Friday, September 23, 2011

Reformed and Evangelical?

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith." (Rom. 1:16-17)

... you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:15)

What is an Evangelical? (Title of book by Martin Lloyd-Jones)

What is an Evangelical? Are the Reformed and Presbyterians Evangelical? The answer varies. However, in Evangelicalism as a movement, the distinctives of Evangelicalism both old and new, it seems that those who are truly Reformed and Confessional cannot be called Evangelical.

The term "Evangelical" comes from the Greek word ευαγγελιον which refers to the Gospel. Etymologically, anyone and everyone who confesses and believe in the Gospel can be called "evangelical." In that sense of course, all Reformed Confessionalists (those who place a strong emphasis on the Creeds and Reformed Confessions of the Church) are evangelical.

"Evangelical" however comes to mean something more than just believing in the Gospel. The Old Evangelicalism was born sometime around the time of the decline of Reformed Scholasticism and the rise of German and British Pietism, and is largely remembered for the growth in world missions. The New Evangelicalism arose in the 1950s thereabouts with its iconic figure Bill Graham and his crusades, as they rejected the negativity associated with Dispensational Fundamentalism, yet without turning back to the Old Evangelicalism.

Historically, there are differences between America and Britain as to how these groups developed. In America, the Fundamentalist/ Modernist controversy creates two main groups: the Liberals and the Dispensational Fundamentalists. There were of course other groups but these were the main groups present who call themselves Protestant Christians. The Dispensational leader and pastor C.I. Scofield was instrumental, together with D.L. Moody, in bringing many people to embrace Dispensationalism in some form or another. The Old Evangelicalism was not generally well known, and the type of Evangelicalism that prevailed was the New Evangelicalism.

Two main factors made British Evangelicalism different in tenor to that in America. The first factor was the outright capitulation of most of the Protestant churches to Liberalism. The only person who sounded the alarm over the infiltration of German Higher Criticism and liberalism in general was the Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon in the later days of his life. For his effort to warn the churches, he was rewarded with demonization from his opponents that he is merely crying wolf, and disfellowshipped as a trouble-maker. The Downgrade Controversy, as it become to be known, was by and large a bump in the ascendancy of liberalism in its destruction of the faith.

The second factor was the general absence of Dispensational influence in the churches. No doubt there were Dispensational churches, but by and large Dispensationalism was not embraced by evangelical churches. This greatly reduced much of the animosity and nasty bickering and infighting that Dispensationalism seems to bring along with it from its very inception.

Old Evangelicalism therefore was more prominent in Britain than in America. The New Evangelicalism originated in America as a rejection of American Fundamentalism, and was then exported to exported in part to Britain. Britain of course has her own New Evangelicals like the late John Stott and J.I. Packer (before he left the UK), but their version of New Evangelicalism has more to do with the denominational focus on Anglican polity rather than any reaction to Fundamentalism.

The last prominent Old Evangelical was Martin Lloyd-Jones, and a prominent New Evangelical who however later regretted the worldliness the movement has descended into was Francis Schaeffer, in his book The Great Evangelical Disaster. New Evangelicalism in its purest form is merely doctrinal Old Evangelicalism with a different spirit of ministry, a different spirit that turned disastrous as the lust for academic respectability and influence in the world leavened the Church with false doctrine and worldliness which then had to be excised.

So then, what is an Evangelical? What is it in its purest form? The book of Martin Lloyd-Jones entitled What is an Evangelical (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992) gives us a few characteristics of Evangelicals. They are as follows:

  1. Preservation of the Gospel
  2. Entirely subservient to the Bible
  3. Learning from history
  4. Maintaining negatives
  5. No subtractions or additions to the truth
  6. Being watchful
  7. Distrust of reason in the form of philosophy
  8. Low view of the sacraments, as opposed to Rome
  9. Takes a critical view of history and tradition
  10. Ready to act on beliefs
  11. Simplify everything
  12. Dislikes formalism and liturgies and ceremonies
  13. Tremendous emphasis on the rebirth
  14. Focused on "essentials." Regards the conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism as a secondary issue

In this light, are Reformed Confessationalists Evangelicals? Reformed Confessionalists will take exception to principle 7, and probably for some 12. Item number 13 divides those who are for the First Great Awakening and those who reject it, but Confessionalism consists of these two groups.

The main issues of objection are items 7 and 14. For principle #7, of course we agree with the general focus on a skepticism of the philosophies of Man. Reformed theology has always been against Rationalism. However, the main issue here is that we recognize that doing philosophy is unavoidable. To think that one is "merely reading the Bible" and being independent of philosophy is a mirage. One can either be conscious of one's philosophical tendencies, or one can pretend that one is doing Bible study in a vacuum. Just like traditions, those who deny they have any are often the most blinded by the philosophy they actually believe in.

Principle number 14 is however the one thing that separates Reformed from Evangelical. The Evangelical tends towards confessional and ecclesiastical minimalization. That is why Lloyd-Jones can see Arminianism as a "non-essential" issue. In his estimation, it is because one does not have to believe either Calvinism or Arminianism to be saved, and therefore the issue is non-essential for him.

This comes down to the differences in our understanding of the Church. According to Scripture, the Church is to be a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). That is the primary focus of the Church, where God is to speak to His people and minister to them through Word and Sacrament. We acknowledge that for the purpose of salvation, some things are "essential" and others are "non-essential." However, salvation is distinct from the job of the church. The church should evangelize of course, but the primary thing that the Church is is a pillar and buttress of the truth. While having looser standards for salvation, what the Church deemed orthodox and acceptable should be much stricter.

It is in this that we are not "Evangelicals." Classical Arminianism is a serious heresy condemned by the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619, and the Arminian ministers were thrown out of the churches. In the Church, there must be an understanding of confessional maximalism in order for the church to fulfill her duty, although that must not be demanded of her members since salvation is not so construed.

Reformed Confessationalism is therefore not evangelical in any of the senses as found in the two movements. We are uneasy over the minimalization of truth in the churches, we are at times uneasy over the emphasis on revival as it tends to downplay the common operations of the Spirit through preaching, sacrament, and catechism, some having more unease over this than others.

So are we Evangelicals? No. It is especially in this compromised climate that the term "evangelical" has become tainted. While we regards Evangelicals as our brothers and sisters in Christ, we disagree on their doctrine of the church, and disagree on the pietistic outlook of their practice.

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