Thinking Our Way To Heaven

I was intrigued by this post over at Scot Mcknight’s blog regarding evangelicalism and how to properly define this seemingly nebulous term. I’m not an expert on the history of the word “evangelical” and I suppose the proper definition is found in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always generally understood the word to mean that one has “good news” and in light of that news is compelled to share it with others. In that sense, everyone is an evangelical of some sort, even if your sharing the good news of how great the new Richard Dawkins book is. Mcknight uses a definition by a few guys I’ve never heard of who I’m sure are a lot smarter than me. Here it is:

An evangelical is a Christian Protestant for whom the central ideas are the leading authority of Scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross as a substitutionary atonement, and the importance of a life of active following Jesus, seen in such things as Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, and deeds of compassion and justice.

McKnight boils this definition down to four basic components; Bible, conversion, cross, discipleship. I’m not really interested in challenging these definitions. As far as I can tell, based on my experience of evangelicalism, they don’t seem to be off-base. But reading Scots post got me to thinking about how his four components can be categorized into two sub-categories; 1) abstract thought and 2) concrete physicality. The first three (Bible, conversion, and cross) are all exercises of the mind and the last component (discipleship) involves physical behaviour which ideally exhibits the manifestations of whatever cognitive understanding one comes to through their view of the Bible and what it teaches.

In his post, Mcknight bemoans the notion that so many today who don’t profess an emphasis on all four components still call themselves “evangelical”:

I’m seeing a baffling desire by many who almost never talk about any of the above four ideas (as central to what they believe) but for some reason want to be called “evangelical.” They make a point to say they are evangelical. To be committed to justice or compassion as the central pursuit in life does not make one an evangelical, though evangelicals should be committed to justice and to compassion — and shame on those who aren’t. But what makes an evangelical is a commitment to the above four ideas (Bible, conversion, cross, discipleship).

To be clear, while I’m not sure what I think about McKnight’s complaint, I don’t intend to challenge him specifically on the point he’s making here. But his post got me thinking about what ultimately makes evangelicalism tick. It seems to me that evangelicals have emphasized a “saving knowledge” of the Gospel. Out of McKnight’s four components to evagelicalism, only the first three seem to be non-negotiable by evangelical standards. Of course, in theory, most evangelicals will say that faith without works is dead, but if someone lives a wretched life yet converts on their death bed in a merely cognitive sense to orthodox Christian doctrine, most evangelicals would agree that person is “saved,” whatever that means. But it doesn’t seem to be the case when we flip the scenario. If that same person on their death bed does something incredibly gracious and compassionate right before they die, that’s not the same and it’s still tough nuts for them. They won’t have the good fortune of escaping eternal punishment. Inherent in evagelicalism is a bias towards a salvation through a cognitive understanding of God and the scriptures. How that understanding inspires our actions is secondary and in some cases not necessary at all. Why is this? I’m not saying one can or needs to work their way to salvation. I’m just saying that if the primary marker for salvation is what a person thinks, that’s a theology I’m not remotely interested in.


14 thoughts on “Thinking Our Way To Heaven

  1. yup… mental ascent is salvific in all things… the real concern for me is that Christ is only of the business of mind-cleansing with perhaps a bit of morality outpouring mixed in… what do we say of those that he has rescued and redeemed from physical violence, emotional abuse, addictions, and systemic issues.. there has to be a savior on a cross that is calling down not just for a “better understanding” but a better way, a new kingdom…

    appreciate the blogging zac, it is one of my favorite morning reads

  2. Win: “If someone lives a wretched life yet converts on their death bed in a merely cognitive sense to orthodox Christian doctrine, most evangelicals would agree that person is “saved,” whatever that means. But it doesn’t seem to be the case when we flip the scenario. If that same person on their death bed does something incredibly gracious and compassionate right before they die, that’s not the same and it’s still tough nuts for them.”

    Where is “the heart” in the theoogy of the evangelical community? It seems over and over again that Jesus focuses on the heart first.

  3. Defining “evangelical” is as dubious an enterprise as defining the term “postmodern.” Some have abandoned the term as a live-option all together, although guys like Stan Grenz, Donald Dayton, George Marsden, and Mark Noll do offer helpful hints. However, bottom line is, the term evangelical is in constant flux, and your present definition of it, as mostly an act of mental assent, ought to be attributed to evangelical fundamentalism bred by Princeton Scholasticsm.

