Over at Evangel, one of First Things ‘ blogs, readers and contributors have been busy attempting to define that 600-pound object in the room that goes by the name evangelical but defies descriptions as either an elephant or gorilla. Paul McCain, the author of the post, is responding to an interview at Evangel with Os Guinness (yes, that Guinness â€“ brilliant!). In the interview, Guinness makes the following distinction between evangelicalism and orthodoxy:
Interviewer: Evangelicalism is more of the foundation and Orthodoxy is built on top of that.
Guinness: Exactly, and that is why whenever there is corruption, deadness, formality, heresy, whatever in the church, there will always be the impulse to go back to Jesus which is the Evangelical impulse. Thatâ€™s why I would insist that, understood historically, theologically, spiritually; it is deeper than the other impulses. So Evangelicals are embarrassed by the culture of Evangelicalism or the politics of Evangelicalism, but thatâ€™s just a call to reformation.
This indeed a curious riff on the form-content distinction that generally lets evangelicals do whatever in worship and evangelism for the sake of the content of saving souls or being led by the Spirit (as Luther would say, feathers and all). Guinness implies that evangelicalism is formless; it is almost a gnostic or docetic understanding of Christianity in which the relationship or loyalty or feeling about Jesus transcends any kind of embodiment, whether in thought, word, or practice. It also has the advantage of bestowing upon the lexicographer â€“ in this case, Guinness â€“ the privileged position of determining whatever belongs or doesnâ€™t to evangelicalism.
But then comes an interesting exchange between McCain at his post with someone who chimes in that German pietism is the continental equivalent of the revivalism that Whitefield and Wesley spawned. Good Lutheran confessionalist that he is, McCain wants to clarify the relationship between German evangelicalism and historic Lutheranism:
â€œThe Pietist streak runs deep within Lutheranismâ€ needs some very serious qualification. In fact, Lutheran Pietism is responsible for nearly single-handedly destroying authentic confessing Lutheranism, since it eschewed dogmatics, doctrine, the means of grace, the office of the ministry, and so forth. It would be a very serious misinterpretation of Martin Luther to think that he was a Pietist.
To which the commenter responded:
my real point was to say that there is still an emphasis on experiential piety within Lutheranism. The Lutheran charismatics that I know draw on this stream and will even talk about the synergism of a Melanchthon. Most Lutherans will simply talk about the sacraments as encounters with God because of real presence.
All of this sort of reinforces the point that itâ€™s easier to talk about Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal, than it is to talk about Evangelical, which is why I said itâ€™s a spirituality.
(Lutheran charismatics â€“ thatâ€™s a scary proposition!)
And McCain gives it back:
there is no â€œLutheranism,â€ as it is properly understood and defined, apart from the confessions of the Lutheran Church, as contained in the Book of Concord. â€œLutheran charismaticsâ€ is an oxymoron. Itâ€™s just a bunch of bored Lutherans dabbling with 20th century American Pentecostalism. The Lutheran Church firmly rejected Melanchthonâ€™s errors on several key points.
Oh, for ten ounces of that confessional moxie among conservative Presbyterians.
And then along for the ride comes Francis Beckwith who proposes yet another reason for his belonging to the Evangelical Theological Society even after he went back into the Roman Catholic Church.
If the term â€œEvangelicalâ€ is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, low-church anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonomists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, and Dooweyerdians, there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.
Why doesnâ€™t occur to Beckwith that if evangelicalism is that broad, and if a besetting sin of Protestant liberalism was breadth (as in Lefferts Loetscherâ€™s Broadening Church), then why is evangelical width a good thing? Why isnâ€™t it actually a sign of incoherence and vacuity? Granted, born-again Protestantism could be Guinnessâ€™ warm feeling in my heart. But how do I tell the difference between the evangelical feeling and the one I receive after drinking several pints of Guinness?