In the nineteenth century America was beset with a major theological crisis in its churches and seminary. “Liberals” began questioning—then abandoning—the Christ-centered orthodox creeds and authoritative Scriptures in exchange for a man-centered religion of morality and cultural relevance. “Evangelicalism” originally sprang up as a defense of the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. However, since its initial identity as the guardian of classic Protestant orthodoxy, evangelicalism has changed and developed over the decades.
So, in the twentieth century the “center” of evangelicalism began to materialize into a more solid core of beliefs and values. These included an emphasis on Scripture as the center, source, and norm of the faith, sometimes to the complete exclusion of other sources of theological understanding and reflection. And as happened in the liberalism of the previous century, the creeds, theological traditions, and historical continuity became less important . . . until in many branches of evangelical tradition they became irrelevant distractions or even signs of heterodox or heretical thinking. As long as a belief or practice conformed to Scripture, it was accepted—even if it was countered by all of church history and theological traditions. Other values also took the center stage of evangelicalism—practical theology, expository teaching and preaching, a revivalist view of the gospel, an unrelenting emphasis on free will and personal choice in conversion, and a militant conservative social and political perspective. In many sectors of evangelicalism, if somebody were to challenge these priorities, they would be labeled non-evangelicals, liberals, or even false teachers.
Yet as strange as it may sound, the “center” of some branches of evangelicalism seems to have become the “fringe” of classic orthodox Christianity. In short, many evangelical churches are appearing increasingly more “evangelical,” but increasingly less “Christian.”
You see, the center of Christianity has always been Jesus Christ. It is not the Bible. It is not expository preaching. It is not the a personal response to the gospel message. Rather, it is God the Son who became man, lived a life of perfect righteousness, revealed the Father and the Spirit, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and will come again. Through Christ we believe the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God that points us to Him. Through Christ we encounter the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through Christ we have salvation and forgiveness of sins by grace through faith alone. Through Christ we are empowered to live a regenerated life by His Spirit. Through Christ we are incorporated into the church and receive instruction and inspiration to carry out its mission. Through Christ we have a proper view of the depravity and neediness of fallen humanity as well as the ideal model and ultimate pattern of redeemed humanity. And through Christ we can anticipate the new world to come when this fallen cosmos will be redeemed by His power and glory.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love the inerrant Word of God, powerful expository preaching, a clear presentation of the gospel of grace through faith, and all the things that mark me as a proud evangelical. But to the degree that evangelicalism has put the Bible at the center of the Christian worldview, it has removed Jesus Christ from the center. To the degree that it has focused on a personal, voluntary, and free-will response to a bare-bones gospel presentation, evangelicalism has reduced the profound person and work of Jesus Christ to mere propositions to be preached. To the degree that evangelicals have modeled their methods and structures after cultural forms with biblical proof-texts, they have failed to measure them against the one model of all things human and perfect: Jesus Christ.
So, I ask these important questions, only because it’s time we ask it. What if evangelicalism has unwittingly drifted not into error per se, but into an errant emphasis on things that were always meant to orbit around Jesus Christ and point to Him? What if twenty-first century evangelicals have replaced the Christ-centered community of faith and faithfulness with a subtle me-centered individualistic philosophy? What if the means of expressing the faith has become the faith itself? What if evangelicals have gone the way of nineteenth century liberalism and consciously drifted from a continuity with the Great Tradition of the church that has always placed Jesus Christ at the center of all things Christian? What if we’ve gone so far astray that everything I’m saying in this essay actually sounds liberal to its readers?
In short, what if the “center” of much evangelicalism has actually become the “fringe” of authentic, historical Christianity?