Revd Dr Derek Tidball is the former Principal of London School of Theology and has previously chaired various national Evangelical organisations, including serving as Vice President of the Evangelical Alliance (UK). He currently chairs the Alliance’s council. He is the author of Who Are the Evangelicals? Recently he gave an interview to KEDS concerning various matters relating to global Evangelicalism.
King’s Evangelical Divinity School: As Evangelicalism develops and adapts in light of the current postmodern challenge, it seems it is becoming increasingly difficult to define exactly what Evangelicalism is. How would you define it, bearing in mind a great deal has happened since you wrote your valuable work on Evangelicals a decade and a half ago?
Derek Tidball: There is an old saying, 'If you want a definition of water, don't ask a goldfish'. Definitions are always difficult when you are immersed in the experience of a living movement and its fluctuating currents. I think it would have been just as difficult for earlier generations of Evangelicals to define as we find it today. A certain amount of perspective is needed. I still believe that Bebbington's quadrilateral of a tradition that emphasises the authority of the Bible, the need for conversion, the centrality of the cross and that faith is active, not least in mission, is a good approach. I might add, as John Stackhouse does, that Evangelicalism is committed to interdenominational relationships. Evangelicalism is a doctrinal movement but I think that defining it in this way, leading to a centred-set understanding of Evangelicalism, is better than producing a particular Statement of Faith and measuring everyone by that, not least because I believer Evangelicalism at its best is as much about orthopraxy as it is about orthodoxy.
KEDS: Do you think that those who have denied penal substitutionary atonement, or the imputation of Christ's righteousness, can rightly be called Evangelicals?
TD: I find it hard to consider those who have denied these aspects of the atonement as Evangelical. That, however, is different from saying that I believe there are many ways in which the atonement can be spoken of and some theories of interpretation are more immediately appropriate in certain times and in certain cultural contexts than others. So, I have no difficulty if people also speak of the cross in terms of Christus Victor, as I believe the New Testament itself does. But at some time I believe we also need to bring people to an understanding of penal substitutionary atonement which I believe is an essential and fundamental Biblical view of the cross.
Do you think that the New Perspective on Paul has a place within Evangelicalism?
Certainly. As Evangelicals we must strive to approach Scripture with integrity and not impose on it any particular system, even if that is a much loved system stemming from the Reformation. The New Perspective on Paul comes in many forms and not all are acceptable, or worthy, but several forms are. The recent writings of Tom Wright in conversation (argument?) with John Piper have been illuminating and have made me examine the text in fresh ways. In the writings of someone like Tom Wright the New Perspective is consistent with a penal substitutionary view of the cross. As someone who has worked a little on the sociology of the New Testament I do think reading the New Testament though the eyes of Western and introspective individualism is a fundamental mistake and that is one of the points made by the New Perspective.
Which theological/doctrinal issues are of pressing importance to today's Evangelicals, and why?
Ecclesiastical politics makes is difficult to avoid the ethical issues which surround human sexuality. You cannot help but be defined, to some extent, by the context in which you minister so, like it or not, questions of marriage and homosexuality are high on your agenda. Besides that, the church has becomes deeply secularised in its thinking and there needs to be a rediscovery of confidence in the gospel, the meaning of conversion and of eschatological hope. Having largely rejected, in the UK at least, premillennialism, and having been somewhat embarrassed by the claims of mid-century Evangelical preachers regarding the second coming, we have not known what to put in its place. The absence of eschatology stands in stunning contrast to New Testament Christianity and is partly responsible for some of our complacency and compromise, and thus, our enfeebled state. It is amazing, for example, that the Alpha Course, which I believe to have been extremely beneficial to the church and a wonderful channel for the conversion of many, gives no attention to our future hope and the return of Christ, since it is supposed to be a basic introduction to New Testament Christianity. That is out of sync with New Testament faith.
How might we express that great eschatological hope you mention?
The world in which we currently live shows plenty of signs of decay and of it 'being subjected to frustration' as Paul mentions, but 'in hope' or renewal and recreation. That speaks to the major contemporary concerns about ecology, global warming and violence and warfare. In a world of despair we have a message of hope. Tom Wright's recent Surprised by Hope picks up on that and has many good things to say. But we also need to integrate into the scheme of things much more the crucial role played in intervention of Jesus in his 'second coming' or 'appearance'. That can sometimes be forgotten. Our answer to the skeptics who say that things will never change is easy. The world has undergone so many surprises in recent years - from the overthrow of Soviet Communism, the release and presidency of Nelson Mandela, 9/11 and so on that who can believe that the future is going to be free of surprises.
