The Search for an Evangelical Identity
Since its beginnings, Russian and Ukrainian evangelicalism has suffered an identity crisis similar to that of all Eurasian institutions: is it Eastern or is it Western? The answer is it is genuinely both. Nevertheless, whether accidental or not, Western (often North American conservative) evangelical theology, both in its structure and content, has dominated this church. This is partly due to an often necessary dependence upon its Western counterparts for theological resources--concepts, materials, and teachers. It is also partly due to a many-times prevalent Western evangelical insistence that only its questions, forms, and content taken together form a truly Christian and evangelical theology.
Post-Soviet evangelical theology will have to come to grips with its own unique identity. This will mean critically evaluating its relationship to conservative Western evangelical theology, striving to understand the context within which its own theology developed. Such a coming to grips with its identity will likewise inevitably mean entering into a close dialogue with Eastern Orthodox theology, which too has shaped it and formed it culturally, intellectually, and in terms of its spirituality.
It will also be important for post-Soviet evangelical theology to seek other dialogue partners, especially those with which it already has some affinity, if not relationship. Contextual theologies like Latin American liberation theology or Asian theology might offer insights in settings similar to those of today's post-Soviet Christian.
A Postliberal Option
Postliberalism might be a particularly appropriate dialogue partner for post-Soviet evangelical theology. Essentially postliberalism is a theological methodology that is committed to removing modernity or liberalism (explicit and implicit) from Christian life and thinking. This is its negative function as a movement. Its positive function is to call Christians to return to the Bible so that Scripture rather than, say, philosophy, can form Christian thinking, actions, and community life. Specifically postliberalism means returning to the Bible but not as if it were a collection of propositions to be dissected, broken down, objectively mastered by the reader, and then extracted from their literary forms for logical organization into a system that we can call theology (the liberal approach). Rather, a postliberal return to the Bible involves reading scripture more as narrative, as literature, and thus as a whole that we can enter into and be formed by.
Postliberalism wants to emphasize 1) the Bible as scripture and central for forming Christian life and community, 2) the accessibility of scripture to all Christians, 3) the literary nature and wholeness of the Bible and thus the need for a theology that embraces rather than destroys this nature, 4) the dangers of liberalism and liberal approaches to Christianity, and, related to this, 5) the need for a contemporary theology that genuinely moves us beyond modernity.
Living in Russia and Ukraine and teaching and working with Soviet and post-Soviet evangelicals, I have found that many of post-Soviet evangelicalism's concerns are quite similar in both ethos and content to those in postliberalism. First, Soviet and post-Soviet evangelicals are, as Walter Sawatsky has described them, "a Bible movement" whose approach has always been "to read the Bible and put into practice its plain and simple message." Second, post-Soviet evangelicals lean culturally and intellectually toward more literary or narrative approaches in their thinking and knowing. They tend to write poetry rather than systematic theology. And third, post-Soviet evangelicals (as their Eastern Orthodox neighbors) are very weary of Western enlightenment liberalism and its influence upon theology, even upon Western evangelical theology. I am calling for this specific dialogue because I believe it will help clarify many issues for post-Soviet evangelicalism.
In conclusion, I believe it is time for post-Soviet evangelicals to come of age theologically, to hammer out a more contextualized post-Soviet evangelical theology, and to do this consciously in context. Whether this theology ends up taking a more systematic form, a more poetic or literary/narrative form, or indeed some other yet undiscovered form remains to be seen.
Darrell Cosden is a lecturer in Christian doctrine and ethics at the International Christian College, Glasgow, Scotland, and teaches contextual theology at Donetsk Christian University, Donetsk, Ukraine.
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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report