    Although I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an evangelical who doesn’t value thought, it is unfair to suggest that they consider this high-level thought or assent efficiently salvific. Hell, I’m not even sure the Princeton Scholastics would believe that. That’s gnosticism, a heresy that anyone who values historic orthodoxy, like an evangelical Christian, isn’t too keen on.

    Also, I think it’d be presumptuous to suggest that a heart outweighs cognitive assent in all cases. Clearly these two exist in dialectic. Christ, Paul and James all seem to refuse to take either too lightly. To presume we have the answer in excluding the possible necessity of some sort of willful assent, is at its base, absolutely modern.

    To write off a theology because it rubs you wrong is the last thing that’s constructive. I find its exposing yourself and allowing counter-intutive forces to mold you that often leads to at least a more sober and humble thought process.

  4. Matt,

    I’m not saying that the heart outweighs the mind. I’m saying that it seems pretty evident that cognitive assent does seem to be the fundamental element in an evangelical’s view of salvation.

    Say there are two women who’ve dedicated their lives to work in an orphanage and care for unloved, unwanted children. The only difference between the two women is that one of them agreed to accept Jesus as her personal savior when she was in junior high while praying with her youth pastor. The other one never gave religion or Christianity much thought. Am I wrong in assuming that 10 out of 10 self-professed evangelicals would say the one is “saved” and the other one is not? And yet the only difference between the two is a cognitive assent to a particular belief in who God is. If there is another factor that I’m missing, I’d love for you to shed light it for me.

    I’m not writing off theology. I’m just saying that it’s not enough.

  5. Zach,

    Sorry for misinterpreting you. I was also responding to the above poster and I must have got your thoughts mixed up.

    In regard to your hypothetical situation, as a self-professed evangelical (if the term does in fact roughly connote what I presume it does), I would be very hesitant to deem one woman saved and the other not. I am a bit of an agnostic when it comes to matters of salvation. As a student of an admittedly more “conservative” evangelical seminary, I do, nonetheless, share the classroom with a diverse array of students and professors. Some are Calvinistic pluralists who would ultimately suggest that all are predestined to be saved, a la Barth, claiming this would ultimately ascribe to God maximal glory. Others would perhaps fall under the umbrella of the evangelicalism that you describe – the turn or burn sort, although they are becoming a bit of an anomaly these days. I’d say many, if not most, however, fall somewhere in between.

    So no, I don’t think that 10 out of 10 evangelicals would say that one woman is saved and the other isn’t, although I wouldn’t be surprised if 6-7 of them did, which does sadden me. There is more than a shred of truth to your caricature, particularly within the laity. Authoritarianism, admittedly, does sully the evangelical legacy.

    Ultimately, it would seem that all evangelicals hold biblical authority/revelation (although not necessarily inerrancy) as a foundational tenet, among other things, and would appeal to the scriptures in search of a systematic answer to salvific faith. That being said, one’s conclusions regarding the scripture is incredibly variable, as is one’s general hermeneutic. This sort of diversity is easily evidenced in contemporary evangelical scholarship.

    The bottom line is, for me, that evangelicalism is more diverse than one would imagine. It’s foundational tenets provide a lot of wiggle room when it comes to practical application or execution, and thus, ought to lend to significant diversity. Again, I do admit that there is partial truth to your characterization, but I do think that that sort of description does a disservice to many of the evangelicals that I am personally in contact with and have studied under.

    Miroslav Volf has suggested that faith often becomes subservient to the individual’s taste or liking instead of maintaining sole power in orienting and directing. This has certainly been the case, not only in conservative evangelicalism, but also liberal Protestantism. We, as humans, are more obsessed with empire than we are with truth. I think, ultimately, it’s healthy to maintain provisional stances, when it comes to theology, with a heavy dose of humility.

  6. I like your thought process here. Defining evangelicalism, particularly and especially in America, has become increasingly difficult in the past few decades with the influx of postmodern thought and the devasting effects of conservative fundamentalism still lingering.

    I can appreciate the disconnect you are seeing between cognitive acknowledgment of propositions and ethics as it relates to the salvation of ones soul. However, in both options there still remains an emphasis placed on human responsibility for “salvation” rather than human response (or posture) to the grace of God. Whether it be intellectual ascent or ethical action – both are unable to save. Only the grace of God saves. A faith that resembles Anselm (I believe so that I might understand) coupled with the ethics of Mother Theresa best represents true Christian orthodoxy. I have never felt that trying to elevate one over against the other (the mind over ethics or ethics over the mind) is fruitful in anyway. Paul talks a great deal of this in his letters to Timothy. To truly be affected by the gospel means to both intellectually grapple with theological ideals and to also be involved in the work of Christ consistently communicating his presence in the world.