To what extent are Evangelicals engaging with social and political issues?
Evangelicals are super self-critics and it is popular to say that we are doing nothing. That is certainly not the view the Secularists and others have of us! A rather more objective viewpoint is that we are making a contribution at every level and punching well above our weight. Parliament is subject to a multitude of lobbying bodies that seek to influence it and Evangelicals are within there along with the rest. By its nature the work does not always attract attention and some of the high profile protests about issues can prove counter-productive. But knowing how much the Evangelical Alliance have invested in this area and the respect in which their work is held, to name but one important body, encourages me. But, just as important, is the work down at ground level as Evangelicals do serve as school governors or get involved, in other ways, in local community issues. There will still be some churches who live in the ghetto, but that is not the problem it was thirty years ago.
How has postmodernism had a bearing on the Evangelical movement?
It has softened our dogmatism and caused us to question rigid boundaries, which, in truth, were often expressions of the traditions of the elders rather than being genuinely biblical. It has caused us to look at Scripture with new eyes and to rediscover the value of narrative. It has encourage people to see themselves, paradoxically, as part of the greater story of God at work down the centuries than the rather narrow confines of history to which many looked. Evangelicalism is a living tradition and had always adapted itself to the culture of the time. That influence has often been good, but can, of course, equally be detrimental.
So, postmodernism needs to be approached with care, as much as modernism needed to be approached with care. he Lausanne Covenant's statement on Culture remains to my mind one of the finest statements in the area and calls for the recognition that, on the one hand, culture may be a God-given and beautiful expression of our common life but that equally, on the other hand, all culture is tainted by the fall and needs to be handled with care. I find the oft repeated claim that Evangelicalism has been detrimentally wedded to modernism and is a distorted form of Christianity which is to be rejected facile. The claim that Evangelicalism is essentially cerebral and sterile is ludicrous to those who known anything about Evangelical history. I equally find the generalisations about the evils of Christendom and the need to overthrown all that Constantinianism represented, crass. The rush, in some circles, to reject modernism and embrace postmodernism is naive. Some aspects of postmodernism have introduced an ethical relativism into the church which is detrimental and challenged the place of the Bible in an unhelpful way.
What is the emerging church and to what extent has Evangelicalism embraced it?
If Evangelicalism is difficult to define, the emerging church is almost impossible. It is an attempt on the part of some to re-invent church as a genuine community rather than as in inherited institution. It seeks to be much more open to those who have questions and more honest in the sharing of doubts and struggles than is acceptable in many established and more 'respectable' churches. It is influenced by postmodernity but that, typically, leads to a diversity rather than uniformity. Some will revive ancient liturgies and others use modern technology and many both. Some will be very unliturgical - more akin to a discussion in a pub, rather than a church. Others will have a great place for traditional preaching. They range theologically from conservative to liberal and social from traditional to creative. They are defined by what they have left than what they are for.
Because of the passionate commitment to mission many Evangelicals have embraced emerging church out of a desire to provide a spiritual home for seekers. It could be viewed as the latest version of mission hall type of approach. But the scene is very fast moving and time will tell whether 'emerging churches' are going to prove significant long-term or merely ephemeral. Personally I don't see it as the 'paradigm shift' some claim for it.
Are Evangelicals within the emerging church the most productive in terms of evangelism? If not, within which stream is the Evangelical church growing most strongly?
It is not yet clear how effective the emerging church is in terms of evangelism. We need to remember that although it may well cater for a certain generation or group of people many ordinary folk are largely unaffected by the debates about postmoderninty and carry on quite mundane lives, surviving routinely from week to week. Many 'less exciting' Evangelical churches are reaching these people, not least through Alpha. But I have observed with renewed interest recently than non-Evangelical churches really have no incentive for mission and no place for evangelism. An Evangelical theology is essential to evangelism.
In light of challenges to Evangelical faith such as pluralism, secularism, Islamism and so on, do you ever envisage Evangelicals from across the spectrum putting to one side their differences and striving to work more closely together? How/why not?
