“Open Evangelicalism”

Anglican Evangelicalism is different than “American Evangelicalism.” Losts can be said concerning the differences. One of the primary differences is that Anglican Evangelicalism still finds itself resting squarely in a sacramental and liturgical “catholicism.” Some refer to it as “Reformed Catholicism.”
Within the current theological/cultural wars between the “orthodox” and the “heterodox,” much of Evangelicalism, whether Anglican or American, is seen as a movement always against something. The image presented, I assume unintended, is negative, angry, bitter, and oppressive.
Stephen Kuhrt, Curate of Christ Church, New Malden and Administrative Secretary of Fulcrum, writes about what Evangelicalism has been doing and what it needs to do. Basically, he says that liberal theologians find problems and holes in “orthodox” theology and deal with them. Their conclusions or reformulations may be completely incorrect, but they do legitimately find problems. Evangelicals have been responding defensively and simply retorting that liberals are heretics who have capitulated to the culture at large and who wish to diminish the faith. Kuhrt says that Evangelicals need to respond differently, and an example of the good response can be found in the theology and writings of N.T. Wright. At one point towards the end, Kuhrt calls this process “Open Evangelicalism.” I like it!
Here is the link to Kuhrt’s essay. It is short and interesting.

Discovering a positive model for responding to unorthodox theology
by Stephen Kuhrt
Growing up within evangelical subculture certainly gave me many things for which I will always be grateful: sustained affirmation of the personal relationship that I can have with God through Jesus, the breeding of a real confidence in the Bible’s relevance to my everyday life and energetic youth workers taking a committed and involved interest in my development.
Of course there were flaws as well. And none more so, perhaps, than the provision of a model for responding to unorthodox theology that was almost entirely defensive and reactionary. As a mid teenager, my experience of a deeper sense of God’s reality on a CYFA ‘venture’ in the long hot summer of 1984, coincided with an increasing realisation that there were Christians “out there” who didn’t believe the things so integral to the package that I was receiving. The individual who represented these “others” most obviously was the recently consecrated Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. Within the culture in which my faith was being nurtured, Jenkins’ denial of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus provoked firstly consternation followed by the strong desire to show why he was wrong. At a local level this was apparent in sermons and youth group evenings on “the evidence for the resurrection” while the whole evangelical constituency was speedily provided with John Stott’s The Authentic Jesus (1985) subtitled “a response to current scepticism in the Church”. Followed in later years by volumes such as Essentials (1988), these rebuttals were clear and considered enough for a late teenager to feel that this challenge against the established framework of his belief was being met and effectively answered.
And yet an important question remained embedded within my subconscious: why were Jenkins and these others thinking this way? Whether I ever vocalised this question I cannot recall but I do remember the implicit answer. People who express such views are being led astray by worldly assumptions and so their denial of orthodox Christian belief is basically down to their lack of faith. The required response to this was very much modelled by the constituency’s hero, John Stott – loving patience and kindness towards the doubters combined with a resolute and determined defence of what they were seeking to question.
However, as time went on, this paradigm became increasingly difficult to sustain. Religious Studies “A Level” introduced me to the ideas of the Biblical critics and what I read and experienced made me start to realise that these liberals attacks were homing in on areas of real weakness. The more I reflected on the physical resurrection of Jesus, for instance, the more it appeared to combine immense status as an article of faith for evangelicals with relatively low status in terms of its actual significance. “Going to heaven when we die” was how the Christian hope was presented and with the death of Jesus claiming centre stage, the resurrection appeared to be limited to the strictly supporting role of “showing that the cross had worked”. 1 Corinthians 15 produced an occasional emphasis on our future being somehow embodied but this was never really integrated into the central message that the “home” for which we were heading was quite different from our present existence. And within this context the foundations for our stern defence of Jesus’ physical resurrection suddenly seemed rather flimsy – if going to heaven when we die was the hope for Christians then what was the problem with affirming that Jesus did the same? “Because the Bible says so!” seemed the only available answer.
Meanwhile other related issues also began to trouble me. I increasingly knew in my guts that Christians were called to pursue a radical social agenda but what was the basis for this within evangelical “orthodoxy”? “Going to heaven when we die”, after all, signalled a clear priority for evangelism ahead of any form of social action. “What is going to last?” the curate at my church eventually snapped to my questioning and his impatience signalled the clear choice that was opening up before me: Switch off my questions and become a conservative evangelical or join the lonely ranks of those post-evangelicals who had jettisoned a redundant theology without possessing anything to put in its place.
