What is Evangelicalism? – Part 3

Read the other parts of ‘What Is Evangelicalism?’
Part 1, Part 2Part 4

In my previous post, I suggested that evangelicalism is a particular form of Protestantism marked by the marginalization of the institutional church. Within this and the post that follows, I will be arguing for an understanding of evangelicalism that focuses less upon the adherence to particular doctrines and pays more attention to certain religious sensibilities that shape the manner in which doctrines are held.

While evangelicalism is commonly defined in a prescriptive manner, I have argued that our definition ought to be more descriptive, more historical, and more open to the incredible variety that exists under the banner of the term. Rather than a definition designed to bolster a particular understanding of Protestant orthodoxy – a definition used to press people into becoming what evangelicals supposedly ‘should be’ and operating on the premise that evangelicalism is Christianity in its purest and most ideal form – I will argue for a definition of evangelicalism that is considerably less flattering for the movement.

Following Darryl Hart, I will maintain that in the middle of the 20th century, the definition of the term ‘evangelical’ shifted from referring to the magisterial Protestant tradition (in all of its forms, both liberal and conservative), to referring to a very specific sort of expression of Protestant identity, an identity that expressed impulses that were already operative within Protestantism, especially in the contexts of the ‘Evangelical Revival’ and Great Awakenings, an identity forged through the coalition-forming work of neo-evangelicals. Evangelicalism, against self-styled ‘conservative evangelicals’, is not the great expression and bastion of conservative Protestantism, but represents a clear and unhealthy departure from it in a very particular direction (liberalism departed in different directions).

In addressing the question ‘what is an evangelical?’ most people focus on marking out evangelicalism’s identity over against liberalism and perhaps such things as sacramentalism as expressed in Roman or Anglo-Catholicism. My case proceeds on the assumption that, while such distinctions exist and are important, the distinction between evangelicalism and confessional and ecclesial conservative Protestant identities proves far more illuminating for our quest to determine its true character. In the light of these distinctives, the rise of progressive evangelicalism will be seen, not as an aberration, but to be entirely in keeping with the true character of the evangelical movement.

While conservative evangelicals will often treat their conservative Protestant credentials as a given, I want to call these into question. Not all conservative Protestants are ‘evangelicals’ in the modern sense of the word and evangelicals should not just be presumed to be conservative Protestants. Evangelicalism is not merely a name for a conservative Protestant consensus but refers to a very specific way of – or perhaps a particular form of departure from – being Protestant. In those things that distinguish evangelicalism from forms of non-evangelical conservative Protestantism, it is not a conservative but a radical movement, despite the fact that a significant number of evangelicals seek to draw heavily upon the riches of confessional Protestantism.

By defining evangelicalism chiefly over against the forms of conservative Protestantism that generally preceded it, conservative Protestant doctrines will not be able to play such a role in the articulation of evangelicalism’s identity. Rather, whatever evangelicalism is, it is to be understood as something that qualifies or acts upon a fundamental Protestant identity.

In what follows, I will present evangelicalism as a degenerative movement within Protestantism. In the ways that evangelicalism qualifies Protestant identity it generally represents a downgrade development from non-evangelical conservative Protestantism. Once it is understood that I am not defining evangelicalism as something inclusive of conservative Protestant conviction, but as a particular qualification and development out of a prior Protestant identity, it should be clear that, although my characterization of evangelicalism is very harsh at points, I definitely do not mean to reject all that evangelicals stand for. To the extent that modern evangelicals are simply upholding conservative Protestantism – something that is not necessarily bound up with evangelicalism – they are to be praised and I happily stand with them. However, to the extent that evangelicals are marked by the particular developments of Protestant identity, religious sensibilities, and impulses that evangelicalism names, they are mostly to be criticized.

I do not mean to diminish the great good that evangelicals have achieved. I will readily grant that there have been contexts where, despite their internal problems, the characteristic sensibilities of evangelicals have served to provide crucial and valuable resistance to errors that have driven in opposite directions. As a voice within certain traditions at various key junctures, evangelicals have often pulled conversations in a more healthy and biblical direction. However, as evangelicals have increasingly detached themselves from much of the discipline of those traditions and conversations, discipline that held the more extreme development of their impulses in clear check, and their sensibilities have gradually been exalted to the level of governing principles, rather than just placing a particular accent upon a set of doctrinal convictions, these sensibilities have started to exert a profoundly corrosive effect upon doctrine. Perhaps this names the point where a sort of ‘proto-evangelical’ impulse that was always present in classic conservative Protestantism began to become evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism’s Religious Sensibilities

I believe that evangelicalism is loosely characterized by a set of religious and ideological sensibilities. These sensibilities are largely constitutive of evangelicalism’s épisteme and give shape to its various cultural forms.

Resistance to Mediation

At the heart of evangelicalism’s épisteme – its set of unwitting assumptions or ideological subconscious – is a resistance to or suspicion of mediation. All sacramental, institutional, hierarchical, hermeneutical, historical, cultural, and sociological forms of mediation are treated with a degree of suspicion. In place of such things, evangelicalism tends to celebrate the individual’s immediate encounter with divine truth, tending to regard mediating structures as interposing themselves between us and divine reality, rather than being means whereby that reality is brought near to us. Christian truth is timeless, detached from any institution or culturally embedded form of life or tradition, and necessitates no submission to any form of hierarchy or mediated authority.

The Autonomous Religious Subject

A second and related feature of evangelicalism’s épisteme is an anthropology that operates in terms of the primacy of the detached individual. The religious subject is ultimately self-defining, identified by its voluntaristic choice. Evangelicalism tends to give great weight to the individual conscience and little weight to the need for the conscience to be subject to the discipline of institutions, a faithful community, and a tradition beyond it. Individual religious interiority is granted priority over all else.

This is one of several reasons why the practice of paedobaptism often does not sit that comfortably within evangelicalism. Paedobaptism suggests that one has an identity that is given to you from outside, by virtue of bonds that precede any choice on your part. Within evangelicalism paedobaptism will tend either to take a weak and apologetic posture or will be denied altogether.

The importance of the autonomous and self-defining religious subject within evangelicalism tends to result in an understanding of Christian faith drawn around that individual religious subject. Instead of a picture which decisively decentres the self through an emphasis on being united to Christ, within whom and through participation in the life of his body we definitively and progressively receive a new identity and self from outside of ourselves, the autonomous religious subject serves the fixed point to which all other theological elements are relative.

This autonomous religious subject will be defined by what is immediate to it and will bear the weight of its own identity. Hence, a highly expressive personal piety and immediacy of religious experience and display becomes increasingly important. While an expressive piety and rich religious experience are certainly not bad things, when our identity as Christians becomes dependent upon them, rather than upon an identity granted to us from outside of ourselves in Christ, through the mediation of the Church, its life, ministries, the sacraments, and the declared promises of God, real dangers will be courted.

Democracy and Egalitarianism

As Nathan Hatch and others have argued, American Christianity – of which evangelicalism is the archetypical expression – is marked by a profound anti-elitist and anti-hierarchical impulse. The authority of the individual religious subject as an interpreter of Scripture and the divine will is pressed against all agencies that might challenge its claims. Movements that validate, advance, and encourage this impulse are widely popular (even though their own internal structures may often be quite undemocratic).

In this democratic context, the clergy, who represent the formal authority of the institution, the ecclesial community, of tradition, of learning, interpretative skill, and of ordained office are challenged and the distinction between the clergy and the laity is opposed. The movements that result from this impulse stress the removal of all social distinctions and differentiations (which are merely arbitrary cultural functions performed upon the unit of the autonomous religious subject, the only entity possessing genuine theological grounding), emphasize the inalienable rights of the individual and autonomous interpreter of Scripture, and locate authority in the religious experience of the common person. Divinely established structures of mediated authority become problematic, or are dismissed altogether. Once again, the unmediated is treated as primary.

Through this democratic drive, social distinctions of class, sex, office, race, and learning are steadily broken down and a sort of egalitarianism of undifferentiation results. When the autonomous religious subject, rather than entities such as the differentiated body of the Church, becomes the primary unit of theological analysis, various forms of egalitarianism (egalitarianism in the broader sense of the term, not just as opposed to complementarianism, although my points here are of relevance to that discussion) are a natural development. The Church comes to be seen as the aggregation of the units of religious subjects, rather than as an entity with its own distinct identity and integrity in Christ, theologically prior to the identity of its members.

As democratic and egalitarian values prevail, the rationale of various teachings, such as those relating to distinctions between men and women in the Church, or the authority of Church offices, come to be regard as eccentric and arbitrary, imposed by some sort of divine fiat, or mere cultural accretions, opposed to the driving logic of the gospel and now to be dispensed with.

