “open” Evangelical group does not like is doctrine. Systematic theology is given the pejorative label of “dogma”, and its presence in the Scriptures is denied (Tom Wright). The Biblical interpreter must be free to move the story on, to adapt it to changing circumstances, to inch closer to the eschaton. Dogma is a hindrance to this, because it seeks to limit Scripture to principles which transcend time and place, and which cannot therefore be modified to suit the needs of the moment. In practical matters, it is dogma which prevents the more conservative Evangelicals from accepting changes like the ordination of women. That was scarcely mentioned at the conference, but there were enough references to past changes of direction, including the evolution of Christian opinion over slavery, to make the subtext more than a little discernible.
Dogma is divisive, and those who stress its importance run the risk of splitting the Church and weakening the Evangelical thrust (Alister McGrath). Remember the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli, back in 1529, which left a permanent mark on Protestantism. We can all agree that that was a pity, but should we therefore conclude that the issue is of secondary importance, an adiaphoron (matter of indifference) which can safely be left to individual opinion? Is no fundamental Gospel issue at stake? Luther clearly thought there was, and probably Zwingli did too. Even if we accept that other issues played a role in creating division, can we afford to disregard their insight at this point?
It may of course be that both Luther and Zwingli were partly right and partly wrong, and that the true answer to the question lies in a formulation of the issues which eluded them. Martin Bucer apparently thought as much, and Evangelical Anglicans can claim with some justification that Thomas Cranmer found a middle way which did justice to both the Continentals. But instead of saying this, it seems that “open” Evangelicals prefer to regard the whole issue as basically unimportant, thereby reducing the question of a believer’s access to the sacrifice of Christ to the level of something indifferent!
Conservative Evangelicals, by contrast, put their emphasis on the fundamental unity of Scripture, which can be expressed in a body of systematic doctrine. Biblical diversity must be resolved by appeal to this body of doctrine, which determines what principles of interpretation are to be applied in any particular instance. Some things may remain unclear, and then one of two courses is adopted. If possible, the matter can be left to individual judgement, as in the case of millenarian theories. If this is not possible, a particular course of action must be adopted, though in a way which recognises the legitimacy of other viewpoints. This is what happens over the issue of baptism, where there is no general agreement about how and to whom it should be administered, and where Evangelicals of different opinions have learned to tolerate each other reasonably well.
To the conservative Evangelical, it is plain that our generation’s neglect of theological principles has brought the Evangelical movement to the state that it is in at the moment. Systematic exposition and application of the Biblical text is rare, and so it is little wonder that there is so much confusion about. At EALC the only speaker who gave a sustained exposition of Scripture in a way which was designed to teach the Church the way it should go was Wallace Benn, whose talk on Nehemiah 8 was quite stunning. Paul Gardner would probably have done something similar had he been given the chance. But as he was confined to a short response in the main session, he could do little more than make brief, though penetrating, remarks about Tom Wright’s walk to Emmaus, which somehow left him feeding the 5000 on Dover Beach (not in my Bible, but the story may have moved on since I last read it). But nobody else came anywhere near to expounding the Biblical text, and the most we got were blessed thoughts, some of which were scarcely original. Did anyone come all the way up to London just to be told that lifelong monogamy was God’s will for married couples? (Elaine Storkey) True enough, no doubt, but hardly a novel idea.
What the Church has to deal with nowadays is the range of variations which do not fit this norm. To what extent, and in what circumstances, can Christians accept situations and lifestyles other than lifelong heterosexual monogamy? For Evangelicals, who find it hard to encourage even consecrated celibacy (in spite of widespread New Testament support for the practice), this is a particularly serious problem. But in the same week as The Economist can support homosexual marriage on its cover, Evangelicals had better start finding something to say to these people, or they will find themselves – yet again – left behind by the march of history. Nowhere is creative thinking more necessary, and nowhere is it more absent than here!
Coming away from EALC 1996 I had the feeling that in some undefinable way, Evangelicals have turned a corner. No longer are they pretending to present a united front to the rest of the Church. Instead, they are recognising a considerable diversity within their own ranks, and this probably means that they will grow further apart as time goes on. We must all hope that this evolution can take place without the acrimony which has so often marred earlier divisions in the Church, but surely the time has come to admit that it would be better to go our separate ways and get on with the work of preaching the Gospel to, or (if you prefer) sharing the story with, outsiders who need to be won for Christ. It is often said of clergy that they are like manure – put together they stink, but spread thin, they do a lot of good. Perhaps the same is true of Evangelicals, and EALC 1996 may have helped us to see more clearly where each of us should be headed in the years to come.
Gerald Bray is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Samford University in the USA