Hope Without Eschatology?
Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1 along with other books, such as George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2 have been important to the ongoing process of seeking to understand the faith which I confess. These books have helped me to see the historical and theological matrix in which the distinctive characteristics of evangelicalism have taken shape. Noll’s book especially provided a thick account of how things are, how they came to be this way, why these things matter, and in some sense what to do about them. Noll and others are still thinking and writing about these matters, refusing to consider the discussion of such matters as closed.
Christian eschatology, properly understood, always points to the cosmic scope of the conquest of Christ on the cross, whereby the cross is an event of cosmic reordering, which by faith awaits its full consummation.
An important dimension of faith seeking understanding was my recognition that many tenets of faith which I had taken as givens had not always been understood precisely in the way they were passed on to me. In fact, I decided that evangelicalism had some things decidedly wrong, a conclusion brought to light by very good scholars who continued to embrace a robust Christian faith even while putting forward some tough criticisms of a certain understanding of that faith.
SIDER’S CALL TO FAITHFULNESS
Ron Sider’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (hereafter, Scandal), evoked the memory of Noll’s important book with anticipation that, just as that work “contributed so much to strengthen evangelical thinking, so too this book would renew evangelical resolve to live what we preach” (15).
And indeed, Sider’s work has many things to commend it. His identification of the scandal, the clear focus on repentance, a call for rejection of cheap grace, the assertion that the problem includes both personal and structural matters, a much-needed call back to church discipline, the invitation to recognize the temptations of materialism—these and other dimensions of the book are compelling and provocative. However, this essay will focus more narrowly on issues addressed in “Rays of Hope,” the book’s concluding chapter.
RAYS OF HOPE
Sider’s conclusion appropriately begins with Jesus’ call to weeping and repentance, which are seen as “the only faithful responses to the sweeping, scandalous disobedience in the evangelical world today” (122). But Sider counsels against despair even in the face of the dire situation he has brought to view, since new birth and radical transformation are readily available in Christ. Nonetheless, the promises of Christ come with an attendant condition that we must obey Christ, who is the source of hope.
But then Sider makes what I consider to be a puzzling move. He returns to the polling data that also served as the basis for the identification of the scandal. That same data now offer the “rays of hope” referred to in his chapter title. Much of the final chapter, then, consists in a rehearsal of work done by George Barna, a pollster who has developed a set of criteria or instruments of measurement that claim to be able to distinguish between “born-again” Christians, “evangelical” Christians, and now those Christians that have a “biblical worldview” (125-30). It is within the latter category that Sider identifies “some substantial hope,” wherein people demonstrate genuinely different behavior from the rest of the world (128-29). Then, very briefly, Sider ends his book with a confession of faith in Jesus, who “will end the scandal of blatant disobedience of the people who call on his name” (131).
This essay will focus on two aspects of Sider’s presentation: his use of the term evangelical, and the extent to which eschatology supplies the basis of his hope.
IDENTIFICATION OF EVANGELICAL
The understanding of evangelical that is in play here is problematic, both as a measure of identification and in terms of the kinds of things that are to be measured in order to determine the internal consistency of evangelicals. The description used by Barna and others to identify “evangelical” is fairly narrow in scope, and the behavioral categories used to determine internal consistency among evangelicals thus identified offer up a truncated view of what an obedient Christian life might look like. Yet both the descriptive and the behavioral categories used by pollsters go unchallenged by Sider. Given the interpretive power granted to these polls by Sider (and others), 3 they are deserving of more critical attention.
Regarding the understanding of evangelical, it is important to ask what kinds of Christian beliefs that might be considered part of an orthodox Christian’s faith are not part of the criteria for being considered “born again,” “evangelical,” or as “having a biblical worldview” in Barna’s instruments for measuring Christian faithfulness. There are other ways of understanding evangelical than the one in the present discussion. For example, Oliver O’Donovan makes this remark about such matters:
At the risk of laboring the obvious, I should make it clear that the word “evangelical” is used as the adjective corresponding to the noun “Gospel,” so that “evangelical ethics,” as I have tried to describe it here and elsewhere, is all Christian ethics as it understands its relation to the Gospel correctly, not the concern of a single movement or party within the church. I have no objection, of course, to the use of the term to designate such a movement by those whose business it is to chart the ecclesiastical currents through which we sail; nor do I resist being counted in, if those whose business it is judge that I belong to it. But I must insist, it is not my business! 4
In a similar way, John Howard Yoder is happy to refer to himself as “evangelical,” and to be referred to by others as such, although he is quick to say that by such a label, he means “ ‘evangelical’ in the root sense of the term, having to do with being bearers of good news for the world.” 5 However, it seems to me that the understandings of “evangelical” put forward by O’Donovan and Yoder may be much more difficult to measure using the kinds of instruments on display in Barna and other pollsters.
