Professor Grant Campbell explains why he thinks ‘What do evangelicals believe?’ is the wrong question
In terms of moderately authoritative knowledge, I know a bit about bread and about chemical engineering (and have been in evangelical churches for a while).
I recall some years ago in Manchester a final-year chemical engineering student who observed ‘I didn’t know what chemical engineering was until I read [a particular] book’. I was struck that after three years of chemical engineering education, we had failed to communicate to our students what this discipline (that they had chosen to study and were about to embark on as their profession) even was.
If chemical engineering is powerful as an education, it follows that understanding the basis of that power is the key to accessing and maximising it. Thus, when I moved to the University of Huddersfield to lead the new chemical engineering programmes, I resolved that our students would graduate with an understanding of the distinctive features of chemical engineering that define it as a discipline and profession, and that underpin its power.
What is evangelicalism?
It seems to me that a similar clarity about the nature and identity of evangelicalism, in order to benefit from its unique contributions within the landscape of Christianity, is helpful. Many Christians, after a few years or even longer in an evangelical church, might remain fuzzy about what evangelicalism is. If there is something distinctively worth practising within evangelicalism and worth retaining, if there is a good reason to choose to be in an evangelical church, it would be good to be clear about what it is.
Evangelicals most commonly describe themselves as ‘Bible-believing’ and in terms of the core of those Bible-derived beliefs as described, for example, by the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches’ Doctrinal Basis (https://fiec.org.uk/about-us/beliefs) or the Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith (https://www.eauk.org/ about-us/basis-of-faith).
It is undoubtedly helpful and necessary to articulate these core beliefs with clarity and precision. But understanding evangelicalism in terms of the primary and/or secondary elements of what we believe is to miss an important distinguishing point. Beliefs (particularly secondary ones) may or may not be correct, and may or may not be shared by other Christians, but the distinctiveness of evangelicalism is how we come to these judgements. The process of biblical interpretation, following established principles, may lead to different conclusions, held with greater or lesser degrees of confidence in proportion to the extent of the biblical evidence and the ease of the hermeneutical challenge. The conclusions may be different within different traditions, but the process is based on shared premises, such that the steps can be scrutinised, challenged and debated within a shared epistemological framework.
Many of the beliefs are robust and unchanging – nevertheless, each new generation comes afresh to the task of reconfirming their biblical foundations and outworking. Evangelicalism is, at its best, characterised by a process rather than a product, by a humbling journey rather than a confident destination, by the ways in which beliefs leading to practices are discerned, rather than the beliefs themselves, which might conceivably be identical to those who reach them by other means.
For example, it is possible to hold strongly a belief in infant baptism, based on tradition, without ever looking at a Bible – many do. It is possible to come to the same belief following a careful and prayerful examination of relevant biblical passages. The belief is the same – the means by which it is reached is different. The first approach would not be characteristic of an evangelical – the second could well be the conclusion of an evangelical, while another evangelical, following the same approach but weighing the evidence differently, may come to a different interpretation.
Alternatively, a belief may be inherited from within an evangelical tradition that in its time wrestled with it, but which is now accepted unquestioningly, not owned anew and kept fresh within a still living and active evangelicalism, with the awareness and skill to do so no longer a part of the church’s thinking. The belief is unchanging – but the process by which the current congregation has come to hold that belief is different, and no longer has the characteristic marks of an evangelical approach.
The joy of mining diamonds
The difficulty of the task of faithful, valid exposition is not to be underestimated; as Haddon Robinson notes:
‘The Bible is not a child’s storybook, but great literature that requires thoughtful response. All its diamonds do not lie exposed on the surface to be picked like flowers. Its richness is mined only through hard intellectual and spiritual spadework.’
And it is that richness that congregations need to be eating and drinking from, in order to become holy, godly and equipped for every good work. John Stott makes a similar point more forcefully:
‘We have the highest doctrine of Scripture of anybody in the church. We must therefore acknowledge with deep shame that our treatment of Scripture seldom coincides with our view of it. We are much better at asserting its authority than at wrestling with its interpretation. We are sometimes slovenly, sometimes simplistic, sometimes highly selective and sometimes downright dishonest.’
Fear of erosion
My motivation for clarifying understanding is a concern that churches that consider themselves to be evangelical, based on their longstanding and assumed identification as such, may in fact be unwittingly and complacently slipping away from the reality and power of evangelicalism – by preaching the orthodox evangelical beliefs, but not via evangelical processes, within a body that has lost its evangelical antennae and physiology, and will soon lose the bread and meat of its evangelical nourishment.
