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Biblicism and the Reformed Evangelical magisterium

One of the long-term hallmarks of the American evangelical church has been a congregational independence free from strong denominational ties. Sure, the denominations exist as broad placeholders with certain doctrinal distinctives, but the range of actual beliefs and practices among churches even within a single denomination is often large. In practice, theological interpretations mainly happen at the individual congregation level. This seems reasonable given that the popularly accepted definition of evangelicalism includes “biblicism” as one of its four key characteristics. [ref]Per British historian David Bebbington as referenced in this Wheaton College post. The other three characteristics are conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism.[/ref]

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Within less-evangelical denominations that have a well-defined hierarchy, doctrinal disputes and practice are better kept in-house; the Presbyterians are more than willing to govern their doctrine and practice, and the Catholics have their magisterium – the teaching authority of the church which speaks authoritatively on doctrine.

While Reformed Evangelicalism is still loosely grouped into tribes (Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, Southern Seminary alumni, etc.), I think we are seeing the emergence of a Reformed Evangelical magisterium of sorts. Its hand has been evident the past several months in the reaction to, among other things, Rachel Held Evans‘ new book. I don’t want to address the book in this post – I did that previously – but rather the reaction to it.

Let me say up front that I have great respect for everyone I’m going to mention here, and that I have learned much from and appreciated the teaching of nearly all of them. My goal here is not to suggest that they have nefarious intents or are necessarily intentionally working to form this sort of authoritative cabal, but that its emergence may point to a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of the tenet of biblicism.

Seeing the organization of this Reformed Evangelical cabal isn’t difficult. There is a nicely defined structure that includes:

  • theological institutions (Southern Seminary being the chief example)
  • theologians – D. A. Carson, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Mark Dever
  • charismatic teachers – Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Voddie Baucham, Josh Harris, C. J. Mahaney
  • mouthpieces – The Gospel Coalition website, Desiring God’s website, and The Resurgence website, among others
  • inquisitors – Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung being the prime examples
  • councils – we call ’em conferences, though. Desiring God holds a big one every year, T4G is every other year, and so on.

If a member gets too far out of line, this group is quietly self-regulating. See: Acts29 moving from Driscoll in Seattle to Chandler in Dallas. See also Mahaney leaving his Maryland church of nearly 30 years under a cloud, only to re-emerge as pastor of a new church in Louisville, KY, safely in Al Mohler’s backyard.

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Among the larger group of individual pastors that follow these leaders, doctrinal alignment is maintained by conferences and publishers. As an aspiring author, your first book likely won’t get a look from one of the big names, but if Challies reviews it positively, your second one might. A cover blurb from Driscoll, Keller, or Chandler will help ensure that your book gets accepted at the book sales room at the next conference, and from there you’re all set on your track to successful blogging, authoring, and maybe even your own speaking gig at the next conference!

Get a vote of disapproval, though, and you’ll be on the outside looking in, anywhere from just being ignored (which I’d imagine is bad for an author’s prospects) to having the full court press turned against you (as Rachel Held Evans has had the past few months).

Now, from one perspective, this sort of unity seems like a positive thing, right? We have Baptists, Presbyterians, Free Church-ians, and independents of every stripe coming “Together for the Gospel”. And indeed, this tent is apparently big enough for diversity on sacramental issues like baptism and communion. But touch one of the “third rails” like women’s roles or origins and you’re gonna get dropped like a hot potato. (Recently a professor at Cedarville College got fired because he believed the “right things” about Adam and Eve but not for the right reasons.)

A few of the authors who go where angels fear to tread are given a grudging pass, typically because their academic credentials are too impressive to totally ignore. Think here of Scot McKnight, whose Junia Is Not Alone argues hard for the egalitarian position, but who also taught at TEDS alongside D. A. Carson. And also, oh, that N. T. Wright guy who says some amazingly liberal stuff on social gospel and the environment, but who wrote some stunning stuff on Jesus.

