We’ve known each other long enough now that you shouldn’t be surprised to know that I have no qualms whatsoever about shameless shilling for my book. I’ve been forced to hold back since it was first published a little over a year ago, thanks to the price tag putting the book out of reach of the average reader.
Well, those days are over.
The book puts the twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian in dialogue with the classical tradition with respect to the doctrine of the incarnation. Chapter 1 traces the development of the doctrine of Christ’s person from the fourth century to the eighth century and beyond (with particular attention given to Athanasius, Cyril, and John of Damascus), suggesting that the tradition has rendered a Christology that in places stands in tension with itself. Four problems in particular are diagnosed with respect to God’s immutability, impassibility, kenosis, and identity.
Chapter 2 surveys Barth’s response to this so-called “Logos Christology” of the ancient and medieval church, with a focus on his lectures at Göttingen and Münster in the 1920s, and Volume I of the Church Dogmatics (published in the early 1930s). Chapter 3 then examines the Christology of CD Volume IV, drawing out several thematic pairs that help us to understand what Barth was doing in his Christology – and why this ended up being so foundational to his theological project taken as a whole. (Those pairs are covenant and election, time and eternity, the divine and human essences, and humiliation and exaltation.)
The fourth chapter takes up the somewhat controverted question of whether Barth’s understanding of Christ’s person – which is in many respects creative and distinctly modern – qualifies as orthodox or “Chalcedonian.” I affirm that it most certainly is, and along the way explore Barth’s vital understanding of the nature of confessions, ecclesial authority, and metaphysical language.
Chapter 5 puts all these pieces together by returning to the four problems identified in Chapter 1, bringing the christological themes from Chapter 3 to bear on the topics of divine immutability, impassibility, kenosis, and the identity of the incarnate Christ. The book advocates, finally, that Barth’s Christology is a rich and rewarding help to Christians seeking to think critically yet faithfully about the person of Christ in the modern world. Along the way it carefully engages a number of ongoing controversies within Barth studies.
I do hope you’ll give the book a look now that it isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg!
When I was finishing seminary and applying for Phd programs in systematic theology, I had several fellow students and a few professors express surprise that I would want to pursue that particular field. Others at my seminary considering going on to doctoral work were mostly interested in either biblical studies or ethics, excited about getting the church to face either the hard historical facts behind the biblical text or the hard moral requirements our faith makes of us. The conceptual study of doctrine seemed to them “rationalistic”, detached and irrelevant. I had one pastor acquaintance who really didn’t know anything about my theological leanings tell me I like systematic theology because I want to “chop the Bible up into little bits.” Clearly a certain brand of systematic theology, the kind given to an encyclopedic style and proof-texting method, had come to define the whole field for most of the people around me.
I had, thankfully, been exposed to theologies of far greater substance than this, ones centered especially around the being, character and work of God and imbued with a deep appreciation for the history of Christian doctrine, a holistic integration of conceptual and moral dimensions, and a penetrating critique of modern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics. Taking classes at Fuller Seminary from Ray Anderson and Jeannine Graham exposed me to the work of Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance and John Webster. That trio of influences has changed my theology, faith and life forever and led me to Aberdeen to study with John Webster. There I encountered a community of theological study and spiritual life that offered a profound demonstration of what systematic theology can be. I am forever grateful for that experience.
I am also grateful to Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel for compiling and editing this book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life. Both having done their Phds in Aberdeen, the book they have produced offers an excellent introduction to the kind of theology I’m talking about, featuring a good smattering of theologians who either presently teach at Aberdeen or did when we were there – John Webster, Don Wood, Tom Greggs and Phil Ziegler – but also a host of others from across the US and UK who represent the best of the field and demonstrate the rich benefit it has to offer the church today.
One of the great strengths of this book that the editors set out in the preface and introduction is the rejection of any dichotomy between theological reflection and Christian practice, between the intellectual and the moral, between doctrine and life. That is signified in the title: not just our initial justification but the whole scope of our lived faith needs to be understood by reference to the being, character and gracious work of the triune God.
