It was once popular in the Christian Church, as you might discover by reading Christianity and Liberalism by conservative Christian stalwart J. Gresham Machen, that the fundamentals of Christianity (including Scripture alone and faith alone) were questioned by those who wished to make experience the primary aspect of Christianity. This was the modernism that the Christian faced in those who denied that the truth of Christianity could be talked about simply by teaching the propositions of the Scriptures and the theology as demonstrated by (any of) the historical confessions of the faith. Instead, these liberals opined, the Christian worldview can better be explained by leaving logic, reason, and the intellect out of the core of Christianity. No creed, but Christ, they would declare. This of course was the predecessor to the contemporary claim that Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. It was against this modernism that Machen fought for the historical Christian faith.
And yet, these liberals (throughout this article, I refer to this term often –it is not used in a derogatory way here. To use it this way would be completely counter-productive) of the early twentieth century have given way to a new form of liberalism that questions even the very use of logic and the usefulness of so-called “head knowledge.” In other words, while yesterday’s liberals claimed that logic and reason were not central to Christianity, it is their successors who declare that logic and the intellect have nothing to do with Christianity at all. No longer must the Christian consider that his primary intellectual opponent is the scientist who looks for divine revelation in places other than the Bible. Rather, the great trend of our time is to push for an anti-intellectual position. There is no such thing as knowledge and, even there was, who cares? For knowledge, touts these new liberals, is simply unimportant compared to the undefined concepts such as “love,” “social justice,” and “community.”
It seems that in that last line, I struck a nerve. How could someone possibly deny the importance of such concepts? It is not that I deny the concept so much as I dare to define them.
It is definitions that scare the new liberals. For they are the irrationalists. The anti-intellectuals. Knowledge should in no way sit on the same level as the Undefined Concepts. Definitions require knowledge and definitions are, by their nature, exclusive. Exclusivity is no doubt antithetical to their conceptions of “love,” social justice,” and “community.” In a sense then, it might seem a bit of a waste of time to consider their arguments at the outset. If one refuses the importance of logic and reason, then surely we cannot communicate meaningfully. But of course, it is imperative that the reader understand both that a) they do, in fact, use their intellect and words to demonstrate their views, even if they say that they do not prefer to (otherwise how would we know about them?) and b) we must address them because they have come to us under the labels that are found in the Bible and historic Christianity. They use our words, our vocabulary, and in doing so, they appear to be part of the evangelical world.
But wolves in sheep’s clothing are not sheep.
It is in this context that we consider the increasingly popular Rachel Held Evans. A similarity between myself and Evans is that we both consider our position to be a minority compared to the vast spectrum of the so-called Christian world. And yet it is also my conviction that whereas Evans’ positions continue to gain prominence on the internet and blogs, it is the reformed view that is dying off. It is also my conviction that while she continues to express disagreement with the so-called neo-Calvinism of John Piper, Al Mohler, and The Gospel Coalition folks, I do not think that, in the scheme of things, their message is as attractive to the masses as hers. In a world of increasing pluralism, political correctness, and secularization, if we consider popularity only, Evans definitely has the upper hand. She admits as much in her recent CNN post, wherein she expresses her agreement with the millennial generation and their cultural and emotional tendencies, among which is a strong desire to leave the Church.
I have wanted to write on Evans’ influence for quite some time. Off and on, I have come across many of her articles, interviews, books, and blogs. Even last year I posted a link (on my other blog) to Kathy Keller’s review of Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Every time I had an urge though, I thought to myself, I better familiarize myself more with her work before I attempt this. It was the CNN article that really gave me a renewed urge. The problem with Evans is that she is difficult to nail down. If you read many of her posts, you can get a very good idea of what she does not think to be true. And on those things where she infers she agrees, it is even then only an “I like the way he or she said that.” Or: “This could possibly be right, what do you guys think?” Her tendency to not take a solid position on any issue (except the Undefined Concepts) is in fact a very central feature to the Christian trends today. It is not Evans-in-a-vacuum that has sparked a desire to look into her influence. It is rather the views to which she holds and which are held by so many others (this of course can be verified by simply going through her site and counting the number of “guest-posts” and citations to other blogs within her genre). Evans does not exist alone. She is a great practitioner of her own advice: live in a community. And thus this essay should not be seen as me against Evans. Rather, I address my complaints to the entire modern (or postmodern) liberal movement, utilizing her simply as a great example, a starting point.
