Joe Carter has informed Evangel readers about the Patheos symposium on the future of evangelicalism. Since I was not invited to contribute––no hurt feelings––I will offer the perspective of a “post-evangelical” who now straddles the Reformed and Anglican traditions.
To begin, we can only talk about the future of evangelicalism if we have a sense of whose evangelicalism. Scot McKnight offers a very helpful taxonomy in his essay, “The Old Coalition Is Passing.”
If we define “evangelical” as those who faithfully sustain the Reformation’s central impulses, like justification by faith and the solas, I would contend that evangelicalism will be here for a long time. There are plenty who will keep the Reformation’s gospel and theology alive. If we define “evangelical” as those who are faithful to the Great Awakening(s) and revivals of America, who carry on the work of people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and D.L. Moody, along with the missionary movement that flowed from that kind of evangelicalism, I would say that movement is sputtering along but is not likely to go away anytime soon. Yet I would caution that the great drive for the act of evangelism has substantially waned on American soil; the promptings that created missionary work all over the world have fallen on dry days. Finally, if we define “evangelical” as the coalition that gathered in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s around such luminaries as Billy Graham, Carl Henry, John Stott and J.I. Packer – of that evangelicalism, I would say the days are numbered.
I would be cheerful about the future of evangelicalism if it referred to “those who faithfully sustain the Reformation’s central impulses, like justification by faith and the solas,” but this constituency is and should be an outlier to evangelicalism for the reasons that Reformed theologian Michael Horton argues in his Modern Reformation essay, “To Be or Not to Be: The Uneasy Relationship Between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism” (Nov/Dec 2008):
- Today, it is taken for granted by many that those most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the “unchurched”). We are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, usually with little definition offered for either. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style (“contemporary” versus “traditional”), its politics (“compassionate conservatism” or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism’s progressivist roots), and its “rock-star” leaders, than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.
- The Second Great Awakening, especially the ministry of revivalist Charles G. Finney, represented what can only be called America’s Counter-Reformation. Going beyond Rome’s Counter-Reformation in the direction of Pelagianism, Finney denied original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth; and he created a system of faith and practice tailor-made for a self-reliant nation. Evangelicalism-which is to say, at least in late eighteenth-century American Protestantism-was the engine for innovations. In doctrine, it served modernity’s preference for faith in human nature and progress. In worship, it transformed Word-and-sacrament ministry into entertainment and social reform, creating the first star-system in the culture of celebrity. In public life, it confused the Kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world and imagined that Christ’s reign could be made visible by the moral, social, and political activity of the saints. There was little room for anything weighty to tie the movement down, to discipline its entrepreneurial celebrities, or to question its “revivals” apart from their often short-lived publicity. . . . Much of contemporary evangelicalism has its roots in Finney’s legacy and behind it, pietism, which for all of its benefits nevertheless already began to shift the weight of Christian witness from the triune God and his saving work in Christ to the self and its inner experience.
- Orthodox Protestants in Europe always viewed evangelicalism as a uniquely British and American phenomenon, generally characterized as “Methodist.” Even in the United States, Presbyterian and Reformed churches had an ambivalent relationship to evangelicalism. On one hand, theologians like Warfield and Hodge understood the label “evangelical” as referring to the substance of catholic Christianity reformed and refined in the Reformation. Naturally, this made them closer allies with confessional Lutherans and Anglicans than with heirs of Finney, but the mainline Presbyterian Church itself was divided in the nineteenth century between Old School and New School bodies over revivalism. In many ways, evangelicalism more generally has struggled with this schizophrenic heritage of Reformation and Counter-Reformation influences. Churchmen like Warfield and Hodge regarded themselves as evangelicals in this Reformation sense and struggled to bring American Protestantism into line with this definition. They were also staunchly committed to and personally involved with the vast missionary endeavors of their denomination at home and abroad, bringing them into constant fellowship and cooperation with other evangelicals.
