A Symposium: Six Evangelicals Assess Their Movement
In this forum, a diverse group of Evangelicals discuss the state of Evangelicalism today and other matters. (We are planning to run similar forums on the Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline churches in the next year.) The answers begin with those of Russell Moore, as a member of our editorial board, followed by the others in alphabetical order.
How do you define “Evangelical” in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?
Russell Moore: Several years ago, I found a book for those who “grew up born again.” Like similar books for “cradle Catholics” and others, this book listed cultural artifacts of growing up in an Evangelical home.
The list is long, and I could expand it even more: the “Our Daily Bread” container of Bible verse flash cards on the table, the sparkly picture over one’s bed of the angel ushering two children across a bridge, the fact that one knows how to respond to the sentence “God is good” with the words “all the time” and to fill in the blanks of the offertory prayer, “Dear Lord, bless the _____ and the _____” (it’s “gift” and “giver” for those of you whose roots are in Geneva, Rome, or Constantinople rather than Wheaton or Nashville).
In many ways, that kind of cultural identity has replaced in some quarters the definition of Evangelical Christianity, at its best: the merger of Reformation confessionalism and revivalist conversionism. Evangelicalism is Protestant, and thoroughly so: The sola statements of the Reformation represent how Evangelicals understand what it means to be centered upon Christ. Evangelicalism is also inexplicable apart from a sense of Great Commission urgency to seek and save that which is lost.
The definition has indeed changed over the past half-century. What would have been considered non-negotiable for Evangelical identity fifty years ago (the truthfulness of Scripture, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ) is now often considered “Fundamentalist.”
I think the term “Evangelical” is less and less of value. I rarely use it of myself, except in the broadest of terms to describe myself to someone in another tradition. On Sunday morning, I do not go to an “Evangelical” church, but to Ninth and O Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church with which I am in holy covenant and through which I cooperate with like-minded churches across the country to fulfill the Great Commission.
The people to whom I am held accountable share with me a common confession of faith—one that includes Great Tradition affirmations such as the deity of Christ and the virgin birth and Reformation distinctives such as justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. The sermon is central, and concludes with a call for unbelievers to identify publicly with Christ and his church. If that’s “Evangelical,” so be it.
Denny Burk: Evangelicals believe and proclaim the evangel (i.e., the gospel) of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of commitment to the gospel could describe almost every “believing Christian,” but several notable features distinguish Evangelical Christians from the liberal mainlines on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other.
Evangelicals trace all of their beliefs to the inspired Scriptures, which they believe to be the sole authority for faith and practice. American Evangelicals have stressed the inerrancy of Scripture as a necessary condition of its authority (see the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).
In addition, Evangelicals recognize the decrepit condition of humanity because of sin and the inability of any person to contribute anything to his own salvation from sin’s effects and punishment. Evangelicals therefore rely on Christ’s substitutionary atonement as God’s only way of salvation for sinners who have been alienated from their Maker.
In the Evangelical way, the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work are communicated to the sinner by grace alone through faith alone in the person of Christ alone. Thus, Evangelicals typically stress the need for conversion: that a sinner would repent of his sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals also believe in the necessity and urgency of evangelism.
John Franke: I define “Evangelical” as a diverse group of Protestant churches, organizations, and individuals who share particular convictions about Christianity. These include the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, the authority of the Bible, the significance of personal conversion in the life of faith, and an emphasis on evangelism.
While Evangelicals are found among the many Protestant traditions, not all believing Protestants are Evangelicals. In this sense, Evangelicalism is a trans-denominational movement or phenomenon, meaning that those who share its basic characteristics and embrace the Evangelical label hold a wide variety of theological positions in accordance with their ecclesial and confessional commitments. Hence, the term signifies a fairly loose group of Christians who have always been characterized by considerable theological plurality. For some, this makes the term problematic, since it is unable to specify more detailed commitments.
From my perspective, this concern misunderstands the nature of the term. It does not reflect a specific confessional commitment so much as it indicates a general outlook on the Christian faith that can be situated in a broad range of church traditions. I don’t think things have really changed much, but I know that it depends on whom you ask.
Darryl Hart: Evangelicalism is characterized by the born-again experience and a high regard for the Bible. These traits have made Evangelicalism essentially anti-formal. What matters is one’s personal relationship with Jesus instead of belonging to the church.
This anti-formalism not only disregards ecclesiastical or liturgical manners but has little use for mediation of any kind (even though the Bible itself is a medium of divine revelation). For Evangelicalism, the true Christian receives faith and truth directly from God, either through the Holy Spirit or the pages of Holy Writ.
Evangelical anti-formalism arose during the Great Awakening of the 1740s under the auspices of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. Skepticism about religious formality—merely going through the motions—has typified born-again Protestantism ever since. For this reason, an Evangelical is a Christian first, a member of a specific denomination or communion second.
Michael Horton: I suppose a historian might say that it is a movement with sources in the Protestant Reformation, yet augmented or even radically altered by pietism and revivalism. A sociologist might invoke George Marsden’s quip, “Someone who likes Billy Graham.”
A theological definition is more difficult. Ironically, it is a largely anti-creedal, anti-theological movement that has nevertheless defended the “Fundamentals” enshrined in historic Christianity more faithfully than many creedal and confessional denominations. Probably all major parties would agree that the movement is committed to the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, a high and central view of Christ’s person and work, the need for a supernatural rebirth, and Christ’s second coming. Conversion and evangelization seem to be the uniting factors.
David Lyle Jeffrey: Historically, the term “Evangelical” has characterized Christians who have construed their faithfulness to Christ in terms inspired by and imitative of his original proclamation of the Good News (Luke 4) and in obedience to his final admonition in the Great Commission (Matt. 28). To take obvious historical examples, whether in the early church, the Franciscan evangelists of the late Middle Ages, or the Evangelical revivalism of the eighteenth century under the Wesleys and others, Evangelicals have historically been those for whom following Christ has included an extroverted apostolic dimension.
In this way, Evangelicals have tended to incline to what spiritual writers call the “active life,” as distinct from the “contemplative life” of more meditative, locally rooted, deeply prayer-centered and intercessory forms of Christian obedience such as we associate to varying degrees with Benedictine and Cistercian spirituality in the Middle Ages or, more recently, with some Quakers and with some of the Anabaptist movements, such as the Mennonites.
It is clear that the Body of Christ, to be fully obedient, needs both Martha and Mary. Evangelicals have usually been most naturally sympathetic to Martha, though they are at their most fruitful, I think, when pursuing the “mixed life,” combining a deep and worshipful practice of prayer with an outward-reaching apostolate.
In North America, probably at least since the time of Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody, Evangelicalism has in some Protestant venues emphasized conversion and revivalism at the expense of the works of mercy characteristic of earlier Evangelical obedience, and thus more recently to develop an overtly political presence of the same character. In their public role, some Evangelicals have tended to emphasize certain parts of the Good News, doubtless, at the expense of others.
Thus, while North American Evangelicals are surely still committed to proclamation, it is perhaps fair to say that it is not always the fuller-orbed gospel, such as was preached, for example, during the time of Wesley, Whitefield, and Wilberforce, that is proclaimed among us now. But, as Michael Lindsay has shown in his newly published Faith in the Halls of Power, the tendency of media stereotypes to oversimplify Evangelical positions in the political sphere has too frequently been at the expense of a far richer, multifaceted truth concerning Evangelical worldviews.
Generalizations about Evangelicals in any earlier period, I might add, have similarly been prone to collective misrepresentation and, consequently, to scapegoating.
Has Evangelicalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?
Moore: Yes. On the positive side, Evangelical bravado has been tapered back a bit. I realize that sounds remarkable to onlookers who wonder how one can see any humility watching Evangelical television or reading Evangelical political propaganda. We were even worse before.
The beginnings of the twentieth-century Evangelical movement seemed to believe that Billy Graham was only the beginning of a phenomenon that would sweep the world. Evangelical leaders such as theologian Carl F. H. Henry spoke of building great Evangelical universities and magazines and newspapers and mission boards, agencies that would provide an Evangelical alternative, in their view, to the universalizing claims of Catholicism and Marxism.
Reading the early manifestoes of the Evangelical movement, one almost hears the view of the culture that some neo-conservatives gave of Iraq prior to the war: “We will be greeted as liberators.” Much of the rhetoric on cultural transformation this side of the eschaton is now put in much more humble terms in the most influential sectors of Evangelicalism.
Burk: Somewhere around the middle part of the last century, a narrow and secluded Fundamentalism began to give way to what Harold Ockenga called the “new Evangelicalism” (or neo-Evangelicalism). Whereas the older Fundamentalism operated with a “siege mentality” in constant reaction to the encroachments of modernity, neo-Evangelicals called for Christians to engage the culture with the biblical message.
Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism ignited a revolt against Fundamentalism’s anti-intellectualism and embraced the life of the mind as a matter of Christian discipleship and witness. Billy Graham’s massive crusade ministry typified the ecumenical spirit of neo-Evangelicalism—a spirit that transcended denominational lines but that remained nevertheless thoroughly Protestant.
Since the work of these trailblazers, Evangelicals have re-engaged the intellectual and cultural mainstream and no longer sit secluded from it. By the latter half of the twentieth century, Evangelicals had come into their own institutionally and as a subculture (if not a counterculture). They could boast of a bevy of institutions, universities, seminaries, and publishing houses.
Franke: Since no one has a proprietary claim on the term and differences abound, it’s tough to assess the question of maturity. However, I would say that in an academic sense Evangelicalism has clearly matured in terms of its intellectual engagement with culture and scholarship.
