The Battles Over the Label "Evangelical"

Michael S. Horton
Friday, March 2nd 2001
Mar/Apr 2001

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?

Although their guild encourages them to strive for "objective detachment," historians of American religious movements-particularly of Evangelicalism, have been about as locked in battle over these questions as the theologians. Representative is the running debate between Notre Dame's George Marsden and Drew University's Donald Dayton. Marsden, with close personal historical ties to Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian church, is accused by Dayton, a Wesleyan, of adopting a "Presbyterian paradigm." According to Dayton, this is the paradigm not only adopted by historians such as Marsden, but by folks like us at Modern Reformation and our publisher, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The way Dayton sees it, Evangelicalism is essentially an Arminian and quasi-Anabaptist phenomenon deriving more from movements critical of the Reformation tradition (viz., pietism and revivalism) than from the Reformation's confessional traditions themselves.

But then came the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, and an unlikely union was forged. With issues now defined by the conservative-liberal poles, the differences between, say, a Calvinist and an Arminian were seen by many as fairly inconsequential. But this fundamentalist or conservative movement was often intellectually shallow. Embarrassed by this anti-intellectualism and yet defending the fundamentals, a group of post-World War II "neo-evangelicals" looked to Old Princeton seminary (Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield) and the new Westminster Seminary for theological depth. Fuller Seminary in California saw itself as a new Princeton. Neo-evangelical leader Carl Henry said that his group was building Fuller to accomplish on the West Coast what Westminster had done on the East.

Nonetheless, Dayton argues, most of these neo-evangelicals never were themselves Reformed. Many if not most came from Wesleyan or Pentecostal traditions that had always been hostile to Reformed theology and liturgy. The bottom line: as this neo-evangelical portion of the nineteenth-century's pietist-revivalist Evangelicalism longed for cultural clout and social respectability, they tended to become "Presbyterians" even though they really were not Presbyterian in theology. And thus today, institutions founded by Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Arminian Baptist, and similar groups often have a quasi-formal commitment to the theology of Hodge and Warfield. "Evangelical orthodoxy" equals "Reformed orthodoxy." This is why the revival of Arminian and Finneyite streams of Evangelicalism in our day are treated by Reformed folks as heretical departures from the evangelical faith. (For a more exhaustive statement of Dayton's view, see the Free Space interview in this issue.)

Much like debates over the ownership of America, quarrels over the evangelical trademark are probably a profound waste of time and precious energy. As Marsden has noted as fully as Dayton, prewar Evangelicalism would never have regarded Calvinism as normative. In fact, American Evangelicalism in the nineteenth century was decidedly anti-Calvinistic. Although Dayton may overstate the case a bit, he does seem justified in his assertion that Charles Finney, not the Protestant reformers, is the guiding light of the movement over the last century and a half. Although the intellectual leadership edge went to Princeton in its defense not only of Reformed orthodoxy but of more generally agreed-upon tenets among theological conservatives, it was almost entirely in the realm of the latter rather than the former that neo-evangelicals were its heirs.

Founders of the neo-evangelical coalition such as Harold Ockenga, who attended Princeton or Westminster, were basically upwardly mobile Wesleyans moving toward the Protestant mainstream, Dayton surmises-a point that is lost on most of us presently associated with Westminster. (1) Before readers conclude that this is an interesting debate perhaps for historians, but otherwise irrelevant, I should turn from this rather in-house debate to its very practical implications for today.

The Triumphalist Impulse

Basically, I would argue that despite differing over significant details, Dayton's criticisms are probably a lot more valid than many of us would like to admit. The tie that has bound Americans, whether Presbyterians (yes, even at Princeton) or Wesleyans, is triumphalism. Fueled by a postmillennial eschatology that dominated American religion from the very beginning (unlike Reformed theology on the Continent), both "New School" Finneyites and "Old School" Calvinists anticipated a day in the not-too-distant future when finally the City of God and the cities of this world would merge into a Christian civilization. I would argue that this vision is the glue that held together American Protestantism in the nineteenth century and that still holds it together, despite its division into "more-or-less conservative" and "more-or-less liberal" trajectories. In other words, the older divisions had to do with theology-more specifically, with Church theology; that is, with what churches and their adherents confessed together. The American Religion, conversely, required a common experience of conversion and the moral resolve to make America a Christian nation.

Imagine that day in Cleveland, November 28, 1950, when a church council was born, and the banner proclaimed, "This Nation Under God." (2) "And," as Mark Noll reports, "Henry Knox Sherill, the council's first president, stated that the council's formation marks a new and great determination that the American way will be increasingly the Christian way, for such is our heritage…. Together the churches can move forward to the goal-a Christian America in a Christian world." (3) This council could well have been the National Association of Evangelicals, but in fact it was the National Council of Churches.

