The Evangel Is Timeless. Evangelicalism Is Not.

Because evangelicals have typically thought of themselves simply as Christians (or real Christians), there is a danger they may think of their own faith tradition as somehow timeless. It’s like the parody that imagines a fundamentalist saying, “If the King James Version of the Bible was good enough for the apostle Paul, it is good enough for me.”

So let’s put it bluntly: The gospel of Jesus Christ is timeless, but the evangelical movement is not.

The evangelical movement, as identified by historians and sociologists, is a distinctively modern development. It has a beginning, and it has a history—a history bound up with the rise of modernity.

The ahistorical tendency of popular evangelicalism today obscures this simple but important fact. But it’s important for evangelicals to understand this point when expressing a concern for “gospel and culture.”

Time before Evangelicalism

An act of some imagination is therefore required to come to terms with evangelicalism. Imagine a world before there were evangelicals in the modern sense. No public evangelistic meetings, open to all comers. No small groups for intimate fellowship, extemporaneous prayer, and Bible discussion. No rousing popular songs. No widespread testimonies of personal conversion. No extensive transnational and transdenominational Christian networks or corresponding sense of Christian identity (more-than-national, more-than-denominational). No traveling evangelists or celebrated popular preachers. Certainly no George Whitefield or Billy Graham. No widespread and widely received message of “Salvation now! Today!” No popular media outlets promoting and contesting evangelical methods and messages. No voluntary organizations mobilized for mission and social betterment.

This exercise of imagination, erasing much of what one might assume today, would take you back to around the year 1735 in the English-speaking world. Of course, you could qualify all of the “no” statements above. You could identify traveling evangelists here and there before 1735. You could trace some transnational, transdenominational connections prior to that year. You could name a few voluntary societies, and Anabaptists had their small groups. It would also all look a little differently if we were to stretch our imaginations to include Germany and continental Protestants. But taken as a whole, in aggregate, evangelicalism is something new. We can imagine a world before all of the things mentioned in the last paragraph got uniquely wired together and “evangelicalism” achieved liftoff.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is timeless, but the evangelical movement is not.

That earlier world wasn’t only pre-evangelical; it was also more or less pre-modern. I say “more or less” because modernity was a long time coming, and the story is complex. But the time before evangelicalism takes us back to the world we call Christendom, a set of arrangements in church and state that historians describe as the ancien régime.

So it is highly significant that the conversions and North Atlantic revivals of the late 1730s and 1740s led to a new religious movement that didn’t just come and go; it endured through three centuries and spread across six continents. The story of expanding evangelicalism is bound up with the story of expanding modernity.

Having exercised this sort of historical imagination, we can now see evangelicalism whole. There was a time before evangelicalism, and we are left to contemplate the relationship between evangelicalism and modernity more generally.

Early Evangelicalism and Modernity

Thus far we have been playing fast and loose with the definition of evangelical and evangelicalism.

Followers of Luther had been evangelisch, and most Protestants would have understood their core identity in terms of the gospel message of salvation by faith. But what gets “wired together” and achieves “liftoff” in  the middle third of the 18th century was something more. It was, as John Wesley said, a work of God remarkable for its quickness and its extent. Modernity (from modo, or “just now”) was in many ways about conditions of more rapid travel and communication and more extensive geographical connections: compression in time, expansion in space. This “modernizing” happened, for example, to commodity markets in the 18th century. Instead of just the local village market, there was the transatlantic community of goods; instead of local gossip, there was the periodical press.

This wasn’t yet instant communication and globalization, but it was something like this in embryo. Especially from our perch in late modernity, we can see the modern world arising from afar as we look at these conditions. Evangelicalism had its rise in this world, while still having a strong memory of the older world. It emerged right on the buckle between Christendom and modernity.

The story of expanding evangelicalism is bound up with the story of expanding modernity.

The way this might have been put at the time was to say that the early evangelicals were caught up in the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.” This quarrel was a long debate about the relative authority of the past. It began in France and spilled over into England. Given the exciting findings of the scientific revolution, many were saying that the moderns were now surpassing the ancients by leaps and bounds. The political philosopher Leo Strauss argues that the very idea of modernity derives from this 18th-century “Quarrel.”

In this setting, evangelicalism came together with all the social dynamism of a modern movement, and its message had a kind of newness, promising that men and women could know the immediate presence of God and know this now by faith in Christ. But it nevertheless drew deeply and consciously on spiritual and theological sources from the Christian past.

As we would say today, they were rooted in the Great Tradition. They offered an old message in a new form—something both ancient and modern. At its core was the idea that it was possible to experience personally “the life of God in the soul of man.”

This was still possible, even in the modern world.

Early Evangelicalism and Naturalism

If society was modernizing in the 18th century, it was also naturalizing. More and more was being explained without reference to God. The authority of nature loomed large in natural philosophy (science), moral philosophy (ethics), and aesthetic philosophy (art). We may think of these discourses as representing the naturalizing of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. What was the meaning of “true religion” in such a world newly preoccupied with nature and its authority?

I explore this question in some detail in The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism. It’s clear, though, that for all that evangelicals have been at home in the modern world, they have always pushed back against naturalism as incompatible with their devotional experience of God’s indwelling presence. One mustn’t live or think as if God did not exist.

New Expression of Timeless Truth

Evangelicalism has spread throughout the globe over the last three centuries, changing in various ways, but it has shown a remarkable resilience and durability in modern societies as men and women have been drawn to the message of personal salvation as the essence of “true religion.” Indeed, Martin Marty observes there has been “a symbiosis between unfolding modernity and developing evangelicalism.”

It would be a mistake, however, to respond to this analysis by writing off evangelicalism as a movement wholly captive to its historical moment. Quite the contrary. Instead, I see the rise of evangelicalism in the modern world as something like the rise of religious orders or renewal movements earlier in the history of the church. The desert fathers of the fourth century, the new religious orders of the 12th century, the lay fraternities of the 13th and 14th centuries—in each of these cases there were new expressions of intensive Christian devotion that arose as responses to the cultural conditions of the time. So too with evangelicalism.

I see the rise of evangelicalism in the modern world as something like the rise of religious orders or renewal movements earlier in the history of the church.

Let me turn around what I said earlier. The evangelical movement isn’t timeless, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is.

Another way to put this is to say that the word “evangelicalism” begins better than it ends. It begins with the evangel (the gospel) and ends with an –ism.

At its best evangelicalism will always heed the call to be a faithful witness to the enduring gospel. That is the first thing. I suspect that it was for this purpose that God raised up the movement from its beginning—as a witness to the life-giving power of the gospel in the modern world.

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