Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Providing Context for the Comments of Drs. Stewart and Hart

I post the following two book reviews as perhaps helpful toward understanding the comments of Drs. Stewart and Hart regarding Evangelicalism and Calvinism. The first was originally published at Reformation21, the second by Modern Reformation.

A Review of The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age or Edwards, Whitfield, and the Wesleys by Mark Knoll
330 pages, Intervarsity Press, 2003

One of the binding chapters of the Directory for Worship for my denomination instructs the minister presiding at the Lord’s Table to “invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church.”

The question that faces the conscientious minister and Session is, “What is an evangelical church?” The term evangelical has had at least three incarnations. 

 (1) Its original meaning is rooted in the sixteenth century and is “a virtual synonym for Protestant” (Noll, p. 17). In this case evangelicalism defines Protestantism in contrast to Roman Catholicism by its asserting justification by faith alone, the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation, and the Bible alone as the final authority, by insisting on the finality sacrifice of the cross (rather than the repeated sacrifice of the mass), and by teaching the priesthood of all believers (Noll, pp. 16, 17).

(2) It’s most recent (20th century) use is as a description of a movement that rejected the growing liberalism of the mainline denominations but also the hard edges and combativeness of fundamentalism. These “softer, gentler” conservatives chose “evangelical” as their own self-description to distinguish themselves from fundamentalists. Led by men such as Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, and Carl F. H. Henry, this neo-evangelical movement was committed to both the evangel and evangelism. (One historian has said one may judge what he thinks of modern evangelicalism by answering the question, “What do you think of Billy Graham?”) Many have criticized this mid-twentieth century incarnation (e.g. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and David Wells’ No Place for Truth).  But no one has gone further than D.G. Hart who argues in Deconstructing Evangelicalism the provocative proposition that this evangelicalism “does not exist” (p.16) but “is a construct developed over the last half of the twentieth century” (p.19).

(3) However, in A History of Evangelicalism Noll is not talking about the sixteenth or twentieth centuries’ uses of the term. In this first of a projected five volumes that will trace the history of evangelicalism the historical starting point is the eighteenth-century (specifically 1740-95, p. 293); the geographical starting point is Great Britain; and the definitional starting point is that evangelicalism is  “a set of convictions, practices, habits, and oppositions that resemble what Europeans describe as ‘pietism’” (p. 17). What Noll sets out to do is to provide a history of “an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying, family tree with roots in the eighteenth century revivals” (p.19).

While Noll can be critical of this evangelicalism, he writes as a self-identified evangelical. He acknowledges that autobiographical accounts and interpretations of spiritual experience can be deceptive. Nevertheless: “An evangelical historian of evangelical history may be pardoned for his own conclusion that in many particulars they sound like the truth” (p. 290).

The core ingredients of this movement are (Noll quoting Bebbington with approval):

“1. conversion or ‘the belief that lives need to be changed’;
 2. the Bible, or ‘belief that all spiritual truth is found in its
 3. activism, or the dedication of all believers, including lay-
     people, to lives of service for God, especially as mani-
     fested in evangelism…and mission…; and
 4. crucicentrism, or the conviction that the death of Christ was
     central in providing atonement for sin…”

Of course, the evangelicalism, Noll sets out to chronicle did not arise in a vacuum. Its roots are in the sixteenth Reformation and especially seventeenth century Puritanism, but Noll sees something different in the eighteenth century and something more than the organic growth that one might expect from the Reformation. The difference and addition are attributed to the rise of the revivals which re-shaped the doctrine and, to a greater extent, the practice of a large segment of Protestantism, both Calvinian and Arminian, in Great Britain and America.

One must not forget that among these eighteenth century evangelicals there were significant differences, big enough to cause sharp debate and broken relationships among the primary figures. In “the age Edwards, Whitfield, and the Wesleys” two were Calvinists and two Arminian. But what stands out in Noll’s story is that these doctrinal debates on matters such as divine sovereignty in salvation and the limits of human sanctification took place in the context of a number of commonalities. Space allows the mention of only three.

