They Aren't Really Addressing the Issue Yet-updated

Lee surveys some responses to this discussion about how Reformed folk should relate to contemporary evangelicalism. None of these responses really gets to the issue of definition. There’s a great body of secondary lit (and this list is very selective and omits some major contemporary studies) on this, some of which I survey in the forthcoming book, Recovering the Reformed Tradition.

Neither Lee nor the other folks he cite gets to grips with the actual state of evangelical-ism today nor do they grapple with the problems that Darryl has raised, nor do they address the reaction by those who control contemporary evangelicalism to those Reformed folk who wish to provide “ballast,” as one writer put it, in the evangelical ship.

I for one am not happy to be mere cargo. Just so Roger doesn’t have a fit, let me be clear: I’m not asking to pilot the USS Evangelical. I don’t think the good ship Evangelical is sea worthy. She needs to be dry docked and overhauled, and I don’t see that happening.

For those who haven’t bothered to read the other posts on this, let me say again, I’m all for the historic definition of “evangelical,” but if one reads the current lit on how “the evangelicals” define themselves, they don’t include us. The current reigning definition has little to do with us. When the evangelicals define themselves, they don’t include the Reformation or when they do, it isn’t normative for their definition. They relate to it the way the Anabaptists did. What hath Geneva to do with Muenster?

Let’s be honest. The problem is that this all devolves into politics and the struggle for control over 60 million people, some prestigious academic institutions and the like. A few years back in a learned evangelical journal, Mike Horton proposed that we define evangelicalism as a village green where folks who have common interests can come and talk. This should have been appealing to those who want to include Open Theism in the ETS (as opposed to those who want to treat ETS as a sort of evangelical quasi-ecclesial court) but Roger Olson said “No way!” Why? He insists on the “big tent” metaphor? Why? Because he’s winning. A place to talk isn’t sufficient. He wants a place with boundaries that he and other post-con evangelicals get to define. If Roger and the rest are defining “evangelical,” and if, to avoid being marginalized, we’re going to define ourselves as “evangelical,” without specifying clearly what we mean by that, then how do we avoid the conclusion that we’re letting “the evangelicals” define us? Why would we want to do that? How does that help us to become more faithful to our calling? I don’t accept the premise that there’s something missing from the Reformed faith with which we need to supplement it. We don’t need a little dose of Pentecostalism or whatever any more than Calvin or deBres needed it in the 16th century.

No, I’m not an angry ex-fundie. I loved my SBC congregation and they loved me. It’s just that, having embraced the Reformed confession of God’s Word, I just can’t sail on their ship and their tents don’t interest me. I’m happy to meet them in a park to talk and I’m happy to do as the confessional Lutherans have done for a long time (e.g., Robert Preus and Rod Rosenblatt) and offer a voice whenever the evangelicals would like to hear it, and I will continue to define myself as “evangelical,” but to insist on using the word “evangelical” unqualifiedly, as if there’s no controversy about who is in or what it means, is not very helpful either to contemporary evangelicals or to confessional Reformed folk who have enough trouble keeping their own ship on course.

ps. Most of what I’m doing here is just echoing what C. Van Til said back in the 1930s. According to Bratt, one of the great fears of some/many in the CRC, in the early part of the 20th century, was that the CRC would become swallowed up by what they called “Methodism,” by which they meant what we today call “evangelicalism.” CVT warned about evangelicalism in Cornelius Van Til, “Wanted—a Reformed Testimony: A Common Witness of Reformed and Evangelicals Inadequate for Our Time.” Presbyterian Guardian 20.7 (July 16, 1951): 125–26 and 136–37.  Yes, in some contexts, however, he did occasionally describe the Reformed as “evangelicals” as against liberalism.

