What is Evangelicalism? – Part 4

Read the other parts of ‘What Is Evangelicalism?’
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

This post concludes my series on the definition of evangelicalism.

Evaluating Hart’s Thesis

I find Hart’s iconoclastic thesis broadly persuasive. However, I want to challenge it at a few points. First, while evangelicalism cannot easily be defined in positive terms as a ‘tradition’ and lacks clear doctrinal or institutional contours, primarily serving as a name for ‘an unstable constellation of personalities and organizations’, does it thereby cease to have meaningful identity altogether? It may be frustratingly amorphous, variegated, fractious, unstable, and changeable, but I think that there are still means by which we can define such a movement. It may not be a tradition, an ideological unity, or a clearly defined constituency, but that does not mean that it is nothing.

It could be defined in terms of a common history. Hart has already given us something to work with on this front: evangelicalism refers to the loose assemblage of transdenominational Protestant identities that have arisen out of the coalition-forming work of the neo-evangelicals from the middle of the 20th century onwards. As a historical entity it is unstable and evolving, but real nonetheless.

It can also be defined in terms of its family resemblances. This has the advantage of not requiring us to reduce evangelicalism to some core doctrinal lowest common denominator identity. There are various species within the evangelical genus and, seeing all of the various species together, the common membership of all within the genus becomes more apparent, despite the lack of resemblance between certain particular pairs of species. Evangelicalism is marked by a certain set of shared characteristic traits, sometimes displayed, sometimes not. These family resemblances could include such things as styles of worship, particular doctrines, theological controversies, forms of community, varieties of piety, devotional mannerisms, idioms, or jargon (such as ‘Christianese’), affiliation with certain organizations or causes, etc. The presence of several of these traits alongside each other is a good indication that a person or group is evangelical.

It can be defined by identifying the concrete manifestations, expressions, and organs of evangelicalism. This involves studying the cluster of networks and shifting coalitions that constitute the movement. The parachurch organizations and agencies that express and advance evangelical identity should be mentioned here. The countless magazines, publishers, media companies, music companies, ministries, lobby groups, artists, writers, pastors, speakers, and personalities that serve as means for evangelical affiliation, organs or agencies of evangelical expression, objects of evangelical appreciation, and foci of evangelical identity are all important here too. While evangelicalism does not represent a tradition and typically has values characteristic of an anti-culture, it does name an agglomeration or concentration of shifting consumer tastes, clustered around and focused upon particular ‘culture’ producers and propagators and the products and forms that they champion. It also names a set of alignments and coalitions, conversations and controversies (for instance, the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate is typically distinctively evangelical in character, involving a fundamental deracination of positions once constituted by a particular Reformed theological, ecclesiastical, and confessional tradition and a particular historical context).

I have also suggested that evangelicalism can be defined through its shared épisteme and religious sensibilities, features that can permit significant diversity and divergences in theology, worship, and form of practice. In this case, the true identity of evangelicalism is situated in its ideological subconscious and in its set of values, the assumptions of which can be expressed in conservative or radical forms. While other Christian religious traditions may occasionally exhibit the same sensibilities within them, within evangelicalism these sensibilities have become programmatic dimensions of the movement.

The attempt to define evangelicalism in terms of institution, tradition, or a core theology fails, for reasons that Hart and others have outlined. More importantly, the attempt to secure a conservative Protestant identity through evangelicalism fails as, at its very heart, evangelicalism harbours a radical and liberal impulse, marginalizing the Church and maintaining a form of liberal anthropology. Its tendencies are unconducive and actually contrary to the perpetuation of any tradition. Its democratic, egalitarian, and anti-elitist sensibilities and its hostility to mediation all make it a weak reed for conservative Protestantism to lean upon. The weakness of evangelicalism’s identity has resulted in its secularization, as it has been assimilated and readily assimilates itself to prevailing forms of selfhood, community, nationalism, consumerism, politics, and marketing.

Second, within the context of Western Christianity, traditional ecclesial forms of identity have considerably less cultural traction. People neither think nor operate in terms of them much any longer. For instance, the recent American election illustrated the enervation of Catholicism’s institutional influence, as the political guidance of bishops seemed to have little or no effect on the behaviour of the Catholic electorate. In the contemporary cultural milieu, people articulate their identities in different manners and even the old institutional markers of identity (such as marriage and church membership) are being accommodated to the habits and attitudes of democratized and voluntaristic lifestyle consumerism.

