New and forthcoming books about evangelicalism (and my thoughts about this concept)

New and forthcoming books about evangelicalism (and my thoughts about this concept) July 13, 2012

New and Forthcoming Books on Evangelicalism (and My Thoughts about this Concept)

Recently there have been some new books on the popular subject of “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” It seems that in the past, perhaps as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, most people including most scholars knew what these terms meant. It was kind of like pornography according to the Supreme Court justice who said “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” We just kind of “knew” other evangelicals when we met them. Then there were the odd cases nobody quite knew what to do with. Are Seventh-Day Adventists evangelicals (if they want to be)? Donald Grey Barnhouse and Walter Martin stirred up a hornets nest in the 1970s by suggesting they (or at least some of them) might be.

Then there has always been the discussion about Southern Baptists. We in the north considered it obvious (that Southern Baptists are evangelicals) even if the SBC wouldn’t join the National Association of Evangelicals. Of course the SBC was evangelical, whether they liked the term or not.

All this points to a very important distinction that I still don’t think most writers about evangelical and evangelicalism have grasped or made sufficient use of. The distinction is between evangelical as an ethos and evangelical as a movement. Somehow, over the years, some people and organizations have become attached to the “evangelical movement” who don’t really have an evangelical ethos. And many have an evangelical ethos who don’t quite fit comfortably in the evangelical movement—especially as it has both broadened and narrowed.

There’s the interesting paradox about the movement. On the one hand, to some people’s way of thinking, it has become so broad and amorphous as to be meaningless. There’s really no even relatively cohesive movement anymore. How can one movement include both Joel Osteen and Michael Horton? And yet, many observers of the evangelical movement in America would put them both in it. That’s kind of like putting Shirley MacLaine and David Spangler in the New Age Movement. But it happens and seems to work—if you’re comfortable with one movement including spiritual flakes and serious thinkers. Both are devotees of the esoteric, so they go in the catch-all category “New Age.”

What do Joel Osteen and Michael Horton have in common that causes both to be considered members of the evangelical movement by many people? Well, both at least claim they believe in the authority of Scripture, the deity of Jesus Christ, conversion to Christ by faith, a supernatural world view and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. Compared to secularism, that’s a lot of common ground!

I think it’s helpful to distinguish, though, between an “evangelical ethos” and the “evangelical movement.” Surely they overlap a lot, but one is a certain attitude toward reality (supernatural reality), the Bible (supreme authority for faith and practice because supernaturally inspired by God), personal decision for Christ by faith as beginning (or at least crucial step) of authentic Christian living (conversionism), the cross of Jesus as the basis of salvation, activism through witness and/or social transformation. The evangelical ethos is heavily influenced by Pietism and Revivalism although it does not necessarily include outward emotional displays. It believes in transformed affections and amendment of life by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. That ethos can be found in many denominations in America including some Catholic churches.

Now, some will insist on adding to that ethos conservative doctrinal belief and I think there’s truth in that, but you can find conservative doctrinal belief where there is no evangelical ethos. Not every conservative Protestant, for example, is truly evangelical in this sense.

Some years ago I received a call from a well-known Lutheran theologian who hosted ecumenical dialogue events. He asked me to recommend a “real evangelical” to speak at one. I mentioned a well-known conservative Methodist theologian. The Lutheran theologian snorted and said “He’s just a conservative Methodist.” I had to agree. I had no reason to think he lived out of an evangelical ethos. So I mentioned the Reformed president of a leading evangelical seminary. The Lutheran theologian said “Yes!” and that’s who they invited. Many would consider both the conservative Methodist and the Reformed seminary president “evangelical” just because they are both noted for being relatively conservative doctrinally. But only the Reformed seminary president is ALSO noted for piety.

Now, the evangelical movement is a strange beast. On the one hand, it’s so large and amorphous as to be a figment of people’s imaginations. On the other hand it’s so narrow and focused on conservative social and political issues as to be an exclusive club populated virtually only by Religious Right and neo-fundamentalists. The first sense of it is still associated with Billy Graham. As one Lutheran observer and commentator on evangelicalism said “An evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham.” The second sense is associated in many people’s minds especially with James Dobson and Al Mohler.