The first essay of the book, “The Triune God” by Fred Sanders, is an excellent example. You couldn’t find a doctrine seen as more abstract and irrelevant by most Christians than the Trinity, but Sanders skillfully demonstrates how an understanding of God’s eternal triune life and the connection between its eternal “processions” and the saving “missions” of God the Son and God the Spirit in time is the key to understanding what salvation really means for the Christian: adoption into God’s life.
And the hits keep on coming. Suzanne McDonald’s essay on “The Electing God” is another example of a doctrine most Christians avoid like the plague being used as an entryway to understanding the peculiar power and beauty of the triune God revealed in scripture. Ian McFarland’s “The Saving God” is another highlight, relating a richly biblically informed understanding of God to a proper understanding of Christian salvation and vice versa.
Another great value of this book is its accessibility and usability. The chapters are fairly bite sized, most running about 15 pages or less, organized around the chief doctrines of Christian faith and practice so that each chapter offers a succinct and well written introduction to the topic, current debates and relevance to lived faith. I’ve already tagged several essays for use in undergraduate and seminary classes I teach. My hope, however, is that this book might find readers outside the academy in the church, where a revived interest in theological reflection is most needed. Lay readers would likely be somewhat challenged by many of these essays, but only to their great benefit. In a time when the church growth movement has produced consumer congregations tolerant of only the easiest encouragements, a deep doctrinal book is always a hard sell, especially one that threatens to stretch our vocabulary and make us ponder the reality of God without immediate “action steps”. But a book like this could be perfect for church reading groups led by energetic seminarians. The impact on the life and culture in such churches would be invaluable.
Wherever this book finds its readership, Eilers and Strobel have done the church and theological academy a great service in bringing together this outstanding group of theologians together. This book is a solid demonstration of unique benefit systematic theology has to offer and the freshness of the current state of the field.
Between you and me, the West Coast doesn’t have a whole lot of exciting events that fall into the category of theology conferences — at least for those of us who specialize in doctrine, its history, and its ongoing relevance to the church. That’s why I get so excited for the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference, which is now in its fourth year.
This year’s even takes place on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California at the end of this week (January 14 and 15). Five plenary speakers and a batch of concurrent session papers will fill two days on the topic of Scripture and/as divine speech.
This year’s plenary speakers include Stephen Fowl (Loyola), John Goldingay (Fuller), Amy Plantinga-Pauw (Louisville), William Abraham (SMU), and Daniel Treier (Wheaton). But I’m especially interested to hear a paper from my Out of Bounds colleague Dr. Adam Nigh, whose paper is titled “Hearing the Text: Scripture and Preaching as Sacramental Pair.”
The conference is co-sponsored by Fuller Seminary, Biola University (which hosts in alternate years), the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, and Zondervan Publishers, which kicks out a book with around nine of the conference papers every fall.
Those who aren’t able to attend this year but are interested should put the LATC on their calendar for next January, when the theme will be Dogmatics.
A newer entry into the increasingly popular spate of essay collections on the theological interpretation of Scripture, Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews draws upon more than a dozen theologians and biblical scholars to trace the history of the interpretation of Hebrews and the letter’s significance to the task of Christian theological reflection. As a theologian I find projects like this especially exciting in that they tend to side-step formal questions that often preoccupy scholars in the guild of biblical studies (such as authorship), and instead jump straight into the epistle’s theological content. On the other hand, the collection is attentive to questions of method (i.e. the nature and tasks of theological hermeneutics) in a way that such reflection often neglects.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is fundamentally christological in nature, from the Son’s identification as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3), to statements about his being made “lower than the angels for a little while” (2:9), his being “tempted in all ways like us, except without sin” (4:15), his having “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), his high priestly work of atonement on our behalf, his being “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), and more.
The volume collects 13 essays which attend primarily to a series of snapshots from the history of the letter’s interpretation – from Irenaeus and the church fathers to Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, and other figures leading up to the place of Hebrews in modern systematic theology. The middle word in the title, hermeneutics, is key here: the focus is on how Hebrews has been used in theological reflection over the centuries, and also on the nature of ‘theological interpretation’ and the place it should have in the field of Christian biblical studies (which, methodologically speaking, remains oriented toward the sometimes anti-theological orientation of historical criticism).
