At Last: An "Evangelical Manifesto" That Doesn't Punch Someone in the Face

A few correspondents have asked me what I think of the new “Evangelical Manifesto,” recently released by a group of evangelical leaders (including—full disclosure—some friends of mine).

Another friend, Prof. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College, grumps in the Wall Street Journal about how boringly moderate it is, among other sins. But let’s just see if that’s such a bad thing.

The nice people at Merriam-Webster tell us that “manifesto” means “a public declaration of intentions, motives, or views: a public statement of policy or opinion.” Jacobs wants the writing to be “punchy” and the document to be “short,” although he recalls that the most famous manifesto ever, the communist one, amounts to a small book.

Still, this one is twenty pages, and when I read it, I wondered why anyone would care what I thought about it. It strikes me as completely sensible, moderate, intelligent, a bit wordy here and there, and kinda dull.

And isn’t that a pleasant change!

Manifestoes typically offer a sweeping analysis of something dreadfully wrong that must be changed —this instant! or at least by next week! Such revolutionary documents trade in stark dichotomies and demand bold choices upon which hang matters of great moment.

Many statements of Christian belief in the past, furthermore, have included not only positive statements but also negative ones. “We believe this, and cursed be those who believe that.” The technical term for the latter phrases is “anathemas,” and plenty of them have been pronounced against heretics of all stripes over the centuries.

This statement, however, goes only so far as to mildly distinguish evangelicalism from fundamentalism and theological liberalism, which seems to be a necessary thing to do every few years, it seems, as new generations of journalists, politicians, academicians, and other teachers of the public keep needing to keep those distinctions clear.

Otherwise, however, the main importance of this document is that it makes manifest the moderate, intelligent, concerned, and active evangelicalism that is rarely manifest in accounts of North American religion. For it is the the nutty or the nasty who make the news. It is the preachers who unqualifiedly bless or condemn America, who reduce politics to a few key agenda, who proclaim their particular doctrinal varieties as “true Christianity,” who perpetuate a binary view of a complex world, and who call for immediate and drastic action to put everything right.

. . . And who enjoy damning their enemies—that is, everyone who disagrees with them over any detail.

So I agree with Brother Jacobs that “An Evangelical Manifesto” doesn’t get the pulse racing, let alone the blood boiling. Instead, it offers assurance to a worried society that many evangelicals are capable of moderation, are willing to offer “on this hand and on the other hand” qualifications, and have ideas that are not reducible to “punchy” slogans intended to incite action at the expense of reflection.

In that, I think “An Evangelical Manifesto” is well worthwhile.

Am I excited about “An Evangelical Manifesto”?

No, not really . . .

. . . for which I sincerely thank God.

0 Responses to “At Last: An "Evangelical Manifesto" That Doesn't Punch Someone in the Face”

  1. Terrance Tiessen

    Thanks, John. You make an interesting point. Being feisty isn’t an essential criterion of being evangelical. Among the criticisms of the Manifesto that I have encountered thus far, the most stunning was Albert Mohler’s objection that only gospel exclusivists can be deemed “evangelical” and the Manifesto did not include that in their definition. Wow, he just ruled much of the Arminian theological world outside of evangelicalism along with a number of his fellow Calvinists.

  2. Bennett

    I haven’t read Mohler’s reaction, but it would be interesting to see what one means by “gospel exclusivists.” The EM seemed adequately exclusive if you mean accepting the Gospel as the one way to salvation. It was inclusive in that it welcomes honest, open religious discussion. I can’t conceive of any true Arminians or Calvinists of an Evangelical persuasion accepting a non-exclusive Gospel. But I guess that depends on your definition of many different terms.

    That is the value I see in the EM it is the beginning of a definition. The whole Evangelical movement has been so loosely defined that it is hard to even call it a movement with any amount of conviction. Its like a crowd of students walking across campus. They might all be in the same class, but then again at any moment they could break up and go many different directions. They don’t even know themselves until they communicate with each other and say, “Where are we going?”

  3. John Stackhouse

    Terry, Given my paragraph mentioning preachers “who proclaim their particular doctrinal varieties as ‘true Christianity’ [and] who perpetuate a binary view of a complex world,” would you place President Mohler in the “nutty” or the “nasty” category? ; )

    Bennett, what Professor Tiessen refers to by “gospel exclusivism” is the conviction that God saves only those people who have heard and understood the gospel and received it in faith. Everyone else–indeed, the majority of people who have ever lived who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel–Dr. Mohler thinks are doomed. And he further thinks that all good evangelicals share this dire outlook.

    Professor Tiessen’s excellent book, Who Can Be Saved?, is a fine example of an evangelical who does not share Dr. Mohler’s view, as I don’t.