Given that I do not wish to make this post as long as it could be, I also do not want to begin with a detailed declaration of our own worldview. Where we stand in opposition –indeed where we think Christianity stands in opposition –will become apparent as we move through this piece. But in short, we hold that Christianity is not a to-do list and it is not a manifesto on how to live (although it does include commands and lifestyle principles); it is not an emotional state or a set of feelings either. Rather, Christianity is a worldview, a system of beliefs and doctrines. Christianity is to be believed, not felt and not done. Christianity, we hold, and as Machen defended so many years ago, teaches the primacy of the intellect. The question that theology seeks to answer is “What, then, is to be believed?” It is only after belief that the actions of a Christian are clear. Machen writes:
“[The Christian movement] was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based on doctrine.”
If this is so, then any individual who seeks to make Christianity a system of dos and don’ts and activities, or any individual who makes Christianity to be a certain state of emotion or feeling, is not teaching Christianity. But what if we are wrong that Christianity is about intellectual belief? Now, whether or not we are right in calling Christianity an intellectual system is one thing, but it is completely another point to vocalize the fact that Christianity cannot be centered on all of those things at the same time. So then, if one claims that Christianity is chiefly about lifestyle and action, by believing that Christianity is a worldview and set of doctrines we must be in the wrong and they are in the right. We cannot both be right. What is at stake here then, is the nature of this Christianity, a term both us and those on Evans’ side would like very much to use. But if Evans is going to disagree with us that Christianity is a set of beliefs (which she does), it would be unwise for her to claim that both myself and her are both Christians. This is precisely the argument that Machen put forth against the liberals (again, not being derogatory) in his day. And his answer was simply that, for better or for worse, Christianity is a movement with a history and to determine its substance, we must go toward its roots. That is to say, Christianity can only be defined by the first Christians: Paul and the other apostles. Machen found that Christianity was a set of beliefs, not feelings or actions. Perhaps Evans is right and Machen is wrong. But if so, neither Machen or I can be considered Christians precisely because we see Christianity as a set of propositions to be believed.
Therefore what is at stake is not a concern as to how we both ought to coexist. Rather, the matter is whether our view or her view is, in fact, Christianity. Of course in saying this, she is ready with her counter argument. My mistake in making this the nature of the matter, she might say, is that I have assumed at the outset that we need to be divided. But this can hardly be a mistake because our views are mutually exclusive. I simply do not have the leisure of framing our consideration of Rachel Held Evans any other way. If I were to accept her proposal of a conservative/liberal Christian coalition, I would have to give up my belief that Christianity is a set of exclusive doctrines. This is what is at stake.
(Now of course, in looking over her description of a conservative, she apparently has a misguided idea of what constitutes our position.)
Therefore it is not simply disagreement that is the source of my concern. For I do not have the same concern with, say, RC Sproul even though he and I disagree on baptism. Or perhaps with a number of the Puritans because, as a whole, they were postmillennialists. Disagreement then is not the point. It is definition. Theology differs. But theology assumes, presupposes (to use a Van Tillian/Clarkian word), specific beliefs about the nature of Christianity and the Scripture. If we were to ask whether Christianity was a set of doctrines to be believed or if it was experiences to be felt or if it was a code to which we must act in accord, Sproul and the Puritans would no doubt choose the former. Theology is then an issue we have with Evans primarily because her theology is not even built on the same terms as ours.
So then, what does Evans believe to be the essence of Christianity? As previously stated, it is far easier to determine what Christianity is not to Evans. She is very clear that to be a Christian is not about a list of dos and don’ts. Then she says it is neither about believing a set of propositions. Could Christianity then, for Evans, be a emotion? I don’t think so –from everything I have read, she could never affirm such an idea. Christianity then is neither about works, belief, or feeling.
