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In recent months, in various venues, I have seen the following claim made or implied, in one form or another: evangelicalism is the best iteration of Christianity because it is most faithful to the Bible and most in line with the history of the church.

Several observations:

  1. All Christian traditions say that.
  2. To gain credibility this claim would need to be made with at least Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians in the room.
  3. This triumphalist claim is consistent with evangelicalism’s polemical roots and history.
  4. The claim marginalizes, if not ignores, the tremendous theological diversity in historic Christianity as well as in the church today (synchronic and diachronic diversity).
  5. The claim assumes that this diversity is a problem with God.
  6. Related to 4 and 5, the claim assumes something of the Bible, namely that it presents one detailed yet coherent spiritual narrative that can be teased out, systematized, and defended.
  7. Not all evangelicals are comfortable with this rhetoric.

Rather than asserting the dominance of the evangelical narrative with such a reaching claim, I would rather see a defense of evangelicalism’s validity mounted along the following lines:

Evangelicalism is our spiritual home and we value it. So we want to see how best we can maintain, respect, and nurture this community of faith.

But we make no pretense whatsoever at embodying the best of the Christian tradition. Rather, we seek to be a good and faithful expression of Scripture and the Great Christian Tradition in our time and place. 

We, therefore, seek peace and collaboration with other Christians. We feel we can contribute to the larger conversation among Christians as well as learn from other traditions, keeping an open mind and heart to where corrections and changes are needed, but also seeking to circumscribe our faith in some meaningful way that maintains our identity. 

For my tastes, a statement like that would be a refreshing, conciliatory, and even attractive way of defending evangelical borders rather than the all-or-nothing game public evangelicalism is known for, which often collapses into a defensive posture that only serves to build higher walls of isolation.

What would be lost if evangelicalism’s public figures adopted such a posture? Some would say evangelicalism itself.

What would be gained? Some would say needed adaptations of evangelicalism to ensure its survival.

I’m sure some of you have opinions on this.

This blog was originally posted in May 2014.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.