    Further, the emphasis placed on the intellectual ascent to ideas is not something new to Christianity. To divorce the mind from the “heart” is decisively not Christian. We are getting lazier and lazier with regards to truly studying both Scripture and history and becoming more and more careless in how we treat truly complex and difficult issues in our efforts to dumb down the infinite. I recommend Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” for a good summary as well as a number of works by Randy Balmer. Both have done solid work within these fields.

    Also. Matt. What did you mean in drawing parallels between conservative evangelical fundamentalism and Princeton Scholasticism? Precisely when do you refer to both camps?

    I’ve digressed. Thanks for putting this information out there for discussing. I genuinely enjoy your writing and the way your mind works.

  7. Jon,

    Fundamentalism is a funny word, much like evangelicalism. When I use the word fundamentalism I am referring to contemporary versions – those KJV only types. When I refer to Princeton Scholasticism (who were fundamentalists, although of an entirely different sort), I am referring largely to those scholars (Hodge, Warfield, Machen, etc.) who understood the Scripture as a repository of facts to mined for theological truths – who understood the text as an epistemological foundation. The two are night and day, but one did give birth to the other, so it is a little murky. Hope that clarifies things.

  8. Matt,

    Right. Thanks for clarifying. I would hardly use the term fundamentalist with regards to describing the Princeton Scholastics – only because of the connotations today – but I see now what you were referring to. They indeed were the original fundamentalists. The idea the one gave birth to the other, while true, is still mind boggling. Growing up within conservative fundamentalism has given me enough to recover from and react to.

    I appreciated your thoughts, particularly in your response to Zach’s example of a the two women. It is sad that we often treat our faith as a means to a particular end. I ask Jesus into my heart (whatever we mean by this I still don’t know) –> I am saved –> I go to heaven. It would seem that our soteriological ethic becomes a utilitarian effort robbing us of what it truly means to be part of the redemption narrative and to be the continued presence of Christ in the world. Eternity will be incredible. Our duty needs to be less about figuring out who’s in/who’s out and more about living and breathing the gospel daily to people hoping they catch a glimpse of the person of Christ.

  9. Matt,

    I think your 6 0r 7 out of ten seems a bit overly generous but maybe my 10 out of 10 was a bit too cynical. Maybe you have more experience with evangelical academia than I do so my assumptions are more likely based on evangelical laity. The only evangelical academic that I seem to enjoy reading is Dallas Willard.

    The question I would ask a self professed evangelical who wouldn’t agree that one is saved but not the other is that if both are saved (i.e. reconciled to God, going to heaven, etc) then why does cognitive accent matter at all? Why even bother with a particular message that contains some kind of divine truth? Why be an evangelical? They’ve both lived extraordinary lives of self sacrifice and compassion and have surely been equally enriched by their experiences regardless of their eternal outcome, whatever that may be. It seems to me if there is no difference between the two, then it seems to undermine the very assumption that compels evangelicalism.

    My perspective on this hypothetical is that both women have greatly pleased God with their service and he delights in their clearly exhibited love and mercy. If both of these women aren’t reconciled to God, then I’d wonder who is.

    I’m sure you are right that the evangelical spectrum is diverse than I give it credit for, but the mere fact that evangelical seminaries exists and that there are professors who are trained to equip evangelical leaders presupposes that there is a necessary bit of information folks need in order to be reunified with God in some way. The very existence of your seminary seems to me to undermine the distinctions you are attempting to make. I would think that if an evangelical would agree that both orphanage workers were saved, they would cease to be evangelical and the “good news” they desire to share with others is ultimately rendered unnecessary.

  10. Zach,

    You bring up a good point. I’m by no means and authority, so I can give my opinion, which is admittedly not too thought out.

    Your presumption is that ascertaining the truth (whether cognitive or not) is, in some sense, meritorious, whether for evangelicals or for others strands of Christianity. I’d have to disagree. Again, I believe you are basing most of your opinions a specific strand or caricature of evangelicalism.