So, if faith isn’t simply a matter of believing the right thing, if it’s not about being right, or checking off a list of propositional truths in your head, then what is it? How do we know if we have it? How do we know if someone else has it? Can we know for sure?
It seems to me that God reaches out to everyone in love, and that faith has something to do with how a person responds to this. I know that this sounds super-vague, and I am certain that someone will call it “postmodern.” So be it. The truth is, I’m just trying to figure it out myself. [italics in original --CJE]
It is here that we find the the influence of postmodernism in the thought of Rachel Held Evans. Now, strictly speaking, I believe her when she states in other places that she is a not a postmodernist. Rather, it is more accurate (and accuracy is important as a critic), to say that she is influenced by postmodernism. She certainly does not fear it, but this does not mean that she subscribes to it as a completed worldview. But in the quotation above, we notice that, rather than take a position, she is comfortable with not knowing what faith is. And, as she herself makes clear, if you do not know what faith is, you cannot be certain that you have it. She asks, Can we know [what faith is] for sure? And the truth of the matter is, that she is “just trying to figure it out [her]self.” As I have previously indicated, a key aspect of Evans and the new liberal is that they seem to find their joy in not knowing things. Not knowing, for them, is more profound, more inspiring, than knowing.
But we believe the opposite. We believe that God reveals Himself to us through propositions, which were written down in the Bible to stand true for all time. If Evans finds her joy in not knowing, it is us who celebrate certainty and assurance in our knowledge of Christ and his Word. We do know what Evans thinks Christianity is not, but, since she clings to things like “doubt” and “not sure,” it makes it hard to summarize her position. But this enthusiasm for mystery and unclarity is what leads us to consider her a proponent of the postmodern way. She is certainly not a fan of pursuing rational thinking and logic as the central push of her Christianity so, in pushing the primacy of the intellect away from her ideals, it is clear that the Christianity of Machen is not her Christianity. The Undefined Concepts like “Love” and “Mystery” are more central than “truth” and “knowledge.” This is the great trend of our time. The eradication of knowledge and the love of something inexplicable. Now of course the previous sentence was in itself unclear (what is “something inexplicable?”), but this is precisely what the new liberal loves about being a liberal. Rachel Held Evans then, is on a completely different plane when she begins to define her faith, her understanding of what Christianity is all about.
Can we then make any positive statement about her position on the nature of Christianity? I do think so, although, with words scattered about without definition, we are left with much work to do. We will start with her statement that being a Christian, most fundamentally, consists of two things:
Love God. Love people.
Very simple. Christianity for Evans is neither works, belief, or emotion. Rather, it is love. What should we think of this? The problem with it is that the definition for love is never given. If Christianity is about belief, then we ought to ask: “what is to be believed?” And thus we study theology. If Christianity is about doing the right things, then we ought to ask: “what things?” And therefore if Christianity is about love, we ought to ask: “what is love?” Many think that love is simply an emotion. Perhaps Christianity is about feeling the right way. But Evans is smarter than that. She knows that the most powerful type of love, is in the Greek, agape. Love (agape) is a sacrificial commitment to another person. She would no doubt agree to this, and celebrate it. But since this love is not emotional (Evans surely would agree that we shouldn’t only love when we feel like it), it must be a volitional commitment. It must be an act of the will. But the will is determined by the mind, by the intellect. Love is, then, an intellectual commitment to another person.
And if we are to love God and be committed to him, we must know something about him. I love my wife because I know her. The better I know her, the deeper I love. Therefore, communication is necessary. These communicable words are the means by which I learn more about her, so that I love her more. In the same way then, God must communicate with us so that we may know him more. The more we know God, the more we love him. Scripture is the means by which he communicates propositionally and we learn about him, his character, his activities in the past, and his promises for the future. So “loving God” is fundamental to the Christian faith, as even Evans states. But love must have a context and definition. And love is based on knowledge
Now Evans would perhaps say that love is a thing to be expressed in our good deeds for one another. And we agree. “If ye love me, you will keep my commandments,” said Christ. But these deeds are the expression, the demonstration, of love, and not love itself.