As Hart rightly recognizes, evangelicalism may represent a liberal departure from historical confessional Protestantism and may name no more than the most attenuated and fickle of identities. Nevertheless, the vague constructed category of ‘evangelicalism’ is more congruent to and revelatory of the reality of religious practice on the ground than the undemocratic categories of institutional forms of history and social science would be. When institutional identities increasingly cease to be determinative of the shape of Christian practice I believe that it is appropriate for historians and social scientists to search for new categories, more appropriate to the identities that have become determinative. For all of its faults, I think that ‘evangelicalism’ is a category with some merit on this front.

Third, although evangelicalism may not meet the MacIntyrean criteria for a tradition, being anti-tradition in its character in such a way that to seek to recover and advance a tradition would lead it to cease being evangelical, I would argue that it has a heritage and a history nonetheless. It finds its heritage in the movements of spiritual democratization, populism, and anti-institutionalism in the Evangelical Revival and the Great Awakenings, movements that fostered more egalitarian forms of Protestantism, resistant to mediation, which elevated the autonomous religious subject. Evangelicalism also finds a great measure of its patrimony in those denominational traditions that have historically been more democratic, spiritually egalitarian, and populist in their form and teaching, such as the Baptists and the Methodists.

Such trends in the development of evangelical identity, though typically involving a historical amnesia uncharacteristic of a genuine tradition, manifest a steady progression, development, and some degree of a discernible pattern of succession and spread. Taking this into account, I believe that we are justified in speaking of evangelicalism as something real and not just an illusory identity. However, as its defining features are not located in theological content so much as in a democratizing and deinstitutionalizing function performed upon Protestant theological traditions and in the religious sensibilities that are integral to this function, evangelicalism will be recognized in those contexts where this function has become determinative of identity and its religious sensibilities are prominently expressed.

Finally, as should be clear, evangelicalism is far from a unitary or homogeneous phenomenon. Hart’s account and my statements apply to an American context to a far greater extent than they do to a British one, where the challenge to institution and the process of democratization is far less advanced in many quarters, especially those of conservative evangelicalism. Nevertheless, I believe that the distinctive character of evangelicalism in the UK still resides in its creation and encouragement of more democratic, egalitarian, voluntaristic, and populist forms of Protestantism, and in its resistance to institution and mediation.

Evangelical Identity: Putting the Pieces Together

So how are we then to define evangelical identity? I believe that a definition of evangelical identity must identify the historical roots of the movement – the movements of democratization and deinstitutionalization within Protestantism. It must identify the religious sensibilities and épisteme that form the distinctive driving force of the movement – democracy, egalitarianism, anti-institutionalism, immediacy, religious autonomy and individualism, and individual interpretative authority. It must identify the family resemblances of the movement that have arisen as the governing principles of evangelicalism have acted upon the Protestant tradition. These family resemblances are numerous, including everything from forms of church structure and styles of worship to pious idioms and political allegiances. It must identify the concrete manifestations and organs of the movement: its ‘cultural’ products, its affiliations, its conversations and controversies, agencies, organizations, etc.

Combining all of these elements together, a clearer picture of evangelicalism begins to emerge. Such a picture enables us to account for the inclusion of the sharply differing forms of theology represented by such as Rachel Held Evans, Denny Burk, and Adrian Warnock within a single identity. Despite their many differences, to some extent or other, all of these characters are bound together through their presence in a particular ‘cultural’ milieu, their activity in a context constituted by a shared history, their participation in certain conversations and controversies (even if not on the same sides), their adoption of similar forms of practice, their possession of related religious sensibilities and ideologically subconscious values, their membership of interrelated affiliations and organizations, their consumption of similar cultural products and forms, their manifestation of family resemblances in forms of piety, practice, language, and worship. Obviously, deep differences remain, but there are marked, salient, and illuminating similarities and relationships, similarities and relationships that I believe provide sufficient justification for the adoption of a term – ‘evangelicalism’ – that distinguishes them for the purpose of analysis.

What About Conservative Evangelicalism?

I have argued that evangelicalism names an anti-culture – or rather, a realm where anti-cultural tendencies are active. I have spoken of the democratizing and deinstitutionalizing impulses of evangelicalism. Those identifying as conservative evangelicals will naturally object to this representation, arguing that their movements are characterized by resistance to many of the forces that I have claimed are integral to evangelicalism. Answering these objections will help to clarify my understanding of evangelicalism.