Co-editor John C. Laansma opens things with a survey of the field of scholarship on Hebrews, and three essays conclude the volume – Harold W. Attridge and Donald A. Hagner providing responses to the project from the perspective of biblical scholarship, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight offering a theologian’s response. Other contributors include: Frances M. Young, D. Jeffrey Bingham (on Irenaeus), Charles Kannengiesser (John Chrysostom), Daniel Keating (Thomas Aquinas), Mickey L. Mattox (Martin Luther), R. Michael Allen (John Calvin), Kelly M. Kapic (John Owen), Bruce L. McCormack (Karl Barth), and Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood. (Laansma and Treier, of Wheaton College, did editing duties as well.)
I will comment briefly on several of the individual essays, and conclude with some overall thoughts on the volume.
Frances Young’s essay is a reprint from a classic 1969 publication, contrasting Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical impulses with regard to the use of Hebrews in the commentaries and homilies of Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus (as well as a little bit from Theodore of Mopsuestia). The brief chapter is teeming with insight, displaying why Professor Young is among the best in her field. Cyril’s Christology, for example, struggles with the limits of an instrumentalist construal of the relationship between the divine Logos and the flesh he assumed: though he affirms that the assumed humanity has a soul and a mind, “he has not fully grasped the implications of the condemnation of Apollinarius and still moves in the same general pattern of thought” (p. 36).
On the other hand, Antiochenes such as Chrysostom emphasize Jesus’ authentic experience of the human condition “to such an extent that he is obliged to separate the Logos from it; this is the only way he knows of safeguarding both the reality of Christ’s human involvement, and the divine nature of the Logos” (p. 41) – which hardly allows for the Logos to be incarnate at all. In both cases, these christological positions shape the ways in which Alexandrian and Antiochene thinkers exegete the themes of Hebrews.
Daniel Keating focuses on what he identifies as Thomas Aquinas’ “two-nature exegesis,” i.e. framing the many and provocative christological claims of the epistle by the ancient doctrine of one person in two natures. In other words, Thomas unapologetically takes the Definition of Chalcedon as a hermeneutical guide for Scripture (p. 85). (Take note here – this is a contested idea that will resurface among other contributors.) Under the master interpretive theme of grace in Christ, Thomas interprets the Bible’s statements about Christ according to either Christ’s human nature, divine nature, or both – all while studiously avoiding the heretical extremes of both Nestorianism (an excessive stress on the natures’ distinction) and Monophysitism (an excessive stress on their unification).
For example: Hebrews states (to God the Father, regarding his Son), “You have set him over the works of your hands,” and Thomas concludes that this must refer to Christ insofar as he is human – since as God he is already over all things, and does not need to be exalted by his Father (p. 86). Christ’s office of priesthood, on the other hand, applies in different ways both to his humanity and his divinity: as human he makes proper satisfaction for the sins of human beings, and yet his priesthood is truly (and universally, and permanently) effective precisely because he is also God.
Keating shows that Thomas’ Commentary on Hebrews is a masterful deployment of the strategy of reduplication (reading the biblical text’s statements about Christ ‘according to’ one nature or the other) in the scholastic era. In short, ecclesial tradition is regarded as the proper means for interpreting Scripture (and, presumably, not vice versa): “Aquinas has allowed the clarity of Chalcedonian Christology to illuminate the text of Hebrews by drawing out the implications of the ‘Son’ being both divine and human and by showing how the two natures in Christ contribute (in distinct ways) to his high priestly role” (p. 95).
