Timothy George | Why I am an Evangelical and a Baptist
1:19PM Oct 15, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it's our honor to be speaking to Dr. Timothy George. Dr. George has been the Dean of Beeson Divinity School since its inception in 1988. He is chairman of the board of the Colson center for Christian worldview chairs. The doctrine and Christian unity commission of the Baptist world Alliance is a life advisory trustee of Wheaton College and is active in evangelical Roman Catholic Church dialogue. Dr. George recently contributed a chapter entitled why I am an evangelical and a Baptist to the book why we belong evangelical unity and denominational diversity from crossway in 2013, showing how denominational affiliation can be natural without being negative and how evangelical identity can help rather than hinder Christian unity. Why we belong seeks to explain both the personal and doctrinal reasons each of the contributors fits not only in their church, but also in the church. Dr. George, it's an honor to be speaking with you today.
Thank you, Jonathan. Delighted to be here.
First of all, sir, in your essay, why I am an evangelical and a Baptist, you write evangelicalism is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy, unquote. What is the significance of the conclusion that evangelicalism is a renewal movement?
Yeah, evangelicalism seeks to return to the new testament to restore to renew the church in a way that Jesus Christ intended it to be. It sort of presupposes some things have gotten off track along the way, and that we need this kind of renewal. But it is never the intention of evangelicals, and certainly the reformers, on whose shoulders we all stand to start a brand new church from scratch. They wanted to restore to renew the one holy, catholic and apostolic churches, they said, and they therefore set about to return to the Scriptures to return to the historic Trinitarian faith of the early church. That's what they were about. And I think evangelicalism continues that emphasis in a different era in a different way, even to this very present moment.
I was recently speaking with Dr. Richard Linz, whose book renewing the evangelical mission came out recently. And I asked him this question, let me ask this to you as well. If If we perceive evangelicalism as something, this renewal movement, then does that have intrinsic ecumenical implications?
Well, I think so because what it means is that one of the things that we want to go back to is what Jesus prayed for in john 17, namely, that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. And therefore Christian disunity, is actually a negative disincentive for evangelism and permission. So I do think it has ecumenical implications we are seeking to restore renew the one holy catholic and apostolic church, which does not mean going back to the Roman Catholic Church, or to Eastern Orthodoxy or to a certain form of Lutheranism, or I'm a Baptist myself to early Baptist views necessarily. What it really means is that we all who believe in Jesus Christ, who hold the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God, who are Trinitarian, in our faith, we have a common mission, and that is to exemplify the love and grace of Jesus Christ in a fragile, broken world. And a part of that is to seek to in every way we can, in good conscience, proclaim and exemplify the Unity for which Jesus prayed.
Let me ask you this, if I can to help us focus on what exactly is evangelicalism, in your opinion, is evangelicalism and ecclesial body, a cultural epiphenomenon or something else? Yeah.
I mean, you know, if I had $1, for every page, I have read about what is an Evan jellicle? I'd be a rich fella. I mean, there's there's a whole cottage industry that's seeking to answer this great and it's a hard question to answer. It's not a hard question to say who a Roman Catholic is, that's very easy. a Roman Catholic is a person who is in communion with a bishop, who is in communion with the Bishop of Rome, full stop. That applies to every Roman Catholic in the world. There is no such you might say, institutionally oriented, definition for evangelicalism, we are not just an institution. That's why I like the phrase renewal movement. That's what we're seeking to do. evangelicalism takes expression. It takes lots of institutional expressions in churches, denominations, parish church movements, on and on, but at the heart of evangelicalism are two things. The great john Stott who had tremendous influence on me, said evangelicalism, our gospel people, and Bible people, and therefore we are people who take our focus and our center around the message Jesus Christ, Lord. Lord, Savior, risen, returning, and also who ground that faith in the written word of God the Holy Bible.
Can evangelicalism be defined in theological terms and either than as a set of particular theological conclusions or is a specific theological method?
Yeah, I would say more the former than the latter. That's what I mean when I say evangelicalism is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy that presupposes there is a, you might say, a deposit of faith. What the New Testament calls the faith once delivered to the saints. There is the apostles creed there there is the teaching of the Bible is exemplified in the Creed's and councils of the early church. Yes, evangelicalism do believe certain things about who God is about who Jesus Christ is about the way of salvation, about the authority of God's Word, the Bible. And that forms I would say, a core of angelical identity. Now that takes lots of different expressions and denominations and institutions and movements throughout history. But I would not want to have an evangelicalism that did not have a deep, strong theological core.
How does one differentiate in the church between a diversity a theological diversity that empowers the church, and on the other hand, a theological diversity that diminishes the witness of the church? How do we measure whether our differences are good or not?
