Chelsie came to our church about two years ago. She came only to accompany her husband who had recently rededicated his life to Christ. She knew nothing of the Bible, had a few encounters with Christianity which she did not understand and was very cautious about people who call themselves Christians. She has a bright mind and many confusing questions about Christianity. Over time, with people loving and including her, she increasingly became more comfortable with us. She has been on a journey that has led her to gradually embrace Christ herself. Besides the warm relationships, the most transformative force in her life has been her encounter with the Bible. She is half way through a yearlong process of discovering the Bible as one grand story. It wasn’t the principles for living, nor the arguments for faith or any dogmatic statements about Jesus. It was discovering the Bible for herself.
Evangelicals have a high regard for the Bible. We esteem scripture are the normative guide for life. But with the strangulating effect of dogmatic categories that have been imposed over all ways of learning, many have strayed from the transformative power of scripture in people’s lives. Dogmatic unreflective thinking causes many to walk away from what Christians believe. We also emphasize conversionism. Our goal is primarily to see each person come to know Christ. The way we view scripture and use it can either attract people to Christ or cause them to be averse to its influence. Evangelism is often viewed as an event in one’s life. While this is foundational, knowing Christ is also a process. As for Chelsie and many other people I have talked with, this has been their story.
What does it mean to be Evangelical? I am guessing that many church attendees have not even heard of the word and if they have it seems a strange foreign concept. To know what it means and how we are to intelligently interact with the world around us is vital for our faith. Many popular churches seem to be viewing theological understanding as a leisurely activity for an exclusive select few. Mark Noll has written a couple of fine books calling for us Evangelicals to respect the importance of scholarly thinking both in theology and the widening understanding of science, education, politics and others. What does it mean to think though our faith? His book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is an alarm to reexamine some misunderstandings of what it means to be Evangelical. Noll calls attention to Jesus’ command us to also “love the Lord your God with all you mind”. This is a call to thinking deeply about what we believe. What we think about Jesus matters above all else. In his subsequent book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll unpacks how Christ calls us to discern how the Bible interacts with all of aspects of learning and how theologically unpacking how the Bible leads to Christ.
Fundamentalism has hurt our witness rather than promote the cause of Christ. Noll shows that the refusal to view research that differs from a predetermined conclusion has had disastrous effects. What was a reaction to threats to faith became a withdrawal from interacting in the world and denying the historical process that shaped that faith. The anti-intellectual attitude has even isolated Evangelicals from the wider body of Christian knowledge, history and science. The premise of being Evangelical is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. But world denying knowledge has hindered the witness of the gospel. Noll says that Christians who use scripture to deny knowledge that unbelievers are experts in distances them from seeing the truths about scripture. If they find Christians mistaken about knowledge, how will they learn the truth about the gospel? Each part of scripture is related to the grand story of Jesus Christ. The Bible is about Jesus and his saving grace. When it is used to assert things about the world that deny what science is saying then its salvic effect is minimalized.
One of the roadblocks for Chelsie to Christ was partly her perception from the outside, but also her experiences on the inside. It was that the Bible and salvation experience was an emotional and even “magic” experience. Evangelicals had been known to emphasize a moment of conversion. This was another roadblock for Chelsie. The inspirational moments of eureka that seemed to be normative in some Evangelical settings did not happen for her. Her intellect caused her to question and try to understand, rather to accept unquestioningly what was being told to her. Noll relates how the pietistic tradition, which we are a part of, tends to focus on emotion to the neglect of the God revealed in creation and scripture. The gospel calls the whole person in mind and practice to devotion to Christ. The Christ revealed in scripture calls for a whole life committed to God. Noll states one of the goals of Christian thinking is “to promote careful study of Scripture that stresses the life-altering glories of Jesus Christ, rather than the whims of private eurekas.” Essential is the fact that scripture points to Christ. When Evangelicals trust it to do this. Salvation then becomes the point.