See also See George F. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); idem, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); idem, ed., Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); idem, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); idem, “The Limits of Evangelicalism: The Pentecostal Tradition,” and “Some Doubts About the Usefulness of the Category ‘Evangelical,’ in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, eds Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1991). Dayton and Marsden (and others) have been engaged in a long-running debate about the roots and nature of modern evangelicalism. See George Marsden, “Demythologizing Evangelicalism: A Review of Donald W. Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage,” Christian Scholar’s Review 7 (1977): 203–211 and the Christian Scholar’s Review 23 (1993): 12–89 which features essays and responses by Marsden, Dayton, and comments by several evangelical observers. See also See D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). See also, D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002). D. G. Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) and idem, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Michael Scott Horton, “Reflection: Is Evangelicalism Reformed or Wesleyan? Reopening the Marsden-Dayton Debate,” Christian Scholar’s Review 31 (2001): 131–55. Roger E. Olson, “Response: The Reality of Evangelicalism: A Response to Michael S Horton,” Christian Scholar’s Review 31 (2001): 157–62. Michael Scott Horton, “Response to Roger Olson’s Reply,” Christian Scholar’s Review 31 (2001): 163–68.

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for your thoughts, and am looking forward to your book. It is interesting that many reformed men, and women, want to define themselves as an evangelical while the reigning definition, as you noted, does not include us. Evangelicalism by definition is broad and large, as long as you profess two things (taken from ETS)
    1.) The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.
    2.) God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

  2. Scott,

    I think the fundamental difficulty here is that the sound of your ‘dry docking’ and ‘overhauling’ of the USS Evangelical amounts to completely reconstituting it as the USS Confessional.

    IOW, the way you’ve set up the Confessional argument, there are those that accept the TFU and Westminter Stds, and then there are those that don’t! And so as long as one doesn’t embrace these Confessional Standards, well then they’re on a sinking ship that you don’t particularly care to go down with.

    But that then misses, I think, the whole point of what Nichols, Lucas, and Irons began with. I think all three of these men understand that ‘evangelical’ looks a lot like the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins. But they still see the importance to ask the question — how does a Reformed Christian (and our Reformed churches) relate with those that do not accept our creeds, confessions, or covenant theology?

    I’m sure you, Lee and Sean would all both love if Baptists embraced our covenant theology….but what happens when they don’t? Can’t we say more than it’s simply “ok” to talk to them in the park upon a chance meeting? Your position has a way to make clear the difference between a Confessionalist and the non-Confessionalist….but I’m not sure your way encourages a Confessional Christian to have any sort of relationship with a Christian that doesn’t share our views of the Confession.

    And so “outside the church there’s no ordinary possibility of salvation” starts to sound more and more like “outside the CONFESSING REFORMED church there’s no ordinary possibility of salvation.” Of course, no confessional reformed Christian will ‘confess’ it that way — but the way you’ve set up the ‘issue’ (Confessional/NonConfessional), it starts to appear that way as a practical consequence. Reminds me of the guy who’s first thing out of his lips about Al Mohler was, “Oh, he’s not Reformed!” (Well, geeee thanks!) Surely, we in the Reformed camp need a way to distinguish the Mohlers from the Pinnocks and Olsens.

    If Confessional/NonConfessional is the only lens by which I’m suppose to judge the broader church, then Mohler gets lumped in with Pinnock under the broader heading of ‘evangelical’. And it’s so broad, the only thing you we can do is sink it. But what kind of attitude does that convey toward Christian within that ship, those might not agree with us entirely and yet are still our brother and sisters in Christ?

    So I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest that Nichols, Irons, or Lucas are putting forth the proposition that “…there’s something missing from the Reformed faith with which we need to supplement it”! I don’t hear any of them calling for some ‘evangelical reunion’ where we get rid of all denominations and the like, that we need to learn from charismatics, etc. I see them as only trying to clarify how those of us who adhere to the Reformed faith should think of other Christians who don’t agree with us on things that we confess.


  3. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for this thoughtful response.

    What’s wrong with the Village Green metaphor or better, why don’t we simply follow DGH and admit that the Carl Henry-esque evangelical-ism isn’t any more?

    31 Flavors? Would that there were only 31 ways to be “evangelical” in the contemporary sense! That would be an improvement.

    The problem is that I have a doctrine of the church. Evangelical-ism, for the sake of discussion, isn’t a church, and most of evangelicals belong to religious organizations that I can’t recognize as churches.

    Matt, read Belgic Art 29 and tell me how I should interpret and apply it to this situation? What incentive do I have to recognize congregations that deny my baptism as valid as “true churches”? Do you know whom the Synod of Dort (not a narrow gathering really) admitted to the Lord’s Table? What would the divines say about what passes for “evangelicalism” today?

