In the past couple of years, I reached the point that I no longer considered myself to identify as an evangelical anymore. The motivation to reject that identity was rooted in what I saw and witnessed to be the social and political failure of American evangelicalism, which become most glaring in the way significant portions of evangelicals become invested in the active defense of the person of Donald Trump. It was one thing to vote against the increasingly progressive policies of the Democrats while not exactly being enthused by Trump; many of my evangelical friends my age who voted for Trump expressed their real ambivalence for him. Yet, that evangelicalism could become so tantamount to the active support and defense of Trump such that Christian leaders who were critical of Trump, such as Russell Moore, would be active targets by many other religious leaders signaled something to me: the evangelical identity, whatever good it had, had primarily become a proxy for conservative politics. Rather than the righteousness of Gods’ Word becoming a source of salt in divisive American politics, evangelicalism had lost its saltiness and instead was “peppered” with the dung of American politics.
Yet, over these past couple of years, my theological differences with the brand of evangelicalism have become much more developed. Initially, my feelings about evangelical theology was complex. There was much still much I felt I could share with the majority of evangelicals. Yet, I had no desire to continue with the label because I did not want my theology to be judged based upon the way it looked in comparison to the prototype of what an evangelical theology would be taken to usually look like. For instance, I wanted to feel free to explore and affirm the nature of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures without having to endorse the doctrine of inerrancy as it was traditionally formulated. However, as time has passed, I have come to various deeper critiques of the evangelicalism that I can no longer identify with.
In previous posts, I have been working on a theme: the distinction between declaration and demonstration and how prophetic ministry and the witness of the New Testament church are better understood as demonstrations from God rather than declarations about God. To that end, the way I have come to understand evangelicalism, even in it’s less politicized form, is as a declarative religion, with specific truths about God that are to be proclaimed so as to be accepted. Yet, I can imagine and hope for a future of a different sort of evangelicalism that is much more focused in the demonstration of God’s love and power rather than bare declarations.
At this point, it is perhaps important to give my own working understandings of declaration and demonstration. A declaration is a type of action, primarily a speech-act, that seeks to influence what people believe by making statements as to what is the case, that is, what should be seen as true.
In the context of the Christian proclamation, some example declarations that it is endeavored to get people to believe are proclamations such as “Your sin deserves to be punished” and “Jesus died for your sins.” The ultimate intent of such declarations if for people to believe the declarations so that they will then act in the way appropriate for that belief, that is, conversion: “Repent of your sins and believe in Jesus.” Specific evidence may be offered in favor of the declarations, but at the end of it all, the purpose of the declaration is to obtain acceptance of the declarations so that it will then lead to the right actions by those who are persuaded.
On the other hand. Demonstrations is about changing people’s perceptions. Perceptions are different from beliefs, as there are many things that I can perceive without making a conscious belief about it or making a choice to think it is true. Perceptions are about the way we construe basic features people, things, and forces around us and anticipate them to act so that we are mentally prepared to engage with them. At the heart of perceptions is the preparation of our response to them. For instance, I may perceive the kindness of a woman I love. Yet, initially, I did not have an explicit belief in her kindness, nor did I make a choice to believe that she was kind. I had simply sensed it from the person I experienced her to be, even as I later came to be much more reflective about her personality. Yet, my perception of her kindness was in large part why I fell in love with her. To that end, the provision of demonstrations is about providing the prerequisites for having a perception, both dynamic perceptions in the encounter of specific moment but also encoded memories of such perceptions that will alter our perceptions in future encounters.
The contrast between a declarative Christianity and a demonstrative Christianity is most salient by contrasting what the goal is: either to get people to believe in God or to get people to perceive God. In the cast of the former, it puts the emphasis on human actions to achieve the goal. In demonstrative Christianity, however, our goal is not to get people to believe the truth, but rather to provide what we can to help people to perceive the ways that God demonstrates His love. While it may be necessary at specific points of time to make specific declarations about specific truths in a demonstrative form of Christianity, a demonstrative Christianity (a) prioritizes different type of declarations that focus on God’s past deeds, most prominently in the life of Jesus Christ, rather than more abstract ideas and statements often taken as the Christian “gospel” such that (b) these declarations help people to see how God’s powerful loving is working on their behalf. At the heart of the demonstration is this, guiding people to perceive God’s faithful love that is powerfully at work in creation and our lives, which is ultimately demonstrated by and known in Jesus Christ who allows us to perceive the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work.
