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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Theologian: Young Evangelicals Want to Rethink What it Means to Be Evangelical

  • (Photo: The Christian Post/Napp Nazworth)
    Peter Enns, professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, speaking at the Pastorum Live conference, Chicago, June 6, 2012.
June 26, 2012|6:46 am

Theologian Peter Enns believes that some – mostly young, evangelical Christians today – want to rethink what it means to be evangelical but the movement's leaders are resistant to talking about the issues for fear of repercussions.

"People within evangelicalism desperately want to question the very foundations that made evangelicalism what it is, which is, basically, defending the faith, defending the Bible against the bad guys," Enns told The Christian Post in an interview at the Pastorum Live Conference hosted by Logos Bible Software earlier this month.

The Bible raises some difficult issues that these young evangelicals want to talk about, he said. But some "old guard" evangelicals make it difficult to have those conversations. These younger evangelicals don't want to leave evangelicalism, but they want to maintain their evangelical identity while transforming it.

"What they're saying is what some of the bad guys say about the Bible makes sense, whether its evolution, whether it's Canaanite genocide, whether it's human sexuality, whatever. They're saying they want to rethink some of those issues, but they're doing it from the point of view of having a deep connection with the tradition they were raised in. They don't want to just leave it. ... They want to transform and continue the evangelical journey," Enns said.

The biblical studies professor at Eastern University in Philadelphia, Pa., said he has spoken to many fellow theologians who wanted to also address some of the issues that are presenting challenges to evangelical thought, but did not for fear of losing their job.

"I should keep a list of the people I've talked to over the years who were like, 'I'd like to talk about X, but I can't because I'd be in trouble,' because it's all about protecting the system and it's not about saying, 'hey, that's a good point, let's talk about it,'" Enns said.

The Bible scholar is speaking from personal experience. He lost his job at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 for some of the ideas presented in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (2005). In it he argued for reading scripture in a way that would take seriously both the divine and human aspects of the Bible.

While at the Pastorum Conference, Enns said he spoke to another theologian who wanted to tackle some of the difficult questions challenging evangelicalism but felt constrained in doing so.

"He knows where the conversations have to go," Enns said, "but he seems somewhat hampered, because of teaching, keeping a job and things like that."

That struggle, he believes, represents one of the most significant challenges facing evangelicals today.

"Part of the problem with evangelicalism is that the power, money and the control is typically more with an older guard and you have to be careful," he said.

"The harshest way of putting it," he added, is "when you care more about the system than the truth, it's the problem the Pharisees had in the Gospels, and you want to protect the system."

The Philadelphia-based theologian believes that diversity of thought within Christianity is actually what God intended, though evangelicalism has historically been resistant to diversity of thought within its ranks. He mentioned the book of a fellow theologian and friend, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth by John Franke, which makes this argument.

"It reflects the manifold character of God, to think differently about these things," Enns said, but Christians "also have to love each other and come together and talk about them.

"That's the irony of evangelicalism. They don't talk about these things easily, but that's exactly where you get to share the heart of God with each other."

The younger evangelicals who want to have those difficult conversations will continue to try to transform their faith, Enns believes, adding, "the Internet helps" because "you can't control it."

READ: EVANGELICALS - LARGER IN SIZE, SMALLER IN INFLUENCE ... WHY?

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