Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Is Evangelicalism Dead?

Yesterday David Drury pronounced the death of the evangelical movement. However, the goal of his prophetic piece was not to bury it. His was a call to repentance. It was a hope for resurrection. The movement appears dead, he said, but might God revive it if we repent and turn?

1. My thoughts today are not so noble. My goal is clarity and perspective.

I've written quite often on what are called "word fallacies." These are common fallacies you hear from the pulpit on the meaning of words. They include things like:
  • The etymological fallacy - the idea that the history of a word or the parts of a word tell you what it means.
  • The lexical fallacy - the idea that there is some core meaning to a word that is in play every time the word is used.
  • The overload fallacy - taking the ideas associated with a word in several passages and shoving them into every instance that word is used
Interestingly, these "meaning fallacies" are just as true for the identity and significance of a movement in history as they are for an individual word in a text. As it applies to evangelicalism:
  • You cannot assume that what evangelicalism was in the past is what it will be in the future or is in the present. You may have some continuity of language or group, but that does not guarantee continuity of purpose, identity, or emphasis. (etymological fallacy)
  • You cannot assume that there will be some common core identity that is true of every evangelical. You cannot be sure that there is some "essence of evangelical" that plays itself out every time you find a group calling itself evangelical. (lexical fallacy).
  • Similarly, you can't take the emphases of evangelicals at various periods in their contexts and say they apply every time you see an evangelical.
Suffice it to say, these fallacious ways of thinking about meaning are alive and well in the analysis of evangelicalism. [1] That is not to say that there are not continuities in identity. It is to say that:
  • There may be significant discontinuities in identity in the history of evangelicalism
  • Evangelicalism is a family, and not all members of the family have all the same characteristics. Families have a pool of characteristics features, but no one family member has all of them. [2]
  • We cannot necessarily claim to be what the evangelicals of the past were just because we are called by the same name today. [3]
2. So when it comes to David Bebbington's four-fold characterization of evangelicalism, we have to beware that we do not try to shove everyone called an evangelical into the same exact box. He suggested that the identity of an evangelical throughout the last three centuries has been typified by:
  • biblicism - the centrality of the Bible
  • crucicentrism - the centrality of the cross
  • conversionism - the importance of conversion
  • activism - the eagerness to be "up and doing" 
Historically, there may be a continuity of group without a precise continuity of formula or emphases. You cannot say, "One of these is missing, you are not an evangelical" or "You're not like Billy Graham or Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney; therefore, you're not doing evangelicalism right."

In fact, it seems not a little dangerous to me that John Wesley did not think of himself as an evangelical. It is our label. The German word evangelisch basically means Protestant, which is far broader than what we mean by the word evangelical. What an evangelical is today is a function of what people today are calling evangelical, and that is the meaning of the word today, not what it meant in the past.

The inherited pronunciation of my last name is "skank," even though it is spelled Schenck. These days I often go by a German pronunciation, "shank." [4] Why? Because somewhere around the late 90s the word "skank" came to mean a disreputable woman. Where that came from I have no idea, but that is in fact a meaning for the word now.

In the same way, what an evangelical is today is not determined by what an evangelical was fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago. It is however we as a society use the term today. That's that. There will likely be continuities, but they are not necessary or determinative.

3. In the remainder of this post I want to point out some key shifts in how Bebbington's four characteristics are currently playing themselves out. There is some continuity in the groups he calls evangelical, but the Devil is always in the details.

I will start with conversion, for the seeds of what we are calling evangelicalism start here. That seed is the shift toward individualism that took place in the 1600s and 1700s in Western Europe. This is the age of democracy's rise. This is the age of free will's rise. This is the age of the Enlightenment's rise.

With such a paradigm shift, it is no surprise that we would see a rise in the doctrine of believer's baptism over infant baptism. You are an individual. You must decide. The doctrine of justification by faith is at the core of the evangelisch split from Catholicism, and it has the individual written all over it.

4. Certainly we can find a thread of active evangelization from Wesley to Finney to Graham. This has often been the key manifestation of the activism that Bebbington speaks of. But there have been other forms of activism as well. John Wesley was very involved with social causes, such as the plight of the coal miner.

