For some time now, developments within American conservative Protestantism have been racing ahead of attempts by scholars to define, describe, and analyze them. The rapid growth of theologically conservative denominations and seminaries, the vigorous evangelism of student groups and many local churches, the growing willingness of evangelical thinkers to depart from cultural traditions—these point to a ferment of no little consequence in American Christianity.
The diffuse nature of the evangelical resurgence, however, poses serious difficulties. Just what is meant by the “bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion” characterizing the modern world of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and theological conservatives? What actually do we mean when we talk about “evangelicals,” “fundamentalists,” or religious “conservatives”? Can one find a succinct, comprehensive theological definition of evangelicalism? Is conservative Protestantism an exclusively white, middle-class, and suburban phenomenon? Does the “typical” evangelical still approach scientific questions in the same way that William Jennings Byran did at the Scopes trial? Where do contemporary “Bible-believing Christians” come down politically—on the right with Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire or on the left with the Wittenburg Door and the Post American? Are increasing signs of intellectual activity among evangelicals mere window dressing or indications of a deeper internal maturation?
Certain aspects of these questions have been treated in recent years by books of relatively limited focus. Four of these efforts have attracted particular attention. Dean Kelley tried to analyze reasons for the rapid advance of culturally and theologically conservative denominations in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1972). Bernard Ramm in The Evangelical Heritage (Word, 1973) set forth the theology of the sixteenth-century Reformation as the taproot from which contemporary evangelicalism has grown. Donald Bloesch’s Evangelical Renaissance (Eerdmans, 1973) examined briefly, but provocatively, indications of a new self-confidence in conservative theology. And Richard Quebedeaux defined and described a group of Young Evangelicals (Harper & Row, 1974) who have managed, in Carl Henry’s words, both to “cheer and challenge liberal ecumenists” and to “delight and distress traditional evangelicals” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 26, 1974, p. 4).
Until Abingdon’s publication in September of The Evangelicals, however, no single volume has provided a satisfactory account of the theological, social, intellectual, cultural, ethnic, and historical life of modern evangelicalism. While The Evangelicals does not fully answer all the questions one could raise, its publication is a landmark in the serious study of conservative Protestantism in twentieth-century America. Its editors, David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge, both professors of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, have brought together a distinguished cast of evangelical scholars to analyze and evaluate evangelicalism in white America. The volume also includes two noteworthy essays by black evangelicals on conservative Protestantism in the black community.
The significance of The Evangelicals is considerably heightened by the fact that well-known scholars standing outside evangelicalism have also contributed to the volume. That highly respected theologians and church historians from the Protestant “mainstream” have taken serious and detailed account of the evangelicals is almost as newsworthy as what they have to say about them. Sydney E. Ahlstrom and Paul L. Holmer of Yale University, Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago, and George H. Williams of Harvard Divinity School are names of the highest distinction in the study of American religion. While their contributions to the volume sound a condemnatory note as often as an appreciative one, their willingness to participate in this colloquy suggests that evangelicalism is intruding itself back into the consciousness of American culture. American evangelicalism may not yet have come of age, but the serious attention it receives in this volume from Ahlstrom, Holmer, Marty, and Williams show that it can no longer be passed by as a stale, flat, and unprofitable backwater of the American religious experience.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “What Evangelicals Believe,” attacks the problem of definition. John H. Gerstner, professor of church history at Pittsburgh Seminary, sets out “The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith,” while Kenneth S. Kantzer, professor of systematic theology and dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, discusses some of the theological subgroups within contemporary evangelicalism. Professor Holmer concludes this section by asking several penetrating questions about the nature and purposes of evangelical theology.
The second section, “Who Evangelicals Are,” includes the two path-breaking essays by respected black evangelicals. William Pannell, assistant professor of evangelism at Fuller Seminary, and William H. Bentley, president of the National Black Evangelical Association, discuss, respectively, the history of black evangelicalism and the shape of its current existence. George Marsden, associate professor of history at Calvin College, follows with a historical analysis of the process by which early twentieth-century fundamentalism and modern evangelicalism emerged from the dominant Protestant consensus of the mid-nineteenth century. “Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in Society” is the subject treated by David O. Moberg, professor of sociology at Marquette. Martin Marty closes this section with a look at “Tensions Within Contemporary Evangelicalism.”
Section three tells about “Where Evangelicals Are Changing,” with particular attention to trends of the last half-century. Robert D. Linder, professor of history at Kansas State, examines changing patterns of evangelical social concern. Professor Williams and Rodney L. Petersen, a staff member of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, study evangelical attitudes toward the nation. And V. Elving Anderson, professor of genetics at the University of Minnesota, discusses evangelical participation in, and stances toward, science. This section is brought to a close with Sydney Ahlstrom’s essay entitled “From Puritanism to Evangelicalism: A Critical Perspective.”
The editors introduce the volume with a brief historical summary of recent evangelicalism and a rationale for drawing both evangelicals and non-evangelicals into the colloquy. A “Guide to Further Reading” by Donald Tinder, associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, draws the book to a close. It is, of course, impossible to discuss each contribution with the attention it deserves. The following comments are an attempt to show the book’s scope and significance.
