I recently sat down with Gabriel Gordon to talk about his journey from evangelicalism to a more creedal form of Christianity. We also talk about modern evangelicalism and the progressive/fundamentalist divide. Gordon is the author of the new God Speaks which delves into the nature of biblical inspiration.
My questions are in bold.
As someone raised as a non-creedal Christian, can you unpack your journey to embracing more of a creedal tradition? What was the appeal for you?
I spent the first more or less 15 years of my existence within an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) faith and theological existence. From 15 on into college I found myself in the Southern Baptist Church. I am grateful for my early formation in both of these traditions. I have an awareness and love for the Holy Spirit and the prophetic that I don’t think I would otherwise have if it was not for my Assembly of God family. The Southern Baptists educated me and poured into in a way that made me who I am today. I am who I am as a result of my non-creedal background. Both of these denominations are part of the fundamentalist movement that arose in the late 19th and early 20th century that has come to dominate the American Christian landscape. The general ethos in both of these churches (non-creedal traditions) therefore is very new and is often disconnected from the broad Christian tradition. (It’s important to quickly note that both of these denominations actually did not arise in the fundamentalist movement but became a part of it during the 20th century.)
In college I became dissatisfied with how Christianity was being presented to me in its non-creedal fundamentalist packaging. I started coming to conclusions that were radically different from what I grew up with and what I was learning in college. I didn’t know at the time but much of the conclusions I was coming to were older creedal forms of Christianity. The affirmation of these conclusions, and of seeing myself as part of the great Christian Tradition was part of the draw to creedal Christianity. Indeed another aspect that drew me to creedal Christianity was its simplicity. Instead of having a doctrinal statement that was separate from our faith practice and that was needlessly detailed, the creeds provided a short list of who God is and thus how we are to worship that God in our daily lives as Christians. I find calling non-dogmatic statements essential for all Christians to believe as simply idolatry. What I mean by this is that in my own upbringing we often understood ourselves as the measure of proper doctrine and practice. Instead of looking to what the early church believed and practiced when there was just one church we’ve taken what’s necessary to be a Christian and multiplied it. We worship what we make essential. And since we are supposed to only worship God, it follows that only our doctrine of God should be essential for Christian faith and practice.
However, my own background made a lot of other beliefs and practice’s essential for all Christians everywhere. We thus ended up worshipping much more than God. This is where the Creeds are helpful. The dogma found in them is essentially only dogma concerning God. For example while the general bodily resurrection as espoused in the Nicene Creed might seem unrelated to who God is or what God has done, it is actually rather connected. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15 he addresses the bodily resurrection. While not going to much into the weeds his main argument is against those who would deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. For Paul and I think for creedal Christians, if Christ was not raised from the dead then we will not be raised from the dead and we are without hope. Thus our bodily resurrection is deeply connected to the resurrection of Jesus! At the end of the day I am attracted to being rooted deeply in the great Christian tradition because that’s the tradition that Jesus started and that his followers have continued to flesh out.
At the risk of broad-brushing, what do you find wrong or unhelpful within much of modern evangelicalism?
I’d like to say first of all that some of my favorite people and theologians are self-identified Evangelicals! While I do find some of Evangelicalism as a whole unhelpful I think it’s important to define our terms. The term Evangelicalism has in mind unfortunately been co-opted by the Fundamentalist movement. In American culture, both inside and outside the church, when we hear and use the term Evangelical what we really mean and what we’re really talking about is Fundamentalism. While I also have mentors, family, and friends who I deeply respect, I think it’s really unhelpful and unfair to simply use the term Evangelical for themselves without the term Fundamentalism as a descriptor of their particular kind of Evangelicalism. I like to say it this way: All Fundamentalists are Evangelicals but not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is roughly a 150 old movement whereas the Evangelical movement goes about another 100 years or so to such figures as Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitfield. The latter three all being part of my own church, the Anglican Communion. So that being said I find Fundamentalism particularly troubling in ways that I don’t when it comes to the Evangelical Tradition.
David Bebbington defined this former tradition with four defining pillars: Biblicism, Crucentrism, Social Activism (which includes both social justice and evangelism), and Conversionism. The first pillar meaning that Scripture is the ultimate source of faith, theology, and practice, not necessarily the only source and has some sort of authority. The second pillar is a focus on the Cross. The third means that we should really be involved in living out the kingdom here and now. And the last teaches us that we need to be converted away from all that is antithetical to Christ, to all that is in conformity to who He is. There’s a lot to of this that I think other branches of the Christian faith could learn from. I however disagree with the first two and find them a slight departure from the broad historic tradition of the Church.