In the middle of the last century, very few Evangelicals were highly respected in the broader world of biblical studies, F. F. Bruce being a notable exception. Today Evangelical biblical scholars are among the best in the world. They are prominent in the Society of Biblical Literature and produce high-quality academic books and journal articles that demand attention in the guild. I think a similar development has started to take place in the discipline of theology more recently, and I expect that, in time, Evangelical theologians will enjoy the same widespread reputation as Evangelical biblical scholars.
Evangelical voices are part of broader biblical and theological conversations in ways that were not the case in the 1950s. I think this is a significant form of maturity that also brings greater opportunities to bear witness to Evangelical convictions.
Hart: American Evangelicalism has certainly grown beyond the time when conservative Protestants created a number of institutions—the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), Christianity Today (1956)—to rival the structures of mainline Protestantism. In 1950, figures such as Billy Graham and Carl Henry spearheaded the movement. This meant that Evangelicalism promoted at least the mass urban revivalism for which Graham was legendary and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy that Henry courageously defended.
Evangelicalism still relies on parachurch ministries but revivalism seems to be on the decline. The doctrine of inerrancy lost much of its saliency as a crucial ingredient of Evangelicalism after the rise of the Religious Right and Evangelical preoccupation with the culture wars.
Horton: From my perspective, yes and no. Certainly the first generation of the “neo-Evangelicals” (Carl Henry, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, John Stott, and others) moved beyond reactionary Fundamentalism and built institutions that sustained a vital witness within mainline denominations and also provided an international network of parachurch agencies for cooperative mission.
The early issues of Christianity Today reflect a passionate zeal for truth that was fed by pretty deep theological wells and was not afraid to engage sophisticated theological trends in a critically constructive manner. All of us engaged in theology today are indebted to this generation. As these conservative Protestants sought deeper theological resources, they inevitably reawakened interest in the continuity of Evangelical witness from the ancient church to the present and provided a forum for an informal ecumenism that has continued.
Although there was always a decided preference for conservative politics, these mid-century pioneers stood in some contrast to the single-issue politics of the Christian right that developed in the 1980s. For example, they were generally more vocally opposed to racism and economic and environmental exploitation than some conservative Protestants today.
Jeffrey: Sic et non. If we think of the role of Evangelicals in higher education, for example, we see that the charges of intellectual poverty made by Carl Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism (1949) and by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) have begun to be answered in some measure, in some quarters. For example, more academics and professionals in all fields are willing to be identified as Evangelicals than was the case fifty years ago.
But this welcome development has been complicated, nevertheless, by evidence that a very high percentage of Evangelical undergraduates either lapse altogether or move to other Christian worship traditions during graduate school or in their early career years. Evangelicalism in North America has yet to become fully effective in nurturing thoughtful or educated Christians.
Reformed churches have generally done much better in this regard, yet recently many Reformed as well as Evangelical intellectuals have found themselves theologically and liturgically more at home in Catholic churches: one thinks readily of such thinkers as Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Graeme and Ian Hunter, Frank Beckwith—but the list is both longer and weightier than these few names suggest.
Has Evangelicalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?
Moore: The Evangelical movement has “matured” out of Fundamentalism in some of the worst ways. Yes, Fundamentalism was often narrow, often legalistic, and often tied to an inordinate fear of contamination by the outside culture.
In our flight from Fundamentalism, however, many of us—individuals and churches—have become mired in just what the Fundamentalists warned us we would: worldliness. The carnality in many Evangelical churches is astounding, not just at the obvious level of sensuality, but also at the less obvious (to us, anyway) level of covetousness, love of money, and celebrity worship.
Burk: Unfortunately, as Evangelicalism has come into its own both institutionally and as a subculture, it has been faced with the question of its own identity. Is there a doctrinal center that defines Evangelicalism? David Wells has speculated in his watershed book No Place for Truth whether there ever has been a confessional center to Evangelicalism.
In defining itself against liberal Protestants on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other, much of Evangelicalism has become seriously deficient of ecclesiology and of the Great Tradition in general. To some extent, this situation has led to the contemporary decay of the movement.
The first generation of neo-Evangelicals were theological trailblazers, but the generations that followed have tended to be led by managerial types who are more prone to pragmatism than to theological and devotional rigor. Thus, Evangelicalism has shifted away from its doctrinal distinctives and has increasingly become more of a market brand than a doctrinal flag.
Franke: It has experienced, and continues to experience, the normal growing pains that are a natural part of the maturing process, but I don’t think it has lost anything essential to its nature. If anything, it needs to continue to grow and develop far more than it needs to try to recover some aspect of its past.
Hart: What seems to have changed markedly among Evangelicals is a willingness to combat doctrinal error. When Evangelicals strove to put together a movement of conservative Protestants around 1950, they were clearly in opposition to liberal Protestantism, secularism, and Roman Catholicism.
The only enemy of those three that remains is secularism. This could be a sign of growing ecumenism among Evangelicals. I take it instead as an indication of theological confusion and the triumph of an impoverished view of tolerance.
