Evangelicals at a Crossroad: A Dialogue
Three Bethel University professors discuss the historic significance and present health of evangelicalism.
This past summer two professors at Bethel University, St Paul, Minnesota and one at sister institution Bethel Seminary (me!) were invited to participate in a recorded dialogue that would become a printed piece in the schools’ magazine. The three of us, guided by questions posed by a moderator, considered where evangelicalism is today and where it may be headed.
By necessity tentative and partial, our wide-ranging conversation nonetheless raised some important issues. When we were done, we had a meaty article, of which (for reasons of space) only a brief portion ended up being printed in the magazine.
Though somewhat longer than our typical blog posting, we offer the full edited article (“never before published,” as the marketing wallahs might say) in hopes that it will spark some conversation among our readers who care about the historical movement called evangelicalism:
Moderator: Scott Wible / Editors: Scott Wible, Heather Johnson, and Holly Donato
Are you an “evangelical”? For 60 years, the word has been useful as shorthand for “born-again and Bible-believing, and more open to dialogue than a fundamentalist.” It’s allowed like-minded people to select churches, colleges, and even reading material that line up with their brand of Christianity.
Now, though, many fear the evangelical movement is in disarray due to deep differences among its members, and a new generation with relativistic, postmodern beliefs. Others still see a solid core of common theology that has held strong for more than 500 years, a healthy and growing activism, and hope for the future. What does the word “evangelical” mean now, and where is the movement going?
For the benefit of Bethel Magazine readers, three Bethel professors with interest and expertise in the subject—and who all attend churches considered “evangelical”—agreed recently to exchange ideas. They converse on evangelicalism’s starting point, places of intersection, and diversion, and then offer insightful road signs on where to go from here.
• Phyllis Alsdurf is director of the Johnson Center for Journalism and Communication and an associate professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her dissertation research was on the role of Christianity Today magazine in the development of modern evangelicalism. Sharing worship with her young adult daughter, she attends Substance Church in Fridley, Minnesota.
• Chris Armstrong teaches church history at Bethel Seminary. He has been managing editor of Christian History & Biography and continues to write for that publication as well as for Christianity Today, Leadership, and christianhistory.net. His doctoral research focused on the 19th century holiness movement. Armstrong attends Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota., and has recently written a “group biography” titled Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP, 2009).
• Bernard Walker teaches philosophy and ethics in the College of Adult & Professional Studies/Graduate School. His philosophical interest in the evangelical movement is aimed at separating “what is the work of the Spirit from the work of human tradition” through a process of dialogue among the movement’s diverse voices. His home congregation is Church of All Nations in St. Anthony, Minnesota.
Here are edited excerpts of their discussion.
When in church history do we see the first strands of evangelical beliefs?
Armstrong: Lutherans, the original Protestants, identified themselves as “evangelical.” Reformation doctrines—justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, the priesthood of believers—defined this first sort of evangelical, and these doctrines are still important in today’s evangelicalism. Some scholars argue that evangelicalism as we know it first emerged with the 17th-century rise of the Pietist and Puritan movements, though those movements didn’t use the label of themselves. They were interested in “heart religion”: a Christianity that was about personal relationship with God and that made people live differently. There’s one more element that arose in the 18th century with people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield: the strong focus on evangelism and religious activism. That’s where most scholars would agree you really have the birth of evangelicalism. They spread the message of justification by faith through grace alone and people were suddenly saying, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe I’m not okay. Maybe there’s something more required of me. I have to confess my sins. I have to cling to Jesus,” and a transatlantic revival took place. Out of this revival came on-fire conservative Protestants who became the Baptists and Methodists, the Churches of Christ, and so on.
What led to the phenomenon we call the evangelical movement of the 1940s and ’50s?
Armstrong: In the mid to late 19th century, you have a liberal stream of theology in Protestantism, a modernist stream that says you have to be willing to throw away certain old traditional teachings—the virgin birth, even the resurrection—because they clash with modern understandings of science. Darwinism and biblical criticism intensify this liberalism and worry conservatives, until you have a full-blown split between the liberal and the fundamentalist Protestants. The fundamentalists wanted to hunker down and defend those traditional beliefs. By the ’40s and ’50s, they had added young-earth creationism and a dispensational pre-millennialism to the fundamentalist platform. And at that point you’ve got some conservative Protestants saying, “You know, I affirm generally some of these things—the primacy of Scripture and so on—but I’m not comfortable with the whole package, or the anti-intellectualism that seems to go with it, and so we’re going to use another term. We’ll call ourselves ‘neo-evangelical.’” That term eventually became just “evangelical.”
What were these mid-century evangelicals like?
Alsdurf: They were on this kind of narrow line. They wanted to affirm the fundamentals but change the strategy and say, “Yes, we can give a rational defense for our faith and we can go to universities. We don’t have to separate ourselves.”
Armstrong: They said, essentially, “Let’s do it in a way that’s more willing to sit at the table with university professors and scientists and journalists, anybody who wants to come and talk with us.” The apt term is “engagement,” I think.
Aldsdurf: And yet, the very first editorial in Christianity Today magazine talked about evangelicals as, you know, this poor, despised group outside the cultural mainstream—subjected to prejudice and misunderstood. Well, does that apply to evangelicals today? Many people in mainstream culture would say, “We’re the ones who are misunderstood. Evangelicals are this army, this force!”
Considering that evangelicals distinguished themselves from both liberals and fundamentalists, how is the movement doing today on striking that middle ground?
Walker: I think it’s a spectrum. At one end you can say there is continuing fundamentalism—the view that we pretty much have a corner on truth and we’re going to be on a crusade to change the world. Even though it’s engaged in the world, this view is not really committed to a dialogue with, say, non-Christian world views. At the other end it’s more dynamic. It doesn’t suffer from this sort of anxiety. It’s more fluid, receptive to certain views. And I guess the shortcoming for them will be “What’s the threshold?” That’s a tricky question. I suspect a healthy position would be somewhere in the middle.
How has the race issue played out for evangelicals?
Walker: While the fundamentalist end of the movement may embrace history—theological history—it in some sense ignores history on most other matters. So you look at, say, the civil rights movement in this country back in the 1950s, Christianity Today published very few articles about that particular issue, which was very pivotal in our country. So evangelicalism as a whole did not engage the world in terms of the historical issues of the black community.
Armstrong: Which is a real difference from what happened in the 1800s, when evangelicals were on the vanguard of the abolition movement.
Walker: Exactly. So you have a historically black church within the evangelical church—although “evangelical” isn’t a self-applied label for most black churches, or at least it wasn’t. When Billy Graham was doing a revival in the South, I don’t know the year, and I can’t quote him exactly, but he said something like, “I didn’t come to change the morés that exist down here in the South. As far as I’m concerned, the Bible doesn’t say anything about segregation.”
Alsdurf: But also that’s early Billy Graham. I mean, think of our own selves, how much we change over time. You can’t really pigeonhole him and say he was always this way. In the 1957 New York crusade he chose a chairperson who was African-American. Now you can say, “Well that’s very little,” but it was a colossal step. You see Billy Graham now when he’s interviewed by someone like Larry King, a comment he makes is that one of the major problems in our country today is racism. And [Carl F. H.] Henry [the first editor of Christianity Today] put his finger on it when he said, “We’re culpable of being too conservative politically and socially. We haven’t done the things we were supposed to do. We haven’t been active in the civil rights movement and other movements for social justice.” This opens the door for Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and other sorts of progressive, white evangelicals.
Is there a theological issue the evangelical church has navigated pretty well that may have threatened its unity?
Walker: Well, you have the issue of God’s foreknowledge, the debate about open theism. Does God know the future? For some people you just do not mess with the view that God is timeless. The question is, is that biblical or is it tradition? Evangelicals at the dynamic end of the spectrum would not suffer from any anxiety about challenging this view and saying God is in time, and there are certain things that God may be open to seeing what we do.
Armstrong: There is a very brief “doctrinal basis” that members of the Evangelical Theological Society subscribe to. And when they considered the issue, there was nothing explicit in that statement that said you cannot hold an open theist position. Now for those who were against that position, there were implications here. But it’s a fact that these evangelical faith statements are rarely more than about a page long—compared to the Westminster and Heidelberg catechisms, for instance, that go on and on. We have only a few basics, so that if we get in a room with other evangelicals, we can find a lot of common ground, and we can allow some of the edges to be fuzzy. We can allow translation of our core beliefs to take place without getting too nervous. The movement has fuzzy edges but we all look toward and salute the same central doctrinal experience. Now I know there are some evangelicals for whom that’s not true—on the static end of the spectrum.
