The Evangelical Hypothesis

The Evangelical Hypothesis: Recovering the Counterimperial Promise of Evangelicalism

A lecture given on November 17, 2011 in the course, “Introduction to Systematic Theology,” at Princeton Theological Seminary. The lecture is a version of the blog essay, “The Evangelical Hypothesis,” published online at Two Friars and a Fool on August 16.

I begin with a fact: there is no consensus about what the word “evangelical” means today. The word comes of course from the Greek New Testament word euangelion, meaning “good message.” In Germany, the word evangelisch simply means “Protestant.” As German theologian Oswald Bayer notes, “evangelical” was “mainly a concept in imperial law,” referring to the body of Protestant churches within the Holy Roman Empire—the corpus evangelicorum. In the North American context, the word has a very complicated and diverse history. The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, established by historians Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, distinguishes between three senses of the word “evangelical.” First, there is a doctrinal or thematic definition, most often associated with the fourfold definition provided by David Bebbington. In this sense, evangelical refers to a commitment to: (a) conversionism, the notion that lives have to be changed; (b) activism, the expression of the gospel in practical action; (c) biblicism, a high regard for scripture; and (d) crucicentrism, the emphasis on the cross of Christ as the doctrinal center of faith. This definition has more recently been revised by the Canadian evangelical theologian, John Stackhouse, who changes activism to the broader conception of mission and adds the fifth category of “transdenominationalism.” I’ll return to this later. The second sense of evangelical is a kind of style, rather than a set of beliefs. Here the emphasis is on an individual piety that is not restricted to any one denomination or community. So this could include everyone from Catholic charismatics to the Dutch Reformed. The third understanding of evangelical refers more specifically to the coalition of religious groups that formed after the Second World War in response to the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, which includes the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Seminary, and the publication Christianity Today.

The lesson to take away from these different meanings of the word “evangelical” is that the attempt to provide a universal definition of the word is impossible and runs contrary to evangelicalism’s own diverse history. In the time remaining, I want to articulate what I call the “evangelical hypothesis.” I take the language of hypothesis from Alain Badiou’s book, The Communist Hypothesis. Just as he refers to the “idea of communism,” so I will refer to the “idea of evangelicalism.” By this, I do not mean to give a definition that encompasses any empirical group of self-described “evangelicals.” My goal is rather to articulate what I take to be one idea or truth that comes to expression in evangelicalism. My claim is that this idea or truth is radically counterimperial, and it is because of this idea that I think evangelicalism, despite its near-total capitulation to empire, remains the best hope for a subversive theopolitical praxis in a post-Christian world.

Before I state what the evangelical hypothesis is, let me give you some of my family history. I am a direct descendent of Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton College, one of the flagship schools in American evangelicalism. Blanchard was a pupil of Charles Finney, a leader in the Second Great Awakening and the second president of Oberlin College. Finney is, to put it mildly, a radical figure in American Christianity. He lived from 1792 to 1875, during which time the United States experienced major religious and political transformations. The Second Great Awakening is the origin of most of contemporary evangelical or nonconformist religious trends. Many of these we find problematic, if not repulsive, today, such as the end-times fervor that arose with the dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Others are intriguing or amusing for one reason or another, such as the rise of Seventh-Day Adventism or the creation of the Mormon faith. In the midst of these developments, a group of Calvinists came to reject many of the Reformed doctrines with which they were raised in light of what they saw to be a new situation for the church. The old doctrine of predestination was unable, in their view, to either (a) account for the kinds of personal changes and conversions they experienced in this period of revival or (b) fund the kind of social and political activism they believed was essential to becoming a Christian. Charles Finney was the most outspoken member of this group, and his publication in 1835, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, sparked a national debate over these issues. Finney proclaimed himself a proponent of what he called “the new measures,” referring to new church practices guided by this new cultural situation. In these lectures, he made what was then a shocking statement: “The proper end of all doctrine is practice. Any thing brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the gospel” (184).  He not only got rid of predestination on this ground, but he reconceived conversion itself to mean that one “becom[es] as ‘useful’ as possible in the world” (Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, 18).

(A fifty-page “review” of this work was written in the journal Biblical Repertory and Theological Review—the precursor to the Princeton Theological Review—by Albert Dod, a professor of mathematics at what is now Princeton University and professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. You can find the piece in its entirety in the seminary library’s digital collections online, as well as its counterpart from the previous issue of the journal, another fifty-page piece on a collection of Finney’s sermons.)