Horton: With growing successes in popular culture, Evangelicalism increasingly risks becoming assimilated by it. Obsessed with its own relevance, the movement has shown that it is as capable of surrendering its soul to the mall just as mainline Protestantism has largely offered itself to the academy. Often mixed with a genuine concern for reaching non-Christians, winning respect has become a major motive.
Sociologist Christian Smith has recently described American spirituality as “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” and he says that this fits those raised in Evangelical churches as well as any others. If Fundamentalism reduced sin to sin s (or at least things they considered vices), contemporary Evangelicals seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriages, and happier kids.
Are there any fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?
Moore: Yes, there are fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement, and I think the first way to heal them is to stop worrying about the movement.
I’ve found that some of the harshest “inside the tent” critics of Evangelicals share the basic assumptions of the early pioneers of the movement: that a constellation of parachurch ministries and institutions, unaccountable to specific local churches, can have an identity at all. Indeed, I’ve found that some of the harshest critics of Evangelicalism are often also the least ecclesially situated, and thus the most prone to the individualism that, it is asserted, threatens Evangelicalism—whatever that is.
There are serious problems in Evangelical Christianity today, including some things I would reject as outright heresy: pluralism and feminism and the rejection of God’s knowledge of the future, for example. The best way to deal with these issues is not, however, in more Evangelical manifestoes but in strong, healthy, disciplined, evangelistic churches—Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, non-denominational, and so forth.
Burk: The differences are too many and too complex to enumerate here, but we would do well to mention some that have been in the foreground of discussion.
The Emergent Village wing of the emerging church has been chipping away at the theological and moral foundation of the Evangelical movement. For instance, “Evangelicals” such as Brian McLaren have called for an Evangelical moratorium on calling homosexuality sin. Steve Chalke has suggested that the penal substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement is a form of “cosmic child abuse.”
Open theism has been embraced by many Evangelicals who insist that God cannot know the future choices of his free creatures. This particular teaching has thrown classical notions of the doctrine of God into disarray.
We might also mention that nearly every feature of my definition of Evangelicalism is to some extent a matter of dispute within the movement. At Fuller Seminary, for instance, the issue of inerrancy divided the faculty before being jettisoned as an essential Evangelical doctrine. Some Evangelicals are openly speculating whether it is necessary for a sinner to have explicit faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
One, for instance, suggested in 2004 in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society that there is a “reformed” version of inclusivism that may very well find support in Scripture. This kind of thinking calls into question the necessity of conversion and the urgency of evangelism and missions, all of which have been hallmarks of the Evangelical movement.
All of these are fundamental issues that beg the question of what Evangelicalism’s confessional boundaries are. The only way to heal the breaches is for Evangelicals to find their unity in the truth of the gospel, just as Jesus prayed (John 17:13–21). Yet agreeing upon the center of this “truth” is precisely what has eluded the Evangelical movement.
Franke: For all the material theological plurality present among Evangelicals, I think the most significant difference is related to how we approach theology.
This has been described as a difference between “traditionalists” and “reformists” or between “conservatives” and “postconservatives.” Some on both sides use terms that are less flattering than these of those on the other side, like “Fundamentalist” or “liberal,” and this indicates that for some Evangelicals these differences have already deepened into more permanent divisions.
I believe that we need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening. We are all part of the one church of Jesus Christ and Scripture calls on us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Doing this amid our differences may in fact be one of the most important parts of the Evangelical witness to the world.
To do this, we need to stay in conversation with each other and to resist sectarianism for the sake of the gospel. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to me to be active in both the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion and the Evangelical Theological Society.
Hart: The borders of Evangelicalism used to be circumscribed by Pentecostalism and Dispensationalism. The post-WWII movement was broad and included Charismatics and a diversity of views regarding the end times. But Evangelicalism was not as definite about the gifts of the Spirit or about the unfolding of Christ’s return as some Pentecostals and Dispensationalists hoped.
For this reason, Evangelicalism existed in some tension with these other groups. Today, charismatic Christianity is entirely respectable within Evangelical circles, and Dispensationalism has been under revision for at least a decade.
Arguably the greatest tension within Evangelicalism currently concerns the movement’s relationship to electoral politics. The older generation of Evangelical spokesmen, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, is gradually being replaced (informally and mainly through the mainstream media) by a younger generation, including people like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Jim Wallis.
The younger (though hardly youthful) Evangelical leaders are reluctant to participate in the culture wars and have embraced causes fairly distinct from those that defined the Religious Right. A Left-Right political struggle could well be the next fault-line within Evangelicalism.
Horton: At its best, Evangelicalism early on (in Britain and North America) offered a united witness for what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.”
As Lewis observed, no one can live in this hallway. Christians are nurtured in particular rooms (i.e., traditions), but they come into the hallway for fellowship and common witness. The problem, of course, is that the rooms are different indeed: Anabaptists and Anglicans, Arminians and Calvinists, Methodists and Lutherans, and increasingly, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
From my perspective, while pietism may have enriched the Reformation churches to some extent, the heritage of revivalism represents a counter-Reformation that in many respects went even further than Trent in the direction of Pelagianism. Hence, on his American visit, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could refer to the religious scene as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” In both faith and practice, Reformation Christianity differs from the sort of Evangelicalism represented, for example, by Charles Finney, more radically than it does with Rome or Orthodoxy.
