Doctrinal Bungee Jumping

from The Thirsty Theologian

David Wells on the shrinking of doctrine as a cause of death in the evangelical movement:

To become a cohesive movement, evangelicalism had to agree on essentials and agree to allow differences on nonessentials, doctrinally speaking. That is what happened. The essentials were the authority of inspired Scripture and the centrality and necessity of Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross.
   Through the 1950s, 1960s, and even 1970s, much else besides the two core principles was part and parcel of evangelical belief and practice. There was, however, a tacit agreement that liberty would be allowed in all these other matters provided that the core principles were honored. As long as the center held, as long as the grounds of unity were strong, the diversity of beliefs in church government, glossalalia, baptism, and the millennium could be sustained. At the time, this seemed quite safe, because the core at the center was strong and because evangelicals took seriously all the surrounding beliefs, too.
   What happened was, though, was that this doctrinal vision began to contract. The goal that diversity in secondary matters would be welcomed quite soon passed over into an attitude that evangelicalism could in fact be reduced simply to its core principles of Scripture and Christ. In hindsight, it is now rather clear that the toleration of diversity slowly became an indifference toward much of the fabric of belief that makes up Christian faith. . . .

   The unraveling of evengelical truth was signaled initially in a series of definitional tags that became evident in the 1980s and 1990s. that was when a whole series of hybrids emerged: feminist evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, liberals who were evangelical, charismatic evangelicals, Catholic evangelicals, evangelicals who were Catholic, and so it went. The additional — be it feminist, Catolic, or charismatic — signaled that the additional interest was at least as important as the core principles that defined who an evangelical was. Indeed, the additional interest usually said far more about the person’s interests than anything else. The core principles, in fact, wer losing tere power to shape people, define the movement, prescribe who was and who was not an evangelical. . . .

   The last time I walked over the bridge that links Zambia to Zimbabwe, just below the Victoria Falls, I watched a bungee jumper launch himself into space from the center of the bridge. The waters beneath are some four hundred feet down, full of froth and crocodiles. This is Africa. Equipment of the kind he was using may not be tested regularly and replaced on schedule. In fact, what I saw were cords that appeared already to have been overused. They were very frayed, and I wondered how long it would be before an intrepid bungee jumper did not make the return journey to the bridge’s edge and simply continued into the churning waters in the gorge far, far below.
   Something like this happened in the evangelical world. The cords plaited together out of the formal and material principles became frayed and then, for an increasing number, snapped. They are no longer able to return the jumpers to the fellowship.

—David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008), 7–9.

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