Its sad to say but in recent years it has become quite fashionable to focus on the place of the poor and marginalised in our society – well to talk about it – because the hard cold reality is much different to the romantic notions.
In the last 10 years the ‘social gospel’ as it was once called has become quite mainstream. No longer is it just for dreadlocked hippie radicals or aging Uniting church women – it has come on the radar of most churches and the ‘social gospel’ is no longer ‘liberal’ territory, but rather an integral part of most protestant churches.
Who’d have thought it?…
For some reason we now believe that acts of kindness are actually intrinsically valuable rather than being simply hooks to lure people to faith. (I grew up in the old world and have seen and participated in the shift so I am not having a dig at anyone here!)
As we look back its quite sad to see how wide of the mark we were with our understanding and how further wide we were with our action. Of course the challenge now is to translate current rhetoric into more substantial action, but that’s another story.
The reason for this post is to ask about how theological shifts occur and what drives them. Clearly there has been a theological shift on this issue of justice and compassion and no one would doubt its validity (I think…)
What other shifts are in the wind for conservative evangelicals and more importantly why do we shift?
Evangelicals are well known as ‘people of the book’, nice in theory, but in practice I would tend to suggest it is much more complex than that. We are people of the book as it is read at this place in history. I wish it were as simple as God’s words speaking to us clearly from the pages, but we are deeply influenced by our culture and we need to be aware of this.
I mentioned previously that I was involved in a unit on The History and Form of Evangelicalism at the Baptist Theological College in Perth. I audited the unit and did it simply for the ‘fun’ of it. And it was great fun, talking and wrestling with the issues we face and will face in this diverse movement. (As an aside if you thought ’emerging church’ was hard to define try defining ‘evangelical’!)
Perhaps one of the most telling realisations for me was that despite our ‘people of the book’ rhetoric we are deeply influenced by our surrounding culture and without exception evangelicalism has morphed in different ways to reflect the culture. The problem is that we aren’t usually aware of this element forming us because our culture is the ‘sea we swim in’.
If we look at the church in the 20th Century we see a church that was deeply influenced by the rationality and fact based nature of modernity. It gave form to much of our understanding of the Bible and we debated long and hard over fine points of truth and the questions of inerrancy etc. We saw those issues as vital because questions of empirical proof mattered to the surrounding world we lived in.
As we discussed shifts in evangelicalism in our class we observed some quite radical shifts even in our own lifetime. For example in many churches women are now allowed to be in leadership, and divorced people are not just allowed in leadership, but as pastors.
Did the Bible change?
Do we just understand it ‘better’ now, or has our culture pushed us to shift this way?
I think we’d like to say we have come to better understanding, but I wonder if it wasn’t our culture nudging us and actually propelling us? I wonder if in 20 years time we won’t have also shifted our views on homosexual relationships to accomodate the shift if culture.
Don’t laugh – who’d have thought we would be so open to divorced people in ministry 50 years ago? I imagine this shift will gradually creep into churches and one day we will wonder what all the fuss was about. (I say that as a person who holds pretty conservative views on the topic.)
Which brings me to the question of universalism.
I am not an expert on this subject so I won’t purport to know more than I do here! However what I do observe is both greater openness to this concept than before, as well as some level of acceptance amongst those who would be part of mainstream Christianity.
And so I find myself wondering… is this going to be one of the next significant theological shifts for the evangelicals?…
During the course I was informed by the principal of the college that the dominant view of hell among evangelical scholars these days is ‘annhilationism’ where people simply ‘cease to exist’ rather than living in eternal torment. This is quite a shift in the centre of gravity of this topic alone from 20-30 years ago – a shift I was unaware of being removed from academia.
Are we going to see a soteriological shift to match it as universalism becomes more popular?
The primary reason for the shift in view of Hell (Brian tells me) has been a response to our notion of God and the struggle to see a loving God even allowing for eternal torment – an idea our culture would find abhorrent. So if that one has happened what’s to stop a shift to universalism in some of its different forms becoming popular around our churches, because no one likes a gospel where some in get in and others get left out… A palatable form of universalism may well emerge as we try to accommodate this issue in our culture.
To get you thinking here’s a post by a Baptist Theological College lecturer in the UK asking this question.
Of course the question then emerges ‘how do we deal with this and other theological shifts?’
Do we go with them, or do we resist them and fight them? How do we respond with integrity?
As I spoke with Danelle about this last night we both saw ourselves growing into those older people in church who shake their heads and lament the state of the church ‘these days’. The people today who still frown at divorcees and women in leadership, may well be the anti-universalism people in 30 years time…
Of course we could just go with the flow…