Bruce L. McCormack’s essay on the exordium (Heb. 1:1-4) seeks to extend Karl Barth’s theological interpretation of John’s Prologue to the Christology of Hebrews. What is the identity of the “Son” through whom God has definitively spoken, whom God has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe (1:2)? In his reading of John, Barth had concluded that the Logos is meant to be a “placeholder” pointing ahead to Jesus Christ (and having no identity apart from the God-human union in the Incarnation – a sort of reversal of the doctrine of anhypostasis). Though Barth wrote no extended exegesis of Hebrews, McCormack argues with good reason that Barth would give the same reading here: the referent indicated by the “Son” is Jesus (finally named in 2:9), and their identity is a red thread throughout Hebrews (p. 169).
This much will be familiar to those who follow McCormack’s work. His more notable claim in this essay is that dogmatics ought not say anything of God that is not clearly authorized by the text at hand. The question of the identity of the Son in the exordium illustrates this. The text creates a tension (e.g. between a Son who is the “exact representation of God’s being” and yet who must also be “appointed heir of all things” – as if they were not already his by virtue of his deity) which the theologian endeavors to resolve. In this case, McCormack insists that theologians refrain from speculating about the identity of a “Son” in ways abstracted from the relation of Jesus to God the Father in time, as narrated by Scripture. Simply because the author of Hebrews begins with the “Son” before identifying him as “Jesus” does not license speculation about a Logos asarkos. And later doctrinal considerations (such as the Son’s eternal relation to the Father in the immanent Trinity) are out of bounds for making sense of such passages, since the biblical authors offer the exegete no assurances that such a “Son” is anything more than a construct imposed upon the text.
McCormack would claim, then, that the content of the creeds derive from a careful reading of the whole witness of Scripture. But this relationship between Scripture and tradition cannot be reversed; while the creeds show how the Bible has been interpreted by the church, it should not be read back into the text in order to try and mitigate difficult passages.
Finally, Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood set about cataloguing the manner in which Hebrews is used (particularly, the relative paucity of its use) in systematic theologies of the modern period, with brief glances at Charles Hodge, Augustus Hopkins Strong, John Miley, Franz (Francis) Pieper, Louis Berkhof, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carl F. H. Henry, Thomas Finger, Thomas C. Oden, J. Rodman Williams, Stanley J. Grenz, Wayne A. Grudem, Millard J. Erickson, James William McClendon, Jr., Donald G. Bloesch, and Robert W. Jenson. The reader will immediately note how the names selected give this piece a parochial air: with the odd exception of Jenson they are all “evangelical” writers, and the explanation for this – Barth gets his own essay elsewhere in this volume, and other modern systematicians who are not American evangelicals tend to make less frequent references to Scripture (p. 174) – is unsatisfying.
Treier and Atwood proceed concisely to summarize the multitude of doctrinal themes on which Hebrews may be found to speak, and finally arrive at an account of theological exegesis that can only be called an apology for proof-texting. They suggest that this is simply the responsibility of theologians to “show their work’ (p. 195), but it would seem that McCormack’s charge that too often we read our theologies a-contextually into the biblical text is on display here. It is difficult to see how they propose to avoid historical-critical transgressions great and small by appealing to statements within Scripture in this sort of isolated fashion. Thus a remark from Attridge (said in regard to this essay’s survey of modern evangelical systematic theologies) seem no less apropos for Treier and Atwood’s own account of proof-texting: “The reverence for Scripture that supposedly undergirds such cherry-picking approaches in fact seems to cloak a disdain for really listening to what the words of the sacred text are saying” (p. 209).
The final three essays of the book, and especially Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s critical entry, demonstrate what a peculiar collection this is. Each is oriented backward toward the preceding essays, with some summarizing (Attridge’s essay for a stretch reads somewhat like a standard book review) and a modicum of open-ended, critical engagement – much as one would see in response papers given at the end of a conference panel session. Greene-McCreight wraps up the conversation with a critique that almost undermines the whole project: rather than salient strategies for moving forward in the task of theological exegesis (particularly as it relates to responsible work in historical criticism) some of what is suggested here, she rightly observes, are symptoms of the very crisis the authors mean to address.