As a great question, because this is a problem that the early church face, it's not a new 21st century problem. And you go back to First Corinthians to Galatians to some of the New Testament risers struggling with that same issue. All these people claiming to be Christians, I don't think that the opponents of Paul and glacia, for example, came to say, well just just ditch Christianity. No, they were proclaiming another gospel. They were proclaiming, they were trying to, they said, follow Jesus Christ in a way that really denied some of the basic elements of the faith, Paul had to oppose them. So the question you asked really is about heresy. Is there such a thing is heresy or not? There's a kind of modern view of the church and theology that says, well, heresy is an old fashioned concept. It doesn't have any applications anymore. But if you think about it, if you have a church where heresy is no longer a possibility, you also have a church where Orthodoxy is not a possibility. And so what you're reducing the church to is privatized religious feeling, or sentimentalism. And you know, that won't get you very far. It's like cotton candy at the fair evaporates in your mouth. So the question is how to do this wisely, because we do know that there have been efforts to squelch proper dissent in the church, and to violate consciences in the name of a very strict understanding of my orthodoxy alone. That is, another name for that is sectarianism. And a corrective to sectarianism in the church is the catholicity of the church is the Creed's is the confessions is the prayer life, the liturgy, the worship of the church across the centuries, that has a kind of broadening, deepening effect on us and saves as if we listened to it, I think, from the worst consequences of sectarianism.
We very much appreciate that insightful response. Let me follow up with that just for a second, if I can, the way you've divided the question, is heresy a possibility? Oh, my I certainly don't want to be on that side of the fence. And so it is a very powerful argument that you formed there. And yet at the same time, in my tradition of use to speaking of secondary issues and primary issues, ie issues over which Christians must not divide in issues over which Christians may divide. If If we accept such terminology as secondary issues, are their denominational distinctives that that are not issues of heresy, per se. And yet, we could still ask the question, how do we know if this denominational distinctive, empowers the church or diminishes the witness of the church?
Yeah, well, I'm a Baptist have already confessed my sense there. So and we Baptists have certain views about baptism, we think it should not be given to infants. That is for believers only by immersion in the name of the triune. God, well, let's stop there, in the name of the Triune God, every Orthodox Christian church who practices baptism, and that's every one of them. believes in baptism in the name of the Triune God, and they don't all except the Baptist argument, which I think is the winning one, that it must be done for believers only, and that it must be by immersion. And so I would say that's a good example of where baptism is not negotiable. And I know there are a few groups that don't practice baptism, I think they're way way off the reservation. Baptism is one of the things Jesus actually asked his disciples to do. However, the way we understand apply, and pray Practice baptism has differed across the centuries of the church and does today. So I would say, I'm very, very leery of signing on date and group has said, well, baptism, just throw it out. But I don't want to break fellowship. I don't know what denomination you are. But I don't want to break fellowship with my good orthodox Presbyterian brothers and sisters from our Lutheran brothers and sisters, though I do think they missed the boat on baptism at certain points. And that's kind of this book. You mentioned it, why we belong. That's what it's about. It's really an effort to say why I'm an evangelical and a Baptist, a Methodist, Presbyterian, a Lutheran, been a gospel, whatever. And I really liked that approach to things because I do think there are certain you call the I call them angelical Essentials on which we stand without compromise. And to break from those is, to a great degree, deny the Christian faith. Did Jesus rise from the dead? That's not negotiable? Is he coming back again, really, that's not negotiable. But whether he's coming back before the second trumpet sounds before the fifth angel speaks in Revelation seven, we might could have a discussion about that.
And one of the things that I so appreciate about this book why we belong of angelical unity and denominational diversity is precisely the the personality that so many of these theologians are willing to display. They're willing to share their personal reasons why they remain in these distinctives. Yeah, yourself, Dean, Georgia Baptist, but we also have Gerald Bray and Anglican Douglas Sweeney, a Lutheran Timothy Tennant, a Methodist and so on, all dialoguing about why is it that we feel united in evangelicalism and yet and yet remain to hold these distinctives? As a very powerful study? Dr. George, what is this unity that we're seeking? I know you've been involved in evangelical Roman Catholic decade for some time, and in what you said at the beginning of the interview intrigued me that that evangelicals are very hard to define and yet Roman Catholics sacramentally have a very easy definition those who are in communion with Rome. So if we seek unity with other Protestant denominations, with with other Christian bodies, what is it that we're seeking?
Well, the short answer is Jesus Christ, I think the closer we come together to Jesus Christ, the closer we will come to one another. Now, it's easy. If you want to go in a certain direction to say, well, unity is just just everybody going back to Rome and saying, the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, I have great respect for the Pope. And all the folks that I've known I've known several of them in my lifetime, I've met them. But I don't think the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. I don't think there's a good theological or historical argument for that. And so we break down because our understanding is not complete. And we recognize there are differences that we have not resolved. But despite that, and beyond that, Christian unity seeks a togetherness, a oneness in Jesus Christ, and we recognize as our Savior and Lord, we trust for all time and eternity, our Redeemer. And because that is the central focus, we are able sometimes to work together in common enterprises, even common mission, to read the Bible together, to help the poor in Jesus name together to be a witness against the slaughter of innocent unborn children together, there are things we can do that honor God together, even though we are still in imperfect communion. That's the Catholic term. And it's a good one. I mean, we're not there yet. Let's just recognize it. But that doesn't mean we can't do anything. It means that we ought to do everything we can do within the limits of our conscience, to advance the cause of Christian unity, visible unity, that's our goal. We may not reach that until Jesus comes. But it does mean we should quit trying.