- At the end of his lecture tour in the United States, Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized American religion as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” Although the influence of the Reformation in American’s religious history has been profound (especially prior to the mid-nineteenth century), and remains a counterweight to the dominance of the revivalist heritage, Bonhoeffer’s diagnosis seems justified: “God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God….American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics….In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics….Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.”
- Evangelicalism is like a village green, where people, leaving their homes and stores, come to mix and mingle. Or, as C. S. Lewis suggested, it is “mere Christianity”– the hallway where people meet and where non-Christians can hear Christ’s central claims. We were not meant to live on the village green or in the hallway, however, but in the homes and rooms. Evangelicalism is most useful as a meeting place, but disastrous for anyone who tries to make it a home. For a home, we need a church.
- According to the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggert, evangelicalism includes in its theological spectrum everyone from R. C. Sproul to Benny Hinn. Increasingly, I believe that the real vitality – the long-term progress – of the gospel in our time will not come from broad movements, including an evangelicalism defined more by the hegemony of its politics and sociology than by the unity of its faith and practice. Rather, I expect it to come from many churches, most of them relatively small and unheralded, which consistently confess – in preaching and sacrament, in catechesis and fellowship, in singing and liturgy, in outreach and diaconal care – that gospel that alone remains “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). After all, it was not to movements, parachurch agencies, and coalitions that Jesus pledged his support. Rather, he promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Since the old coalition is falling apart, according to McKnight, we are witnessing the rise of three alternatives:
First, the ancient-future movement spearheaded by Robert Webber; second, the emergent/emerging movement spearheaded by young thinkers and leaders like Brian McLaren who knew that fundamentalism and the neo-evangelical coalition weren’t listening to the youth culture; and third, the revival of Calvinism among the NeoReformed, spearheaded – almost singlehandedly, I think – by John Piper and those who flocked to his side. Within this NeoReformed movement is the massive influx of Southern Baptists, who were formerly neither as vocal in their Calvinism nor as concerned with the older neo-evangelical coalition, but who are now undoubtedly a (if not the) major voice in the NeoReformed and fundamentalist awakening among some evangelicals.
I am glad McKnight suggests that the new Calvinism is an alternative to evangelicalism rather than part and parcel of evangelicalism. I hope the neo-Calvinists will serve as a needful gadfly on the sluggish horse of American evangelicalism, precipitating intellectual depth, ecclesial passion, and doctrinal integrity through holy irritation.
Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, and Collin Hansen encourage me in their essay, “The Evangelical Reformed Movement: A Comeback” (notice how “evangelical” properly functions as an adjective rather than a noun):
Where some Christians fret over the loss of Christian consensus in America and the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, we see great opportunity. The demise of nominal Christianity opens new possibilities for genuine discipleship. If people nowadays are going to follow Christ, they want the strong stuff. They want robust theology, a big Christ, a deep gospel, and they aren’t afraid of serious demands.
It is no coincidence that this movement of evangelical Calvinists thrives in pockets of America where church attendance has eroded. Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan have three very different personalities and styles, and they represent three age brackets. But each, in his own way, has inspired many young pastors to pour their lives into dying churches and start new ones in cities considered skeptical toward evangelicals.
The meaty theology of Calvinism has other aspects that bode well for its future. For one, the intellectual nature of the Reformed faith means that it tends to exert a disproportionate influence on Christian thinking and institutions through writing, scholarship, and formal theologizing. Second, the accent on God’s providential care over all encourages Christians to count the cost of discipleship in an increasingly hostile culture and trust God for the outcome.
Throughout the centuries, missionaries such as William Carey and Adoniram Judson have found encouragement to persevere from the promise of God’s sovereignty. If the future holds further erosion of nominal Christianity, evangelical Calvinists are equipped to endure. Finally, a firm commitment to the full trustworthiness and authority of scripture – along with a settled conviction in substitutionary atonement and justification by Christ’s righteousness through faith alone – are historic and essential rail guards to keep evangelicalism on a biblically faithful path.