A FUNDAMENTALIST SOCIAL GOSPEL?
By Robert M. Price
Just a few years ago, our title phrase would have seemed like a contradiction in terms. One of the paramount tenets of the fundamentalist movement was its individualistic piety, its stubborn withdrawal from the social and political arena. As is only too well known, this retreat came as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the “Social Gospel” movement. But it had not always been so. As Timothy Smith, Donald Dayton, and others have pointed out for us, Evangelical Christians (at least some of them) had played notable roles in early periods of social reform in America. Indeed, the attention Smith, Dayton, et al., have received from Evangelical readers is symptomatic that the tide has turned once again. It is surely one of the most important and welcome of the many religious phenomena of recent years, that Conservative Protestants are becoming vigorously interested in a kind of “social gospel” of their own. Witness the various organizational names: “Evangelicals for McGovern,” “Evangelicals for Social Action,” “Evangelical Womens Caucus.” And this is but to name a few.
Though the new Evangelical social awakening may seem long overdue, it is also the product of a long development. The present revival of social concern among Evangelical Christians seems to stem historically from the clarion call of the “Neo-Evangelical” movement, as sounded forth in the late 19401s by its pioneers Harold J. Ockenga, Edward J. Carnell, and Carl F. H. Henry.
The hallmark of “Neo-Evangelicalism” was a repudiation of fundamentalist separatism, and this at several levels. Neo-Evangelicals, though still avowedly fundamentalist in doctrine, wanted to remain in mainline denominations. And they wanted to pursue dialogue with Neo-Orthodox and Liberal theologians on an academic level. Yet one needn’t look too far before it became apparent that primarily all that was intended was a change of tactics. Ockenga announced the Neo-Evangelical goal as one of “infiltrating” and taking over mainline denominations. Henry and Carnell wanted merely to get a better, more respectable, platform for fundamentalist apologetics. As for the new call to social action, it too was, in Henry’s phrase, “a plea for evangelical demonstration.” The not-so-hidden agenda was to make Evangelical Christianity the spearhead for social reform partly, at least one suspects, to gain credibility for it as a theological alternative. And still today present in the literature of the “Young Evangelicals,”1 one may find the inference, if not the outright assertion, that Evangelicals have a superior approach to social action. What can this mean since there is no uniformity of political opinion among Young Evangelicals? Basically it all revolves about the strong element of biblicism still present in Evangelical social theory. Evangelical Christians themselves see this “centrality of the Bible” as their strong point, whatever particular positions result from this. They feel that they can avoid the subjective trendiness of the 60’s Liberal Protestant activism, as well as the discouragement that resulted from the intransigence of the problems the Liberals faced.
After all, they have the “scriptural mandates,” what Carl Henry would have called “biblical verities,” to stand on, not the mere sentimentality of conscience. This all sounds good, but closer examination will show cause for reservations. I am going to describe a certain hermeneutical naiveté which mars the otherwise quite admirable political consciousness-raising now occurring among Evangelicals. There is evidence of a wide-ranging rethinking of hermeneutics among Evangelicals (see recent writings by Clark Pinnock, Daniel Fuller, and Charles Kraft), but in much of the social action literature, we may be surprised to find a survival of the unsophisticated fundamentalist approach to the Bible. This naiveté results in two different abuses which I am going to call “hermeneutical ventriloquism” and “political snake-handling.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals have been taught that personal opinions and cultural views are worthless unless they can make direct appeal to a biblical warrant of some sort. Many of the current “Young Evangelical” writers grew up in the 60’s, and could not resist the perceived cogency of certain cultural trends, for instance, racial and sexual equality, or nonviolence. Their religious upbringing provided no basis or authorization for espousing such views, however. (For a ‘couple of autobiographical accounts along these lines, see the introductions to Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, and Wallis’ Agenda for Biblical People.) Some renounced their religious background. Others sought to accommodate their new, liberalized, stance to their Evangelical ethos. The main strategy here was an appeal to the Bible that I call “hermeneutical ventriloquism.” The Young Evangelical approaches the problem like this: “Feminism (for example) is true; the Bible teaches the truth; therefore the Bible must teach feminism.” Now it is far from obvious that the Bible explicitly teachesfeminism, yet the Young Evangelical will feel he or she has no right to be a feminist unless “the Bible tells me so.” Thus the primary task of the reform-minded Evangelical is to make the Bible teach