Without “fuller suggestions for a way forward” in theological exegesis, Greene-McCreight concludes, a ‘selective history of interpretation’ offers little of value (p. 225). If anything, that is where this volume comes up short: in the absence of any sort of unified program (or at least some shared definitions) the project as a whole may not be able to ascend beyond the level of a collection of interesting historical footnotes. (Did you know that John Owen wrote a 4-volume, 4,000-page work on Hebrews?)
There are pressing questions with which Greene-McCreight leaves us – both the reader and the volume’s editors. What is it that we mean by ‘theological interpretation,’ and what is it that we hope this will secure, which we do not possess without it? Can we read the biblical texts theologically – even as persons of faith who find that God speaks and makes claims upon us in the biblical text – without ceasing to be critical? Should we read traditional doctrine back into Scripture (per Thomas), or refuse this move as a transgression of sola Scriptura (per McCormack)? And what does it mean for our reading of the text to be critically responsible (e.g. reading Matthew for what Matthew means) and yet also governed by the regula fidei?
The challenge in reading Scripture at its intersection with systematic theology is to affirm the historical and the critical without privileging the text’s first-century witness over its contemporary witness. That God has spoken ought not blind us to the reality that God still is speaking. Of course these two, the historical-critical and the theological, are not in competition with one another, at least not where the Scriptures are confessed to be the working of the Holy Spirit – and so to be “living and active” words. If the Spirit continues to inspire the text in our hearing, then by faith the responsible Christian exegete can pray only that she may have ears to hear.
Thanks to Bloomsbury / T&T Clark for providing a review copy.
The published revision of my dissertation is out now from Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, and I mean to remedy my lack of shameless online promotion between now and the spring 2016 release of the paperback edition. Karl Barth and the Incarnation puts Barth’s Christology in conversation with that of the classical, Chalcedonian tradition.
This begins with a diagnosis of what I call the identity problem, a basic difficulty that is implicit within the tradition at a number of points. In short: under the conditions of classical Christology it is difficult (and, I argue, finally impossible) to affirm that Jesus Christ, the divine-human one, is identical with the eternal, divine Son of God — that these grammatical subjects are, in the words of the Definition of Chalcedon, “one and the same.” The identity of Jesus and the Logos requires such extensive qualification that theologians ancient and modern who adhere to the metaphysics of the classical tradition must finally affirm that Jesus Christ is not technically who the Son is, but what the Son does ad extra within the economy of salvation.
Barth did not describe this problem in the way that I have, but it is a central focus in his Christology. The identity problem is intricately tied to the content of God’s eternal act of electing, to the doctrine of the Logos asarkos, and to the church’s very confession that “Jesus is Lord.”
Below is a bit from the early pages of the introduction, where I outline in broad strokes the work to be done. (You can read the entire intro on Google Books.)
By examining Barth’s doctrine of the person of Christ in its relation to the history of Christology, this work seeks to identify not only the content of Barth’s Christology but its enduring significance for Christian theology. Our study will move along two lines of inquiry. One is a thematic description of Barth’s mature Christology (the Christology of the Church Dogmatics, with an emphasis on Volume IV) and an analysis of its implications. More broadly, the second line considers the relation that this Christology has to that of the classical tradition – by which I mean the Christology of the ecumenical councils and the continental Reformation. I will argue that Barth selectively appropriated the classical doctrine of the incarnation, making use of its concepts and terminology where he felt they suited his convictions about the identity of Jesus Christ as narrated in Holy Scripture. But, insofar as Barth makes use of these ideas, he does so critically – holding them to the fire of the Word’s continuing testimony to the humanity of God.
Further, it will become clear that Barth has explicit, theological reasons for this method of critically receptive inquiry. The result is a Christology that is both constructively modern and classically orthodox in character.
At the center of both lines of inquiry is the question: How are the eternal Word of God and the divine-human Jesus Christ related? What does it mean for His person that one of the Trinity assumed a human nature and lived a human life? This has presented theologians in the church’s history with numerous, sometimes seemingly insurmountable conceptual difficulties – particularly where they have sought to maintain the identity of Jesus Christ with and as the divine Son of God, and have read the Synoptic gospels through a Johannine-Pauline lens. My suggestion is that Barth’s Christology enables theologians to engage such issues in a deeply satisfying way, reconciling the manifold witnesses of Scripture precisely at points where the answers of the tradition are lacking.
