“Evangelical” is a dirty word these days. Not just because of the politicization of the term; that’s a given. Rather, it’s becoming taboo even within theologically conservative, Bible-believing Christian circles (heretofore known as evangelicalism).
W. Robert Godfrey, in lecture 72 of his church history series, notes that “evangelical” is not strictly synonymous with conservative Protestantism but has its own meaning. David Bebbington’s quadrilateral is a good starting point, which notes the unique marks of evangelicalism as a movement: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.
But another element central to the evangelical ethos—perhaps the reason it’s becoming a byword—is its spirit of reductionism. We tend to ask questions like, “What is the bare minimum a person needs to believe to be saved?” rather than questions like, “How can we instill the greatest level of biblical literacy in our congregation?” Minimalism runs deep in our results-oriented, North American veins.
In the current cultural moment, nobody wants to have the charge of reductionism leveled against them. It is increasingly common to recognize that such things as salvation without transformation, forgiveness without fruit, and justification without sanctification are truncated gospels. Perhaps it’s because too many of us have seen the fruit of a conversion-only, revivalistic church culture whose only emphasis was on “soul winning” at the expense of bodily life and civic righteousness. Controversies like the one over social justice reveals that there is a real dog-whistle effect any time someone’s articulation of the gospel can be painted as “reductionist.” When people talk about preaching “just the gospel,” we wonder what they mean.
Is reductionism altogether bad? When the Apostle Paul summarizes the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, he brings into stark relief the death and resurrection of Christ to forgive sin while leaving other components of the gospel—the kingdom of God, the necessity of repentance, the fruit of a changed heart—unaddressed, given that such concepts are theologically downstream from the historic facts of the gospel. Paul has every legitimate reason to effectively narrow his definition of the gospel here, and luckily for us, the rest of the New Testament fills out such concepts for us—given that the Holy Spirit inspired more than a string of fortune cookie inserts to mold our theology. But for as many instances we could site of this legitimate simplification of the gospel, there are negative instances as well.
I once spoke to a highly involved member of a massive, seeker-driven church whose own spiritual upbringing had been in other more Bible-centered churches of the charismatic variety. As I shared with him some of my concerns over the attractional movement’s lack of meaningful discipleship, he commented to me in earnest, “Isn’t it possible that perhaps Jesus is returning so soon that the Spirit is now directing people to simply focus on evangelism and not waste time doing discipleship?” Another individual quoted often within this church was fond of saying, “We will do anything short of sin so long as people are hearing the gospel.” Anything? This, not even taking the faulty eschatology of the former exchange into account, is by all means the wrong kind of reductionism.
But is there a right kind? And how do we know the difference?
Nothing But Christ Crucified, Et Al.
We might say the real locus of biblical reductionism in the New Testament is when Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2). What’s going on? Is Paul saying that a dead Jesus is the whole gospel? A gospel without the resurrection is at least as heretically reductionistic as the “God loves you” evangel of American civil religion.
Of course Paul is using hyperbole. Interpreters agree that here Paul is referring to the whole work of Christ here by way of synecdoche; that is, Paul folds the death, resurrection, and salvation offer all under the simple banner of “Christ crucified.”
Why such hyperbole? In Corinth—as in our day—the church was nursing a heavy addiction to worldly popularity in the pulpit. Tripping over themselves to show favor to the floury rhetoricians of their day, the Corinthians had wrongly reduced the gospel to another trinket in the oratory arsenal of the celebrity super-apostles. It’s no wonder Paul felt they needed a good talking to—to be reacquainted with the alarming simplicity of a maimed Christ.
When is reductionism right? Paul‘s example helps us make a critical distinction: methodological reduction versus message reduction.
Reduce the Method, Not Message
In the context of that same church I mentioned earlier, I once heard the advice, “Marry the mission, date the model.” Aside from being a terrible marriage advice, this pragmatic ministry philosophy—catchy as it is—doesn’t quite jive with Paul’s breed of righteous reduction.
Paul’s reductionism was a reducing not of the message of the gospel—aside from the hyperbole of “nothing but Christ and him crucified”—but of the method used to propagate it. God is sovereign over the outcome of our evangelism and preaching. For the apostles and for us, our job is to present an unvarnished Christ; the Spirit’s job is to bless the preaching of his Word. We set Christ centerstage, and the Holy Spirit does the rest—no fog machines, minimal laser lights.
Contrary to the “date the model” maxim (meaning that any old method will do so long as the goal is evangelistic), for Paul, maximizing the glory of Christ meant stripping down the method of ministry to the bare operation of the Holy Spirit upon the human heart through the preached Word.
The consequences of which type of reductionism we choose matter. The fruit of message minimization is pastors who zip-line onstage and rig slip ‘n’ slides to feed the baptistery, all in the name of “what works.” The fruit of methodological minimization is simply telling people the gospel message. (With words, no less.)
As Much Minimalism as Possible
If we are free to simply speak the gospel and entrust the results to God, we can be remarkably thorough in our proclamation of the Word.
Jesus commissioned his apostles to teach all nations “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20, ESV). All, not some. Paul himself, though he “only” preached Christ crucified (the same way your pastor “only” has one more point when he reaches the 35 minute mark of the sermon during football season), still preached the “whole counsel” of God (Acts 20:27) and did not shrink back from declaring “anything” to his hearers (v. 20).
When it comes to our message as ministers, we ought rather to speak of a biblical maximalism—as much as this grates against our utilitarian sensibilities.
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV). There is a right reductionism for preachers; it’s when we recede into the background and when Jesus is big.