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Evangelicals at a Crossroad: A Dialogue
Three Bethel University professors discuss the historic significance and present health of evangelicalism.
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This past summer two professors at Bethel University, St Paul, Minnesota and one at sister institution Bethel Seminary (me!) were invited to participate in a recorded dialogue that would become a printed piece in the schools' magazine. The three of us, guided by questions posed by a moderator, considered where evangelicalism is today and where it may be headed.
By necessity tentative and partial, our wide-ranging conversation nonetheless raised some important issues. When we were done, we had a meaty article, of which (for reasons of space) only a brief portion ended up being printed in the magazine.
Though somewhat longer than our typical blog posting, we offer the full edited article ("never before published," as the marketing wallahs might say) in hopes that it will spark some conversation among our readers who care about the historical movement called evangelicalism:
Moderator: Scott Wible / Editors: Scott Wible, Heather Johnson, and Holly Donato
Are you an "evangelical"? For 60 years, the word has been useful as shorthand for "born-again and Bible-believing, and more open to dialogue than a fundamentalist." It's allowed like-minded people to select churches, colleges, and even reading material that line up with their brand of Christianity.
Now, though, many fear the evangelical movement is in disarray due to deep differences among its members, and a new generation with relativistic, postmodern beliefs. Others still see a solid core of common theology that has held strong for more than 500 years, a healthy and growing activism, and hope for the future. What does the word "evangelical" mean now, and where is the movement going?
For the benefit of Bethel Magazine readers, three Bethel professors with interest and expertise in the subject—and who all attend churches considered "evangelical"—agreed recently to exchange ideas. They converse on evangelicalism's starting point, places of intersection, and diversion, and then offer insightful road signs on where to go from here.
• Phyllis Alsdurf is director of the Johnson Center for Journalism and Communication and an associate professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her dissertation research was on the role of Christianity Today magazine in the development of modern evangelicalism. Sharing worship with her young adult daughter, she attends Substance Church in Fridley, Minnesota.
• Chris Armstrong teaches church history at Bethel Seminary. He has been managing editor of Christian History & Biography and continues to write for that publication as well as for Christianity Today, Leadership, and christianhistory.net. His doctoral research focused on the 19th century holiness movement. Armstrong attends Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota., and has recently written a "group biography" titled Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP, 2009).
• Bernard Walker teaches philosophy and ethics in the College of Adult & Professional Studies/Graduate School. His philosophical interest in the evangelical movement is aimed at separating "what is the work of the Spirit from the work of human tradition" through a process of dialogue among the movement's diverse voices. His home congregation is Church of All Nations in St. Anthony, Minnesota.
Here are edited excerpts of their discussion.
When in church history do we see the first strands of evangelical beliefs?
Armstrong: Lutherans, the original Protestants, identified themselves as "evangelical." Reformation doctrines—justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, the priesthood of believers—defined this first sort of evangelical, and these doctrines are still important in today's evangelicalism. Some scholars argue that evangelicalism as we know it first emerged with the 17th-century rise of the Pietist and Puritan movements, though those movements didn't use the label of themselves. They were interested in "heart religion": a Christianity that was about personal relationship with God and that made people live differently. There's one more element that arose in the 18th century with people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield: the strong focus on evangelism and religious activism. That's where most scholars would agree you really have the birth of evangelicalism. They spread the message of justification by faith through grace alone and people were suddenly saying, "Well, wait a minute. Maybe I'm not okay. Maybe there's something more required of me. I have to confess my sins. I have to cling to Jesus," and a transatlantic revival took place. Out of this revival came on-fire conservative Protestants who became the Baptists and Methodists, the Churches of Christ, and so on.
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