    And as I mentioned earlier, there is no definitive conclusion as to what evangelicalism entails, apart from valuing scripture’s authority, and attempting to adhere to ancient creeds. However, I’d propose that neither creedal orthodoxy nor scripture definitively outline a holistic soteriology. Thus, evangelicalism, by transitive property, cannot hold to a definitive soteriology.

    In regard to your question about why should one even bother adhering to truth: If belief in God is not exclusive in sole efficiency, then it would seem that relationship with God becomes a matter of internal initiative. I presuppose that God is pleased to be in relationship with man in an explicit sense, as Pentatuechal history suggests. I would also posit that men enjoy relating to God and being in communion with the creator of the universe. Also, if the Israelites did not believe in an afterlife, which many scholars seem to hold, then it would seem that the relationship is an ends within itself. Men believe and worship God not to necessarily be “saved” or to go to “heaven” – emphasis on these components of faith seem to be a rather modern development, perhaps a product of the Great Awakening or Pentecostal Revivalism. Rather, belief’s purpose is to be in joyful communion with God. I don’t think “salvation” – safety from fire and brimstone – is the good news. I think God, Jesus, and the Spirit, the recreation of Earth, and the inauguration of Kingdom are the good news. Granted, eschatology/soteriology is a part of this, but I imagine “eternal life” is more a corollary than an end.

    In regard to the seminary I attend: I’m not sure how you view my nameless seminary, but honestly, the school does not have a “mission” as delineated in its bylaws apart from training leaders to value the Bible. (I’d also add that the Bible does not seemed to be viewed in any way as a necessary component to salvation; rather, it is simply a manifestation of God’s revelation that we value and cherish.) I don’t see any sort of contradiction in that regard. Again, the good news is Christ. How one receives that “news” is very much open.

    I’m sorry if this isn’t clearly thought out or satisfying; I’m pretty tired. I could keep writing, but I’m pretty exhausted.

    I’d recommend some books to you, apart from Willard, who is an academic, but more of an academic who happens to be an evangelical. I think anything by Stan Grenz, particularly “Beyond Foundationalism” would be a most interesting read for you, and would better answer most of your questions than anything I ever could.

  11. “there is no definitive conclusion as to what evangelicalism entails, apart from valuing scripture’s authority, and attempting to adhere to ancient creeds.”

    Of course, I’m no expert but I don’t think that describes evangelicalism. That description points to a group much more broad than evangelicals. That’s basic Christian orthodoxy.

    Again, correct me if I’m wrong but it seems, based your last response, that the components of evangelicalism are 1) an explicit relationship with the Creator which is a relationship that 2) doesn’t necessarily need a knowledge of the Bible. If that is the case, I don’t believe that’s describing evangelicalism. It’s describing essentially any religious endeavor that seeks the ultimate meaning or purpose of life, be it Hinduism, Islam, Judaism etc….

    I appreciate your view and I think in most matters, you and I are roughly in the same boat. But I just wonder if maybe you live in some alternate evangelical universe that I’m completely unaware of. Who are these evangelicals you hang out with and I’d love to meet them!

  12. and a side note, i think what we’re talking about doesn’t depend on a particular view of salvation. It’s a difficult thing to pin down (if that’s even possible) and maybe we leave that for another day. But all I mean to say is for you to take whatever definition of salvation you favor and plug it into my hypothetical. another side note, I’d argue that the orphanage worker who is generally uninterested in religion is still participating in an explicit relationship with her creator. She is interacting with the Imago Dei found in those she cares for. She is caring for the least of these, being a Godly steward of Creation even if she is might be theologically unaware of why she’s doing it. There is a spark of the divine embedded in her simply because she exists and because God gave her life. Her actions are a response to that spark, regardless of whether or not her cognitive understanding connects those dots.

  13. Zach,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I haven’t thought about this in awhile, so this was good for me.

    Just a quick clarification:

    “…the components of evangelicalism are 1) an explicit relationship with the Creator which is a relationship that 2) doesn’t necessarily need a knowledge of the Bible.”

    I wouldn’t say evangelicalism does not require a knowledge of scripture or creedal orthodoxy. It does. Salvation, on the other hand, to me, does not. I know this opens up another whole bag of worms, but for the sake of clarification regarding what I think, there it is.

    I think, for the most part, I agree with your last point, also.

    I, and some of my friends, might be living in an alternate universe. My identity as an evangelical is very much a love-hate relationship, if that says anything about evangelical ambiguity and tension.

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