I consider myself an “evangelical” four days a week. The other three, well, I’m not so sure. This ambivalence toward the label seems to be part and parcel of being a Reformed (especially confessional) Christian in America today. To be Reformed is necessarily to be suspicious of “those American evangelicals”, with their mega churches and praise bands. The real issue, of course, is not the size of the church building or the type of music played within. The real divide is theological. The majority of Christians in American today who call themselves evangelicals do not hold to the major tenants of the Magesterial Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican). This was not always so.
According to Mike Horton, in a recent article on the relationship between Reformed and evangelical Christians, “Luther’s followers first called themselves “evangelicals” (from “evangel,” meaning gospel), and the term became virtually identical with adherence to the key tenets of the magisterial Reformers, in distinction from Rome and Anabaptism.” So the label “evangelical” was first coined by Lutherans, and for most of its subsequent history was almost synonymous with “Reformed.” Moreover, according to Horton, it was these evangelical Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican churches that founded the modern missions movement and the World Council of Churches. When these ecumenical organizations and many of the denominations represented by them began to stray from orthodoxy into liberalism, the label “evangelical” was used to describe doctrinal fidelity and rigorous orthodoxy. “Evangelical”, “missional”, and “doctrinal” were all terms that went hand-in-hand. Alas, this was a different time.
According to Horton, things began to change for the worse:
Somewhere along the way, however, the evangel became increasingly separated from evangelism; the message became subservient to the methods. Today, it is taken for granted by many that those most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the “unchurched”). We are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, usually with little definition offered for either. 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, than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.
Horton traces one of the main causes for this change to the Second Great Awakening, and especially to one of its leading figures, Charles Finney. The problem, he says, is that such “revivalist” movements and leaders essentially constituted America’s own Counter-Reformation.
Going beyond Rome’s Counter-Reformation in the direction of Pelagianism, Finney denied original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth; and he created a system of faith and practice tailor-made for a self-reliant nation. Evangelicalism…was the 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, creating 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”…
Horton is quick to admit that this broad-stroked picture focuses only on the negative and ignores the positive, but he believes such a picture is necessary because, in his estimation, the average is still a “net loss.” His solution (which I have expounded upon in much more detail here) is that we should treat “Evangelicalism” not as a substitute for the local church, adopting minimalist “Merely Christian” statements of faith, but rather as a kind of “village green”, where different robustly theological traditions (such as Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.) can all come together both for dialog and debate as well as joint projects (such as missions), without abandoning their very distinctive traditions.
In the coming weeks, I will be expounding upon some of the traditions of the Reformed wing of Evangelicalism (including that perennially touchy subject of Predestination). My hope is not to distance Reformed theology from American evangelicalism nor to “take back” the label, but simply to demonstrate how one can be both deeply planted in a single tradition (and, moreover, taking the finer details of that tradition very seriously), without somehow ceasing to be evangelical. In the meantime, I would like to hear readers’ thoughts on Horton’s proposed idea of looking at Evangelicalism as a “village green” (or Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”). Is it a helpful solution? Is it practical? Let me know!