My experience is that the secular media use both senses. Sometimes they talk about “evangelicals” as a huge segment of the population who claim to be “born again.” Other times they talk about “evangelicals” as ultra-conservative Protestants who vote in a block based on two main issues—homosexuality (opposition to “gay marriage”) and abortion (opposition to all abortions except perhaps to save the mother’s life).

It’s no wonder we’re all confused about evangelical and evangelicalism.

I try to remember to make clear whether I am talking about the ethos or the movement (in one of its senses) when I talk about “evangelical.” I am most certainly evangelical in the ethos sense and so are the vast majority of Baptists, Free Church Protestants, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, conservative Presbyterians and Methodists, Holiness (Nazarene, etc.), and charismatic Lutherans and Catholics.

I have more trouble including myself in today’s evangelical movement; I identify with the evangelical movement BEFORE it became so amorphous as to be almost meaningless and at the same time so narrow as to be exclusive and largely determined by “group think” about conservative social, political and doctrinal issues (such as inerrancy of the Bible).

One forthcoming book on evangelicalism I highly recommend is Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism from the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration by Wesleyan scholar Kenneth J. Collins (Asbury). I’m not sure when it will be published by InterVarsity Press but probably in October. The focus of the book is evangelical engagements with power in the political sense. I think (in the early version I read) Collins is wrong about the “evangelical left.” I don’t think there has been (at least in the 20th century and today) an evangelical “left” in the same sense as the “Religious Right.” There have been and are evangelical “lefties” (socially, politically) but they have never been as organized or as powerful or as identified with a political party as the evangelical right has been and is. I think the comparison breaks down in that the main representatives of the evangelical left (e.g., Jim Wallis) have never used the power tactics Religious Right evangelicals have commonly used (e.g., “voter guides” that are really disguised political campaign literature).

However, Collins’ book is an excellent critical survey of evangelical engagements with politics throughout the 20th century. As with all the other books on evangelicalism, however, I think it could do more with my distinction between evangelical “ethos” and “movement.”

A recently published e-book I can highly recommend is Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelical. ( I may want to blog about this one more specifically and at greater length later. Viola is a prolific writer about evangelical Christianity and this is one of his boldest books yet. It contains many quotations from people (including yours truly) who are disillusioned with the current state of evangelicalism as a movement but who love an evangelical ethos. I think this book could also benefit from making explicit use of that distinction.

Another one is The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism edited by Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer and published by Pickwick. It contains fifteen chapters (including the Introduction) about anabaptism and evangelicalism. I think the whole debate about the relationship between anabaptism and evangelicalism can be solved by my distinction between ethos and movement: most anabaptists are evangelicals by ethos; some are also movement evangelicals (but some most definitely do not want to be part of the evangelical movement especially in the narrow sense of social, political and doctrinal conservatism).

There’s been a long debate going on among Southern Baptists (and SBC exiles in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) about whether Southern Baptists/southern baptists are evangelicals. Of course they are ethos-wise. Many are not movement-wise. But most are even movement-wise in the broad, relatively amorphous sense of the evangelical movement.

Somehow over the years many southern evangelical have come to identify “evangelical” with a “Yankee” phenomenon, form of religious life. When I moved to the south to teach theology an old-time Southern Baptist (but in exile from the SBC) seminary dean (my then boss) told me to visit Baptist churches in small towns to see what they are like. He assumed there were big differences between them and the Baptist and evangelical churches I came from in the Upper Midwest. Not so. The very first one I visited in a small town was exactly like any small town Baptist church in the Upper Midwest (except the accent): same songs sung, same order of worship (informal but somewhat planned), same preaching style, same invitation/altar call, same everything (except the accent). Just different names (all initials) for youth group, women’s group, etc.

The main thing I want to emphasize again here is the distinction between evangelicalism as an ethos and evangelicalism as a movement (really two movements—one larger that includes the other).

When I say I’m an evangelical I definitely mean in the ethos sense. When I identify with the evangelical movement I mean the one that I grew up in and still exists somewhere and somehow although it’s hard to find. The National Association of Evangelicals is one remnant of it. I most decidedly do NOT mean the narrow, exclusive, mostly Reformed, neo-fundamentalist one associated in most people’s minds with Dobson and Mohler and their ilk. They and I share an evangelical ethos, but that’s about all.

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