Thursday, April 01, 2010

Whatever happened to evangelicalism... (7)

In yet another proof of miracles and God's existence, I have finished reading a book, Donald Dayton's Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Today I read chapter 10, "Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?" and the Epilogue, "Reflections on Some Unresolved Issues." This book, we remember, came out in 1976.

Here are the previous posts on this book:

Evangelical Heritage
Finney and Weld
Oberlin and Civil Disobedience
Louis Tappan Quotes
Luther Lee and Antoinette Brown
Gospel to the Poor

The Epilogue was enticing because it has stuff I am actually more interested in than what this book covers. Dayton was writing in the wake of the civil rights conflict and the Vietnam War and was trying to justify the social action history of American evangelicalism. My sense is that the current generation of evangelical children are, if anything, focused more on social action than they actually are on personal salvation (although I sense the political climate in relation to the Obama administration, in addition to a generation that was just beginning to look around at the world when 9-11 happened, could actually result in some sort of a reveral of this trajectory--we'll see). In any case, I am much more interested in the history of my own tradition than in recovering a sense of our past social action.

I hope to read through Bebbington next. But I am especially interested in what Dayton calls "two types of Evangelicalism," which I'll call the old Princeton school and the revivalist school. Finney, Dayton says, represents a reaction to the "old Calvinism" of B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge. The Princeton school opposed the abolitionist and women's rights movement represented by Finney, Oberlin, Wesleyan Methodists, and so forth.

We find Hodge saying things like, "females... are judged... incompetent to the proper discharge of the duties of citizenship." And of abolitionists, that they were "a small minority of the people. They have never included in their ranks either the controlling intellect or moral feeling at the North." Hodge also could proudly say, "I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated in this [Princeton] seminary."

I am quite happy to say that my Wesleyan roots had nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of Hodge and Warfield. I do not have to be embarrassed by the B. B. Warfields and Charles Hodges of nineteenth century Christianity. They are like those Christians in the 60s who opposed letting African-Americans sit anywhere on a bus or in a movie theater or to use any water fountain or go to any school. These are all on the wrong side of history, individuals who were out of touch with the Holy Spirit.

The nice thing about history, as Gamaliel once reminded us, is that it doesn't care who you are, how much power you have, or how loudly you can shout. History, like truth, simply doesn't care about people's feelings. The Flood comes, some people are saved, some people drown with "Oops" as their final words.

But Dayton also tells of "what happened to evangelicalism," remembering that the majority of the Christian institutions recognized by a magazine like Christianity Today as evangelical have their roots not in the old Princeton type but the revivalist type of evangelicalism. What happened was that "the sociological, theological, and historical currents produced a movement that in many ways stood for the opposite of what an earlier generation of Evangelicals had affirmed. What had begun as a Christian egalitarianism was transformed into a type of Christian elitism. Revivalistic currents that had once been bent to the liberation of the slave now allied themselves with wealth and power against the civil rights movement. Churches and movements that had pioneered a new role for women became the most resistant to contemporary movements seeking the same goals" (134).

Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary left Finney's type of evangelicalism (Gordon was criticized by Warfield in their day) and would eventually follow the Princeton model. Wheaton would go the same way. If Finney emphasized redemption, the Princeton school emphasized sin. Even the Wesleyan Methdodists would be impacted by some of these these forces under the influence of individuals like Stephen Paine and, ironically, people like Donald Dayton's own father, Wilbur Dayton.

Among the changes in post-Civil War revivalist groups was a shift toward pre-millennialism. Thus while the original Wesleyan Methodists tended toward postmillennialism and an optimism about the possibility not only of personal but of societal redemption. The Wesleyans after the Civil War became increasingly premillennial and withdrew more and more from social involvement.

Dayton does mention another very significant factor, although very briefly. The rise of things like evolution, biblical criticism, and so forth were also major elements in catalyzing the influence of the old Princeton school on revivalist traditions like mine. The old Princeton school put its emphasis on right doctrine while not so much emphasizing the new life that revivalism did.

But this was not the emphasis of John Wesley or revivalism. John Wesley, for example, while certainly orthodox in doctrine, never tired of affirming that religion does not "consist in orthodoxy or right opinions... A man may be orthodox in every point... He may be almost as orthodox as the Devil... and may, all the while, be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart."

Even today I have often said this. Revivalist evangelicalism of the Wesleyan sort is interested in your head. But we are far more interested in your heart and life. Thus, "it was revivalist Evangelicalism that supported the antislavery movement and opened up new roles for women." The evangelicalism that Mark Noll and George Marsden portray as the mainstream might just as well be interpreted, at least in the nineteenth century, as the backwater.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

How is another to judge the heart? or should they even attempt to do so? This is the question of where and how faith is revealed. Some think that one must concur with their brand of "faith" for God to be pleased. But, even atheists have faith, but not of a supernatural type.

Faith that is apparant could be demonstrated as much by those like the Baptists that stood in opposition at the funeral of the homosexual soldier, bearing signs of condemnation and judgment, just as much as ones that walk in footsteps of Mother Teresa.

Faith has to be a personal understanding and conviction about one's life and the world at large.