Friday, July 07, 2006

...Liam Goligher

Liam Goligher is Senior Minister of Duke Street Church, Richmond-Upon-Thames. He has also been involved in student ministry in the UK and eastern Europe, and has pastored churches in Ireland, Canada and Scotland. He also happens to be my pastor. His new book, The Jesus Gospel: recovering the lost message, is published today. We sat down for this chat a few weeks ago on Wednesday 21st June 2006. It follows some study I'd undertaken on the topic When Did 'Evangelical' Become A Dirty Word? I started by asking Liam about the history of evangelicalism...

LIAM: I suppose technically the term goes back to the Reformation. Even today, for example, in Germany the Lutheran churches are called Evangelische churches. In the sense that we know it I think probably flowing from the Puritan era and finding its most distinct expression in the first Evangelical Awakening, as it’s been described, with Wesley and Whitefield. I think the term was in use before that and who evangelicals were was already reaching public consciousness before Wesley and Whitefield but they certainly popularised it. And they probably set the tone of what evangelicalism is. Obviously evangelicals are gospel people, that is they believe the gospel and preach the gospel, but as a movement it became a non-church movement. It became very much a network of people who believed the gospel and preached the gospel. Although originally I think more confessional, after the Wesleys less confessional, and increasingly less confessional as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed. So that, for example say, Spurgeon was very involved in the Evangelical Alliance in the early part of his ministry but by the later part of his ministry he began to feel that the Evangelical Alliance and the evangelical movement was losing its confessional roots and attachments.

NATHAN: So from quite an early stage then?

LIAM: Yeah. I mean in many ways the Downgrade Controversy as it’s described in the latter part of Spurgeon’s ministry was actually his belief that ‘evangelical’ was shifting ground. That while people were committed to the gospel they were less committed to believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, for example, especially with regard to origins and creationism. When I say creationism, I don’t mean necessarily six-day-creationism but any kind of concept… I mean they were getting more influenced by Darwinian theory than they were by what the Bible says about origins. And I think probably, to some degree, at the beginning of the twentieth century, evangelicalism was rescued a bit, popular evangelicalism was rescued a bit by fundamentalism in America, which came over to Britain to some degree. The problem with fundamentalism was that it tended to be a gut reaction to liberalism rather than a thinking man’s reaction to liberalism.

NATHAN: So would you say that the words fundamentalism and evangelicalism are interchangeable? Or what are the differences in your opinion?