For example, I heard a sermon recently from Ephesians 3:1-13, in which Paul’s central and recurring theme is ‘mystery’. Yet the preacher managed to deliver a sermon that not once mentioned this theme of mystery or proclaimed its mysterious content as revealed in this passage! What the preacher did speak about was unobjectionable, orthodox, not heretical, helpful, edifying even. But it did not come from this passage. It was an imposition, not an exposition – and the congregation was fed easy, generic and superficial truths rather than deeply-nourishing spiritual meat resulting from a genuine Spirit-led wrestling with the passage, and missed out on the unique value of this part of God’s inspired word. The beliefs – for now – are orthodox, but the route is not a consistently and robustly evangelical one, and the grounds for confidence in the enduring ability of this church to hold onto the truth, or to wrestle appropriately with controversy, or to relate God’s word meaningfully to genuine issues, are being eroded. It is a form of evangelicalism, but without its power.
This slide from authentic scriptural substance is a subtle development, not easily discerned, when the beliefs are familiar and dearly held as part of our evangelical identity, and engagingly and refreshingly presented – what’s not to like? – but without the underpinning of conspicuously sound biblical interpretation on which their nuanced (and perhaps evolving) legitimacy sits. There is little sense of wrestling with a passage and the bridges to its current relevance, through diligent study and humble prayer – instead, well-accepted doctrines and applications are reached easily along well-trodden paths, without difficulty or surprise, or acknowledgement of controversy, or of diversity of interpretation, or of changed views over time, or of retained views despite changes all about, based firmly on sound biblical interpretation.
The scope of the preaching is limited to a few well-worn themes and superficial applications, while the distinctive content of a particular passage is not even noticed, and the opportunity to benefit from the unique value of this or that passage is missed. The richness and relevance of God’s word are squandered, real and pressing issues on which it might throw light are overlooked, the congregation remains unaware of the depths of the Bible, having long been fed only spiritual milk, while others desperate to be fed meat go home hungry and unsatisfied.
An example from the laboratory
As a scientist, I am perhaps best known for my work on bubbles in bread (to those who question whether such a topic is important to God, I point you to Exodus 12!) Now, bread making is a task you don’t need to be a scientist to undertake; you can make bread at home, and your bread will probably be better than mine (my wife’s is). Even so, let’s imagine there is a new ingredient that might improve the bubble structure of bread. You try it in your kitchen, and I try it in my lab, and we both come to the same conclusion – yes, the bubbles are ‘better’ when you add this ingredient. The conclusion is correct – your belief in the value of this ingredient is correct, as is mine. But mine has a legitimacy to be accepted by the scientific community and by industrial and domestic users worldwide who might wish to benefit from this new ingredient. You have the correct belief – you have a belief that agrees with the science – but that does not make you a scientist.
By the same token, holding a belief that evangelicals hold does not in itself make you an evangelical. A church that proclaims beliefs that evangelicals would agree with, while helpful as evidence, does not guarantee that the genuine power of Spirit-dependent evangelicalism is informing that church, or that its grounding in the word of God, and the Bread of Life to Whom it points, will remain secure or life-giving.
So churches that desire to identify as evangelical ought to examine themselves by asking ‘on what basis do we demonstrate this claim?’ If the answer is ‘Our statement of faith’, the point is missed. The answer ought to be ‘the evidence of our practice of rightly handling the word, in prayerful reliance on the guiding power of the Spirit, in order to ensure our faith and works stay genuinely and deeply rooted in Scripture, to the glory of God and the blessing of many through Jesus Christ our Lord’.
Grant Campbell is Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. He did his PhD in Cambridge (on aeration of bread dough during mixing), where he was exposed to powerful, relevant and intellectually rigorous expository preaching for the first time. He was a long-standing member, and occasional preacher, at a local church that used to have ‘Evangelical’ in its name. He is currently attending a new evangelical church in the area, prompting him to ponder the value of right handling of the Bible and its potential to impart life-transforming truth and power.
1. Robinson H.W. (1980) Expository Preaching: Principles and Practice, Inter-Varsity Press, UK., p.21 2. Edwards D.L. and Stott J.R.W. (1988) Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Hodder & Stoughton Religious, London, UK. p.49