    Part of what I’m trying to say is that we faced a lot of this before in the 16th century. Much of what passes for “evangelical” today is really Anabaptist. Whenever I survey they Anabaptist movement today, students come up to me and say, “Wow, that sounds like the church I grew up in.”

    I’m not saying that there aren’t any Christians in the evangelical congregations (and I understand that there are Christians in the Roman communion) and I’ve been trying to say that I appreciate those evangelicals who still identify with the historic Protestant faith and who at least admire the Protestant confessions, but Al Mohler isn’t Reformed — unless we’re back to defining Reformed primarily on the basis of predestination and that, from the pov of the confessions is a real mistake. Al Mohler couldn’t be ordained in any of the NAPARC churches and he wouldn’t want to be.

    Why can’t we just be Reformed and historically, confessionally “evangelical,” the way the confessionalist Lutherans have been? Why do we have to be “one of the boys”?

    I didn’t accuse Nichols and Lucas of suggesting that there’s something missing from the Reformed faith. I know that Lloyd-Jones taught that explicitly, that the Reformed faith, unless it’s combined with Methodism, becomes dead orthodoxy. I’ve had several Reformed pastors tell me that over the years. I’ve been told point blank (and I used to think that) we need, as I heard a leading theonomist put it in the 80s, to combine the light of Reformed theology with heat of the charismatic movement. There are lots of hyphenated Reformed folks out there and I’m happy to be de-hyphenated.

  4. Michael is an old-schooler is thankful for Matt’s comments.

    I am too. Matt’s a friend, but if Hart and I are such bad guys on this, just what exactly are Old Schoolers (and maybe that’s it, maybe I’m an Old Sider and not really entirely comfortable with the Old School Presbyterians?) supposed to like about and embrace in contemporary evangelicalism?

    What are we losing here if we renounce identity with contemporary (not the Reformation definition of “evangelical” but the elastic modern definition) definition of “evangelical”?

  5. Dr. Clark,

    No bad blood here! I don’t have much to add towards the conversation (now if we wanted to talk union and Gaffin… ;)), I would just reiterate that we have to have a way that delinineates a difference between Al Mohler and Brian Mclaren. The way I have done this is by using the word “evangelical” as I feel it has been used in the past most consistently (ala those who belive in the five sola’s) Al Mohler believes in the five solas Pinnock, Olson, and Mclaren don’t (at least IMO).


  6. Michael,

    No offense.

    What you like about the “good evangelicals” is that they affirm the Reformation solas. So, you agree with me that when Reformed folks say “I’m evangelical” what we mean by that is “I affirm the soteriology of the Reformation”?

    At least two questions remain:

    1.What are we losing by refusing to identify with the contemporary definition of “evangelical”?

    2. What about the doctrine of the church and sacraments?

    I think we know what the Synod of Dort, the Westminster Assembly and Francis Turretin would say. We know beyond doubt what the Lutherans would say — they don’t even accept Reformed folks as fellow “evangelicals” in the historic sense of the word!

  7. Scott,

    I suspect two issues are going on here. One, trying to define ‘evangelical’; two, trying to define ‘confessional’.

    The former seems (primarily?) a matter of definition. I don’t read any of these men (Irons, Nichols, or Lucas) denying (or even ignoring) the vast literature available on the 20th century state of ‘evangelicalism’! I’ve read most of it, though not all that recently. I think we’re dealing with a practical problem of what to do when Al Mohler calls himself an ‘evangelical’ at the same time that Clark Pinnock calls himself an ‘evangelical’.

    So I see it not so much as a debate over who gets to claim the term (after all, they change…which I think everyone here fully admits)….but rather can we who adhere to the Reformed faith make no further delineation within ‘evangelicalism’ but that they are ‘different’ than us??

    It seems to me like your concern is over the ‘dead weight’ that has rendered ‘evangelicalism’ so difficult to define. And hence the need to distance ourselves from the likes of Pinnock. Point noted. But do we let that ‘dead weight’ taint the whole in such a way towards those remaining evangelicals who really do understand the ‘evangel’?

    IOW, if 39 of the 40 flavors of ‘evangelicalism’ were insipidly dangerous to the Christian faith, does that mean that we should have no regard for that last flavor that still rightly confesses the ‘evangel’? It seems to me that your concern is that we recognize those 39 flavors for what they really are. But do we need to sink the *whole* ship in order to do that? That’s my concern: not that we try to find ways to get along with Pinnock and Olson at the table, but that we not think ill of other Christian churches that don’t agree with every iota of the Reformed theology.

