Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Problem of Evangelical Minimalism

Michael Horton, in an article for Nine Marks Journal, struggles with the question of what exactly is an evangelical.

It feels like a renewed storm, or at least a squall, has been gathering around the term "evangelical" lately. More and more self-described evangelicals are realizing that not everyone believes the same things, even about the core doctrines. In response, some have begun to write manifestos which attempt to re-articulate the characteristics of an evangelical identity. Others are authoring books and holding conferences which aim to re-center the movement as a whole. Still others have decided it's best to pitch the term altogether and call themselves "post-evangelicals."

But the problem is hardly new. It's never been easy to determine who the evangelicals are because evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement. Luther wanted his followers to be called "evangelicals," meaning gospel-people (it was his enemies who nicknamed his followers "Lutheran"). The other branch of the Reformation was also happy to share the evangelical designation (the orthodox Lutherans coined the term "Calvinists" as a way of distinguishing Reformed views of the Lord's Supper from their own). Then, with the advent of the pietism and revivalism, the label "evangelical" went in all sorts of directions. Today, it's such an ambiguous moniker that some historians find the best definition to be George Marsden's: "anybody who likes Billy Graham."

Dr. Horton goes on to describe two prominent "streams" in the history of evangelicalism: the Pietism/Revivalism stream and the Reformation stream. Of the troubling fruit from the Pietism/Revivalism stream Horton writes:

The Second Great Awakening, represented by Finney, created a system of faith and practice tailor made for a self-reliant nation. Evangelicalism—which is to say, late eighteenth-century American Protestantism—was an engine for innovations. In doctrine, it served modernity's preference for faith in human nature and progress. In worship, it transformed Word-and-Sacrament ministry into entertainment and social reform and created the first star system in the culture of celebrity. In public life, it confused the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world and imagined that Christ's reign could be made visible by the moral, social, and political activity of the saints. There was little room for anything weighty to tie the movement down, to discipline its entrepreneurial celebrities, or to question its "revivals" apart from their often short-lived publicity.
Of the Reformation Stream Horton writes:

Churchmen like Warfield and Hodge regarded themselves as evangelicals in the distinctively Reformation sense and struggled to bring American Protestantism into line with this definition. They were also staunchly committed to and personally involved with the vast missionary endeavors of their denomination at home and abroad, bringing them into constant fellowship and cooperation with other evangelicals.

Nevertheless, Warfield was already beginning to see that the tension between competing visions of evangelical identity was making it more difficult to remain an unqualified supporter of the evangelical cause. In 1920, a number of evangelicals put forward a "plan of union for evangelical churches." Warfield evaluated the "creed" of this plan, as it was being studied by Presbyterians, and observed that the new confession being proposed "contains nothing which is not believed by Evangelicals," and yet "…nothing which is not believed …by the adherents of the Church of Rome, for example." He wrote,

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 with window…There is nothing about the atonement in the blood of Christ in this creed. And that means that the whole gain of the long mediaeval search after truth is thrown summarily aside…There is nothing about sin and grace in this creed…We need not confess our sins anymore; we need not recognize the existence of such a thing. We need believe in the Holy Spirit only ‘as guide and comforter'—do not the Rationalists do the same? And this means that all the gain the whole world has reaped from the great Augustinian conflict goes out of the window with the rest…It is just as true that the gains of the still earlier debates which occupied the first age of the Church's life, through which we attained to the understanding of the fundamental truths of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ are discarded by this creed also. There is no Trinity in this creed; no Deity of Christ—or of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, Dr. Horton offers some reflections on the state of evangelicalism today:

Today, some of the ill fruit of pietism and revivalism live on. Many take it for granted that those who are most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the "unchurched"). Evangelicals are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, two camps which are typically described with nothing more than caricatures. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style ("contemporary" versus "traditional"), its politics ("compassionate conservatism" or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism's progressivist roots), and its rock star leaders, rather than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.

I realize that not all such "creeds" today are as minimalistic as the one evaluated by Warfield. Nor has American Christianity been without its own defenders of the faith. In its statement of faith the National Association of Evangelicals affirms the Trinity, the deity of Christ, "the vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood," and the necessity of a supernatural rebirth. However, there is no mention of justification—the article of a standing or falling church—and the only conviction concerning the church is belief in "the spiritual unity of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ." Baptism and the Supper are not even mentioned.

Read the entire article HERE.

No comments: