“Who’s an Evangelical?” Revisited (#DocHawk Version)

As much as the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College connects to issues like Muslim-Christian relations and the place of academic freedom on Christian campuses, I think it should also take us back to another topic I blogged a lot about in late 2015:

What does it mean to be an “evangelical” Christian?

In addition to my usual blogger caveats about all this being tentative (I’m clearly thinking aloud) and overly generalized (I’m trying both to keep this short and be provocative enough to spark discussion), let me add two more. First, while I’m trying to speak as a historian here, I’m just an amateur in this particular field. In fact, the reason that I can blog so much this week is that I have a J-term off from teaching and am spending part of that time reading up on the history of evangelicalism. (So I can’t follow the Wheaton story without thinking of what I’ve just read from Mark Noll, George Marsden, Molly Worthen, et al.) Second, while I’m trying to offer an interpretation shaped by history, I’m also speaking as an avowed evangelical. As much as anything I’m describing myself (hopefully not to the extent that I end up distorting the historical claims), and will occasionally replace third- with first-person nouns.

Oh, and I’m fighting back a cold by popping DayQuil and watching the Today show in the background. So clearly I’m not in full control of my intellectual capacities.

All that said, here’s my hypothesis:

Evangelicalism is best understood in terms of its inherent tensions.

I’d be surprised if this an original observation in the field. I’m sure it’s not a unique idea in the broader discipline of religious history, since I’m borrowing it from Mennonite historian John Roth, who rejected the idea that there was some kind of “coherent set of core Anabaptist convictions” and instead suggested that “many of the themes that gave coherence to the Anabaptist movement also carried within themselves a number of inherent tensions or contradictions.” (See more in this 2011 post about post-revisionist Anabaptist historiography.)

So rather than accepting something like Harold Bender’s three-point definition of Anabaptism, Roth pointed to perpetual debates about the “Inner vs. Outer Word,” justification and sanctification,  discipleship and discipline, etc. Likewise, I tend to think that David Bebbington’s quadrilateral (evangelicals are biblicist, crucicentric, conversionist, and activist) is the best of many flawed definitions, but also that it sets up two tensions that give us a different way of thinking about what it means to be evangelical:

1. Evangelicals highly value right beliefs — but which ones?

In my experience, just about all evangelicals use phrases like “biblical” and “historically orthodox” to describe their theology. All place themselves under the authority of Scripture, but are typically reluctant to depart too much or too readily from a theological tradition that stretches back to the apostles by way of the Early Church and Protestant Reformation. While some are more oppositional than others, they generally see themselves as holding fast to certain essential beliefs — perhaps especially, if Bebbington is right, those concerning sin and salvation — and resisting the forces that would tempt Christians to stray from the true faith.

Stott, Evangelical Truth
John Stott, for example, included everything from sacraments and worship to sanctification and eschatology on his list of evangelical adiaphora

But all evangelicals also recognize that not all their beliefs are essential. (Though here we might be getting into the difference between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” For the sake of trying to keep this from going more than 2500 words, I’ll elide that and encourage discussion in the comments.) Even evangelicals who adhere to rather long creeds and confessions acknowledge that there are theological adiaphora — plus a host of ethical, political, and other issues — about which even biblically-based, born-again Christians can disagree. They have the capacity to hold in tension their certainty of being right with their desire for continuing fellowship with those who are wrong.

Inevitably, this means that evangelicals are constantly wrestling with the difference between essential and non-essential beliefs. And since both sides in most every debate appeal to Scripture and “historic orthodoxy,” those authorities can’t settle the debates easily and often become the true stakes of the contest. What might seem like a relatively small disagreement can take on enormous importance and might never reach a satisfactory resolution.