How did Finney’s ideas translate into everyday life? Here I will have to be brief. In his Lectures on Revivals, Finney argues that “revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights” (Lectures, 265).  By understanding the gospel in terms of the universal involvement in sin and the universal offer of grace, Finney drew the logical conclusion that all people are understood to be equal before God. As a result, restrictions on who can participate in the work of the church are nullified, and hierarchical divisions are no longer viewed as theologically legitimate. Long before feminism ever became accepted in American society, much less in the mainline denominations, these revivalist evangelicals were openly egalitarian. Not only that, but Finney was one of the country’s most vocal abolitionists. Prior to his involvement, the abolitionist movement viewed its work as a slow, gradual process. But Finney and his disciples preached “immediate emancipation,” and he worked toward this by having new converts walk from the altar call to the back of the church where they would sign up for the abolitionist movement or some other reformist group. Finney refused communion to slaveholders and openly preached against it as a social sin. Finney’s most well-known convert was Theodore Weld, who became one of the major leaders in the abolitionist movement. His tracts on the issue were the catalyst for many of the later political developments. When Finney was offered a job as professor (and later as president) of Oberlin, he made it a condition of his arrival that the school would be open to both women and African-Americans—making it the first such school of its kind in the country. Blanchard founded Wheaton on this same principle.

Finney is, of course, only one person, and he is by no means uniformly worthy of praise, as Ted Smith brilliantly explores. I bring him up as an illustration of what I see as a red thread running through the entire history of evangelicalism, in both its European and North American manifestations. We can track this thread from its origins in the Anabaptist opposition to the magisterial Reformation’s tacit (and often explicit) affirmation of Christendom all the way to contemporary nonconformist efforts, such as New Monasticism. Ecclesial developments as varied as the emphasis on parachurch organizations, the formation of the so-called “emerging church,” and the move of Christianity to the global South are all indicative of this evangelical idea—despite the many problems associated with these developments. What is this thread, this single idea? Here I want to return to Stackhouse’s two notions of mission and transdenominationalism. By mission, he means a socioeconomic and political engagement that is basic to the gospel itself; by transdenominationalism, he means a conception of the church’s work that transcends institutional structures and fosters ecumenical partnerships. I think we can and should radicalize Stackhouse’s vision of evangelicalism.

The evangelical hypothesis that I wish to put forward is what I call “mission without churches,” which is a play on the phrase often used by Badiou to define his version of communism, viz. “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 subtracted from the logic of religion. Christian faith is absolutely independent of any and every religious structure (or “church”) that would attempt to legitimize it. Evangelicalism, properly understood, is an anarchic mode of Christian existence. Just because I speak of religious institutions does not mean that I restrict the word “church” to denominations and other self-identified religious groups. In the same way that Luther declared “god” to be whatever one worships, 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 and the American empire. But these evangelicals betray the radical insights that come to expression in the actual history of evangelicalism—a history marked by a refusal to let tradition control the exigencies of the moment, a refusal to let abstract doctrine control practice, a refusal to let secular and religious authorities control the movement of the Spirit within the margins of society.

In short, a mission without churches means a mode of worldly praxis that neither undergirds nor can be assimilated into any given power structure. The evangelical hypothesis is, I argue, a counterimperial form of Christian existence.

For Further Reading
  • Bebbington, D. W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
  • Benson, Bruce Ellis and Peter Heltzel, eds. Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008.
  • Dayton, Donald W. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
  • Dayton, Donald W. and Robert K. Johnston, eds. The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991.
  • Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. 2nd ed. New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1835.
  • Heltzel, Peter. Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Loveland, Anne C. “Evangelicalism and ‘Immediate Emancipation’ in American Antislavery Thought.” The Journal of Southern History 32, no. 2 (1966): 172-88.
  • Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • ———. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
  • Olson, Roger E. How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
  • Pally, Marcia. America’s New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Smith, Ted A. The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Stackhouse, John G., Jr. “Defining ‘Evangelical.’” Church and Faith Trends: A Publication of The Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism 1, no. 1 (2007): 1-5.
  • Webber, Robert. The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.


Aric Clark said…
Excellent refinement of this point David. Glad to see it continues to have life. Having read more Peter Rollins & talked w/ Tripp Fuller I think I understand Badiou better. Do you think this connects to what Boenhhoffer means in Letters & Papers from Prison?
Harlene303 said…
Interesting and inspiring.