Sunday 7 February 2016

Kevin DeYoung on UK evangelicalism

I greatly enjoyed being back at St Helens Bishopsgate this weekend for the South East Gospel Partnership conference, having spent two very happy years there as a church apprentice. Not least it was a pleasure to see again the memorial stone one husband erected to his wife, having decided that of all his wife’s many accomplishments, he would record for posterity that she breast-fed all ten of their children. But I digress.

Kevin DeYoung and Justin Mote were speaking on Scripture and gave a thoughtful Q&A session, during which Kevin was asked what his impressions are of British evangelicalism, and any constructive critique he’d offer.

He mentioned two things and they both deserve some reflection and development…

      1.      British evangelicals are generally very strong on the Bible. They promote and champion expositional preaching. But, they are relatively weak on doctrine and historical theology.

It’s a similar point to one he made a couple of years ago:

“Our biggest strengths tend to be some of our nagging weaknesses. While the training programs are impressively robust, my sensibilities as a Presbyterian/Reformed pastor make me wish more full-time church workers and pastors could benefit from a seminary education. I sensed that young men and women in England were Bible people (which is most important), but less in tune with old books and any particular theological tradition.”

What strikes me is that adding church history and doctrine to the mix is not like adding a second string to our bow: such that we can say now we do Bible and theology. Rather, church history and doctrine and the Bible are more integrated than that. If theology is asking the question of how the Bible coheres and applies to our thinking about God, salvation, the world, and so on, and church history is the transcript of the ways in which those questions have been answered for 2000years, then the neglect of theology and church history is more serious. Put simply, without them, we might be emphasising the Bible, but not actually reading it in very self-aware or informed ways.

      2.      UK evangelicalism appears to be actually composed of a number of subgroups and they tend to view each other with a degree of suspicion. That is, UK evangelicalism has a unity problem. I think this is spot on.  In my experience of a number of subgroups, we do not think or speak of one another as we should.

There are several causes. As de Young said in the same article mentioned above there are historical and cultural reasons for this, but there are others. In a time of scarce resources it is very easy to think (somewhat perversely) of the ministries that are most closely sympathetic to your aims as competition. In addition, it is striking that a recovery of doctrine and church history can have a negative impact: a greater emphasis on ecclesiology and polity can mean that we start to make the growth of our denomination/grouping our chief goal, and to see conversions to our tribe rather than to Christ as a cause for celebration. There is a Corinthian spirit to it all (1 Cor 1:10-17); indeed I wonder if our relative neglect of those letters is another contributing cause. To generalise, we preach a cross that atones for sins, but we speak far less of a cross that confronts sins, and sins of these very kinds. The divisive, self-promoting, glory-seeking, kinds of sins. So, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31). Taking that to heart, and reckoning with the scale of the evangelistic task before us, would, I suspect, do us all some good.