To the degree that ‘evangelical’ is being used to name something more specific than the magisterial Protestant tradition, I believe that it names, less the doctrine that is held, than the manner in which it is held, the épisteme and religious sensibilities that shape the movement in which the particular doctrine is maintained. Evangelicalism is primarily about form, rather than about content. However, the form serves to shape the content.

Evangelicalism begins as a particular way of holding Protestant convictions. This particular way of holding Protestant convictions gradually reshapes those convictions over time. In evangelical hands, the Protestant commitment to the sole final authority of God’s voice in the scriptures steadily leads to a resistance to all subordinate authorities and the elevation of the individual interpreter. In evangelical hands, the Protestant commitment to speaking directly and powerfully to the individual’s personal relationship with God becomes a marginalization of the mediating structures of the Church and the sacraments. In evangelical hands, the Protestant celebration of a lively piety becomes a deep opposition to the formal and institutional practices of the Church and their role in constituting Christian identity and a subjectivization of Christian faith. In evangelical hands, the Protestant emphasis on the inclusion of the laity in Christian vocation and the priesthood of all of the baptized becomes a rejection or flattening out of the distinction between the clergy and the laity and the propagation of a democratized and egalitarian populist anti-culture.

At this point, it is important to observe that weaker strains of a number of those tendencies were present in the earliest forms of Protestantism. There is no prelapsarian Protestant golden age to return to here. Protestantism has always had some degree of difficulty with the concept of mediation, with the place of tradition and checks on the individual interpreter, with the importance of the institutional dimensions of the Church, and with the objective foundations of Christian identity. However, evangelicalism represents the challenge of these impulses in a far more virulent form.

This reshaping of Protestant convictions through the impact of the religious sensibilities of evangelicalism is less far advanced in some contexts than in others. Conservative evangelicals, while manifesting many signs of the effect of evangelical sensibilities upon Protestant doctrine, will often hold those sensibilities in check through a strong adherence to certain points of conservative Protestant doctrine, such as a high view of Scripture and its authority and support for objective principles governing its interpretation. Contexts where these commitments have caved more readily to the influence of evangelical religious sensibilities can look very different. However, the same forces are at work and the general movement is in the same direction.

Evangelicalism is like a coastline, where the haggard cliffs of the old Protestant orthodoxy stand against the rising sea of democratization, individualism, and deinstitutionalization. The waves lick at the base of doctrinal stacks, formerly connected to the theological mainland but now separated from its robust rationale and support, eccentric holdouts against the insistence of the waves. Conservative evangelicalism names those stretches of coastline where the battered rockface still bears a dull semblance of the confessional and churchly Protestantism that once stood there. Other portions of the coast have proved less successful at withstanding the erosive assault of the breakers and the old orthodoxies have shattered and collapsed, leaving behind beaches that are more tractable to the dictates of the waves.

Where do we go from here?

The definition of evangelicalism is a matter of considerable importance to many people today. For some it serves as a means of identifying themselves with some movement larger than themselves. 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.

This identity also provides for mutual recognition. As you identify as evangelical, people will acknowledge your commitment to a lively personal faith and the symbolic importance of – if not the exact role being performed by – ‘the Bible’ and ‘the gospel’ in your thinking. Where ecclesial and institutional structures are weak and identities and theologies function in increasingly emotivistic or expressionistic ways (Rachel Held Evans’s understanding of evangelical identity is a perfect example here), a shared will to identify with evangelicalism and its primary constitutive symbols can serve as a basis for recognition and alignment.

For others, in the absence of clearly defined traditions to which appeal can be made, the category of ‘evangelicalism’ is conscripted as a means to gerrymander order out of ecclesial and theological chaos in the context of democratic, individualistic, and egalitarian Protestantism. For such, evangelicalism serves much as a life raft assembled from pieces of confessional Protestantism adrift on the sea created by atomized societies, the collapse of institutions, the breaking down of the great traditions, and the rise of consumerist approaches to identity. It may be a ramshackle construction, but it provides some provisional means for securing and policing orthodox identity, maintaining a post-denominational conservative Protestant consensus, and providing some basis in common commitment in terms of which reasonable discourse can be pursued. To such, my argument is that this construction won’t support the weight that is being placed upon it. The raft is not seaworthy and, on account of its anti-ecclesial and democratic form, will always be in danger of sinking. The historical development of evangelicalism’s democratic and individualistic impulses has naturally given rise to the very emotivism and subjectivism that renders reasonable discourse near impossible.