Love is fundamental. It’s more important than being right. It’s more important than having all our theological ducks in a row. It’s more important than any commitment to absolute truth or a particular hermeneutic or a “high view” (read: “my view”) of sovereignty or the Bible or faith or the Church.
And yet if Christ is both Truth and Love, why must only one of the two be fundamental? Why should we not stress a loving of others and a desire for Truth? It is true that truth without love is dead, but is it not also true that love without truth has no meaning? For how can you love what you do not understand? This too forms another important disagreement between Evans and us. She does love what she does not understand, but it seems to me that if love is an effort of the will, of the mind, then it is impossible to love what is not understood. We seek to know others, to know God, so that we may love them more fully. When she states “love over doctrine” she is simply expanding love beyond its own definition. Part of our doctrine is the command to “love God and love people.” Separating love from doctrine is simply not supported or necessary. It is then the commitment to absolute truth, to the sovereignty of God, to the Bible, to the Church, and to love others that are all features of the Christian doctrine. Love is not brushed aside as we yearn for knowledge, it is upheld!
Now that love is established as commitment of the will and a fundamental part of the Christian faith, we recognize the chief difference between her reference to love (which determines doctrine), and our reference to love (which is defined by doctrine). The essence of Christianity for her is a commitment to others, while for us it is specific propositions to be believed. We say: “believe these things and you will be saved.” She says: “love your neighbor as yourself and you will be saved.” Now these are very different commands. One says “commit yourself to others” and the other says “believe these things.” Herein lies another important point about the theology of Rachel Held Evans: she believes that her complete salvation comes from faith and works. This is the doctrine from which the Reformers fled. Let’s look at some quotes:
“I don’t think that salvation is simply a matter of getting into heaven and out of hell. For me, following the teachings of Jesus Christ saves me from my sin in the here and now. It can save me on a daily basis from selfishness, materialism, passing judgment, hatred, vindictiveness, and fear.”
“If it’s starting to sound like I believe in works-based salvation , it’s because I do. While I don’t for a second think that we can earn God’s grace by checking off a to-do list, I do believe that there is liberation in obedience.”
We hold the opposite position. Regarding the first quote, we follow the teachings of Jesus because he saved us from sin. Regarding the second quote, we believe that we are liberated (by faith) so that we can obey. But surely there is liberation in obedience right? For why does disobedience lead to more bondage? But we hold that only if this obedience is coupled with faith is there liberation. But in this case, it is the faith, not obedience that carries with it the liberating power. For otherwise it is just faithless deeds, which can have an even more binding effect –legalism is slavery.
Christianity then, for Evans, is about following (acting out) the teachings of Jesus, and it is this that saves her. The perspective is not eternal, it is immediate. Christianity for us is believing a set of doctrines centered around the person of Christ. Doing vs. believing. Orthopraxy (the correct activity) vs. Orthodoxy (the correct belief). In fact, this is one of the reasons why she said she has joined the so-called “emerging conversation.” Because she likes the idea of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy.
It is in this that we finally discover the essence of her Christianity: acting as Christ acted. This is what she means by love: action. It is by this pursuit that she is saved from sin “in the here and now” as opposed to the eternal status of heaven/hell. Christianity is a system of action, not dos and don’ts, but action nonetheless. On the contrary, we hold that the essence of Christianity is not about action, but about belief; and the perspective is primarily eternal, not the here and now.
If we hold that love is a commitment of the mind, how can we say that her system, which finds its basis on love, is one of action? We can say this precisely because love means nothing to her if not for its call to action whereas love means nothing to us if not for its dependence on the propositional revelation of God. Our Christianity is primarily about believing the right things, hers is one of acting in the right way.
Now, it should be made crystal clear that salvation has more than one aspect. We are justified by faith alone, by assent (Evans confusingly, whenever she dismisses this doctrine, writes this word as ascent) to a set of propositions. And yet it is true that this faith results in good works and that by continuing to know God better, we are sanctified. Justification then is the liberation from the penalty from sin and sanctification is the liberation from the power of sin. Our perspective may be eternal, but this does not mean we don’t have a doctrine for our physical life here on earth. This does not mean that we aren’t to mimic the life of Christ. These things we do not deny. But sanctification and good works are results of justification by faith, without which it is impossible to please God and without which there is no salvation. Christianity then finds its essence in doctrine and doctrine includes the command to love. It is unfair for Evans to indicate that our love for doctrine necessarily eliminates our desire to “love one another.”