From your perspective and experience, what are the greatest opportunities and challenges to real ecumenical progress that present themselves to evangelicals today?
I would say, short answer, pride, selfishness. You know that there are two great sins or I would say diseases that afflict the church today. One is amnesia. We have forgotten who we are, and the other is myopia. Whoever we are, we think we're the only ones who know what is really true and right. Both of those, I think are examples of pride. And therefore the corrective to this is humility is to recognize that we are servants of Jesus Christ were not the Lords of the church. And it is possible. It is possible for human beings even born again believing human beings to be wrong about things and therefore need to repent. And that's a part of reformation. That's why evangelicalism is a renewal or reforming movement within the church. That's the Protestant principle. You know, we returned to Scripture again and again and again, we love the creeds and confessions of the church. We believe them when they're in accordance with Scripture, but we always hold scripture as a touchstone for those kinds of things. So it's submitting ourselves in humility to the Bible to the revealed Word of God, and also in a measure to one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ. That's the greatest hindrance, I think, to Christian unity.
And can we flip that coin to? Are there unique opportunities in the Ecumenical Movement that present themselves today?
Oh, yes. You know, I've already mentioned the Bible. I mean, there was a time not so very long ago in history, when you know, the Bible was a closed book to a lot of groups and churches and denominations. I find it much more greater openness now to that. And so we ought to celebrate the fact that evangelicalism Catholics together can read the Bible together, hey, that's how the Reformation happened. It was a it was a Catholic monk reading the Bible. And it could happen again, it ought to happen again. That's just one example. And of course, many, many ways in which we can bear witness and give service in the world. I've already mentioned the question of sanctity of life as one of the very important issues, I think, moral issues, the integrity of marriage, as God intended it to be a lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman, we had a bear wit and we're out to find ways, not just a protest, certain abuses of marriage that we see all around us in society today. But we ought to cultivate a culture of marriage that's based upon Christian foundations. Those are things that we can do together. And I think there's there's a kind of spiritually humanism, we can pray together, within certain limits. We can worship together that we don't share communion with a lot of different Christian groups. And that's a shame that we all feel pain in our hearts, but we're not there yet. And it's better to be honest, I think then to Russian where there isn't real genuine agreement.
In 2009, sir, you edited a book entitled j. i Packer in the evangelical future, why did you dedicate this book of essays to the life and thought of j i Packer, and what do you perceive to be Professor Packers Packers legacy and contemporary evangelicalism?
Well, he's just one of my great heroes of the faith, he's still living today. still writing. He's, he's a wonderful ecumenical theologian in the best of the evangelical tradition. He's an Anglican, of course. But he exemplifies a kind of Renaissance ism and deep, deep theological insight. You know, there's a kind of humanism that says, you know, let's just cut, cut the corners and trim the hedges and find the lowest common denominator. And how believe as little as you can hold it as loosely as you can. I call that the humanism of accommodation. That's not Jim Packers way. He exemplifies and humanism, of conviction. And so that's what attracted me to him when I first met him many years ago. And he and I've been able to work together a number of different venues. And so Alisha McGrath and I were thinking one day, what can we do to really honor this great soldier of the cross, it was his 80th birthday, I believe. We brought together a conference at Beeson Divinity School, and also this book you mentioned that came out of it. So it's just it's in some ways, a small tribute to a very great, great theologian and Christian leader of our time.
And Dr. George, if I can ask you one last question, and that is this despite the tremendous diversity that we see in Christianity around the world, what is it that gives the church for essential unity?
Well, I can have to come back I sound like a broken record. It is got to be Jesus Christ and Him alone. You know, the Reformation had a lot of solos we talked about sola thiet, a faith alone. sola grotty about grace alone, sola scriptura, all those gray cells, there's another soul in the Reformation. And really, in all of the Christian faith, it's so loose Christus, Jesus Christ alone. He is the way the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except your hammock. He's not front and center. All of our efforts to put together this or that part of the jigsaw puzzle to make it hang together, is gonna fail. It's got to be Jesus Christ, the living Lord and Savior, who has redeemed us from our sins by his death on the cross, His resurrection, the promise of His coming again. That's what we're about. And that's what Christian unity is got to be about.
Dr. George, it's been a real pleasure to be speaking with you today. Thank you so much for your generous time
is a pleasure, Jonathan. God bless you and your work.