The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part I: Introduction

Part I: Introduction

I confess to being a little hard on evangelicals on this blog, but that is only because I grew up as one. To paraphrase Paul:
Are they Christians? So am I. Are they evangelicals? So am I. Are they descendents of the radical Reformation? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, argued more frequently, been ridiculed more severely, and been exposed to the ideas of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and liberal politics again and again. ... I have labored and toiled and have often gone without finishing my homework ... Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
And as Paul also states:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from conservative American evangelicalism, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
It is in light of my own evangelical heritage that I feel a sense of responsibility to speak prophetically against the current state of evangelicalism in America today. The word "evangelical" once meant exactly what the word means: "according to the teaching of the gospel." The German word for evangelical is what identifies Protestants, whereas "evangelical" in the United States designates a subgroup of Protestants. In fact, nowadays it designates its own subculture and a powerful voting bloc that pursues governmental control more actively with each passing day. We are a long ways from the Reformation here in America. In fact, to be more precise, we are a long ways from the gospel.

What I wish to do in this post is outline the major heresies of contemporary American evangelicalism. Many of these have been documented by other scholars and online commentators, but I have not seen all of them addressed at one time. I will address them in the following order:
  1. A less-than-fully triune doctrine of God—often modalistic or binitarian;
  2. a docetic christology;
  3. a pelagian soteriology;
  4. a docetic-dictated-propositional Bible;
  5. a gnostic eschatology;
  6. and a Constantinian doctrine of church-state relations


John P. said…
man....i am really excited about this series.

I will put a link up as soon as i get home!
Brad Jackson said…
You are quickly becoming one of my favorite and by far on of the most thoughtful bloggers I read. Thanks and I hope all is going well!

-Brad Jackson

*sits back to watch the fireworks
David Wilkerson said…
Hey David, I don't know if you caught it, but I added a (lengthy as always) comment to your "Jesus is not a Republican" post concerning the Constantinian politics from my experience in a moderate Methodist church studying "God's Politics".
Yes, I had read it, David, and I will try to respond to it shortly.
Shane said…
My inner marxist begins jumping up and down waving red flags in both hands whenever somebody dons the mantle of a prophet.

I think your critiques would be more productive if you would interact with a more robust definition of evangelicalism, such as that offered by David Bebbington,

Can you find anything docetic, gnostic or pelagian about conversionism, activism, biblicism, or crucicentrism? That would be more interesting to read. Critiquing the Jim Dobson style of evangelicalism is a little bit like playing basketball against a retarded kid: you might beat him, but there really isn't any point.

Shane said…
From the obit of evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry:

"Dr. Henry’s erudition and wit were perhaps best illustrated at a program honoring Karl Barth. When Dr. Henry publicly introduced himself as the editor of Christianity Today, Barth cracked, “Christianity Today, or Christianity Yesterday?” Henry replied, “Yesterday, today, and forever.”"
I agree with you on all but the last. You can argue against Constantinian church-state relations if you like, and you can even try to claim that modern evangelicals are pushing for that. Heck, you can even use the word "theocracy" (everyone's doing it).

But calling it a heresy isn't right - because, well, there was no ancient heresy called Constaninism.

I think you should treat this gripe in a separate post - one dealing with grave flaws, but not heresies.
David Wilkerson said…

No need to respond as it was only my two(ten!) cents. I was late to the thread and I just didn't want it to be all for naught.

Of course, you are right. But I also think that the church today should still be able to call something a heresy if it contradicts the gospel. Granted, heresies were denounced in conciliar fashion -- and I am no council -- but these posts are not official church statements either. If I call "theocracy" or Constantinianism a heresy, it's because I think the church should denounce it as such.
Jason said…
I have a question about 'Constantianism', actually. I wonder if this is the best way to state it? Historically, it seems to me, evangelicalism (particularly in its baptist forms) has been quite keen to support the separation of church and state, and has resisted the incursions of the state in any way to the church. My sense of Constantianism is that there is more of a two-way street between church and state, and that they overlap to a large degree. I suspect that -- at least according to its actions -- American evangelicalism would like it to be a one-way street: there's no desire for establishment, per se.

I think that the American church wrestles with a massive double-bind, on the one hand dogmatically insisting on the separation of church and state, and on the other hand tenaciously holding on to some notion of America as a 'Christian nation'. There is a great deal more to be said about this, but I just want to raise this to encourage you to push further in how you characterise this (which will, in turn, shape your critique).