Donald Dayton famously wrote about the "evangelical heritage" of nineteenth century holiness groups that would be considered socially liberal today. Abolitionist groups and women's rights groups of the 1800s were far more the heirs to the so called evangelicalism of the 1700s than the stodgy Princeton Calvinists who opposed abolition.

In the twentieth century, the social justice aspects to the good news were divorced from its salvation aspects. "High evangelicalism" in the late 1900s generally rejected social activism. [5] There was always the Jim Wallis strand, but it was not how most people used the word evangelical in the late 1900s. So is Jim Wallis an evangelical or not? It depends on who you are asking. Some groups define evangelical in a way that includes him. Others don't. The meaning of a word is in how it is used by a group of people.

At the moment, an evangelical is primarily defined by political conservatism and fundamentalist ideology. In most circles, that is what the word means. You can pout. You can say it shouldn't be so. You can try to give a history lesson. But if that is the way a society is using a word, that's what the word means in that society. Period.

So evangelical activism at present is primarily about being against abortion and against gay marriage along with a host of civil religious accouterments like being for state's rights and being pro-NRA and being a fiscal conservative. Of course we cannot expect every evangelical to believe all the same things. But these are the central associations right now.

If you think of the emphases of evangelicalism as a word cloud. Sometimes one word is bigger than the other at various times. Right now, the word ACTIVISM is the biggest word in the meaning of evangelicalism, and it is activism of a civil religious sort. It remains to be seen whether the word can be effectively redirected. I personally doubt it for the near future. Those who do not want to be identified in this way should stop self-identifying with the word for now.

5. In the early days of "evangelicalism," the Bible certainly played a central role. This is another evangelisch inheritance. After rejecting the Church as the organizing principle of Christian faith, something needed to take its place, and the Bible was the ticket.

However, it was pre-modern interpretation of the Bible. Lacking a full historical consciousness, interpreters danced with the text, bringing the definitions in their head, full of unexamined culture and traditions, and the myriad theologies of Protestantism were born. The Bible was their one book, except that its meaning had everything to do with the dictionaries in their heads.

This was of course an opportunity for the Holy Spirit too. God met them where they were. God molded generations as preachers danced with the texts.

Enter German criticism and historical consciousness in the late 1800s. People had not read the Bible like they would read other books. Without knowing it, they just used a different paradigm when reading it. It is quite shocking when you start to read the Bible in its literary and historical context. The principles are so simple in some ways because it is how you read other books.

But you don't realize you read the Bible differently. You don't use common inductive sense when you are a pre-modern reader of the Bible. Suddenly contextual meanings become obvious. How could I have missed it? It was standing right in front of me!

6. Danger! Danger! It is one thing to fend off an attack from without. But what happens when scholars start telling you that the alleged source of your identity, the Bible, doesn't mean what you think it means?

And there were new ideas rising in the culture, ones that took you off guard. There is the rise of evolution. There had been a fairly friendly relationship between science and faith for a couple hundred years. Although some tried to accommodate evolution into their faith at first, others found it a hostile force, especially when social Darwinism came into play. Social Darwinism is the idea that some people are just more evolved than others and so deserve to be privileged.

The result is that the character of "biblicism" within evangelicalism changed from what it had been. Biblicism was now a protectionist move. Rather than the Bible serving as a generator of theology and practice, it often would now become the wall that stands against the evil forces at work in the culture. Fundamentalism is born.

The neo-evangelicals who rose in the late 1940s, the true parents of evangelicals today, liked to distinguish themselves from "uneducated" fundamentalists. Mark Noll calls holiness folk, Pentecostals, and dispensationalists, "fundamentalists." But the real fundamentalists are those in the twentieth century and beyond who have been fighting back against the forces of modernism--often doing so using the tools of modernism. Evangelicalism might have been a little more couth in the mid-twentieth century, but it stands in this same strain.

Jerry Fallwell effectively took over evangelicalism in the late twentieth century, intensifying its fundamentalist character. One of the primary functions of the Bible in evangelicalism has thus been as a bulwark against higher criticism, developments in science, and progressivism in politics. The Bible becomes a banner-head rather than a generative source of spiritual transformation.