Do you think there’s a danger that evangelicals could lose their distinctiveness?
Armstrong: David Neff, current editor of Christianity Today, poses that question: He asks whether we’re losing ground on conversionism, biblicism, cross-centeredness, because we’re so concerned with being in the culture for evangelistic purposes and dialogue purposes. Are we becoming increasingly of the culture? I think that’s a very important question.
Alsdurf: One of the things I sometimes do with students is ask them to write down some slang expressions they use. Part of it is to poke fun at me and show how out of it I am! But one word that comes up is “whatever.” I talk about how “whatever” was not an expression when I was growing up. Everything mattered. Expressions can be an outlook on the world, and is “whatever” the one we want to express? I think that “whatever” has really infused our theology: “This is true for me, but maybe not for you. Whatever.”
Walker: Once you factor in postmodernism, you do run into those kinds of epistemic issues, and it may not be a result of the church itself, but our culture. Our culture says there’s no truth with a capital T on most things, unless of course it deals with science. So for issues of values, ethics, and religion, culture says “of course you can’t use truth with a capital T.” So that “whatever” mentality is there. You have this younger generation who says “We can’t even discuss those issues because we don’t have access to how things really are.”
Alsdurf: But I think the pendulum is swinging away from that somewhat.
Armstrong: In terms of doing things for your faith, maybe we are moving away from the “whatever.” Maybe those same young people who have a very fuzzy sense of what they actually believe are incredibly active. They’re involving themselves in inner-city initiatives, or packaging meals to go overseas to feed the hungry. I think this is a significant trend within evangelicalism. It’s maybe negative in the sense that we’ve lost the reason why we’re being active in the first place, and we know where that trajectory leads—secularization. When you start making your entire faith experience be about feeding the hungry or doing some sort of social justice work that anybody can do, you can be Buddhist or Muslim and do that. You can be an atheist and do that. What’s distinctively Christian about it?
Walker: It could be an expression of just giving up completely and having a non-cognitive view of Christianity. But you do have individuals who are saying, “If we cannot resolve these [theological] issues, at least we can definitely get out there and change the world. We share a common goal and that is to get out there and affect people’s lives.” The black church would say, “Look, [heaven] may be promised to me by and by, but I got about 80 years before that happens so in the meantime I need to change some things here now.”
How are young evangelicals shaping the movement?
Alsdurf: I see students in the classroom—wonderful, evangelical Christian students—very active in their faith, who are much more tolerant than the previous generation on some social issues. A younger generation that doesn’t think in the same way I do. They understand different cultures in a way I never did at a much younger age, both through exposure to media and travel. And then, also, the influx of immigrants in the United States has enriched our faith experience.
Armstrong: Robert Webber put out his book in 2000, The Younger Evangelicals, which discerns three distinct phases within evangelicalism: The first one he calls “traditional,” which was much more doctrinally focused. The second he labels “pragmatic,” in which a concern for numbers and seeker sensitivity predominated—the Christian contemporary music movement, everything in the world having a parallel in evangelicalism, trying to look like the surrounding culture so we can get a bigger piece of the demographic pie. But even in 2000 Webber began discerning a third movement within evangelicalism. This is a movement of younger evangelicals who are tired of the apologetic arguments of the traditionalists and the big shopping-mall-like churches and rock-concert worship services of the pragmatists. People in this phase, said Webber, are trying to reconnect with stuff that’s distinctively Christian. They want to go back into Christian history and tradition and at least cherry-pick some aspects of what makes Christianity distinctive. Stained glass may be okay now; it’s okay to light candles. Maybe there’s some value to those traditional symbols because they train us and allow us to be more fully Christian. To me, if that’s true, then it at least allays some of my concern. I think maybe there’s some movement away from a relativistic outlook to, maybe, a revivalistic outlook—but a new revivalism that draws from our spiritual heritage.
Alsdurf: I think you can even see that in the whole spiritual direction movement. There’s a strong interest in Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Many people are getting connected through spiritual direction and going back to some of the Catholic saints. There are encouraging trends. I think even at Bethel, the [student] vespers services—which you may say is just worship—expresses a cry of young people’s hearts. It’s not coming from the top down, but from the bottom up saying, “We want something more.” There’s a cry that’s there.
