All Spirit, No Body: Evangelicalism's Gnostic Problem

The Evangelical Manifesto has pretty much come and gone. (It’s domain name has actually expired.) It was supposed to give evangelicalism, sagging with the worries and fears of the Religious Right, a face lift. And then along came Sarah Palin and the chances for evangelicalism finding a prettier face happened, but not the way the Manifesto’s writers had intended.

Even so, recalling the way that EM defined evangelicalism is useful for reminding confessional Protestants why born-again Protestants don’t get us and why they leave us scratching our heads. The defining features of evangelicalism, according to EM, are first a devotion or experience of reverence: being evangelical at its core “is always more than a creedal statement, an institutional affiliation, or a matter of membership in a movement.” This means that evangelicalism cannot be limited to “certain churches or contained by a definable movement.” It is “diverse, flexible, adaptable, non-hierarchical” and takes many forms. Also key is evangelicalism’s positive, as opposed to its negative, posture. “Evangelicals are for Someone and for something rather than against anyone or anything.”

For this reason, evangelicals are different from liberalism and fundamentalism. These are in fact the extremes that define evangelicalism. The fault of liberalism was its capitulation to “alternative gospels” that are characterized by “an exaggerated estimate of human capacities, a shallow view of evil, an inadequate view of truth, and a deficient view of God.” Fundamentalism’s error is to embody a “modern reaction to the modern world” and romanticize the past. This leads fundamentalists to part company with “the Evangelical principle” of loving “our neighbors as ourselves” and even our enemies.

These oppositions would seem to connote a negativity that conflicts with evangelicalism’s commitment to being positive. But aside from the implicit inconsistency, the “accent the positive” theme of EM betrays evangelicalism’s glaring intellectual defect. By eschewing institutional means for being an evangelical and for reinforcing its identity, evangelicals have abandoned any reasonable creaturely means for giving coherence to their movement, constituency, market – what is the right word when no criteria for membership exist? It actually gets worse. Evangelicals revel in not being a church, in not having a creed, in not being tied down by those structures that lead to formalism or narrowness – those barriers that restrict the free movement of the Spirit and the good intentions of regenerated saints.

How is it possible to have any sort of human identity without being embodied institutionally. For politics we have parties, for business we have companies, for sex we have marriage. All of these human activities require some kind of exclusion based on a positive identity. Democrats are not Republicans. Ford’s cars are not Toyota’s. The Harts do not sleep with the Bartons. The same is even true for Christianity where God has given us the church and its ordinances to disciple the nations. The ministry of the word has always involved distinguishing and excluding. The keys of the kingdom were given to open the gates of heaven to believers and to shut them to unbelief. At the denominational level, Presbyterians are different from Pentecostals. But evangelicals, according to EM, do not want to be tied down either the way God’s creatures are by virtue of our embodiment or the way his church is by virtue of his revealed truth about the way he cares and shepherds his people through the church.

The result is a form of Christianity that does not want to have enemies but knows that it has them because its positive assertion of evangelical identity means that evangelicalism is not fundamentalism or liberalism. The reason it cannot have enemies is the same as why it cannot have members. Evangelicalism eschews institutional embodiment. It transcends any organizational or formal arrangement that is narrow or excludes. As such EM is yet one more betrayal of a spiritual identity that knows no formal mechanisms of membership.

Contemporary evangelicalism, consequently, suffers from an inherent inconsistency which pits its spirit against its body. Born-again Protestantism cannot resolve its inherent tension between the anti-formal nature of the conversion experience – the gateway into evangelicalism – and the need for formal qualities that will make evangelicalism cohere as a distinct Christian identity. As Mark Noll has observed, “Evangelicalism never amounted to a full-blown religious tradition, but was rather a style of personal living everywhere combined with conventional attitudes and actions.” Because of its flexibility and experiential character, evangelicalism can be found almost everywhere. That also means it is one of the least disciplined and impossible to define expressions of Christianity. In fact, because of its inability to achieve the heft of a religious tradition but only to add up to a spiritual style, evangelicalism has left many of its adherents with the dilemma of not knowing how to practice, maintain, and pass on a faith that eschews the means of practicing, maintaining and passing on any form of Christianity.

Even so, evangelicals have over the centuries devised a number of other ways to indicate their membership in the evangelical movement, from listening to contemporary Christian music, buying niche-marketed study-Bibles and the vinyl covers that adorn them. This could be a betrayal of the original genius of evangelicalism. But the formalism of evangelicalism could also reveal the naivete of its original proponents. That is, folks like Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards failed to recognize that as ensouled bodies (or embodied souls if you prefer) human beings cannot avoid forms. Christianity needs more than religious affections.

At some very basic level, physical existence requires that Christianity take external form, except in those very rare, and impossible to know, circumstances where the Spirit acts directly upon the human soul independently of external stimuli and physical existence after conversion. This kind of mystical experience may happen but it is not normal. The ordinary way that God saves is through the means of his word, read and preached, and visibly signified and sealed in the sacraments, with the enlivening work of the Spirit. In other words, God instituted forms to mediate grace through the external senses of the human body. Evangelicals implicitly recognize this whenever they publish books, set up preaching tours, arrange Christian Rock festivals, or print a new line of t-shirts. These evangelical forms mediate evangelical devotion. And they show that the original impulse of evangelicalism, to escape forms, is impossible.

The $64,000 question, then, is which are the right forms. Whatever the answer to the question, evangelicalism will always have a hard time maintaining an identity and keeping its children if it teaches adherents that their formal Christian activities are matters indifferent. If it doesn’t matter if you go to a Lutheran, Presbyterian or Baptist church to be an evangelical, then a time may (and possibly has) come when it doesn’t even matter if you go to church . In which case, evangelicalism would have achieved the ghost-like status of all spirit and no body.


5 thoughts on “All Spirit, No Body: Evangelicalism's Gnostic Problem

  1. Functionally, to seek to be in conjunction with everyone means you end up in conjunction with no one. Not with liberals, fundamentalists, confessional Christians…or even the general culture which so often provides the backdrop for the goals of evangelicalism. I think this is why evangelicals end up chasing social trends, but never catching them…at least not until those trends have been discarded by their originators.


  2. Excellent article. The author, though, reveals a strong ignorance of John Wesley’ s “methods” to assume his approach to have been at all lacking in either structure, hierarchy, or accountability. Such an oversight can make a lie of the quite valid points the author has made, and it would do him well to research what has been heretofore merely assumed.


  3. sh: The imperialistic character of these claims for the significance of the Church does not mean that it is unimportant for Christians to understand the peculiar development called modernity. Rather, as I just suggested, we must narrate the modern story on our terms. That, I fear, is what we have not done in modernity. Christians’ attitudes toward modernity have primarily been characterized by a sense of inferiority. As John Milbank observes, “the pathos of modern theology is its false humility.” Our preaching and theology has been one ceaseless effort to conform to the canons of intelligibility produced by the economic and intellectual formations characteristic of modern and liberal societies.–9


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