Evangelicalism has never been anything other than a coalition of different bodies, churches and agencies, who have always found it difficult to work together. We tend to look back to the middle of the last century when Evangelicals were largely united around the Billy Graham mission, but even then the unity was far from complete. What is crucial is not that we form one united monolithic body - that was one of the several mistakes of the ecumenical movement - but that we model the gospel in our relationship with one another, which we have not always done. The great fault line running through Evangelicalism is the one that divides Reformed evangelicals from Arminian and Holiness Evangelicals, and has always been thus. Far too many discourteous things have been shouted at each other across that fault line. We need to rekindle Paul's spirit in Philippians 1:15-18, '...the important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached . And because of that I rejoice.'
Evangelicals are arch free-enterprise economy people. We're constantly setting up new ministries and agencies even though there are very similar ones already in existence. I believe we need to repent of this unhelpful individualism which wastes resources and thinks selfishly rather than strategically. With both new and existing organisations we need to be asking how are the interests of God's kingdom best served.
You mention a Reformed-Wesleyan fault line. What about the great divide also between Pentecostal/Charismatic Evangelicals and their cessationist counterparts? To what extent has this had on Evangelicalism?
It has been suggested to me recently that the main division among Evangelicals now is between confessional Evangelicals and pragmatic Evangelicals, and I believe the comment has some merit. The Reformed-Wesleyan division run deep historically and, in a more limited way, so does the Pentecostal/cessationist division. That too has caused us to work within our own circles without acknowledging those who take the opposite view from us too much. But these debates come and go in intensity and I think there is a certain merit in viewing the current debate as between confessionalists, who stress the need for doctrine even though they may differ over particular points) and pragmatists, who often regard doctrine (wrongly in my view) as a stumbling block to evangelism and who governed by the overwhelming drive to get the gospel out. But, of course, as soon as you say that, you have got to ask what is the gospel you are seeking to make know?
How, practically, might we challenge and change the "free-enterprise" aspect of Evangelical individualism that you mentioned just now? The non-conformist nature of the movement means we are unlikely ever to see the establishment of governing structures or leaders (a kind of Evangelical pope!). Might the Evangelical academy help foster a sense of Evangelical collectiveness and a strategic vision which could eventually trickle down?
I certainly believe the Evangelical academy has a responsibility to challenge the 'free-enterprise' economy of Evangelicalism. It needs to do this by rejecting the approach itself and refusing to be competitive. Academies need to model the desire to think strategically, rather than protectively, if we are to be credible.I spent some years in discussion with other seeking to achieve that, but, alas, did not make the progress I would have hoped.
The academy also needs to instill in its students (a) a recognition of the legitimacy of Evangelicals who may differ from them and (b) a spirit of cooperation. In being passionate about fulfilling God's call on our lives we also need to learn to filter that call through the church, and I don't just mean test it out with some in the church who will be favourable towards us, but to ask, what does the doctrine of the church say about my setting up yet another work. We need to instill in students the need to ask whether it is necessary for us to 'go it alone' in the away so many want to do.
In your opinion, what is the immediate challenge facing Evangelicalism, both in the UK and also the wider global movement?
The first is the challenge of living the gospel in our individuals lives and in our relationship with others. The second is the challenge to put God and his kingdom, rather than our own comfort, first in our lives. The third is of having confidence in the gospel as 'the power of God for salvation'. The fourth challenge is interpreting that gospel into forms which relate to contemporary culture but to do so without compromise.
What do you make of viewpoints, such as those espoused in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, that suggests that there is a dearth of intellectual influence among the Evangelical community?
I think Mark Noll is largely correct in his analysis. We have produced some very good biblical scholars, which is not perhaps surprising, but have largely struggled to produce noted scholars in other fields. There are several reasons for this including the fact that Evangelicalism as a whole is quite pragmatic and sometime too immediate in its approach. So as Noll points out we can be very concerned about converting individuals without realising the complex social and intellectual web than envelops them, so we don't pay attention to it. We have surely learned by now that changing the world for the better is not as simple as getting a born again believer in the White House, or in No. 10. We need to overcome our impatience and have the confidence to work at strategies that will yield results in the long term. In this regards, as in others, John Stott has been a good example as he has sought through Langham Scholarships to raise up a new generation of Evangelical leaders. We need to overcome our apprehensions and encourage people to be long-term thinkers for the Kingdom of God.
Dr Tidball, thank you for your time.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the King's Evangelical Divinity School. The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at KEDS. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics.