Applying Occam’s Razor to Evangelicalism

This is a very helpful article from Pastor Tom Chantry, reflecting on some hard truths about the state of what is currently called ‘Evangelicalism’. The issues raised in this article are actually relevant to believers in every denomination (as many of you would already know first-hand), and are worthy of serious consideration.

Along with a well-considered critique of modern Evangelicalism, Tom provides practical encouragement to those who belong to Christ in the face of daunting and pervasive challenges within the visible church:

Occam’s Razor and the Perpetuity of Evangelical Scandal

Occam’s Razor is the name given to the logical argument that the simplest theory to explain any given phenomena is likely the correct theory.  Since our judgment is often obstructed, we need to shave away needless assumptions and bits of argumentation in order to arrive at a reasonable understanding.  Scientists debate the legitimacy of the Razor as an empirical tool; certain complexities in nature (think of the construction of the living cell) suggest that complex explanations of material phenomena are often correct.  It is nevertheless a useful philosophical tool, particularly as a foundational principle of the common sense by which we ought to live.  If I awake in the morning to find branches from my trees scattered about the back yard, it is simpler to assume that we had a strong wind than it is to believe that demons attacked my trees during the night!  The sensible man will automatically adopt the simpler theory.

It is in this solid common-sense manner that I propose we apply Occam’s Razor to the latest evangelical scandal, whatever that scandal might happen to be.  Last week it was Steven Furtick’s intentionally provocative “God broke the law for love” clip.  A few weeks earlier it was Andy Stanley’s nasty accusations against small churches.  Years ago it was Mark Driscoll’s braggadocio about his belligerent bus-driving technique.  And of course we aren’t allowed to forget Perry Noble’s “Highway to Hell” Easter service, mainly because he keeps reminding us of it.

There have been a number of responses to Furtick’s latest departure from orthodoxy.  The best I have seen is Todd Pruitt’s point-by-point examination over at Mortification of Spin.  Among the other responses, however, a perplexing note has emerged.  Jared Wilson at The Gospel Coalition gets to the heart of what was wrong with the video, but only after sympathizing with what he assumes Furtick was trying to say.  The ever-polite Tim Challies, while critical, also enlightens us as to what Furtick intended to say.  Why the rush to exonerate?

When well-recognized evangelicals – particularly those who have never made any significant contribution to or defense of biblical doctrine and piety – make asinine statements about the gospel or engage in stunts which contradict all the tenets of Christian virtue, why do we feel the need to cover their indiscretion with a cloak of good Christian motives?  They themselves rarely seem to desire this!  The complex logical gymnastics by which we defend the men while questioning their words and actions are based upon one obstinate presupposition: because these men are evangelicals, they must be received as brothers in Christ and granted every advantage of our most gracious instincts.  This is, I suggest, a needless assumption which we ought to simply shave away.

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Now at this point you might assume that I am going to argue from Furtick’s catastrophic misrepresentation of the gospel that he is, in fact, not saved.  Some of you are cheering me on, while some are already marshalling counter-arguments of charity and catholicity.  Actually, I feel no need to make such an argument about Furtick per se.  The fundamental assumption which ought to be abandoned is not so specific.  It isn’t merely that I think Furtick (or any other particularly embarrassing Christian celebrity) may not be a Christian, it is that I reject the idea that  any evangelical should  be automatically presumed regenerate.  Shave away our presumption, and not only the scandals du jourlisted above, but also a lot of the rest of evangelical history, suddenly make a lot more sense.  The simplest explanation is in this case both logical and correct.  The mere fact of being an evangelical is no safe indicator that anyone is a child of God.

Perhaps it will help to remember how we arrived at this assumption.  Back in my childhood, we divided Christendom into uncomplicated teams.  There was the team of Catholics, etc. (“et cetera” because we rarely encountered the Eastern Orthodox or various Middle Eastern strains, and when we did they looked to us like Catholics on steroids).  There was also the Mainline team, known for its modernism.  Members of neither of these teams were presumed to be saved, and for good reason.  Both had lost the gospel, and if anyone in their midst was actually a believer, it was clearly in spite of his church, not because of it.  So far, so good.  But then there was a third team called “evangelicalism,” and its members, we assumed, were all (or at least mostly) saved.  Perhaps I am oversimplifying.  Fundamentalists wanted to be on their own smaller team where everyone played by the same rules, but we tended to see them as the grumpy members of our team.  And of course there were a few big-R Reformed types who insisted that “Reformed” was never a subset of “evangelical,” but we thought of them as better-read but equally-grumpy Fundamentalists.  In our minds, big E was the saved team, and we accepted everyone that wore the right team colors as part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yet there is precious little in evangelicalism to justify such an assumption.  After all, the Scripture does suggest that there will be certain signs which, while they do not allow us infallibly to identify each true believer, will give us a sense of who should and who should not be called a brother.  Let us consider three of the very simplest:This process was exacerbated by the politicization of religion during the Reagan Revolution.  As the church accepted the premise that its task in the world was political, it necessarily also accepted that its strength was in its numbers.  Expansion of the term “evangelical” and even of the concept of salvation became a necessity.  A new socio-theological calculus produced a triangle with Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Orel Roberts at the vertices, and we were assured that everyone inside was both a brother in Christ and a reliable Republican vote.  To even question whether some of these folks were actually Christian was to weaken the political punch of the evangelical demographic.  Of course we’re all saved!  How can you question your teammates?

1. Actual Believers will understand, confess, and defend the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. (See, for instance, I Corinthians 15:1-5.) This gospel is, in brief, that Jesus, the Son of God who became true man, died for the sins of others and then rose so that they might have eternal life.  Some years ago White Horse Inn recorded answers to the question, “What is the gospel?” at a Christian booksellers’ convention, seeking to illustrate the paucity of gospel knowledge among evangelical Christians.  At the time I thought they were exaggerating their case, but that was before my experience in Christian education.  Four years of teaching the children of evangelicals demonstrated a sad reality: unless they attended either foreign language churches or confessionally Reformed churches, the evangelical kids not only didn’t believe the gospel; they had rarely encountered it.

2. Actual Believers will decisively reject all counterfeit gospels.(See Galatians 1:6-9.) Not only is evangelicalism widely ignorant of the gospel, it is actually awash in various false gospels. Many simply cling to empty platitudes about being “on fire for God” or “having God in your life.”  Increasingly, though, evangelicalism is not preaching a content-less message, but one with terrible content.  The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, teaches that God wants to bless us with happiness in this world, and if we trust him to do so, we’ll be inevitable winners at life.  This is of course a complete rejection of the words of Jesus (see Matthew 5:11-12 and many other places), but it is the dominant theme of evangelical Christianity.  How else do we explain the Tim Tebow phenomenon, in which an athlete was considered a great Christian leader because of his championships at Florida?  How else do we explain the far more sinister Trump phenomenon, in which too many evangelicals are willing to accept an obvious degenerate’s claim that he is a “great Christian”?  Is it not because his ostentation looks like the sort of blessing promised by Osteen, Jakes, and others?

3. Actual Believers, while not morally perfect, will care about holiness and will strive to live according to God’s commands. (See I Corinthians 6:9-11.)  Evangelical piety has degenerated to the point that it now reflects the knee-jerk “Don’t judge me, bro!” ethics of the typical modern agnostic.  Having long ago rejected the fourth commandment on shaky theological grounds, and having never really had the sophistication to understand the second commandment, evangelicalism is now losing commandments at an accelerated rate.  Various forms of abuse keep popping up in the church. Years of easy divorce are giving way to confusion over sexuality.  Tomorrow’s evangelicalism looks likely to giggle at the idea of the seventh commandment as much as today’s evangelicalism snickers at the fourth.  Leading the charge are the evangelical pastors who demonstrate little of the dignity and sobriety which is to characterize God’s ministers.

So tell me, why do we accord the presumption of regeneration to every evangelical?  These trends are the very reason we recognize that most members of the Catholic and Mainline teams are not actual believers: they reject the true gospel in favor of false ones and do not demonstrate genuine biblical holiness.  How is evangelicalism different?  Once we shave away our false and unhelpful assumption, a far simpler explanation for the rolling scandals of the evangelical world emerges: a great many evangelical Christians are simply not saved.

To be perfectly clear, I am not at all implying that I have sufficiently examined Furtick (or any other member of the evangelical kakistocracy) to make any sort of pronouncement on his spiritual state.  He has not applied for membership in my church, nor did I sit on his ordination council (assuming the perhaps unlikely existence of such).  Perhaps the best element of Pruitt’s write-up on this particular scandal was this:

“Now, if any of this seems serious to my brothers and sisters in the North Carolina Convention of Southern Baptists then perhaps they can press for a meeting with Pastor Steven. Certainly they do not want to be associated with such serious error. Certainly.”

This places a certain burden squarely on those shoulders which deserve it.  It lies with the Southern Baptists to determine the answer to two critical questions: what is required in order to be a Southern Baptist pastor, and what does it mean to convene together with pastors who evidently do not fit that requirement? These are questions which I do not need to answer, and I do not pretend to have answered them.

My concern is much simpler: what am I, a Reformed Baptist pastor in a smallish church (but I repeat myself) supposed to think when Andy Stanley attacks my people, or when Steven Furtick – in what seems to have been one of his rare attempts to actually talk about the gospel – attacks the holiness of God?  Well, what do I think when the Pope says something moronic about Mary, or when some lesbian Methodist pastor is discovered in further scandal?  Why should I think anything?  I am not particularly shocked when the Pope or the Mainline minister acts like less than a true Christian, and frankly, the mere fact that someone is a pastor in an evangelical denomination doesn’t mean that much to me either.   Just because the folks at the Gallup Poll think the latter is on my “team” doesn’t mean I have to presume his regeneration.

No doubt these self-evident observations will seem terribly unkind, unloving, and un-Christian to many.  Perhaps Justin Taylor can even be convinced to call me a low-quality “discernment blogger” again, although he’d have to read past the title this time.  Given the likelihood of such a response, let me suggest three advantages of shaving away the idea of presumptive evangelical regeneration:

1. When I stop assuming that every evangelical is a fellow believer, it helps me to be a better neighbor. I am convinced that rejecting the risible myth that something like a quarter of my fellow Americans are genuine believers makes me a far better citizen of the Republic.  I can give up on the absurd notion that I live in a “Christian country,” and instead I can busy myself with seeking the good of the nation in which God placed me.  My political stance may be influenced by my faith (I agree with Dennis Prager that any faith makes one less susceptible to progressivism and statism), but my faith and my politics are not coterminous.  Most importantly, I can grant my neighbor the gospel rather than assume, most likely falsely, that he has already heard it.  This last holds true even if my neighbor is an evangelical; I have mentioned before that I have long considered my ministry in Christian school chapels to be mission work.  Knowledge of the gospel being so rare in the evangelical world, we do well to bear regular witness to it.

2. When I stop assuming that every evangelical is a fellow believer, it helps me to be more peaceful and more peaceable.How should I respond to the antics of evangelical superstars?  Let us take Furtick as an example, and let us be clear: he has never done anything to suggest that we ought to consider him a fellow believer.  (I am putting aside, you see, his evangelical ordination, which is meaningless.)  If I feel it necessary to respond, I will not feel the need to charitably ascribe to him Christian motives which he evidently lacks!  It isn’t that I must ascribe badmotives, either.  I simply treat theological rubbish as theological rubbish.  Since I won’t be twisting myself into knots to say, “Look, I know this is heresy, but clearly he didn’t mean it,” I will be at far greater peace within myself.  On the other hand, neither do I need to kick and rage and scream about how awful it is, like the true watch-bloggers.  Did an evangelical super-star deny the gospel?  Well, is the Pope Catholic?  It’s not as though it’s something I’m going to fix.  If I do respond, it needn’t be with outrage, which means I’m not only at peace internally, I’m free to be peaceable with all men.

3. When I stop assuming that every evangelical is a fellow believer, it helps me to love the brethren. It is spring, s0 – even though while I write this snow is falling outside my study window – allow me a springtime metaphor.  On the rare occasions that I attend a Phillies game, it is almost never in Philadelphia.  Nevertheless, I always wear at the very least the appropriate red cap.  Furthermore, I always see others in red, because our phans “travel well,” even when our team is awful.  (Who am I kidding; that’s most of the time!)  If I walk into Miller Park in my bright red cap, the other phans and I will nod, wave, and generally acknowledge one another, all for no reason except that we are dressed similarly; we are “on” the same team.  Of course, I do not invite them into my home, concern myself with the well-being of their families, or share their joys and sorrows.  (Not, that is, beyond the general sorrow we all feel over Ryan Howard’s impossible contract.)  I suspect that this is what Christian fellowship has been reduced to.  Christians know that they are supposed to smile and nod when they see someone from their team, but they keep one another at arms’ length.  Why?  Is it not because, deep within themselves, they suspect that other “Christians” may not be true brothers?  When I discover a fellow-believer, it is not by such trivialities as his self-identification as an evangelical.  It is instead by his love of the gospel, his rejection of false gospels, and his concern for biblical holiness.  In other words, I’ve found a brother, even if we disagree on some of the particulars.  I’ve found someone to whom I can gladly extend the right hand of fellowship.

In this case, the simplest explanation really is best.  Many evangelicals are unsaved, and the world makes a lot more sense when we acknowledge it.

Source: Tom Chantry, Occam’s Razor and the Perpetuity of Evangelical Scandal, Chantry Notes, https://chantrynotes.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/occams-razor-and-the-perpetuity-of-evangelical-scandal/, Published 11/04/2016. (Accessed 11/04/2016.)



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