Populist Anti-culture

The characteristic instincts of evangelicalism tend to be those of a populist Protestant anti-culture. Populist ‘anti-culture’ is ‘a system that rejects the task of restraint and normative character formation in favor of liberation and self-expression.’ Evangelical sensibilities are typically contrary to the key constitutive elements of culture and can be understood as ‘anti-cultural’ in their tendencies.

Evangelical sensibilities are resistant to ‘priesthoods’ and hierarchy, to authority structures that establish guardians of cultural norms, which place restraints upon and give direction to those subject to them. Evangelical sensibilities are resistant to societal differentiation, which challenges the primacy of the autonomous religious subject as the unit of analysis. Evangelical sensibilities are resistant to institution, which defends ends and cultural meaning transcending those of autonomous individuals. Evangelical sensibilities are resistant to elites, which represent demanding standards of excellence by which the value of cultures should be measured, and the exclusion of those who lack such standards from networks of influence. Evangelical sensibilities are resistant to tradition, which relativizes prevailing populist prejudices and the authority of private judgment. Finally, evangelical sensibilities are resistant to pedagogy, which charges populist culture with infantilism and immaturity, seeks to train and conform it to higher standards, and privileges elders over youth (like more institutional forms of Christianity which emphasize the passing on of the faith through baptism, catechesis, tradition, and liturgy). Evangelical ‘contextualization’ and ‘relevance’ typically lead to capitulation to the forms of the low, popular culture of capitalist consumption, rather than schooling the surrounding culture into mature Christian forms.

The religious sensibilities mentioned above are definitely not present in equal measure in every form of evangelicalism. Many evangelicals are appalled by the extent to which certain of these impulses have been followed in particular quarters. However, I believe that these are the key sensibilities that are most formative of the distinct character of evangelicalism from other forms of Christianity and Protestantism. The evangelical ‘anti-cultural’ characteristics mentioned above are now widely held, even by many Roman Catholics. However, it is within the culture of evangelicalism that these values find their natural home and expressions.

If we were to revisit Bebbington’s quadrilateral, we might reframe and hone his categories somewhat, in terms of my suggestions above. Instead of Biblicism, we could speak of the centrality of the authority of the individual interpreter of Scripture. Many other Christian traditions give great significance to Scripture. However, it is within evangelicalism that the Bible is most extricated from traditional, ecclesial, and confessional structures and the authority of the individual reader is most decisively valorized.

Instead of crucicentrism, we could speak of the centrality of the individual and autonomous religious subject in soteriology. The cross is extremely important in other Western traditions of theology and piety. We might think of Luther’s theology of the cross or Catholic cross-focused forms of piety. What is particularly characteristic of and unique to evangelicalism is an account of salvation in which the autonomous individual is the focus and the Church and sacraments become reduced to a merely functional status.

Instead of conversionism, we could speak of the primacy of individual religious experience and expressive, affective, sincere, and lively piety as the chief marker of genuine Christianity. Other traditions can value a lively piety and subjective religious experience. However, it is within evangelicalism that such things start to bear the great weight of Christian identity, displacing an identity derived from the gift of Christ in the covenant or the sacraments.

Instead of activism, we could speak of anti-elitist pragmatic populism. Evangelicalism exhibits and vigorously perpetuates a mass pop culture, a culture hostile to elite, non-democratic, and traditional values, standards, and norms, save to the extent that these can be repackaged for individual choice-driven consumption. It manifests a fondness for democracy’s means of ideological propagation, for political lobbying and forms of sales, marketing, and corporate strategies borrowed from the business world. Evangelicalism is the ‘church’ of capitalism.

Incipient forms or lesser strains of these impulses were always present to some degree in the context of historic Protestantism. What evangelicalism represents is the elevation of these impulses to driving principles and the steady removal of the counterbalancing influences, practices, and doctrines that formerly limited their unhindered expression.

A Little History

My account of evangelicalism’s religious sensibilities above is a fairly pejorative one. Consequently, I think that it is important to make clear exactly what I am and am not referring to and the extent and manner to which I would associate self-identifying evangelicals – many of whom may be appalled to be characterized by such sensibilities – with my description. Some historical background will be clarifying on this front.

Darryl Hart, in his work Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Joel Garver has a helpful review of it here), observes the evolution of the term ‘evangelical’. At one point, Hart argues, the term ‘evangelical’ merely referred to those churches that derived from the magisterial Reformation. It served to distinguish Protestants from Catholics, but was a term that included liberals and conservatives and churches across the spectrum of liturgical practice. The identity that it denoted was simply mainline Protestantism, an ecclesial tradition, rather than a set of conservative theological beliefs.

