Have We Lost the Soul of Evangelicalism?

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Recently, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight posted a lament of sorts for the evangelical movement. Scot is distressed by the tone of conversations he sees online, where “everybody’s a prophet because, so they think, they are speaking to truth to power,” when in reality “they’re yelling in a barrel full of self-appointed prophets.”

But his lament goes beyond the loss of online civility to certain signs that he says portend “evangelicalism’s demise.”

What Is an Avangelical?

(For a look at four ways of defining “evangelical,” check out my blog series on this question.) Scot lines up with David Bebbington’s famous description of evangelicalism as having four major emphases:

  • the authority of the Bible
  • the centrality of the cross
  • the necessity of personal conversion
  • Christian action in evangelism and social work.

According to Scot, these four pillars of evangelical identity are “crumbling.”

Contrary to what you may think, the pillars are not disintegrating due to our over-involvement in politics, but the reverse. The evangelical movement is “swamped” in political fervor because the four pillars have crumbled.

Four Crumbling Pillars

I’m going to briefly sum up what Scot says about the crumbling pillars of evangelicalism, and then I’ll offer a few thoughts in response.

1. Authority of Scripture

First, Scot believes the Scripture’s prominence has been lost. He sees this trend on the left and the right, including the conservative wing that holds most tightly to Reformational theology.

“Seemingly to embrace the Reformation is to embrace the theology of either Luther or Calvin, not embrace what they embraced: the Bible as the living Word of God. The most important act of a Reformationist is to open the Bible and read it.”

2. The Cross at the Center

Scot mourns the politicization of atonement theories. Conservatives hold fast to penal substitution as the central atonement motif (while neglecting “kingdom themes”), but those on the left seek to avoid any notion of God’s wrath against sinners and thereby turn Holy Week into “justice and more justice.” Scot is concerned that those who maintain the substitutionary atonement simply rehash John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ, while those who make the atonement all about social justice would neither be interested nor able to write such a classic work.

3. The Necessity of Personal Conversion

Scot mourns the fact that the evangelistic impulse has become passé. Evangelicals criticize older techniques of sharing the gospel without replacing them with something better. Pietism that emanated from churches and church planting is now replaced by social justice activism that is “allergic” to “evangelism-based activism.” To say evangelism is “deed-based” and not “word-based” is “a failure of nerve and it is failure to be evangelical.”

Sanctification has fallen on hard times as well. Scot commends the emphasis on growing in holiness that he sees in places like The Gospel Coalition, but mourns its loss in traditionally Wesleyan circles.

4. The State of Christian Activism

Scot fears that mission work has become social work. The evangelical movement that was built on “evangelistic church-planting pioneers” is now filled with NGO types who do compassion ministry.

“Organize a day for evangelism training and you will be alone or close to it; organize a day for some kind of social action and you may see more than Sunday morning service.”

This has led to a diminishment of the pastoral vocation, with future leaders more likely to go into social services and away from seminaries. “Where are the pastors?” Scot asks.

Meanwhile, the activism that gets celebrated is political, both on the right and the left. Pride of place goes to those who have access to the White House, instead of being reserved for “those who faithfully read and teach the Bible, who glory in the cross of Christ, who preach conversions and transformations, and who are engaged in a piety- and evangelism-based activism that encompasses the whole person.”

Is the Soul of Evangelicalism Lost?

I agree with much of Scot’s analysis. The evangelical movement has shifted from central leaders like John Stott and Billy Graham, who modeled for us what these four pillars look like in practice. Today, the conversation concerns what should be paramount for evangelical identity: a common confession or a common experience.

Confessional

The confessional way of viewing evangelicalism focuses on what we believe in common and what doctrines are essential to evangelical vibrancy and faith. To put it another way: Doctrine first, experience may vary.

The confessional emphasis on holding “essentials” in common gives rise to certain problems, of course. The evangelical movement encompasses many churches and denominations, which leads to disagreements over what constitute “first-order” issues versus beliefs we can “agree to disagree” on.

Experiential

The experiential way of viewing evangelicalism focuses on what we experience in our personal relationship with Christ, so that we are ultimately unified by the passion we exhibit in how we live out our faith. To put it another way: Experience first, doctrine can vary.

The experiential approach gives rise to problems of its own. Once evangelical identity gets turned into questions about piety and fervor, the doctrinal center can get lost, the boundaries can become nonexistent, and anyone or everyone can qualify. (Is it possible, for example, for a Roman Catholic to be evangelical if they are passionate about a vibrant walk with Christ within their own church experience?)

Which is paramount? Confession or experience?

Political

Throwing both the “confessional” and “experiential” wings into confusion is the political definition that dominates in most of our country’s conversations about this movement. “Evangelical” becomes synonymous with “white” and “Republican” and “conservative” (although in the Trump era, white evangelicalism may be lurching away from classic conservative political philosophy toward a populist and nationalistic outlook). In most circles, the “confessional” and “experiential” wings of evangelicalism are dwarfed by the attention given to the political.

Heart of Evangelicalism

At its best, evangelicalism includes both the confessional and experiential—doctrine plus passion, confession plus conversion. This has been one of the hallmarks of the neo-evangelical movement as a whole.

Like Scot, I grieve the results of some of the splintering and some of the developments that he has witnessed. But I also see reasons for rejoicing, not just lament.

“Where are the pastors?” They are in some of the fastest-growing seminaries in the country, which tend to put a high emphasis on both the confessional and experiential sides of evangelical identity. Walk on these campuses. Talk to these students. You’ll find a healthy balance of both doctrine and devotion, even if they don’t always see themselves as rooted in a specific denominational tradition.

Where are the church planters who are combining evangelistic fervor with social action? Once again, I see them all over the place—in the North American Mission Board’s initiatives, and in networks like Acts 29 or Redeemer City to City.

Where are the scholars and authors who maintain a full-orbed view of the atonement? I see them in places like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, or highlighted by The Gospel Coalition, where the defense of penal substitution as a central motif of the atonement does not preclude the wider angles of what Christ’s work has accomplished. (It can, at times, but I think this criticism is overblown.)

The soul of evangelicalism has not been lost. It has shifted. It is shining out from doctrinally conservative and devotionally committed evangelicals—those represented in large part by denominations and networks that lean to the right theologically.

What Scot laments is the loss of evangelicalism’s soul in center-left to far-left circles, where, unfortunately, the experiential elements of evangelical identity became paramount, leading to theological drift that robbed churchgoers of the gravity of eternal judgment, the authority and relevance of Scripture to today’s situation, and the urgency of conversionistic evangelism.

I, too, lament those developments, but I am heartened by the places I go and people I see who embody and exemplify, in churches and seminaries, the four pillars of evangelical identity and the fusion of common experience and confession. Perhaps Scot and I run in different circles, and that is why we see things differently. But in my circles, at least, I see the heart of evangelicalism very much intact.

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