Monday, July 15, 2013

And why do we call ourselves evangelicals?

There's a small discussion about what Wesleyan pastors should know about church history taking place in the corners of Facebook.  I thought I'd post one of my thoughts here for discussion.
... It seems to me that the broader Wesleyan tradition (Nazarenes, Free Methodists, Wesleyans) has often had an uneasy feeling about the term “evangelical.” And frankly, broader evangelicalism has often had an uneasy feeling about including us. Don Dayton’s book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, meant to show that we were “in,” but the book might just as well have been an argument that we were always something different. After all, it is a book that highlights how different we were from other "evangelicals" in the 1800s by being abolitionists, pro-women in ministry and such.

The word “evangelical” ultimately comes from the German “evangelisch.” But it simply means Protestant in German—a much broader meaning than the word currently has in English. Mainstream evangelical literature has often looked back to Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans as the fountainheads of American evangelicalism--Calvinists who have nothing to do with the Wesleyan tradition. So why would we want to look to them to describe ourselves? We have more in common with the people they kicked out of their communities, Arminians like Roger Williams.

And the “evangelicals” of the 1800s were Calvinists like Charles Hodge who were on the complete opposite side of the Wesleyan Methodists when it came to slavery. Again I ask, why are we interested in adopting the term evangelical? To associate ourselves with them?

Evangelicalism today is really “neo-evangelicalism,” a movement that started in the late 1940s. These evangelicals were trying to distinguish themselves from "uneducated" folk like us holiness people, dispensationalists, and Pentecostals.  George Marsden and Mark Noll call us types "fundamentalists" and make retreat from the world (rather than engagement) our defining characteristic.  That's funny, because the scholars that produced the namesake of fundamentalism, "the Fundamentals," were the type of Reformed Calvinists who founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Neo-evangelicalism pretty much grew out of that "fundamentals" crowd. And why would we want to call ourselves evangelicals?

Yet, the more educated Wesleyan Methodists of the 1950s were keen to jump on that bandwagon.  Stephen Paine convinced the WMsts in the 50s to add the term "inerrancy" to their Discipline, following this broader movement.  Both Bob Black and the recent study of the Nazarenes confirm its background in 19th century American Calvinism--the Charles Hodge types that opposed the core values of the Wesleyan movement. The Pilgrims did not have the term in their Manual, but clearly didn't think the Bible had errors when the question came up at merger in 1968--who would want to argue for that?

A more appropriate definition of a fundamentalist is an uncharitable and militant idealist whose aim is to make the whole world conform to his or her traditional religious ideology, while opposing modernizing factors.  But this is almost how the public has come to understand the word "evangelical" anyway today.  And why do we want to be called evangelicals in that context?

The most recent mainstream evangelical self-description is a five volume series whose glue is a set of characteristics retrofitted onto the past based on what evangelicalism is today. So Wesley and the Pietists get to be included now (how charitable of mainstream evangelicalism) because they can be roughly made to fit Bebbington's four characteristics extrapolated from the present: 1) conversion, 2) Bible, 3) activism, and 4) centrality of the cross. Can Wesleyans fit in his mold?

Most of us can, but that doesn't mean it is the kind of list we would come up with to describe ourselves or that best describes who we are.  For example, Wesley's quadrilateral argues that prima scriptura is a better description of him than sola scriptura. Wesleyan activism is not just about evangelism (the main sense in Bebbington's description) but social action as well to a degree that has historically made evangelicals uncomfortable.

And at least part of the Wesleyan tradition is sympathetic to the Quaker idea of God judging people according to the light they have (awkward). And we are sometimes a little light on the penal substitution often hiding in Bebbington's fourth characteristic.  Both leanings put us in the dubious category to evangelicals like John Piper, who doesn't think Arminians should be allowed to teach at truly evangelical institutions.

In short, the current popular description of an evangelical does apply to many Wesleyans, but there are also many Wesleyans in good standing for whom some of these descriptions fit awkwardly at best. It is no wonder mainstream evangelicalism hasn't always been sure whether we were in or out. From the sound of this post, they are sometimes suspect to us as well. We have much in common with American evangelicalism, but it should not be the central way we define ourselves, in my opinion...


Susan Moore said...

I thought it was just me. I've never been exposed to all these denominational differences before I was healed. And I don't ask people I meet on the street if they are Arminian or Calvinistic. I ask them if they know who God is. But yet I've been trying to figure out such things. I thought that the Church History class would help, and it did somewhat. Probably getting poison ivy at the same time didn't help. Now when I try to figure out church denominations, I start itching!

Ken Schenck said...


Martin LaBar said...

I won't say "thanks for clearing that up," because it seems that it's too murky to clear up. But thanks for the post.

Edward Ross said...

Ken, you've help settle some uneasiness I've had about evangelical statements of late. I worked under a John Piper disciple as a senior pastor who put me on a "reeducation program" about grace and salvation that I ended up walking out of after a couple of months.

The last church I came from was part of the 4C movement, which would clearly see themselves as part of the evangelical movement of the mid 20th century that you describe. Great folks who love the Lord and who helped me a lot. Not sure what to do with the transplanted Wesleyan always, but great folks.