Pride of place belongs to George Marsden, who has provided the best interpretive essay in print on the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Marsden outlines four distinct periods in the history of American evangelicalism: (1) From the 1870s to 1919, a time during which the thrust of secularism divided American Protestantism into modernist and orthodox segments and also played a role in the development of a new form of conservative Protestant theology, dispensational millennialism. (2) From 1919 to 1926, a period of fierce public controversies, climaxing in the debate between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow over evolution at the Scopes trial in 1925, which witnessed a decisive change in evangelical attitudes toward themselves and American culture. (3) From 1926 until the end of World War II, a period of reassessment and consolidation during which fundamentalism adopted to a sectarian style of life within American society. (4) The period since the 1940s, which has been marked by the public appearance of a more intellectually sensitive and culturally involved evangelicalism as well as by a clearer division between fundamentalist and evangelical groupings.
By likening the lot of religious conservatives in the early twentieth century to that of “uprooted” immigrants deposited in an alien culture, Marsden has provided a very fruitful metaphor for comprehending the reactions of evangelical Protestants to an increasingly secular society. This essay alone is worth the price of the book.
When the very substantial historical and sociological studies by Moberg, Linder, Williams, Petersen, and Pannell are considered with Marsden’s article, this volume becomes the most informative resource available for studying the history of contemporary evangelicalism. Virtually all important matters relating to the subjects considered by these authors are touched upon directly, or are referred to in the extensive notes appended to each essay.
The other toilers in this rich vineyard have also risen splendidly to their tasks. Kantzer insists upon the inerrancy of Scripture as the “formal principle” of evangelicalism and describes the varieties of apologetical systems used by evangelicals to defend scriptura sola. Anderson shows how different evangelical views on evolution and other controversial scientific matters have developed. The notes to his essay contain a treasure-trove of references to efforts by evangelicals to formulate a distinctly Christian philosophy of science. Tinder pulls the major secondary works on fundamentalism and evangelicalism into a convenient summary. If his bibliography is not as extensive as, for example, that provided by George M. Dollar’s History of Fundamentalism in America, the notes to the other essays more than fill in the interstices of Tinder’s superstructure.
Bentley’s article is not on first reading as impressive as the others. In his defense, however, it must be said that Bentley is very much a pioneer in seeking to answer a question that has received regrettably little attention: how can black evangelicals affirm a proper expression of ethnic consciousness while at the same time maintaining ties with white evangelicals who hold common doctrines but who also participate wittingly or unwittingly in the racist aspects of American society?
The non-evangelical commentators all present extremely stimulating essays. Of the evangelical authors, only Marsden writes as well as these non-evangelicals. This is a shameful admission for evangelicals, who number in their heritage such masters of prose as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Crammer. Until evangelicals write as clearly, forcefully, and movingly as non-evangelicals, their message will not get the hearing its content deserves.
Marty, as always, is lively, lucid, and learned. His suggestion that evangelical life-styles and intellectual methodologies are closer to those of liberals and the neo-orthodox than to those of the fundamentalists, with whom evangelicals share basic doctrinal affirmations, is a matter worthy of much further thought. Marty does not, however, criticize the evangelicals as sharply as do Holmer and Ahlstrom.
Holmer’s bite has more to it, but not as much as his bark. He asks, first, whether evangelicals do not harp so incessantly upon a doctrine of biblical inerrancy that they lose sight of the God who inspired Holy Writ. Holmer has noted something that does indeed occur, but when it does, it is deviant evangelicalism. As Kantzer notes in this volume, scriptura sola is but the “formal principle” of evangelicalism. Even the glorious truth of biblical inerrancy fades in the brilliance of evangelicalism’s proper “material principle,” justification by grace through faith.
Holmer’s second and fourth criticisms score the evangelical propensity to treat Scripture as a mere gateway to more orderly theological schemes that are often structured along lines determined by secular philosophies. Holmer asks whether evangelicals have not looked so hard for a systematic theology in the Bible that they have slighted a personal relationship with the creating and redeeming God. He also wonders if evangelicals do not expend too much energy in trying to make Christianity fit into the categories of secular philosophy.
Once more these criticisms do note some things that take place in evangelicalism, but again these are only deviations from the evangelical norm. In contrast to Holmer’s contention, proper evangelicalism sees the Bible as a means of both understanding and experiencing God, his character, and his acts. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God is just one example to counter Holmer’s contention that evangelical theology never rises to its proper subject. In addition, as Kantzer’s description of presuppositional apologetics (Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm, Frances Schaeffer, the late Edward Carnell, Cornelius Van Til) makes clear, it is not so much that evangelical theology is systems-dependent in its reliance upon the concepts of particular secular philosophies. Rather, the strongest philosophical attachment of evangelicalism is to the affirmation that the very ability to conceptualize itself would be impossible apart from the existence of the God who reveals himself in Christ and the Bible.
