Monday, May 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Evangelical Manifesto

Last week, a document entitled The Evangelical Manifesto was released by a broad group of Christian leaders (by that, I mean leaders of Christianity in various forms) as an effort to raise helpful questions and offer helpful guidance about how we, as Christians, live out our faith as both citizens of the Kingdom and residents in our American culture.

The list of 80 "
charter signatories" and authors includes a lot of names that will be familiar to many Christians: Kay Arthur, Darrell Bock, Stuart Briscoe, Leighton Ford, Os Guinness, Jack Hayford, Max Lucado, J.P. Moreland, John Ortberg, Rebecca Manley Pippert, Alvin Plantinga, Miroslav Volf, Jim Wallis. It also includes many names that won't be familiar, while the titles under them will: President of Dallas Theological Seminary; Chancellor, Northwest University; President, National Association of Evangelicals; President, Bethel University; President, Dollar General; Founder, Leadership Network; President, Liberty Seminary; Former President, Eastern University; President, World Vision International; President-Emeritus, Gordon-Conwell Seminary; President, Wheaton College; President, World Relief; President, Houghton College; President, Institute for Global Engagement; Editor in Chief, Christianity Today International; Founder, Charisma Magazine; President, National Religious Broadcasters; President, Beeson Divinity School. You get the point.

What's laudable about the document is that it offers clarification to a question that there are far too many answers for today: who are the Evangelicals? We hear about them in the news (especially as tied to some political or social movement). The Manifesto clearly asserts that we (Evangelical Christians) ought to be defined more by our theology than our political, social, or cultural agendas. And it goes on to say that, whatever we may differ about, there are many truths we can agree upon-- which it spells out in eloquent terms. It is unashamed of the Bible, of historically orthodox Christianity, and of the plain Gospel of salvation through Christ alone. (Some have suggested that it is not exclusive enough on the "Christ alone" part-- I don't see how the statement, "we believe that the only ground for our acceptance by God is what Jesus Christ did on the cross and what he is now doing through his risen life, whereby he exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence, bore the penalty for our sins, credited us with his righteousness, redeemed us from the power of evil, reconciled us to God, and empowers us with his life 'from above'" (pp. 5-6) leaves that open to question.) The authors state that, in answer to the question above, we must reaffirm our identity, reform our own behavior, and rethink our place in public life. And in their description of how we might do all of these things, they challenge self-described Evangelicals to handle themselves and others with charity, grace, and humility, leading with a message of affirming what is true before asserting what we are against.

It's interesting to me that the above goals are almost exactly what I have been thinking about lately, and dialoguing with others about. It seems like there is a groundswell of support for exactly these ideas, and this Manifesto is perhaps the first big, self-conscious step in a good direction that the whole of American Christianity might undertake. It's not the only step, nor is it the last step, but it is a very good first step.

The document has come under fire right from the start, naturally-- because these days, it seems like anything that suggests that Christians can actually find common ground with one another, reaching past denominational or theological boundaries and acknowledging the faith and brotherhood of those who don't believe exactly like us, is clearly faulty and problematic in the eyes of a small but vocal minority. I've read a good bit of discussion surrounding this Manifesto, and I'm surprised at how vehemently it has been attacked in some cases. (Some of the attackers admit that they haven't even read the document!) My suspicion is that many of the attackers, by and large, are responding defensively to the suggestion in the Manifesto that their single-issue voting, slippery-slope sectarianism, or separatist fundamentalism is somehow out of accord with Scripture. This, by the way, is based on the fact that much of the criticism is aimed at these issues, and consists of arguments like, "how can they argue that there is a fight more important than abortion?" (which the Manifesto DOESN'T argue). As one commenter said, these critics are reading more into the document than they are reading out of it.

There are some legitimate critiques-- even some that I agree with-- but I don't think these should prevent Christians from embracing this document for what it is: a starting point, a common point. It isn't a complete articulation of what it means to be a Christian-- which is why, for example, there is something left to be desired in the view of participation in a local church-- nor is it a call to do LESS than what we are already doing in our life of faith, generally speaking. It is simply a call to be MORE what we claim to be, and to connect more fully with others who share the same faith.

Perhaps the most interesting attack came from Douglas Wilson. Known for his tendency to provoke strong responses, Wilson accuses the document of handing over the public square to the atheists and secularists (which, I suppose, is what the Manifesto's perspective would look like to a Reconstructionist like Wilson). This attack was interesting to me because Wilson was/is one of the loudest voices accusing the PCA of being too exclusive and not accepting enough of theological variance when it comes to the Federal Vision controversy. (Watch out, FV proponents; it looks like Wilson could be quite inconsistent in this way, much like my friend Jon and I
discussed in the comments of his blog.) One brief paragraph from the Manifesto could have been penned by one of those very FV proponents who came under fire: "Behind this affirmation is the awareness that identity is powerful and precious to groups as well as to individuals. Identity is central to a classical liberal understanding of freedom. There are grave dangers in identity politics, but we insist that we ourselves, and not scholars, the press, or public opinion, have the right to say who we understand ourselves to be. We are who we say we are, and we resist all attempts to explain us in terms of our true motives and our real agenda" (p. 4).

It's worth noting that the self-appointed watchdogs of the PCA haven't commented on this document, although the "blogosphere" is abuzz about it. (In fact, I haven't heard anything about it from anyone in the PCA, that I know of.) I'm curious about why this is so, though I have my suspicions. How about it, friends: what is your take on the Evangelical Manifesto?

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