At this point, I will say this much: Evangelicalism is a current expression of a venerable and unique way of being a Christian that can be found throughout church history. What the great historian Perry Miller wrote in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century about the Puritans applies in large part to evangelicals as well:
As long as it [American Puritanism] remained alive, its real being was not in its doctrines but behind them; the impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated. Inside the shell of its theology and beneath the surface coloring of its political theory, Puritanism was yet another manifestation of a piety to which some men are probably always inclined and which in certain conjunctions appeals irresistibly to large numbers of exceptionally vigorous spirits. I venture to call this piety Augustinian … because Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind of which Puritanism is only one instance out of many in fifteen hundred years of religious history.”
Evangelicals share that “urgent sense of man’s predicament” that has led us to practice an “exceptionally vigorous” piety. As Miller writes:
Puritan theology was an effort to externalize and systematize this subjective mood. Piety was the inspiration for Puritan heroism and the impetus in the charge of Puritan Ironsides; it also made sharp the edge of Puritan cruelty and justified the Puritan in his persecution of disagreement. It inspired Puritan idealism and encouraged Puritan snobbery. It was something that men either had or had not, it could not be taught or acquired. It was foolishness and fanaticism to their opponents, but to themselves it was life eternal. … It blazed most clearly and most fiercely in the person of Jonathan Edwards. … It cannot be presented by description; to be presented adequately there is need for a Puritan who is also a dramatic artist, and Bunyan alone fulfills the two requirements.
Evangelicals recognize themselves in this description, both the “heroism” and “idealism,” as well as the “foolishness and fanaticism.” Perry’s reference to Bunyan is especially apropos. A few decades ago, Christianity Today asked leading evangelicals of the previous generation what books most shaped them, and the one book mentioned by almost every one was Pilgrim’s Progress.
Because evangelicalism is part of this enduring Augustinian spirituality, I don’t imagine it will ever go away, at least this side of the coming kingdom. We can abandon or change the name, but that won’t change the reality of lived faith of this stream. And for now, since we can’t think of a better name, we’ll continue to call the current manifestation of this stream evangelical.
And it’s this stream that I will try to describe. That means sometimes I will have to acknowledge frankly our foolishness along with our idealism and heroism that has transformed the lives of so many. When I suspect we’ve lost our way, I will say so, which of course is a very evangelical thing to do: We are a movement in progress, never quite reaching the ideal we strive for, always laboring to reform not only the world but ourselves, that we might more perfectly reflect the life of Christ in us.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.