The Whatever Confession of Faith

I don’t suspect David French will be blowing the Machen Horn anytime soon, at least if his reflections on evangelicalism from three years ago (recently discovered) are any indication. Then French agreed with Tim Keller that evangelicalism may have reached its expiration date:

I grew up in a fundamentalist, sectarian church — the a capella churches of Christ — and when I left that church I eagerly called myself Evangelical. For most of us who came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a way of distinguishing yourself from the mainline and the extremes. It broadcast that you took your faith seriously, but you didn’t obsess over denominational differences. Within evangelical circles the term was a clear marker of friendship and unity. As Keller notes, it used to clearly distinguish you from the fundamentalists. Now, sadly, it’s more likely to identify you as a fundamentalist. 

Now, evangelical has become too political even though French first identified himself as an evangelical at peak Jerry-Falwell-Pat-Robertson-James-Dobson evangelicals. (Timelines.)

Or maybe it just increasingly identifies you as a Republican. When you hear the word, who do you think it describes? A large number of conservative voters describe themselves as Evangelical to pollsters when they’re no such thing — at least according to the classic definitions. For them, “evangelical” is simply the term that best fits their demographic amongst the limited menu of options in an exit poll. But these polling options have consequences, leading to self-identification and public identification that’s clearly at odds with historic definitions. 

Don’t definitions lead to denominational differences?

French suggests that “Christian” is better than “evangelical”:

After all, denominational and sectarian lines are blurring so much that basically every day except Reformation Day there’s a Catholic/Protestant lovefest online and in the real world. Old rivalries have largely disappeared. Old theological arguments have become increasingly academic. The questions are increasingly basic. “Do you believe the Apostle’s Creed?” “Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?” Cool. We’re brothers. Let’s roll. 

I remember my first few weeks at Harvard Law School. For the first time in my life I was part of a fellowship group that featured virtually every major Protestant denomination and even (sometimes) a Catholic or two. I came from a world that debated whether Baptists could get into heaven. I entered a world where Baptists and Pentecostals and Anglicans worshipped side-by-side, united by their mere Christianity. A quarter-century later, American culture is more like Harvard than I ever thought it would be. When the word “evangelical” sheds more heat than light, then perhaps “Christian” is the only label we need. 

French may not realize, but he reinvented the Old School/New School Reunion wheel. In 1869 the PCUSA declared that the old debates that had produced different strands of Protestantism were no longer relevant in the light of the United State’s recent changes:

The changes which have occurred in our own country and throughout the world, during the last thirty years – the period of our separation – arrest and compel attention.  Within this time the original number of our States has been very nearly doubled. . . . And all this vast domain is to be supplied with the means of education and the institutions of religion, as the only source and protection of our national life.  The population crowding into this immense area is heterogeneous.  Six millions of emigrants, representing various religious and nationalities, have arrived on our shores within the last thirty years; and four millions of slaves, recently enfranchised, demand Christian education.  It is no secret that anti-Christian forces – Romanism, Ecclesiasticism, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself – assuming new vitality, are struggling for the ascendency.  Christian forces should be combined and deployed, according to the new movements of their adversaries. It is no time for small and weak detachments, which may easily be defeated in detail. . . .

Many of the ecclesiastical organizations of Protestant Europe had their origins in remote controversies connected with the Reformation.  That was a time for the assertion of truth, rather than for the expression of love. . . Nothing is so long-lived and inveterate as ancestral memories and prejudices.  Before the world we are now engaged, as a nation, in solving the problem of whether it is possible for all the incongruous and antagonistic nationalities thrown upon our shores, exerting their mutual attraction and repulsion, to become fixed in one new American sentiment.  If the several branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country, representing to a great degree ancestral differences, should become cordially united, it must have not only a direct effect upon the question of our national unity, but, reacting by the force of a successful example on the Old World, must render aid in that direction, to all who are striving to reconsider and readjust those combinations, which had their origin either in the faults or the necessities of a remote past. (1869 Plan of Union, Old School-New School)

This is how doctrinal indifferentism happens.


6 thoughts on “The Whatever Confession of Faith

  1. Wasn’t the origin of the Churches of Christ originally part of the same group that birthed the Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches denominations?

    I get the appeal of “mere Christianity”, but I don’t see how it avoids descending into the practice of picking and choosing doctrines to confess that include people we like.


  2. If we’re going by experience (per French) then some of us are acquainted with an evangelicalism that has always already done this, i.e. identify simply as “Christian.” It’s non-denominational code for the kind of hyper-spiritual pietism that marks evangelicalism, i.e. beyond all that worldly denominational stuff because Jesus lives in my heart and we have a personal relationship most others lack. Evangelicals who actually refer to themselves as evangelicals show they may have some latent or underdeveloped denominational impulses but are considered at best uppity by the rank-and-file or at worst carnal.


  3. Get with the times Z. The cool kids don’t call themselves Christian any more. Now they are “Christ-followers”.


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