Have evangelicals become too aligned with a certain political party, as many charge?
Walker: For Bible-believing African-American Christians, there’s a tendency for obvious reasons to be more progressive socially, whereas with white evangelical churches this side of fundamentalism in the 20th century, the tendency is to be conservative Republican. But that may be changing with younger evangelicals.
Armstrong: We have a media image of evangelicals as being about theocracy, and we do have a few extreme conservative evangelicals. But I think there’s still a deep-rooted stance of personal liberty and individualism, even among those Falwell-type contemporary fundamentalists. So I’m not sure if I buy that kind of stereotype of evangelicals. Certainly we want morality legislated in some sense, but theocracy? Are we really going that far?
Walker: I think some are. I mean, when you talk about this as a “Christian nation” and begin with certain Christian presuppositions and assumptions.
Armstrong: I think that’s true. But does that make a theocracy? A theocracy would be a state in which it’s the priests who run the show. It’s the ministers. Do we really want that or do we want a re-entry of Christian values into the dialogue?
Alsdurf: In terms of the whole political issue, and whether evangelicalism is being defined from without, I think this: In some ways one way to strengthen a movement is pressure—a common enemy. That’s what helped evangelicalism in the early days of Christianity Today—this woe-begotten, misunderstood, unrecognized group.
Armstrong: Friends of mine who are involved in new monastic communities would say that consumerism is in large part of that force, that common enemy of the church.
Alsdurf: Well, look at the economic collapse. I wonder what theological or evangelical outgrowth we’ll see from that. Good, hard-working, white folks who followed all the rules suddenly realize that if you’ve got crummy structures in place, no matter what you do, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps doesn’t work. Perhaps that will infuse our theology.
Walker: There is change in the whole debate about what is poverty and how has it come about. There’s still that kind of evangelical priority on soul winning, but there is an understanding at least that soul winning’s not enough. What we’re seeing today is a higher emphasis among evangelicals focusing on dismantling structures that may impact people’s pursuit of happiness. They’re expanding our concerns about those social, structural dynamics.
Armstrong: That’s not Republican, is it? That sounds very Democrat to me! But that’s a huge difference between black evangelicals and white evangelicals: how we vote.
The media have to some extent hijacked and distorted the word “evangelical” to have a socio-political meaning. Should we try to reclaim the term as a description of our movement?
Armstrong: I don’t think we should go to the mat for a term. I really don’t. And I say that as a historian who knows the value of terms and labels as carriers of tradition. But when I edited a magazine for Christianity Today International (CTI) and was writing regular e-newsletters every week, I’d use the word “evangelical” sometimes a dozen times in 500 words. And Marshall Shelley, the editor of CTI’s journal Leadership, said to me, “You know, we’re not really fixated on this word anymore here at Christianity Today.” I said, “What? Isn’t this everything you’re about?” “No,” he said, “we’re happy to talk about being ‘Christian’ or ‘Christ-followers.’” So there was already a sense within that organization, interestingly, that this wasn’t necessarily a word you had to go to the mat for.
What remnant of the term’s original meaning, then, should we care about?
Armstrong: Are there people, whatever we call them, who affirm Reformation basics of theology, the importance of a born-again experience, the centrality of the cross, a high view of Scripture, and some sort of activism based on that? I think that’s what’s important.
Alsdurf: And that’s why a place like Bethel is so important. I feel like it’s such a privilege to have influence with this generation and to help people really struggle through some of that. I think of a student this semester who is in South Africa as we speak, and she’s there as someone with a very alive, concrete, centered faith. She’s trying to understand herself as a potential, future journalist, an advocate for the poor. How does she live that out? I find many examples of this among this generation. Students who come in with a pretty thin theological veneer, but then as faculty members, we have the challenge and the privilege to really push them further to dig deeper into what separates plain activism from an activism motivated out of a deeply held evangelical faith. So, I would just say the fact that a place like Bethel is thriving in the postmodern world tells me there’s still a hunger for something more—a hunger for rootedness you’re not going to find in other kinds of institutions. I think there will always be this hunger, because I believe in the power of God working in the world. I believe that always, the core of our faith will be preserved.