It is now much more simple to analyze the rest of her theology given her basis, her “new fundamental,” of love. Love, as her presupposition, determines what is meant by salvation, faith, community, truth, teaching, and even the Bible itself. Contrarily, we hold that the Bible, as our presupposition, determines the meaning of those things, including love. She asks: how does this interpretation of the Bible inspire me to love better? We ask: how is this interpretation of the Bible consistent with everything else we read? Hers is utilitarian, pragmatic. Ours is theoretical, ideological. This is not to say that we don’t ever consider pragmatic action anymore than it means she never considers doctrine. The issue concerns what is primary –what saves us, what Christ came to bring us.
She complains that our hermeneutic necessarily leads to differences between the individuals, so how can we say our interpretation is correct? We do not deny this, for differences are acceptable by us within the Christian community. So then it is not mere differences which urge us to question somebody else’s Christianity, it is the definition of Christianity to which they hold. The fundamentals of Evans’ Christianity is far different than ours: Interpretation of Scripture vs. love. Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy. Doctrine vs. action. For Evans, in each of the three previous juxtapositions, the latter determines the former. For us, the former determines the latter! It seems that the differences between our systems are further apart than Evans would like to admit.
Because of our varying presuppositions, we do not approach sin or truth in the same way. It is for this reason that Evans, for example, can vocalize her support for the homosexual movement. The description in the Bible of the covenant between one man and one woman means less to her than the command to love one another. For us, the command to love one another must be applied along with the other teachings of Scripture as a whole. So for Evans, because of her use of love, we are in the wrong for calling homosexual activity a sin, but for us, it is a misapplication of love to say that it prevents us from determining the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. For if our love for God includes our love for His character and precepts, and the Scriptures reveal those things, it would be contradictory for us to ignore sin when loving another person. But then also, it would be wrong for us to ignore love when speaking the truth. Both love and truth are doctrinal and are determined by the whole of Scripture. We love others in spite of their sin, but it does not follow from this that we dismiss their sins as unimportant.
As we can see, I refrained from taking down each of her positions via Bible verses. If you pay attention to her and her discussions with others in the Church, you will realize that this does not “work” for her, because she does not believe in the “exclusive authority, inerrancy, perspicuity, and internal consistency” of the Scripture and she does not see the Bible as having only one necessary interpretation. Therefore this “consideration” would not have been very effective. Rather, I want the reader to understand that we are dealing with very different systems of truth, different presuppositions. Evans is clear that she wants the Church to rethink their presuppositions. I would agree, because very few actually consider the word of God as their presupposition today. Evans stands on a completely different foundation than we do. Which one is Christianity? Neither she, nor we, could possibly say we are both right.
The meaning of Christianity, as we have seen, differs between us. Therefore the meaning and implications of love and faith and salvation differ as well. This too we have made clear. She denies that we are justified by faith (belief) alone and she also denies that Scripture alone is the infallible rule of the Christian worldview. Her liberalism therefore shines through quite clearly. And it is a completely different understanding of the world. Same words, different meaning. But meaning is what determines accuracy adherence to reality.
Are the differences in our meaning of Christianity, love, faith, and salvation merely debating points of lesser importance than the “Christian community?” I don’t think so. For it is by these very doctrines that the Chrisitian community is defined and specified. It is only by presupposing her view of “love over doctrine” (as opposed to our belief that love is included in doctrine) that we could possibly say that the essential doctrines of the faith are subservient to her meaning of love. In claiming that Christian beliefs should not cause division between us and unbelievers, she has turned the Christian faith on its head. For it is by belief that we are made separate from this world. The world believes in the autonomy of man and we believe in the supremacy of God. As noted above, it is not differences in doctrine alone that divides us, but it is the differences in the presuppositions of what constitutes Christian faith. We believe in unity despite differences, not unity despite our religion.