But eventually, thank God, I never had to make that choice. Help was at hand, most principally from a “new kid” on the “evangelical block” called Tom Wright [1]. Stuck within the paradigm that my culture had bequeathed to me, Tom’s rather different take on the New Testament originally flew straight over my head. But eventually the penny dropped. “Going to heaven when we die” is simply a pale and debased form of the wonderful hope that it presented to us through the Bible’s pages. The physical resurrection of Jesus, I was led to realise, both signals and begins the process by which the creator God is going to remake this world and restore it to the way that he always intended it to be. This is the wonderful, earth shattering and marvellous significance of Jesus’ resurrection and packaged within it was the answer to my most pressing questions. Of course, social action and care for God’s creation are as important and vital as evangelism because they are all part of extending the new creation that broke into our world on Easter day and will be brought to completion on that future day when Jesus returns. The physical resurrection of Jesus, I came to realise, was a vital and indispensable part of the radical, life changing faith that I had always known Christianity should be[2].
However I was also aware that the process by which I had arrived at this “discovery” held its own significance. The fact was that Jenkins and co had honed their attack on a piece of doctrine that had been allowed to become perfunctory and toothless. Hopelessly wrong in their solution, they had nonetheless exposed a glaring hole in supposedly biblical orthodoxy and a hole which defensive reaction only served to mask further. Wright had showed the more appropriate response: going back to the Scriptures with a readiness to both rediscover their neglected treasures and let them radically reshape and renew evangelical orthodoxy.
And within this lies a very positive and constructive model for responding to unorthodox theology. Sometimes, perhaps, a purely defensive reaction is still called for but a much better norm is to assume that there are good and compelling reasons for the case being set out. Those making it may well be wrong, perhaps hopelessly so, but the really critical question is what has happened within Christian “orthodoxy” for them to see it this way? What gap or hole are they exposing? Responding to this question and rising to its challenge is much harder than defensive reaction because it involves being open to there being really crucial things within the Scriptures that we may have missed or neglected. But it can also be the means by which we find these things and are consequently enabled to really grow in our understanding, faith and discipleship.
Wright’s work provides plenty of similar examples, particularly in regard to the so-called “new perspective” on St Paul. As a frontal attack on Luther’s “take” on Paul, the wholly defensive impulse that many evangelicals have felt against “the Sanders revolution” is completely understandable. It is all the more tempting given the largely unconvincing reinterpretation that Sanders has provided of Paul’s method and theology. But the fact is that Sanders’ unmasking of a barren and stereotypical understanding of Judaism has provided a desperately needed challenge to the “orthodox” understanding of Paul. Tom Wright, alongside others, has risen to this challenge and through his willingness to reconsider and question the standard evangelical understanding of “justification by faith”, “righteousness” and even “the gospel”, Wright has produced an interpretation of Paul is that is richer, more excitingly relevant and, among many other things as well, so much easier to relate to Jesus[3].
The model that suggests itself for evangelicals, therefore, is one of self-critical as well as critical engagement. Rather than assuming that those proposing unorthodox theology are simply misguided, lazy or even plain wicked, a better and more humble approach is to be open to the weaknesses within current “orthodoxy” that they have detected. My increasing opinion is that they will always be on to something. And evangelicalism, at its best, will have the nerve to rise to the challenge of addressing these areas and be prepared to be surprised by the fresh insights thrown up from this engagement. We won’t necessarily (or even usually) endorse the suggested reconstruction but we will be prepared to accept, partly because of our theology of the Body of Christ, that a crucial insight has been raised that we need to engage with. Perhaps this is one of the core values of “Open Evangelicalism”. Abandoning an instinctive and reactionary defensiveness, we will strive to employ a positive, generous and exciting model for responding to unorthodox theology.
Stephen Kuhrt is Curate of Christ Church, New Malden and Administrative Secretary of Fulcrum
End Notes
The notes in the text are hyperlinked into the end notes; to return to the text, click on the end note number
[1] While N T Wright had been writing academic articles from 1978, it was really from the early nineties that his theology started to work its way into more popular consciousness.
[2] A really handy introduction to this thought is contained in N.T. Wright New Heaven, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope Grove Biblical Booklets no. 11 Cambridge (1999). For Wright’s fullest treatment of the subject see The Resurrection of the Son of God SPCK (London, 2003).
[3] see What St Paul Really Said Lion (Oxford, 1997) and more recently Paul: Fresh Perspectives SPCK (London, 2005). Wright’s interpretation of Paul can also be seen in his numerous commentaries on the Pauline epistles as well as in his many articles, most of which are available on www.ntwrightpage.com.