British historian David Bebbington famously provided his four-point sociological taxonomy of evangelicalism in 1989. While the edges and applications have been debated on and off, the framework of the Bebbington Quadraleteral still proves useful. Evangelicalism is characterized by,
- Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages).
- Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
- Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.
- Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.
Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen similarly provided a five-point definition in his introduction to the 2007 Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology…
I recently became aware that J. Gresham Machen authored a counter-affirmation to the Modernist Auburn Affirmation (see Stonehouse’s biography of Machen, page 357). The second and fourth points neatly dovetail into the case I’ve been making about the EPC and confessional interpretation. While the doctrines under consideration in the EPC do not strike at Nicene Christianity, and thus the stakes are lower than in the 1920s, the contours of the debate are similar: Who should interpret the church’s doctrinal standards, and what should that interpretation be? Machen’s counter-affirmation, reprinted below, could be helpful.
A Counter-Affirmation designed to Safeguard the Corporate Witness of the Presbyterian Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, having been made cognizant of an Affirmation signed by one hundred and fifty ministers in protest against the action of the General Assembly of 1923, and being convinced that the Affirmation will have an effect detrimental to the unity and corporate witness of the Church, desire to make the following answer:
I. The constitution of the Church, though it does not claim infallibility for itself, clearly does claim it (in the pledge required of all officers) for the Scriptures. This fact is ignored and in effect denied in the Affirmation.
II. The right of interpretation of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession does not mean that any officer of the Church may interpret the Scriptures or the system of doctrines described in the Confession as he pleases. Every interpretation must confirm to the meaning of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession where the meaning is clear. The interpretations for which toleration is asked in section IV of the Affirmation, on the contrary, reverses the plain meaning. Thus the Affirmation really advocate the destruction of the confessional witness of the Church. To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all.
III. In section IV of the Affirmation, the five points covered in the pronouncement of the General Assembly of 1923 are declared to be “theories” which some of the signers of the Affirmation regard as satisfactory but which all the signers unite in believing not to be the only theories allowed by the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures allow the Virgin Birth, for example, and the bodily resurrection of our Lord to be regarded both as facts and not as facts. We protest against any such opinion. The redemptive events mentioned in the pronouncement of the Assembly are not theories but facts upon which Christianity is based, and without which Christianity would fall.
IV. We believe that the unity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America can be safeguarded, not by a liberty of interpretation on the part of the officers of the Church, which allows a complete reversal of perfectly plain documents, but only by maintenance of the corporate witness of the Church. The Church is found not upon agnosticism but upon a common adherence to the truth of the gospel as set forth in the confession of faith on the basis of the Scriptures.
Last year I drafted an outline for what an intentionally, far-reaching strategy to support disenfranchised Christians could be. The inspiration comes in large part from Rod Dreher’s book Live Not By Lies, but with a practical focus on supporting Christians who lose their livelihoods and social resources as a result of staying faithful to Christian ethics.
If the church is going to urge Christians to choose suffering over conformity to the world, we should also be prepared to care for those who have lost out for the sake of Christ. That requires the standards of ethical behavior to determined in advance rather than being left up to individual consciences or corporate charity. The church needs to take the lead. Using the 10 Commandments as the jumping off point, I provide a sketch for ethical requirements alongside areas of current social pressure. While the tools for practical implementation have a slight EPC-bent, they should be amendable to most evangelical traditions.
We were required to read John Frame’s “Machen’s Warrior Children” in seminary. It was intended to be a warning against denominational quarrelsomeness, but had the effect of puffing us up: We’re charitable, winsome Presbyterians, not like these other petty “Truly” Reformed types who make everything a battle. Rereading the article, it is pretty clear that the most common denominator and antagonist in these debates is not Machen’s Warrior Children, but John Frame. Doctor, heal thyself.