High evangelicalism absorbed the inductive scientific method of modernism but then told it where it was allowed to go. [6] At present, though, post-modernism opened the door for a return to out of context reading. Only the old school evangelicals still worry about inductive Bible study. Theological interpretation is the new norm, a green light to read the Bible in the light of your theology rather than reading it historically. [7]

It is significant to realize that, typically, concepts like "inerrancy" are not really used to defend the real Bible, not really. They are used to defend against culture and, sometimes, against the Holy Spirit. The first ones to use the word inerrancy in the 1800s were anti-abolitionists. The concept was used to try to hold abolitionists to the fire of verses like Colossians 3:22. At present, some would try to use the concept to keep women from pursuing their call to ministry.

In short, the use of the Bible is quite different in contemporary evangelicalism than it was for John Wesley in the 1700s.

7. So we finally come to the cross. In my opinion, this is the least significant of the four characteristics as a defining feature. In practice, what we are looking at here manifests itself presently in an emphasis on penal substitution. In my own circles, it is hardly a point of discussion.

Penal substitution is not just the idea that Jesus took my place on the cross, not just that he absorbed the penalty of sin, but that he absorbed my individual penalty for sin. This is often conceived in a somewhat quantitative sense. If you could calculate the precise amount of my sin and add it up, Jesus was punished that exact amount.

What we are looking at here is a strand of Western Christianity that finds a certain high mark in Anselm (1033-1109) and the Roman Catholic tradition. John Calvin is in continuity with it despite the fact that he is a Protestant. And John Wesley believed in it too. It is a part of his theology that made him a "hair's breadth" from Calvinism.

The Wesleyan tradition currently sits somewhat loosely to this tradition. That doesn't mean that we are or are not evangelical. It just means that not everyone in the family has a long nose but they are still in the family... if they are.

8. Is evangelicalism dead? As long as there are people calling themselves evangelicals, as long as there are people being called evangelicals, then evangelicalism isn't dead. It just may not look like the people who were called evangelicals at some earlier point.

[1] The propaganda of Dinesh D'Sousa is rife with this fallacious thinking as well. He finds characteristics of Democrats and Republicans in the past and then insists that is what they are in the present. So while he may be correct about many aspects of Democratic thinking in the 1800s and early 1900s, the parties largely switched sides on matters relating to race in the mid-twentieth century--especially in the South.

[2] Some will recognize my allusion to Wittgenstein.

[3] Again, this is true of the holiness movement or Wesleyans or any group. Historically speaking, the holiness movement of the late 1800s and 1900s took on quite a different flavor than Wesley, especially due to the influence of a woman named Phoebe Palmer. The character of the movement changed, despite some areas of continuity. In itself, that is neither bad nor good. It is simply a question of meaning and who we want to be. We can "get back" to Wesley if we want, or we can stay "Phoebe Palmer," or, as I prefer, we can move forward taking the best of both, "constructing" an appropriate identity for today.

[4] My name is actually Dutch.

[5] The roots here are historical as well. Mainline churches in the early 1900s were often typified by what is called the "social gospel." This approach basically reduced the gospel to helping other people, an ethic, while rejecting or at least sitting loosely to doctrines like the divinity of Christ or the need for atonement.

Since we often define ourselves by our opposition to other groups, what would become evangelicalism became polarized against social causes. "If they are for it, we are against it." So we ended up with two halves instead of a whole. Of course the Wesleyan tradition never completely followed high evangelicalism in this area.

[6] By "high evangelicalism," I refer to the "neo-evangelical" hegemony launched in the late 1940s by individuals like Harold Ockenga, C. F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, and others. This is the era of the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today. See The Apostles of Reason. It's power base consists as a collection of academic institutions and publishers.

[7] These two are often conflated. "I am reading the Bible through the lens of my theology but this is what it meant historically."


David Drury said...

Such an important deeper dive into this subject, Ken. I read it with interest and learned a great deal.

Ken Schenck said...

You are the one up to bat. I'm the annoying commentator on the radio. :-)

Unknown said...

David and Ken, I think evangelicals need to move away from our hyper individualized view of reading the Bible and also our reason for salvation should be moved in the direction of both an interconnected and intraconnected to more closely follow the idea of "ligament"-ing in Paul's writings. This would require a more robust ecclesiology of both the local and universal church.