Thursday, January 1, 2004

ONE FAITH by J.I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

Once a year, I take copies of the Christianity Today International statement of faith to the CT editors and ask them to sign it anew. I too sign a copy as a testimony to my own continuing commitment to the theological and biblical values on which this magazine was founded. (Our statement of faith was borrowed from Gordon Divinity School when the magazine was founded in 1956. Its language has been updated since then, but its content remains the same.)

The CT-Gordon statement of faith is one of hundreds of such declarations adopted by evangelical organizations to help them keep their commitments clear. The global evangelical movement also generates statements designed to frame and focus our efforts in spreading the gospel and living out its implications. One of the most significant of these broadly consensual statements was the Lausanne Covenant (1975). But major statements like this seem to be issued every few years, and the place names by which they are known reflect the global nature of evangelicalism: Amsterdam, Iguassu, Manila, Berlin, Chicago, Willowbank, Seoul.

I've just finished reading the unedited manuscript for a new book that surveys these many statements in an attempt to show the unity and theological coherence of global evangelicalism. In their introduction to One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus, authors J. I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden argue that despite all the variation that marks the landscape of vital, evangelistic, Jesus-centered religion, there is a clear consensus.

Some scholars emphasize the diversity of evangelicalism. I recall an Evangelical Theological Society meeting some years back where one scholar asked rhetorically what the Anglican John R. W. Stott had in common with Brazilian Pentecostals. And yet, the remarkable fact is that when an Anglican stalwart like Stott encounters a Latin American Pentecostal leader, they intuitively recognize each other as brothers in the Lord—and brothers in very specific ways that relate to the importance of a vital personal faith, biblical authority, the scandal of the cross, and the importance of helping others to come to the similar experiences of renewal and commitment.

Oden and Packer are observing a real theological consensus. But they are also helping to create it. This is not to side with scholars who would call evangelicalism an "artificial construct." Oden and Packer are not making something out of nothing. Rather, they are reinforcing a sense of unity and connection by emphasizing those beliefs that evangelicals already share to a great degree. This is "construction" in the Pauline sense of "edification."

Think of the evangelical movement as a nation with states or regions named Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran, Charismatic, old-line Pentecostal, Independent Bible Church, and so forth. Each is as different from the other as California is from South Dakota, but each is as much a part of the evangelical movement as California and South Dakota are of the American experiment. Oden and Packer are focusing on the federal identity these "states" share.

Connecting the dots
The bulk of Oden and Packer's book is a topically organized presentation of brief representative citations from transdenominational faith statements. It is a pointillist painting. The picture gets clearer when you stand back from it. But like a pointillist masterpiece, each dot of paint counts. It must be exactly right and must contribute to the whole.

Because the survey emphasizes commonality and consensus, it generally avoids those areas in which the evangelical "states" or "provinces" have agreed to disagree (speaking in tongues, for example, or precisely what happens in the Lord's Supper). Nevertheless, there is the occasional phrase that alerts the reader to diversity and difference. For example, in chapter 9 ("The Meaning of Salvation: God Saves Sinners"), a brief citation from Daystar Ministries' statement of faith hints at that organization's commitment to the classical Pentecostal belief that there is "healing in the atonement." And in another citation, baptism is represented as something by which believers declare their new birth rather than as something by which God sets his people apart and cleanses them. The former opinion is, of course, held by the majority of evangelicals, but it does not represent the magisterial Reformation.

Oden and Packer are describing transdenominational evangelicalism—and for that reason they ruled out denominational statements of faith (though, inexplicably, they cite the International Pentecostal Church of Christ's faith statement several times). Nevertheless, the church is not missing from this survey. A full nine pages of the manuscript (more in the finished book) are devoted to the church and related topics. While the citations give a tip of the hat to the importance of church order, they rightly present the church in noninstitutional, nonhierarchical terms. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. These are communitarian, organic, and relational concepts. Significantly, the authors set up the discussion of the church with a section on "Unity in the Truth of the Gospel." This telegraphs the characteristic evangelical belief that what binds the church is not an institutional framework, but truth. And not just truth as a series of facts, but truth understood in a dynamic, relational, and personal fashion.

Celebrating our commitments
Not everybody who teaches in an evangelical seminary or preaches in an evangelical church will agree with every statement in this book. But nothing here is meant to exclude. Evangelical faith statements are sometimes used to define people out of organizations. The skirmishes in the Evangelical Theological Society over Open Theism illustrate this potential. In that ETS debate, the question of whether the writings of two Open Theists conflicted with the society's commitment to biblical inerrancy was plumbed in depth. Broad discussion, formal papers, and prayerful pastoral interaction enriched the process and kept it from becoming the mere application of a shibboleth or password to participation.

The United Methodist Oden and the Canadian Anglican Packer are both players in the ongoing struggle to renew and reform the mainline churches. Both expend a lot of energy trying to reintroduce some sense of direction in denominations adrift. When they celebrate an evangelical theological consensus, it is in contrast to the laxity and latitudinarianism of their own communions. Spend some time with the theologies emanating from many mainline seminaries and you will, like Oden and Packer, find these evangelical statements as refreshing. When they celebrate these beliefs as markers of identity, it is not to exclude those who disagree but to rejoice in the common (and sometimes costly) commitments of those who belong to the evangelical family.

What picture emerges from this guided tour of organizational and occasional faith statements? The authors describe the key features of the evangelical physiognomy. And plain as the nose on that face is evangelicalism's "cohesive account of the canonical Scriptures and their integral canonical interpretation"—fancy language for our ingrained habit of looking to the whole Bible and recognizing the same voice as we trace the inner links between its various parts. Other features on the evangelical face: "the Christ-centered story of redemption," the call to "wholehearted discipleship," and "continuity with what faithful Christians have always believed."

They also point to signs of growth. The evangelicalism of 50 years ago was narrowly focused on issues that emerged from the confrontation with modernism. Over the decades, it has grown in its appreciation for the full range of theological concerns. It has become "an ecumenically significant reality," providing interdenominational and cross-confessional opportunities for witness, protest, fellowship, evangelism, and service. And it has demonstrated the kind of long-term thinking that no longer concerns itself merely with the big, the flashy, and the shallow. This movement has shown that it can follow through. It not only starts new projects, but builds and tends institutions and congregations with proper attention to individuals and to daily details.

Oden and Packer sum up their optimism for evangelicalism by saying the movement "is poised to be blessed by God as the wave of the future because of the truth and life that it brings. Today's church, and today's world, need both." I pray they're right.

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