Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

D. G. Hart
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

The decade of the 1990s was not the best of times for Evangelicalism in the United States. To be sure, evangelicals continue to be a force in national politics, and they have received favorable treatment in the press, such as Alan Wolfe's positive coverage of evangelical academics in the Atlantic Monthly (October 2000). But Evangelicalism has also had to withstand several withering critiques over the last ten years from some of its most respected adherents. This soul-searching has exposed serious deficiencies in a movement that, since Billy Graham's ascendancy in 1950 as its defining figure, was supposed to be the best hope for conservative Protestantism in modern times.

The onslaught began with David Wells's No Place for Truth (1993), a book that was as much social history as it was theology. The reasons the Gordon-Conwell Theologi-cal Seminary theologian gave for Evangelicalism's decline were many. But his diagnosis pounded a single theme, namely, Evangelicalism's abandonment of theological reflection and conviction. Wells wrote, "The growth and prosperity of evangelical institutions during the 1970s and 1980s have brought with them much bureaucracy, and bureaucracy invariably smothers vision, creativity, and even theology. Leadership is now substantially in the hands of the managers, and … [t]he only semblance of cohesion that now remains is simply tactical, never theological."

A year later, Wheaton College historian, Mark A. Noll, piled on with The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). As the title implied, Noll's concern was narrower than Wells's-the intellectual vitality versus the doctrinal health of the movement. Even so, Noll's first sentence may have had more bite than Wells's sustained critique. According to Noll, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." And the reasons for Evangelicalism's deficient intellectual life were theological. Evangelicals, as Noll explained, were heirs of two specific theological tendencies, namely, dispensationalism and creationism, that distorted the relationship between the creator and creation, and that mistook flimsy exegesis and stunted theological reflection for sound reasoning.

If Noll's and Wells's books were not enough, in the final year of the decade the founding trustee of Scotland's Banner of Truth Trust, Iain H. Murray, came out with Evangelicalism Divided (2000). Although written with developments in British Evangelicalism in view, Murray's book provided yet another indictment of Evangelicalism, this time for a failure of nerve. According to Murray, "The health of the Church has always been in proportion to the extent to which, in her teaching, the difference between Christian and non-Christian has been kept sharp and clear. Once the line is blurred spiritual decline is a certainty." And part of what Murray perceived in evangelical history since 1950 was an overreaction against the belligerence that characterized fundamentalism in exchange for a form of charity that was ultimately false because it overlooked explicit departures from central Christian verities.

High Hopes

These books all exhibited a degree of disappointment that also implied higher expectations for Evangelicalism than what the movement actually delivered. No doubt, part of the frustration was that for serious Protestants Evangelicalism appeared to be the only option for preserving orthodoxy. With Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy out of the question, mainline Protestantism was the only other choice. But for Wells, Noll, and Murray, the liberal Protestantism embodied in the mainline churches was exactly the sort of danger posed by Evangelicalism's lack of theological vitality and nerve. In other words, Evangelicalism was threatening to become no different from mainline Protestantism; it was becoming managerial and political at the expense of doctrine and witness. And if Evangelicalism was no longer trustworthy, where were conservative Protestants to turn?

Yet the real problem may go deeper than Evangelicalism's recent defections. It concerns the very notion of regarding evangelical Protestantism as a conservative form of Christianity. From its origins in the revivals of the eighteenth century, Evangelicalism has displayed a novel understanding of the Protestant religion when compared to the chief characteristics of Reformation Protestantism. Perhaps the best way of describing Evangelicalism's innovative ways is by noting its ties to pietism. To put it simply, modern-day Evangelicalism is the English-speaking version of the seventeenth-century reaction against formalism and creedalism in Protestantism when the heart triumphed over the head, ethics over doctrine and spiritual zeal of the Word and Sacrament.

Definitions of pietism vary, in part because of the different historical circumstances in which it emerged. Technically speaking, pietism originated among German Lutherans during the seventeenth century, and its defining characteristic was to locate the essence of Christianity in "the heart." This is why pietistic Protestants stress the conversion experience where the heart is "strangely warmed," small group or individual Bible study where God speaks to the heart, and moral earnestness which reflects a changed heart. Ironically, a Roman Catholic, the Jansenist, Saint-Cyran, may have offered the best definition of pietism when he said, "The essence of piety is in the right ordering of the heart . . . in a heart living in this dependence and peace. It is not in the sacraments, not even in that of the body of Christ." Another Roman Catholic, James Tunstead Burtchaell, recently and perceptively added that pietism is known above all for "the primacy of spirit over letter, commitment over institution, affect over intellect, laity over clergy, invisible church over visible." As such, the heart religion of pietism, Burtchaell adds, "repressed any strong sense of the visible church." Evangelicals may have trouble finding themselves in this portrait of pietism, but thanks to their reliance upon revivalism and the transforming experience of the individual's decision for Christ, evangelical Protestants have neglected creeds, rituals, and Church order because these religious formalities are superficial and do not affect the heart.

