The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing

Written by David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge, eds. Reviewed By Bruce A. Demarest

In this volume Wells and Woodbridge, church historians associated with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, have undertaken to document the contemporary resurgence of evangelical Christianity in North America. In this collection of thirteen essays churchmen and scholars of evangelical and non-evangelical loyalties assess the remarkable phenomenon of the renaissance since World War 2 of biblical faith in a secular, scientific culture.

By way of background it is shown that orthodox, evangelical conviction dominated American nineteenth-century religion, believers applying their faith to social and political issues with considerable success. During roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century, however, orthodoxy became locked in an all-out struggle with theological scepticism introduced from Germany. With the settling of the dust after the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the capitulation of Princeton Seminary to liberalism soon thereafter, orthodox Christianity suffered a thorough-going and (what many observers regarded as) an irretrievable defeat. During the decades which followed, a large sector of orthodoxy, its confidence shaken and smarting from its wounds, turned in on itself and cultivated a narrow, defensive mentality characterized by vigorous polemic against intellectual pursuits and social activism. During this period of religious introspection the identification of the gospel with the ‘American way of life’ gave birth to the phenomenon known as civil religion. Yet in spite of the near eclipse of biblical faith the third quarter of the century from the 1940s has seen a marked reversal of fortunes in which a more enlightened, socially conscious evangelical movement has recaptured the initiative. At the local-church level as well as in seminaries, missions and para-church organizations the groundswell of evangelical conviction continues to mount, whereas liberalism is confronted with declining membership, revenue and effectiveness.

In the first section of the book, ‘What Evangelicals Believe’, John Gerstner of Pittsburg Theological Seminary defines the theological boundaries of American evangelicalism. The religious roots of evangelicalism can be traced through the European pietists back to the Reformers themselves. Whereas the New England Calvinist Jonathan Edwards embodied the noblest ideals of the evangelical faith, the perfectionist Charles Finney a century later weakened the Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone, thereby distorting the teaching of the earliest evangelicals Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, etc. Thus for the Presbyterian Gerstner authentic evangelicalism is synonymous with Calvinism. But it is doubtful whether one particular theological perspective can be regarded as the absolute norm of a broader movement whose devotees hold in common the profound experience of salvation in Christ. As Kenneth Kantzer argues in the following essay, the phenomenon of diversity within unity evident among the Reformers and cherished by contemporary conservative Christians represents the true hallmark of the movement. Although all evangelicals subscribe to the ‘formal principle’ of full biblical authority and the ‘material principle’ of the saving gospel of Christ, Kantzer demonstrates how evangelicals work out the details of their cherished fundamental commitments in various ways philosophically and apologetically. The student in search of an overview of systems of apologetics commonly employed by evangelicals will find Kantzer’s article an asset. Paul Holmer, professor of theology at Yale, concludes the section with the observation that because of evangelical obsession with the pinpoint definition and rigorous systematization of religious concepts from an infallible source-book, truth becomes a ‘pseudo-certainty’ and the Christian faith is confined to a straitjacket. Evangelicals will find little commonality with Holmer’s plea for quasi-mystical assent to the ideals of love, hope and charity.

In the second section, ‘Who Evangelicals Are’, black Christian leaders William Pannell and William Bentley trace the spiritual heritage and the present status of believers in the black community. Historically, black churches have been spared the trauma of schism along liberal-fundamentalist lines. Yet, on balance, orthodox evangelical belief probably consistutes the majority conviction within the black churches. One shadow across the American evangelical scene is that although black and white believers possess much in common doctrinally they serve their common God in separate ways. George Marsden, after a detailed survey of evangelicalism from 1870 to the present, detects the existence of a healthy shift from fundamentalism with its militant separationism, conspiratorial view of the world and antipathy towards theological scholarship to a biblical evangelicalism with vision and commitment. Social and intellectual isolationism is largely an issue of the past. Yet noting that all has not been lost, Marsden astutely observes, ‘The isolation itself has had the effect of preserving the principle of biblical authority that is a chief source of evangelical strength.’

Next, conservative sociologist David O. Moberg statistically documents the rising tide of evangelical fortune in North America, noting that ‘it is conceivable that evangelicalism soon may become if it is not already the dominant religious orientation in Protestant America’. Yet Moberg rightly cautions that a concomitant of increased influence and power is increased responsibility: ‘The greater the power and the longer it is held, the more difficult will it be for evangelicals to plead innocent for the collective sins of the nation, including those pertaining to the economic, political, educational, legal, health and communications systems.’ If it is to discharge its stewardship with fidelity American evangelicalism must authentically relate to society rather than retreat from it, and it must raise a prophetic voice upon society rather than seek the maintenance of the status quo. An essay by Martin Marty, professor of church history at the divinity school of the University of Chicago, himself not a self-styled evangelical, is perhaps the most perceptive of the collection. In an attempt to identify evangelicals more precisely Marty notes a paradox, namely, that at the doctrinal level evangelicals stand very close to fundamentalists—both movements insisting on the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian faith; i.e., biblical inerrancy and the virgin birth, atonement, resurrection and miracle-working power of Christ. But in social responsibility, intellectual commitment, ethos and temperament evangelicals have more in common with liberals. From the perspective of a historian as well as an outsider Marty concludes that contemporary American evangelicalism is the rightful heir of nineteenth century orthodoxy whereas fundamentalism constitutes the ‘ “modernist” deviation’. Marty’s problem, which we believe is amenable to cogent explanation, is that the instructed observer finds little justification why both fundamentalism and evangelicalism should be regarded as one expression of the Christian faith.

The third and final section discusses various aspects of evangelicalism in change, namely, the development of more responsible attitudes in the areas of social concern, political involvement and scientific achievement. One who naively assumes that North American evangelicals have never moved beyond the fringe of participation in society might profit from Robert Lendar’s instructive essay, ‘The Resurgence of Evangelical Social Concern (1925–75).’

The Evangelicals is a carefully prepared and well documented analysis of a significant resurgence in biblical life and practice within the modern church. With a following of some forty million believers evangelicalism in America faces the acid test as to whether it is capable of effecting concrete changes in society following the biblical pattern. The credibility of the movement stands or falls on this issue.

Bruce A. Demarest

Denver Seminary, Denver, Colorado