LIAM: Probably at the beginning of the twentieth century they were almost identical. As the twentieth century went on, fundamentalism began to get narrower and narrower and began to produce its own subculture so that by the middle of the twentieth century I think you would say of fundamentalism that it was as much concerned with how Christianity appeared as it was with what Christianity believed or asserted to believe. They also became very identified with dispensationalism, whereas evangelicalism had always been much more influenced by the Reformed view of life, which was much more open and so on. Now, to factor into the mix the beginnings of IVF, CICCU, OICCU and so on. That was very much influenced by the Reformed wing of evangelicalism. There is no doubt about that. The origins of CICCU lay not in fundamentalism but in more an evangelicalism that saw itself as a confessional movement and saw the link through to the past to some of the greats, Charles Simeon for example who was one of the great men within the Church of England. But by the middle of the twentieth century, evangelicalism had become non-confessional, influenced a lot by fundamentalism, becoming very narrow in terms of lifestyle, and needed something to happen to it for it to survive. And the thing that happened was Billy Graham and the New Evangelicalism, as it was called, spearheaded by Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry and Billy Graham was the frontman, who put the money and the prestige into it. The New Evangelicalism really was an historic evangelical view of salvation, which was effectively Reformed actually, with a new emphasis on social action, which the fundamentalists had reacted against because the liberals had ended up just a social gospel at the beginning of the twentieth century. So towards the middle-to-later half of the twentieth century under the influence of Graham and Carl Henry and so on you had much more of an emphasis on social action as being part of the Christian gospel, a more open approach to Christian living, much more influenced by Reformed theology in that sense that all of life was a place where Christ had established His Lordship. The downside of the New Evangelicalism, however, was that liberal thinking in relation to some of the elements of Christianity was adopted by some of the key thinkers. I’m thinking of somebody like Bernard Remm for example, who was quite an influential figure. I’m thinking of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, which was the premier seminary in the States and produced a lot of influential people. They, for example, believed in theistic evolution, so they found a way to sort of marry these two things together. They also tended to think of limited inerrancy as far as the Bible is concerned. So the Bible was inerrant when it spoke about matters of faith and salvation, but it was errant when it talked about things like history and origins. And so towards the second half of the twentieth century, you begin to see a divergence within the evangelical movement. You begin to see those like Francis Schaeffer and James Montgomery Boice who were saying we need to reassert the inerrancy of the Bible, we need to say the Bible is without error. And that movement really I think drew a line in the sand at the famous Lausanne conference which was in 1974 in Switzerland, that Billy Graham organised. It was virtually a Church Council. They brought together people from all over the world. They drew up a resolution. John Stott wrote most of it. And under pressure from delegates from America, he wrote into the constitution that “the Scripture is without error in what it affirms.” What he was trying to say by that was that there are some things that the Bible records or reports but it’s not necessarily teaching those things. Either that was very clever or it was a smooth get-out clause, but at least he was saying it was without error. But from ’75 onwards and shortly after in America there was a National Council for Biblical Inerrancy that lasted for ten years. They produced papers by people like J.I. Packer, and over that ten year period built the case for biblical inerrancy. As the twentieth century went on it became more and more apparent that the wing who were more influenced by society and social structures were actually more interested in engaging with politics, society and culture, and less interested in the gospel side of things. Evangelicalism lost some of that consistency that it would have had in the beginning.

NATHAN: Is there a part of you now that flinches from using the word evangelical because of that lack of solidarity within the term? Because when you say evangelical to one person it can mean one thing and can mean something totally different to someone else. Is it still a term that you would wholeheartedly label yourself and Duke Street?

LIAM: I think that we would always have to say that Reformed Christians are evangelical in that we are gospel people. I think the problem with the term and the way it’s used today in Christian circles is that you then have to further define yourself. Are you charismatic evangelical? Are you open evangelical? Are you post-evangelical? Are you open-theist evangelical? I suppose the way that we would define ourselves is that we are confessing evangelicals. In other words, we maintain the historic creeds of the church, so we’re catholic in that sense, and we affirm the confessions of the Reformation, so we’re Reformed in that sense, but we’re evangelical in that we are gospel people committed to getting the gospel out to the world. So there’s that missionary aspect. That aggressive evangelistic aspect. You’re quite right in raising the question about whether we’re comfortable with the word evangelical. I think perhaps today using the word evangelical on its own tells you nothing. Let me illustrate it like this. You have the Evangelical Alliance in Britain whose statement of faith, the people who drew up that statement and their current council affirm the death of Christ as being an act of penal substitution, in other words dying to pay the penalty for our sins. But you have members of the Evangelical Alliance who can sign that statement of faith because it doesn’t spell it out, who categorically deny the penal substitutionary death of Christ. Now the issue there is an issue of the gospel, because my hopes of Heaven are that Jesus paid the penalty for my sin. Period. And you interview any evangelical Christian over the last 400 or 500 years that the word has been used and they would say the same thing to you. That our hopes of Heaven depend on Jesus paying the penalty for our sin. And now you have evangelicals, or people who call themselves evangelicals, who really are liberal. That’s the reality. They fall into the category of old-time liberalism. My suggestion, I have to say without question, is to look at people’s motives. The reason they are now reluctant to drop the word evangelical is that they know who pays the bills. Because evangelical people give, and they give generously to Christian work. If you were to drop the name evangelical and say what you really were then that source of funding would dry up.