As the inheritors of pietism's emphasis on the subjective side of Christianity, evangelicals have been unlikely exponents of the things that Protestants have historically conserved. Evangelicalism's natural instincts, for instance, are to disregard those matters, such as creeds, liturgy, and Church polity, that the Protestant reformers implemented as part of their effort in reforming the Church. Evangelicals have made conversion and a high view of the Bible the tests of orthodoxy rather than theology, worship, and ordination. As such, over the course of the twentieth century, conservative Protestantism has been defined more by the kind of mass meetings at which Billy Graham speaks than by the practices in which pastors typically engage such as preaching, the Sacra-ments, and church assemblies. In other words, pietism, the innovator in Protestant history, through Evangelicalism's sway has become synonymous with religious conservatism. This is ironic at least because pietism was not designed to preserve Protestant orthodoxy or church structures but was to be an engine of renewal.

Two important Protestant theologians of nineteenth-century America saw the tension between Evangelicalism's innovations and Protestantism's traditional ways. The first was William Julius Mann (1819-1893), an emigrant to the United States in 1845 and minister at St. Michael's and Zion's Congregation in Philadelphia, who defended Lutheran confessionalism against Protestant revivalism. In A Plea for the Augsburg Confession (1856), Mann argued that historic Lutheran beliefs and practices, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, catachesis, and the legitimate authority of pastors could not be sustained by the theology and methods of revivalism. In sum, Lutheran piety, according to Mann, was essentially churchly and involved participation in the forms and doctrines of Lutheranism as opposed to Evangelicalism's appeal to the solitary convert endeavoring to lead a holy life.

Perhaps even more penetrating than Mann's analysis of Evangelicalism's weakness was John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) who in The Anxious Bench (1843) diagnosed the revivals of the Second Great Awakening with breathtaking insight. Of course, part of this book's importance stems from Nevin's astute criticism of Charles Grandison Finney's "new measures." But in his conclusion, Nevin offered powerful observations about general trends within American Protestantism. "Two different theories of religion," according to Nevin, were "at war." Finney's anxious bench stood for a shallow system of Christianity in which converts pulled themselves up by their experiential bootstraps. "With very little instruction, and almost no examination," Nevin wrote, "all who can persuade themselves that they are converted, are at once hailed as brethren and sisters … and with as little delay as possible gathered into the full communion of the Church." The rival theory of religion was that of the catechism. By this he did not mean simply the catachesis of young Christians. Instead, for Nevin the catechism symbolized a comprehensive and churchly system of Christian teaching and practice that revolved around sermons, teaching in the Church, pastoral visitations, and, of course, catechesis. In sum, the catechism symbolized "patient perseverance in the details of ministerial work," that is, in the "agencies, by which alone the kingdom of God may be expected to go steadily forward." The differences between these two ways of religion were so great that Nevin could conclude, "The Bench is against the Catechism, and the Catechism against the Bench."

The Genuine Article

So ingrained in perceptions of American religion is the idea that Evangelicalism is essentially conservative that it is hard to know what to do with Nevin and Mann. If they are conservative Protestants and opposed to the pietism that has defined American Evangelicalism, then, what are they? The word that best describes the form of Protestantism represented by these Reformed and Lutheran theologians is confessionalism. Confessional Protestantism has been one part of the American Protestant mosaic, although often overlooked, that in contrast to pietism emphasizes the corporate and covenantal dimensions of the way Christianity is passed on and appropriated. To put this difference simply, whereas pietism stresses the sovereign individual who makes Christianity his own faith, confessionalism emphasizes the ingrafting of the believer into the community of faith. Consequently, instead of making the individual's experience the defining feature of genuine faith as pietism tends to do, confessionalism reverses the process and makes those things that bind Christians together in the body of Christ-creed, worship, and polity-the norms for individual Christians.

Although some may want to minimize the contrast between confessionalism and pietism-and to be sure it is not absolute-this tension is important for assessing American Evangelicalism and what, if anything, went wrong with the movement over the last decade. Because of its debt to pietism and its subsequent suspicion of religious structures and forms, Evangelicalism has not been well suited to be the standard-bearer for conservative Protestantism. In fact, had Evangelicalism's critics and supporters been more aware of the movements' anti-clerical, anti-creedal, and anti-liturgical tendencies, they might have had lower expectations for the movement and perhaps looked to other sectors of American Protestantism for encouragement. But they did not, and the main reason is that evangelicalism continues to enjoy the reputation of being the only conservative option. Until Evangelicals and observers of the movement recognize that Evangelicalism has been in important ways corrosive of those aspects of Christianity that the Protestant reformers held dear, we will likely see many more books expressing severe disappointment with born-again religion.

Thursday, June 7th 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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