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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Roots of American Evangelicalism, Part Two

The Roots of American EvangelicalismThis post continues under the first main section of this series, "Donald W. Dayton's Characterization of American Evangelicalism." Part One of this main section was "Evangelicalism and Social Reform." Part Two of my account of Dayton's view of American evangelicalism is "The Heart of American Evangelicalism."


The Heart of American Evangelicalism

It would be fair to conclude from the title of Dayton’s book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, that Dayton is merely attempting to draw attention to one aspect of the history of American Evangelicalism. In a sense, this is correct. In the prologue to the book, Dayton describes his own personal journey as he struggled “to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable in his own experience: the Evangelical heritage in which he was reared and values bequeathed to him by the student movements of the 1960s.”[1] Dayton was drawn to the “new movements for justice and equality” of the 1960s and away from an evangelicalism that had insulated itself from the influence of these movements. He says, “The trauma generated by these conflicts was intense. Torn between Evangelicalism and the imperatives of the civil rights movement, I chose the latter – though troubled with a continuing ‘bad conscience’ acquired through years of conditioning in the Evangelical world.”[2] Dayton began to reconstruct his theology at Yale Divinity School and found within Evangelicalism “a biblically grounded and classically Christian faith amenable to the development of social responsibility – and even a biblically grounded ‘Christian radicalism.’”[3] The history of these elements of American Evangelicalism is what Discovering an Evangelical Heritage is about. However, Dayton does not believe that social reform and Christian radicalism is merely one neglected aspect of American evangelicalism but the true heart of the movement.

Not the Whole but the Heart
Dayton concludes his book with a chapter entitled “Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?” Dayton admits, “The currents described in this book are, of course, not the whole of Evangelicalism.”[4] After acknowledging confessional churches, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and elements associated with “Old Calvinism” and “Princeton Theology,” Dayton goes on to write, “But these other traditions were not at the heart of American Evangelical experience in quite the same way as the currents traced in this book.”[5] He believes that the majority of Evangelical institutions are rooted in the revivalism and social reform movements traced in his book.[6] Dayton declares, “Much more of modern Evangelicalism would stand, historically at least, in the succession of Finney and Oberlin than Hodge and Princeton. And when American church historians use the term “Evangelical,” they generally refer to the emergence of the Arminian, pietistic revivalism that was epitomized in Finney and marked the end of the cultural dominance of the “Old Calvinism” preserved in the Princeton Theology and many modern post-Fundamentalist Evangelicals.”[7] While admitting that it is not the whole of Evangelicalism, Dayton clearly sees the “Arminian, pietistic revivalism” of Finney, social reform and Christian radicalism as the true heart of American Evangelicalism.

Dayton’s “Classical Evangelicals”
Dayton confirms this perspective on evangelicalism in other writings. In a chapter entitled “The Limits of Evangelicalism: The Pentecostal Tradition” in a book he co-edited named The Variety of American Evangelicalism, Dayton on the one hand argues that the concept of evangelicalism is an “essentially contested concept” meaning that its “core concept is in dispute” but then on the other hand argues that non-Arminian/pietistic/revivalistic forms of evangelicalism only represent a small minority of those who label themselves “evangelical.”[8]

Dayton argues that the term “evangelical covers three diverse meanings.” The first meaning, evangelisch, refers to “Reformation themes,” “Augustinian anthropology,” and doctrines such as “divine initiation and sovereignty” and “election.”[9] Dayton immediately dismisses this group of evangelicals by stating that this group “has less relevance to the Anglo-American scene, where the other two meanings predominate.”[10] 2nd Great Awakening Camp MeetingThe second group, referred to as Pietismus, represents “classical evangelicalism” for Dayton. This group encompasses “the roots of ‘conservative piety’ in pietism and Puritanism, its flowering in the evangelical revival and awakening traditions of the eighteenth century, and nineteenth century” and “emphasizes conversion, mission and evangelism; social concern; and a cluster of related themes.”[11] This is the group Dayton believes represents the true American evangelicalism, hence his label “classical evangelicalism.” The third group of evangelicals, evangelikal, is the group Dayton reacted against in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. These evangelicals are the conservatives of the late 19th and early 20th c. modernist-fundamentalist controversies. Dayton describes them as “fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals, as represented in the Evangelical Theological Society, for example,” who have found common ground “primarily in a doctrine of Scripture, especially in its inerrancy.”[12]

Dayton is very critical of evangelicals such as Bernard Ramm who trace the history of evangelicalism from the Reformation through Protestant orthodoxy and “Old School Calvinism” to fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism. While he claims that most who claim the title evangelical today fall within this group, Dayton again affirms that the true historical roots of evangelicalism can be traced back to his second group – the revivalistic, Wesleyan/holiness evangelicals.[13] While claiming that evangelicalism is an essentially contested concept, Dayton continues to claim that 19th c. revivalistic, Arminian, reform-oriented evangelicalism is the true American evangelicalism in The Variety of American Evangelicalism although with less emphasis on Christian radicalism.

