It seems like a truism in some corners of Christian blogdom that the “evangelical collapse” is either on the way or already here. Of those not abandoning the church to join the “nones” there seems to be several apparently mutually exclusive exit points. Evangelicals are going in the direction of the newly-popular Calvinists, or towards the emergent church, or over to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. As I noted, these all seem to be different directions. You have a group that’s getting all into Reformed theology, another group embracing continental philosophy and a third one going in for the ancient forms of church hierarchy. The temptation here is to say that evangelical protestantism is splintering off into all different directions, but what if all of these movements are of a piece?
There is something that all three of these share and that mainstream 20th-Century evangelicalism lacks and that is a method theological final appeal if you will. In the Roman Catholic church this is obvious: the Vatican, under the allegedly infallible rule of the Pope will set down the final ruling on anything and everything deemed necessary to live a good Catholic life. The Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t have quite so centralized a ruling body but there’s still a ruling hierarchy with the weight of apostolic succession behind it and body of tradition that is not handled lightly.
The Calvinists don’t quite have the same governing bodies, but they do have Calvin’s magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as a body of subsequent Reformed literature to which they can appeal. (This point might annoy some Calvinists who have concluded that Calvinism is the obvious, self-evident conclusion that anyone should draw from reading the Bible and that Calvin merely pointed this out.) While the Calvinists lack a Pope (sit down, Mark Driscoll), they do undertake to rigorously guard their doctrine on a sort of ad hoc basis, convening committees to figure how much of heretic they think, say, N. T. Wright might be in their eyes.
The last case, that of the Emergents is a bit trickier and certainly not as clear cut, there is however, an Emergent star system of thinkers and leaders who carry a lot of weight though: Pete Rollins, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and so on. Moreover, there is a seriously philosophical framework with which at least some of them are associated. You probably know this generically as “postmodernism” but specifically they seem to follow the work of Derrida and Zizek most carefully. While not as cut-and-dried as either the rule the Vatican or Calvin’s theological tomes, they still have a robust underpinning to their theology in continental philosophy.
What was once thought to be an asset of evangelicalism, particularly in the “seeker-sensitive” Willow Creek model – user-friendly accessibility without too much strenuous theology – now seems to be that which most undermines evangelical coalition of churches. When push comes to shove many evangelicals don’t have a strong underpining for justifying what they believe. Now I know the stock answer is “we just believe in what the Bible says” but we all know that there’s a multitude of ways of interpreting such a claim. An example of where this can be difficult: If you see an apparent contradiction between two passages, how do you resolve it? The tools to go back and give a firmer grounding to one’s interpretation exist but for various reasons have been obscured by evangelicalism’s history in North America (read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind if you want more on how this came to be). Now instead of going back and correcting some of the stuff that Noll’s book discusses, there are the ready-made alternatives I discussed above. This is why you have defections to Rome or Orthodoxy or why those that remain Protestant rush to embrace Calvinism’s rigour.