So there is the Reformation stream, which has always had an influence beyond its numbers, particularly through immigration of confessional Protestants and the legacy of Old Princeton, and then there is the revivalist stream, which feeds into the vast ocean of Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Christianity. When you add the growing popularity of Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, as well as fresh appreciation for the heritage of Protestant liberalism among some younger theologians, Evangelicalism may increasingly be incapable of theological definition.
The irony in all of this is that Evangelicals seem to be camping out in the hallway. Blending their own cocktail, Evangelicals may show appreciation for a variety of traditions without ever belonging to any one.
Jeffrey: In the United States, political differences among self-proclaimed Evangelicals are of course quite evident on any number of issues: Currently among the most fractious are immigration, environmentalism, Iraq, foreign policy more generally in the Middle East, approaches to poverty, abortion, and sexual ethics (sometimes defined under the term “family values”). Theological issues, such as the “openness of God” debate, formulae for signature doctrines such as justification and sanctification, and, in the manner of public worship, contestation over music styles are only a few of the many other sources of division.
For example, the deepening divide between Republicans and Democrats among Baptists in America may well accentuate already-existing regional fractiousness in the South and Southwest, where politics and culture coding can occasionally be more important than any other issue in denominational alignment. Charismatic influence continues to be a source of liturgical as well as theological tension in many quarters.
Yet simultaneously one can now find Baptists and other Evangelicals beginning to borrow Anglican liturgy and Catholic guides to the life of prayer, both of which in our parents’ generation would have been unthinkable.
In an increasingly post-denominational ecclesiastical culture, it seems to me well within the range of the possible that there may emerge a new high-common-denominator Evangelical ecumenism in which some aspects of the wall of partition between Evangelicals and Catholics breaks down as Christians really begin to pray the gospel, that is, to pray with our Lord his high priestly prayer in John 17, that we may all be one, even as he and the Father are One. If there is a stumbling-block chapter in the Gospels that Evangelicals have overlooked to their detriment, this may be it.
What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?
Moore: Two things. First, that Jesus did not die for a “movement” but for a church. Second, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
Burk: Evangelicals often fail to see the extent to which they are shaped by their culture. In many cases, Evangelicalism appears to be a subculture, imbibing the spirit of the age and existing quite comfortably alongside it. Many Evangelicals could tell you more about the Republican party platform than they could about the Trinity or Christ’s atonement.
Yet the biblical gospel commends a way of life that is radically countercultural. The gospel pushes against the currents of secularism even as it engages secularism on its own terms and transforms it.
Nevertheless, nearly every stream of the prevailing culture has a corresponding tributary within the Evangelical movement. Postmodern epistemological cynicism finds an expression within the Emergent Village. Feminism reveals itself among the Evangelical egalitarians. Materialism has a counterpart in the damning prosperity “gospel,” which is all the rage among the televangelists.
All of this reveals that Evangelicals have lost their theological footing and to some extent their witness to the gospel itself.
Franke: I think the most significant thing Evangelicalism as a whole fails to fully appreciate is the ways in which our theological and biblical interpretation is always a contextual enterprise. Evangelical theology, conservative or postconservative, has been thoroughly shaped by its participation in the dominant North American cultural trends.
This has meant that in both the AAR (American Academy of Religion) and the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society), as well as in much of the church, Evangelicalism is largely a white, middle-class movement that has been dominated by males. I think this is a serious problem for us since we are committed to the idea that the gospel is for all the people of the world. Given this belief, the fact that our movement is still largely monocultural in the midst of a multicultural society ought to signal to us that we have a serious disconnect somewhere.
By and large, Evangelicals have accommodated the gospel and Christianity to the dominant cultural assumptions of our society. I believe that if North American Evangelicalism is going to continue to play a leading role in what God is doing in our world, we will need to change our ways.
Hart: Evangelicals have rarely understood that the lowest-common-denominator Christianity they have used to achieve success (and to move the mainline Protestant churches off the front page) does not do justice to the fullness of biblical truth. To their credit, Evangelicals revere Scripture and continue to know their Bibles as well as any group of American Christians.
But they do not see that their sacred book has a lot more to say than the fairly brief list of essential doctrines that Evangelicals use for fellowship. This means that although being a Presbyterian looks like a narrower version of Christian—it certainly has fewer members—it is broader in the sense that its creeds, catechism, directory of worship and church government go into much more detail about the teaching of Scripture than Evangelicalism.
Consequently, as demographically broad as Evangelicalism may look, it is theologically narrow when compared to other historic Christian traditions.
Horton: J. I. Packer once described American Christianity as three thousand miles wide and an inch deep. Although he intended this as a critique, theological and spiritual channel-surfing is now celebrated as a virtue. Surveys reveal that a huge percentage (some studies have it as high as 80 percent) of those reared in Evangelical churches drop out of church by their sophomore year in college.