For example, how would one measure a Christian’s understanding and embrace of matters such as the trinitarian nature of God, the relationship between worship and ethics, and the logic of cross and resurrection? If the understanding of the gospel view of evangelical is not the concern of a single movement within the church, then measurement via sociological surveys may not be able to reveal as much as it claims.
MEASURING EVANGELICAL BEHAVIOR
Related to the use of terminology is the issue of criteria used to measure evangelical faithfulness. Categories of behavior used in describing the depth of the scandal include divorce, materialism and the poor, sexual disobedience, racism, and physical abuse in marriage. These statistics are useful and no doubt telling. But again, what is left off the list is at least as important as that which is included. For example, the issue of Christians and violence does not appear within the present discussion of faithfulness. I am aware that Sider addresses this issue elsewhere in his published work, but it seems to me that if the scandal of evangelical behavior is to be addressed, then the enthusiasm with which many evangelicals embrace violence of various kinds, especially violence sanctioned by the state, surely needs to be part of the discussion.
I find both the understanding of what it means to be evangelical and the criteria used to constitute a scandal too truncated given the descriptive and prescriptive power given to those categories in Sider’s argument. If there is a scandal within evangelicalism as understood in Scandal, and if the heart of that scandal is the internal inconsistency displayed there, then perhaps one ought to pose more radical questions. For example, is there something endemic to a certain construal of evangelical that carries within it some of the temptations that are part of the scandal uncovered here? Are some of the things emphasized as central to evangelical faith really essential dimensions of orthodox Christian faith?
It is noteworthy that Mark Noll, in his analysis of evangelicalism, suggests that it is important to realize that “much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity.” 6 If Noll is right, then prior to the question of internal consistency within evangelicalism is the question of the adequacy of evangelicalism itself to embody the good news of the gospel. Though I wish he would have gone further, I recognize that part of Sider’s purpose in his book may be to call those who identify themselves as evangelicals to a more biblical understanding of the faith they confess. 7
HOPE AND ESCHATOLOGY
My second major concern regarding Scandal is that there is too much sociology and not enough eschatology and history. The final chapter starts with a call to repentance and mentions our hope in Christ, but the rays of hope mentioned there are based upon sociological analysis: there is hope within the polling data that evangelicals will act in a way consistent with their self-understanding. So both the scandal and the hope are identified in the data.
In the final three paragraphs of Sider’s book, he brings to bear on the discussion the reality of the risen Lord in our current situation. It is this point that I wish would have been given more prominence, since it is here that true hope is located: in the power of the risen Lord, and in the future reality that already impinges on our present reality. This future, which can only be brought about by God, reveals to us that there is more to the world than we can know; there is more than can be measured, no matter how sophisticated our social scientific instruments.
Christian eschatology, properly understood, always points to the cosmic scope of the conquest of Christ on the cross, whereby the cross is an event of cosmic reordering, which by faith awaits its full consummation. The eschaton as end-event imparts to life a meaningfulness which it would not otherwise have; a hope which, by defying present frustration, defines a present position in terms of the yet unseen goal which gives it meaning. 8
There is a certain reductionism inherent in using current polling data to assess the state of the church. Such data cannot and does not take into account the kind of historical questions and issues that are necessary to deepen and thicken our understanding of the church’s faithfulness. 9 But neither can such data point us to the right kind of hope, which is not to be found primarily in immanent actions of Christians.
THE VALUE OF AN APOCALYPTIC APPROACH
Here one could turn fruitfully to John Howard Yoder’s retrieval of the idiom of evangelical apocalyptic, or an apocalyptic stance. Such an approach includes a resistance to being captured by the determinism of a system-immanent causal nexus 10 by allowing us to imagine and to speak of “a frame of reference in which we acknowledge being the graced objects of a meaning from beyond ourselves.” 11 Part of the kind of reasoning that results from working within a mode of systemic determinism assumes that it is possible to know the global social process with enough certitude to make consequentialist judgments that justify, for example, casuistically taking into our own hands coercive and violent measures toward adversaries. 12 In order to break out of this kind of thinking, which is surely not evangelical in that it does not take into account the fact that God is the ultimate mover of history, an eschatological stance ought to give pause to those who think that it is their task and calling to take hold of the handles of history and move it in the direction they think can be discerned through some immanent process.