They might say that Christianity is a “relationship not a religion.” But we disagree. And if we disagree, our meaning of Christianity is different. But addressing that common catch phrase, we first note that religion itself refers to worldview and belief, not rules. So now the catch phrase reads that Christianity is a “relationship not a belief system.” But what is a relationship but a connection with a person based on knowing specific propositions about them? Perhaps Gordon H. Clark said it best:
As for having a ‘personal relationship’ with Christ, if the phrase means something more than assenting to true propositions about Jesus, what is that something more? Feeling warm inside? Coffee has the same effect. Surely ‘personal relationship’ does not mean what we mean when we say that we know someone personally: perhaps we have shaken his hand visited his home or he ours, or eaten with him. John had a ‘personal relationship’ with Christ in that sense, as did all the disciples, including Judas Iscariot. But millions of Christians have not, and Jesus called them blessed: They have not seen and yet have believed. The difference between Judas Iscariot and the other disciples is not that they had a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus and he did not, but that they believed, that is, assented to, certain propositions about Jesus, while Judas did not believe those propositions.
While these things aren’t talked about much these days, they are really not too radical to comprehend. What is our relationship with a good friend but a vast store of knowledge about who they are and what they like? We assent (agree with or approve) a collection of propositions about them. Some may counter, “but my relationship with my friend is based on the fact that they make me feel good inside.” But that seems profoundly shallow and temporal. So therefore Christianity is a religion (or worldview) that includes a relationship with God (a unique doctrine among many other religions).
The above presents some differences between the new liberals and the historic Protestant faith and notes that the biggest difference is that they are completely different worldviews. It is a child of the liberalism which Machen once warned against in his book Christianity and Liberalism. He showed that while they use the very same vocabulary, they mean things totally different. And thus they get frustrated when we begin to define. When we consider that their foundation is different than ours, we should not be surprised by the words of Rachel Held Evans in a CNN piece where she responded to the fact that more and more millennials are leaving the Church:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.
She continues after noting that “millennials” do not want a show or a performance at church –that is not the solution. She writes:
In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
They don’t want a show. They want authentic. Authentically unbiblical perhaps? They don’t want a change is style, but in substance. But what is Christianity without a core substance? It is not Christianity. How can a substance based on eternal truth be changed? It can’t. But this is not a problem for the new liberals precisely because they deny our assumption that truth is eternally unchanged. They want to go back to Rome. They are not Roman Catholics (they despise authority), but they love its traditions and its patterns. And they love its different substance.
She ends with this:
I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.
Their answers might surprise you.
Hopefully, by taking a look into the worldview of our time, we will no longer be surprised. The common trends of culture have always made attempts to enter into the Church, truly this is not a new development. And what if the new liberal complains that this article is exactly their problem with conservative Christianity? This “us vs. them” divide. Well, it is then that we should present our arguments for a definition of Christianity. In the meantime, we must be prepared. We must speak the truth in love. God must determine what Church is like, what the “faith community” presents itself to be. God determines substance. The truth of the gospel needs to be preached in love. And while the gospel is good news, its content only makes sense if we consider that we are radically depraved and naturally opposed to God. We are then saved not by any merit, any act of obeying the law, but rather by faith. All these things we believe because “the Bible tells me so.”
As you continue to hear from Rachel Held Evans in the coming future please understand this: she knows her vocabulary. She will refer to herself as an evangelical (thereby effectually rendering the word meaningless) and all sorts of other labels. But remember, vocabulary means nothing if not for the definition. Since the new liberals including Evans have either dismissed, or else redefined, Christian vocabulary, we must press hard to understand their definitions and the meanings behind their words. Redefining words is a monumentally sneaky means to infiltrate the Christian religion. Evans and the new liberals will use Christian vocabulary but with very different meaning and doctrine. This is what Machen faced when we addressed the rise of liberalism in America. And we ought to take his example –for today’s liberalism is alive and well. It comes in sheep’s clothing, but it is indeed an entirely different worldview.