The topic at hand – the history and dogmatic implications of the doctrine of the incarnation – is far-reaching and could lead us in any number of directions, and engage the thought of any number of important figures. It is therefore prudent to establish our own boundaries for exposition and reflection. Our study unfolds in three basic stages. These concern:
(1) unresolved issues that persist in traditional attempts to describe the incarnation (Chapter 1);
(2) Barth’s own approach and its critical engagement with traditional ‘Logos Christology’ (Chapters 2 and 3); and
(3) the way in which Barth’s proposal might finally be judged as consonant with Christian orthodoxy, while also moving beyond its impasses (Chapters 4 and 5).
First, I will offer my own critical account of the history of the doctrine of the incarnation in the patristic and early medieval period, in an attempt to demonstrate that the answers provided by the orthodox tradition to a number of basic christological questions are not without problems. Chalcedon simply has not settled the doctrine of Christ’s person for all time.1 The most fundamental question here pertains to the relationship between God the Son and the God-human, Jesus Christ, or between the Logos and the human nature that He assumed in and for His redemptive mission. Can Christ and the Word be identified as a single subject (one and the same ‘person’) if their respective ontological constitutions are different – i.e. one eternal, divine in essence, and simple, and the other temporal, both divine and human, and therefore complex?
This issue I call the ‘identity problem.’ I then extend and further illustrate this problem through an historical and conceptual examination of three related facets of Christology: the doctrines of divine immutability, kenosis, and impassibility. The history of these questions, and the variety of attempts to give satisfying answers, shows the need for christological reflection that remains active and imaginative.
1. Contra F. W. A. Korff, who argued that the Council of 451 says all that should be said about the mystery of Christ’s person. See G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 85-97.
For those (like us) not fortunate enough to make the trek to Princeton Theological Seminary for this week’s annual Karl Barth Conference — on the theme “Karl Barth & the Gospels” — well, you’re in luck: the Seminary live-streams much of the conference.
In fact, it will reportedly do the same for plenary sessions of the Karl Barth Pastors Conference to follow — on the theme “Karl Barth & the Mission of the Church”.
Starting Sunday, June 21, tune your browser to: av.ptsem.edu/live
The conference’s plenary sessions begin with Jürgen Moltmann’s opening lecture at Miller Chapel — titled “Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace” (update: a recording can be found here).
The rest of the two conferences run from June 22-26, 2015, and the plenary sessions are scheduled as follows (all times Eastern Standard):
Monday June 22
8:45am – Eric Gregory: “‘The Gospel within the commandment’: Karl Barth on the Parable of the Good Samaritan”
11am – Willie Jennings: “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler”
2:15pm – Paul Dafydd Jones: “The Riddle of Gethsemane”
7pm – Karlfried Froehlich: “Karl Barth and the Isenheim Altarpiece”
Tuesday June 23
8:45am – Bruce L. McCormack: “The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology”
10:30am – Beverly Gaventa: “Reading Karl Barth’s Reading of the Road to Emmaus”
2:15pm – Richard Bauckham: “Karl Barth’s Interpretation of the Prologue to John’s Gospel”
Wednesday June 24
8:45am – Daniel L. Migliore: “Barth, Balthasar, and the Parable of the Lost Son”
7pm – Will Willimon: “How Karl Barth Taught Me to Preach”
Thursday June 25
7:30pm – Willie Jennings: “What Barth taught me about Faith, Hope, and Love”
Friday June 26
11am – Debbie Blue: “No one is Not Religious: Witnessing to What is Beyond Belief (Barth’s ever relevant (ir)reverence)”
The big news in American religion last week was the release of the new study on the nation’s changing religious landscape from Pew Research. As a student of religion perhaps the most remarkable thing to see these past several days is not to much the contents of the report itself (based on surveys that show the change in self-identified religious affiliation from 2007 to 2014) but the variety of interpretations to it.