Academic credentials don’t ensure asbestos underwear, though. Pete Enns (a tenured professor) got run out of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, back in 2008 after publishing his book Inspiration and Incarnation, which argued for a re-evaluation of how we read and interpret the Bible – and especially the early parts of the Old Testament. And if you’re a woman without a theology degree, like the aforementioned Evans, well, sorry. You’re toast.

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Ask any of these guys (or your local adherents to their creed) why they put the big focus on these specific doctrinal issues, and what you’ll probably hear is this: “the gospel is at stake“. I think it’s clear, though, that what it really means is “our version of the gospel is at stake”.

And this is where the idea of a magisterium comes in. In the Catholic tradition, the magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. The church leadership speaks an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and the matter is settled.

In the evangelical tradition, however, we don’t have the strong denominational and hierarchical structures to pronounce and enforce Scriptural interpretation. And even though we love the Scripture (a pastor I know and love proudly says he has such a high view of Scripture that “it’s not bibliolatry… but *wink* it’s just almost bibliolatry.”), it’s apparent that while we also love our congregational independence, that independence is just insufficient to protect the evangelical doctrinal turf. And so evangelicalism falls back on its informal magisterium.

I don’t think one can conclude from all this that a magisterium is a bad thing, nor can one conclude that the solution is to move our evangelical churches into some hierarchical denomination. But what is clear is that no matter how loudly some leaders of evangelicalism may cry that we need to simply “believe what the Bible says”, it’s never quite that simple.

bible photo credit: gwilmore via photopin cc
church photo credit: zilverbat. via photopin cc

6 Comments

  1. As James K.A. Smith said, “I’m always amazed when these ‘progressive’ scholars are surprised that institutions take their confessions seriously.” And I suspect that’s a big part of it (as well as why confession are so darned important in evangelicalism)– if you’re working for an institution that has a confession or a doctrinal statement and you publish something that seriously challenges that confession, it only makes sense that you don’t fit into that group anymore and that people challenge your ideas with the same vigor that you challenged theirs.

    Slightly unrelated: do you think that Evans and her cohort behave any differently from the TGC crowd when Mark Driscoll releases a new book?

    • Matthew, my suspicion is that, in some (if not many) of the cases of faculty being pushed out, the “erring” member’s position was arguably within the bounds of the institution’s written confession, but outside the comfort zone of the institution’s leadership. (I’m too busy at the moment to substantiate that claim, though, so anyone else can feel free to confirm/deny.)

      I’m not at all suggesting that confessions aren’t important, or that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. What concerns me, though, is that sharp lines are at times today getting drawn in places where there has historically been room for disagreement within orthodox (little o) Christianity, and the end result is unhelpful for a multitude of reasons.

      As for your second question, my answer is ‘probably not much’.

      • Where do you think “sharp lines are drawn where there has historically been room for disagreement”? Most of the sharp lines I’ve seen drawn are around issues were there hasn’t been much room for disagreement.

        • The one that immediately comes to mind is the relationship of faith and science, and how our understanding of science affects our interpretation of the first part of Genesis. The last 50 – 100 years have seen strong growth in a fundamentalist viewpoint that says the only possible interpretation of Genesis 1 – 2 is of a ~6000-year-old universe. Heck, I’m currently in a church where we’re taught that ‘living by faith’ means, among other things, believing in a young earth regardless of what scientific ‘evidence’ may tell us.

          Contrast that with this lovely quote from St. Augustine, and I think you can agree that the lines have sharpened drastically.

          • Sorry about the late reply– I think you cite a decent example, although as far as I know, no one’s been fired and no churches have split over it, making it harder to say it’s such a “sharp line” (indeed, even the rather conservative PCA says it’s okay, on some level, to assent to the scientific consensus on evolution.) I think that pro-theistic evolution folks (of which I am totally one) probably overplay the Augustine thing a little bit, as I don’t think there’s ever really been time to historically have room for disagreement in any meaningful sense over evolution specifically. But now I’m just being picky with you to challenges your generalities. ; )

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