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The Battles Over the Label "Evangelical"

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If we were willing to distinguish between Evangelicalism as a socio-historical phenomenon (what it has been), and Evangelicalism as a theologically-defined body of conviction (what it should be), we might be able to make some headway. We could admit that where we think the movement should go is not necessarily the exact place it came from.

Who owns this thing called "Evangelicalism"? On one hand, we speak as if we all know what we are talking about when we use the term. This is especially true for those of us who were raised in the subculture. On other occasions, we speak as if there is no coherent conception of what it means to be an evangelical and that there doesn't appear to be a theological consensus. This discrepancy has contributed to the confusion over what should be done in the face of increasing diversity. Should we view the movement of some evangelicals toward Arminian or even more radical positions regarding God, sin, salvation, and the future judgment as apostasy or, as a recent cover story of the Atlantic Monthly suggested, a coming of age?


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1 [ Back ] Donald Dayton, "The Search for the Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden's History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study," Christian Scholars Review 23:1 (1993): 26-27. "It is a great historical irony that A. J. Gordon was one of the objects of the fiercest polemics of B. B. Warfield of Princeton for his perfectionist tendencies and his commitment to 'faith healing' and 'modern miracles of healing'... but today one cannot really teach in the theology department of Gordon-Conwell without being in the line of Warfield." (26). Dayton reckons that the current NAE is "probably 75 percent or more Holiness and Pentecostal" (27). Later, he writes, "If this is the case, how might we better describe the story line that constitutes the background of Fuller? We might start the story with the refusal of Evangelist Charles Grandison Finney to attend Princeton Theological Seminary after his conversion and call to the ministry....We could trace the amalgamation of Finneyite revivalism with the emerging Holiness Movement and its further radicalization into Pentecostalism-and the parallel emergence of dispensationalism and the radicalization of 'New School' Presbyterianism into a form of 'Reformed' fundamentalism much like these other movements." Perhaps Fuller represents "the decision of the great grand-children of Finney deciding to go to Princeton after all" (32-33).
2 [ Back ] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 439.
3 [ Back ] Ibid.
4 [ Back ] Carl Henry, Evangelicals on the Brink of Crisis (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1967), 75.
5 [ Back ] Mark Noll and Cassandra Niemczyk, "Evangelicals and the Self-Consciously Reformed," The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 204.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., 205.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., 206.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 147.
9 [ Back ] Donald Dayton, op. cit., 15.
10 [ Back ] B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings-I, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), 304. Although Warfield did argue for a federation of evangelical churches, he warned that a genuinely evangelical Christianity could be undermined by the attempt to keep essential doctrinal commitments at bay. In an article titled "In Behalf of Evangelical Religion," first published in The Presbyterian, September 23, 1920, and available in the above-cited source, Warfield wrote the following concerning the proposed statement of faith for this new coalition: "The union proposed is based on a brief creed which is recited in the plan. By entering upon this union on the basis of this creed, the Church will declare this creed a sufficient basis for united work in propagating the gospel." He complains that the creed that resulted contains only a few starved and hunger-bitten dogmas of purely general character"-dogmas that are not contested by Roman Catholics or even rationalists, "by respectable Unitarians, say." The heart of it is this: "There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed. And that means that all the gains obtained in that great religious movement which we call the Reformation are cast out of the window." But that is not all: The new creed says nothing about the substitutionary atonement, nothing about sin and grace, nothing even about the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the Holy Spirit. "We need believe in the Holy Spirit only 'as guide and comforter'-do not the Rationalists do the same?" All the gains, then, of the ancient, medieval, and Reformation periods are "summarily set aside." "Are we ready to enter a union based on the elimination of these? ... Is this the kind of creed which twentieth-century Presbyterianism will find sufficient as a basis for co-operation in evangelistic activities? Then it can get along in its evangelistic activities without the gospel. For it is precisely the gospel that this creed neglects altogether." While the neo-evangelical movement produced statements of faith that were often better than this, the doctrinal minimalism inherent in such consensual movements is readily abundant in Evangelicalism. It makes theology increasingly difficult to do in any depth, except in opposition to a perceived common enemy" (ibid., 386-87).
11 [ Back ] John Williamson Nevin, "The Anxious Bench," in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of J. W. Nevin, ed. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., and George H. Bricker (Pittsburgh, PA: Pickwick Press, 1978), 13.
12 [ Back ] Lewis Smedes, "Evangelicalism-a Fantasy," Reformed Journal (February 1980): 2-3.
13 [ Back ] Ibid.
14 [ Back ] C. Norman Kraus, "A Mennonite Perspective," The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 191.
15 [ Back ] Ibid., 198.
16 [ Back ] Some evangelicals, especially historians, have sought to overcome the confusion by borrowing set-theory. Instead of classic orthodoxy's "bounded-set" paradigm, they argue for a "centered-set" Evangelicalism that can incorporate evangelical and mainline Protestantism of nearly every stripe. But does this settle anything? Or is it simply a variation on the same theme? Despite different nuances, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have historically maintained this centered-set thinking, with Christ and the gospel. Yet, they have also been bounded-set thinkers, in their recognition that scripture infallibly norms not only the central but the peripheral edges beyond which Christian liberty encourages variety. As communal interpretations of Scripture, the creeds and confessions indicate the tradition's convictions as both to what is central and to what, though perhaps less central, is essential to affirm together. A common confession has, more often than not, generated a sense of unity that is increasingly eroded by vague notions of mission. The adoption of a centered-set way of thinking does not seem to go any further in settling the question of who does the defining and what therefore counts as central or peripheral. Confessional Lutherans and Calvinists will doubtless regard Wesleyans and Restorationists as having a different center than forensic imputation. If Dayton is correct, that is as it should be. For at least some of us, such appeals to a "centered-set" model sound like another verse of modern theology's hymn, "Don't Fence Me In." That this may be sound scholarship for historical research is not in doubt, but those who are actually entrusted with the care of sheep will want to talk about fences at some point.
17 [ Back ] "Bounded-set" thinking (i.e., "scholasticism") is blamed by Waldron Scott for "most of the divisiveness that plagues evangelicalism" ("Evangelical Theology: Rock or Reef," in The Evangelical Roundtable, op. cit., 119.) But even from the historical point of view, this popular assertion is faced with difficulties, especially since the lion's share of sects and subsects in North America hail from nineteenth- and twentieth-century divisions, many of them founded as alternatives to the apparently "bounded-set" confessionalism of Protestant bodies. Bounded-set thinking is only divisive if the Wesleyan set or the Calvinist set or any other set claims hegemony over the movement. But the call for abandoning bounded-set thinking entirely strikes some of us as the hauntingly familiar imperialism of an evangelical movement impatient with the messiness of distinct theological and ecclesiastical traditions under its big tent.
18 [ Back ] Lewis Smedes, op. cit.
19 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, Preface, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 11.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Evangelicalism(TM) Who Owns It?" March/April 2001 Vol. 10 No. 2 Page number(s): 14-21

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