feminism in the most plausible way. I think it is rather revealing in this regard to examine the intra-feminist dialogue in Young Evangelical publications. There we find at least two competing approaches. Sharon Gallagher, Aida Spencer, Letha Scanzoni and others maintain that rightly understood, the plain sense of the text has always been feminist in nature. For instance, I Timothy 2:12 read in the light of Assyrian, rabbinic or Hellenistic texts, seems suddenly to mean that women should not teach only if they happen to be heretics, orgiasts, etc. Or the “headship” of Christ over the church, and of husband over wife, in Ephesians 5:23 really connotes “source,” not “authority,” despite the context which would seem to suggest that “source” implies “authority” (e. g., Ephesians 1:22). Other writers, e. g., Virginia Mollencott and Paul Jewett, admit that various biblical texts do inculcate male domination, but that such problem texts “problematic” only to feminists, note) should be ignored in favor of the implicit thrust of other, egalitarian, texts such as Galatians 3:28. At this point I should perhaps mention that I have no objection to such Bultmannian “content criticism,” and as a matter of fact I support most Evangelical feminist goals. But I cannot help noticing the ideological nature of these arguments. The agreed upon goal is that the Bible is to support feminism. The debate is over the best way to arrive at this predetermined goal exegetically! The Bible must support the desired social position; otherwise how can the Young Evangelical believe it, much less persuade fellow Evangelicals?
So far, I have proposed that many activist Evangelicals have really come to hold their social views on the basis of cultural osmosis or legitimate political argumentation. But they need to believe that “biblical mandates” are the reason for their conviction. The real reason has been hidden, even from themselves. There is real utility (and real danger) in this unnoticed ground- shifting if one is trying to convert other Evangelicals to, e. g. , “biblical feminism. ” If one can plausibly appeal to biblical texts, the battle is nearly won, but quite possibly on false pretenses. Since prooftexting (albeit sophisticated) is the avowed criterion, other more subtle and more appropriate criteria are ignored, even on principle. “Worldly” considerations like pragmatic or political realities (the real though hidden origins of the Young Evangelical’s own position) must bow to exegetical arguments. Obviously, Young Evangelicals will do a better job dealing with the inevitable practical factors if they consciously recognize their presence.
There is an even more disturbing implication to all this. When biblical texts are the only sufficient reason for holding ethical and political views, a dubious “divine voluntarism” results. For instance, in a discussion of apartheid, David Field remarks:
From a Christian point of view, it is. important to examine the case for apartheid in some 4etail. . . because among its strongest supporters it numbers Christians who claim to have tested their attitudes and opinions by the standards of Scripture. 2
The barely hidden implication is that if the apartheid advocates could marshall sufficiently weighty exegetical support, Field would agree with them! Fortunately, however, Field is obviously too sensitive and noble a person for this to have any chance of happening, no matter what reading of the Bible should come out ahead. But the point is, his conscience is better than his methodology.
But there is a second group of Young Evangelicals who take something like Field’s avowed biblicism with a good deal more seriousness. Ihave in mind primarily the Sojourners Community and their orbit, but the same attitude can be found elsewhere. These are the “political snake-handlers.” Our first group, the “hermeneutical ventriloquists, ” think to espouse positions because of the Bible, but do so actually because of unsuspected political/cultural factors. Now our second group actually does dispense with all political realities. Here the operative principle is “The Bible said it – I believe it that settles it!” We face an absolutist sort of “deontological” ethics. In other words, “the means justifies the end” (read that again). As long as we obey the “biblical mandates of radical discipleship, ‘I we can let God worry about where the chips fall. In their own terms, it is a choice of “faithfulness” over “effectiveness.” Young Evangelicals may take such an approach to pacificism, unilateral disarmament, “no-nukism,” multinational corporate exploitation, or world hunger. Solutions to such problems seem simple, because the issues are seen in black-and-white terms. What is the absolutely righteous thing to do? Then let’s do it! And if the standard of living drops, people lose jobs, foreign powers pounce, then what? Trust the Lord! Even if he doesn’t deliver us from a nuclear attack prompted by our unilateral disarmament, our country is no doubt sinful enough to deserve what it gets. At any rate, it will provide the Young Evangelical “righteous remnant” (the explicit terms, incidentally, in which they see themselves) with an excellent opportunity to “go the way of the cross,” paying the cost of radical discipleship. What else can a “radical Christian” expect in this fallen age?
