The Survival of Evangelicalism

Mark Galli at CT has responded to Michael Spencer’s posts on the coming collapse of “evangelicalism.” There are two very interesting things about this response.

hart-deconstructingThe first is that, for the purposes of the reply, Galli assumes existence of evangelical-ism. Darryl Hart, however, has made that assumption very difficult. The noun “evangelicalism” is what philosophers call a “universal.” That means that it intends to describe more than one thing at one time, that these two or more things have the same qualities, particulars (individua), or even share the same essence so that we can use the same name (nomen) of them both and tell the truth.

Sometimes there are universals (evangelicalism is one of these) that have so few particulars to them that the universal is practically meaningless. This brings me to the second point. To what particulars does Galli appeal in his case for the continued existence of the universal “evangelicalism”? He says “the movement is an intellectual construct, an attempt to tie a number of individuals and organizations together under one socio-theological banner.” The “socio” prefix refers to the social program shared by many N. American evangelicals (pro-life etc). Interestingly most of the essay focuses on these things rather than on the second half of the adjective. There’s a reason for that. The second half of the adjective has very few constituent particulars. Look at the doctrinal basis of the ETS: The Trinity and inerrancy and even those don’t mean a great deal. Inerrancy doesn’t exclude Open Theism from the ETS (I’m not sure it should, ETS isn’t a church) and Trinity doesn’t exclude social Trinitarianism which is virtually (if not actually) tri-theist. There is no ecclesiology to evangelicalism. There is no agreement on sacraments. The range of evangelical “options” on reason, scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and last things is virtually limitless.

Galli implicitly admits as much when he says, evangelicals “in our better moments at least, care less about our ‘movement’ and more about “the evangel,” the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps, but there is no consensus among them as to what “the good news is.” “Evangelicals” have signed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” which subverts the Reformation. Evangelicals have signed documents upholding the Reformed understanding of the gospel. Who can speak for contemporary evangelicals as to what “the gospel” is? The only thing on which evangelicals seem to agree regarding the gospel is that its “good” and its “news” and that it has something to do with Jesus. Why did we have a Reformation?

Of course these discussions always require some definition of “evangelical.” He mentions David Bebbington’s characterization of “evangelicals” but then says, “I think of it more as a religious mood.” As a matter of history, since 1720, Galli is correct. Evangelicalism is very much about a mood or an affect (Edwards) or a religious experience.

Finally, Galli says that he doesn’t really care what scholars call them, an evangelical is one who

knows he was lost but now is found, whose Bible is worn because she repeatedly looks there for God to speak, who finds the Cross the most meaningful of symbols, for whom the Resurrection is not just a doctrine but a power, and who wants nothing more than to find new and creative ways to share the evangel of Jesus in word and deed.

He knows that the the adjective and substantive noun “evangelical” as a descriptor of most N. American Protestants has been evacuated of all meaningful content. The evangelicals have abandoned the Reformation. Anyone who loves their bible and who loves Jesus and who loves the lost, that’s Galli’s evangelical or whatever they become in the future.

Or we could go back behind 1720, back to 1521 (Luther) or 1536 (Calvin) and to the Reformation “evangelicals” who, for all their disagreements shared a good deal of agreement about the CONTENT of the evangelical faith: that Christ is God the Son incarnate, that he entered history, was born of the Virgin, obeyed for sinners, was crucified for them, and was raised and ascended for them. They all agreed that sinners are justified by grace alone (divine favor), through faith alone (resting and receiving Christ and his finished work for sinners). They all agreed that justification is a once-for-all declaration by God that sinners are righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ imputed. They all agreed that faith, in justification, is nothing more or less than knowledge, assent, and trust. They agreed that sanctification is the gradual conformity of the Christian to Christ and it is a consequence of justification. They agreed that he established a church and sacraments as means of grace by which Christians are to live the Christian life. They agreed that Word is composed of law and gospel, they agreed that those two words cannot be confused. They agreed as to the what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is. Compared to the emptiness of contemporary “evangelicalism,” the faith of the original evangelicals was positively brimming with ecumenical content. To borrow a page from Carl Trueman, the current version of evangelicalism is like “The Who” without Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Evangelicalism has become one of those tragic touring bands without the original members, being led by a singer who wasn’t alive when the band was still good.

Today the adjective “evangelical” means almost nothing. It has not always been so. The adjective “evangelical” used to denote “confessional Protestant.” Confessional Lutherans and confessional Reformed folk used to share it. Calvin used to speak of “the evangelical doctrine” of this or that. This essay seems to signal that “the evangelicals” are broke and can’t make the payments any more.  We understand. We won’t judge you. Just leave the keys under the mat.

Send us a note from the monastery. We still love you and when you’re ready to come home to the Reformation we’ll welcome you with open arms.