One thinks of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. The seed is the Word of God, but the soil is the church, where the covenant becomes a living reality both “for you and your children and for all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (Acts 2:39).
I think we have failed to see that emotional summer-camp experiences cannot sustain a robust faith through the trials of real life. So, ironically, while Evangelicalism celebrates reaching the lost, it is losing the reached.
I am concerned that Evangelicalism is proving the thesis that when the gospel is reduced to simplistic jargon and is taken for granted in the life of the church, the next generation even forgets the slogans. Among other things, generational marketing is destroying the fabric of covenantal continuity.
The gospel is never an “of course.” It is always surprising, counterintuitive, even offensive—even to life-long Christians. Taking the gospel for granted or confusing it with our own political, social, moral, and cultural campaigns is seriously weakening the church’s life and testimony today.
Jeffrey: Much. To begin with, in our competition to be culturally “more relevant than thou” we have often forgotten that “what you win them with is what you win them to”: One doesn’t need to look far among our churches to see by what self-generated determinism we have exemplified Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message.” Yet for Evangelicals, Scripture itself, the sanctifying word hidden in the heart and ready on the lips, is our only Message of value.
Perhaps it is not too much to say that our “old, old story” has been too frequently overshadowed by the glitzy show-biz media we have tended to use to proclaim it. In the pursuit of numbers, or of bigger-is-better budgets and “importance,” we have in my own view often been too uncritical of the relation of means to ends.
We entertain, we preach to the choir, we provide creature comforts and go to great lengths to be altogether user-friendly. Meanwhile, the “one thing most needful” has generally suffered among us in inverse proportion to the scale by which our organizational machinery tends to focus on all things bigger and better.
Another blind spot is an uncritical identification of radical individualism with the Christ-life, and a corresponding resistance to connecting faithfulness to Christ with love of neighbor and pursuit of the common good (Matt. 22:37–40).
What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?
Moore: There are some Evangelicals who genuinely become convinced that the truth claims of Rome or Antioch are persuasive. If that’s the case, one should indeed become Catholic or Orthodox rather than attempting to convince Shiloh Baptist Church to use icons or King James Bible Church of the benefits of venerating Mary.
Most Evangelicals I’ve encountered who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox, however, are going to make quite poor Catholic or Orthodox churchmen. I type that with fear, knowing many exceptions to this—including some colleagues on our editorial board.
Most young Evangelicals I’ve known who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox quite frankly aren’t heading in that direction because they’ve been convinced by Cardinal Newman’s critique of sola Scriptura or because they’ve found papal authority in the patristic writings. Instead, many of them become Catholic or Orthodox because they are tired of dealing with sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Evangelicals.
Just as some Catholics moving in this direction assume that every Evangelical church is sparkling with the warm piety of those who have personal relationships with Jesus (only to find otherwise), some Evangelicals tempted to leave seem to think all Catholics are Walker Percy or Richard John Neuhaus or that all Orthodox are Maximos the Confessor.
Many are then really disappointed to find what any Catholic or Orthodox person could have told them—that they will be dealing with some sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Catholics or Orthodox. Anyone on a search for Mount Zion will be continually disappointed unless he finds it in the New Jerusalem.
Burk: I would counsel him not to be deceived by the marketing and pragmatism of popular Evangelicalism. The current rot within Evangelical subculture does not accurately reflect the richness of its theological heritage. Fundamentally, the Evangelical faith is rooted in the solas of the Reformation, which are themselves rooted in the confessions of the ecumenical creeds, which are themselves rooted in the inscripturated apostolic witness to Christ.
Timothy George has written that he would have counseled Francis Beckwith to press more deeply into this tradition before crossing over to Rome. And I agree with George, who writes that Beckwith “might have found deeper resources and a sturdier faith than that on offer in much of pop Evangelical culture today. He would certainly have found there a way of thinking and a pattern of Christian life much more resonant with the apostolic witness and the orthodox faith he so clearly loves.”
Franke: First, I have great admiration for both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox traditions. They are vital parts of the Body of Christ, worthy of honor and respect as co-laborers with Evangelical Protestants in the ministry of the gospel.
Having said this, significant differences exist between us concerning the nature of authority and grace. Both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions maintain that the authority and grace of God are mediated through the agency of the historical and institutional church. For Evangelicals, the genuine significance of the church in the economy of God does not in any way imply that the church has been fully entrusted with authority or given control over the dispensation of grace in the world. These belong to God and God alone.
Hence, in spite of the genuine problems of Evangelicalism, particularly in the area of ecclesiology, I would encourage someone who was tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox to remain Evangelical while working to establish more faithful and fruitful forms of ecclesiology. However, I have little doubt that the conversion traffic will continue to move in every direction and trust that God is at work even in this.