As had occurred in New School Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century, postwar neo-evangelicals could push theological differences into the background as long as there was a minimialistic agreement on "fundamentals." The further corollary with the New School was that the paradigm wasn't particularly Presbyterian or Wesleyan, but a movement paradigm rather than a churchly paradigm. In fact, Henry urged,

The most promising steps in a new direction may best be ventured not in national or regional conventions but in local fellowships where (even if they must first meet in homes to overcome ecclesiastical prejudices or structural animosities) neighbors and townspeople affirm their oneness in Christ as those whose lives are scripturally controlled by the Spirit. Much of American Christianity is moving into a postdenominational, contraconciliar and non-institutional era. (4)

Just as other subgroups in the evangelical family express awkwardness in the genealogy of the movement, Mark Noll and Cassandra Niemczyk provide some insight into the uneasy relationship of what they term "Evangelicals and the Self-Consciously Reformed":

Dutch Calvinist immigrants to America's heartland in the nineteenth century had a word for the burgeoning evangelicalism of their new land: "Methodistic."…Trans-planted Europeans of Reformed commitment, or Americans who aspired to the doctrinal purity of sixteenth-century Geneva or Scotland, used these words to set themselves apart from what one Christian Reformed commentator has recently described, with self-conscious overstatement, as "intellectually slovenly, heart-on-the-sleeve American revivalism." (5)

These self-consciously Reformed types tended to regard Evangelicalism as the unofficial American religion and they saw themselves very much as outsiders-as nonevangelicals. Noll and Niemczyk point up "the common Reformed resistance to the American definitions of Christianity in terms of personal piety and individual ethics." (6) These Reformed immigrants were often astonished at how far revivalists were willing to go in order to appeal to mass emotion. They disagreed with what they regarded as an emphasis on conversion that appeared to marginalize nearly every other important aspect of Christian faith and praxis. Revivalism, they believed, "fragmented the major denominations into sects, demonstrated an exaggerated hostility toward form and tradition in religion, encouraged interdenominational animosity, supported a morbid cultural asceticism, and replaced ancient Christian creeds with modern, ad hoc summaries of personal and capricious opinion." (7)

So there does seem to be something wrong with that neo-evangelical paradigm, whatever we wish to call it. First, it fails to do justice to the Wesleyan-Finneyite narrative that Dayton helpfully brings to the table. Second, it fails to do justice to the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions that it claims to represent.

The conservative-liberal divide of the modernist controversy and postwar Protestantism has obscured the fundamental differences and, thus, integrity of both Wesleyanism and confessional churches of the Reformation. Often, Evangelicalism has failed to recognize itself as a subgroup-its own tradition, and has-perhaps unintentionally-exerted an imperialistic hegemony that it has confused with genuine unity. The two-party model of American Protestantism is, as D. G. Hart argues, "the direct result of a consensus approach to American religious history…. The failure of religious historians to take seriously the peculiar views of groups like confessional Protestants stems in part from the desire to see religious hostilities minimized….This was the reason why Walter Lippman said that the liberal plea for tolerance and goodwill was the equivalent of telling conservatives to 'smile and commit suicide.'" (8) Couldn't the same fate befall both confessional Protestants and the evangelical heirs of the Radical Reformation and revivalism? Surely Dayton is correct when he writes,

From the strictly Reformational stand-point such "evangelical" traditions have often seemed to be "semi-heretical"-in their perfectionist tendencies, in a sometimes perceived Pelagianism, in their ethical "activism" that sometimes appears to be a form of "works-righteousness," and so on. Indeed, I would largely accept this "Reformed" judgment and be inclined to see in this line a rather consistent pattern of the rejection of "orthodox Protestant" forms of thinking (especially if one means technically the post-Reformation orthodoxy, whether Lutheran or Reformed). (9)

So What?

How one comes down on this historical business largely determines whether one approaches the current crisis in Evangelicalism as a political or a theological problem. In other words, if the heirs of Old Princeton really do "own" Evangelicalism, the goal will be to get it back and to drive out the interloping Canaanites. If, on the other hand, American Evangelicalism has always been closer to pietistic, revivalistic, and Arminian streams, then the appearance of the church growth movement, seeker-driven worship, and the growing attractiveness of alternatives to classical (i.e., Protestant scholastic) views of God, sin, salvation, and judgment may be seen as a resurgence rather than a significant departure.

I have increasingly come to adopt the latter view, which places me in the company of Don Dayton, at least on this subject. I do believe that it frees us to debate the exegetical and systematic issues rather than being forever stalled by political maneuvers and heated rhetoric over "the stealing of Evangelicalism." The real question is not whether Evangelicalism is Reformed or Wesleyan, but whether this belief or that position is soundly biblical. To tell you the truth, I'm not always sure what it is to be Reformed. I know what I mean by Reformed, which emphasizes continuity with a concrete existence of various Church bodies, but the way many use the term these days (including a lot of "Reformed" people), it seems to have more to do with Evangelicalism-a movement posing as a church.

The Presbyterian church-in the interest of consolidating Protestant hegemony in America at the turn of the twentieth century, participated in a variety of plans to forge an evangelical movement in the spirit of the New School. B. B. Warfield, no less an ecumenist than a polemicist, warned against an approach to unity that smothered genuine diversity. He wrote,

A story is told of a man who, wishing a swarm of bees, caught every bee that visited his flowers and enclosed them together in a box, only to find the difference between an aggregation and a hive. We cannot produce unity by building a great house over a divided family. Different denominations have a similar right to exist with separate congregations, and may be justified on like grounds. …Least of all, are we to seek unity by surrendering all public or organized testimony to all truth except that minimum which-just because it is the minimum, less than which no man can believe and be a Christian-all Christians of all names can unite in confessing…and this course can mean nothing other than-"Let him that believes least among you be your lawgiver." (10)

Similarly, German Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin, in his criticism of Charles Finney's theology and methods, wrote,

The system of New Measures has no affinity whatever with the life of the Reformation, as embodied in the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism…. The system in question is in its principle and soul neither Calvinism nor Lutheranism, but Wesleyan Methodism. Those who are urging it upon the old German Churches are in fact doing as much as they can to turn them over into the arms of Methodism. This may be done without any change of denominational name. Already the life of Methodism, in this country, is actively at work among other sects, which owe no fellowship with it in form…. If we must have Methodism, let us have it under its own proper title, and in its own proper shape. (11)

Making Dayton's point (on the history of American Evangelicalism) from the other side of the theological aisle, Nevin challenges us today to be something more than evangelical. And that brings us to our concluding proposal for a way forward in these tense moments where so much more than trademarks are at stake.

A New Paradigm for Evangelical Ecumenism?

More than historical curiosity is at stake in this debate. What options emerge if we accept this analysis? The first would be to attempt to fortify the pregnant paradigm of evangelical unity with new minimalist statements of faith and then, if possible, "excommunicate" offenders.

Paradigm One

Two decades ago Lewis Smedes (see the sidebar on page 26) parodied this "political" model of Evangelicalism in the Reformed Journal, responding to an article by Harold O. J. Brown in Christianity Today (December 21, 1979) that argued for the importance of removing unfaithful leaders. (12) The title of Brown's article was "The Church of the 1970s." "What struck me about the piece," Smedes said, "was that, while it was about the 1970s, it was not at all about the Church. What Brown talked about instead was something called evangelicalism." For many who think this way, "Belonging to a church comes down pretty much to espousing the right ism. Evangelicalism, as Brown writes about it, is not just a system of evangelical beliefs. The ism is a kind of power structure." Smedes asks us to imagine the following scenario:

I see a grim theologian, in a vested pin-striped suit, armed with a bulging initialed briefcase heavy with the latest Carl Henry volumes, arriving alone (via Ozark Airlines) at O'Hare Airport…. From there the small group is driven in a donated microbus to Wheaton, Illinois. After checking in at the desk and washing up, they are brought to evangelicalism's rented curial chamber in the local Holiday Inn, where about fifteen more members of the ruling circle are waiting. After an opening litany the evangelical College of Cardinals begins to discuss, in alphabetical order, this year's doubtful leaders. (13)

Smedes wonders what will happen to these leaders thus solemnly deposed. "Will their articles now always be rejected by Christianity Today? Will they be taken to court if they continue to use the word 'evangelical' in resumes? I just don't know. I know what it used to mean for the Church to excommunicate people: to bar them from the sacraments. But when Evangelicalism excommunicates a person from its fellowship or removes him from leadership, the effects must be more subtle and more spiritual" (see page 27 in this issue). From a confessional perspective, even if Evangelicalism were dominated by Reformation soteriology, it has increasingly demanded of its confessional participants the abandonment, or at least modification, of that tradition's ecclesiology. C. Norman Kraus notes, "Present-day evangelicalism remains heavily influenced by the pietist tradition, as it was modified by dispensationalist teaching. It is this spiritualistic concept of the Church as a faith reality within the heart of the individual that continues to furnish the theological rationale for the non-denominational, parachurch network of the evangelical movement." (14) Kraus avers that contemporary Evangelicalism is weakened by its nationalism and "its capitulation to the spirit of individualism, which results in an inadequate theology of the church." (15) That Kraus, a descendant of the Anabaptist tradition, could give such eloquent expression to the concern shared by Lutheran and Reformed communities marks the distance of both from the movement's dominant ethos.

