This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series: ‘The Post-Evangelical’ (Tomlinson)
In chapter 5 – ‘Woolly Liberals?’ – Dave Tomlinson informs us that he shares with evangelicals a rejection of theological liberalism. But what he does not share are evangelicals’ reasons for opposing liberalism.
Indeed, he expresses amazement at ‘how paranoid evangelicals are about liberalism’. Evangelicals are constantly patrolling their boundaries, lest one of their number should trespass into liberal territory.
This is not to suggest, says Tomlinson, that theology and doctrine are unimportant. ‘Far from it; but there is no evidence from the Bible that it is (sic) of ultimate importance. Doctrinal correctness matters little to God and labels matter less; honesty, openness and a sincere searching for truth, on the other hand, matter a great deal.’
Tomlinson then tells his ‘parable of the Spring Harvest Speaker and the Liberal Bishop.’
Jesus told a parable to a gathering of evangelical leaders. ‘A Spring Harvest speaker and a liberal bishop each sat down and read the Bible. The Spring Harvest speaker thanked God for the precious gift of the Holy Scriptures and pledged himself once again to proclaim them faithfully. “Thank you God”, he prayed, “that I am not like this poor bishop who doesn’t believe your word, and seems unable to make up his mind or not whether or not Christ rose from the dead”. The Bishop looked puzzled as he flicked through the pages of the Bible and said “Virgin birth, water into wine, physical resurrection, I honestly don’t know if I can believe these things Lord. In fact, I’m not even sure if you exist as a personal Being, but I am going to keep on searching.” I tell you that this Liberal Bishop rather than the other man went home justified before God. For anyone who thinks he has arrived at his destination has hardly begun, and he who continues to search is closer to the destination than he realizes.’
The intentional similarity between Tomlinson’s parable and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10ff) is manipulative and misleading. Tomlinson’s version parallels that of our Lord in one respect – the self-satisfied judgmentalism of the pharisee/’Spring Harvest speaker’. But there is no parallel between the Tax Collector and the ‘liberal bishop’. The tax collector was a social outcast who cast himself on God’s mercy. Tomlinson’s ‘liberal bishop’ is, at best, an honest doubter who has yet to learn that if God does not exist and Christ has not been raised, Christian faith and preaching are rendered futile.
In offering a choice between self-righteous belief and sincere doubt Tomlinson has presented us with yet another false antithesis. Given the choice, of course we should opt for sincere doubt over self-righteous belief. But whatever happened to the other options – self-righteous doubt and (of course) sincere belief?
The notion that God is not interested in ‘doctrinal correctness’ is similarly misleading. You might as well ask, “Is God interested in theological hair-splitting?” or, “Is God interested in endless debates over trivial matters?”. If you put it like that, the answer is in the question. But if you ask, ‘Does the Christian gospel present us with certain truths which are to be believed’, the answer is, ‘Yes, of course’ (think, for example, 1 Cor 15). If you ask, ‘Does the New Testament view these truths as entailing a coherent body of knowledge, again, the answer is, ‘Yes’ (think, for example of the thirty-four times the New Testament writers refer to ‘the faith’ with this kind of definiteness). And if you ask, ‘Do the New Testament writers value and encourage assurance over against doubt with regard to these truths’, once again, the answer is, ‘Yes’. (As John Stott says, ‘the corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning, ‘We know’, ‘We are sure,’ ‘We are confident.’)
Tomlinson traces the problems of both liberalism and evangelicalism back to the Enlightenment and the modernity to which it gave birth. Drawing on the assumptions and methods of critical rationality, liberalism questioned the whole supernatural edifice of the Bible and the Christian faith which had hitherto been taken for granted. The conservative reaction to this came in the form of fundamentalism (Tomlinson here briefly notes the efforts of the newer evangelicals, who sought to resist liberalism while distancing themselves from fundamentalism).
The evangelical option has some attractions, not least its respect for the Scriptures and its emphasis on a personal response to a simple gospel. But evangelicals tend to idolize the Bible, and despite the best efforts of evangelical scholarship many take a simplistic view of biblical authority that ignores, for example, discrepancies between the accounts given in the Synoptic Gospels. A similarly simplistic attitude applies to personal spirituality, especially in charismatic circles (“The Lord told me…”).
As for liberalism, perhaps its most appealing aspects for post-evangelicals is ‘its spirit of openness’. But it, too, can be doctrinaire and self-assured in its appeal to reason. For for other liberals – such as John Habgood – honest self-criticism is an important feature. But post-evangelicals are unlikely to follow the liberal approach, partly because they value their evangelical background too much, and partly because they accept (‘perhaps critically’) the historical core of the Christian faith, along with supernatural elements. The Bible is normative for post-evangelicals, and the Apostles’ Creed is readily affirmed.
But for Tomlinson the real problem with both evangelicalism and liberalism is that they are merely two sides of the modernist coin. Liberalism appeals to critical rationality, and evangelicalism choses to fight liberalism on the same ground. And when a cherished evangelical belief – such as six-day creationism – becomes untenable on scientific grounds, the interpretation of the Bible shifts in such a way as to protect the inerrancy of Scripture at all costs. But the supposed objectivity of the scientific outlook is currently undergoing serious assault, and their is no future for the objectivism either of liberalism or of evangelicalism. The future lies, says Tomlinson, in the post-critical, the post-modern outlook.