NATHAN: Since I’ve been looking into why the term seems to be perceived from outside the Church as a negative, I’ve seen that certain things are misunderstandings, but this was one thing that definitely came up. This idea of evangelicals as being the ones with the cash, who are white, middle-class, very socially conservative and members of the gun lobby if we’re talking about the States. How true is that in the UK?

LIAM: I think the problem is from trying to look from one culture into another. American culture is so different from ours that actually we can’t read ourselves into their culture. Evangelicals generally in the UK would not be Conservative supporters with a big C. You would probably find that the Evangelical Alliance, or the people that I know within the Evangelical Alliance, are probably predominantly Liberal Democrat so they have a liberal view of the world. Now whether that’s right or not is another issue in that I think what’s happened is that they’ve been following a liberal agenda in terms of social policy and political policy. There’s been a reluctance to take a strong stand on issues which have nothing to do with political party but have everything to do with the sanctity of human life, for example. I see an ambivalence there in that there are people who support C.A.R.E., for instance, which is very strong on the sanctity of human life and yet on the other hand they are very strong supporters of political parties who are committed to making abortion easy. So there isn’t a working of it through into practise. So I think what I’m saying is that in Britain, people who are conservative theologically are more likely to be more liberal politically. Whereas in America people who are conservative theologically, maybe not predominantly, but certainly the caricature is politically conservative.

NATHAN: There was a Barna research poll just this year that showed that three times as many American evangelicals are registered Republican than are Democrat.[1]

LIAM: The interesting thing is that that would probably not be the case of Reformed evangelicals, which is interesting. Reformed evangelicals would be much more critical and would have a much clearer view of the breakdown and separation of powers, simply because they have a more articulate view of the theology behind it. That the Church is one thing and the State’s another thing. The State has certain obligations and responsibilities under God as instituted by God, and the Church has certain obligations as instituted by God.

NATHAN: In terms of the media representation, evangelical = American in a lot of people’s minds. Is it that we in Britain are too quiet or is that lack of publicity a good thing?

LIAM: Yeah, I think the problem is that, I think you’re right, the anti-American bias which dominates the British media is partly due to the fact that we don’t have a free media really. Our media in this country is dominated by one political / cultural / social group which is predominantly I would say anti-Christian and certainly anti-Christendom, and pro values which are totally inimical to Christian thinking. So therefore they hate America because to this point, however superficial American Christianity may be, it still dominates American life. They still have a say in the way in which America thinks about the world. And so, therefore, the media here tend to be anti-American.

NATHAN: So you think it’s that way round? That we’re anti-American because of the Christian influence, not that we’re anti-Christian because we’re anti-American for other reasons?

LIAM: No, I think the reason we’re anti-American is because we’re anti-Christian. That’s not to say that everything America does is right, by any manner of means as a nation. That’s a different ballgame altogether. I mean, I think there are reasons why in Britain we are anti-American, because America is currently the great empire and we used to be the great empire, and there’s no way that a has-been empire is ever going to be thrilled by the current great empire. So there are historical reasons why we feel a bit ambivalent to America. Secondly, whenever somebody helps you out when you’re weak, you can react both ways. You can react with great gratitude on the one hand or you can feel completely at their mercy on the other, and they helped us out twice in major ways in the last hundred years. But I think thirdly, the main reason why our media are so anti-American is because of the influence of Christianity in America. And because in America free speech is a reality, which we do not understand. We look at America through British eyes and in Britain we do not enjoy free speech.

NATHAN: In what sense?

LIAM: Well, in America basically you can set up a radio station to promote whatever you want, so you’ve got left-wing people who do it, right-wing people who do it, you’ve got your right-wing television shows, left-wing television shows, right-wing television channels, left-wing television channels. Whatever political persuasion you are. Christians can have their own programmes and so on. We don’t enjoy that today. We are dominated by a government-run quango which tells us what we can and cannot do and can and cannot say. There is no such thing as free speech in our media in this country. It’s very limited by the government and by the BBC, for example. So we’re looking at a different kind of culture where people can say what they think. If we were allowed to hear what people really think here then it’d be a different ballgame. We’d be hearing all kinds of views aired. But the only views we hear, that get real airtime, are the liberal establishment. The elite. I’m not saying whether that’s good, bad or indifferent but I think that is the reality; the liberal establishment are anti-Christian, therefore they hit out against America. When Clinton was in power, America was wonderful.