Holmer’s third criticism asks whether evangelical theology does not reduce the full-orbed biblical concept of faith to mere assent to orthodox doctrines. As such, this is a criticism not of evangelicalism-properly-so-called but of “easy believism” masquerading as the real thing. Truly representative evangelical thinkers, such as Jonathan Edwards, have often stressed the importance of day-to-day Christian living as the ultimate expression of belief in God. In sum, Holmer has fought hard and fair, but evangelicals will still be able to answer the bell after going a round with him.
Ahlstrom’s polemic cuts most deeply. He argues that innovations in science, scholarship, and philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century “struck American Protestants with special force because the Evangelical tradition for over a century had been paying very little attention to these troublesome intellectual developments.” The balance of evidence rests with Ahlstrom: evangelicals did opt out of the mind game at a very crucial juncture. Giving up the intellectual battle in the period 1870 to 1900 and retreating behind self-defensive barricades meant more than a temporary setback to evangelicals, for it bequeathed as a legacy a kiss of intellectual and cultural death. Recovering intellectual self-respect is awesomely more difficult than sustaining a dearly won position. In the face of Ahlstrom’s criticism, evangelicals must confess: we have failed to love the Lord with all our minds, and hence have perverted love of heart, soul, and strength as well.
Evangelicals cannot easily evade the thrust of what Ahlstrom says. They can, however, take some satisfaction in the fact that the resiliency of evangelicalism puts Ahlstrom, and the dominant strand of American church history that he represents, into something of a bind. Ahlstrom’s magisterial Religious History of the American People (Yale, 1972) asserted that the 1960s had marked a watershed in American religious history during which the heritage of Reformation Puritanism was finally cast off. His essay in The Evangelicals admits the continuity between Puritanism and modern evangelicalism, but pictures the latter as “a subculture that, in effect, maintains itself after the end of the Puritan epoch.” To Ahlstrom, modern evangelicalism is characterized at worst by “intellectual nihilism” and at best by a ghettoized mentality artificially cut off from give-and-take with modern forms of thought. In either case, Ahlstrom does not see in evangelicalism the intellectual integrity that a religious position must maintain if it is to have an effect for truth and goodness in a modern world of moral dilemma and physical suffering.
Yet the seriousness with which Ahlstrom treats conservative Protestantism in this essay suggests that he may be reevaluating the importance of the evangelical phenomenon. His interpretation of recent American church history must, for example, find it difficult to account for the many evangelicals who are breaking out of the cultural, social, and intellectual molds of cultic fundamentalism while at the same time retaining the essential theological commitments of the Puritan tradition. Several of the essays in The Evangelicals document the growing willingness of evangelicals to think not only critically but also creatively about modern problems.
Gerstner contends that the theology of the nineteenth-century revivals aped the values of nineteenth-century American culture and that, in turn, the nineteenth-century theology of revival has come to dominate evangelical theology into the twentieth century. His contention rests on convincing historical ground. The twentieth-century heirs of nineteenth-century revivalism need very much to put evangelism back under the control of a full-orbed biblical theology rather than letting evangelistic practice dictate the shape of Christian doctrine. Gerstner’s essay, in sum, raises the basic issues of biblical and theological understanding upon which all else in American evangelicalism depends.
High praise for this book should not be construed to mean that it has no defects or limitations. Concern for Baptist and Presbyterian history sometimes causes the essayists to overlook contributions to American evangelicalism made by Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Episcopal, Anabaptist, and Holiness groups. Apart from the articles by Moberg, Pannell, and Bentley, disproportionate attention is given to a vocal minority of evangelical polemicists as if these persons spoke for all orthodox Protestants; much more attention could have been devoted to the inarticulate concerns of the masses of evangelical pew-sitters. It is odd, for example, that a serious study of modern evangelicalism makes no mention of such a widespread and influential phenomenon as the popularity of Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible. Many of the writers tend to take it for granted that there is a basic theological consensus among fundamentalists and evangelicals; Gerstner’s article, which those readers who lean to Arminianism may find contentious and wrongheaded, is proof enough that serious questions need to be asked about the depth of evangelical theological unity. And for a book with the high aspirations of this one, The Evangelicals has an embarrassing number of distracting typographical errors.
Neither is this book the absolute last word on evangelicals at the Bicentennial. More needs to be known about the theological effects that attended the marriage of Protestantism and American nationalism in the early nineteenth century. More needs to be known about the emergence of self-confessed secularism in the period between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, we need to understand how it was that the intellectual and cultural forces unleashed in this period were able so easily to “liberate” the popular mind from the evangelical verities that had dominated it for almost a century. Martin Marty’s question also needs much hard thinking: protestations of basic doctrinal unanimity notwithstanding, have distinct and mutually exclusive fundamentalist and evangelical groups emerged out of the broad fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century? And until someone with the insights and scholarship of a George Marsden writes a book-length account of conservative Protestantism in the last century, we will still be without a fully satisfying general history of fundamentalism/evangelicalism.
Despite these shortcomings and limitations, this book should take its place as the single most important resource for both evangelicals and non-evangelicals who want to come to grips with conservative Protestantism in twentieth-century America. The editors deserve our warmest thanks for bringing such a useful and thought-provoking book into the world.
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