Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Neo-Evangelical Synthesis

These last ten years or so, I've been very interested in the question of how appropriate it might be to call people from my tradition, "evangelicals." Although I haven't been able to read it yet, I was happy to see that Don Dayton has put out a new edition of his earlier book. The publisher named it "Discovering an Evangelical Heritage" the first time. Now it has his original title, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage.

The point of the RE-discovering is that Dayton wishes to point out that the dominant forces within NEO-evangelicalism, which arose in the late 1940s, are not exactly the same as the primary forces within evangelicalism historically.

1. I was reading Wesley's sermon, "Spirit of Bondage and Adoption," a few weeks ago. In it he says that a person who has been justified by faith, the person who has the assurance of salvation, is someone "in the evangelical state."

Wesley doesn't use the word evangelical much, but it seems to me that he used it in a way that connected to Luther's sense of the gospel. His evangelical state is a "gospel state," where a person has been justified by faith, has believed in the good news, and has an assurance of salvation. My hunch is that William Tyndale is where this use of the word comes from in English.

[Scot McKnight, as well as Tom Wright, have pointed out that this is of course not what "gospel" means in the New Testament. The gospel is, most centrally, the good news that God has enthroned Jesus as king. Salvation is part of that good news. It just isn't the central meaning.]

But that's not important right now. The origins of American evangelicalism are in these preachers of assurance, these preachers that you can be justified by faith now and you can know it. In short, the original evangelicals in America were revivalists. George Whitfield and the First Great Awakening are the starting point for American evangelicalism and, yes, Jonathan Edwards was a part of that.

John Wesley and his followers are a key part of that, the early American Methodists like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Then the Cane revivals in the early 1800s, the Second Great Awakening, are part of that. Think of the Baptists who preached assurance and a moment of conversion.

2. What wasn't a part of these "evangelical" movements were the "Princeton Calvinists." Charles Hodge was not a part of that. Archibald Alexender and B. B. Warfield were not part of that. This is Don Dayton's point. The evangelicals of the 1800s were people like Charles Finney. The camp meeting preachers were the evangelicals of the 1800s. They were the ones preaching a moment of conversion and the assurance of salvation.

They were also often abolitionists and activists in favor of women's right to vote, especially the Wesleyans. They were the ones who believed that the Spirit called women to preach as well as men. They were, in short, the very people that the Princeton Calvinists both looked down the nose at and opposed.

The Fundamentals came not from these revivalists but from the tradition of the Princeton Calvinists. Somehow in the 1950s the word "fundamentalist" got switched around. Instead of the people that started the notion, primarily Calvinist academics, it got applied to those who were most in continuity with the original "evangelicals." Suddenly the "fundamentalists" were calling themselves "evangelicals" and they were now calling the original heirs of evangelicalism "fundamentalists."

3. My point is that what we call evangelicalism today is a synthesis of two different traditions, a synthesis that took place in the late 1940s. The key focus of the earlier evangelicals was conversion, pushing individuals to a moment of decision leading to justification by faith and an assurance of salvation. In its Wesleyan form, it had always included social activism as well (think Salvation Army).

Now it was synthesized with the theology of the primarily Calvinist fundamentals. In reaction to the social gospel and the FDR administration, social justice was removed from the concerns of evangelicals. It now became questionable to focus on helping the needy. You will now hear these new evangelicals saying that, with limited resources, the church needs to put all its resources into conversion rather than the less important task of helping people.

Now penal substitution as a theory of atonement became very important. The word inerrancy, a concept that had earlier been invoked against the abolition of slavery, became part of the mix. These neo-evangelicals had money and would grow in power. They would set up publishing houses and magazines. They would take the name "evangelical" and dismiss the earlier stream as "fundamentalists," those stupid holiness, Pentecostal, and dispensational people who hid from the fight against an increasingly secular nation.

Bebbington says that evangelicals have historically had a four-fold focus on 1) Scripture, 2) cross, 3) conversion, and 4) activism. But a list like this one is deceiving. Just because someone believes something doesn't mean it is the focal belief, and there are conflicting ways evangelicals have acted in these categories. A list like this can inadvertently promote the periphery to the forefront or give an impression of continuity where it doesn't exist.

What most distinguished those whom we might first call evangelicals was a focus on conversion, with an assumption of the need for the cross. The word "activism" conceals the fact that the activism of the first two centuries of evangelicals was a social activism that late 20th century evangelicals would actually oppose. And the word "Scripture" hides the fact that the form of engagement with Scripture changed dramatically from the "whole Bible," pre-modern preaching of the first two centuries to the fundamental, inerrantist approach of the Princetonians.

1 comment:

John Meunier said...

The evangelical evangelical tradition is also steeped in pietism. Salvation is the enthroning of Jesus in our hearts. We do not need to distinguish between gospel and salvation in the manner Wright and McKnight do.