Bog Standard Evangelicalism

My dear friend Carl Trueman has a thoughtful and provocative (what else?) essay in the latest Ref21. You should read it for yourself, so I won’t try to summarize it here except to say that three of the most important points are that 1) It was good old-fashioned evangelicals who led him (and me) to faith. It wasn’t confessional Protestant types. The second is that he’s irritated with what’s become of “bog standard” evangelicalism. Third, he discusses the business of confessional Reformed types criticizing evangelicalism while making their living from the folks they criticize.

I want to address these points in reverse order. Yes, it seems odd for the critics (e.g. Mike Horton) to criticize evangelicals and then publish with them, but in Mike’s case, the evangelicals ask him to publish with them. Carl doesn’t seem to accept the premise entirely, but it’s a false premise that the only relationship confessionalists can have to broad evangelicalism is to be subservient. The “prophets” mentioned by Carl’s colleague are perhaps the last voice of the kind of evangelical sanity for which Carl (rightly) longs.

I’ll deal with points 2 and 1 together. Carl’s lament about the current use and abuse of the adjective evangelical by folks who no longer believe what evangelicals used to believe and ought to believe is proof of Darryl Hart’s (another “prophet”) criticism that “evangelicalism” no longer exists. It’s been deconstructed.

I agree entirely that we would all be better off if Harold John Ockenga and Carl Henry were still running evangelicalism, but they aren’t. Roger Olson is and Roger thinks Open Theism is just peachy. The EM guys are as close to “running” evangelicalism as anyone and that lot is crowded with universalists. The centripetal force of pietism has spun evangelicalism into a thousand different fragments. They’ve shed the old Reformed soteriology. We used to write the books and they used to do the footwork. Well, the evangelical proletariat have risen up and thrown off the bourgeois Reformed theology in favor of Anabaptist radicalism.

What do we do? There’s no going back. There’s only the new brave world of a million different confessions. As for me, I’ll cast my lot (with Carl) with the Reformed confession, the Reformed theology, piety, and practice and invite as many evangelicals to join me as will come. Whoseover will may come.

It also means that we have to do our own footwork. As I’ve pointed out before (“Why (Some)  Reformed People Are Such Jerks” – reprinted in the Nicotine Theological Journal) as a minority in the ecclesiastical world (there are 60 million evangelicals in North America and 500,000 of us) we have to try harder. We have to be gentler. We have to be sweeter (“suaviter in modo, fortiter in re“). We don’t get the same breaks. We don’t get the same opportunities. It took me a long time to figure this out. The “broad evangelicals” can say x and nothing happens. Let an Reformed confessionalist say the same thing and you-know-what happens. It’s just the way things are.

The deconstruction of evangelicalism means that we have to do our own evangelism. We can’t count on the “evangelicals” to win folks for Christ — and then wait for us to “Reform” them) because, for one thing, we can’t assume any longer that the “evangelicals” still understand or are committed to “the evangel” any longer. We have to preach the law and the gospel every Sabbath from our pulpits and our people have to be winsome witnesses for Christ everywhere they go, at home, at work, at school, and in the mall.

In other words, we have to get our theology right AND we have to be good and vigorous witnesses for Christ. Of course, doing that IS getting our theology right. What I’m saying is that, properly defined according to the 16th and 17th centuries, we ARE the evangelicals. We’re what’s left of the sane evangelicalism the passing of which Carl laments. Where did Ockenga and Henry learn their theology? They learned at old Westminster. The problem is that the old neo-evangelicals rejected the Reformed ecclesiology and the mainline finally swallowed them up. Check the ecclesiastical credentials of most of the EM folks. Look at the authors of Missional Church and you will see that every one of them (with the exception of the CRCs Craig van Gelder who is in a transitional denomination) is a mainliner and they show very little understanding for or sympathy with Protestant confessionalists or ecclesiastical separatists. The mainline and the what’s left of modern evangelicalism have merged. The editors at CT seem mostly to be ECUSA folk — so much for the divide between Christian Century and CT. When I was at Wheaton (I don’t know how it is now) most of the faculty there were in the PCUSA.

All that said, defined sociologically, the evangelical movement is now dominated by folks with virtually no sympathy for historic, confessional Protestantism. The “confessional” evangelicals, those with genuine ties to historic Protestant confessions and churches, are on the outside looking in.

We Reformed confessionalists are “evangelical” but we aren’t evangelicals, not any more and that’s probably a good thing.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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12 comments

  1. Very funny Lane!

    For those who don’t know, “bog” is British slang for “bathroom.” So, “bog standard” means literally “the usual plumbing” or more generally, “the usual thing.”

  2. “I agree entirely that we would all be better off if Harold John Ockenga and Carl Henry were still running evangelicalism”

    I agree that we would be better off as well: but wouldn’t we still be on the downward slide that they seem to have originated?

  3. “bog” is British slang for “bathroom.”

    Not to be confused with “gob”, which is British slang for mouth, as in “Shut your gob!” or “I’m gobsmacked!” (tongue-tied, or amazed)

  4. Agreed. The neo-ev movement was inherently unstable. Reformed theology needs a Reformed doctrine of the church.

    One factor in the downfall of the neo-ev empire that has not been explored, as far as I know, is the role of Gordon Clark. CFHH was a student of and influenced by GC and his (by my Van Tillian lights) rationalism (the intersection of the divine and human intellects). What would have become of neo-evangelicalism had it been genuinely Van Tilian, on that score, and churchly? Maybe “neo-ev” and “churchly” and “Van Tillian” are oxymoronic?

  5. >> GC and his…rationalism <<

    That’s odd, bec. Wikipedia writes Clark “was noted for his rigor in defending propositional revelation against all forms of empiricism and rationalism, in arguing that all truth is propositional and in applying the laws of logic.”

    ??

  6. On Gordon Clark’s (no relation) rationalism see R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149-80.

    There is more than one sort of rationalism. GHC was an opponent of one form of rationalism, the sort that asserts the primacy of the human intellect. There is an earlier form of rationalism, however, by which the human intellect is said to intersect with the divine intellect. GHC certainly taught this form of rationalism.

    As to the reliability of Wikipedia see this post.

  7. OK, so it was the kind of rationalism that Voegelin also believed in. Thanx, now I understand. Will have to scout around at the WSC library, next time I’m up that neck of the woods, to find the Festscrift you referenced.

    Oh, and yes, I’ve heard cautions about WP before. Had to chuckle about your essay on it (elites yes/elites no).

  8. Did Dr. Trueman mean “prosaic” or “Prozac?” Prozac is certainly one solution for coping with the current state of evangelicalism.

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