NATHAN: That’s true.

LIAM: Because he was someone who appealed to the liberal elite here.

NATHAN: So, in terms of the media being anti-Christian, it seems to be anti-fundamentalist as well, and obviously from a postmodern view, anything claiming absolutes. Slightly on a tangent now, how has the rise of Islamic fundamentalism impacted people in general?

LIAM: I think Islamic fundamentalism has handed the liberal press an easy way to rubbish and put down evangelicals, by tarring us with the fundamentalist brush. We become fundamentalists because we believe in the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Nobody asks the question, what are the fundamentals of the Christian faith that you believe in? Well, love your enemy! Bless those who curse you! We’re not going around telling people to strap bombs to themselves and blow people up but that’s irrelevant to them. We believe strongly in our religion, we are a missionary religion just as Islam is, so the way they can rubbish us is by linking us to the fundamentalists and extremists within Islam, without ever actually discussing what it is that somebody who really believes the Bible actually believes, as opposed to what somebody who really believes the Qu’ran actually believes. That’s never discussed.

NATHAN: I think there can be confusion within the Church as well. We as Reformed Evangelicals would say, “real” Christians believe the Bible is literal, therefore don’t “real” Muslims believe likewise about the Qu’ran? Whereas that’s actually not the case, in terms of the majority of Muslims don’t actually take it to it’s extreme (following the parts that say “kill the infidels” or what have you). And so, therefore, we assume since we’re the “real Christians”, the ones who fly planes into buildings are the “real Muslims” (in inverted commas) and therefore we build up this false threat of Muslims which isn’t necessarily even there amongst the vast majority. But looking at the state of evangelicalism at the minute, there seems to also be within it, people who are trying to pull away from the term. Maybe not on a huge level but within particularly churches that would label themselves as charismatic there seems to be a reticence to come out and use the word evangelical. Why do you think that would be and what would be your advice on that?

LIAM: I think some of the more aggressively charismatic churches have always been reluctant to use the term evangelical because they feel that is, well I’m not sure how much they still do but they certainly used to feel that the term is too loaded in terms of the authority of the Bible against the authority of Christian experience, the more subjective authority that comes from someone who is filled with the Spirit and is therefore able to have more direct communication with God. Interestingly, the Evangelical Alliance has been described as the unofficial denomination of the charismatic movement.

NATHAN: Why do you think that is?

LIAM: I think because the Evangelical Alliance has positioned itself as an organ of communication for charismatic churches. They are probably the most influential group within the Evangelical Alliance. When you consider, for example, Spring Harvest is really birthed by the EA, and Spring Harvest is by and large a charismatic celebration. Except that Word Alive eventually came about because Keswick, UCCF and Proc Trust thought, should we not have some kind of say here? There should be something for us! But even within Word Alive, I would say outside of the student track it is probably dominated by charismatics.

NATHAN: Is that encouraging? In terms of the student track, the younger Christians being more in line with a confessional stance?

LIAM: Yeah, I think that’s great. It’s certainly encouraging on one level but since the emergence of “conFUSION”, as I call it, on the campuses it’s less good. I mean right now my son is one of a few guys who’ve been given the job of trying to get a CU going at Royal Holloway. The only way that they can meet on the campus is by joining Christians Together or some group. It’s a bizarre situation isn’t it? And you read their covenant stuff and you think, can you actually say that? Can you sign that? I’ve got to think that through.

NATHAN: So this is the climate we’re in.