We have seen this kind of thing in Evangelicalism before. Premillenialists have often blindly supported Israel against the Palestinians regardless of (not because of) political considerations. All they needed to know was that If God promised the land to the Jews.” But besides this it seems to me that there is a rather obvious parallel between such a political stance and the faith which leads fringe Pentecostals to refuse medical care in favor of “Doctor Jesus” who will heal miraculously. It is not unrealistic even to call to mind the Appalachian snake handlers whose blinding faith in Mark 16:18 assures them that the serpents will not strike. (Thus my designation “political snake handling” for this viewpoint.) Most Evangelicals readily repudiate such extremism. Faith, they realize, must be coupled with realistic common sense, if one is to maintain any sense of proportion at all. How then can they let themselves throw realism to the winds when it comes to politics? And the reader should keep in mind that this is quite literally being advocated when we are told to brush aside the considerations of If this “age” in favor of the alien standards of the Kingdom of God. When Jim Wallis writes words like the following, it becomes evident that he has decided for a stance that disregards political reality as we know it: “… biblical politics are invariably alien to the politics of the established regime and will also question the politics of the new regime that any revolution will eventually establish for itself.”3 In other words, the gospel as understood by Wallis is incompatible with any conceivable state of political affair’s! This man is playing in a completely different ballpark than most of the rest of us. This is a radically negating “Christ against Culture” position.
Now if it were clear that allegiance to the Kingdom were to be put in these terms, what could one do but grit one’s teeth and go the way of the thermonuclear cross? But it is not quite so clear except to the biblicist. We may yet hope to see a more sophisticated Evangelical hermeneutic that will not lift the (interim-ethical?) injunctions of the New Testament out of the first century and drop them heavily on the twentieth. Perhaps the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr or Jose Miguez Bonino might be helpful guides. And of course there are appropriately- reasoned political defenses for pacifism (e. g., that of Martin Luther King) and other positions espoused by Young Evangelicals. What is disturbing is the biblicistic, “let-the-chips fall-where-they-may” attitude often present in their literature. Given the fundamentalist personal background of many Young Evangelical writers, this unconscious hangover of biblicism is not too surprising. What is truly astonishing is the enthusiasm with which their rhetoric has been embraced by some famous mainstream churchmen who, hermeneutically speaking, ought to know better. Perhaps such Liberal Protestants are tired of the ambiguous fruits of their conventional lobbying and editorial efforts. Young Evangelicals seem to offer a new cause with vigor and conviction. One is reminded of the denominational reaction to the current cult phenomena; i. e., “What are we doing wrong? Why can’t we muster the enthusiasm and commitment that the Moonies can?” But sometimes simple answers are not the best. The burden of ambiguity and of being “old-hat” may have something to do with Christian faithfulness in the long run. Just a thought.
The much-maligned Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer has wisely noted that the rejection of fundamentalist legalism, ironically, often results in a “new super-spirituality,” i.e., the old fundamentalism with a vengeance. I suggest that both the “hermeneutical ventriloquism” and the “political snake handling” detailed here, as serious as they are in themselves, are merely part of such a youthful burst of enthusiasm. No doubt the creative insight and ingenuity already being shown everywhere among the Young Evangelicals will lead them to recognize and mature past these abuses. If this essay has facilitated such a recognition, its purpose will have been amply served.
1 See Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1974).
2 David Field, Free to do Right (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1976), p. 10.
3 Jim Wallis, “Liberation: and Conformity,” in Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (eds.), Mission Trends No.4, Liberation Theologies (New York: Paulist Press, and Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 55.