First I am vinegary, now I’m crabby. This is the latest indignity from Scot McKnight who doesn’t care for my definition of evangelicalism. (Okay, he says I’m “a bit” of a crab. But as with pregnancy, how can you be a little bit of a crab?) My demeanor came up not with my wife but in discussion of McKnight’s post about David Schwartz’s new book on the evangelical left, which McKnight calls the best book he’s read this year.
To get that endorsement, McKnight rejects the older definition of evangelicalism that has haunted Reformed types, such as this common lament among evangelicals who prefer the First to the Second Pretty Good Awakening:
More specifically speaking, [an evangelical is] someone who believes the Gospel is centered on the doctrine of justification by faith and the principles of sola fide (by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), he added. “The Gospel is a message about redemption, it’s a call to repentance from sin … and a summons to yield to the Lordship of Christ.”
Abuse of the term “evangelical” is not new. Nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon had decried the fact that the modernists of his day wanted to be called evangelicals even though they abandoned all the evangelical principles, according to Johnson. Such a label would give them “instant credibility” and easy access to people who believed the Bible, he said.
McKnight rejects this definition because it “wants evangelicalism to be old-fashioned fundamentalism, the kind that pre-Carl Henry and pre-neo-evangelicalism’s coalition and pre-John Stott” [sic]. For that reason, he prefers a definition like David Bebbington’s four-fold grid: “crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism.”
It strikes this crabby Calvinist as odd that a person who identifies himself as an Anabaptist and who has identified with if not being a leader of the emergent church — that would be McKnight — would so readily approve Bebbington and Noll who read evangelicalism much more through the lens of the Puritans and the eighteenth-century awakenings than through Finney and radical reform the way Dayton and McKnight do. Where does crucientism come from after all if not from those hegemonic Calvinists and Puritans who were breathing the fumes of Dort’s Limited Atonement?
But the reason for bringing this up is not to define evangelicalism but to engage McKnight’s query about who gets to define evangelicalism. Apparently, McKnight thinks that he can decide who gets to offer a definition. Those who demur are crabby.
What McKnight misses by dismissing my critique of evangelicalism as stemming from a Reformed bias is that I actually took Don Dayton’s critique of George Marsden to heart. Almost twenty years ago, Dayton made a habit of pointing out how the evangelical historians associated with the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College had misrepresented evangelical history. He was particularly annoyed by George Marsden’s history of Fuller Seminary, which in Dayton’s estimate slighted the Holiness/Wesleyan side of Fuller for the sake of highlighting its Old Princeton/Westminster heritage. I see merit in Dayton’s point, at least regarding evangelicalism as something much bigger and broader (and more abstract and virtually meaningless) than the Puritans-to-Edwards-to-Hodge-to-Machen-to-Ockenga-to-Graham narrative. It is a partial reading of the New Evangelicalism to see it as a reiteration of New School Presbyterianism. It is also partial to see Finney and Wesleyanism all over the Fuller faculty and curriculum. But by acknowledging that everyone can look in the mirror of evangelicalism and see themselves and their predilections in it, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, I was actually trying to liberate born-again Protestants, like McKnight, Dayton, and McLaren from their Calvinist captivity. You don’t like Reformed hegemony? Fine, you can have evangelicalism. We’ll keep our churches, thank you very much.
This is the thanks we get?
At the same time, I can understand why McKnight wants to hold on to evangelicalism as a movement. Chances are that he and his fellow “evangelical” bloggers would not have outlets at Patheos if each writer had to be identified by the particular communion to which he or she belongs. Would Patheos sponsor an Anabaptist, Wesleyan, or a Swedish-American pietist channel? I doubt it since the number of these “movements” are not as large as the broad and soupy category of evangelical.
So I see McKnight’s reasons for preserving his status in the evangelical movement. But I didn’t think evangelical radicals, emergents, or lefties were that invested in preserving the status quo. Radical reformation indeed (or in word only)!