Evangelicalism Revisited (and Rambled Upon)

A few of the discussions I’ve had recently have led me to realize that when I use the term “evangelical,” I’ve got no clear idea of what I mean. So I took some time to try and rectify that.

My first breakthrough came while reading Defending the Faith by the great Van Til. If you have not read this, there is nothing more important you have to do until you’ve set aside the 15 minutes you need to complete this seminal tract.

Speaking of shameless plugs, he begins the series of essays by discussing Christianity in general and in specific, the difference between Calvinism, Romanism, and “evangelicalism.” In this section, he borrows heavily from Benjamin Warfield’s series of essays entitled The Plan of Salvation (not to be confused with the Mormon doctrine).

The point of Defending the Faith is to promote a system of approach to apologetics and to condemn another. In the preliminary remarks I outlined above, he sets forth which doctrines are the most viable and which are not. At first, he may seem excessively harsh towards the “evangelical,” again quoting many Calvinistic chest-beaters from Warfield. But hidden in among all this is the caveat that he is not comparing men (many “evangelicals,” he notes, are far more faithful than those who profess to be Reformed Calvinists). His directive is to contrast the ideologies and theologies and show how one simply cannot become a “Christian” first and a “Calvinist” or “Reformed Christian” later. You can’t build a house on sand and say you’ll go back and fill in with concrete once the frame is up. All or nothing.

[T]he Reformed apologist cannot co-operate with the "evangelical" in providing the truth of evangelicalism. By evangelicalism we mean what Warfield meant when he spoke of it as identical with the general non-Reformed Protestantism.

Now, I’m not here to debate his point about apologetics (although I agree with most of his points). I’m far more interested in his definitions and treatments of “evangelicalism.”

The question is not as to who are Christians and who are going to heaven. We are not judging men’s hearts. Many evangelicals are no doubt better Calvinists in practice than other men who are officially known as Calvinists.

The point is that we are now speaking of theological systems. When Warfield makes the high claim that Calvinism is "nothing more or less than the hope of the world," he is speaking of the Reformed system of theology and of the Reformed point of view in general. Other types of theology are super-naturalistic in patches. To some extent they yield to the idea of autosoterism, to the idea that man to some degree is saved by his own effort. Therefore, argues Warfield, "Calvinism is just Christianity."

 

Now, when I use the word, I’m usually thinking of young Pentecostals, because I live in a college town and that’s 90% of the Christians I have contact with. So that’s what I’ve got in mind. But Van Til’s definition can also apply to any non-Romanist Protestant. I think he is slightly extreme in this treatment: they vary enough among themselves that the only unifying factor is that they aren’t Reformed (which is what he was going for, I suppose).

 

There are many specific things I could talk about. But I’d like to bring some questions about worship to the forefront.

What is the point of worship? If it’s merely to glorify God, then what advantage have we over the rocks and trees and beasts? We are mere animals. But (as Reformed Calvinists hopefully understand) we are image bearers of God, in special Covenant Communion with him. This shapes our worship from the mundane into the sacred. I can sing a psalm (and should) anytime I like. But I can only enter into covenant renewal with the Triune God when I approach the throne as part of his Redeemed Church. Semantics aside, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you sing if you don’t understand what you’re doing in worship. It’s like an army going into battle and attempting to play weave cloth or play baseball with their weapons instead of fighting. Satan does not tremble at that, and so he walks to and fro on the earth, unhindered, seeking whom he may devour.

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine (Assemblies of God) about worship and what we were doing. We both agreed it was a wonderful thing, but we disagreed on this: he thought it should be easy because we are designed to worship. I agreed with his reason but not his conclusion. Worship is hard. Work is hard. War is hard. Merely because we are designed for it does not make it easy. On top of that, sin has ravaged our souls so that we no longer know what we do in worship, and thus the Accuser’s plans are made full.

I’m not suggesting that we always try new and different things because we become bored with the old. I’m pointing towards the central theme of the Bible and the world, which is maturation. When you get good at riding a tricycle, you move up to training wheels. Sooner or later, those come off, and eventually you’re riding the Tour de France. But you don’t start out beside Lance Armstrong. The problem that I’ve noticed is that evangelicalism is stuck back on the tricycle, saying it’s better because it’s easy.

 

I’m rambling. What’s my point? I’ll go back to Van Til’s caveat: our actions in worship do not necessarily preclude us from the Kingdom (unless we purposefully avoid the covenant signs and seals). There are many faithful men who were just plain wrong. But when it comes to conquering the world, we have to say “no, there really is a difference.” And the difference matters. Because the devil is not the least afraid of a swooning orgy of emotion. He is afraid of an army of chanting psalmists who have the Seal of God still shining on their brows and the Supper of the Lamb fresh in their bellies.

That’s what will scare away the Accuser.

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7 comments

  1. fogonpleasanthill

    1. We are Reformed Evangelicals.
    2. The term “Evangelical” originally referred to Lutherans.
    3. Your situation sounds pretty weird. To my knowledge, the vast majority of American evangelicals are either Baptist or non-denominational.
    4. Calvinism is not the faith. You’re judging all of Christendom by its position on an argument that belongs to a specific portion of Christendom, both in time and place.
    5. Christianity is not sand. Calvinism, in and of itself, can be and often is.

    In conclusion, rework your definition (it’s a tough one) and lighten up on non-Presbyterians. I say that with a thick brogue and the WCF in arm’s reach.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Thanks! And I really am trying to lighten up. I’m better than I was a while ago, I think. I originally thought this post was going to be a sort of peace pipe, but of course I meandered.

      The surest way to do research is post something wrong, then everyone else does your work for you.

      I don’t completely agree with Van Til here. I had not expected that kind of stance, given what I knew would develop into the argument (which is a good one).

      Part of the Presbyterian curse (or perhaps just mine) is the tendency to Bible-beat, etc. I know I certainly do that. Thanks for your constant patient encouragement 🙂

      Warfield’s essays are next on my list. While I agree in theory…the radical position he seems to take is perhaps not the best. But I especially liked the definition “non-Reformed Protestants,” and I had originally intended to develop that. Later on in the series, Van Til seems to slide into the stance of “evangelical” meaning “non-Calvinist,” including Romanists in that definition.

      My situation, while not unique, places me with a lot of non-Reformed or sadly Biblically under-literate Christians, and I’m trying to find the best way to address their problems, accept criticism of my own, and fight the enemy.

      Also I digressed into worship. I do think it’s the most important thing but it probably did not belong here in such detail.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Also, to your first point: yes. This is true (CREC) and only compounds my problem of finding a good definition. Which itself raises the question of why I want to…probably so I don’t have to say “non-Reformed Protestant and/or Pentecostal” every time.

      • David Henry

        I get what you mean. That’s a hard situation to be in. I just have to be a little ornery sometimes. I really liked that definition at the pastors conference that one year about Magisterial vs. Radical Reformers, though that’s not a cure-all either.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Perhaps the approach is flawed in that I’m attempting to define a term that I can apply broadly to non-Reformed Americanism. Evangelical works in some cases, and in others not at all. Perhaps “non-Reformed Americanism” is sufficient; but then again, it would seem to be better to address specific problems than to attack an entire demographic. We are, after all, playing for the same team, only some of us seem to have forgotten the rules and telos.

      • David Henry

        Yeah, I was thinking along those lines, but couldn’t find words to put the idea in. There’s not much of a coherent worldview there to be targeted, and if there was it probably shouldn’t be attacked. Targeting specific problems is much better.

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