One may rudimentarily understand the difference between demonstrating and declaration as the difference between showing and telling.
At the heart of these two different visions is this: two different understanding of the fundamental makeup of the Gospel proclamation. Is the Gospel a set of emotionally-and-spiritually-significant ideas that we hold to be true about God? Or, is the Gospel the story of God reconciling to the world to Himself in Christ that demonstrates the shape and character and work of God’s love for us, in us, and through us?
Beyond this, declaration and demonstrative Christianity takes on two different postures between one who proclaims and the one being evangelized. Declarative Christianity takes the proclaimed to be some sort of authority on the Gospel and the doctrines being espoused, which implicitly sets up a power-dynamic between the two parties. The hearer trusts the authority of the one speaking to be true, regardless of whether they actually see a reason to believe it on their own end. As a consequence, those who proclaim the gospel often implicitly feel a need for power over those they teach. Demonstrative Christianity, by contrast, does not require any sort of power dynamic between the two as the goal is not to get people to believe what they can not see. Rather, the goal is simply to demonstrate through the proclamation of the Gospels and one’s own life the nature of God’s powerful love and trust that God will demonstrate Himself, possibly even in the demonstration of our own lives.
Also, I would suggest that the nature of declarative Christianity ultimately begins to break the spirit of the Second Commandment. Insofar as belief in God is laid up with the declaration of the evangelist, then people’s beliefs in God will become formed by the mental image the words of the preacher gives. If the primary thing that determines what and wh a person believes in the idea of God is what declared and taught to them, how is this any functionally different than priests creating graven images that people would take to be representing of God. At the end of it all, belief is contingent upon how human religious leaders exert their authority and influence to influence what people think about God. On the other hand, demonstrative Christianity is ultimately about helping people to perceive the living God. While yes, declarations are used, these declarations become examples of what they may witness coming from God. In the end, the mental images people have of God are more and more tuned to seeing how God demonstrates Himself. God “incarnates” Himself within our own life and experience.
The differences between the mental “graven images” of declaration and the mental “incarnation” of the demonstration have an impact on the way that people come to grow and develop in faith. Declarative Christianity considers any words, events, or experiences that provoke questions about God to be anathema. Anything that might challenge our right beliefs are dangerous and they must be avoided. For demonstrative Christianity, on the other hand, the questions, the doubts, the challenges, the skepticisms are not things to be dangerously avoided at all costs, but that in coming to more deeply trust God, they may be taken as opportunities for God to demonstrate His love, faithfulness, and power. To that end, a declarative Christianity will have a continuing struggle to culturally engage with a world that has become increasingly post-Christian, almost having to regard it as an enemy because it makes many diametrically opposed truth-claims, whereas demonstrative Christianity can see the various questions and doubts about Christian faith and values as challenges to engage with, with trust that God will demonstrate His faithfulness and provide what is needed to discern the way of faithfulness in the midst of the often confusing chaos of the modern age that looks like a Babel of cultural, rather than linguistic, confusion. Yet in such confusion between cultures and differing truth claims, it is perception rather than authoritative declaration that will provide the grounds for accepting truth claims, and so it is God’s demonstration that will then give us the perception that will help us to know the truth.
In other words, demonstrative Christianity is incarnational in its shape. An evangelicalism, that is, a religion rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that leans into and looks for God’s demonstration has a future. The “evangelicalism” that is built upon the power of declaration is passing away as a relic of a past, along with the structures of power, status, wealth, and authority those declarations relied upon that so often served the interests of those who had that power, status, wealth and authority to influence those under them rather than God’s loving purposes to help people see God’s powerful love demonstrated.