Of the many perceived problems in evangelicalism’s ongoing identity crisis is the shifting importance of doctrine as a boundary marker. Historically evangelicals have been identified around the loosely fitted pegs of 1) conversionism or new birth, 2) Biblical authority 3) missionary enterprise 4) the centrality of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. Doctrinally these factors usually coalesce into Trinitarianism, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a high premium on biblical inerrancy and the primacy of faith over against moralistic efforts for salvation. Yet even within these more narrow parameters there has been much debate over how these sorts of criteria should be applied, or whether more stringent requirements are necessary in order to bestow the more coveted label of “conservative evangelical” (which, in such circles, is the same label as “Christian”).
But the fractured face of evangelicalism isn’t only owed to the battle over defining primary vs. secondary doctrines; it is just as often due to what one might call “doctrinal politics”. Doctrinal politics employs a kind of argumentation that tries to debunk a position by seeking to establish a chain of inference that eventually rests at a contradiction with some primary doctrine. The goal of this maneuver is emphatically not the pursuit of truth, though that is often the banner it waves. It is, rather, to eliminate competitive claims to truth without bothering with careful, self-critical, or dialectical reasoning. Philosophically, it’s to make the self objective over against Scripture. Ultimately, though it parades as faithfulness to the Scriptures, it is a political posturing designed to defend one’s position irregardless of the merits of competing views. This explains why it is so commonly employed against those who profess agreement with the generally accepted minimalist position above. It is in this way that those with competing positions, new proposals, or threatening syntheses can be disqualified from consideration without the risk of actually considering them with any seriousness. The cash value of such a scheme is that one gets to claim objectivity while practicing the worst kind of solipsism in the name of Biblical faithfulness.
Take, for example, a self-avowed evangelical who professes to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time affirming a kind of genre criticism that characterizes Jonah or the first two chapters of Genesis as something other than historical reporting. For those who would seek to disqualify such a position from evangelical (and therefore “Christian”) fellowship, a case must be made that literal creationism is a logical entailment of inerrancy; a denial of the one must be construed as a denial of the other. Thus a platform for exclusion is formed regardless of the profession. Similarly, in the early years of fundamentalism, dispensationalists often charged covenantalists with a deficient view of biblical authority over their divergent ecclesiologies and eschatologies. In the same vein, Arminians of every stripe (including those who would affirm all but limited atonement) can easily be excluded from “evangelical” fellowship by drawing a chain of inference in their soteriology that violates salvation by faith alone, though this is a matter of strenuous profession for most Arminians. In each case the inferential mallet is often used for the purposes of exclusion in the name of primary doctrines. What’s more, in each case the evangelical professor can be successfully declared as “denying the Gospel” and eliminated from fellowship.
This same line of reasoning is used by those who advocate the literal blood of Christ as being necessary for atonement in order to exclude those who see this phrase as a metaphor for His death. On one hand, literally any doctrine or methodological practice in Biblical Studies, no matter how peripheral, can be shown to be contingent upon some universally recognized essential. On the other hand, any doctrine, no matter how bizarre or even unorthodox, can be shown to be necessary as long as it can be anchored in a doctrine that is generally considered to be essential. What is important to note in all of this is that all sides claim biblical authority or Scriptural precedent for their views; likewise all sides see themselves as “holding fast to the truth” in maintaining these essentials and their supposed “logical entailments”. This is often recognized without difficulty when one happens to be the object of this sort of political maneuver (as with John MacArthur’s controversies with various fundamentalist camps over Lordship salvation, blood atonement, eternal Sonship, and nouthetic counseling); unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily make one more discriminating in the use of such tactics.
Some have suggested a way forward in the realm of narrative theology and paleo-orthodoxy. The former sees doctrine less as an abstract system of propositions and more akin to the linguistic practices of the believing community. This isn’t to deny the propositional content that Christians affirm, especially in the minimalist assertions mentioned above – but it sees the boundary markers for Christian fellowship primarily in discipleship (the practices which grow out of inhabiting the world projected by the Bible’s overarching story). The latter seeks to ground boundary markers in classical Christian affirmations contained in the venerable creeds and collective wisdom of Church history. Remarkably, both of these trajectories are represented by scholars that affirm essential doctrines without apology. Unsurprisingly, they can also be easily excluded from thoughtful evangelical consideration by the doctrinal politics mentioned above.
Shamefully, those who employ these political tactics comfortably maintain a dichotomy between ecclesiology and soteriology that allows different standards for Christian fellowship than for salvation. In this way, one can supposedly “leave judgment to God” in regard to an individual’s eternal destiny, while having already pronounced judgment in the denial of believing communion. Perhaps even more appalling, the virtues of truth and love are either similarly compartmentalized (with the latter being reserved for those that agree sufficiently with the former) or “love” is construed entirely as defending bold, truthful propositions (if truth IS love, speaking the truth in love is poetic redundancy). What seemed like loosely fitted pegs in the beginning, therefore, may actually be a reflection of wise restraint. Whatever way forward evangelicals choose, it should be in a manner that eschews doctrinal politics in favor of a pursuit of truth that doesn’t simply “tow the party line”. In other words it should be a pursuit characterized by humble, rigorous, morally honest doctrinal discourse carried out under the rule of Spirit-filled love.