When it comes to ‘evangelical universalism’, the question is not so much whether traditional evangelical interpretations are beyond challenge, critique and perhaps significant reform (after all don’t evangelicals believe in semper reformanda?), but whether such reform can be sustained exegetically and theologically.
In theory, evangelicals can live with all sorts of grey areas but agree on the core essentials of the faith. In practice this isn’t so neat – just have a browse through this series to see how serious, Bible-believing Christians and scholars come to different conclusions about exactly what the Bible does teach on a whole raft of issues.
More importantly, they differ over the significance of those issues for defining core evangelical beliefs. Some people’s non-essentials are other’s core etc.
Christian Smith has written a book about such “pervasive interpretative pluralism” – and responses to it reflect that pluralism!
It seems to me that most of the big debates and hot topics (hell; universalism; women in ministry; penal substitution; moving beyond the Bible to theology – to name a few recent /ongoing ones) that cause big stirs within evangelicalism do so because, at least for some, they are pushing the boundary of evangelical orthodoxy.
For example, on women in ministry, it seems to me that there is a strong exegetical and theological argument to be made for ‘mutuality’ and a significantly weaker and inconsistent one for various forms of hierarchicalism. Some want to make that a core issue and pin the gospel to it in a ‘slippery slope’ type argument.
Evangelicals will ‘defend the core’ because they are passionate about the gospel. After all, if there is no agreed core, there is actually no such thing as Christian orthodoxy let alone evangelicalism.
Why mention this? Well, it seems to me that the Parry-Tidball debate fits exactly within the inherent ambiguity and fuzziness over how to define evangelical, and the difference of opinion over what is an essential or non-essential matter.
Parry is arguing that his ‘evangelical universalism’, whether you agree with it or not, should be a legitimate evangelical interpretation since it is coming at the texts and the issues within a recognisably evangelical theological framework: in terms of theological starting assumptions and hermeneutical methodology.
Tidball is defining evangelicalism more narrowly; arguing that unless Parry’s view can be sustained biblically, it hasn’t the theological weight behind it to be considered evangelical in any meaningful sense.
Parry’s proposal that universalism be considered an orthodox evangelical option is a massive paradigm shift both historically and theologically. But that is not the main reason the vast majority of evangelicals will, like Derek Tidball, be un-persuaded. It is because evangelical universalism is perceived as both ‘threatening the core’ (as Parry is well aware and responds to – see the first post) and resting on thin exegetical foundations.
Comments, as ever, welcome.