LIAM: I think we’re at a point where evangelicalism has lost it’s way. If you think of it in terms of the Evangelical Alliance. Go to their website. I mean, we’re still in the Evangelical Alliance. We haven’t withdrawn at all. But if you go to their website you really would get the impression from a superficial read that here are a bunch of Christians who are more concerned with cultural issues than gospel issues, social matters than gospel matters. Now there’s nothing wrong with that but it seems to me that that which is an outcrop of the gospel has become the central thing that holds us together. And I think that’s part of the sadness that because the gospel no longer unifies us, John Stott couldn’t do what he did in the 1970’s; give a lecture on ‘what is an evangelical’. I have a copy of a talk that he did at an Evangelical Alliance assembly. He could not give that talk today. Because there would be people who would distance themselves from that and would say, “that’s not what an evangelical is.”

NATHAN: So, what do you think practically can be done?

LIAM: I think especially in light of the charge of fundamentalism from the world and the liberalisation of evangelicalism from inside, that I think that the way ahead really is for Christian people to rediscover their roots biblically, creedally and confessionally. And to say, “We’re evangelical in that we’re gospel people committed to getting the gospel out, but actually that’s not all we are. We are Christian in a much bigger sense.” And to rediscover the more sophisticated teaching of the Bible, because the Bible has more to say simply than, “Go out and get converts.” That’s effectively all that’s left now. If you believe in making converts that seems to be all that’s left really, and the Bible’s teaching about God and the world and so on is much more sophisticated than that.

NATHAN: And focusing more on making disciples rather than just statistics of people responding to an altar call. Showing it’s a lifetime of commitment.

LIAM: There’s a whole world and life view. How does a Christian see the world, the state, society and live there and influence it?

NATHAN: Like the C.S. Lewis thing about being a spy parachuted behind enemy lines. It’s about influencing with a definite agenda, but not running in and shooting everybody down.

LIAM: Yeah, not just being a pressure group but being a movement.

NATHAN: Your new book, The Jesus Gospel, seems to say, “Let’s get back to basics and see how the basics really do run through Genesis to Revelation.” Just briefly, what do you hope will be the reaction to it? What has been the reaction?

LIAM: I think really what I’ve tried to do is depersonalise it, cos I don’t really want to attack any one individual. But it seems to me that if we’re going to make assertions or claims they have to come out of the Bible. If we’re gospel people then we’re committed to the Bible as being our authority. And really all I’ve done is show that if you look at the unfolding drama of the Bible’s story it has a view of God which is Trinitarian, it has a view of the real depravity of humanity in sin, and it has a view of God’s remedy for this in Christ. We need to get back to that basic understanding of what Christ has come into the world to do. As we look at the overall big picture of the Bible then we begin to see in fact the whole Bible story is the way in which God in grace has put into place a plan which has embraced the ages, which is active to deal with His own wrath against sin in love for sinners, and that the Lord Jesus from all eternity has subordinated Himself to the Father’s will with a view to becoming the Redeemer of His elect.

NATHAN: That’s really what we need to hear I think. Just let the Church be Church and have evangelicals actually believing the gospel. Thanks very much.


Paul said...

Good interview...

I met Liam once, when he came to speak at our CU on Romans 5; it was a real blessing and everyone there was captivated by the gospel.

I guess that's the challenge... be gospel people.

Sean Clokey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thebluefish said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
thebluefish said...

Assumed Evangelicalism - David Gibson

Well worth a read, even though its aimed at RTSF people... I keep hoping we'll get a more popular level version.

Steve said...

hi nathan,

there is a mistake in this sentance:

So the Bible was inerrant when it spoke about matters of faith and salvation, but it was errant when it talked about things like history and origins. And so towards the second half of the twentieth century, you begin to see a divergence within the evangelical movement.

(third chunk of blue)

steve said...

I just re-read my comment and there is no mistake.

my mistake!

Paul said...

Nathan, the Rock Badger here...

I'm Relaying in South West London next year and was wondering if you knew of any housing available from Richmond towards the centre of London (I'm placed with Roehampton Uni and Royal College of Music).

If you could get in touch via paul DOT huxley AT gmail DOT com that'd be great...