    Second, I suspect the ‘confessional’ issue is really the more substantial one….one in which I think you and I simply disagree. We’re not going to solve that debate here.

    I don’t think you and Hart are ‘bad guys’! I’m simply not convinced your understanding of (strict) subscription to the Reformed Standards is *the* way forward. It was certainly well within the bounds to be counted among the ‘Old School’….and yet still hold to ‘system subscription’! Unless of course, we’re not defining Hodge and Warfield as part of the ‘Old School’ now. Sure, Hodge and Warfield would likely be highly critical of much of what goes on under the tent of ‘evangelicalism’….but I don’t see it at all obvious that you have to resort to stricter confessionalism to do so, even 100 years later.

    Warfield certainly thought it possible to criticize Briggs for holding to what essentially amounted to a ‘substance subscription’ view….while at the same time distancing himself from the ‘stricter subscription’ impulse that was taking place in Scotland in the late 1800’s in response to their own version(s) of Briggs:

    So strict vs. system subscription is very much wrapped up in this whole discussion. And I suspect that’s where there is going to continue to be ‘disagreement’.


  8. Hi Matt,

    We probably do disagree re how to relate to confessions. I’ll let that part of the argument pass in favor of waiting for the book. I can say that historically considered, “strict” is not really the issue. Quia v Quatenus is the issue and quatenus has never been a stable approach to subscription.

    I don’t think that my critics in this discussion have accounted for the literature than I listed above and especially not for the way the folks who run evangelicalism. Dayton and Willie Abraham et al have rejected the old Calvinist hegemony and they’ve made a good case.

    Judging by our confessions, however subscribed, our faith has very little in common with contemporary evangelicalism. The question is what is the true nature of contemporary evangelicalism and whether we can use the word “evangelical” of them and us at the same time in the same way.

  9. To what degree does one need to subscribe to the Reformed confessions in order to be Reformed? Is it “all or nothing”? Are there legitimate expressions of difference within the Reformed community? If so who decides what is legitimate or and what is not?

    Who gets to define what being Reformed is? Are we to take a snapshot of the Reformed in the 17th century and say that these men are Reformed and unless you agree with them you are not Reformed? Or are we to allow for doctrinal developments within the Reformed community building upon what our forefathers said and taught? Why are your answers to these questions more legitimate than Revd Dr. Joe Bloggs?

    To say that the Spririt of God will lead the Church into all truth but stopped doing so from the 17th century seems to me to be a little, well…odd.

  10. Oh, and if we are to allow for doctrinal developments within the Reformed community building upon what our forefathers said and taught what happens if we realise that they got some fundamental things wrong owing to the historical circumstances they lived in and the information they had available to them? Are we still remaining true to the Reformed faith if we rework what they said in the light of modern scholarship which changes beyond recognition what they said?

    I realise you may have answered these questions elsewhere.

  11. Thanks for the links Prof. Clark, I will look out for your book in November. In your interview with Castle Church you mentioned the confession of faith in 1 Timothy 3:16.

    Do you know of any Reformed and/or evangelical writers who have looked in any depth at the confessions of faith in the Old Testament and the role they played in the life of Israel? I am aware that Gerhard Von Rad looked at some (I have been reading him recently) but I doubt we can call him Reformed, or evangelical for that matter.

    Thanks in advance.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    Angela and I are happy to be in full fellowship with the OURC now! Here’s a question for one of my new spiritual fathers (you!):

    I have always wondered, in relation to what we are discussing in this post, if as Reformed Christians we can have any fellowship with evangelicals. Granted that we don’t share the Table with them, can we pray with them? Now, I know that all evangelicals are different, so perhaps it depends I suppose.

    Part of me thinks “they’re just like Rome. They’re moralistic to the core.” But on the other hand, they do affirm sola fide (I think–or maybe I’m wrong here too).

    Ultimately perhaps this is about “who can we pray with?”. I can’t and won’t ever see myself praying with a Romanist, b/c they deny the gospel. I was raised evangelical and dispensational, and I am convinced that it is a different faith in a manner of speaking.

    What do you think? Can we count evangelicals as our brothers?

