Lee Irons raises the question of the relations between Reformed Christians and American evangelicals. Much of this discussion comes down to definitions and I don’t recall that Lee offered a definition. In the immortal words of President Nixon, ” let me say this about that.” Judged on the basis of the Reformed confessions and the classic reformed of theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, there can be no doubt that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice, is evangelical. The great difficulty in this discussion is that, in our time, the word the evangelical no longer denotes what it did in the 16th have the 17th centuries.
Since the 18th century, and particularly since the middle of the 19th century, the word of evangelical has come to denote what I call “the quest for illegitimate religious experience” (QIRE). By that I mean to say that to be an evangelical, in the modern sense, is to be on a quest for the immediate experience of the risen Christ, apart from Word and sacrament ministry, apart from the means of grace.
Further, it’s not at all clear what it means to say that one is “an evangelical” any longer. As Darryl Hart has pointed out in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, the particulars of “evangelicalism,” raise real doubts about whether any such thing really exists any more. Consider that one can be an “evangelical” and affirm inerrancy in the traditional sense or deny it. One can hold to divine sovereignty or deny it. One can hold to the historic doctrine of the Trinity or deny it (via social Trinitarianism). One can affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of justification sola gratia et sola fide or deny it (via NPP or FV). One can affirm an open canon or deny it and be an evangelical. Today there are Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic evangelicals. Perhaps the greatest difference between the old definition of evangelical and the modern is that to be a modern “evangelical” is to deny the doctrine of the church—which follows from the pietist/QIRE trajectory of evangelicalism since the 18th century.
Does this mean that Reformed confessionalists have nothing in common with evangelicals? Not at all. I have much in common with orthodox evangelicals who continue to confess the historic doctrines of grace (e.g. ACE, T4G, Gospel Coalition; I’m not sure the WHI guys would want to be called “evangelicals” in this context) who take a different (e.g. pluralist) view of the church or sacraments. I guess that my Reformed friends who work with those orthodox evangelicals take a somewhat different view on this than I do. That’s okay.
Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between being “evangelical” and being “an evangelical”? I am the former but not the latter. I deny that much of what has become “evangelical” in the modern period is really evangelical at all. What does modern, post-canonical glossolalia have to with the the evangel? What does the health and wealth message have to do with the evangel? What does taking back America (or any form of the so-called “social gospel”) have to do with the evangel? What does the emerging movement have to do with the evangel? I haven’t even raised the specter of the appalling theology of worship and the consequent practice of most contemporary evangelicals.
Does that make me a snob or an elitist? I don’t think so. The “evangelicals” (e.g., proponents of the 1st Great Awakening) accused the Old Side Presbyterians of the same thing. If I question “every member” evangelism I get accused of being unregenerate or unconcerned about the lost. The first time it happened I was a little stunned but by now I’ve gotten used to it. No I’m not an elitist—I can match plebian, working class roots with the best of ’em. No I’m not quenching the Spirit—not unless you are the Apostle Paul! I am conscious of the democratization of American religion, however, (thank you Nathan Hatch) and I’m critical of those those trends among contemporary evangelicals and in the confessional Reformed churches.
Reformed confessionalists are evangelical, but after 30-40 years or so of calling “evangelicals” back to the historic definition I think it’s time to admit that we lost and we lost a long time ago. We lost when the Old Side and New Side merged. We lost when Charles Hodge put the value of a “national” Presbyterian church above confessional subscription. We lost in 1929 and we lost again in 1936 and in 1994. The evangelicals don’t need the confessionalists any more and they aren’t listening anyway. It’s been a long time since Carl Henry was attending Van Til’s lectures and Carl Henry isn’t the face of the evangelical movement any more. It’s Roger Olson or Rob Bell or Brian McLaren. My friends who are trying to save evangelicals from themselves are fighting a rear-guard action. If they were doing it from the editorial board of Christianity Today or Wheaton or Fuller Seminary, there might be hope for “the evangelicals” but they aren’t and there isn’t. That doesn’t mean that I’m hopeless. Despair is a sin and we confess that Christ is risen, his Spirit has been poured out and that his word will not return empty.
Reformed confessionalists are evangelical. We do long to see the true gospel preached truly to everyone and we do expect Christ to operate sovereignly and graciously through his gospel to call his elect from every tribe and tongue. We do long to see Christ’s church full. We long to see sinners coming to a knowledge of their sin and to a saving knowledge of Christ. We long to see those sinners growing in the grace of discipleship but, if I can presume to speak for confessionalists, we don’t have much confidence that contemporary evangelicalism is in any shape to do most of that. Most “evangelicals” today can’t tell you the evangel and there’s no consensus on what the Christian life looks like. Asking evangelicals to do evangelism and discipleship is like asking a hospice patient to lift weights. It’s not only fruitless it’s cruel.
I’m evangelical, just as I’m catholic, and biblical but I’m not “an evangelical” because I still believe, preach, teach, and confess unequivocally the law and the gospel, because I confess that Christ established a visible, institutional church through which he intends to administer his kingdom and that it is to that entity that he has entrusted the ministry of the gospel and the ministry of the signs and seals of the kingdom.
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