I was having coffee yesterday afternoon with a clergy friend, and I do believe I shocked her when I said that I have come to the point where I can say out loud, "I am not an evangelical." I'm sure that would also come as a surprise to many of my friends among the clergy and church scouters; after all, in so many ways, we are simpatico.
But "evangelicalism" is two different things, and one can be an evangelical in one sense, or both senses, or in neither sense.
Evangelicalism is, for most people, a sub-culture of the Christian religion. It has its codes and its symbols by which members of the sub-culture recognize each other. I learned this when I went to seminary. Having grown up pretty much outside the Church, I found most of my fellow seminarians acting and speaking from within an identity that I found artificial. I don't mean by that they were inauthentic or posers or anything, simply that they had constructed a way to be Christian. The proof that they had constructed it is that I had to learn it; it wasn't naturally assumed upon becoming a Christian.
I found it frustrating that my fellows, who were steeped in their own religious sub-culture, often found it impossible to imagine being a Christian without being a Christian-like-them. For too many of them, their sub-culture defined the whole of Christian culture, and they spent their efforts trying to make Christians of all stripes into Evangelicals, at least as much as they spent their efforts trying to make non-Christians into Christians of any stripe.
Evangelicals are not alone in this, of course; there are lots of Christian sub-cultures that see all other ways to be Christian as somehow defective. But as someone who wanted to make non-Christians into Christians, I was aware that there are more ways to be Christian than Evangelicalism. I was also aware that my tastes and my style were often out of synch with that of my fellows, and I found it weary always to be the one who had to adapt in order to belong.
In practice, I spend a lot of time cooperating with Evangelicals on programs and actions that we both support. I've spent many years in leadership of the Emmaus movement, for instance, and I am a supporter of the Confessing Movement. But for me, the evangelical sub-culture has been defined for all time by one of their own (Chuck Bolte and the Jeremiah People, c. 1975):
Praise God and Hallelujah!
Now I'm gonna sock it to ya
with the lingo that's so dull
of the Ee-van-jelli-cul.
Thank you, Jesus! Praise the Lord!
I hope no one's really bored
with my sermon of today,
though I've nothin' new to say.
As the Final Days go faster,
and we prepare to meet our Lord and Master,
I don't mean to be Hard Shell,
but repent! or go to . . . We-e-e-e-ll,
it's time now fer salvation,
for every man and every nation.
Let the altar call begin!
Congregation: Oh, here we go again!
I hope you find that as funny as I do. It's a loving, not hostile, take on evangelicalism. Evangelicalism as a sub-culture is only stifling when it takes itself too seriously, as it too often does. But the final point is, in terms of the sub-culture, I am not an evangelical.
Now, there is another meaning to the term, Evangelical. It's a theological one, and it relates to a certain view of the Scriptures. I certainly have a very high view of the Scriptures. I stand with my evangelical colleagues against those who are just making stuff up. But when we get off in the technical weeds, I find myself, again, standing apart from those I normally caucus with.
Without going into all the jots and tittles of evangelical theology, the essence of it is that the Bible interprets itself. This seems to me to have some serious problems. First of all, interpreting itself includes declaring what is, and is not, Scripture. Jaroslav Pelikan's little book, Whose Bible Is It?
demonstrates that the very identity of the canon differs from group to group, which means that how the Bible interprets itself varies according to what books you allow belong to it. Evangelicals too often assume that "the Bible" is the book they buy down at the Bible Book Store: it's the one they're used to using, and besides, they have no acquaintance with the Deutero-Canonical books or the historical debate between Augustine and Jerome over their inclusion, yada yada. For people who believe that the Bible is the perfect book given by God, they show a surprising ignorance over how we got the Bible. In effect, they are using their evangelical sub-culture as a pre-conditioning Tradition to interpret the Bible.
Likewise, they derive (as many other Christians do) things from the text that are not there. They read back into the text stuff about ritual, and life after death, about church government, stuff that just isn't there. Once again, they are using their evangelical sub-culture as a pre-conditioning Tradition to interpret the Bible.
But this is just what they accuse Roman Catholics of doing, of exalting Tradition over the Bible. Yet, here's the thing: we all do this. In fact, there is no other way to do it. If Christianity ceased utterly to exist for five hundred years, and a bunch of people found a copy of the Bible, Evangelicals suppose that they could use it to re-create the true Church. I'm sure the people rediscovering the Bible could use it to become believers in Christ, but the idea that American Evangelicalism (the true path, you know) would spring forth whole from its state of suspended animation is just silly. The Tradition out of which that group in the future would read the Bible would be different, so their interpretation would necessarily be somewhat different.
All believers read the Bible from within the greater Christian tradition, and also from within their own sub-cultural tradition. This is not because Tradition trumps Scripture, but because the Bible is a book, and this is how we read books. The reader may, in fact, be changed by what he reads, but the reader always starts out with a point of view that is brought to the text.
The Church -- including Evangelicals -- has been formed by her experience, and the past is in conversation with the future. This is one meaning of the Communion of Saints. We read the Bible as we have been taught to read it over the last two thousand years. The Tradition and the Scripture are co-inherent. If Tradition makes the Scripture stand on its head to say what it manifestly does not say, then that's an abuse. Scripture must evaluate Tradition. But Tradition is a necessary pre-condition of approaching the Scripture. Catholics may have gone too far in exalting Tradition at times, but at least they're honest about the role of Tradition; Evangelicals pretend that they don't have a Tradition, that everything comes from The Book. This is nonsense.
Some years ago, I was serving as a Spiritual Director for a women's Walk to Emmaus. We had one table of women from hard-core evangelical churches who were very uncomfortable with the ecumenical unity-in-diversity that was on offer. One lady in particular was the ringleader, and she kept the table on the bubble, resistant to the process of engaging the ideas being presented. I wandered over to join their discussion at one point. This lady appealed to/challenged me as the authority on the spot, asking me to endorse her point of view by saying, "There can be only one Truth, right?"
I replied, "Yes. And since I have
that Truth, then if you disagree with it we can either spend the whole weekend wrangling over it or figure out a way to get along with each other." And with that, she subsided and the whole table of pilgrims was sweetness and light personified for the rest of the weekend. Normally, I don't high-hand people like that, but she appealed to authority so authority is what I gave her. But here's the point. She was trying to avoid dealing with her tradition versus others', thinking that she could just appeal to the Truth, as it comes straight from The Book. Except that the Truth comes to us mediated through both the written record (Scripture) and the living experience of the Church (Tradition).
Which is why, as regards their view of Scripture, I am not an Evangelical, though I agree with them on just about everything else, doctrinally. I just don't think they're being honest on where they're getting everything from.