by Ryan McIlhenny
When asked why he was not a Christian, the impenetrably erudite Bertrand Russell said it was because Christianity lacked the evidence needed for him to give his personal assent. Russell clearly demonstrated his hostility to the knowledge of God as described in Romans 1. William Connolly’s argument in Why I am not a Secularist centres on the fact that secularism had itself become a kind of intolerant religion, of which Connolly, an atheist, wanted no part. Obviously, he missed the opportunity to consider the religion-in-all-of-life thesis in the Kuyperian tradition. My answer to the question as to why I’m not an evangelical—yes, I’ve been asked—includes not only the very narrow image of Christianity constructed by Evangelicalism but also what seems to be the insurmountable problems inherent to it that go beyond doctrine. Those who feel somewhat uncomfortable with the mystique of Evangelicalism, its less-than complete picture of the richness of biblical Christianity, may find partial relief in Keith Sewell’s The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity, a book that traces the historical origins and reductionist tendencies of Evangelicalism. Sewell retired as professor of history at Dordt College in 2012.
The issue is not so much the word evangel (or evangelist), referring simply to the good news of the gospel of Christ and those who carry forth that message. The problem comes when an otherwise adequate descriptor is Jekyll-and-Hijacked into a corrupted “ism” and whether its basic content can be redeemed at all. Most “isms” are somewhat elusive, defined by a constellation of emphases. David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral of priorities”—biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism—remains the most helpful and definitive source for defining Evangelicalism. Much of Sewell’s study focuses on the biblicist aspect of Bebbington’s priorities, how different uses of the Bible came to shape the long history of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism came into being around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Those who were labeled Protestant, including the followers of Martin Luther, referred to as Evangeliche, sought to recover the authority of the one who alone made sinners right before a holy God. This required a turning away from the dictates of Rome in order to return to the authority of scripture, the only infallible source by which true faith is found.
When the accoutrements of Rome had been stripped away, believers found themselves alone with God’s word. Protestants developed three approaches to the Bible’s teachings—the corrective, the regulative, and the directive. Adherents of the corrective type proposed that any religious activity was permissible, Sewell writes, “unless it was expressly contrary to biblical teaching and example” (29). The “regulative” approach, best represented by Ulrich Zwingli, held that “whatever had no explicit warrant in Scripture had no authorized place in the doctrine and life of the church” (30). The directive perspective, inspired by the work of John Calvin, sought “to understand each passage in scripture in terms of scriptural principle distilled from the whole span of the canonical writings” (35). The “great strength of the directional outlook,” which Sewell unabashedly identifies with, “is that it exemplifies an understanding of biblical authority that makes possible the application of general biblical principles in circumstances unanticipated by the biblical writers” (36). The Bible is a compilation of various ways in which God communicates the story of salvation to his people; it is an instrument used by the Holy Spirit to shape the heart of those who come to believe, which then directs the formulations of theology proper.
An important aspect of Evangelicalism slightly muted in Sewell’s study is the place of the individual’s encounter with scripture—and hence God. Sewell notes that Bebbington’s doctrinal emphases can be boiled down even further to a subject-object relationship: the emotional experience of the believer (subject) in his or her encounter with God’s word (object). The strand of Protestantism influenced by German pietism, Wesleyan perfectionism, and the “new methods” of Finneyite revivalism, further developed the Evangelical ethos, especially in the way that it eventually drove a wedge between the head and the heart. By the nineteenth century, the scales tipped in favour of the latter over the former. The true knowledge of God that came through an intensely independent reading of scripture moved these emerging Evangelicals toward a more constricting chapter-and-verse biblicism where emotionally-charged “private interpretations” became the authority that confirmed true conversion. To say it differently, the Bible was the source of true religion, but that which confirmed true faith was the sincerity of the heart. Evangelicalism seemed to codify (and copyright) what it meant to have a true conversion experience. The consequence of the individual’s unmediated interpretation of God’s word has been to force scripture to say something that it does not, failing to understand scripture on its own terms. And, ironically, for “all the ‘battle for the Bible’ rhetoric,” Sewell says, “large portions of evangelical rank and file are surprisingly ignorant of [the Bible’s] actual content” (53).
On this note, Sewell’s study could have been aided by a brief discussion on the doctrine of divine revelation. God reveals his specific plan of salvation to the people he has called out of the world. This is known as “special” or “particular” revelation. At the same time, God reveals himself generally in all of creation to all of humanity. Evangelicals often fail to see the relationship between these two modes of communication, neglecting what could be a richer understanding of God and his magnificent work of redemption. In particular, they fail to see what is common to both—namely, God’s revelation of himself. The pious Evangelical who willfully restricts the knowledge of God to personal salvation not only relegates or devalues God’s self-revelation in creation but also neglects creation itself, minimizing the good that remains in creation and losing sight of the promise of cosmic redemption and the place that God has for believers—as God wills through them—in their role as agents of reconciliation. The reduction of biblical Christianity to personal salvation, ignoring the mysteries in creation to be uncovered, tends toward a kind of intellectual separatism. The Evangelical mind has rarely been able to sustain a robust intellectual response to the challenges of modern thought, especially, as Sewell points out, higher criticism or naturalistic evolution. Not even the more intellectually engaged Neo-Evangelical has been able to do this.
