Friday, April 28, 2006

What Evangelicals Believe: Part I

There is an increasing debate these days on what constitutes an evangelical. The term is becoming more and more identified with politically and theologically conservative movements, but I have said before that I believe that the term should not be exclusively used for these groups, and that more moderate Christians should not abandon it.

Working for one of the most prominent evangelical seminaries in the world, perhaps I have a unique perspective on this issue, and it bears further explanation. One of our seminary's former presidents wrote a book entitled What We Evangelicals Believe, published by the seminary back in 1991. The term "evangelical" was the subject of a considerable amount of controversy and confusion even then, and this book sought to identify what core attributes were essential to being considered "evangelical," while acknowledging that "no one item should control the evangelical agenda. And certainly no doctrine not central to the gospel should become an ultimate bone of contention among us." (p. 8)

This seminary has crafted a "Statement of Faith" which all of its faculty members must affirm and sign before they may teach at the seminary. The trustees annually affirm this statement, as well. It is not intended to be divisive, but rather to assert the seminary's intention to be "evangelical" in its academic goals, and to maintain an "evangelical" identity, even in the midst of changing times and cultures. The Statement of Faith is not itself immutable, and in fact has been revised at least once in its history. Nonetheless, it is intended to set forth those doctrinal elements that we as a seminary consider to be essential to the definition of "evangelical."

What We Evangelicals Believe follows the structure of the seminary's Statement of Faith, and expands and articulates the elements within it. Although written 15 years ago, I believe that these discussions continue to be relevant to the debate on what constitutes "evangelicalism" today. From time to time in the days and weeks to follow, I intend to use this book as a guide to a more comprehensive understanding of the term "evangelical," that is not limited to a particular political party or ideological movement.

Article 1 of the Statement of Faith states "God has revealed himself to be the living and true God, perfect in love and righteous in all his ways; one in essence, existing eternally in the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The first element of this article is perhaps the most essential for Evangelicals. We have certain beliefs about God becuase we believe that God took the initiative to reveal who and what God is to us. It is more than just what we humans have decided about God, but rather what we believe about God based on God's revelation. The author of What We Evangelicals Believe says that "[w]hatever we can say about our own evagelical faith must be said in response to what God has told and shown us. Otherwise we can never break through our own experience.... Theology--what we believe about God--can never move beyond private opinion.... unless God takes the lead in revelation." (p. 21)

We also affirm that God has revealed God's character to us. God is living and true. God is perfect in love. God is righteous. These are aspects of God's character that nearly all Christians can affirm, and form the core of the Evangelical perception of God.

The final element of the article, that describing the Trinity, owes much to the Nicene Creed. Many churches that do not otherwise affirm creeds affirm the Nicene Creed. Yet the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult to understand aspect of God's identity. I have no expectation to draw new light upon the matter in a brief blog post, but suffice it to say that affirming that God is "one in essence" is essential, because it reminds us that we are not polytheists (people who believe in more than one God). However, the three persons of the Trinity are our best attempt to reconcile the fact that God has been revealed to us in such a way. As the author of What We Evangelicals Believe says, "What we mean by person is that there is an eternal reality to the distinction within God just as there is to his unity. Jesus the Son is more than just the form that God took when he came to earth. God the Spirit is more than just the means God used to establish his church at Pentecost." (p. 25)

Although I do intend to continue this series in the near future, I feel I must close here with the following words from the book: "It is both presumptuous and dangerous to speak about God. Only one thing is more presumptous and dangerous--not to speak about him when he has spoken so clearly to us." (p. 26) As human beings, we do not understand fully. Yet we must still must attempt to articulate what we understand as best we can.

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