Or here’s another version of the tension as it’s played out in American religious history, from Roger Olson:

From the beginning, the American evangelical movement, symbolized by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Billy Graham ministries, Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based evangelical publishing houses, and the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, consisted of two quite different visions of the “essence of Christianity” slapped together, held together by two common enemies—extreme fundamentalism and the liberalism of the mainline Protestant denominations. I grew up in the bosom of that movement and was educated in it. Later, as I studied the movement historically, I realized that it was from the beginning composed of people and organizations with two very different, competing visions or paradigms of Christianity’s essence. Historian Donald Dayton refers to them as the “Presbyterian” and “Pentecostal” paradigms; while agreeing with Dayton’s analysis I prefer to refer to the two paradigms as “Puritan-Reformed” and “Pietist-Pentecostal.” These two paradigms of evangelical Christianity were bound to clash and clash they did—largely over how big and broad the “evangelical tent” should be and whether the constructive task of theology is completed or whether there is “more light” to break forth from God’s Word.

Charles Hodge
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) — Wikimedia

The shorter the list of evangelical essentials, the bigger the “tent.” But then Roger adds a further complicating layer: as Protestants, evangelicals inherit the “reformed and always reforming” principle of the Reformation, but some see that process as continuing even to the present day. So not all beliefs are essential, and they might not be unchanging either.

The Puritan-Reformed crowd tend to view the “stout and persistent theology” of Charles Hodge, the conservative Calvinist Princeton theologian of the nineteenth century, as the summit and completion of evangelical theology only to be translated into modern idiom. The Pietist-Pentecostal crowd tend to view spirituality as the essence of authentic Christianity and reject any idea of a final, closed system of doctrine that forms the inner core, the center, even the boundaries of evangelicalism.

Roger’s use of the word “tend” is really important here. I think we’re talking about spectrums of response, not either/or distinctions. But the “two paradigm” language helps explain some of the divergent reactions to the Hawkins case. Here I’ll personalize a bit:

Earlier in the week I had a long Facebook conversation with a member of my wife’s extended family. We’re both evangelicals, connected to evangelical churches and educational institutions. For her, the Wheaton debate began and ended with Hawkins’ claim that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” Even after I linked to Hawkins’ extended theological response to the Wheaton administration, in which she clarified that she would give a “Yes and no” answer to the “same God” question, depending on what you meant by it, this relative stood firm. To her mind, because Hawkins thought that one could pray to God even without sharing a belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, the matter was closed.

(This is getting down in the weeds, but for those who enjoy this level of theological debate… I think that she was focused on this section of Hawkins’ statement: “I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection, but my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety. When I say that ‘we worship the same God,’ I am saying what [theologian John] Stackhouse points out, namely that ‘when pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.'” D.G. Hart also emphasized that claim this morning. While “almost persuaded” by Hawkins’ attempt to find “thoughtful ways to maintain the College’s standards,” he wasn’t convinced that piety could be detached from soteriology. Back to my story…)

Very much in the “Puritan-Reformed” camp, my fellow evangelical thought we had reached a non-negotiable boundary of evangelical belief. But to me, over on the Pietist-Pentecostal wing of evangelicalism, it felt like we were unnecessarily getting hung up parsing language that goes beyond what’s actually stated in Wheaton’s statement of faith. I’d prefer to trust Hawkins’ earlier, oft-repeated statements of fidelity to historic doctrines (including the Triune nature of God and the divinity of Christ) and accept her explanation that she didn’t mean to address questions of salvation. Even if we disagreed about some finer points (not that I’m sure you should expect a historian and political scientist to be able to do theology well at this level!), I’d easily recognize anyone who wrote that statement as a fellow member of the “big tent” of evangelicalism.

Why do I tend that way? In part, I think this is a legacy of Pietists like Philipp Spener, who didn’t want evangelicals (though to him that just meant “Protestants”) to engage in needless controversy and polemical disputation that would leave the Body of Christ even more divided than it already was. For better or worse, the more irenic evangelicals from this paradigm would err on the side of sticking together.

George Whitefield
Mark Noll starts his contribution to InterVarsity Press’ History of Evangelicalism series with the story of Whitefield being hauled before the Anglican clergy of Boston in 1740 to answer for having associated with the likes of Baptists, Presbyterians, and John Wesley

But there’s also a practical reason for minimizing division over theological non-essentials. Because evangelicals are activists, they tend to recognize that they are more effective when working together across creedal, denominational, and other theological boundaries to renew individuals, churches, and the world.

