During the last couple of weeks, Douglas Wilson has issued several posts over on his Blog and Mablog blog that deal with “evangelicalism” and who is and who is not an “evangelical.” In the course of these postings, Doug has written that while I am a fine Christian who has much to offer everyone, I’m not what he means by “an evangelical.” I’m a conservative Biblicistic protestant (my phrase), but not an “evangelical.” See here and here. None of this really bothers me, but I have received more than one request that I comment on the issue involved, including from Doug himself. Hence this first of a series of essays.
(The essay of mine to which Doug refers is Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration: Some Tentative Explorations. Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 32, January, 2003; available for $5.00 from Biblical Horizons, Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588; or see here.)
First of all, then, what is “an evangelical”? That will be our topic in this posting. The use of the adjective “evangelical” as a noun is, to start with, a bit strange, but “Evangelical Christian” is the actual term, with “evangelical” being shorthand.
The usual and broad meaning of “an evangelical” in the United States (where it matters most) is this: someone who accepts that the truth claims of the Bible are without error not only doctrinally but also with respect to historical and spatial matters, who accepts the teaching that God is three equal persons in one Godhead, and who trusts in the work of Jesus Christ alone for his justification and salvation. This is the definition that will get you into the Evangelical Theological Society, of which I have been a card-carrying member since 1976. And in this sense, James B. Jordan is most definitely “an evangelical.” And I know that Douglas Wilson fully accepts that this is so.
There are, however, other usages of the term “evangelical.” First of all, it is used for the churches in the Lutheran traditions in contrast to those in the Reformed traditions. Churches in Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc., and the United States that follow the Lutheran tradition are “evangelical,” including those who have separated from state churches and become “Evangelical Free,” “Swedish Covenant,” etc. churches. All other churches of the Reformation accept Luther of course but also Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, Laski, Bullinger and other Reformers, and include the Churches of England, Scotland, Hungary, the Netherlands, the Palatinate, and all those descended from them as “free” churches and others. I myself was baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran Church, which is now known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America even though it is now pretty liberal for the most part. (When I was baptized it was the United LCA, and then the LCA , and now the ELCA .) I left this kind of evangelicalism when I became convinced of the Reformed approach to reality in 1971.
Another understanding of the term “evangelical” is found in the writings of Dutch Reformed immigrants to the United States, preeminently of Cornelius Van Til. These men view “evangelical” as synonymous with “Arminian,” and with some good reason. They came from a tradition that sang almost exclusively the psalter, though in metrical paraphrases. Their ministers wore distinctive garb as officers in the army of God, and as “dominies” tended to keep a distance from laymen. When these people came to America and saw the undisciplined and psalm-less churches that predominated, they took them as “Arminian.” While it is important to understand this use of the term “evangelical” when reading the writings of these men, few would use the term in that way today.
Continuing our attempt at “ordinary language analysis” of the use of “evangelical,” we come to how I, James B. Jordan, have sometimes used the term, and that is as “soft liberal.” Your standard evangelical scholar, while he affirms the inerrancy of the Bible based on his understanding of the Bible, is still sadly Biblo-phobic. He is terrified of the stipulations of the “laws of Moses” as he calls them. He finds the Psalter unpalatable: too mean, too rough. He rejects the chronology of the Bible, despite its universal acceptance throughout the history of Christendom. He is committed to a minimalist approach to the Bible: no significant numbers, nothing in the stellar heavens, no openness to revisionist history of the ancient world, as little typology as possible, etc. I’ve heard older men at Evangelical Theological Society meetings complain about “all these chiasms” as if they refused to look again at the text to see what might be there. (Though I can sympathize with an old guy’s reluctance to reopen everything!) It can be said that this kind of “evangelicalism” wants some amount of acceptability in the world of late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. They don’t seem to realize that the world has turned and that a far more penetrating understanding of writing now prevails.
Oh, and of course, virtually all American “evangelicals” are committed to the notion that Jesus does not intend to disciple all nations. (He was just joking, it seems.) In fact, Jesus might return at any moment. Not only so, but it is important for our personal sanctification that we believe this notion and act as if the world might end any time. The Holy Spirit, it seems, continually deceives people into thinking Jesus could come back any time, and employs what has rightly been called “sanctification by deception.” Well, James B. Jordan is certainly not an evangelical in that sense.
This brings me to the fourth and final meaning of “an evangelical,” which is someone who is sympathetic to some degree with the Methodist experiential religion that is the earlier form of American civic religion. I need to begin this section biographically. The first of my Jordan ancestors to arrive on these shores was named Robert Jordan, and he came as a minister of the Church of England to what is now Maine in 1640. His son was a Church of England minister, and it continued such until the Jordans became Methodists.
My great-grandfather, for instance, was once “told by the Holy Spirit” to pick up and visit a rough town in the Dakota territories. He took his wife and put up placards announcing that he was going to preach the gospel. He rented a hall, and Monday night he announced a hymn that he and his wife sang, after which he preached the gospel – to nobody. The same thing happened Tuesday night, and then on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday night came, and at the saloon evidently one man said, “Have you heard about this crazy preacher? He’s been preaching to absolutely nobody night after night!” Someone else said, it seems, “Well, let’s go hear this nut.” So they all went down to hear my great-grandfather – and they were all converted. The next night they brought their friends and the girls from the upper floor of the saloon (if you take my meaning) and they were saved also. My great-grandfather stayed another week, founded a Methodist church, and shut down the saloon. Or so I’ve been told. Hey, I don’t doubt it. Our God reaches into the world and saves people.
My grandfather, also a Methodist minister, was once on a train from California to Minnesota, where he pastored. Some young men were playing cards, drinking, and swearing up a storm. My grandfather stopped as he walked through the car and put his hand on one young man: “Young man, do you know where you are going?” was all he said. Then he walked on. Years later my grandfather was at a Methodist meeting. A man stood up to speak. “Once, when I was a young man and living in sin, a man came by me on a railroad car while I was gambling. He said only this: Young man, do you know where you are going? Well, those words stuck in me, and I could not escape them. I’m here today to speak Christ to you because of that man.”
Now, I write these personal histories to say that I have no reservations about what God can and does do in history. I’m glad for what Catholics, Dispensationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and even Calvinists have done in history.
So, now to the last form of “evangelical” that I am not. Doug Wilson begins one of his blogs with this: In his small book, What Is An Evangelical?, Martin Lloyd-Jones says a number of helpful things (along with some pretty unhelpful ones). But one of the helpful ones was this — “The next thing, clearly, about the evangelical is the tremendous emphasis that he puts upon the rebirth. This is absolutely basic to him . . .” (p. 56). Doug’s whole series of essays on “Life in the Regeneration” is about this matter of rebirth. I’ll try to take that up in the next essay in this series. Suffice it to say for now that if Methodist Lloyd-Jones had written that an evangelical is someone who places a tremendous emphasis on living by faith in God and His word, I could be an evangelical. While I believe, obviously, that people need to be born (again) from God, I cannot see emphasizing it because such a new birth is not an experience anyone can accomplish. Telling people that they need to be born again is the same as telling them they need to be predestinated to be children of God. It’s rather pointless. More on that next time.