in defence of generous orthodoxy

I like the attitude generous orthodoxy. That is, an approach to theology which values and strives for orthodoxy and truth, yet is generous towards people with whom you don’t quite see eye to eye. Generous orthodoxy holds fast to the Bible, yet is open to correction from fresh Biblical investigation. It assumes the best of others who interpret the Bible differently, because we all see through a glass darkly.

So Mark Thompson’s (the incoming principal of Moore College) recent post on ‘guarding the gospel’ made me anxious.

…there would always be those who wanted to claim the label ‘evangelical’ while actively working to undermine one or more of the basic convictions of historic ‘evangelicalism’.

You see, I am one of the people who identifies with evangelicals but who doesn’t hold all the convictions many evangelicals held in the past. Does he realise he’s pushing me outside the camp?

So who can claim to be evangelical?

I always thought that to be evangelical was to be ‘gospelly’ (‘gospel-centred’ as the current jargon goes). Evangelicals have been defined by the four values – biblicism, crucicentricism, activism and conversionism – that is, evangelicals are ‘Bible people’, they believe Jesus’ cross is the key, they get stuff done and they evangelise.

But now, according to Thompson, evangelicals are those who uphold ‘basic historic convictions’. He has redefined evangelicals: they are no longer ‘Gospel people’ but people who adhere to certain traditions and doctrines from centuries past. Thompson’s evangelicalism is no longer an approach or set of values but orthodoxy handed down.

This worries me. Even more concerning, our ‘evangelical heritage’, to him, is interchangeable with the gospel itself!

…This is what explains the regular call for vigilance among Christian leaders in the New Testament. It is a vigilance Marcus Loane understood to be part of our responsibility as heirs of such a magnificent evangelical heritage here in Sydney. Some may seek to caricature this determination to guard the gospel in a variety of ways…

This is why he is sceptical of ‘generous orthodoxy.’ He writes as if we got it pretty much all worked out (admittedly not perfectly, perhaps we’re just ironing out a few things), sometime in the past, and we need simply to guard our theology against ‘drifting’.

If the evangelical heritage were gospel, as Thompson implies, then generous orthodoxy would be dangerous. There would be no need for generosity because our theology would not need improvement.

But our evangelical doctrinal heritage is not the gospel! Generous orthodoxy is an approach that acknowledges that any theology is our human interpretation of God’s Word, not God’s Word itself. None of us can say we have completed the task of theology. We need, therefore, to be patient and generous with each other as we weigh up the strengths of various theological ideas.

Generous orthodoxy does not mean relativism. The orthodoxy bit of generous orthodoxy acknowledges that some theology is better than others. So we so we can strive for orthodoxy with a spirit of generosity towards others who have different interpretations. Yes, I appreciate the need to guard the deposit (and I am not saying we should be quick to discard theologies which have served us well), but sometimes guarding the gospel can be done through correcting our misconceptions, through refining our theology.

Whereas Thompson casts suspicion on those who ‘call for more nuance’ or ‘room for disagreement’ I believe this is precisely what we need if we are to develop richer theologies, if we are to better understand God’s Word and ultimately if we are to guard the Gospel. It is a healthy attitude of academic humility which is willing to learn from others, even from people with whom we disagree. Generosity means assuming the best of Christians with whom we disagree – rather than assuming the worst (and I am not accusing Thompson of this). Assuming the worst all too often devolves into witch-hunts, name calling,  guilt by association and dropping the L word (calling someone a liberal is like bringing nazis into an argument: as soon as you do it, it’s clear you don’t have an argument).

It would be a tragedy if people with the insights we need to learn, the rebukes we must heed, the corrections that could aid the church were silenced by fears of being pushed outside the evangelical camp. I hope we can be generous towards people who might have uncomfortable, but necessary things to tells us.

(see Reformed and always Reforming for more on this)

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2 thoughts on “in defence of generous orthodoxy

  1. I think the Moore College line is to define ‘evangelicalism’ as basically synonymous with the Reformation – which is why evangelicalism gets equated with ‘the gospel’. But there’s another line of historical thought which argues that ‘evangelicalism’ came into its own as a distinct movement in the 18th century (with the likes of the Wesleys.)

    These 18th century evangelicals were concerned with what they called ‘vital piety’. Europeans had worked out their doctrine in the 16th and 17th, but 18th century evangelicals were asking, ‘what does this mean for my life?’ Hence their emphasis on feelings and social justice (while maintaining orthodoxy). Under such a definition, there’s room for broad theological agreement while recognising that what unites us is that we’re all attempting to follow the same Lord!

  2. I’m enjoying your posts immensely, Laura, because you speak in terms of dimensions and perspectives, and — what can I say — I’m a student of history myself. Love it.

    Tamie and I have been circling around the definition-of-evangelicalism discussion for several years now, and I’d like to return to it in detail again soon, particularly with reference to what the Americans are talking about (I guess it’s always been more of a Big Thing over there). Guys like Scot McKnight and Roger Olson are exploring the end of evangelicalism as a movement and its continuation as an ethos. Fascinating stuff…

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