Let me explain: While I value the Cross and thinks it’s an indispensable aspect to our faith, I think if we just focus on the Cross we may very well miss other aspects that are also essential. Christ could certainly die on a cross and then remain dead. His death on a cross does not necessarily imply Resurrection. Of course all Evangelicals affirm the Resurrection, but I think it’s more helpful to focus on Resurrection since this implies and entails the Cross. I also think we need to see the Incarnation and Ascension as essential aspects to the life of Christ. So please don’t mishear me, the Cross is certainly important. But that it all starts with the Incarnation of the Word as a human being, this is the starting point of our salvific unification with God. God became human so that we might be unified with God and become like God, to share in God’s divine nature. When God becomes human, two natures (Fully God and Fully human) fully unified into one person, then humanity and God are brought together in a way that can never be undone. But it is also through the Cross that Christ enters into death, becomes fully human by laying down his life on the Cross in love for his neighbor, and thus through the Resurrection destroys death by death. Then he ascends to the Father and sends his Holy Spirit to continue his presence and work in the recreating of this world and the finishing work of our process (following in his example) of becoming fully human.
Secondly I highly value the Bible! The opening of the scriptures is one way by which we encounter the Crucified and Risen Christ! But to say that the scriptures have any sort of authority, in my mind, is unbiblical. Jesus in Matthew 28 says that He has all authority on heaven and on earth. All means all. The scriptures, the church, and so forth can only have authority in a secondary sense, that is when God exercises God’s authority through the scriptures, tradition, and church. But only Christ (and the God Head in general) as authority in an intrinsic sense. He is the one and only foundation of the church as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:11. To say that the Bible is our final source of authority, or however one wants to phrase it, in my mind seems to remove Christ from his exclusive throne.
Of course there are the common complaints against Evangelicalism that we could discuss. But as I tried to briefly point out many of these are really complaints against Fundamentalism, I tried rather to focus on what the Evangelical tradition as a whole affirms. I will say however that the racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism that runs rampant in the Fundamentalist church is all antithetical to who Christ is.
Are there aspects of evangelicalism that you embrace or find value in?
Of course! The idea that we need to be converted, and that we should evangelize and work towards justice and peace are in total continuity with the best parts of the broad Christian tradition. I need to be converted every day, every moment from my selfishness, arrogance, addictions, falsehood, racism, my turning of a blind eye to the poor and needy, my divisiveness, and so forth! I need to be converted from these to the full humanity of Christ, to love, empathy, reality, truth, compassion, mercy, unity, gentleness, forgiveness, humility, care for the poor and needy, and so forth! And if I’m truly being converted everyday then a little bit more in each new moment I should be practicing and embodying the bringing of the Kingdom of Christ here on earth, through all that he taught, through his justice and peace, and through sharing and embodying his message that he is King, and under his rule all things will be made right. These aspects of Evangelicalism are things we all need to do.
What do you feel are contributing factors to the general migration from evangelicalism to traditions such as Catholicism or Greek Orthodoxy, or Anglicanism?
I can really only speak for myself, but if I had to guess I would say we’re craving something older, something more rooted, something that is truly and deeply connected with Jesus. We were told that these traditions were man made, but what we have found is to the contrary. While they are certainly not perfect (by far they are not!) they are the traditions that go back to Jesus himself. This does not mean everything in those three churches go back to Jesus, but the general ethos I think can be traced back to him. I know that’s a big statement, so for those who don’t believe me I would invite them to explore them.
What’s your take on the progressive/fundamentalist divide dominating much of modern Western Christianity?
Hopelessly frustrating to be honest. To the surprise of many I actually identify as deeply traditional and conservative. The progressive/fundamentalist movements are new and in this sense are both liberal or progressive. In my mind they both, in different yet similar ways, depart from the broad historic tradition of the Church. They both ask the same modern questions even though their answers may be different. For instance, both ask is the Bible inerrant? But both supply different answers. The early church had no need for such a question. The question assumes modern epistemologies that believe we can have intellectual certainty. I think it is a question only made possible by the birth of Protestantism and its development over the last couple hundred years. It assumes that the Bible is what we need to put our trust in. Instead the better question is can we trust Christ? Which I think the answer is a resounding YES! Both sides have a tendency to ignore the older parts of the Christian tradition. The conversation among the two sides therefore remains largely a Protestant conversation. (this is a big generalization I realize but I think it largely rings true, but not always) In my view we need to throw out both the progressivism of the modern fundamentalist movement as well as the progressivism of the progressive movement. To both of them Truth is frozen in the past, Christ is in the past of history. And it is only through historical research and reading the New Testament that we can access him. According to this thinking if all the New Testament documents, or any other historical writing concerning Jesus, were to disappear we would have our access to Jesus cut off. We could not possibly know him or even know of him. First of all this makes too much of written tradition (scripture, and it separates scripture and tradition as if these are two different things), second of all it denies the Resurrection and the ever present nature of Christ. Christ is not dead, existing only in the past, he is here and now present with us in every new moment.
Thank you for your time!
Gabe Gordon is co-founder of The Misfits Theology Club, a blog dedicated to the diversity within the body of Christ. Gordon graduated in Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Ministry from Oklahoma Baptist University and is currently working on his Masters of Theological studies at Portland Seminary of George Fox. He has authored two books and is featured in an edited volume of essays in Christian leadership. He is the author of the new God Speaks: A Participatory Theology of Biblical Inspiration.