“When groups root their identity in a specific narrative, then a serious challenge to that narrative will be greeted with real hostility, for such a challenge is not simply a disagreement over details. It is a denial of personal legitimacy.”
Why has this Trinitarian issue generated such passion? Given the fact that the EFS/ERAS/anti-eternal generation view has been shown to be wrong, why has there been no ‘We’re sorry we misled the church for so long. We recant our errors. We resolve to do better in the future.’? Why are we witnessing instead an attempt to re-write history, as if there had never been a problem, and the silencing of those who point this out? Doctrinal debates happen all the time but rarely generate this degree of passion and bizarre subsequent behavior. And Todd’s post last week was scarcely polemical. Come on — he is the nice guy on the MoS.
Is it money? Well, I guess some have certainly made good royalties from advocating EFS but not as many as have furiously attacked Todd and others. Is it platform? This probably plays into it more, as so many high-profile leaders either bought into it or have important links with those who do. But even so, the violence of the reaction has been extreme. Is it some theologian’s concern for his legacy? I have been told that is the case but, if so, that is really rather sad. A legacy is only worth preserving to the extent it is true. Who wants a legacy of error? And to the extent a legacy is true, it is not really the property of any one person. The truth pre-existed him after all. I do not think that any of these things account for all of the widespread anger at the whistleblowers.
I would suggest another angle: that the reaction is so strong because, unlike some other theological disputes, this one is an issue of identity. When groups root their identity in a specific narrative, then a serious challenge to that narrative will be greeted with real hostility, for such a challenge is not simply a disagreement over details. It is a denial of personal legitimacy. Those being critiqued will interpret their critics in very negative moral terms, and the normal rules of decent procedure and public debate will not apply.
Now, when your movement is built upon the notion that you have saved historic Christian orthodoxy from liberalism and you are the last best hope of the gospel and of Christianity in the present, then the validity of that narrative is basic to the legitimacy of your identity. And when somebody comes along and points out that your understanding of the doctrine of God stands outside the historic parameters of orthodoxy, it is not the equivalent of being told that your view of baptism is defective. It is far more offensive. It is being told that you are not who you think you are. Your self-understanding is being utterly delegitimized.
When I started writing about the problems with Big Eva some six or seven years ago, I was working on the assumption that appropriately critical voices would be heard. At that time I was friends – good friends — with many in the leadership of the movement and thought we were on the same side and wanted the same things. Events since then have shown that I was hopelessly naïve. Early on one senior leader called to tell me in no uncertain terms that none of my critiques would make him change anything about his organization except perhaps the use of the term ‘VIP Seating’ for the area reserved at conferences for the speakers. That told me that there was more at stake for some than ‘the gospel.’ But I do confess that in the years since I have been overly cynical in thinking that change has not occurred simply because of money and platform. The problem is deeper. It is one of identity. So it is not just those with money or platform to lose who become angry with the critics. It is everyone to whom these groups give a sense of belonging.
These mass organizations will start to fracture and dissipate in the next five years. There is now too much of a distance between the left and the right in some groups for them to hold a coherent identity together other than by an act of sheer will. Others have been exposed as being indifferent to seriously deviant theology. And now the donor-base public is beginning to see something of the sharp practices that operate out of sight, as with the backroom bullying and browbeating of Todd Pruitt — a minister of the gospel, for pity’s sake! The language of gospel piety always drips very easily in public from the lips of those who know that the iron fists of the Machine are quietly crushing critical windpipes off camera.
As Liam Goligher said to me the other week, ‘Evangelicalism is broken beyond repair.’
Carl Trueman is professor of historical theology and Paul Woolley chair of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article is used with permission.