And that’s true of the Puritan-Reformed wing as well as the Pietist-Pentecostal. The great 18th century evangelist George Whitefield, for example, sought revival in tandem with people who didn’t share his membership in the Church of England nor his commitment to Calvinist theology.

If you’re an evangelical, theology is most meaningful when it leads to action. Faith must be “made active in love,” and some of us (rightly or wrongly) get frustrated when the fine points of theological debate seem to take precedence over that work. As Hawkins put it at her most recent press conference, the statement that got her in trouble arose from her commitment “to living out the love of Christ and the principles of the statement of faith” (emphasis mine).

But that leads us to a second tension/question:

2. Evangelicals engage in activism — but what kind(s)?

It’s the fourth of Bebbington’s four hallmarks of evangelicalism. But what does “activism” mean among evangelicals?

Evangelism, certainly. Knowledge of Jesus Christ and his Gospel must be shared with others.

But what’s the best way to do that? Here again, the Hawkins case may be instructive. To many supporters of Wheaton, I think the concern here is that Christ cannot be truly proclaimed and His Kingdom effectively built if there’s a lack of “theological clarity” about such terms. Can Muslims be evangelized, for example, if they learn that evangelical professors apparently think they already worship/pray to the One True God?

Well, yes, says one Wheaton parent who works as a missionary in South and Southeast Asia:

In my personal relationships with Muslim background believers who are serving the Lord as pastors and evangelists, every one of them would affirm that the God they worshiped before becoming a Christian was the same God. They understand that they worshiped in error, but they definitely affirm that the Christian God is Allah.

Whether you’re persuaded by this claim or not, note that her fundamental concern is for the effectiveness of evangelism: “I strongly urge you to consult with those who work in this field every day,and who most clearly understand the need to share the gospel in relevant terms.”

But in any event, few evangelicals would define activism solely in terms of evangelism. As it emerged from Halle Pietism, Methodism, the revivals of Charles Finney, and other sources, evangelical activism took the forms of social reform, education, health care, philanthropy, and even political activism.

Jonathan Blanchard
Jonathan Blanchard (1811-1892) – Wikimedia

That theme showed up in Duke graduate student Aaron Griffith’s interesting response to the latest twist in the Hawkins storyGriffith framed what was happening at Wheaton in terms of the difference between his alma mater’s first two presidents.

First, founder Jonathan Blanchard, a stalwart abolitionist whose postmillennial eschatology shaped his understanding of the phrase that remains Wheaton’s motto (“For Christ and His Kingdom”). To Griffith, Blanchard cared about “theological precision” but “was not especially worried about muddled theology in and of itself…. Failure to love one’s neighbor or denounce oppression was the real theological problem.” Read in this light,

Hawkins’s activism on behalf of Muslims begins to look a lot less like an aberration and more in keeping with the original vision of the college. The antebellum evangelical tradition Hawkins drew upon was one primarily concerned with upholding human dignity and advocating for those on the margins. Muslims facing discrimination and threats of violence in present-day American life surely fit that description.

But Wheaton was also shaped by Blanchard’s son Charles, who came under the influence of premillennialism, redirected his father’s activist energies towards personal rather than social reform, and affiliated Wheaton with early 20th century fundamentalism. (Educational historian Adam Laats adds that Charles Blanchard also pioneered the close theological examination of faculty that Hawkins has been experiencing.)

“The debate,” concludes Griffith, “is primarily a debate about history, and the parts of Wheaton’s past the school has chosen to carry into the future.”

Blanchard Hall
I promise, this is the last time that I’ll show a picture of Blanchard Hall in a post about Wheaton… This week at least. (Source: Wikimedia) By the way, next week I want to come back to Griffith’s essay, in a post reflecting on the pitfalls of the “usable past” approach — one that I engage in frequently. For now, it’s worth noting that D.G. Hart isn’t persuaded that even Jonathan Blanchard would be all that sympathetic to Hawkins.

Again, these are tendencies, not hard-and-fast alternatives, and they don’t leave a neat 2×2 matrix into which various individuals and groups can easily be slotted. At least some irenic Pietists have emphasized inner spirituality to the neglect of external action; creedal Calvinists have done much to model robust, thoughtful cultural engagement.