Hart: Look before you leap. I certainly appreciate the frustration that many Evangelicals have with the movement’s informality and lack of substance.
Rome and Constantinople offer more in the way of liturgy, ecclesiology, and even moral guidance. But as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, Evangelicals contemplating the other Christian traditions need to think carefully about how they are right with God and the nature of the redeeming work of Christ. The Protestant Reformers answered such questions in decidedly different ways from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. So to switch Christianities may be more of a change than frustrated Evangelicals are prepared to accept.
Horton: I recognize the attractions. Raised in conservative Evangelicalism myself, I was introduced to a wider and deeper heritage through Reformed churches. As its name suggests, the Evangelical movement of the sixteenth century was an attempt to reform the church, not to start a new one. Unlike much of Evangelicalism today, these confessing Evangelicals had a high view of the creeds and confessions as subordinate authorities as summaries of God’s Word, of the sacraments as means of grace alongside the Word, and of an ordered worship, catechesis, and discipline as aimed at driving the gospel deeper into our hearts.
Starved for mystery, transcendence, maturity, order, theological richness, liturgy, and history, many young Evangelicals are discovering Reformation Christianity. Yet for some, it is only a rest stop on the way to Rome or Orthodoxy.
Here’s how I would counsel such a person: Start with the gospel. The gospel creates and sustains the church, not the other way around. If the Evangelicalism familiar to you has been a constant stream of imperatives—moral exhortation, whether in rigid and legalistic or warm and friendly versions—the antidote is not to follow different rules for attaining justification, but a constant, life-long, unremitting immersion in the good news that Jesus Christ’s obedient life, death, and resurrection are sufficient even to save miserable Christians.
That is what the Reformation was all about, and it is why we need another one, even in Protestantism as much as in any other tradition. If our salvation depends on anything done by us or even within us by the Spirit, then our situation is hopeless.
Despite their own differences, Rome and Orthodoxy are at one in telling us in their official doctrinal statements that this message is wrong—not just in emphasis, but in the doctrine itself. According to Roman Catholic teaching, it is a serious error—heresy, in fact—to believe that we are accepted by God in Jesus Christ apart from any virtuous activity on our part and while we remain in ourselves actually sinful. Our meritorious activity must play some part in our final justification, according to both Rome and Orthodoxy.
One might hear more of God’s grace in the Mass or in John of Damascus’ The Orthodox Faith than in a month of Sundays in many Protestant churches today, even some of our own churches that are confessionally bound to teach otherwise. But in Rome’s official teaching, not to mention in its popular piety, the doctrine that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—apart from any inherent righteousness—remains “anathema.”
As the Vatican made clear, the Joint Declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and Rome regarding justification in no way rescinds or qualifies Trent. Only because the LWF partners no longer believe what Trent condemned could the ban be lifted.
There are many insights that we can—indeed, should—learn from the wisdom of these traditions and from ecumenical conversations. Distance breeds suspicion, while personal interaction often not only dispels caricatures but also provides opportunities for genuine spiritual fellowship even where our visible communions remain divided. We should not misrepresent each other’s views or engage in grandstanding polemics, but hope for a genuine reformation of all professing churches that will restore visible unity.
In fact, Reformed and Lutheran churches consider the church fathers and, in Calvin’s expression, even “the better doctors” of the medieval church a common inheritance. Our older systems freely draw on these sources. Continuing the tradition of the apostles communicated normatively through the biblical canon, proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments as means of grace, appealing to everything that is conformable to Scripture in every time and place, Reformation Christianity is catholic and Evangelical.
Jeffrey: Count carefully the cost. What you may well gain in Eucharistic worship and in prayer life, and even in some cases in biblical orthodoxy, carries with it a burden. Part of this burden is an institutional infamy for clerical abuse tragically comparable to, if not greater than, our own. And there is schism de facto in American Catholicism; the authority of Scripture and the rule of faith are more hotly contested by a substantial percentage of the Roman clergy than among even liberal mainline Protestants.
But there is another element: A number of Protestants whom I have known who converted to the Catholic Church were positively drawn by a profounder sense of holiness in worship and by the sacraments, yet sometime after arrival found themselves deeply nostalgic for a deeper, richer preaching of the Word. Though such faithful teaching from Scripture is increasingly hard to find anywhere, if it is something your spirit needs, you will find it even less frequently in Catholic churches despite the weakening of expository biblical teaching among Evangelicals.
But in the last analysis, I would simply counsel prayer and discernment to assure as far as possible the spiritual authenticity of one’s personal prompting to move. If the Lord is in it, there will be an unmistakable confirmation of his leading; if this is not transparently evident, a deeper and more thoroughgoing process of discernment should be undertaken.
I have seen much evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversions to the Catholic Church; I have also seen less convincing instances in which people appear to have “swum the Tiber” primarily for aesthetic or imagined “intellectual” reasons. The first motive is as appropriately to be honored as the second to be (however lovingly) lamented.
What has Evangelicalism to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?
