Several years ago I wrote a blog series on “The Heresies of American Evangelicalism.” The deliberately provocative title was an attempt to call evangelicals back to a proper mode of Christian faith and practice. The approach, however correct, was too negative, and it also gave the impression that orthodoxy and heresy are somehow fixed categories that are (a) universally meaningful and (b) universally binding. I think neither is true. Today, I want to take a different approach, one that I hope will be more positive, but also more compelling.
I call my position the “evangelical hypothesis,” which is a reference to Alain Badiou’s notion of the “communist hypothesis.” The other term he uses is “the Idea of communism,” and “the Idea of evangelicalism” could have worked equally well for my purposes. The point is that, like Badiou, I am attempting to identify an idea or truth (in the Badiouan sense of these words) that comes to expression in evangelicalism. The virtue of identifying such an idea is that it can serve both critical and constructive purposes, as I hope to demonstrate.
First, I need to distinguish the present thesis from the many previous attempts at giving definitions of evangelicalism. These attempts have all failed because they tried to provide demographic descriptions of a particular set of people. John Stackhouse, for example, explicitly states that his purpose is to achieve more accurate polling data. This may have its uses, but I take my approach to be the exact opposite of his. Instead of taking the existing forms of evangelicalism as a given and deriving a definition from these forms, I instead seek to give verbal form to the “eternal truth” or “Idea” that comes to expression in the evangelical mode of Christian faith.
Second, it’s important to remember that multiple eternal ideas may come to expression. In a book on universalism that I am currently writing, I identify the evangelical idea as the notion that the truth of one’s being is located in a concrete act of the individual will, or what David Bebbington calls “conversionism.” My focus here is more broad than a particular doctrinal locus or theological problem. The idea I am after in this context is a more expansive posture toward all theological truth.
Enough by way of introduction. The evangelical hypothesis, or the eternal idea of evangelicalism, is “mission without churches”—another play on the phrase often used by Badiou to define his version of communism: “politics without parties.” By mission without churches I mean that evangelical faith brings to expression, however obliquely and indirectly, the truth that the mission of God is radically subtracted from the immanent logic or law of religion. Evangelicalism, properly understood, is an anarchic mode of Christian existence.
Let me illustrate this with some snapshots (in no particular order). Exhibit #1: the Anabaptist reaction against the Constantinianism common to both the Catholic Church and the churches of the magisterial Reformers, not to mention all civil religion. Exhibit #2: the innumerable parachurch organizations that arose with neo-evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century. Exhibit #3: Charles Finney’s rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination on the basis that, “Anything brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the gospel.” Exhibit #4: the cross-cultural and deeply activist missionary impulse at the heart of modern evangelicalism. Exhibit #5: the thriving of evangelicalism, especially in its non-denominational and non-institutional forms, in the midst of the massive decline in all the mainline denominations and established religious institutions. Exhibit #6: the concern with identifying a “mere Christianity” not bound to traditional creedal formulas. Exhibit #7: the conversionist emphasis on the free decision of the individual will in response to a personal word of God, as opposed to an assent of the mind to an impersonal creed. Exhibit #8: the so-called “emerging” church. Exhibit #9: the so-called “new monasticism.” Exhibit #10: the meteoric rise of diverse forms of evangelicalism in the Global South.
These should suffice to make my point. Not all of these “snapshots” are things I personally endorse, but they serve to attest the eternal idea that lies buried within them all. The evangelical idea is (a) that the gospel is simultaneously both transcultural and indigenous, meaning that cross-cultural translation is at the heart of Christian faith, and (b) that true Christian faith is absolutely independent of any and every religious structure (or “church”) that would attempt to legitimize it. Hence, mission without churches. This deliberately paradoxical formulation expresses the truth that established religious structures, or church institutions, are non-essential to the practice of evangelical faith. And this means that the evangelical propagation of the faith, i.e. its missionary movement, must not be the extension of any previous institution. The proclamation of such an extension would be what John Flett calls “propaganda.” And just because I have been speaking of religious institutions does not mean that I restrict the word “church” to denominations and other self-identified religious groups. Just as Luther said whatever one worships is “god,” so too whatever provides the ideological support or social matrix for one’s identity is “church.” For many self-described evangelicals today, for example, the “church” takes the form of the Republican party.
The obvious rejoinder is: why can’t we just redefine “church” to refer to these indigenous, local embodiments of faith in Christ? Of course, we can do that, and I myself have done so. But this can easily lead to a co-opting of evangelicalism by the hegemony of religion and thus the erasure of the anarchic seed of evangelical faith within the ideological superstructure of Church. The point here is to articulate as clearly and unambiguously as possible the radically nonconformist logic that comes to expression in evangelicalism.
Why make this case for the evangelical hypothesis? And why now? Because it seems to me that we are seeing a massive retreat from the eternal idea of evangelicalism. Some, like Francis Beckwith, are taking solace in Roman Catholicism. Many others are taking solace in some form of traditional liturgy as a way of connecting them, so they say, to the larger body of Christ. But these are really the least of my concern. Far more dangerous, in my view, is the recent turn to neo-fundamentalism—specifically, a Reformed neo-fundamentalism—within formerly neo-evangelical circles, as evidenced especially by changes in Christianity Today and at institutions like Fuller Seminary and Wheaton College (my alma mater). Whether it is to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, mainline Protestantism, or to Reformed orthodoxy, many evangelicals are turning away from their pietist, nonconformist roots. While some may view this as a positive turn back to the broader Christian tradition and a greater fidelity to the regula fidei, it strikes me at the same time as a betrayal of the eternal idea of evangelicalism, the anarchic beating heart of evangelical piety. It goes without saying that the 30-year political capitulation of most American evangelicals to the conservative party has also been a betrayal, though a capitulation to the opposing party would be no less problematic. And one could list any number of other cultural, political, and philosophical “churches” that have led people away from the evangelical hypothesis.
This has been an unfortunately brief account of the evangelical hypothesis. As a result, it is no doubt sure to cause confusion and require further elaboration and explanation. For now, however, it will have to suffice to say—as controversial and counterintuitive as it may sound—that the promise of evangelicalism is the promise of a post-religious Christianity.