Darrell Bock on defining evangelicalism
Seminary professor warns against repeating the political and cultural mistakes of past generations
Darrell Bock is a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society. I spoke with him at a meeting of that society just one week after the November election.
The National Association of Evangelicals has a doctrinal statement that lays down eight or nine key points. In your view, what is the best definition of evangelicalism? The key definition of evangelicalism comes from a British scholar named David Bebbington. He has four elements, but the most important element is a high regard for Scripture, orthodoxy, a piety that comes with it, and then a desire to share the gospel with people who don’t know Christ. … “Evangelical” goes back to the idea of a person who believes in the evangel, who believes in the declaration of the good news. In its most basic sense, that’s what it means. It’s come to mean all kinds of things today, and, as a result, the name and the term itself have become a little muddied. The core idea is someone who is a deeply committed, Bible-believing Christian who’s quite willing and desires to share Christ.
If you read The Washington Post or The New York Times or any local paper, it will define evangelicalism almost culturally or sociologically rather than theologically. Is that tendency to identify a whole socioeconomic class as evangelical a problem for the church today? To some degree it’s a problem. It’s difficult because the term “evangelical” itself is somewhat difficult. For a lot of the media, “evangelical” is an equal alternative to the term “fundamentalist.” For others, it’s a simple moniker for anyone who is conservative theologically, without making distinctions about what they think about particular doctrines. It’s a term that’s used in a variety of ways and a variety of settings, sometimes sociological. Usually there is a theological dimension to it, but the understanding of what that theology is can be a little muddy.
For some people, evangelicals may only exist in the Deep South. For others, it’s a broader term. You really have two kinds of people in the media: people who cover religion as part of a beat that they work, where they understand some of these distinctions, and other people who, when I interview with them, I’m explaining core theological terms and helping them get oriented to what it is that they are taking a look at. Some of them have very little theological background. Mostly in the media, when you hear the term “evangelical,” you’re thinking of someone who’s very conservative theologically, someone who may or may not go to church.
There are a lot of people who self-identify as evangelical because they think it just means theologically conservative. But actually, an evangelical is someone who has a committed faith and a sincere faith. Someone like Ed Stetzer, who looks at these statistics on a regular basis, will say that’s about between 15 and 20 percent of your population, while some people will say there are 35 to 40 percent evangelicals out there.
The church was very divided during the presidential campaign. There was a lot of acrimony even between brothers and sisters in Christ. How should we behave now? Where should we go from here? I think it’s important that the church pull together. I also think there’s a real chance the church can blow an opportunity to have gotten a reprieve on the culture war. I don’t think we need to repeat the mistakes of the older culture war. It’s really important we talk to one another about the nature of the acrimony we had. It was because of the peculiar characteristics of the candidate who led the ticket who we now have to live with as president.
We don’t know what kind of presidency he’s actually going to bring. To me, the jury is out on whether we have done ourselves a service or not. I’m hopeful that we have. There are certain things he offers to bring that the country needs. There are certain things that also come with the package that have me deeply disturbed because the core of the gospel are themes of reconciliation, grace, the dignity of people, issues related to race. The church is multinational. It’s supposed to have a characteristic of compassion. There’s certain gospel values I struggle to see in some of the positions, in the way they’ve been taken.
The church needs to have a good conversation with itself, and it also needs to have a better conversation with those who aren’t a part of the church because our goal is not to crush people in a political defeat. Our goal is actually to win them to the gospel. Ephesians 6 says that our battle is not against flesh and blood. It’s against spiritual forces. Those spiritual forces need to be challenged as we challenge people to have a change of heart so they can get the spiritual equipment needed to live the way that God desires them to live. Sometimes in our political rhetoric, I think we forget our mission. When we forget our mission, we don’t help the church, we actually work to undermine it.
You said that you’re concerned that the church not repeat the same mistakes of the old Religious Right. What were those mistakes? I think it was to see the current situation in terms of a strictly political, social, ideological battle. There are things that are attached to the arguments we make that have nothing to do with what the Bible argues that we treat with a passion almost equal to what things the Bible does teach. We’ve got to be able to distinguish those elements of civil concern, and what I might call civil religion, from Biblical religion. That means that certain issues get handled differently. Either in terms of tone, which can be very important, or in terms of substance.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s complete conversation with Darrell Bock on the Dec. 2, 2016, edition of Listening In.
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