Where Did He Learn that Evangelicalism Is the Same as Presbyterianism?

When I read Pete Enns on evangelicalism, I sense that he thinks of it as if it were the PCA (or the OPC), that these are really “evangelical” denominations. That is, he sees in evangelicalism a narrowness and uniformity that would make sense if, as Roger Olson sees the world, Reformed Protestants really did dominate evangelical institutions or as if Edwards and Whitefield were still the dominant flavor and Finney, New School Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists, dispensationalists, charismatics, and even Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers never happened. Enns also seems to think that evangelicalism actually has mechanisms admission and discipline (though he’s not in favor of the latter) that denominations have. He reflects an attitude that was dominant at Westminster Seminary in the 1980s and 1990s when administrators and faculty were in active pursuit of an evangelical niche in the seminary market. (How exactly Westminster, the seminary that Machen the separatist founded, was going to compete either with Gordon-Conwell or Fuller was a mystery.) That attitude took a significant turn during the Enns controversy. But Enns himself does not seem to have abandoned it. He recently wrote:

A common characteristic of Evangelical ecclesiology is the view, either explicit or implicit, that Evangelicalism is in some meaningful sense the clearest and most faithful expression of the Christian faith—which implies it is the version God most approves of. Other traditions are often looked down upon as either compromising “the clear teaching of Scripture” or lacking in some other crucial way.

The challenge to maintain some sort of Evangelical identity amid ecumenical discussions is a real one, but not necessarily impossible to pull off. How that might work itself out is not for me to say, but, in our ever-shrinking world, Evangelicalism cannot afford to be seen as anything other than in serious dialogue with other Christians communions. The global Christian faith must work toward a deep unity in basics amid diversity of various local and ecclesiastical traditions.

Evangelicalism is not a church and has no ecclesiology. Hello. And that is both its genius and its curse. It can keep an institution like Wheaton College going even while its boundaries ever shift to incorporate those who have Jesus in their hearts. It’s experience, not Scripture; it’s experience period. What’s the church?

This means that evangelicalism is precisely the ecumenical conversation for which Enns longs. He has found his home. The dialogue and openness are happening all around him. And yet, he keeps thinking that evangelicals are out to get him in the same way that conservative Presbyterians took issue with his views on Scripture.

His desire for “Openness to Different Ecclesiastical Traditions” should include a willingness on his part to let Presbyterian Church Americans or Orthodox Presbyterians to be exactly what they are — communions of Reformed Protestants. If he’d regard evangelicalism as loose and conservative Presbyterians as narrow, he could revel in the melting pot that evangelicalism is. And if he did that, he might understand that the OPC and the PCA are not really evangelical (since they cannot incorporate evangelicalism’s girth). And that might also allow Enns to recognize that he was always an evangelical who was not a good fit at an institution founded (even if confused about) to be Reformed.

This entry was posted in Adventures in Church History, Evangelicalism, J. Gresham Machen, New World Presbyterianism, Westminster and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Richard
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Enns is apparently taking off on Warfield’s statement that Reformed theology is the best expression of the Christian faith.

  2. mark mcculley
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Dickerson predicts a recession for “evangelicals”. We can hope


    Trevin Wax: What role does the fragmentation of evangelicalism into distinct tribes and camps play in the “recession” you believe is on the horizon? What can Christians do to combat this tendency toward fragmentation?

    John Dickerson: In the book I get to spend two chapters – Dividing and Uniting – on these questions. This is one of my favorite topics, because Jesus spoke so often of the unity of His true believers The power of diverse churches working together was, in my estimate, the greatest strength of American evangelicalism during the 20th Century… I see evangelicals falling into the same three positions they took during the early 20th Century, in the Fundamentalists vs. Liberalism debates. I see more evangelicals separating and defining themselves by who they oppose.

  3. Andrew
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Enns and his history at WTS fascinates me, I’m actually glad he still blogs. There’s a couple characters I have seen since being in the OPC since 2001 who, having encountered reformed theology in their development, and have left, in varying degrees, continue online to reflect on their experience of it. It seems some are able to leave without shooting too much out the tailpipe as they leave. Anyway, I have a lot to learn, much to read about. Your scouring is a service to us little peeps, blogarissimo DG. Enjoy your day.

  4. Bob S
    Posted December 20, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Is somebody buying a cut and paste/sermon notes service on the web? I mean really. The plagiarismoverlap is obvious. Where’s a steelier version of Janet when we need her?

    This means that evangelicalism is precisely the ecumenical conversation for which Bryan Cross Enns longs. He has found his home. The dialogue and openness are happening all around him. And yet, he keeps thinking that the OldLifers evangelicals are out to convert get him in the same way that the Mormon missionaries conservative Presbyterians took issue with his views on the Quorum of the Twelve (Utah) ApostlesScripture.

  5. Posted December 20, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Because there are no confessional or ecclesiological boundaries to contemporary “evangelicalism”; and because (as Hart points out) it is ultimately all about experience (“asking Jesus into your heart” and having a “personal relationship with Jesus”) rather than about Scripture and sound doctrine; therefore, even a revisionist scholar like Enns, with his clear sympathies toward higher-critical approaches to the Bible, can claim to “love Jesus” and be an “evangelical” in spite of his radical, destructive views. (While Enns would probably affirm a basic biblical orthodoxy as confessed in the ecumenical creeds, his view that Gen. 1-11 represents Divinely-inspired mythology, his rejection of an historical Adam, and his view that much of the OT historical narrative prior to the days of the Israelite monarchy is of dubious historical value at best, is clearly outside of confessional and exegetical orthodoxy.) “Evangelical” was a perfectly good word when it was basically a synonym for “Protestant,” indicating one who believed the “evangel” (“good news”) of sola fide and belonged in ecclesiastical membership to a confessional Protestant church. But the fact that Dr. Enns is identified as (and, last I checked, identifies himself as) an “evangelical” just goes to show that the word “evangelical” has basically become almost meaningless. (I.E., yes, I now agree with the case Hart makes in his book “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”)

  6. Posted December 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Geoff, woot!

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