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Village Green: A Proper Understanding of Mere Christian Evangelicialism (Guest Post)

Posted By David Nilsen On March 25, 2009 @ 2:05 pm In Evangelicals | 16 Comments

In a 2001 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review Dr. Michael Horton asks the question, “Is Evangelicalism Reformed or Wesleyan?” This question may seem strange to some, especially those who would not think to identify Evangelicalism solely with either tradition. This is exactly the point. In pitting these two positions against each other, as well as considering other theories about the theological roots of Evangelicalism, Dr. Horton shows that there is no single theological tradition that can claim to be the “rightful heir” of modern Evangelicalism. The implication of this is that modern Evangelicalism can have no definable “core”, no set of beliefs that easily labels some “in” and others “out.” In light of this, Dr. Horton offers two potential paradigms through which we can view the current state (and the future) of Evangelicalism.

As his case study, Dr. Horton considers two recent arguments made by Evangelical scholars, George Marsden and Donald Dayton. Marsden argues that Evangelicalism is a Reformed movement at its core, finding its most recent point of origin in the “Old Princeton” school of Presbyterianism. Dayton, in sharp contrast, sees Evangelicalism as a movement primarily opposed to Reformed orthodoxy, finding its roots in Wesleyan-Holiness and Pentecostal traditions (and more specifically, in the social transformationalism and revivalism of Charles Finney). Quoting from a number of different Christian scholars and historians from across the theological spectrum, Dr. Horton shows that neither Marsden nor Dayton can make their case without ignoring the evidence that doesn’t fit their theory. While Dayton accuses Marsden of viewing Evangelical history through a “Presbyterian paradigm”, Horton wonders why we shouldn’t think that Dayton is simply viewing the same history through a Wesleyan/Revivalist paradigm. To give one example of this, Dayton rightly recognizes that Evangelicalism has largely been defined by social activism. But painting in broad stokes, he pits this social activism in complete opposition to the Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, as if they represented an almost monastic withdraw from secular society. But Horton points out that “Calvinism’s impulse for social transformation as well as its cultural contributions are well documented”, citing as one example Princeton Theologian B. B. Warfield, who drafted “A Calm Consideration of the Freedman’s Case” which, among other things, argued for racial integration in university dormitories .
What is significant about this case study is that is shows “Evangelicalism” to be almost indefinable. The theological differences between the Reformed and Wesleyean-Revivalist traditions are so great at so many different points, from soteriology (doctrine of salvation) to ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), that any list of core doctrines that could include both traditions would be small indeed. And the Dayton-Marsden debate does not take into account the myriad theological differences within each of the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions (not all Reformed are Presbyterian, not all Wesleyans are Pentecostal, etc). Evangelicalism, through all of its historical variations, has come to be identified with so many different theological traditions within Protestantism that there are few Protestant denominations (or non-denominations) that can rightfully be excluded from the umbrella of Evangelicalism.
Two Views Of Evangelicalism And Its Future
Having plausibly established that there is no definable theological core to Evangelicalism, Dr. Horton turns to his two paradigms. Paradigm One is his version of the “big tent” view that many current Evangelicals would actually identify with. In this paradigm, Evangelicalism is a big tent (the image is meant to harken back to the big tent revival meetings of the first half of the last century, as well as the more recent Billy Graham Crusades) that attempts to incorporate any number of different denominations by being as “ecumenical” as possible. Thus the Evangelical view of things like worship and evangelism would be as broad as possible to incorporate as many people as possible. This approach would tend to take a “mere Christianity” view of doctrine and practice, where only that which is absolutely essential is considered important enough to set boundaries and exclude those who don’t agree (which in practice can only amount to 2 or 3 doctrines).
The problem with this view of Evangelicalism is that “evangelicalism” itself becomes a practical substitute for the church. By church, of course, I don’t just mean a building in which people congregate. I mean the visible body that one associates with “the church universal” (or to put it another way, the visible representation of the invisible church). Under the “big tent” view, that which we should and should not consider important as Christians when it comes to doctrine and practice is determined by an ecumenical attitude rather than confessional traditions or even Biblical convictions. Hence the rise of the so-called “non-denominational” church, where no particular historical tradition is allowed to determine doctrine and practice. By not associating with any particular denomination or holding to detailed statements of faith, the non-denominational church implicitly looks to “Evangelicalism” (that which most Christians, at least most Protestant Christians in America, believe) to determine what will norm its doctrine and practice. Many of these churches will even refuse to take any position on doctrinal issues like Predestination, what happens (if anything) in the Lord’s Supper, etc. Why? There are a number of reasons, to be sure, but one prominent reason is that not all Evangelicals can agree on such issues. Thus Evangelicalism becomes “the church” (Horton jokingly imagines a group of evangelical “cardinals” meeting in a board room somewhere in Wheaton, Illinois to determine what position the evangelical “church” will take on such-and-such an issue. Obviously this is meant to be an over-satirized caricature, but the point is well worth considering).
The irony that the non-denominational mentality is just beginning to face is that it becomes its own tradition. “No tradition but the Bible” effectively means “No tradition but our new tradition.” And this is exactly what happens with Evangelicalism at large in the big tent model. Doctrinal minimalism and a view of worship and evangelism that is broad enough to include almost anyone becomes the tradition that all Evangelicals must adhere to in order to be included under the label Evangelical. But what about Christians who happen to think that not just anything counts as worship? What about Christians who think that a particular view of the sacraments, or of the Gospel message itself, is absolutely essential to their Christian identity? Are they to be excluded from Evangelicalism? What became of our broad and ecumenical spirit? I trust you see the point. The big tent view almost reduces itself to absurdity by undermining its own starting principles. But if there can be no meaningful theological “core” to Evangelicalism, then aren’t we back to square one? Is there even any such thing as “Evangelicalism”?
Perhaps a better question would be this: Why must evangelicals sacrifice their denominational distinctives to be considered “Evangelical”? When Presbyterians and Pentecostals come together under the same big tent to fight abortion or combat world poverty, why must they also worship and evangelize in the same way? The answer, it seems to me, is that they shouldn’t have to. And it is just here that another solution to the problem of defining Evangelicalism presents itself. In place of the first model Horton suggests what might be called the “village green” view of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, says Horton, is best viewed as a place where Christians from different traditions can come together to make common cause without the need to abandon their traditions. In short, Horton suggests that we should mean by “Evangelicalism” what C. S. Lewis meant by “Mere Christianity.” This is a great irony of the “paradigm one” folks, who tend to look to the “mere Christianity” principle as their guiding mantra. But what C. S. Lewis had in mind was not anything like the big tent model. In his preface, Lewis writes:

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.

Here, “mere Christianity” is not where the “real action” happens (and by “real action” I mean worship, Word and sacrament, and to a certain extent evangelism). The real action takes place in the smaller, individual communities where the doctrinal statements are much longer than two or three lines of the mere essentials. This is the model that Dr. Horton believes is most helpful for viewing Evangelicalism, both now and in its future. In fact, this model may just save Evangelicalism’s future. Already we are hearing talk of a “schism” between the old guard evangelicals and the so called “radical” evangelicals who are more concerned with global social issues like aids and poverty than they are with American family values. Notice, first of all, that the very fact that there can be such a schism and that new branches of evangelicalism can form lends further credence to the notion that many Christians today treat “Evangelicalism” as if it were the church. But notice, secondly, that if we thought of Evangelicalism not in terms of certain theological or political beliefs that one has to hold to be in or out, but as Lewis’s hall (or Horton’s village green) such schisms would be unnecessary.
In this respect I think the Evangelical Theological Society already provides us with a good working model of the village green. The ETS, we might say, is Horton’s Paradigm Two put into practice. In order to become a member of ETS, the only doctrines you need to affirm are the Trinity and the Inerrancy of Scripture (and even then, there is a LOT of room to wiggle in on both counts). Thus Calvinists, Arminians, Pentacostals, Anglicans, and Open Theists can all come together in the “hall” and engage one another in theological discussion and debate. They can also come together to join hands in fighting for certain social causes , such as fighting abortion, or combating poverty at home and abroad. And they can do all of this without having to give up the theological distinctives that make them who they are. According to Lewis (and I would agree), even a staunch Calvinist would have to admit that it’s better, in one sense at least, to be a Pentecostal Arminian than it is to be a self-consciously anti-denominational, minimalist “Evangelical” who, at the end of the day, takes a firm stand on nothing.
One criticism of this model is that it would seem to leave the term “Evangelical” as vacuous and useless as the big tent model. After all, Muslims and Atheists could join us on a village green to talk politics. But this may simply be a reality that we need to face. While on the one hand such a criticism is obviously overstated, since “Evangelical” (for now, at least) only meaningfully applies to Christians who affirm the two ETS doctrines mentioned above (and thus would not apply to Muslims or Atheists). When evangelicals come together on their distinct village green, it is to allow the Bible and the revealed Triune God to guide their discussions of politics, which would not be the case when they meet on other villiage greens with other non-Christian groups. On the other hand, there no longer seems to be a reason to bar anyone who claims the name “Christian” from also claiming the name “evangelical.” While evangelicals may have been predominantly Protestant in the past, more and more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are now claiming the title, and there seems to be no good reason to stop them.
In my opinion, this should be welcomed as a good thing. Horton’s (and Lewis’s) paradigm for Evangelicalism may help to pave the way for a new century of true ecumenism that does not have to sacrifice confessional traditions or deep doctrinal convictions. In other words, by allowing evangelicals to be better Methodists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Calvinists, and Pentecostals, we will free them to be better evangelicals. If there is going to be an “evangelical renaissance”, that will surely be it.
David Nilsen is a graduate of Biola University with a degree in Philosophy. He is currently working toward a Masters degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in California. His is an active blogger who blogs regularly about theology and philosophy at the A-Team Blog [1] and at Reason From Scripture [2]. ‘

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