The category of evangelicalism, a lowest common denominator measure of Protestant orthodoxy, also serves as a means for interdenominational cooperation and ecumenism. Although I do not believe that the category of evangelicalism is best suited for this purpose, the role that it is designed to perform is an important one. I will return to the question of how we could operate without it shortly.

The identification of evangelicalism with Protestant orthodoxy has been problematic on several counts. Most particularly, it has blinded us to the radicalism and heterodoxy at evangelicalism’s heart. The symptoms of evangelicalism’s impulses have been disowned, but the disease has remained largely undiagnosed and untreated. My concern in these posts has been to reject all prescriptive definitions of evangelicalism, which would identify it as Christianity in its purest and most ideal form, and to define the term descriptively, identifying it firmly with the messy, problematic, uneven, and fundamentally flawed empirical and historical reality. Once this movement has been made, we will be able to make a far more honest assessment of evangelicalism’s true nature. Only when such an assessment has been made will we be able to address the problems integral to the movement. Conservative evangelical definitions of evangelicalism have typically been super-ego definitions: I want us to become reacquainted with evangelicalism’s id.

If my account of evangelicalism’s character and identity is correct, I believe that we need to turn our back decisively upon it. Its gradual homeopathizing of conservative Protestant identity in search of a transdenominational coalition and ecumenism stifles the development of Protestant traditions, merely hastening their disintegration. Its marginalization of the Church in favour of deinstitutionalized, democratized, individualistic, and egalitarian Christian identity has detached Christian identity from its biblical connection to the concrete forms of the Church as the body of Christ and has displaced the essential role of the Church in our reading of Scripture and submission to its authority, our spiritual formation, our enjoyment of salvation and the presence of Christ, our outliving of Christian existence, and our theological discourse.

Reasserting the importance of the Church, we will change our form of discourse. Rather than necessitating a retreat back into an ecclesial parochialism, this still enables us to seek to establish interdenominational bonds. No longer founding our identity and discourse on some weak quintessence of all evangelical identities, we will draw upon the depth of particular theological traditions. The ecumenism that this forms will be conversational in character, rather than being founded upon the theological lowest common denominator of an identity. An ecclesial tradition is a conversation; there are Reformed conversations, Lutheran conversations, Baptist conversations, Anglican conversations, etc. Rather than a Protestant ecumenism of a small set of shared beliefs, I believe that we should rather pursue a conversation between conversations.

Evangelicalism tends to stifle serious self-examining internal conversation, as its focus on shared identity, rather than close relationship of different Protestant conversations in conversation, tends to place the focus of discourse upon policing the boundaries of the movement. Evangelicalism relocated identity into the spaces between churches, but by dissolving ecclesial identities, cannot easily function as a disciplined conversation and tradition, because the distinctness of the voices that constituted the tradition is consistently being undermined. The theological resources and voices that it draws upon are progressively deracinated and caricatured. Labels – which serve to protect many unhealthy theological variations from close scrutiny – start to matter much more than the substance that emerges through searching theological conversation.

I believe that we need to support a reassertion of ecclesial Protestant identity, giving priority once more to the particularity of Protestant theological traditions, ecclesial practice, form, and institution, rather than to generic identities. Rather than a flattened out shared Protestant identity, we should pursue differentiated relationships between different ecclesial communions and traditions, relationships in which all parties maintain a clear and self-defined identity. No longer losing ourselves in a generic soup of undifferentiated identity, these ecumenical relationships will be negotiated through the particularity of extensive discourse with different particular parties, in which areas of cooperation and common cause can be hammered out. This will enable us to make the important distinctions that we need to make within the world of evangelicalism, recognizing that many who may genuinely be evangelicals are well beyond the pale of forms of orthodox Protestantism, or Christianity for that matter.

In this new form of discourse, the populism and anti-elitism of evangelicalism will be resisted. The role of ordained guardians of theological orthodoxy will be recognized and the voices of lay theologians will be given less weight. Those evangelical voices that detach themselves from tradition, institution, and concrete church communion altogether will not be given much of a part in the conversation. The elite skills of theological learning and expertise, the office of ordained clergy, institutional limits on practice, and the controls of particular traditions will all be held in higher esteem. The centre of gravity of Protestant identity will once more be located in the life, tradition, and institutional forms of the Church. Crucially, such a move will enable us to oppose the democratic and deinstitutionalizing error that lies at the heart of the movement once proclaimed to be our saviour.