Some headlines are ready to call Christianity’s time-of-death, while others observe that this is merely the latest data speaking to trends that began a generation ago (i.e. the decline of membership in the mainline denominations). Others point gleefully to the fact that now evangelicalism is also declining (as a share of the total population), disrupting the narrative that the shifting landscape is entirely explainable by conservatives fleeing “liberal” denominations for the more conservative. And evangelicals look at the same data and declare their own victory: they are declining less than everyone else, and in terms of total membership numbers are actually still growing (somewhere between zero and 5 million in seven years, accounting for the poll’s margin of error).
Quite a bit has been lost in the analysis, and it’s because we aren’t reading Pew critically enough. Let me point out three observations as I see them.
(1) First, the story told by the phone survey of more than 35,000 adults is not that Christianity is in rapid decline. I think this is the most important and most overlooked aspect of this story. The survey asked respondents the specific Christian denomination with which they self-identify (in other words, it’s not based on any church’s membership records). There is a sharp increasing in the “Nones,” those reporting no affiliation (from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent just seven years later).
This is, of course, not to say that these men and women do not regard themselves as Christians (though definitions of just what that means will vary, for some being more theological and for others more sociological). It only says that they are not connected with any denomination or worshiping body, nor do they regard themselves as part of a specific religious tradition even if they don’t go to church.
There is no choice of “Christian – Other,” or “Christian – Unaffiliated,” then. The survey is not about religious belief or practice so much as it is about institutional affiliation. Men and women who have no such ties fall into the “Nones.”
From the report:
The unaffiliated are generally less religiously observant than people who identify with a religion. But not all religious “nones” are nonbelievers. In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people. Forthcoming reports will describe the Religious Landscape Study’s findings about the religious beliefs and practices of “nones” and other groups.
The total of all Christian bodies has fallen from 78.4 percent of the U.S. population to 70.6 percent in just seven years, and that’s startlingly rapid. But respondents were not asked if they identify as “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” … or “None.” This 70.6 percent is simply the aggregate total of all the individual denominations listed.
What the report indicates, in other words, is not a decline in Christianity but a deinstitutionalizing of Christians. Many of these certainly would not self-identify as Christian at all – but that’s not what the survey asked. Presumably, many of them would regard themselves as believers who have no institutional home. My conclusion, then, is that more Christians than ever before are living an autonomous faith.
What are we to do with that fact, as churches? That’s a separate (and very important) question. But thinking through that problem begins with recognizing that many of the “Nones” are not nonbelievers, but disenfranchised.
(2) The news isn’t good for the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations (that’s us in the larger Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and American Baptist bodies), and that’s nothing new. These groups have been losing members for decades, helping to fuel the explosion of North American evangelicalism for a generation. Evangelicalism, as defined by Pew (more on that below), is still strong.
By and large, the “mainline” churches are the bodies that debated women in ministry in the 1970s and went the inclusive route, and they are the churches that have been debating gay ordination and marriage issues for over a decade — and again, are largely going the inclusive route. Some cynically theorize that this is an attempt to retain members — to make the mainline churches more inclusive, and thereby stem the loss of progressive Americans — and some conservatives will point to data from groups such as the Pew Forum as evidence that this strategy has backfired. These denominations continue to suffer membership loss because their actions have brought about a conservative egress, and in many cases whole denominational splits.
It should be said that on the ground the people advocating for these changes in polity and practice are not seeking to “liberalize” their churches but (I hope in most all cases) rather to be faithful to the gospel as they understand it. I, for one, am much more interested in my own church’s fidelity to Jesus Christ than in its ability to retain numbers, and I worry about evangelicalism’s common preoccupation with the latter — as if its fidelity to Christ was measured by a populist appeal.
(It’s also worth noting here what one television commenter suggested, though I don’t have data at hand to support the claim: evangelical Christians on average have more kids than their “progressive” counterparts in the mainline, suggesting that at least a portion of the difference in membership would be accounted for by average family size. Kids, however, were not among the respondents to this survey — so this theory would depend upon more evangelical kids staying with their faith into adulthood. It might take more than seven years to be able to measure that well. All in all, I’m not sure that is something the data bears out.)