Such a stance allows Christians to resist system-immanent thinking, but also to recognize the freedom to live meaningfully in a world with an open future, a world in which the rule of Christ has come, though not in its fullness. Our hope is thus not immanentized, but actually believes with the good news of the gospel that God has reached out and spoken into the world from elsewhere, and displayed the way the world really works in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. 13
Noll’s earlier book is again instructive, as he too ends his project with a reflection on hope. Part of the hope Noll explores is to be found in overcoming the encumbrances of the evangelical heritage and exploiting patterns of thought offered by other Christian traditions. However, Noll does not stop there. Instead he pushes further to suggest that perhaps the way to address the scandal of the Christian mind is not to intensify a search for a mind, but to renew a search for God; the mind matters because God matters. Therefore, in the end Noll does not find hope so much in the history of evangelicalism, but in the faith itself, i.e., because Christian faith is in God, we have hope. 14
MEMORY AND HOPE
I have no doubt that the pollsters’ results have something to say to the Christian community, and that there is much to be learned about our behavior, which creates opportunities for examining ourselves in light of the Scriptures. No doubt our internal consistency is sorely lacking, and we need the kind of clarion call we have here in Scandal. But that analysis and the basis of our hope cannot be immanentized. If the scandal and the hope for our way out are too much “in the moment,” then we are in danger of ignoring both the past and future, of ignoring history and eschatology. To do so is to sever memory and hope from each other, 15 without which the Christian story becomes distorted.
Perhaps the church is in ruins, 16 but if we are to be restored to spiritual health, surely this will be the result of the work of God through the Spirit as people follow the risen Christ in obedience. Here Sider and I do not disagree. But any such restoration will have to take into account history and eschatology in a way that goes beyond the account provided by Sider in this chapter.
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). I was also a student in a course of the same title, taught by Noll and John Stackhouse at Regent College, Vancouver, in the summer of 1995. Stackhouse’s contribution helped to place the “scandal” within a distinctively Canadian context.
- George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
- See Philip Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church in the Marketplace of Desire,” Modern Theology 9 (October 1993): 319-48; and Kenneson and James Street, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997) for extended and, in my view, compelling critiques of Barna. The co-opting of the term evangelical, to be reduced to a series of measurable indicators that sociologists can put on an instrument, seems unnecessarily narrow. There’s a certain reductionism to the “essence” and to the measurement of those characteristics—just as Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” was a truncating of the heart of Anabaptism. To focus on these measurable characteristics is of limited value.
- Oliver O’Donovan, “How Can Theology Be Moral?” Journal of Religious Ethics 17 (fall, 1989): 94. For O’Donovan, evangelical is a reference to “what God has done for his world and for humankind in Jesus Christ” (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994], ix).
- John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 6. The same book includes the essay, “The Biblical Mandate for Evangelical Social Action,” which is Yoder’s address for the constitutive meeting of Evangelicals for Social Action, founded by Ron Sider. See Mark Thiessen Nation’s new book, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), for a comprehensive discussion of Yoder’s “evangelicalism.” Both O’Donovan and Yoder are deeply influenced by Karl Barth’s understanding of the meaning of evangelical. See Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963).
- Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 243.
- I am grateful for Douglas Miller’s input at this point in the paper.
- John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1971), 53.
- Here Noll’s earlier analysis of a scandal is very helpful. He shows how American Protestantism aligned themselves with nationalistic ideals and particular expressions of American Enlightenment, how keeping alive certain elements of the faith seriously damaged others, and how the embrace of certain views of science and politics drew evangelicalism away from faithful expressions of Christian life.
- Yoder uses this phrase and others like it, e.g., “necessitarian vision of causation,” in many of his discussions of eschatology.
- John Howard Yoder, “The Burden and Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism,” in Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace, eds. Louise Hawkley, James C. Juhnke (N. Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), 34.
- John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 1 no. 1 (1988): 55-56. The idea of “handles of history” appears at various points throughout Yoder’s writings, and most prominently in The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 232-42.
- John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” 49; idem, “Ethics and Eschatology,” Ex Audito 6 (1990): 126.
- Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 253.
- For one example of an attempt to connect these two elements, see Harry Huebner’s essay, “The Politics of Memory and Hope,” in Echoes of the Word: Theological Ethics as Rhetorical Practice (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2005), 153-66.
- That the church is in ruins, and that we must rebuild precisely among those ruins, using the stones of the ruined building, is the thesis of Russell R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002).