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.

13 Responses to What is Evangelicalism? – Part 4

  1. Pingback: What is Evangelicalism? – Part 3 | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: What is Evangelicalism? – Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: What is Evangelicalism? – Part 1 | Alastair's Adversaria

  4. My take – it’s really just a theory derived from reading some church history recently, especially re revival and prayer – is that the modern evangelical movement is the dying embers of a move of the Spirit which started around 1800 (I think) to heal the breach between Arminianism and Calvinism. A noteworthy example of this were two (natural) brothers, one Presbyterian and one Methodist, who ministered together in the Kentucky Revival. There was a definite shift in the prayer movement from church and denominational prayer meetings in the 18th century to interdenominational prayer meetings in the nineteenth. A landmark was the formation of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846, which helped pave the way for the great united prayer meetings of 1857 to 1860 and the subsequent sense of unity between Christians of differing church denominations and beliefs, as the church of Jesus Christ advanced in missionary and evangelistic endeavour. The definitions which were introduced then, and the boundaries which were drawn then, are I think what held the evangelical community together until recently. Since 2000, and the perceived failure of the prayer for revival, there has been a disintegration, a coming away at the seams of the fabric of shared beliefs that previously held us together. Lausanne and John Stott and Billy Graham were the bulwarks of the post war evangelical consensus, and to my mind, their surrender to feminism was the primary factor in the weakening and subsequent fall which we have seen in the Western evangelical churches. Hallelujah, for the Spirit of the Lord will breathe upon His people again when we seek Him with prayer and fasting and bible study, and stay true to His holy commands to His church.

  5. @Alastair

    Having read-through all of these four postings sequentially this morning, in the end I find myself in essential agreement; and that despite having disagreed with some of the modes of argument on the way.

    I would just make two comments:

    1. ‘Evangelical’ (as you describe it) is what I would think of as more of a methology than a substantive denomination. Most/ all of the best ‘evangelicals’ have therefore been primarily rooted in a ‘confessional’ denomination (e.g. Anglican, or a Lutheran or Calvinist denomination) – and their evangelical aspects have been a method, style or focus.

    The problems come when the methodology becomes primary.

    I wrote about this phenomenon fairly extensively in the mid-1990s discussing the realtionship between Epidemiology and Clnical Research in medicine. I argued that (as a general rule) the best epidemiological research was done by those working in specific discliplines (respiratory diseases, heart disease, infectious disease etc); and that since epidemiology had become an ‘autonomous’ discipline (with its own traiing, university departments, conferences, journals funding etc) it had ceased to make significant dicoversies, and had indeed become a pernicious source of fake and false ideas. I would say the same happened when other methods/ tools become specialties: molecular biology and brain imaging for example (despite that these have been extrordinarily well funded and high prestige – in medicine they have led to little or nothing).

    Maybe this is the kind of thing that happened when the evangelical perspective tried to become a distinct entity, as if it were a denomination .


    2. I would, to some extent, see the rise of the evangelical emphasis (within denominations – not the distinct pseudo-denomination) as a consequence rather than a cause of the decline and corruption of Western Christianity. I think evangelical style Christianity may be the only vaible possibility for most people in most places – and indeed may be the highest attainable Christian style for most people in most places. It can, therefore, be seen as arising to compensate for the increased deficits of traditional denominational styles under modern conditions.

    What seems to be very difficult/ impossible to sustain in the West is the old kind of devout lay Christian life which characterized the major denominations; and the strength of Christianity seems to be focused in the evangelical emphasis and the separated ultra-orthodox groups such as Amish and Hutterites. (Outside of Christianity, the most devout Moslems are thriing and so are ultra-Orthodox Jews.)

    One exception/ intermediate has been Mormons – who have certainly been thriving, and sustaining a high level of devoutness. I have often argued that mainstream Christians need to learn from Mormons – especially in terms of what has historically been the main method of religion and denominational growth: high fertility and retention of children in the faith.

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  8. Pingback: Has the Time Come to Abandon Evangelicalism? | Alastair's Adversaria

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