First, the evangelical revivalists saw religion advancing primarily through extraordinary rather than ordinary works of God. Jonathan Edwards contended that “from the fall of man to this day wherein we live the Work of Redemption in its effect has been mainly carried on by remarkable outpourings of the Spirit of God” (Noll, p.138). According to Noll this assessment became “standard” for evangelicalism. In other words, the ordinary ministry of the church making use of the ordinary means of grace had proved not adequate to maintain the vitality of the Church or to achieve the salvation of large numbers of sinners. Calvinists might pray revivals down while Arminians worked them up, but both believed extraordinary works of the Spirit were God’s way of giving and restoring spiritual life to individuals and to the church.

Second, evangelicals were experiential. Their tendency was to look to a conversion experience as an indicator of the reality of a profession. The experience, often coming after a period of intense and prolonged struggle, could be described in different ways – a strange warming of the heart, a divine and supernatural light, a new sense of God’s sweetness and one’s delight in Him, an overwhelming conviction of the love of God for the particular sinner, the sense that one’s sins are finally and fully forgiven. What these descriptions point to is something very close to a conscious sense of one’s being regenerated or at least a consciousness of the first movements of the heart of the regenerated person. This was something more than professing a faith one believes, being a baptized and communing member, keeping the Sabbath, faithfully receiving the means of grace, living under the oversight of elders, and walking with the saints. One needs to know in his heart that he has had a distinct experience of “closing with Christ.” This emphasis on experience is vividly portrayed in the experiences of Charles Wesley (though by no means is it unique to him) in 1738: “I waked without Christ; yet desirous of finding him (May 13)…I labored, waited, and prayed to feel ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ After this assurance that he would come and not tarry, I slept in peace (May 17)…I found myself at peace with God, and rejoicing in hope of loving Christ” (May 21) (p.95). The question was not, “Do you sincerely believe?” but “Have you really experienced?”  It was not, “Do you believe God loves you because He did not spare his Son for you?” but “Have you felt the love of God fill your heart?”

Third, the evangelical movement sat loose regarding visible church with its structures and authority regarding such matters as worship, doctrine, and government of members and ministers. Whitfield and the Wesleys tried to maintain good faith connections with the Anglican Church. But, the momentum of their movement made it impossible. One could not make too much of ordination, since it was obvious that God was raising up and owning the ministries of men (and some women) who lacked it. One could not make too much of the church placing one in ministry and determining its sphere since these men themselves believed they were responding to and carrying out calls that came directly from God without the church as intermediary. If one believes that the world is his parish, he feels authorized to minister when and where he will. Then, one cannot make too much of the church and its worship services of Word and sacrament when the real vitality is to be found in special preaching services, open air meetings, and small groups initiated and organized by the evangelists. These societies had to have leadership, structure, and organization; this was provided by the evangelists themselves, anticipating the development of voluntary societies and para-church organizations standing outside the church but in many ways functioning as though they were the church. As Noll comments on Whitfield: “Whitfield combined an extraordinary disregard for inherited church traditions with a breathtaking entrepreneurial spirit…The willingness to innovate…promoted among later American evangelicals a similar disregard for Christian tradition” (p. 107).

Noll helps us who, despite Hart’s misgivings, continue to call ourselves evangelicals. By taking us back to the beginnings of the second incarnation of the movement that has shaped us Noll enables us better to know who we are and how we got to be this way. No doubt some of us will read the account as the record of the powerful work of the Spirit for which we long in our day, while others of us will see the roots of much that gives us misgivings about the church and Christian experience today. In either case, this book is on the “must read” list for those who would understand the evangelicalism of which, for better or worse, we are the 21st century heirs.


Review of John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist by D.G. Hart. Presbyterian and Reformed 2005.

Who brought about the bigger changes in American Protestantism, Charles Darwin or Jonathan Edwards? Most historians argue that the sea change came after the War between the States. Protestantism had to grapple with the problems created by cities and industries, the challenges of higher criticism, the changes brought about by looking at religion through the lens of psychology, and the apparent undermining of Biblical faith by Darwinism. This period is considered the point at which Protestantism had to go over on the defensive. The result was that some tried their best to adjust to the changing realities (liberalism), while others circled the wagons (fundamentalism). Such is the conventional wisdom.

But Hart in this fine biography of John Williamson Nevin, an obscure 19th century one time Presbyterian, then German Reformed professor, argues that American Protestantism experienced its most determining change much earlier through the work of Jonathan Edwards and his co-revivalists (the term “revivalist” does not identify Edwards with the errors of Finney, the excesses of the Second Great Awakening, or revivalism’s current incarnations). “If as historians assume, the measure of the church is its healthy relationship to matters external to it, such as the economy, the world of learning, or domestic or international affairs,  then the period after 1870 was indeed a critical one for American Protestants. But if, as Nevin argued, the well-being of the church is determined by its own internal affairs, its worship, its sacramental life, its creed, then the critical period for American Protestants came well before the nineteenth century” ( p.233).

Hart contends that Nevin “recognized not simply the historical discontinuity between Calvin, Ursinus, and the Westminster divines on the one side and Edwards and Finney on the other. Nevin also articulated the fundamental incompatibility between revivalism (the system of the [anxious] bench) and the historic branches of the Protestant Reformation (the system of the catechism [here standing for the whole of the ministry of the ordinary means of grace]). The former was subjective, individualistic, and didactic, while the latter was objective, corporate, and sacramental. In a word, the anxious bench located religious authenticity inside the believing individual, the (system of the) catechism in the corporate practices of the church” (p. 234). Herein lies the primary significance of Nevin for Reformed and Presbyterian churches today.

Let’s get this out of the way. Nevin was quirky in personality and in views. He struggled with depressive episodes and had an acerbic pen. He made much too little of preaching for a Reformed Protestant and perhaps over-read Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (though this may be excused partially by the generally low view of the Lord’s Supper held in his day, to say nothing of ours.) He put too much emphasis on the incarnation and not enough on the atonement. He was influenced by German philosophy (though perhaps no more so than the Princetonians were by Scottish philosophy).He is not the man Westminster Calvinists would want to see teaching systematic theology in a Reformed seminary.

Let’s also get this out of the way. The Federal Visionists seem to like this biography (apparently because they perceive Nevin as an historical ally). It is true that the Federal Visionists are concerned, as was Nevin, with the effects of revivalism on the church and with the low view of the church and sacraments that obtains among Reformed Protestants, but neither the Visionists nor Nevin are alone in those concerns. The errors of the Federal Vision theology must not be used to dismiss Nevin, or others who share a higher view of the visible church and the effects of the means of grace and a different view of conversion and piety. To hold such views is not to believe that that all the blessings of redemption are actually bestowed at baptism but may be lost by covenant unfaithfulness, or that election is conditional, or to question the Reformation’s formulations of justification, or imputation, or covenant.

Consider these questions: (1) What is the nature of the church? Is the word “church” roughly equivalent to “all the Christians in the world”, or is it an institution with a body of doctrine, a system of government, a unique mission, and a form of worship? Is the church the earthly agency of applied salvation, or is salvation an individual and personal matter essentially between the soul and God? Do the Reformed truly believe, as their confessions teach, that outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation? Is the church our mother apart from which we cannot have God as our Father? Are Reformed Baptists and historic Presbyterians one except for differing views of the subjects and modes of baptism and of forms of church government or are there profound differences about the nature of the church, of the covenant, and of conversion?
(2) What are the effects of the means of grace? Are the means of grace the channels by which the grace of God flows into those who receive them? Is not baptism among some Presbyterians little more than a “baby dedication” with water? Is not the Lord’s Supper in practice little more than an ordinance that stirs pious remembrances and feelings? Fully acknowledging that there is no ex opere operato in connection with the means, do we believe that the Spirit ordinarily accompanies their use to make them effective? Do we expect the work of God to go forward by the faithful administration and reception of the means of grace or are we treading water while we await revival? 
(3) What is the nature of conversion? Are baptized children to be pressed regarding the need of a distinct and memorable conversion experience, or are they to be expected to believe and they are taught the faith in the ministry of the Church? Are professing Christians, faithful in attendance upon the means of grace and communicants in good standing, to be led toward a form or self-examination that requires the person to ask, “Have I been truly converted? Has the transaction occurred? Have I closed with Christ?” Or, are they to be treated in accord with their profession and standing, charged to walk worthy of the faith, and encouraged as they make the long and difficult journey to world to come? 
(4) Why are some Protestants tempted, as was Nevin, to “go over” to Roman Catholicism? Is one reason the lack among “low-church” Reformed churches of historical connectedness with the church of the ages, especially with the post-apostolic Fathers? Could another be the frothy superficiality, the lack of substantial edification, the loss of awe, and the random nature of worship that has been infected and affected by revivalism? Does the word “liturgy” conjure up thoughts of Roman Catholicism (and/or liberalism)? Could yet another be the lack of unity that seems to be one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation? (Or are we to be satisfied with some sort of undefined ethereal spiritual unity requiring no visible form?) Is it possible that one of the reasons the Federal Vision has gotten such traction as it has is because there are these nagging doubts about what Protestantism has wrought?  
(5) What is the nature of church office, especially the minister of the Word? Are ministers men through whom Christ speaks? Or, are the enablers and equippers whose service is to get church members to do the “real ministry”? Are ministers to be respected or treated with suspicion and any power they may have kept in close check? Does the minister really have the keys to the kingdom in his hands as he preaches the Word and administers the sacraments?