  4. Angie

    Interesting! Although I fully agree with the admonition of a “civil discourse” in the religious realm. There really should not be any distinction or separation of the religious from one’s political views. Political views are only the outworking of one’s faith….And salvation is about how one understands that interface of religion (text), culture (tradition), reason, and politics (experience)…The conservative would underline man’s individual responsibilitiy, while the liberal underlines man’s responsibilities to his neighbor. A similar discontinuity exists in how a person understands “rights”…conservatism protects rights under law, while liberals protect natural (human) rights….which can we really call “more Christian”?

  5. mikerucker

    obviously, mohler will refuse to sign it, which is all the evidence i need that the document is worth its salt…

    i’m enjoying reading the various opinions here and there around the web. i had some hesitations and misgivings before reading the document, but i’m actually quite impressed – even invigorated – after taking in the whole of what it addresses.

    one of the things i like is that the authors have chosen not to list creationism and inerrancy as non-negotiables. for the first, there’s very little biblical justification anymore behind whatever the latest flavor of anti-natural-selection dessert is being served up; for the latter, somehow we can admit that we can’t prove the existence of God, but goshdarnit we have a golden egg this unprovable God laid right here. still, some people hold to these positions; so be it. there’s simply too much of a tendency to add items to the ever-increasing laundry list of ideas and doctrines to which we have to pledge allegiance before we’re allowed into the room marked “Christian.”

    nothing’s going to please everybody, and there are a few things i object to. for instance, i don’t agree with this statement: We Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally. Jesus’ message uses “action” verbs: teach them to DO as I have commanded you, LOVE God and LOVE your neighbor, by this will all men know … if you LOVE one another. any theology that defines us must have feet.

    i did, however, like these words: We are also troubled by the fact that the advance of globalization and the emergence of a global public square finds no matching vision of how we are to live freely, justly, and peacefully with our deepest differences on the global stage. somehow, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to peacefully share the same bathroom over the next few decades in our ever-shrinking world.

    one interesting thing: maybe i missed it, but there doesn’t seem to be a great emphasis on evangelism in this Evangelical Manifesto. do you think that was intentional? i didn’t see a single chick tract referenced in the bibliography…

    more than anything, i find myself motivated and energized by the very positive nature of the piece – that it isn’t yet another “here’s everything we’re against” rant but an effort to make the gospel again a message of good news. imagine that – the gospel being good news. American Christianity has lost this defining characteristic that once served it well.

    perhaps one unintended benefit of the proposal is a clear opportunity to take this EM (Evangelical Manifesto) and align it with the other EM (Emergent Manifesto) and finally have all our EM & EMs in a row without demonizing the other side.

    one can only hope…

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

  6. Terrance Tiessen

    John, for a variety of reasons I respect Brother Mohler and so I’m reluctant to attribute either nuttiness or nastiness to him personally for this recent stance. Speaking about the idea in general, however, it seems nutty to me, given the history of the church’s discussion on this matter through the centuries. I also confess to some nervousness though because nutty ideas can lead to nastiness and there has been no shortage of that in the ongoing struggles within the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Clearly, Mohler’s concern about “inclusivism” is deep. This was not an aside. I picked that up in his interview with Os Guinness on his radio program, to which I listened on-line. He asked Guinness about the matter and was reassured that Guinness heartily affirmed that only those who hear the gospel can be saved. Mohler expressed concern that he doubted that this was true of all those who had signed the Manifesto, and I’m sure that his concerns are well founded. The puzzling effect of this concern, of course, is that from Mohler’s perspective numerous of the signers of the Evangelical Manifesto are not, in fact, evangelicals. Given that most of them are attached to leading evangelical institutions, denying their evangelical credentials could speedily become nasty

    Actually, I would have liked the chance to quiz Guinness himself a bit further. His rapid response to Mohler’s question left me wondering whether he was simply affirming the exclusiveness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour or whether he really did mean to insist that absolutely no one who does not hear the gospel can be saved. My mind went to the discussion that occurred at the Evangelical Affirmations conference, back in about 1990. The original draft, you will recall, had asserted gospel exclusivism but when Roger Nicole reminded participants that this had significant ramifications regarding the unborn, for those who believed in original guilt, the statement was modified. Has anyone listening in on this conversation heard Guinness speak specifically about the salvation of the unevangelized? I’m interested to know whether even he would get under Mohler’s radar on this one.

  7. Angie

    I don’t think that the issue of “exclusivism” is all that “new”. I would think that this was the emphasis of the fundamentalist when the fundamentals of the faith were affirmed to maintain a bulwark of “truth” against the “tide of liberalism”…The Bible was the emphasis over and above the light of the Academy….That is the shame….So, is evangelicalism really any different than fundamentalism in their “fundamentals”? I don’t really think so….


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