Wheaton College has begun the process to fire Larycia Hawkins for her controversial theological statement on Facebook that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, setting off a larger debate about who gets to call themselves an evangelical.
Sometimes those who defend Hawkins assert that Wheaton is Islamophobic or imply that Wheaton is racist or sexist. Some insist that Wheaton has too narrow a definition of “evangelicalism.” Debate over the first two assertions is not likely to persuade parties on either side and do not focus on the theological accusations at hand. The third, though, is worth unpacking, because it strikes at the core of the question over who is an evangelical.
To understand why Wheaton would focus on such a specific question about the relationship between Christians and Muslims and worship of God, one must first understand evangelical tradition.
Some have claimed that “evangelicalism” is interpreted too narrowly, an argument that comes from a quantifiable-heavy understanding of religious tradition, whereby “evangelicalism” is understood as simply the actions of the people who identify as “evangelicals” throughout history.
In such a model, strands of a tradition that are repudiated lie dormant but can be revived at any time as genuine expressions of the tradition. With this argument, one can demonstrate that something is in keeping with evangelicalism by simply demonstrating that it has a historical precedent.
The argument relies on two facts: evangelicals have no synod or pope with authority to define the term institutionally, and the existing definitions are so vague as to be meaningless. Evangelicals agree on the first point, but many disagree on the second.
Understanding a religious tradition merely historically is only one way of approaching the definition of evangelicalism. It is, more importantly, not the way many evangelicals understand their own tradition.
Another way to understand the religious tradition of “evangelicalism” involves looking to the relationship of modern evangelical-identity gatekeepers (like Wheaton College).
Evangelicals often embrace the definition of historian David Bebbington, who proposed four now commonly accepted core beliefs of evangelicals: conversionism (the importance of having a “born-again” experience), activism (a focus on evangelism through missionary efforts and social reform), biblicism (respect for the Bible as the ultimate authority), and crucicentrism (an emphasis on Jesus’s death on the cross).
While the four beliefs outlined by Bebbington can still be too vague, many evangelicals embrace his definition because it sees evangelicalism as a living reformational movement instead of a mere extended collection of historical practices.
Treating the religious tradition of evangelicalism as a reformational movement means it can change its identity through the present actions of institutional gatekeepers, and parts of the tradition considered unacceptable can be discarded. Statements of faith and trustee systems such as the ones Wheaton employs have the responsibility to functionally define the faith, though they do not have the same role as a pope, who functionally and perfectly defines the faith in the Catholic tradition.
If the college’s board of trustees cannot find agreement between given theological position and the statement of faith, then that position can be judged “not evangelical” from an institutional point of view.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post