What are our intuitional answers? Would they have been the same in the 19th century, or are they the same in the 21st as they would have been in the 16th century or even the 17th – that is, in the period of the writing of all the Reformed statements of faith? No doubt there are differences that can be detected between Heidelberg and Westminster, but this book contends that, despite the differences their conceptions of the church, of the sacraments, of the ministry, of conversion, and of piety share a broad consensus that is different from what developed after the age of Edwards as revivalism re-shaped Protestantism.

Nevin’s importance to us today is not so much in his views of the “real presence” or his incarnational theology, but his seeing clearly what revivalism had done and calling the church back to what he thought was an age of more healthy piety. William F. Buckley defined a conservative as someone who stands athwart history and shouts, “Stop!” That is what Nevin tried to do about with regard to what he considered as the untoward changes in the ecclesiology, worship, and experiential soteriology brought about by the triumph of revivalism. The evidence is all around us today that, whatever we may think of the value of Nevin’s insights or the rightness of his views, he failed. So pervasive is the influence of revivalism on the theology and practice of Protestantism that those with whom Nevin may resonate have before them a task nearly as large as the Reformation itself.

D. G. Hart has given us the second in the series of biographies of American Reformed men, and an excellent volume it is. Here is a sympathetic, but nonetheless critical, telling of Nevin’s life and theology. It is a fitting complement to his near magisterial work, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism. Those who would understand where we are, how we got here, what may be wrong and to where we might return will do well to purchase and read these two volumes.


Isbell said...

Here's another review of Hart's Nevin bio for comparison:

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Happy to have my friend Nick Wilbourn's review made available here.

Isbell said...

I'm happier to have him as pastor!

D.J. Cimino said...

Nice, Brad. Thanks!

D.J. Cimino said...

Nice, Brad. Thanks!

Ken Stewart said...

Bill: The overlapping perspectives of Bebbington and Noll on the relationship of eighteenth century evangelicalism to the preceding Puritan and Reformation eras were severely challenged in a 2008 book which I co-edited with Michael G. Haykin of SBTS, Louisville. Published in the UK by IVP as _The Emergence of Evangelicalism:Exploring Historical Continuities_ and in the USA by B&H as _The Advent of Evangelicalism_ the contributors collectively argued that the marks of evangelicalism which Noll and Bebbington claim only coalesce in the eighteenth century are all present in the Puritan and Reformation ages. No contributor was more severe in his criticism of Noll and Bebbington on this score than the British evangelical Puritan scholar, John Coffey of Leicester University; Coffey in effect stated that N&B weren't familiar enough with the Puritan age to generalize about it.

Those in the North American conservative Reformed community who love to pit evangelical and Reformed at odds enjoy the treatment of Noll and Bebbington, because they seem to furnish ready-made ammunition for arguing that the Reformation and Puritan movements are one thing, and the eighteenth century evangelical movements are another. But my point is: their discontinuity argument has been severely challenged and Bebbington himself has needed to partially modify his views, which he does in an important final chapter of this book. This being said, I cannot concur with you that the books you have reviewed go that far in explaining the differences of emphasis and judgment I have with DG Hart - who by the way, didn't like this book when he reviewed it in Modern Reformation.
As for the Nevin biography, I leave the judgment to the many reviewers.

D G said...

Ken, whatever the merits of Noll or Bebbington, the Old School Presbyterians stand as a case against your view that it is the Dutch who are responsible for suggesting a tension between Reformed and evangelical. The issues in the Old School-New School debate were subscription and church polity, matters that go pretty much to the heart of what it meant to be Reformed to Old Schooler and to the Dutch. (It also seemed to matter to the Free Church.)

