Evangelical Christianity – July 1998

Question: What are some strengths and weaknesses you see, as a process theologian, in the Evangelical movement and its theologies? What are some concerns Evangelical and Process thinkers share in common?

Publication Month: July 1998

Dr. Cobb’s Response

I have personally been preoccupied with the strengths and weaknesses of old-line Protestantism. Its most glaring weakness today is its loss of vitality, and it is this weakness that leads us in that tradition to look with hope, and perhaps envy, at evangelicals. Evangelicals at their best have retained a commitment, a devotion, a fervor that the old-line, on the whole, has lost.

Of course, there are many forms of evangelical theology as there are many forms old-line theology. Some evangelical theology is tainted by the tendency to define itself over against the bad liberals. Other forms tend to get stuck on moralism about sexual issues. Still others get sucked into the orbit of Fundamentalism. Still others substitute emotion for thinking.  And others ally themselves with the status quo in economics and seem unconcerned about the needs of the poor.

Needless to say, a similar list of failures could be offered with respect to old-line theologies. I mention such tendencies only to say that I will not be talking about those forms of evangelical theology. At its best evangelical theology is the enthusiastic witness to the saving power of faith in God through Jesus Christ. And at their best evangelicals are open to considering how that witness can best be formulated in our time rather than rigidly defending particular past formulae.

Furthermore, bearing that witness has led some evangelicals to forms of social witness that shame the old-line churches. I think of Koinonia Farms and Habitat for Humanity. I think of the Sojourners and the Church of the Savior. There is much else being done by local churches all over the country. And we should add that much of the costly work for civil rights came out of the evangelical Black churches.

But, of course, from my point of view, there are weaknesses even in the best of evangelical theology. For a representative of the old-line churches to point to them may be violating Jesus’ injunction about not trying to remove the speck from the neighbor’s eye until one has taken the beam out of one’s own! But perhaps mutual criticism also has its value.

From the perspective of the old-line churches evangelical theology, even at its best, has not dealt adequately with some of the really tough questions. For example, Christian responsibility for the Holocaust raises questions about our received Christologies. Evangelicals at their best are certainly appalled by the Holocaust and want to avoid all forms of anti-Judaism. But few have recognized how deep this anti-Judaism goes into our inherited theology and even into the New Testament. Most responses thus far have been superficial.

A similar issue arises about the positive value of other religious traditions. Almost by definition evangelicals so emphasize the saving power of Jesus Christ as to imply a great lack in other religious communities. They are barely beginning the process of dialogue.

Although many evangelicals work for justice for women, few have yet heard the full implications of women’s experience. Patriarchy is so deeply rooted in the Bible itself that the evangelical emphasis on biblical authority makes it difficult to oppose its current expressions.

The situation is worse with respect to the experience of gays and Lesbians at the hands of the church. The old-line churches are struggling painfully to respond to what gays and Lesbians have to tell us. Evangelicals have hardly begun to listen.

For reasons such as this, the loving spirit and deep commitment to express it in action, that is the hallmark of evangelicalism at its best is inhibited by teachings that make it very difficult to listen sensitively to what those who have suffered from traditional Christianity have to tell us. This makes evangelicals as a group appear hard and closed in relation to some of the most critical issues of our time.  

The old-line churches have dealt with issues such as these more fully than the evangelical ones. We have not done well. Some of our loss of vital spirit is due to the fact that we have recognized that we cannot continue as before, but we have not developed a new, positive consensus as to what we should now affirm.

It is my belief that the best of the evangelicals will open themselves more deeply to the problems generated by traditional ideas in such areas as those I have mentioned. The question is whether their doing so will have the same negative effects in evangelical churches that it has had in old-line ones. I hope not. There is a chance that they can revise the doctrines of Christ, of God, of salvation, of sin, of the church, and so forth in ways that continue to inspire the passion and devotion that have marked evangelicals thus far. If so, Protestant Christianity can have a great future. 

What does process theology have to do with all this? Perhaps, nothing. Perhaps, a great deal. I believe that, in principle, process theology can evoke wholehearted faith that can shape all of life in the service of God as we know God in Jesus. I believe it can do so in a way that has been lovingly attentive to the voices to which Christianity has so often been deaf. Clearly, it has failed, thus far, to influence the response of the old-line churches to these challenges sufficiently to avoid their decline in spirit as well as numbers. But there is a chance that many of its formulations could help evangelical theologians make the urgently important
changes needed in the tradition in ways that would add to the vitality of their communities.