Moore: Some believe with Evangelicals in important doctrinal truths such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Some also believe with Evangelicals in the need for personal regeneration and for Christians to plead with the nations to hear the voice of God in Christ, to respond personally and individually in repentance and faith.
Evangelicalism, at its best, carries the apostolic tradition of the centrality of God’s Word and the focus on union with Christ as the only means of salvation, combined with the apostolic passion to see the satanic world-system fall through the advance of the gospel.
I have never thought before now of what Evangelicalism has to offer the wider world. In one sense, we have nothing to offer but what every Christian must offer: Christ and him crucified.
In another sense, I am quite worried that contemporary Evangelicalism is offering less and less, and is instead listening to the offer of “the wider world”: “All these I will give to you if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).
Burk: In its best expressions, Evangelicalism simply offers the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. Sinners apprehend the salvation that results from this gospel by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone so that the sinner can have assurance now that God is no longer against him but for him because of Christ.
Franke: Deep passion for the ministry and witness of the gospel. For all of its failures and flaws, no Christians that I know of are as passionately and fully committed as Evangelicals to the task of participating in the mission of Jesus Christ “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).
It’s in our name, it’s who we are, and it’s why I remain committed to the Evangelical tradition. We certainly have many things to learn and receive from other parts of the Body of Christ, but this passion for the gospel is our particular gift.
Hart: Evangelicalism has more energy, creativity, and zeal than is typically found in other Christian traditions. Ever since the 1740s, people have assumed that these were Evangelicalism’s best features, if only because its leaders equated true faith with visible fervency, but also because of the triumph of sincerity as a personal ideal in modern society.
Even so, Evangelicalism’s best attributes may not be as desirable as commonly assumed. Evangelicals may be at a point where they need sobriety about themselves and the God they serve more than they need enthusiasm. The paradox for Evangelicalism, though, is that, without its zeal, it loses what has defined being Evangelical.
Horton: At its best, Evangelicalism is “evangelical”: that is, gospel-centered. While “evangelical” can describe any church body, Evangelicalism as a movement within mainstream Protestantism reminded the wider church why it exists—indeed, how it has itself come to be in the first place. Again, at its best, Evangelicalism held together a passion for the gospel itself and a passion for communicating it to the world.
Although it is a dangerous substitute for actual churches, this movement has afforded remarkable opportunities for informal cooperation. In fact, the World Council of Churches began as a largely Evangelical missions movement. However, no better example could serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when evangelism becomes unhinged from the evangel and mission from the message. In my view, this is precisely the challenge that contemporary Evangelicalism faces.
Jeffrey: If we mean by the “wider world” Africa, Asia, and South America, and by “Evangelicalism” their sort of Evangelicalism, then the answer is obvious: joy in worship, biblical literacy of an order that deepens understanding of Christian faith and promotes spiritual maturity, an experience of fellowship among believers, and an expectation regarding God’s purpose in history and our future hope that is more palpable than many of the alternatives. This is especially apparent in environments in which the alternative communions have become identified with joylessness, hypocrisy, and clerical miscreance.
Theologically, what Evangelicals have to offer at their best follows from a high view of Scripture, though frankly, we in North America need to do much more than we have lately to restore the actual authority of Scripture in the life of our churches.
If we mean the “wider world” of Christian ecclesiastical options here, then what Evangelicals should have to offer is a reliable centering in Scripture. An Evangelical Christian ought to be one who—at the least—believes that the Bible offers a true account of the character of God in his holiness, of the insufficiency of human nature in its sinfulness, and of the all-sufficiency of the redemption made possible exclusively through the atoning grace of God in Christ Jesus.
This clarity about the gospel is increasingly hard to come by in many other quarters. But wherever one finds it—regardless of the nominal denomination or lack thereof—one has found Evangelical Christians.
What else would you like to say?
Burk: For those who want to understand what Evangelicalism is, where it has come from, and where it is going, I recommend a careful reading of David Wells’s books. Though I might be tempted to recommend all of them, I will highlight one in particular: No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans).
Franke: I’d like to thank the editors of Touchstone for inviting me to participate in this forum. And to those “conservative” Evangelicals who are concerned about “postconservatives” like me, I’d say, let’s work together to find ways to get more conversations started and keep them going for the sake of our witness to the truth of the gospel, the unity of the church, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Peace.
Jeffrey: Currently we are in the midst of a general, worldwide demographic shift where living Christianity is concerned. Christians in Asia whose choice for the gospel faces challenges more severe than we have experienced here, as well as Christians in Africa and South America, where no comparable expectations of creature-comfort attend Evangelical faithfulness, are beginning to provide a standard for proclamation of the gospel that can at the least enrich us, if not bring us closer to a necessary revival of our first love.
What in my view we most need to relearn, repentantly doubtless, and with their help, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” recollecting that the promise of the Lord regarding such humble obedience is that “all these things shall be added unto [us]” if, in good faith, we seek his kingdom rather than our own.
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“Evangelicalism Today” first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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