I have watched the evangelical campaigns against Matthew Vines and Rachel Held Evans with some interest. As an outsider, I don't have a dog in the fight. But as someone who is generally sympathetic to the legions of clergy, laity and scholars that the current evangelical power brokers and their mentors/heroes have been excommunicating over the course of my lifetime, I'm never happy to see people who love the Lord and believe the Bible getting kicked out.
Given this ongoing dynamic and my own ruminations on theological education and elite/mass dynamics in religion, I read Bart Gingerich's recent blog post "Theologizers and the Anti-Seminary" with great interest.
Theologizers and the Anti-Seminary
I commend Gingerich's piece to all Protestants with no warrant that you will accept his conclusions or agree with his judgments. Though I have not met Gingerich in person, I have found him to be a thoughtful, earnest writer. I suspect we care about many of the same things even if some of our opinions, nuances, or emphases differ.
Here, I simply want to take up a few of Gingerich's points and examine them in light of the current discussions about authority, intellectual life, and boundary maintenance in evangelicalism.
Though Gingerich does not explicitly go as far as others who condemn Vines and Evans as deceivers and apostates for whom an eternity of conscious torment in the fiery pits of Hell awaits, he calls their work "liberal evangelical nonsense" and laments that intellectually lazy young evangelicals "look to ecclesiastically untethered and academically undisciplined smooth talkers."
Matthew Vines and Rachel Held Evans: Intellectual Lightweights?
It's not entirely clear whether the problem is that these writers have not been to seminary or that they allegedly cater to the lowest common denominator of American Christians (the most ignorant ones skew liberal, evidently). In Vines's case (I have never met him and know nothing of his life or work), I suspect that if he dropped out of 8th grade instead of Harvard to write a book defending the traditional view, he would be a hero to conservative evangelicals in spite of (and maybe because of) his lack of formal credentials. "Academically undisciplined" tends to be a prejudicial attitude we harbor against people with whom we disagree, often without regard for how intelligent they actually are (or how many letters they have after their name.)
The "ecclesiastically untethered" issue is a more legitimate charge, if it were true. [I take this seriously. When I write theologically, I am explicit about my own affiliation: None.] When people quit or get kicked out of evangelicalism and do not immediately join Mainline traditions or convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, it takes some time to find their place. Even now, evangelical moderates who were purged from the Southern Baptist Convention 20-30 years ago are still struggling to find their ecclesial identity. I might advise Rachel Held Evans to join a church straight away and widely publicize her new affiliation if I thought it would silence even one of her vehement critics who accuse her of being a false teacher. But it wouldn't matter. The "ecclesiastically untethered" charge also rings hollow for Vines, who is a "real, legitimate evangelical," no matter how many times his detractors try to paint him as Presiding Bishop in a Gay Little Church of One.
Is Rachel Evans (who I have also never met except on Twitter) "the perfect writer for [a] low-attention-span generation which eschews dense reading and complex arguments?" My observation is that neither she nor her audience is anything close to stupid. Even the Rev. Dr. Owen Strachan, in his recent unprovoked attack on Evans and her mortal sin of using a feminine pronoun for God literally one time, declined to attack her intellect.
Notably, however, Strachan did praise the "dense scholarship" in the Southern Seminary response to Vines's book and prefaced his own blog post as "a lengthy piece featuring a good bit of theological engagement." But if the Evangelical Magisterium has to remind you how scholarly it is, then how scholarly is it?
Gingerich bemoans and exaggerates Evans's alleged feminist theology, which he says "mimics the same theological blunders as the infamous Re-Imagining Conference." I know quite a few theological liberals schooled in actual feminist theology who think Rachel Held Evans is a center-right conservative. Saying that God is neither male nor female hardly makes someone a radical feminist theologian, or, in this case, an academically undisciplined feminist amateur theologizer.
It's unfair to kick people out of church, then criticize them for being unchurched, and finally to imply that they lack standing without an M.Div.
Amateur Theologizers: Only Good if They Agree with Me!
Among other points, I am sympathetic to Gingerich's concern that pop-theology amateurs rather than legitimate theologians are influencing American congregations today. Lately I've been thinking a lot about an "amateur theologizer" named C.S. Lewis. Lewis never spent a day in seminary and it shows. He writes as though academic study of the Bible never existed. Perhaps this is why conservative evangelicals love him so dearly. By all accounts, however, Lewis was masterful as an amateur theologizer to the edification of millions of individual Christians and of the Church writ large. Of course, Lewis is not susceptible to claims that he was academically undisciplined or ecclesiastically untethered. But would the great C.S. Lewis not find himself in Gingerich's crosshairs for his lowbrow, dumbed-down God-talk for the simple minded?
Please read Gingerich's blog for yourself. Though I have challenged some of his assessments and conclusions here, I affirm his thoughtful engagement with a series of important questions about the intellectual life of the church. Perhaps if there is interest, I will engage his other points in a subsequent post.
My own life has been richly blessed by the very moderates who have been marginalized in (and sometimes outright dismissed from) evangelical institutions. Perhaps that explains my instinct to defend Vines and Evans. And though I have lately experienced a sympathy for Catholicism that—be still my Protestant heart!—surprises and unsettles me, I have seen in a number of moderate evangelical women bloggers inspiring and faithful expressions of the Priesthood of the Believer. Yet if the Evangelical Magisterium excommunicates all dissenting believer-priests, have they not in a sense undone the Reformation?
That's hyperbolic. I understand, sort of, why they feel that homosexuality must always remain a vile sin and their top public policy priority. I just regret that so much faithful engagement and so many faithful lives are being attacked, denigrated, and dismissed.
Following the World Vision situation, I wrote about authority and unity in evangelicalism:
World Vision and the Distant Dream of Christian Unity (Patheos, April 8, 2014)
World Vision, Evangelical Authority, and Excommunitweets (blog, April 1, 2014)
What Do Leaders Really Think of Pro-SSM Evangelicals (blog, March 26, 2014)