Since evangelicals have never been subscribers of a Reformed confession -- they prefer fundamentals or essentials -- and since they have not belonged to Reformed churches -- preferring instead voluntary parachurch associations, and since Calvin and other Reformers subscribed confessions and believed there was no salvation ordinarily outside the church, I'm having trouble understanding your view about continuity between Reformed Protestants and evangelicals.

Ken Stewart said...

the problem with this analysis is that you are using the terms 'Reformed' and 'evangelical' as though mutually exclusive. Historical usage of these terms does not bear this typology out.
All I am contending for in this particular discussion with you is that most of our Presbyterian and Reformed progenitors saw themselves as both Reformed and evangelical; they didn't get a headache in doing so. It is not at all obvious that it is right to equate "Old School" with anti-evangelical. Nineteenth century Princeton upheld both emphases.

It is true that a vast proportion of evangelicals today are weak in the areas you specify; what does not necessarily follow is that such weaknesses necessarily fasten themselves on those who are happy to designate themselves both evangelical and Reformed. Such Calvinists maintain, quite properly, that the evangelical heritage and the Reformed heritage are extensively the same and have diverged mostly since the mid-nineteenth century.

D G said...


I am more confused the more you explain.

First, you want to say that the historic use of the words evangelical and Reformed is mutual and co-extensive and did not begin to rupture until 1850. But the original Protestants to use the word evangelical were Lutherans. Does that make Lutherans Reformed?

Second, you speak of Calvinists who hold both Reformed and evangelical convictions together. I thought you were trying to get rid of the word Calvinist -- you know, it's bigger than Calvin.

Third, you and I are not living in 1825. We are living at a time, almost 160 years after evangelical and Reformed have diverged, according to your view. So why do "we" continue to view them as co-extensive? Isn't this a bit of contemporary myth-making on your part?

Ken Stewart said...

It may in fact be true that 'evangelical' is a word earliest associated with Luther. But the term was associated with Tyndale in the 1520's. So, no need to deny the Lutheran connection; but no need either to over-associate it.

1825 as a date when evangelical and Reformed diverged seems awfully early to me. Plenty of confessional Presbyterians in Britain and America were involved in launching the Evangelical Alliance in 1846. Hodge was still using the terms as amicable and compatible in the 1870's.
What is more, abuse does not rule out right use. Even though we can agree that the term evangelical has come to be severed from its historical and confessional association over the last century or more (and been considerably debased in the process) this mere fact does not require those who have been happy to see their theological position described as evangelical and Reformed to dump the first term. We are just as entitled to go on using the term and to insist that its meaning is properly associated with robust, doctrinal Protestantism.
Here is a reverse challenge, DG. Indicate the date at which mainstream Presbyterians (I did not say mainline) began to disparage evangelicalism? Was it at the OPC's declining to join the National Association of Evangelicals? But these obviously orthodox people did not speak for other conservative Presbyterians, who were happy to support NAE. It has seemed to me that your approach to these questions projects the owlish approach of the OPC to these questions onto the conservative Reformed world as a whole.

D G said...

Ken, you said Reformed and evangelicals diverged mid-19th century. That would be 1850. I used the date 1825 to indicate that you and I live well on the other side of the time you yourself say that evangelical and Reformed diverged.

What I can't understand is why you continue to use the term evangelical when you also concede that it has diverged from Reformed and has done so for 160 years. To continue to use it is a form of living in denial.

But you may want to be arguing for the halcyon days of early nineteenth century "revile" and that is fine to do so. But how strongly committed were the Haldanes and D'Aubignes committed to Reformed church polity and subscribing confessions? Or were they more content to live in a parachurch voluntary world of Bible societies and missionary agencies?

There is no reason to knock the parachurch, especially if the state churches are moribund. But you don't seem to grant that those Reformed Protestants who take seriously the church -- as in no possibility of salvation outside of it ordinarily (WCF 25.2) -- may have qualms about evangelicals who are indiscriminate about such matters as creeds, polity, ordination, and the sacraments.

Those Reformed Protestants that have been most critical of evangelicalism -- both 19th century and present -- were ones who tried to honor their ordination vows.

You've read the Confession of Faith. Don't vows matter?

BTW, I wish you'd let some other people have access to the dictionary. You seem to have a corner on the definitions of the words Reformed and evangelical. I bring up the association between Lutheran and evangelical and you say it "may" be true. Is your middle name Webster?