Welcome to part 3 of 3 of my blog on Evangelicalism, it’s key commitments, and my views on those. To review, those commitments are conversionism, activism (discussed in post #1), biblicism (#2), and crucicentrism, which I will deal with in this present post. This is probably the hardest one to write, because I do not have a problem with crucicentrism, per se, but rather how it actually works itself out in practice in Evangelicalism. I will explore two main paradigms that are different ways of understanding the Gospel itself (a pretty central topic), and discuss briefly the differences that result from these different paradigms.
So what exactly is crucicentrism? The Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism) defines it as “an emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ”. Now as I said before, I don’t have a problem with crucicentrism, per se, and using this basic definition, I am fully on board with crucicentrism.
However, there is more to it than that. To explain what I mean, let me give you two brief and different summaries of what Christianity is all about (these are not necessarily mutually exclusive in all aspects, but still different)
1: Christianity is about how God sent His son to die on the cross in place of your sins, so that you can have a personal relationship with Him and when you die you can to heaven to be with Him, and not go to hell.
2: Christianity is about how God is rescuing and renewing His creation, through what His son, Jesus, did on the cross to defeat death itself, and we are invited to join in on this rescue project, both in and through us.
So what are some differences between options 1 and 2.
A. Understanding of atonement (Option 1 is exclusively penal substitution theory, while option 2 can include that, but also a Christus Victor theory, the idea that the cross is about the defeat of the power of death)
B. Scope of God’s rescue (Option 1 is about just rescuing individuals from their sin and the penalty of sin, while the rest of God’s creation (presumably) is tossed away and burned after we go off to heaven, while option 2 is about the rescue of all of creation, (incorporating the biblical idea of the new heavens and earth), including and especially humans, from the results of sin (death and destruction). This also does a much better job of providing a paradigm in which working for social, cultural and environmental good can be seen in light of God’s renewing of His creation, and not just as extra additions to the real work of converting people as they likely would be in option 1.)
C. Nature of our relationship to God (Option 1 is about a personal [that word is key] relationship with God, with the Church or local church congregation serving only to benefit our individual relationships with God, while option 2 usually has a much stronger emphasis on the Church, and on our faith being centered on being a part of the people of God, a part of His Church. Option 2 usually does not miss out on the idea that the gospel is both about reconciling individuals to God as well as reconciling humanity with each other into one “new humanity” (See Ephesians 2:15, speaking of the relationship of Jews and Gentiles) “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace”)
While over the years in college I began to realize the importance of different things in Christianity, like social issues, peacemaking, and the importance of community and the Church, I didn’t really have a place to put all those issues in my previous theological framework. In the framework of option 1, those ended up just being extras. It wasn’t that people who hold to option 1 don’t value things like helping the poor, it’s just that they aren’t central, and there always seems to be the need to attach a pitch for conversion to Christianity to them, which is central to option 1. It wasn’t until later in college (my junior year?), when I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, that I realized that framework itself (of option 1) was flawed, or rather just incomplete, and that there were other paradigms which far better accounted for what I could see was important in the Bible.
Much of what I described as option 2 is drawn from Wright’s writings, which are becoming increasingly influential (sometimes controversial) within Evangelicalism. However, while option 2 is making some inroads in Evangelicalism, the beliefs held by the average person in the pew (or folding chair) in an Evangelical church are much closer to option 1 on the whole. Pastors who try to push elements of option 2 into their teaching and church practice too much end up getting themselves in trouble, if not fired, often times.
One possible explanation for the strong resistance in Evangelicalism to parts of option 2 is because to a lot of Evangelicalism, it looks and smells like “liberalism”. What I mean by liberalism (though it could mean this to some Evangelicals) is not the left side of the current american political spectrum, but rather the theological liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of Evangelical identity has been shaped by its resistance to this theological liberalism, which bought wholesale into the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and undercut huge amounts of Christian theological orthodoxy. The reaction and resistance was probably a good thing, but sometimes when you are defined by what you’re against, you can miss out on some things. One thing that adherents to theological liberalism held to was social/political work, while Fundamentalists held to the “fundamentals” of Christian orthodoxy. So needless to say, the common Evangelical framework (option 1) did not have a large room for things like social teaching or the “social gospel”. However, what I believe to be a strength of option 2 is that it can both incorporate the strength of option 1, holding to basic orthodox Christian beliefs, including the importance of the atonement, the resurrection, and the afterlife, but also to incorporate the strengths of theological liberalism, in seeing the importance of social issues and working for the good of our world, here and now.
What option 2 does is that it connects our present life with the afterlife. We do good in the present because we are anticipating and (imperfectly) experiencing a world that is wholly good. We feed those who are hungry because we anticipate a world where everyone is fed. We practice forgiveness now as we anticipate a world where all relationships are healthy and whole. We practice taking good care of God’s creation now as we anticipate when we will rightly rule/care for God’s creation when He makes all things new. You get the idea. Life for the Christian now is learning how to live in God’s new creation, when all will be made right. Let me just make a distinction, God’s creation will not be restored all by a process of Progress and evolution all through our hard work. There is certainly discontinuity as well as continuity between our age and the age to come, and it will take an act of God to set things right in His creation, but the point still stands that how we think of life here and now must be connected to thinking of eternal life, as it is in option 2.
So, do I believe in a crucicentrism that is all about me and my personal relationship with God that primarily entails going off to heaven when I die? No, that only tells a part of the Gospel story. Do I believe in crucicentrism if that means a central belief in what Jesus did in His crucifixion and resurrection to defeat the power of death which is what is wrong with God’s good creation, climaxing and empowering God’s great rescue project? Absolutely I do.
N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope http://www.amazon.com/Surprised-Hope-Rethinking-Resurrection-Mission/dp/0061551821/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1314912856&sr=8-1
Also see Wright’s After You Believe, on the connection between virtue and character in the present life with life in the new creation http://www.amazon.com/After-You-Believe-Christian-Character/dp/0061730556/ref=pd_sim_b_1
Wiki article on Christus Victor theory of atonement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor
Wiki article on theological liberalism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Christianity
Wiki article on the liberal/modernist vs fundamentalist debates of the 20th century http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist%E2%80%93Modernist_Controversy