The meaning of the term ‘evangelical’ shifted following the fundamentalist controversy as it was commandeered by opponents of liberalism, who wished to ‘reform conservative Protestantism and smooth its rougher edges.’ This neo-evangelicalism formed a plethora of organizations and institutions to provide for unity among conservative, non-liberal Protestants, agencies and causes that claimed the term ‘evangelical’ for their self-description. This new conservative Protestant alliance constructed a new religious identity, an identity for which a constituency had to be assembled. This evangelical movement ‘replaced the church with the parachurch and it developed forms to match.’ It was an exercise in ‘coalition-building’ that was fundamentally liberal in its premises: it pared down Christian teaching to some supposed ‘kernel’, while removing the churchly husk of creed and confession, theological tradition, liturgy, sacraments, church polity, ordination, and discipline.

This constructed identity, Hart argues, is attenuated and fissiparous, lacking the definition characteristic of ecclesial traditions. However, it soon became popular among historians and social scientists. Between 1965 and 1985, ‘the study of Protestantism switched from the history of the church to the history of the more generic entity, religion.’ This went along with a ‘secularization’ of Protestant history, as the hegemony of Protestantism was rejected and the institutional church was marginalized in favour of the informal, the popular, diversity, and outsiders. As Joel summarizes: ‘It also came along with a shift in the study of history away from official structures, formal organs, and publications over to a social history that celebrated ordinary life—a perfect fit with the individualistic, egalitarian, and pragmatic character of evangelical piety.’ The efforts of neo-evangelicals to forge a new conservative Protestant coalition and identity beyond the bounds of the institutional church and its traditions and read that identity back into the past aligned quite neatly with the historiographical prejudices of the social history of ‘religious historians’.

The deinstitutionalized conservative Protestant identity of evangelicalism also proved attractive to social scientists, who constructed the identity that evangelicalism lacked through opinion polling, and invested it with political significance. The weight given to simplistic ‘sound-bite’ polls of public opinion may be a rather blunt instrument for measuring Christianity, but it is conducive to the sensibilities and resultant character of evangelicalism, which are those of democratic religious consumerism. Also, given the ‘what this net doesn’t catch isn’t fish’ risks of much social science, is it any surprise that disciplines frequently wedded to democratic, egalitarian, and individualistic assumptions and methodologies should ‘discover’ a religious identity that shared those values?

Hart expresses his thesis thus:

The one response that few have considered is perhaps the most radical and the point of this book: Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be, but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis, which has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics, and pollsters, is a face void of any discernible features. The nonexistence of an evangelical identity may prove to be, to borrow a phrase from Noll, the real scandal of modern evangelicalism, for despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction. This book is a work of deconstruction.

Hart argues that evangelicalism is not a tradition in the MacIntyrean sense of an argument ‘extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.’ Although modern evangelicals may look to the evangelical revivals and Great Awakenings for inspiration, they are not clearly commitments to the development of a tradition.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Culture, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What is Evangelicalism? – Part 3

  1. The question I personally am more concerned with is: Why is evangelicalism important? And, as an evangelical myself, I find it less and less important the longer I live. Being an orthodox Christian, following in the footsteps of two thousand years of Christian belief(i.e. being the sort of Christian believer that my brothers and sisters in the Church Triumphant would recognise as “one of them”) far more important.

    • Good question. I think that ‘evangelicalism’ is important to those constituencies who have been formed by the impulses and sensibilities that I identify above. When you are not firmly situated within a clearly defined tradition of theological discourse, a member of a particular ecclesial entity with deep historical roots, bound to a confessional or creedal identity, under a particular authority, or subject to a robust institutional structure, the heavily diluted generic identity of evangelicalism may be the only identity to which you can appeal.

      The need to feel some sense of insider status or measure of belonging, or to give some form to the chaos of democratic, individualistic, and egalitarian Protestantism drives people to identify themselves as an evangelical and to try to police the identity of others. Others seek to give the identity a much clearer definition than it can sustain as otherwise they fear that all of their distinctives will be depreciated, representing nothing but inconsequential variations within a fundamentally contested identity for lifestyle consumers.

      Those who are formed within far more robust and defined ecclesial and theological contexts and traditions are free to sit much more easily to any evangelical identity that they claim.

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