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Please feel free to tear it apart in the Comments section. (As my graduate adviser once wrote, sometimes historians are “lumpers” and sometimes they’re “splitters” — I’m intentionally trying to lump, knowing that others will have splitting to do.)

But let me close with a suggestion for how we participate in the ongoing #DocHawk debate. If you identify with evangelicalism and still think there’s meaning in that term and life in that movement, then wherever you find yourself on the twin spectrums I’ve proposed

Please try to show grace and empathy towards fellow evangelicals.

I’m certainly no saint here, especially when I’ve responded quickly, following gut instincts before I’ve taken the time for careful thought.

Mostly, writing this essay has been my attempt to think through why Wheaton’s behavior in this case has generally rubbed me the wrong way, and why fellow evangelicals whom I love and respect disagree with me so strongly.

So while I continue to think that Hawkins is being treated unfairly and unwisely by at least some of Wheaton’s administrators, I want to trust that what they’ve done is motivated not by anti-Muslim bigotry but by their commitment to take theology seriously, understanding that what we believe has implications for what we do.

Conversely, I hope that those who fervently support Wheaton in this matter are willing to entertain the possibility that Hawkins is being entirely truthful when she describes herself as an evangelical and professes her continuing affection for Wheaton and her commitment to the project of Christian higher ed. (As are those of us who support her.)

Grace and peace to you all.


11 thoughts on ““Who’s an Evangelical?” Revisited (#DocHawk Version)

  1. First off, thank you (as usual) for your thoughtful commentary on a complicated subject. It is always refreshing to read your thoughts on some of these “hot button” issues that surface in higher education and the broader culture.
    In response to your post, I honestly grow increasingly confused as to why we must define what it “takes” to be an evangelical. I suppose my growing doubt of the necessity of such a question comes with skepticism about the motives behind the question (or at least perceived motives). More often than not it seems as though this question only arises when one individual (as in the Wheaton case) seems to dissent from the unspoken traditional paradigm of an evangelical. It seems as though the question is rarely intended to unite, but decide who is in and who is out (with obvious exceptions such as this original post). Moreover, often when someone is deemed a non-evangelical, often by one who is “stoutly” evangelical, what the subtext often implies is the non-evangelical practices a lesser form of Christianity. The implication is that evangelicalism is the truest and most pure form of Christianity. Again there are obvious exceptions here and I in no way want to generalize to all situations and all people, these are simply thoughts from my limited observations.

    So while I think it is vital that we, as anyone who self identifies as Christian, do share a common core of beliefs, such as the creeds, I do not think it is vital that we need to draw a distinct line in the sand marking who is evangelical and who is not. If the conversation is geared towards better understanding a shared identity as this one is then I am all for it. However, often that is not the case and that saddens me.

    Perhaps rather than asking what an evangelical is we should be asking why we need to define evangelical. I think the answer to that question reveals far more about how we think about Christianity and what we value than our definition of one.

    For those who are also responding to this post I would love to hear your thoughts, pushback, etc. Do you think it is necessary to have a clear definition of evangelical and if so why?

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Josh, and for the important question. I fretted a bit about this — particularly the concern that I might be taken as implying that evangelicalism is the truest version of Christianity. I’d actually prefer to hear other people speak to this before I share a few responses, but I will start with the easiest response: that of the historian. I just don’t think it’s possible to engage in productive scholarly discourse without some kinds of categories — not to say that the categories are infallible, absolute, or non-permeable, but if you’re doing American religious history and you find that one group acts, believes, thinks, self-identifies, etc. differently than others, you need to name that difference in order to talk about it. Now, historians endlessly debate what “evangelical” means in this sense, but that’s not necessarily the same debate as what you’re pointing to: why do Christians feel the need to sub-categorize themselves, their beliefs, their piety, their organizations as one thing or another? Should they do so? I tend to respond “Yes, if…”, but I’ll stop and let other commenters respond.

