Why Do Reformed Think They Are Evangelical?

If Reformed Protestantism is basically evangelical then how do you account for the major divisions that have occurred among American Presbyterians? The fundamentalist controversy apparently has nothing at stake for the Reformed/evangelical consensus since Machen and other conservative Presbyterians were fighting liberalism and EVERYONE knows that liberalism is bad. (Of course, the problem here is that Machen’s evangelical colleagues at Princeton were some of his biggest opponents – the revival friendly Charles Eerdman and Robert Speer.)

According to this consensus the Presbyterian opposition to revivalism during the Second Pretty Good Awakening is also easy to explain. Charles Finney and company were delinquent on theology and possibly practice (revivalism and new measures instead of just plain revival). So the Second Pretty Good Awakening proves nothing.

Then there is the First Pretty Good Awakening where Calvinists promoted revivals. This is the golden-age for the Reformed/Evangelical consensus. But what about the Old Side critics? Well, as I learned at Westminster and from Leonard Trinterud, the Old Side were proto-liberals, propounding a rationalistic theology with Enlightenment echoes, and they were drunks, falling off their horses on the way home from presbytery thanks to a heavy elbow.

In the recent exchange with Ken Stewart over at the Christian Curmudgeon I came across another explanation for the apparent tension between Reformed Protestants and evangelicals – which is, blame the Dutch. In response to differences of interpretation about revivalism, Stewart wrote to the Curmudgeon:

I think we disagree is in our estimation of the danger posed by Hart and his school of writers. Westminster Escondido, in a strange continuity with Calvin Seminary Grand Rapids (these schools are usually at loggerheads) are centers from which revival is disparaged. So important a church historian as George Marsden (raised in the OPC) termed Darryl Hart’s book on American presbyterianism “anti-evangelical” because of its steady misrepresentation of the Great Awakening. So, while from your vantage point, you are aware of Hart, from mine – I think he and his allies represent a danger so great that it needs to be countered.

When pushed on the fact that George Marsden, who studied with Cornelius Van Til, who was very critical of evangelicalism, Stewart responded:

I don’t dispute CVT’s anti-evangelical posture; in fact I would suggest that the influx of CRC faculty into WTS in the 1930’s fundamentally shifted the young WTS away from its Princeton heritage, which had been decidedly the other way. When one stands back from this, it makes us realize that the whole conservative Reformed tradition in this country has been influenced far more by Grand Rapids theology than is generally acknowledged. I am not demonizing the CRC in this particular respect; I am simply highlighting the fact that throughout the 20th century, there have been rival versions of the Reformed faith jockeying with one another for dominance.

What is fairly amusing about this reply is that the Dutch-Americans at Calvin Seminary were responsible for printing a review that Stewart wrote of Recovering Mother Kirk, which was hardly flattering of the book’s author or his interpretation of the Reformed tradition. If the Dutch-American Reformed mafia wanted to enlarge their control of the interpretation of American Protestantism, they fell asleep when reading Stewart’s submission.

Stewart and others who reject the argument that Reformed and evangelical are at odds gain a lot of traction by suggesting that Reformed critics of evangelicalism construe Reformed and evangelical Protestantism as fundamentally at odds or separate entities. The proponents of an evangelical-friendly Reformed faith also like to point out that Reformed churches have made lots of room for evangelicalism and even revivalism. So both conceptually and historically, supposedly, the Reformed critics of evangelicalism are flawed.

But for this critic, it is obvious that evangelicals and Reformed are both Protestant and so overlap at certain points, both religiously and historically. Experimental Calvinism arose in the context of Reformed churches (especially when the prospects for reforming the national churches were looking bleak) and Reformed and Presbyterians churches have been friendly to evangelicalism (though I wish they were not).

What the proponents of the consensus are incapable of doing is accounting for the splits that have occurred within Reformed churches over evangelicalism (even without the presence of Dutch Reformed). The Old Side and the Old School split from their Presbyterian peers because the pro-revivalists believed subscription and polity were secondary to conversion and holy living. And so it has always been with evangelicalism. It is inherently anti-formal in the sense that forms to not matter compared to the experience of new birth or ecstatic worship. Evangelicals are also inherently inconsistent about this because since we exist as human beings in forms (i.e., bodies that are either male or female), we cannot escape formalism of some kind. Either way, on the matter of forms – creeds, worship, and polity – those who promote revivals or consider themselves evangelical are indifferent. The Spirit unites, not the forms. The same goes for different shades of evangelicalism: for the Gospel Coalition it is the gospel not the forms that unite; and for the Baylys and other “do this and live” types, it is the law not the forms that unites. Sticklers for the regulative principle, the system of doctrine, or presbyterian procedure are simply ornery obstacles to uniting Protestants on what is truly important.

What should not be missed either is that when Presbyterian particularists insist that forms matter, that the word reveals forms, and that the word and the Spirit work in conjunction, the response is invariably that the particularlists are mean and lack the fruit of the Spirit. Why? Because they do not recognize the presence of the Spirit.

And so to bring a little more light on the matter from one of those nefarious Dutch-Reformed types (though he is actually German), here is a useful reflection from Richard Muller on the impulses within evangelicalism that lead away from the insights of the Reformation(if only he had been editing the Calvin Theological Journal when Stewart reviewed Recovering Mother Kirk):

Even more than this, however, use of the language of personal relationship with Jesus often indicates a qualitative loss of the traditional Reformation language of being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ and being, therefore, adopted as children of God in and through our graciously given union with Christ. Personal relationships come about through mutual interaction and thrive because of common interests. They are never or virtually never grounded on a forensic act such as that indicated in the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works – in fact personal relationships rest on a reciprocity of works or acts. The problem here is not the language itself: The problem is the way in which it can lead those who emphasize it to ignore the Reformation insight into the nature of justification and the character of believer’s relationship with God in Christ.

Such language of personal relationship all too easily lends itself to an Arminian view of salvation as something accomplished largely by the believer in cooperation with God. A personal relationship is, of its very nature, a mutual relation, dependent on the activity – the works – of both parties. In addition, the use of this Arminian, affective language tends to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has its own indigenous relational and affective language and piety; a language and piety, moreover, that are bound closely to the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Heidelberg Catechism provides us with a language of our “only comfort in life and in death” – that “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (q. 1). “Belonging to Christ,” a phrase filled with piety and affect, retains the confession of grace alone through faith alone, particularly when its larger context in the other language of the catechism is taken to heart. We also have access to a rich theological and liturgical language of covenant to express with both clarity and warmth our relationship to God in Christ.

Even so, the Reformed teaching concerning the identity of the church assumes a divine rather than a human foundation and assumes that the divine work of establishing the community of belief is a work that includes the basis of the ongoing life of the church as a community, which is to say, includes the extension of the promise to children of believers. The conversion experience associated with adult baptism and with the identification of the church as a voluntary association assumes that children are, with a few discrete qualifications, pagan-and it refuses to understand the corporate dimension of divine grace working effectively (irresistibly!) in the perseverance of the covenanting community. It is a contradictory teaching indeed that argues irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints and then assumes both the necessity of a particular phenomenology of adult conversion and “decision.” (“How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 posted at Riddelblog)