For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

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  1. Scott
    Trueman’s analogy is painfully accurate. The way the word ‘evangelical’ was used prior to the 20th century ( and I have made reference to this before) especially by the likes of Hodge, Shedd, Warfield to mention only a few of the Reformed stalwarts of the past -is like going to concert to hear CCR only to discover there is no John Fogerty!

  2. It’s John Entwhistle, not Pete. That would be Towshend. Also, the Who’s singer is still alive and with the band. Maybe Queen would work better for the analogy as they are touring without their original bass player and without their singer. Although their singer was alive when the band was good, though his never was. Skynyrd would work, too. Especially now.

    Perhaps, as a shout-out to “Christless Christianity”, a better metaphor would be Muddy Waters old band touring without him.

    Otherwise, great post:)

    • Thanks. Middle age is a terrible thing. I had it right (mentally) the first time and then I changed it with my fingers. What day is it? Where am I? Why am I in front of a keyboard? Where’s my typewriter anyway?

  3. I find it a bit unnerving that the managing editor of CT thinks evangelicalism is “a religious mood.” He says that evangelicalism will abide “until the final altar call” because it “is a word that describes a phenomenon that transcends time and place.” But moods don’t do that. It seems to me that moods are utterly time and place bound. And it’s certainly not helpful to think of a religious movement in terms of a mood–particularly Christianity. After all, we are to preach the good news not a good mood.

    • Mike,

      When he says “mood” I don’t think he means a mere transitory experience as in “bad mood” but he does mean some sort of affective state or disposition or attitude. A mood is a subjective. You’re quite right that this is highly problematic!

  4. Ah, good distinction. And what is also problematic is Galli’s desire to define evangelicalism by this man-centered criteria (i.e., a subjective disposition or attitude) rather than move the discussion toward a more robust theological definition. The managing editor of CT has simply moved away from even trying to define evangelicalism doctrinally. This, to me, is most unfortunate as it relates to defining not only evangelicalism, but any future Christian “movement” as well.

  5. Amen. It also makes “evangelicalism” indestructible because it is whatever Galli (or whoever) says it is. Any pious Roman Catholic is now, by Galli’s definition, “evangelical.”

  6. “…Perhaps, as a shout-out to “Christless Christianity”, a better metaphor would be Muddy Waters old band touring without him…”

    Now, this is freaky-scary: about the time of morning you were probably composing this note I was in bed, asleep, and having a dream that I was down the road a few miles at the Restvale Cemetery, visiting and taking pic’s of Muddy Water’s grave and headstone. Yike’s!

    • Read a bio about MW a year or so back. It’s an amazing story. A field hand re-shaped modern music. No Muddy, no Stone, no rock and roll as we know it.

  7. Woa… something definitely went wrong with my trackbacks. Sorry ’bout that.

    ~ Timothy M.

  8. @Mike: Although it is problematic, it is the only way the term ‘evangelical’ can be used without being completely meaningless. Trying to define it in doctrines or a central theology is impossible. There are ‘reformed’ baptist who consider themselves evangelical, there are arminians who do, pentecostalist, non-denominational mega church hippies, presbyterians, methodists and the list goes on and on. The American usage of the term is more defined by a mood than by doctrine.
    It has nothing more to do with the ‘evangelisch’ from Luther. Typiccaly enough are there two words for evangelical in German. Evangelisch, wich is aplied to Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican churches and there is the term Evangelikal which is used for certain movements within those churches and for certain churches like baptists, pentecostal etc. The second usage of evangelical has some doctrinal meaning (inerrancy of the Bible, The Bible as central to our faith) but is meaning is more than that. It describes more a certain kind of mindset, mood, than anything else.

  9. Some may suggest that “Reformed” has a mood, as in a Reformed (theology) piety (and practice). Of course, we’d be quick to add that it’s rooted in something in a way the Evangelical mood isn’t. And depending on the time of day, maybe even “moody” (small “m”). I’d think we’d also want to be careful not to commit mathematical errors and convey that affect, subjective, disposition or attitude are four-letter words. They’re not, they’re God-made, just like intuition.

    Victor, yes. The trick, though, is to also to be able to self-describe as “catholic” and “apostolic.” They all comport under “Reformed.”

  10. Galli conceded the argument the moment he defined “evangelicalism” as a “movement” instead of defining it as a doctrinal class of Christianity (“confessional Protestant,” as you say), and to the extent that evangelicalism is a movement, I say good riddance. Anymore the term “evangelicalism” denotes the same group, or “movement,” known as the “religious right,” which is the hardcore political body that advances a “family values” agenda, which it has reduced to pro-life and anti-homosexual. The Christian faith certainly affirms family values (though not in this way), but family values are not the essence of the Christian faith, and as long as this movement fails to grasp this fundamental point, the sooner it dies the better.

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