Judging by my experience, Evangelicalism may be changing its theological direction but its sine qua non appears still to be this paradigm in which consensus and control for the movement makers and marginalization for the rest become the order of the day. In Paradigm One, the free exchange of ideas and frank disagreement cannot help but be stifled. An environment of political rancor over the title to evangelical hegemony will inevitably forestall the debate that Evangelicalism desperately needs for any surviving unity. (16) Ironically, the very label "evangelical" stands in the way of both clarity and unity among so-called evangelicals. We are kept from having a good argument and perhaps even finding greater agreement over the content of what we would regard as a truly evangelical theology because we are too busy wasting energies on trying to control the evangelical movement. That may be because we ourselves too often are seduced by the lure of cultural triumphalism into substituting the extraordinary "impact" of movements for the rather ordinary effect of a Word-and-Sacrament ministry.

Paradigm Two

In contrast to the first paradigm, Paradigm Two distinguishes between the fact of Evangelicalism as a sociohistorical phenomenon-the sort of thing that David Bebbington, Marsden and Dayton describe-and evangelical faith as a theologically defined body of conviction. By confusing the two, Paradigm One has spent untold resources on copyright questions, consensus management, and minimalist approaches to theological agreement. Paradigm One's adherents, whether Reformed or Wesleyan, think of Evangelicalism as their movement and their counterparts as interlopers.

I would expect Paradigm Two's advocates not only to accept the empirical reality of diversity but to encourage open exchanges that take such diversity seriously in all of its depth. Ethicist Stanley Hauwerwas has complimented the Southern Baptists for at least having had a fight in public. I don't know how public it needs to be, but evangelicals of various stripes desperately need to have an open debate about what it means to be faithful to the evangelical message and this needs to happen without the consensus-enforcing politics of Paradigm One. (17)

Our churches are spheres of discipline, but Evangel-icalism is a village green where common causes are made and discussions occur. That frees us up to interact with and, where possible, seek agreement and cooperation in common tasks. There is no power of excommunication on the village green, but that should ensure protection for irascible Calvinists and Lutherans as well as tenderhearted Arminians, as the caricature has it. In other words, I want to be able to say to my Arminian brothers and sisters that they are wrong, that their theology is subevangelical in the theological sense, even though I can acknowledge absolutely no basis for excluding them from the green. It is in the churches around the green where such discipline takes place. We can debate whether Charles Finney was "evangelical," but we cannot debate whether he was an evangelical.

This is the vision that many of us are following in what has come to be called the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. By lowering the political stakes inherent in the big tent model, we are in a better position to do theology for the Church and not just for a movement. Governed by doctrinal maximalism (see Richard Lints's article on page 22), this paradigm invites deeper projects that are in perpetual conversation with, but not subservient to, a subtradition posing as the Big Tent. The leadership of the Alliance represents a denominational spectrum that is not typical of conservative evangelical theological alliances.

Conscious that it is not a church or tribunal, this alliance exists to call attention to the resources of Reformation theology while interacting with current evangelical and nonevangelical trends and proposals. It's a lemonade stand on the green where a particular product is pushed while people gather to debate and, hopefully, enjoy its merits. Instead of seeking political-ecclesial unity and power in the culture, it seeks to revive an interest in our shared resources precisely by encouraging the distinctive contributions of each tradition. Sometimes onlookers forget just how broad the Alliance's representation is these days. Hardly dominated by one denomination, its Council includes several Lutherans, two mainline Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, independents, as well as Reformed and Presbyterian folks. Our strength, we find, lies in the deep pools of our own distinctive traditions, not in a vague "fundamentalism" that, as we are now seeing, cannot sustain succeeding generations.

It is perhaps time to consider that assessment offered by Lewis Smedes: "Evangelicalism is a fantasy-acted out, perhaps, but still a fantasy. The church is still real." (18)

Lowest Common Denominator Minimalism Versus Principled Pluralism

Ironically, one of the enduring analogies for Paradigm One has been C. S. Lewis's "mere Christianity," in which Christians of different communions leave their own living spaces for a while to enter into the hallway. Here in the hallway discussions ensue-with each other and in a common witness to non-Christians who may be brought there. Many evangelicals, especially in the United States, have taken this to mean that what goes on in the hallway is what is really important and, therefore, the real ministry to be done takes place under the auspices of parachurch agencies. But this neo-evangelical model appears to have missed Lewis's point in using this analogy when he himself writes in the introduction to Mere Christianity something that fits more with what we are calling Paradigm Two:

I hope no reader will suppose that 'mere' Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable…. And above all, you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. (19)

Unlike the big tent analogy typical of Paradigm One, here there are no political battles to be won over who is admitted and there is no minimalist and allegedly centrist creed that must be embraced. There are no copyright suits over who gets to use the label "evangelical" and, conversely, free and open debates can emerge over what it means to be truly evangelical in faith and practice. In the meantime, churches can take a new initiative in assuming the missional responsibilities that have been too often surrendered to Evangelicalism's parachurch network.

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.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, March 2nd 2001

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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