Thursday, August 09, 2012

An Insight on what "Evangelicalism" Is

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.

4 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Covenant theology" is pre-modern to its core, yet is the basis of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Anthropologists would understand these as "religious rites" using sacrifice and blood in symbolic/represetational form. It is "Life for Life", or "Eye for Eye". It is Reformed because it believes in a God that needs appeasement, satisfaction, or glorification.

Identification is a matter of choosing to be a part of "the people of God". But, group behavior is not understood to be conducive to individuality, as social controls are necessarily important to maintain group cohesion. These are the ways that "in group behavior" and "out group behavior" identifies a member. But, group behavior can be an "evil" because of how groups correlate their self image on the group's image and become enmeshed in the group's identity. Then, those struggling with certain behavioral standards (or other ways to gauge "members") will be ostercized, shunned, and a "social death" is promoted as a "discipline" for the "common good".

Jonathan Edwards "Hell and Brimstone" preaching was a means to shame, humiliate and "correct" under the cause of "God's Supremacy". This is a supernaturalist view, because "God" is the beginning and end of "faith".

The revivalists were intent on preaching against the "sin in society" so that people would "Repent" and turn to God, as the "Rightful Ruler" of one's life. Such thinking seems to me to annihlate "the human" for "the holy" (holy spirit)....

Bifucation of understanding is the fundamentalists and evangelical view because it depends on structuring things after a "supernatural", instead of the natural....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

When I speak of the "natural", I am speaking of the social structures/institutions that are a part of civilized society, instead of a "Providential God" that directs history and personal circumstances...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I left out the evangelical revivalist who preached "God has a wonderful plan for your life"....Pre-determination is not choice, or liberty, because "God ordains" instead of humans evaluating and choosing...but maybe this is nit picking as one would choose a "wonderful plan", wouldn't they? It is just that "a plan" signifies that others have chosen for you, instead of individuals taking responsibility and making decisions for themselves....

John C. Gardner said...

Modern evangelicalism has its strengths and weaknesses. It is different from fundamentalism and yet needs to evolve further to be consistent with the consensual Christian tradition rooted in Scripture and a 2000 year old intellectual tradition. Furthermore, evangelicalism needs to return to its roots(e.g. Wesleyanism which was anti slavery). I anticipate that all of us need to think clearly about the differences between Wesleyan, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christianity. There is also no need to tie either Wesleyan or evangelical Christianity to any one political parth or movement.

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