  13. Hi Richard,

    Those sorts of surveys show in books on confessions more than in OT studies. I offer brief a survey in the book. The basic formula is Deut 6:4, the Shema, which was recited as a confessional formula in the synagogue. Several psalms were used in the synagogue in a confessional way too.

  14. Hi Josh,

    It was wonderful to watch your profession of faith and to see the baptism of your children. We all pray that you (and all our families) know all the benefits of the covenant of grace.

    You ask a good question.

    Our relations to contemporary evangelicals, who are in congregations that don’t meet the threefold test of Belgic Art 29 are complicated. I think it helps to distinguish between our relations to them as private persons and our ecclesiastical relation to them. As private persons (and ecclesiastically) we have to love everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, as Christ loved us. We must show the same grace to them that Christ showed (and shows) to us. If people make a profession of faith in Jesus, whether in a mainline denomination or in a Roman congregation or the local bible church, we should accept that profession with a judgment of charity.

    Our personal relations with others, as private persons, however, doesn’t answer the ecclesiastical question. If a congregation doesn’t have the marks of a true church, it isn’t a church. We have to accept the anomaly of christians in congregations without the marks. We ought to encourage those Christians to unite themselves to congregations with the marks (Belgic 29).

    In this regard I think it’s helpful to speak about persons and congregations rather than the abstraction or universal “evangelical” without definition. A universal, to be meaningful, must have particulars. The only particular that is universal to all contemporary evangelicals is: “has had an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ” or even “has had an intense religious experience in a Christian context.”

    Better for us to deal with Christians and congregations. We should love professing Christians but we should love them by encouraging them to unite with true churches.

    One of the problems with the equivocal use of “evangelical” to describe confessional Reformed/Presbyterian types or confessional Lutheran types and contemporary QIRE evangelicals is that it sends the signal: “Hey, it’s okay for you to be in a congregation that doesn’t have the marks of a true church.”

    We’re not the first to face this crisis. The Reformed churches (and I assume the Lutheran) faced the problem of the Nicodemites in the 16th century. The Nicodemites were those, like Nicodemus, who want to come to Christ (the church) late and night but they don’t want to openly affiliate with it for fear of consequences. Thus, in that context, people would approach Reformed pastors (e.g. Calvin) and say, “I’m with you in the Reformation but I can’t leave my Roman parish because….”

    Robert White, “Calvin and the Nicodemite Controversy: An Overlooked Text of 1541,” Calvin Theological Journal 35 (2000): 282-296, defines it well:

    “In essence, the Nicodemite was one who had appropriated Christian truth but who, for reasons of necessity, personal convenience, or simple indifference, maintained visible communion with the Roman Church on the grounds that no vital principle of faith was at stake. A strategy of silence was followed in preference to one of open confession.”

    Today Reformed pastors hear this same thing. People can’t leave their megachurches or their local bible churches because “I like the programs” or “My family is there” or “We have such good relationships there” or whatever. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    You can read Calvin’s approach to this in this volume:

    John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin, trans. Seth Skolnitksy (Geneva: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001). Unfortunately this volume is out of print and not easy to find outside of theological libraries. Perhaps some publisher would like to put this back into print?

  15. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your answer. It was very helpful. In light of the above, would you feel comfortable with praying with an evangelical in a non-ecclesiastical context? Of course we don’t want to send the message that it’s OK for them to not have the three marks ecclesiastically; I wonder if praying with them would send that sort of message.

    I appreciate your distinction between ecclesiastical relations and individual relations. Now, when the Belgic says “outside of this true church there is normally no salvation” (hope I’m not misquoting), do we assume that if a church is not a Reformed church, that those members of this “church” are normally not saved?

    Sorry for all the questions; this hits close to home with me because Angela and I have family and friends who are evangelical. I want to do the right thing in interacting with them. I did read an article from a URC minister that referred to evangelicals as our “brethren.” But, I want to see what the cash value of this is and I want to interact with them properly and biblically to honor Christ and His Church.

    Perhaps if you have the time you could help me to see how I should practically interact with evangelicals on an individual basis (e.g., should I pray with them?, should I call them “brother”, “sister,” etc.? should I speak to them about “our common faith” etc.?).

    Thank you again for your time sir. I look forward to growing in fellowship with you at the OURC.

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