Reformed Evangelicals Hijacked Evangelicalism
In a 2001 interview with Modern Reformation magazine [MR], Dayton reiterates his three-fold division of evangelicalism and re-affirms his claim that “the most useful and historically appropriate way of using the word ‘evangelical’ is, I believe, according to the second or Wesleyan paradigm-what I would call classical Evangelicalism.”[14] In response to neo-evangelicals of the post-1950 era who see themselves as the theological descendants of the Reformers of the 16th c., the Old Calvinists of the 18th and 19th c., and the Fundamentalists of the late 19th and early 20th c. rather than the Arminian/Wesleyan revivalists and social activists of the 19th c., Dayton asks:


How did the current (thin?) veneer of Reformed theology get erected on this revivalist foundation? I'm sure MR would see this movement as one of maturity or of "seeing the light," but it looks quite different from the other side of the fence. Many of my theological and ecclesiastical compatriots would say something like, they (the neo-evangelicals) hijacked our institutions and bent them to a theological expression that we and the founders would find foreign and pernicious. And then they have the chutzpah to stand on these very platforms to advocate the Old Princeton theology and complain that we are to blame for the intellectual impoverishment of Evangelicalism or whine about declensions in Evangelicalism from proper Reformed theology.[15]
In this more antagonistic statement Dayton makes his view of American evangelicalism explicitly non-Reformed and antithetical to Old Calvinism/Old Princeton theology. Although he makes it clear that he does not find the term “evangelical” very useful, Dayton forcefully defends his claim that true evangelicalism was built on a revivalist foundation, specifically the 19th c. revivals of the Second Great Awakening and Charles Finney.

Summary
Dayton divides the history of evangelicalism into three groups: 1) pre-revivalist evangelicals who focused on Reformation themes such as divine sovereignty and election, 2) revivalist, Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicals who emphasized conversion and social action (Dayton’s “classical evangelicals”), and 3) fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals who unite around conservative reactions to modernism and liberalism and doctrines of Scripture such as biblical inerrancy. The 19th c. revivalism and social activism of Charles Finney represents the foundation of American evangelicalism for Dayton. Present-day attempts by non-Arminian and non-revivalistic evangelicals to trace their history back through 20th c. fundamentalism, 18th and 19th c. Calvinism, 17th c. Protestant orthodoxy, and 16th c. Reformational doctrines are seen by Dayton as a hijacking of American evangelicalism. Reformed doctrines would be seen “foreign” and “pernicious” to the founders of American evangelicalism. Although Dayton admits that the term “evangelical” is highly disputed, essentially contested, and therefore not very useful, he consistently articulates true evangelicalism in terms of 19th c. Arminian, pietistic revivalism, social activism, and Christian radicalism.

Dayton’s view of evangelicalism is a popular one especially in light of the recent rise of the evangelical left, the emerging church and post-evangelicalism. These evangelicals are, in part, reacting against the conservative elements of their evangelical upbringing similarly to the way Dayton reacted against his. These elements of the history of American evangelicalism resonate with those who are moving away from conservative evangelicalism, politically and theologically. Emerging, post-conservative, post-evangelical Christians can rightfully find precedent for radical social reform, egalitarianism of many forms, and a strong concern for the “least of these” in Charles Finney, Jonathan Blanchard, Theodore Weld, and Oberlin College.

The question is not whether these elements of 19th c. American evangelicalism are historically accurate. The question is whether 19th c. Arminian revivalism can properly be said to be the foundation of American evangelicalism. Is “the Arminian, pietistic revivalism that was epitomized in Finney” the true heart of American evangelicalism? Have Reformed evangelicals hijacked evangelicalism when they trace the history of American evangelicalism back to the Reformation rather than 19th c. revivalism? Questions such as these will be addressed next.

To be continued...

[Series originally posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia]

[1] Ibid, 1.
[2] Ibid, 4.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 121.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 138.
[8] Donald W. Dayton, “The Limits of Evangelicalism: The Pentecostal Tradition,” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, ed. Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 49.
[9] Ibid, 48.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 49.
[14] “Interview with Donald Dayton: Are Charismatic-Inclined Pietists the True Evangelicals? And Have the Reformed Tried to Highjack Their Movement?,” Modern Reformation 2001, 41.
[15] Ibid, 43-44.

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