Sewell points out that the directional approach to the Bible allows for an integral understand of the role of the gospel in all of life and challenges dualistic thinking in which an aspect of the created order either stands on an equal level to God or above him. It challenges assumptions not guided by a radically biblical motive. Evangelicals seem to engage studies outside of scripture strictly for apologetic purposes, not to explore the depths of the knowledge of God, failing thereby to understand creation in its proper place. Creation can never be severed from the Creator. The meaning that humans derive as they interact with creation is relationally dependent on the Creator. The biologist, for instance, who looks at the biotic aspect life, cannot reduce the entirety of the cosmos to that single way of being, since all the ways of being that make up the cosmos are creationally interdependent and ultimately dependent on a transcendent Creator. Even the discipline of theology, Sewell writes, as part of creational cultivation—i.e., doctrinal formations made by biblical scholars—is done in submission to the Creator.
While I would agree with Sewell’s assessment, I think he needs to go a bit further. For instance, if, as Sewell claims, the knowledge of scripture is lacking, wouldn’t an understanding of the doctrine of salvation be equally deficient? Would the average Evangelical be able to articulate what is meant by justification by faith alone? What is a reduction, if one doesn’t know much about the thing being reduced? It seems that Evangelicalism’s focus is not so much on the doctrinal tenets of true faith, but on the sincerity of an emotional experience, which determines the meaning of scripture. Furthermore, I am a bit unclear as to whether Sewell’s alternatives—including reforming corporate worship, biblical scholarship, and the Christian’s role in public life—to the crisis of Evangelicalism are offered to save it or send it to the theological dustbin. In other words, would it continue as Evangelicalism if Sewell’s more consistently Calvinistic alternative were to be employed? An answer to this question would require examining Evangelicalism from a different angle.
Sewell is right to say that Bebbington has certainly provided a very helpful definition for understanding Evangelicalism. But I would add that it does not include the corresponding social and cultural features—individualism, separatism, and consumerism—that have likewise contributed to both the mood and identity of Evangelicalism. These tenets have been largely overlooked by Christian intellectuals. What gives life to the biblicism, activism, and conversionism, in particular (not so much the crucicentrism, other than the emotive nature of it), is the hyper-individualism or hyper-democratization shaped by the consumerism of the modern world. This is not to say that tools of consumerism (e.g., methods of communication, from Gutenberg’s printing press to Facebook and Twitter) should be abandoned. Martin Luther’s success came in large part because of his use of the newly invented printing press, although not in a market context. The great revivalist George Whitefield utilized the innovations in print culture to reach a wider audience at a time when the modern economy was in its infancy. Radio preachers and later televangelists used more modern forms of communication for similar ends. These modes of communication have been the foundational infrastructure of a commercial-based society. Used appropriately, such technologies, regardless of their role in creating an integrated economy, can be very helpful. Thus I argue that the development of Evangelicalism has been intertwined with the development of modern capitalism.
Yet by neglecting the history of capitalism—consumer capitalism—in the overall history of Evangelicalism, scholars (including Sewell) miss another important crisis: the danger of prioritizing the tastes of consumers over the truths of the gospel. Fickle individualism is a common element in both consumerism and Evangelicalism. And the question is what feeds the capriciousness, the consumerism or the doctrinal emphases, the latter of which have no connections with ecclesiastical authority? A consumer culture is interested in what sells. It is not bound to the preservation of truth. Hipster Neo-Evangelicalism, the latest in an attempt to be culturally relevant, does not and will not move the church closer to unity since it is beholden to the rapid changes endemic to consumer capitalism. Because it is directed not by individual pietism (of whatever kind) but by individual taste, Evangelicalism will also resist consensus on the Bible’s teachings.
The question, then, is whether a theological reform can be accomplished without addressing these largely neglected social and cultural features. Would it still be Evangelicalism? But consider a different question: how devastating would it be to abandon the term all together? Perhaps it would encourage believers to remember the only name to which they are confessionally bound:
Why are you called a Christian?
Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12 (Q/A: 32)
Ryan C. McIlhenny, PhD (University of California, Irvine) is associate professor of liberal arts at Geneva College (Shanghai) and the author of Reforming the Liberal Arts (Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2017).