08/22/14

The Heart of an Evangelical

Sword On Old Bible

image credit: iStock

When I was in my early teens, my father went into the hospital because he was having heart problems, probably from smoking cigarettes. His doctors recommended what was then a radical surgical procedure: a coronary artery bypass. It wasn’t known if he would survive the operation, so he was permitted to come home for what could be his last Christmas. He survived the bypass operation and never smoked again.

The heart of evangelical, Christian thinking is the authority of Scripture. Belief that the Bible is the Word of God pumps the lifeblood of the Spirit within us. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) But there is an ongoing debate about whether this evangelical heart needs its own bypass operation.

The arteries of Genesis on Creation and the Fall, of understanding the relevance of Pauline statements on gender role (and others) are thought to be blocked by the plaque of traditional interpretations. It is believed that, as these arteries are less and less able to carry the lifeblood of the Spirit to the body of Christ, the church will eventually have a “heart attack.” So some evangelical heart specialists are recommending a kind of coronary bypass operation.

One of these evangelicals is Peter Enns, currently at Eastern University. In an interview with The Christian Post, Enns said people within evangelicalism desperately want to defend the Bible against its challengers by questioning the very foundations of evangelicalism:

What they’re saying is what some of the bad guys say about the Bible makes sense, whether its evolution, whether it’s Canaanite genocide, whether it’s human sexuality, whatever. They’re saying they want to rethink some of those issues, but they’re doing it from the point of view of having a deep connection with the tradition they were raised in. They don’t want to just leave it. … They want to transform and continue the evangelical journey.

Supposedly younger evangelical Christians want to rethink what it means to be an evangelical, but are being held back by the movement’s older leadership. According to Enns, this reluctance is out of fear of the repercussions. In other words, the leaders are afraid the bypass operation won’t take. “So much hinges on getting the Bible right that giving ground on issues like evolution runs the risk of upsetting the entire system.”

Returning to the heart metaphor, if we don’t maintain a healthy sense of the ultimate authority of the Bible, of its universal and eternal truth, then the evangelical church will have a heart attack and die. It’s not just a matter of the old guard holding on to its power. “Getting the Bible right” is a life-and-death issue for evangelicalism. Francis Schaeffer understood what was at stake. In a letter he wrote to a frequent visitor at L’Abri about the knife-edged balance required in the modern evangelical world he said:

What we must ask the Lord for is a work of the Spirit . . . to stand on a very thin line: in other words, to state intellectually (as well as understand, though not completely) the intellectual reality of that which God is and what God has revealed in the objectively inspired Bible; and then to live moment to moment in the reality of a restored relationship with the God who is there, and to act in faith upon what we believe in our daily lives. (Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 82)

So let there be a consultation among the evangelical heart specialists. Let us have a respectful hearing of the various procedures proposed to clear the blocked arteries. But let us not forget that an evangelical will always have the objectively inspired Bible as its heart. And if it stops beating, we die. We don’t want a success operation that ultimately kills the patient.

For further information on what it means to be an evangelical, see the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Alliance. Also look at: “What is an Evangelical?” on this website.

Is belief in the authority of Scripture the heart of evangelicalism?