(3) Finally, (and I’ll be blunt here): “Evangelicalism” is not a thing. When Pew uses the term is doesn’t mean what theologians and every-day practicing Christians probably mean, and as a sociological category it is almost entirely worthless.
When we speak of “evangelical Christianity” we tend to think of things like an emphasis on Scripture, an emphasis on conversion (being “born again”) and piety, less formal institutional practices (including worship), etc. For the Pew survey, these characteristics are largely irrelevant (though researchers might say otherwise). Instead, “evangelical” is a pseudo-historical designation that differentiates bodies within the same broad tradition based on which one is older (the “mainline” being the one that had smaller groups break away from it).
This appendix lists all the denominations and bodies that are categorized as “evangelical” or as “mainline.” (Take a moment and look it over.) It’s not necessarily intuitive as to why a given body makes one list rather than the other, and it has nothing to do with anything like theological beliefs or religious practices. As I understand it, the “mainline” denominations are taken to be those who were historically first in this country, and (at least until recent years) the largest; the “evangelical” denominations are those who broke off from the larger denomination at some point. (The Pew Forum states that they classify these based on things such as the use of “born again” language, which is demographically squishy at best. Is there a Christian in the world who would read John 3 and not lay some measure of claim to that language?)
So the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “mainline,” and the Presbyterian Church in America is “evangelical.” The American Baptist Churches USA is mainline, but of course the Southern Baptist Convention is evangelical (and now vastly larger). The Disciples of Christ (a Restorationist group) is mainline; but the Church of Christ (also Restorationist) is evangelical.
How about the Society of Friends (Quakers)? They broke away from the Church of England before immigrating to the United States — so here, they are mainline. (Friends also have an evangelical break-off from a subsequent split.)
The distinctions are largely arbitrary — theological, practically, and even historically speaking. In many cases, the classification may come down to whether a church split happened on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean or the west.
Consider the differences between my own PC(USA) and the PCA: the mainline denomination ordains women, and tends to take a more progressive stance on social matters and on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise in their history, their governance, and their core convictions the two bodies are the same — and perhaps I can even venture to say that they have much more in common than not (we are all still “Presbyterians,” after all).
Are my PCA brothers and sisters any more “evangelical” by any coherent definition of that term? In both practice and belief, they have more in common with the mainline Presbyterian body than with, say, the Southern Baptists.
As we would expect, many respondents gave a vague self-identification (e.g. “I know I’m a Methodist, but I don’t know what denomination”) which required Pew to sort them based on other factors. This includes race, as well as whether a respondent self-identifies with the language of being “born again.”
In other words, if you don’t know whether you are a mainline Baptist or an evangelical Baptist, but you like the sound of being “born again,” you are marked down as evangelical. Overall, 38 percent of Protestants offered a vague denominational identity and had to be sorted in this way.
The Religious Landscape Study includes a question asking Christians: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” In response to this question, half of Christians (35% of all U.S. adults) say yes, they do consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians.
The results of this question demonstrate my point: only 83 percent of those that Pew would call “evangelical” based on their denominational preference said “Yes” — while a not insignificant 27 percent of “mainline” Protestants also said “Yes,” they describe themselves as “born again” or “evangelical.”
The definition of evangelicalism has always been fuzzy, and so it’s no surprise that Pew had to come up with some creative methodology — one that does not fit roughly 20 percent of Protestants in this country — in order to make their macro-level categories work.
The categorization of survey respondents into “mainline” or “evangelical” bodies is therefore somewhat haphazard, and historically (and practically) dubious. What this means is that the Pew report is useful for some things — tracking affiliation with specific denominations, for example — but it does not show the larger trends that mainliners, evangelicals, and atheists think it does. It’s useful for seeing the population shift from this version of Methodism to that, or away from institutionalized Christianity altogether. It’s helpful for seeing geographical and ethnic distribution. But it simply does not reveal anything useful about the decline or strength of “mainline” and “evangelical” Christianity.