American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities
there can be no doubt that evangelicals cannot claim to be “known by their love” as Jesus had hoped. My intuition is that a new dictionary that defined “evangelical” in terms of its most common usage in public discourse today would produce an unflattering definition that would alarm most of us.
The depreciation of words makes it extraordinarily difficult to rehabilitate them. “Let’s just get a new one,” many will say. But as someone who taught for a decade at an institution where the word “evangelical” meant something—Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—I’d like to argue for the hard work of resuscitating the word.
I am sliding into this conversation from one of the “frames” that John Hawthorne uses to define the modern evangelicalism—the world of Christian higher education, represented largely by the institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Having served now at four of these institutions, I have often found myself in the midst of earnest discussions about the current state of evangelicalism, whether as a panelist or simply an eavesdropper. To my ear at least, efforts to define evangelicalism seem far more vital to institutional leaders and veteran faculty than they do for younger faculty and students, who often seem eager, as Sarah Ruden cogently observes, to be part of a movement that “doesn’t need to explain itself” but rather “just needs to be itself.”
My story is similar to the one John Wilson told in his post, in that I was introduced to the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” during my freshman year at Wheaton. Prior to that, I simply thought of myself as a Baptist Christian. Thereafter, I ran into “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” everywhere. “Evangelical” became an all-pervasive noun, seemingly more important than the denominational traditions from which we came. That one was a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Baptist seemed to matter far less being an Evangelical. Furthermore, some seemed to think (as many still do) that evangelical is basically synonymous with Christian.
The term "evangelical" like the Gospel, is the common property of all Christians. As I come to this conversation, I am thinking about Wolfhart Pannenberg's prediction about the 21st century: Christianity will be made up primarily of three groupings: Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical. When he chose to use he had at least two very broad orientations in mind: all three terms are essential to Christian self-description and "evangelical" has come to mean something which is both modern and orthodox, in contrast to a disappearing theological and ecclesiological liberalism where the reality of revelation through Christ is either completely malleable, de-centered and indeed, anthropocentric or only part of the historic symbology of the Christian religion and nothing more.
As these first posts from our friends indicate, there is such a thing as evangelicalism understood from historical, theological, sociological and cultural perspectives, and then there are all sorts of evangelicalisms in their more popular forms that are lived out by all sorts of people in all sorts of churches with all sorts of understandings of what it means to “be” an evangelical. It is evangelicalism at this more popular level I find fascinating with lived beliefs and practices that perhaps say more about who evangelicals are in their own self-understanding, and give us insight into present conditions and future possibilities.
I greeted the primary contributions with a certain amount of impatience and frustration—accompanied with shame, since I know how deeply experienced the contributors are (compared to myself) in evaluating the position of Evangelicalism. But the cause of my feelings may actually be encouraging to these thinkers. I don’t want them to be oppressed with categories, qualifications, and cautious optimism, but rather to realize that even to an outsider like me, they can seem indispensable in saving the world.
Peter Enns is surely right when he says that “defining ‘Evangelicalism’ in America is like trying to hit a moving target.” His initial observation has been echoed by others (e.g., Bacote and Wilson), and the very shape of the conversation thus far underscores the point. Proposals that lean on Bebbington’s quadrilateral (see Yong: “Biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism”), while not without merit in light of Evangelicalism’s origin in the 20th century, seem strained by present sociological realities (as noted by Smidt, Franke, and Wilson). Thus, Enns wonders, “whether Evangelicalism as it has been understood can genuinely enter into a broader dialogue and accept its role as one voice among many while also retaining its traditional Evangelical identity.” As Enns no doubt knows, the likelihood of success in this undertaking depends, in part, on the nature of Evangelicalism’s traditionally understood identity – one that is presently, to some extent, in “crisis”.
By way of response to some of the challenges Enns’s remarks raise, I’d like to propose a way of thinking about Evangelical identity that captures the spirit of its actual history, explains its present sociological tensions, and provides a blueprint (admittedly unsatisfying) for moving forward with a “genuinely broader dialogue.”
I have appreciated reading my colleagues’ insightful responses to the topic of evangelicalism and tradition. One theme emerging in the conversation is that of social and theological location. This theme addresses the sixth forum question of whether evangelicalism is best understood as a particular movement with the larger history of the church or as something more central. As Vincent Bacote notes, “many contemporary evangelicals essentially eliminate what they regard as tradition.” This allows evangelicals to view their movement as the movement of God in Christian history. But as Peter Enns suggests, evangelicalism may be a “relatively recent, culturally conditioned, expression of Christianity.” It is what Smidt refers to as a religious movement (versus a religious tradition or categorical group).
The different criteria presented by my colleagues themselves represent frames for considering the broader scope of evangelicalism. The frames not only demonstrate the different ways we can consider evangelicalism but also provide some hints as to where changes may be coming.
The first frame I see is present in Peter Enns’ description of evangelicalism as being situated in the wake of the modernist/fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century. He suggests that evangelicals represented a third way between the extremes. (Back in the 70s, Richard Quebedeaux said that evangelicals were “polite fundamentalists” which struck closer to home that I wished.) As James Davison Hunter suggested in American Evangelicals (1984), evangelicals were dealing with “the quandary of modernity”. How much to engage and how much to maintain distance? Inherent in that quandary is maintaining one’s position relative to the other groups. It raises the possibility that evangelicals wind up defined as “not being the other guys”. But as the other groups move, so too must evangelicalism. Alternatively, there is a vested interest in keeping cultural antagonisms alive that plays identity roles within the evangelical subculture (which is why persecution stories are so important). I’m thinking along the lines that Corwin Schmidt uses when he considers evangelicalism as a categorical group.