BTW, I like this series of posts and am linking to them on my own blog.

Good point. Indeed it is a very complex subject, and I admit to being a little simplistic here. Read my post, "What Exactly Belongs to Caesar, Or, the Heresy of Modern Evangelicalism." That pretty much sums up what I will say. I'll try to nuance my thoughts when I get to that point in the series.

One of the things I intend to discuss is the differences between historical Anabaptist theology and present-day American evangelicalism. At times there are similarities, and at other times there are grave differences. Extremes on either end are dangerous. But I'll get to this subject in due course.
Crucicentrism is an Evangelical heresy. How do I know this? Because on Easter Morning Evangelical churches sing Good Friday songs. Evangelicalism has no room for the resurrection, because it is many of the things you listed on your post, not least which docetic and gnostic. But I have a question: what is the name for the heresy that believes that the resurrection Jesus is no longer human? Because this, I am sad to say, is a great Evangelical heresy. Of course, you might retort that Evangelicals never really thought he was human to begin with, and in many cases you'd be right. But this is a peculariar case: folk who grant that Jesus was the God-MAN prior to his crucifixion will sometimes insist fervently that he is no longer such. And THAT is a heresy if I've ever seen one.
Kevin said…
Go ahead Dave! And I want you to imagine me singing "Go ahead Dave" with my arms in the air dancing around like a fool. I will be looking forward to The Heresies of American Evangelism
Shane said…
"Crucicentrism is an Evangelical heresy. How do I know this? Because on Easter Morning Evangelical churches sing Good Friday songs."

A 'heresy' is a 'splitting' (haieresis) of the body of Christ. Saying the Christ was just a human being is a heresy. Singing the wrong kind of songs on Easter is a liturgical faux pas.

It would be nice for you to have a more substantial peg to hang your criticisms of evangelicalism on than your pastor's (lack of) liturgical imagination.

What is it about seeing the cross as the heart of the matter (crucicentrism) that implies one does not believe in the humanity of Jesus?

If only it were merely a question of a liturgical faux pas. The fact that evangelicals sing Good Friday songs on Easter day (of course that is anecdotal, but like many an anecdotal point there is much truth to it) shows that they do not know that the Resurrection is the redemption of humanity; that the resurrection is the redemption of our bodies. And that is because they are gnostics or docetists or whatever bad name you want to fling at them. They believe that what counts is the soul that at death escapes its prison house and flutters off to its eternal disembodied glory: "I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away. When I die alleluia by and by, I'll fly away." Well--no. But the reason that evangelicals sing that song is that they think that their redemption is complete enough on Good Friday; and Easter--well, what exactly is it but an opportunity to sing more songs about Good Friday? Because if the job is done on Good Friday, then there isn't by necessity any victory to be celebrated on Easter morning. And that is reductive Xnty at best, heresy at worst. And it is not materially different than the examples of heresy you are inclined to acknowledge.

The cross is at the heart of the matter because in the resurrection it has become the monument of Christ's triumph over death (St. Athanasius). If Christ has not been raised... (St. Paul). And if there is anything at all to the lex orandi lex credendi, it is this: that what we sing (or fail to sing) matters. And that means that there is no such thing as a liturgical faux pas (excepting, I suppose, if my priest stumbles with the liturgy a bit, or if the congregation sings off tune, or something of that order).
Anonymous said…
Robert W. Jenson makes an interesting point in his Systematic Theology when he points out that the Anselmian view of the atonement, emphasizing Christ's satisfaction (or penal substitution, a development of the doctrine), makes the resurrection irrelevant. If someone only needed to make a payment to the Father for the sins of humanity, then once that payment was made, nothing more needed to be done for man's salvation. Evangelicalism (not to mention mainline Protestant and most Roman Catholic strands) sadly adopted this tendency, finding it sufficient to end the story with an objective element, the payment for sin, rather than the ongoing, saving authority of the one raised from death.

The overemphasis on high Christology in Evangelical circles corresponds to this "crucimonism" (to use O'Donovan's term). They (er... we) need only a divine being to make the atoning deposit. Bringing his humanity into the equation doesn't destroy this crucimonism - but it sure complicates it.

O, that we return to the Easter message to untangle our lovely knots.