Face to Faith by Joanna McGrath

In the Guardian this Saturday, the regular Face to Faith column was written by Joanna McGrath, with the tag line, “‘Liberal evangelicals’ are now seen as a threat in the way Jesus once was.” In it, she responds to Richard Turnbull’s widely reported speech on theological education, in which he attempted to define evangelicalism, and to warn of the dangers facing evangelical theological colleges.

She argues that his speech, rather than being a reasoned argument based on revealed truths, is simply an expression of a psychological failing – an unreasoning, emotive desire by groups to define unnecessary boundaries. Jesus, according to her view, was opposed to boundaries (in her words, a “category violator”), and his crucifixion was the combined response of the unbelieving world and the religious purists of Jesus’ own day to his openness and abandonment of boundaries. The thrust of McGrath’s article is that evangelicals today are misguided. Jesus, according to McGrath, would oppose the modern-day boundary making by evangelicals.

As an evangelical myself, I found McGrath’s argument utterly unconvincing. In her eagerness to impose modern-day social theories on the accounts of Jesus life, McGrath seems to have abandoned objectivity in her assessments of Jesus’ life and the position taken by modern evangelicals such as Richard Turnbull. Jesus opposed the Pharisees because the boundaries they had established were objectively wrong, and established boundaries of his own that he expects his followers to keep. I would also suggest that she fails to engage with the rest of Scripture, which establishes doctrinal boundaries and has harsh words for “category violators” of those boundaries.

Firstly, Jesus made it very clear that his opposition to the Pharisees was based on objective truth, not simply an objection to the social phenomenon of boundary formation. For example, in Mark 7:9-10 he said to the Pharisees:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Jesus’ objection to the boundaries established by the Pharisees was that they were not God’s boundaries, not that boundaries are always wrong. Of course, man-made boundaries that prevent people from coming to God are abhorrent and must always be opposed. Before discarding an individual boundary, though, it should be examined against the objective standard of Scripture to ensure that it is man-made, as God-ordained boundaries (for example, of ethical conduct or doctrinal orthodoxy) must be observed and guarded rather than violated.

Secondly, Jesus established objective boundaries of his own. In Matthew 7:15-16 he said:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them.

It seems to me that Richard Turnbull, in his speech, was following the command Jesus gave here. Jesus warned that false teachers would come, people claiming to follow Jesus but teaching falsehood. Those people, Jesus said, would be identifiable by their way of life – their actions would be inconsistent with their declaration of discipleship. Richard Turnbull warned of the danger posed by liberals, some of whom seem to fit Jesus’ warning: people who claim to follow Jesus, but whose conduct is diametrically opposed to the moral standards laid out in Scripture. Such teachers are to be opposed and avoided, not welcomed by true followers of Jesus.

Thirdly, other writers in Scripture establish non-negotiable doctrinal boundaries. Perhaps most strikingly, in Galations 1:8 Paul says:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.

Paul sets out an objective standard by which we should examine doctrine in the church – the gospel he preached, which is defined in more detail later in the letter. Those who preach another gospel, according to Paul, are destined for an awful fate when they face God. Violating the doctrinal boundary that Paul lays out here is such a serious issue that Paul actually wishes that such people would be condemned. We find no openness to the “different perspective” offered by such false teachers. So, when we encounter modern-day teachers claiming to have a different message about Jesus from that found in Scripture, we should avoid and oppose them.

Among the comments on the Guardian website, this one by a user named RaoulSalan seemed particularly insightful given that it’s apparently from a non-Christian, and gives an outsider’s view of what McGrath is managing to communicate:

The author`s argument seems to be that the vicious `mainstream` Christians are persecuting nice liberal bearded sandal-wearing Christians and that the latter are like Jesus in being persecuted. I`d have thought in most western countries now, the absolute opposite reading could be taken. The mainstream is the liberal tendency and they hate it when they are reminded of a sterner, more traditional Christian outlook and viciously persecute the perpetrators, seen as outside the mainstream.

Rather than a `category violator` I actually thought Christians were meant to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. So presumably the good lady authoress is an atheist, despite the `Reverend` bit. Why do they bother?

This reminds me of an article on John Richardson’s blog on open evangelicalism. In it, he has this to say:

Unfortunately, the ire of Open Evangelicals is thus reserved for, and directed almost entirely at, their Conservative ‘brethren’.

And thus Open Evangelicalism, for all its claims to the ‘middle ground’, is neither truly open nor in the middle. It is not open, because it is closed to Conservative Evangelicalism. And it is not in the middle because Conservative Evangelicalism is, in its distinctives, beyond the pale.

In my opinion, the question that Joanna McGrath should ask is whether conservative evangelicals have correctly identified the boundaries God has established in Scripture for the Christian faith. If they haven’t, then she should challenge the specific errors and try to correct those issues. Otherwise, what real objection can she make to them?