Now He's Channeling DG

And I don’t mean Desiring God Ministries.

Carl Trueman offers some preliminary thoughts on the Christianity Today feature story on Al Mohler. Trueman recognizes a potential trap in offering a response. If Mohler represents evangelicalism, then the born-again identity is really much smaller than the evangelical guardians at Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals would have it. But if the Southern Baptist Seminary president is only one small piece of the evangelical puzzle, then the movement has lost all chance of coherence. So Trueman’s solution is to punt, or at least conduct the thought experiment of a world in which evangelicalism does not exist.

I would like to suggest an alternative take, one intended neither in a mean nor chauvinist spirit: maybe evangelicalism, as some kind of abstract ideal in which all us `evangelicals’ participate, does not really exist. Maybe it is now (even if it has not always been) simply a construct which lacks any real doctrinal identity (and claims to be `gospel people’ simply will not do here, given that the Catholics and liberal friends I have also claim the same title). Maybe it is to be defined institutionally, not theologically. And maybe, therefore, it is not worth fighting or fretting over.

As in the debates between realists and nominalists in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that evangelicalism only exists in particulars, in highly qualified forms such `Confessing Evangelical’, `Open Evangelical’ etc. The essence of evangelicalism is elusive, and, I believe, illusory. After all, it is surely an odd term that implies a Reformed Calvinist has more in common with an open theist than a traditional Dominican. That, by the way, is a merely descriptive remark.

If this is so, and we can come to acknowledge such and act upon it, many of the current battles might well be defused. We will not be fighting, after all, over ownership of something that does not really exist. We could all be free to be ourselves (Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anabaptist and so on).

This sounds oddly familiar. In fact, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism the pre-DG DG wrote something very similar:

Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, is it the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis that has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics and pollsters is a face void of any discernible features. The non-existence of an evangelical identity may prove to be, to borrow a phrase from Mark A. Noll, the real scandal of modern evangelicalism. For despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction. This book is a work of deconstruction.

. . . . the central claim of Deconstructing Evangelicalism is precisely to question the statistics and scholarship on evangelicalism. The reason is not simply to be perverse or provocative. Good reasons exist for raising questions about whether something like evangelicalism actually exists. In the case of religious observance, evangelical faith and practice have become increasingly porous, so much so that some born-again Christians have left the fold for more historic expressions of the Christian faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. At the same time, in the sphere of religious scholarship, evangelicalism has become such a popular category of explanation that it has ceased to be useful. Better reasons, however, may also be offered for looking behind the evangelical facade to see what is really there. As the following chapters attempt to show, evangelicalism has been a religious construction of particular salience during the late twentieth century. The general contractors in building this edifice were the leaders of the 1940s neo-evangelical movement who sought to breathe new life into American Christianity by toning down the cussedness of fundamentalism while also tapping conservative Protestantism’s devotion and faith. Yet, without the subcontractors in this construction effort, the neo-evangelical movement would have frayed and so failed much quicker than it did. The carpenters, plumbers, and painters in the manufacturing of evangelicalism have been the historians, sociologists and pollsters of American religion who applied the religious categories developed by neo-evangelicals to answer the questions their academic peers were asking about Protestantism in the United States. The emergence of evangelicalism as a significant factor in American electoral politics did not hurt these efforts and, in fact, may have functioned as the funding necessary for completing the evangelical edifice. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and the formation of the so-called Religious Right, religious leaders and religion scholars had a much easier time than before convincing skeptical academics, policy wonks, publishers and pundits that evangelicalism was a given of American life, a thriving movement, and therefore important.

Makes you wonder if Trueman is an undercover Old Life agent at the Alliance of Confessing EVANGELICALS?

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11 thoughts on “Now He's Channeling DG

  1. This is a great blog post by you addressing a really good point that apparently was made by you. And I buy that hook, line and sinker. You really are the one who is way ahead of the game. Thank you for pointing out your mental capability to your readers. I’d love to hear more great points you’ve made before others have made them.

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  2. Bill,

    What you say is true and that is why we should not stop using words just because they are misused and become “porous”. For what does Presbyterian mean? PCUSA, EPC, PCA, OPC…? It is the same when one refers to them self as an evangelical. There are good reasons for retaining the use of the word in its historical context. Is it not the evangel we proclaim?

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  3. Trey, I was wondering when you’d weigh in. You must have taken the Megabus to Holland. I thought the company provided Internet.

    If you are truly interested in blogosphere clairvoyance, I’d recommend the Nicotine Theological Journal, especially the articles by Mr. Kenunu.

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  4. The problem with this is both sides treat “evangelicalism” as if it must be an external thing locatable somewhere. The pro-“evangelical” side(s) says it’s one particular group, the anti-“evangelical” side can’t find it or put a finger on it, so therefore it doesn’t exist. But that’s not how functionally-defined words work. Of course “evangelical” is a slippery term, as is religion, republicanism, or reformed.

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  5. Russ, practically every other group within the Christian tradition has a membership — Roman CAtholics, Reformed, Anabaptists, Franciscans. So the kvetch about evangelicalism is that membership does not matter, which also means that I can be described as an evangelical. The reason for the term’s imprecision is precisely because the way that leaders of “evangelical” instititutions use the word. They want it to be squishy so they can claim almost 38 million Americans, and then raise advertizing rates, raise charitable contributions, or threaten politicians. But if membership matters to the people who follow Christ, why doesn’t it matter to the Christ followers called evangelical?

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  6. God’s survival does not depend on the survival of the category of “evangelical”. Nor is the power of the gospel dependent on being a member of the group that “kinda likes Billy Graham”. And oh also, Christianity itself (both in doctrine and practices) is not necessary for the survival of the Republican Party.

    Death is the ultimate horizon for that which is “secular”.

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  7. Robert Godfrey–“Fundamentalism is word used to describe those folk who, in the early part of the twentieth century, said they believed in the fundamentals of the Christian faith. It had to do with saying that Christians really ought to believe in the physical resurrection of Christ. Christians really ought to be believe in miracles. Christians really ought to believe in the inspiration of Scripture. Christians
    ought to believe in the substitutionary atonement. The fundamentalists said, ‘No, we don’t want to be with it. We want to hold to the foundational truths of the Christian faith.” Precious Blood, p88

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