      1. Chris, thank you for your response. I also hope I made it clear in my reply, but if I didn’t I apologize, that I in no way think you are implying that evangelicalism is the truest form of Christianity. I also appreciate the distinction you draw between the necessity of the question in a historical (or sociological) context and the context in which I am pointing to. As you suggest, asking the question “what is an evangelical” from a historical perspective is much different than asking the question from a theological or ecclesiological perspective (whether one is a professional theologian and/or pastor or not), which is perhaps more of the perspective and context I am talking about and critiquing. I look forward to seeing what other people have to say, but I wanted to clarify a bit there.

    2. Josh – I started to write a long reply, but looking back at your initial comment, I think you actually supplied my answer: “If the conversation is geared towards better understanding a shared identity as this one is then I am all for it. However, often that is not the case and that saddens me.” Amen.

      One way or another, evangelicalism is the particular expression of Christianity for millions of people, and it’s both distinctive and hard to define. But because its meaning is contested, I fear that we tend to end up with at least two responses, both of which help strip evangelicalism of the diversity that gives it strength:

      (1) Gatekeepers who try to make “evangelicalism” more cohesive by making its boundaries much narrower
      (2) Post-evangelicals who define “evangelicalism” as that which they’ve left behind

      I understand both responses, but find neither all that satisfactory. Why that’s so is probably clear already from the post in the case of the gatekeeper response. As to post-evangelicals… First, you trade one definitional debate for another. (“What does it mean to be mainline”? “Anglican”? “Anabaptist”?) Second, as Rachel Held Evans has often observed about herself, post-evangelicals might well find that evangelicalism — even when consciously relegated to the past — continues to shape their instincts, questions, preferences, anxieties, etc.

      (And here I’m surely revealing my own fallible instincts and preferences: I’d always prefer to seek unity; and I’d always prefer belong to something, to stick with it and reform from within than try to leave and start over.)

      So as an evangelical, I’m interested in conversations like this to the extent that they have the potential to help more evangelicals recognize each other as such. If that could happen, then I think we’d be on to something quite wonderful.

      (And I might just be wasting energy on wishful thinking — and not especially coherent thinking. I’ve tried writing this several ways, and every one seems to wind up in a logical paradox. I’ll just go with this and see what people think. Thanks again for the question!)

  2. I’ve often wondered how much these two groups have in common. Now that the Protestant mainline doesn’t pose much of a threat, the two camps are realizing that they have less in common than they once believed. Interacting with Reformed scholars gave me a better appreciation for Reformed theology. But I could never embrace their desire to determine arbitrarily that we can do no better than Hodge and Warfield. So, while Reformed evangelicals helped me see some of the weaknesses of pietistic evangelicalism, that exposure led me to embrace Volf, Barth, and Moltmann. It didn’t lead me to determine that all meaningful theological production stopped in 1860.

  3. Also, where would you put something like Willow Creek into that matrix. If you know what to look for, you can see a certain Reformed core, but it’s taken it in a more pietist direction. In some ways, Willow Creek seems to represent something like the synthesis of the two streams.

  4. The remark: “Philipp Spener, who didn’t want evangelicals (though to him that just meant “Protestants”),” is instructive, in that Evangelical, as a term, started out in life as a broad shorthand to contrast Roman Catholic thought and practice with the new breed of churches that emphasized the Gospel (both a doctrinal and spiritual life reform), but the term was then appropriated to contrast the latter with the emerging Liberalism for the nineteenth century, which sometimes accepted the spiritual life aspects of Evangelicals, but eroded various doctrinal parts that they had in common with Catholics.

    The definition of Evangelical looks different depending on what it’s being compared with. Comparing Evangelical faith with Islamic is tricky because the historical interaction between the two has been more remote, but an imperfect analogy is to ask, were Ptolemy and Copernicus studying and describing the same solar system? In important respects, we say ‘Yes’, because there is only one relevant solar system, and the objects they both ‘saw’ were in the most rudimentary sense identical—both could chart their perceptions on a parchment identically. But how they understood the three dimensional models the chart implied was thoroughly different, and were incompatible. Any astronaut planning a trip to Mars would say it made a difference which model they adopted. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a spiritual traveler might also consider the theological model just as critical to the success of the trip.

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