Before I go back to sleep, I thought I'd share an insight I just had on defining evangelicalism today. I'm a Biblehead by trade and so I've only become engaged in definitions of fundamentalism and evangelicalism because of my social location. I have a hard enough time reading the books I'm interested in let alone books like Marsden's, Fundamentalism, or Bebbington's, The Dominance of Evangelicalism.
However, this can be an advantage too. Because of my interests as a Biblehead, I know a few things both about hermeneutics and history. So I have come into conflict from time to time with the Marsden-Noll paradigm concerning fundamentalism, as well as with my sense that evangelicalism is a movement that arose in the 1940s. I haven't had the time to engage these pillars on a scholarly level but as I have encountered their paradigm I have tried to map it to my own.
The insight I just had is that a key difference in my way of looking at such things is that I believe (i.e., it is my impression that) the Noll-Bebbington series focuses overly on continuity in what it calls evangelicalism. Bebbington thus helpfully identifies four features: 1) focus on the Bible, 2) focus on the cross, 3) focus on conversion, and 4) focus on activism. The problem is that the ideological challenges of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in my opinion, make the neo-evangelicalism of the 1940s something that should be treated more as a new entity than one in continuity with Edwards.
This is, I believe, a persistent problem with historical perspective. What, for example, is the real impact of pre-revolutionary America on us today? It is interesting to be sure. It may have great local significance in some places. But the impact of so much pre-US history is a mediated impact. It impacts us indirectly because it impacted something else that has impacted us more directly.
We can find inspiration from Jefferson or Madison. We can make them directly relevant to us if we want. But that is us making them relevant. Their real relevance is in the institutions they established that have continued to today.
So evangelicalism today must be defined not in terms of Edwards or its history--this is the etymological fallacy, the fallacy that mistakenly thinks that what something has meant in the past somehow affects directly its meaning in the present. This is a clear fallacy of meaning. The meaning of words and actions is a function of their use and significance today, plain and simple. The past has led up to that use and so can provide insight. But it cannot control or dictate what words or actions mean today.
So the evangelical movement that arose in the 1940s was a unique cocktail in the history of the world. It must be defined socio-culturally as much as ideologically. It was, as all such movements are, a response to the circumstances of its day. It no doubt involved continuity with some language and identity from the past. But it must be understood primarily as a reaction to both modernism and fundamentalism in the post-WW2 era, not as the heir to Edwards or Spurgeon.